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 > 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.

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.