On Politics, Technology, and Imagined Community
On Sunday, I happened to catch Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s live story on Instagram and sent a tweet saying that I was absorbed by it and that it felt like something we hadn’t quite seen before in politics. I study and teach about American culture and was interested in this intersection of technology, politics, and imagined community. My tweet went viral and the responses have been predictably varied. But I’d like to say a little more about why I was absorbed by this event, from an American Studies perspective. I think this is a cultural phenomenon worth hovering over and trying to make some sense of.
In his book Imagined Communities (1983), the political scientist Benedict Anderson examines the idea of the nation, how a “nation” is constructed in the minds of its members. He essentially asks, what is it that makes people think of themselves as part of a nation? How does a nation become more than just a geographical construct—lines drawn in the dirt—and come to exist as an idea and a cultural project that people believe in and are invested in? We will never know the names of more than a handful of our fellow Americans, yet we have a sense of comradeship with them, or at least a sense of parallel belonging, because of the idea of nation. As Americans, we are all—at this exact moment in time, with our collective memory and histories—part of an imagined community called the United States of America.
Anderson’s theory has been useful to American Studies scholars in trying to understand the formation of communities of all stripes, in exploring how groups of people think about themselves and relate themselves to others within a specific community. That community could be a nation, or a state (California is an imagined community), or a city, or a university (Cal State Fullerton is an imagined community), or a fandom—such as Lakers basketball, Taylor Swift fans, Trekkies. In an imagined community, members might feel a sense of fraternity and comradeship. They have a shared understanding of time, of history. They experience a kind of simultaneity, or simultaneous belonging, with people they know exist but will never meet: we are all watching this game (and we know the players and coaches and team history), we are all students and staff and teachers at Cal State Fullerton (who all have the same problem trying to find parking on campus…), we are all Trekkies or Californians or Americans. Of course, we can also feel like we don’t belong in these communities, or aren’t welcome in them, and this too results from the fact that community is imagined a particular way in the culture, and then maintained through the exercise of power.
Culture is key to understanding Anderson’s ideas, because it is through culture that we imagine what community can or should look like. And technology facilitates this imagining. What Ocasio-Cortez is doing with these live Instagram stories is culturally—and politically— interesting in terms of imagined community. Clearly, these live stories provide her supporters with a sense of comradeship. They are already part of a community of Ocasio-Cortez backers who share a certain enthusiasm for the person and the ideals, and now they get to tune in together, to gather in the virtual town square. But the live stories also allow supporters to experience simultaneity. On Instagram, supporters can ask their own questions and read the stream of each other’s questions. They are all “living” in this community at this moment, no matter how far they might be separated by anonymity and geography. Meanwhile, Ocasio-Cortez is in her kitchen, wearing a Teamsters t-shirt with sleeves rolled up, cooking dinner, following a black bean soup recipe, and talking to the users who are following her live story. She periodically reads questions aloud posed by users and answers them spontaneously, without any notes or any pause button on the action to carefully compose her response. In short, she’s engaged in a conversation with several thousand people even though they are not in the room with her. For the length of the live story, this particular group of people is able to experience simultaneous belonging to community—a community that might be “imagined” but somehow feels very real at that moment.
We shouldn’t underestimate the power of this feeling of simultaneity, of this form of imagining. Too often in this age of social media we post or text things in solitude, or in the company of just a few, and then have to wait for others to respond or like or love or comment. That’s not exactly parallel belonging; rather, it’s a kind of time-delayed belonging that accrues throughout the day and provides us with periodically updated confirmation that our community is paying attention to us. By contrast, an Instagram story happens in real-time. And in the case of Ocasio-Cortez, the fact that an elected representative of Congress is cultivating an imagined community not through a speech, or a tweet, or a formal townhall meeting, but rather through an Instagram live story out of her kitchen… well, that’s what makes this all the more interesting and that’s why I was so absorbed. Other politicians have used social media platforms to similar ends, and I confess I’m not widely familiar with every single one of those instances, but based on what I saw of Ocasio-Cortez’s story (which I accidentally happened upon while checking my Instagram on Sunday, and subsequently couldn’t stop watching…), I’d say this is something to pay attention to in our culture and politics: the new ways we are forming imagined civic communities that encourage simultaneous belonging.
Are these akin to FDR’s fireside chats? Yes and no. To be sure, President Roosevelt helped construct imagined community with his radio broadcasts in the 1930s and 1940s, and there was a simultaneity Americans could feel when they all tuned in at the same time. But Roosevelt read prepared remarks from the White House. These remarks always had a specific focus and message. The president dressed formally and sat at a desk in the Diplomatic Reception Room. Comforting and colloquial as his words may have been, they were nonetheless framed by his position of power, and filtered through the technology of the radio, which had its own set of possibilities and limitations at the time. What we’re seeing here in 2018 is an extension and elaboration on the fireside chat, a new intersection of technology, politics, and imagined community that will have its own set of cultural ramifications.
Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Ourselves (2011/2017), on technology, intimacy, and solitude.
Carolyn Thomas de la Pena, “’Slow and Low Progress,’ or Why American Studies Should Do Technology,” in American Quarterly 58:3 (September 2006), on the importance of understanding technology as both substance and ideology in American cultural life.
Robert Bellah et al, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985), on how people draw on cultural resources to make sense of their lives, their actions, and their life’s purpose.