Why am I calling this blog “Imagined Communities”?

Sometimes everything has to fall apart in order to fit the pieces back together in previously unimaginable ways….

The title of this blog was originally inspired by Benedict Anderson’s classic book on the history of nationalism. In it, he lays out the following definition of a nation:

It is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion…It is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm…(pp.4-5)

I find this whole idea, and all the layers of ideas that build up to it, really interesting, and applicable to many questions I have in my own life about the nature of community and history and collective identity. But in order to explain why that is I’m going to have to tell you a little story about myself.

My story begins about three years ago when my life dramatically fell apart.

It was so dramatic, in fact, that one week I was giving a lecture to a room full of psychiatrists at Bellevue Hospital on the philosophy of the organization I had founded and developed with a community of my friends, and two weeks later the police picked me up stark raving mad wandering the streets of midtown Manhattan in my underwear and ending up right back at the same psychiatric hospital for treatment.

When I got out of the hospital a week later, humbled and confused, I had no idea what to do with myself: the people in my collective house were scared of me moving back in, my organization was telling me I needed to step back to let it grow and evolve without me, and I had pissed off and alienated a bunch of people in the months building up to my grandiose manic explosion. I had to figure out the basics of taking care of myself all over again and it wasn’t going to happen in New York City. Upon the suggestion of my good friend, and with nothing in my way, I did something unthinkable to myself a few months earlier: I moved to a yoga ashram in the Bahamas, where I got to live for free on the beach in a tent, wake up at 5am every morning to meditate and chant in Sanskrit, do two hours of yoga asanas, eat breakfast, work all day in the kitchen or garden, eat more, meditate and chant more, go to sleep, and do it all again the next day.

I ended up living in the ashram for a year before I was ready to go back out into the world. It was a basically bunch of people living on a small island (next to a fancy resort) following some form of ancient Hindu traditions passed down through an Indian guru in the 1950s that had sent his young disciples to the West to spread the knowledge of yogic scriptures and practice. It was disciplined in some pretty bizarre ways, with whites folks walking around in orange and yellow robes, but because of my semi-broken state when I arrived, I welcomed the outside order. It was a relief to just have people tell me what to do. I had never been in a place where people talked about God all day, and that’s what people mostly talked about at the ashram. There’s so much to say about it, but I’ll just say that it was an experience that left me questioning a lot of my ideas about reality and identity, and more than anything left me wanting to go back to school and be around people using their critical thinking skills (which in many ways had to be checked at the door in order to accept the daily life.)

Through there was a lot of strangeness,  the strangest part about the ashram for me–hands down–was that it was run by and filled with all these Israelis who had done their military service, gone to India and discovered that the disciplined world of yoga was a peaceful alternative to their lives filled with war. I had never spent time around Israeli’s and they fascinated (and definitely sometimes horrified) me. There was something familiar (familial) about them: they were loud and opinionated, felt the whole world was out to get them, and spoke this language which was seemingly the same one I had chanted for my Bar Mitzvah in temple as a child in New York City.

I was raised a secular Jew in a place with a lot of Jews, so many that I took a lot of aspects of our culture for granted because they were the dominant culture. Like many Jews in the neighborhood I grew up in, our culture was actually more about progressive leftist politics than any kind of religion, and I never had spent much time thinking about history enough to understand the dynamics and intricacies of how they became so entangled and estranged. Like so many others from different backgrounds, I was raised in a whitewash of American culture: McDonalds, Coca-Cola, and MTV were my culture more than anything from the Old Country. Honestly, I never really thought about the fact that there was an Old Country, or Old Countries, that my descendants came from on the other side of the world. It just never crossed my mind. As a boy I learned to chant Hebrew the same way we were chanting Sanskrit in the ashram temple in the Bahamas: transliterated with English letters with no context of the deeper meanings. I thought it was boring and never had much interest.

So when I wanted to understand more about the culture and history of the Israelis I was living with, I came up against an uncomfortable realization: I didn’t actually know any world history. Of course, as soon as I started looking into the history of Israel, I had to study the history of World War II, and in order to understand World War II I had to study World War I, and then suddenly it became clear that the whole idea of nation state as we know it wasn’t more than 200 years old and to understand it I had to learn about the European Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Protestant Reformation, and make my way back to Ancient Greece and Rome and the Hebrew Bible.

So when I got out of the ashram I went back to college and spent some time–sponge-like–catching up on my history (and sociology and philosophy and Cultural Studies…). Actually, much of that history I learned not from college classes but from listening to downloaded podcasts and audiobooks from the Berkeley Public Library while I was working as a gardener. And during that time, digging beds and planting trees and laying irrigation lines, grew this burning desire to travel overseas and see some of these places I was learning about for myself.

But there’s a whole other part of the story before we get there.

It’s important to mention that I’ve been keeping the company of people who call themselves anarchists since I was 14 years old. My political education happened amidst burning police barricades and smashed windows in the riots that erupted in Tompkins Square park in 1989, and the social and political movements that revolved around those historical events. I came of age as a teenager in the squatters movement in New York City. I went my first political meeting in a tiny, dark basement known as the Anarchist Switchboard. It was the same year that the Berlin Wall fell and the geopolitical structure of the world began to be rearranged without the force of communism.

For many of my friends and I, anarchism was a philosophy channeled through punk records and semi-mystical veiled history about places in Spain and Russia and Haymarket. For years, anarchism and punk was my imagined community. A bunch of people who saw themselves connected to each other through a larger purpose. But it was also very much a real community made of up real people engaged in struggles across the world, not bound by allegiance to nation or state or political party, by tied by threads of community and resistance to global capitalism and oppression. More coherent thoughts on this.

So, in my late 20’s, after I had been in and out of the mental health system a number of times and given the diagnosis of “bipolar disorder”, I started to write stories about my struggles and calling for people in my community and beyond to start having a more nuanced conversation about mental health and illness. Real or imagined, the fact that I felt the presence of a community in my life was a huge reason why I didn’t fall into the trap of being stuck with the label of mental illness and making my dreams really small. For however dysfunctional my community was, it was an actual community of real people who were alienated by the dominant culture, and saw themselves as building a new world outside of it.

The Icarus Project, what Jacks and I decided to call ourselves one manic night or early morning, eventually grew into its own type of imagined community, facilitated by the internet and powerful set of symbols and language of “dangerous gifts” and “listening spaces” and “mad pride.” I think about it a lot, the Icarus Project, because not only did I help to start it, but it has become such a force for positive change in mine and so many other people’s lives. It has also become the way I interact with the world: I speak from the imagined community of the Icarus Project, I welcome people into it, I help articulate it’s visions and goals with a handful of other people. It helps to give my life meaning.

I also think about the dynamics of community as it grows and changes, and the ways lessons teach themselves over and over again in small or large groups. While reading Anderson’s account of the rise of what he calls “print-capitalism” and the printing press, I was struck by the potential power of a bunch of people reading about themselves. How national identity was formed hand in hand with the invention of the daily newspaper. Then I think about out little website, and all the people who feel some alligence to the Icarus Project, and feel a part of something larger than themselves. Then I think about the role of social networking sites in most of our lives: how Facebook and Twitter and all these blogging sites are playing a role in our emerging collective consciousness.

There is so much beauty and complexity in these thoughts, for while I see how wonderful it is to have a crew of folks that have your back, I also see the pitfalls of defining oneself in relation to others, and especially in contrast to others. How having enemies is a great way to build solidarity, but how without loving practices of acceptance of one another the hated always has the possibility of turning sour. To go back to the world of the ashram for a moment, one of the things that fascinated me about the Israeli’s I lived with, and that struck me as uncomfortably familiar, was that it was clear they saw themselves somehow as separate and different from other people. It eerily reminded me of my friends, the punks and anarchists. When my old friend and fellow anarchist, Tristan Anderson, got shot in the head by an Israeli soldier while protesting in the Occupied Territories, I was in the Bahamas wearing white and chanting in Sanskrit in a temple with a bunch of ex-IDF soldiers. It was a mind-fuck, for sure. And it was part of why I got really passionate about wanting to understand Jewish history.

So it’s all tied together for me: the intersections of history and national identity and support networks and how we think about ourselves and each other. The radical mental health work, the revolutionary movements of the 18th and 19th centuries, anarchism, understanding the rise of the nation state, collective identity formation. With all of these pieces I’m trying to learn lessons that are useful for effective community and movement building. And amidst that, I’m just enjoying the fuck out of reveling in the riddles of history and existence, making a place for myself in it with my friends and loved ones.

So that gets us to now. I’m writing this blog post from an apartment building in Stockholm, Sweden in the summer of 2011. The sun hardly sets here this time of year (and that definitely facilitated the writing of these words today). Most of the people in this neighborhood are from Iraq, Somalia, and Poland. The people I’m staying with are anarchists and queers who are in the international couchsurfing network.  I’m giving a talk about the Icarus Project tomorrow at the Anarchist Bookfair, and after that I’m traveling to Berlin, then Barcelona, then Bolonia, Italy, then northern Greece to the town where my great-grandparents came from in 1906. There is so much to explore and think about.

So yeah, come and join me on my European summer adventures….mad love, Sascha

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