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The End of Print Nationalism?

One of the most enduring theories in print culture studies is Benedict Anderson’s suggestion that the spread of print media contributed to the rise of nationalism in the nineteenth century. Much like Benjamin’s theory that it was no accident that photography and Marxism came into being at roughly the same time, there is a historical coincidence here between media and political theory that is tantalizingly causal. For Anderson there was something instrumental about the way print contributed to individuals’ sense of belonging to a larger, linguistically homogenous unit called the nation.

Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to try to nuance this thesis, to show, for example, how international the spread of print was — that one of its defining features was the way it enabled new international geographies of reading to emerge, from the early modern period into the nineteenth century. This was what I tried to do in Dreaming in Books.

But I think a persuasive case can be made in support of this thesis by looking at changes in the relationship between national (or metropolitan) printing offices and the institutional functions of governments. Whether print was or was not integral to the construction of a “national imaginary,” it certainly was integral in the construction of the representations on which those nations were based — passports, money, constitutions, and official legal documents. The question is whether practices of governmentality will change, or feelings of citizenship, if the medium of governmentality changes too.

This was the question that Christoph Engemann, a colleague I met in Weimar last Spring at the IKKM, was asking in relation to the German federal printing office, the Bundesdruckerei. For Engemann, the question was what is the future of the federal printing office and, more interestingly, what is the future of citizen documentation and subjectivity in a world of digital, not print, representation.  Engemann addresses these questions under the headings of “governmediality” and the place of the human/machine signature.

All of this came to mind after I saw a post about the closing of the Boston city printing office. It got me thinking about the future of the printed basis of the nation state. What happens when print is no longer the substrate of national forms (money, IDs, records, and laws)? Is that material shift immaterial to the political structure of the system or the personal self-identification by citizens with the system? This is an area that seems surprisingly underresearched, but impinges on all of our daily lives.

When will we see a follow-up to Benedect Anderson, a book called Digital Nationalism? Or is that a contradiction in terms?

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