Autochthony and the Imagined Community

Our class discussion about allochthony and autochthony reminded me of something we talked about in the Civil War Historical Novel class I took last semester with Dr. Rutkowski. In the class, we focused heavily on the divide between Union and Confederate, North and South. The border that separated the two and divided America was a contrived boundary that grouped together two groups: “Americans” and “other Americans.” These communities that did not exist in name before the advent of the American Civil War were fabrications. Though geography and stance on slavery linked a majority of people in these communities, to say that the two were dichotomous is an exaggeration.People who lived in, for example, South Carolina were not all the same as one another, nor were they all completely different from the people in Delaware. Yet the American people subscribed to the idea, and bought into the “otherness” created by this division enough to kill fellow countrymen in battle by the thousands. While recognition of the South’s institutional commitment to slavery as a precipitating factor of the war is still critical, this fabricated division of Confederacy and Union was important in creating the psychological atmosphere necessary for intranational conflict. The creation and slandering of the “other” is a common feature of civil disputes of all kinds, not limited to war.

Dr. Rutkowski borrowed the term “imagined communities” from political scientist Benedict Anderson in order to describe this phenomenon. Anderson postulates that groupings such as those defined by national or regional boundaries are intrinsically meaningless, and that these communities only achieve their significance through a collective buying-in. The applications of this term reach far beyond the American Civil War. Divides and resulting rivalries between neighborhoods, school districts, or political parties can be linked back to belief in an “imagined community.” While members of these communities will share certain traits in common, it can not be said that these individuals are so overwhelmingly like each other that an unbreakable allegiance to one another is justified. Rather, the “communal” elements of the group are played up so as to provide a sense of belonging and security beyond what would otherwise be available through connections at the individual level. I believe imagined communities are at the heart of the allochthonous-autochthonous tension we described in class. Individuals in their autochthonous locations will show a tendency towards distrust or disrespect of the allochthonous in their presence only because these newcomers are defaultly “othered” by the force of togetherness that unites the autochthonous of a community.


What is unfortunate about the idea of an “imagined community” is not the togetherness it creates within, but the apartness it creates from others. Few would argue that the entire city of Houston rallying together after Hurricane Harvey was a bad thing. The Houstonian identity that brought volunteers and altruists together within the city results from the imagined community enjoyed by those who live within city limits. At the same time, reluctance on the part of some in the continental United States to push resources towards Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria may also be explained by a difference in imagined communities. Texas, Louisiana, and Florida are all “here,” speaking the same language, sharing the same basic culture. Puerto Rico can be seen as distant, apart, and, in many ways, foreign. Some Americans have a harder time justifying the expenditure of tax dollars in this region because of this perceived detachment. Though the average Puerto Rican may perceivably have as many commonalities with Midwestern citizens as do residents of the hurricane-struck coastal states (in terms of values, ambitions, ideals), the difference in labels proves to be an insurmountable hurdle for many when it comes to extending compassion. Perhaps someday we will leave the negative effects these arbitrary divisions behind, but for now they remain an integral part of everyday life.

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