Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities and the SFRA Email List

This past weekend I read Benedict Anderson’s seminal work, Imagined Communities (1983, rev. 1991), and I immediately began drawing connections between Anderson’s thesis and the recent conflicts on the SFRA email listserv.  Anderson seeks to theorize the nation, and he argues that the nation is, “an imagined political community–and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (6).  His definition for nation has utility in the theorization of SFRA and its online email community.

The Science Fiction Research Association is a professional organization for the promotion of SF scholarship and it is composed of a variety of SF scholars, but how do its members conceptualize the organization?  What is it that makes us a community, and what is viewed as divisive and community breaking?

Anderson’s thesis can be employed to answer the first question on the conception of SFRA community.  The SFRA email list and the SFRA’s quarterly publication, SFRA Review, promote a sense of “imagined political community.”  This is not to say that all SFRA members share a common political ideology in terms of the left or right.  However, it does mean that SFRA is a discursive community concerned with the politics of SF, and the discussion of SF inherently involves some political aspect whether it has to do with the politics within or brought to a particular work, or the political statement of speaking SF in a literary field that, at least in part, resists the inclusion of SF in literature with a capital “L.”  Furthermore, the list and SFRA Review promotes the discussion of a number of viewpoints and those viewpoints and individual voices are explicitly connected with persons in the field.  As a new academic just entering SF discourse, it was an eye-opening experience to first join the listserv and read my first SFRA Review.  At that moment, I realized that I was part of a community with a shared interest in SF scholarship that I could be a part of and contribute to as well.

Sometimes the SFRA “imagined community” gets caught up on personal politics and political attacks aimed at individuals.  This, of course, it not a pervasive syndrome or disease, but it is a localizable infection that recurs from time to time on the organic-like email list.  Also, this occurrence is not emblematic of the SFRA community at large, but rather a symptom of Internet anonymity and online discussion in general.  The common term for such disruption causing individuals is “troll.”  The troll was an instigator on message boards, whose purpose was to reveal “noobs” or new, inexperienced users with baited questions from the more experienced or “l33t” operators.  There is no place for the troll in a scholarly community that is devoted to the discussion of SF and the professionalization of its members.  We are not concerned with who’s a noob and who’s l33t.  We’re all a part of this community for the same reason, and we’re all in this together.  Ours is an exchange of ideas and not a hierarchization of members with hazing in mind. 

Now, the troll has devolved (a staid SF concept, particularly in the scientific romances of Wells) into a prankster or instigator who often fans the flames of personal politics with vicious attack rather than engaging in egalitarian, civil discourse.  The troll decries this normative civility–“where is it written, and who made the rules?”  The answer to this is simple–those who participate in the “imagined community” of SFRA.  There is an official statement concerning listserv behavior, as pointed our recently by SFRA President Adam Frisch (go to www.sfra.org > Memberships > SFRA-L), but the conscientious and dutiful scholar can quickly ascertain the norms of the SFRA “imagined community” easily enough by observing what other members of the community do, and asking other members what they should do to be a part of the community, before selfishly assuming a community resource is their new toy open to their individualized reinterpretation of the scope and focus of that resource.

There are certainly compelling arguments for the free for all hijinks of the recent SFRA multiple persona troll.  I do feel that online listservs and such imagined communities and their resources that facilitate and construct those imagined communities should be anarchistic in nature.  However, anarchy does not mean anything goes.  Instead, anarchy is a form of mutual cooperation based on norms that individuals adhere to rather than pointed to the existing or non-existing explicit rule restraining their behavior.  Anarchy is about individual liberty, but that liberty cannot exceed the liberty of others.  Otherwise, the utopian anarchy shifts into other political realms.  Anarchy, in fact, relies on mutual respect in order not to become an omniarchy.  

Obviously, “imagined communities” are diachronic, and evolve over time.  SFRA and the SFRA listserv will likewise change with its membership and other social and cultural influences.  At almost forty years old, SFRA is relatively young, and the influence of technology is a powerful driving force in its further development, SF aside.  

In closing this post, I would like to share something with all of you that I shared with my first year college writing students the other day.  It’s the image of Earth taken from Voyager I out beyond the orbit of Saturn.  You may see our “pale blue dot” here.  The reason I showed this image to my class, and why I want to share it with you, is to remind us all to put things in perspective before attacking one another about anything.  Sometimes, we have to react, as I did in writing about the recent attacks on my blog.  However, I thought long and hard about this for two weeks before I decided to write what I did.  I think similar reflective practice by community members on the SFRA listserv will focus their arguments on the problem rather than on the person.

Many thanks to Ellen and everyone else who held the ship steady through the asteroid field.  Also, I’d like to remind everyone to keep their escape pods fueled and personal jetpacks handy, because these attacks are endemic to the Internet (and have a history outside electronic media as well) and are not likely to go away.

4 thoughts on “Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities and the SFRA Email List

  1. You need to work on your theoretical perspective. Key in on the “imagined” communities of Anderson’s term and perhaps visit Gramsci, Althusser and Foucault for critiques that expose the hegemonic workings of “imagined communities”

    You rely completely on the word of the moderators of the list for what is right and what is wrong. Kind of like relying on the Bush Administration to define what is going good in the ongoing global war on terror?

    Ellen Rigsby at the bequest of Rob Latham, originally kicked me off.
    Rob attacked me off-list because I stated that the list had become stale and lacked political engagement. His attack (the same rhetoric
    he slings at me presently on the list when I can’t reply) that initiated, rightly or wrongly my attitude.

    When I reacted everyone let his words go and demonized me for my
    attitude. I requested multiple times that we move on. Ellen moderated me while letting Rob continue to slander me as unstable, blah, blah, blah. I asked for an explanation, where I could appeal, and any options available to me. She kicked me off. This, to me, was a gross abuse of power, and, according to my politics, was not something I would accept and I signed on as a new entity.

    Ellen has not been a conscientous moderator. She has consistently moderated lesser-known people and allowed more well-known people (known on the list) to engage in smearing of people on the list.

    A nice example was the later critique of Marleen Barr. Before my critique there were the most juvenile cheerleading, mocking, non-SF, one-sentence crap posted in response to her commentary… I took the time to take her writing seriously and responded to it… because Marleen is known in the SF community and Thivai is not, Ellen immediately contacted me and warned me that my critique get me kicked off the list (I guess honest critiques are a problem http://dialogic.blogspot.com/2008/09/response-to-marleen-s-barrs-grizzly.html ). There was no condemnation of the vulgar, mocking one sentence cheerleading that preceded my post.

    Once again… this talk about trolls is ridiculous and it is depressing to seem someone as intelligent as you buying into this lazy derogatory classification (for these people a troll is someone who critiques them) … I’m a leftist, but I was stunned by Rob, et al’s demeaning treatment of the conservative member who posted about the mocking tone of some of the posts, instead of responding seriously to the man’s–they publicly ridiculed him. Rob Latham isn’t moderated–why?

    The smartest thing you did was open up this list to poor young scholars and independent intellectuals who can’t afford the entry fee (I really couldn’t but I really wanted to interact with a group of SF scholars and thus my discontent after 6 months of ceaseless promo time). The talk of trolls and lurkers is, one more time, ridiculous, and reminds me of the paranoia of anti-immigration pundits who view any penetration of their boundaries as a threat… relax, people are always silently watching you, including your “paying” members.

    As for Rob look at his response in this thread:

    “I agree. The problem is not non-members. The problem is crazy people. In fact, there have really only been two persistent trolls who
    have done nothing but sew discord, as is their wont.”

    In the last thirty emails he has sent to the list he has said nothing
    positive about anyone and almost all of them have been one or two sentence dismissals…. even when he is reacting to long, considered written responses.

    Yet, he writes off other people as trolls….

  2. Hey Thivai/Benton/et. al.–I wondered if you might find your way to my blog, and I’m pleased that you did. Thanks for taking the time to leave some comments on dynamicsubspace.net.

    As far as my use of theory is concerned, I’m perfectly within bounds as to my application of Anderson in the context of how the SFRA membership imagines our community of scholars. I’m aware of other theories of the nation, but the imagined aspect of a virtual community, a cyberspace community, that meets and congregates through an email list seemed most appropriate to the matter at hand.

    However, if I were to take a more rigorous theoretical approach to the disruptions on the SFRA email list, I think I would bring in Lauren Berlant. She says some very cogent things about the problems with victimization, which is something that you and your sock puppets egregiously brought up on the email list. Berlant writes in The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, “The movement for fetal rights is thus also a development in the history of national sentimentality, where complex political conditions are reduced or refined into the discourses of dignity and the authority of feeling. It embodies how strongly the subject position of the national victim has become a cultural dominant in America: in this moment of mass nationality and global politics, power appears always to be elsewhere, and political authenticity depends on the individual’s humiliating exile from somebody else’s norm. A nationwide estrangement from an imagined hegemonic center seems now to dignify every citizen’s complaint” (100). Obviously, Berlant is talking about something much more significant than allegedly wronged listserv contributors, but nonetheless, I assert that what she’s saying about citizenship is very much on target with the complaints that you and your personae had on the list. You addressed a “humiliating exile” from the “imagined hegemonic center” of SF studies and the SFRA membership, which you feel have some control over your professional prospects. Berlant goes on the next page to say, “As the ways norms of representing privilege in the political public sphere shift, such that people seek minority status in order to trump other forms of national demand” (101). Your appropriation of a victimized person(s), what is in effect a “minority status” compared to those you feel are the dominant members of the SFRA community, was a poor attempt at trumping the voices of others on the list.

    There is certainly a lot of play and gamemanship surrounding your project, if you want to dignify it as such, on the SFRA email list. Gamemanship in and of itself is probably a healthy thing and an entertaining thing. However, you play yourself as a victim, and you use your sock puppets to reinforce your paranoid sense of victimhood. No one is out to get you or hinder your academic and professional development in SFRA. In all honesty, the SFRA membership isn’t large enough or institutionally distributed enough in the places of power to quash or silence your voice whether it be in terms of your getting a new position or having your work peer reviewed. But, if you lack the reflective resources to realize why so many people reacted as strongly as they did to your shenanigans, is that you took your gamemanship to a level beyond the social. Instead of playing within norms, and by norms, I do not mean “somebody else’s norms,” these are norms that have developed within the SFRA community, which you chose to join. There’s a responsibility for any rational person to see what the rules are, to observe the norms of a joined community, before attempting to change, bend, or break them. Otherwise, the result is a lot of angry people that don’t have much respect for you AFTER the fact, not BEFORE. Furthermore, you played the members on the list with your different personae or sock puppets, and members of any online community, whether it be message boards or listservs, you’ll overwhelmingly find that folks don’t like to be toyed with in the way that you did. It would have been one thing if you used your different online identities as some kind of weird dialog, but you used these sock puppets as strategically held positions to lob slings and arrows at others on the list. And, mind you, I’m not talking about any private conversations off list, I’m only talking about the exchanges that I saw that occurred on the list.

    In the playing out of this whole debacle, I’ve been most interested in what your manifesto might be. Do you have a goal or a project in mind through your savvy employment of different online personae in a professional and scholarly community? I can tell you that you have given the list a real jolt. Some folks have left altogether, and there have been discussions about what we should do as an organization to minimize the kinds of disruptions you created on the SFRA email list. My hope is that future discussions aren’t stifled by the choices that we, as an organization, have to make in order to maintain, what is overwhelmingly true of our members, civility.

    One last thought, you should read Philip K. Dick’s speech, “The Android and the Human,” and then ask yourself, which are you?

    http://www.philipkdickfans.com/pkdweb/The%20Android%20and%20the%20Human.htm

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