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Remembering Benedict Anderson

Thoughts | Reminiscences from UC Berkeley faculty


Pheng Cheah (Ph.D., Cornell University)

Professor of Rhetoric, UC Berkeley

Chair, Center for Southeast Asia Studies

When I heard about Benedict Anderson’s death on December 13, I was overcome by unspeakable sadness. Ben was an esteemed teacher and a much-loved mentor who had become a dear, dear friend over the years. His influence on my scholarly work is immeasurable. Without his encouragement, I would never have written on the Buru novels of Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Ben was, in my view, the greatest scholar of Southeast Asia of our time. No one else comes close to his comparative reach across insular and mainland Southeast Asia. A few years before his retirement from teaching, I co-edited a special issue of Diacritics with Jonathan Culler on the broader impact of Ben’s work on humanities and social science scholarship beyond Southeast Asian studies. When the issue was subsequently published as a book, Ben graciously wrote a lengthy response that discussed every contribution, many of which were critical, with the greatest generosity.

But over and above his indelible contributions to scholarship, especially the theory of nationalism, I will always carry with me four things about Ben in this world that is now more difficult to bear because he is no longer here. He was disdainful of the self-promoting careerism and reputational overhyping that marks our academic environment. He stood out as a beacon, the model of a gentleman scholar from another age whose primary concerns were matters of the intellect and social justice. He would have hated being called a gentleman, although he was an English public school boy, an Etonian. In my last year as a graduate student at Cornell, he told me that a wealthier Ivy League school was trying to persuade him to move (I’m sure there must have been many poaching attempts from other schools). But he did not use this overture to improve his position at Cornell. He simply told them that he would never entertain leaving because he felt the greatest loyalty to the place, where he had been a graduate student, and because the Echols Collection on Southeast Asia had the materials for him to do his best work.

Ben was a dedicated teacher, to the point of selflessness. When I was writing my dissertation, we had agreed that the English translations of Pramoedya’s Buru Quartet were problematic and that I should do my own. The quotations in my draft chapters were all in Bahasa Indonesia. I needed to defend my dissertation because I had accepted a job offer. But my other committee members could not read Indonesian and I was very slow with doing the translation. A week before I had to hand in the dissertation for the defense, I had only finished translating the quotations from the first two volumes. Despite his unforgiving schedule, Ben stepped in. He firmly insisted that he complete the translations for the remaining quotations from the last two volumes so that I could proceed with the defense and file in time for me to take up my new appointment. Even after I had found gainful academic employment, Ben continued to read and comment on my writing whenever I requested his help regardless of how busy he was. He practised the deep horizontal comradeship he wrote about. He shared his unpublished writing with me and asked for my opinion as though I was a peer and not a student.

In truth, there was always something heroic and unworldly about Ben. Many have noted what can only be called his humbling polyglossia—his almost inhuman command of languages from Latin and Greek to Indonesian, Tagalog and Thai. Ben was tireless in translating writers from the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia, primarily Pramoedya, and more recently, the Chinese peranakan writer from the 1920s, Kwee Thiam Tjing, Eka Kurniawan, the contemporary popular novelist, and the Spanish writings of Isabelo de los Reyes. But this unworldly dimension also led to something extremely worldly: a wicked sense of humor expressed through an elegantly dry turn of phrase and a gleeful pleasure in the crossings and slippages when languages encounter each other. In 2012, Ben had been invited by the Brunei government to give advice on how to improve the rankings of the University of Brunei. Only he would think of saying that “Brunei felt like a Gulf emirate washed away across the Indian Ocean a long time ago”. He delighted in the writings of Kwee Thiam Tjing because they linguistically expressed a demotic cosmopolitanism, one from below. Ben self-consciously tried to practice a similar style in his introduction to the republication of Kwee’s memoirs, Tjamboek Berdoeri in 2010. In 2008, we were corresponding about cosmopolitanism and he wrote: “I don’t think… that this liminal cosmo-ness is possible today since this kind of floating lingua franca isn’t around, open to anyone. But I have been experimenting myself, on Kwee's model. The 100 page intro I wrote for the republication of Kwee' masterpiece is deliberately written in the lingua franca, including Old Orthgraphy, irregular spelling and syntax, bits of other languages, and lots of jokes. It was really fun and liberating to do. I got a nice note from Goenawan Mohamad, Indonesia's best known literary journalist and poet, saying he was really impressed. He said he hadn't imagined that it was possible to write in this manner in the 21st century and make it work”.

Above all, I will remember him for his modesty. In the last correspondence I had with Ben in mid-September, he mentioned he was a little depressed over the manuscript of his forthcoming memoir to be published with Verso. “I'm nearly at the end. Worst features: bad memory, appalling university/departments unreadable prose, self-praise, etc. At least I have forbidden Versus an odious title containing "a memoir.” Ugh….. But I guess there are bits and pieces that I am happy with.” I wrote back to say that he was overly self-deprecating about his experiences and that he had had what Walter Benjamin, one of his favorite thinkers, would have called a gelebtes Leben, a life that has been lived, one worthy of being told as a story, and that none of his students would ever go through the same kinds of political events as he had. I had also invited him to deliver a keynote at the conference CSEAS is organizing in April. He declined, saying somewhat portentously, “I’m too old…. My oral memory is so poor that I have given up any keynotes…. I am sorry about this grumpy message but fit for the times—maybe”. I said in reply, “I guess I probably won’t be able to hear you speak again”. But I was wrong. When a friend texted me about his passing, she also texted a YouTube link to his last lecture in Jakarta on December 10 on anarchism and nationalism. And so we will hear him and remember him whenever we reread his writing, view him in other media, or try to be to others the teacher that he was to us.


Nancy Lee Peluso (Ph.D., Cornell University)

Henry J. Vaux Distinguished Professor of Forest Policy, UC Berkeley

CSEAS core faculty

Remembering Pak Ben: By now, so many people have spoken about Ben Anderson’s life and works, surprisingly quickly after his passing—unexpectedly—during his travels through mountain Java. I deal with it more slowly, and personally; I knew him primarily while I was a graduate student at Cornell, less as a colleague after becoming an academic, though I often saw him in action at AAS or SSRC, or on the occasional trip to Cornell.

When I heard Pak Ben had passed, the first people I thought of were fellow Southeast Asia Program students and faculty from my years at Cornell during the 1980s, many of whom I only rarely get to think about. I thought of the first time I heard Ben give a talk, back from sabbatical, and about the parties at his house, raucous affairs out in the country. While a band of students (you know who you are!) played rock music in the background, Ben—the host—would be sitting in a quiet corner, usually talking to the newest Indonesian student or visitor in town, oblivious to all but that conversation. I thought about his office in the old 102 West Avenue, a rickety old building in which many SEA studies students got to have offices. Pak Ben was a constant presence in the center of all that—not alone of course, as there were other great men and a few women at the center of that storm. Whether he was a student’s formal committee member or not, whether he was in town or not, and whether or not he even cared about what we were going on about, the question, “What would Ben think?” influenced many of us much of the time. It was a question that continued to animate my own work.

To even minimally know Pak Ben, as a student, was to respect him for his incredible scholarship, writing, and perspective. After I stopped being afraid of him, I took a class he taught (with Jim Siegel). I was taken by his ability to sharpen the dull thud of so often over-quantified political science. Rather than numbers, he engaged politics through literatures, languages, and people, and thus became accessible and relevant to so many students and scholars outside his own field. The class was on “Translation,” but it was hardly about language alone. Though Southeast Asian studies is rich with political scientists, historians, and “experts” on government who have embraced ethnographic, thick description, and other, more creative, methods of research and styles of writing than the numbers game, Pak Ben was one of the earliest. Like many of those who walked that path, he was influenced by the great Professor George Kahin, who founded the SEAP at Cornell and was himself a creative and thus an unusual student of government(s). Applying to Cornell after several years of living in Indonesia, I had no idea how lucky I would be to be there at that time—in the early to late 1980s—and to meet and be shaped by the professors of that program.

I was inspired by Pak Ben in so many ways. I did not begin graduate school intending to be an academic, so I wasn’t always watching that closely…but I still remember his surprisingly laidback seminar style, his love for fieldwork and for simply being in Southeast Asia, especially in Java. I admired his ability and willingness to learn new languages throughout his life as he moved the focus of his scholarly attention across Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines. I was awed by his seemingly absolute self-confidence in everything he wrote, and his willingness to rethink some of his ideas. I was struck by his sharing chapters of the manuscript for Imagined Communities with graduate students in 102 West Avenue—requesting their honest critique. He was also self-critical. He once told us in seminar that his writing about the idea of power in “Javanese culture”—an early piece that was well circulated in academic circles inside and outside Indonesia—had been “immature,” or did I misunderstand that? it was also premature. At the time I did not realize that it was written on the eve of the 1965 massacres.

His never-ending work ethic and his commitment to Indonesians—students and activists and ordinary people, artists and writers and scholars—brought him back to Indonesia many times after “the coast was clear” and his nemesis—who had ironically had a huge effect on Pak Ben’s subsequent academic and personal life--had fallen in disgrace. It was that commitment to Indonesians, coupled with a work ethic and his calling to write another book as late as his 79th year, that shaped his fate: bringing him back to Indonesia for yet another informal book tour and granting him his last breath in East Java. For the sentimental scholar of nationalism, forced to imagine Indonesia from afar for so long before returning home, as it were, it was the best possible ending to his story. Terima kasih, Pak Ben, sebesar-besarnya, for all of your inspiration.


Jeffrey Hadler (Ph.D., Cornell University)

Associate Professor of South & Southeast Asian Studies, UC Berkeley

Past Chair, Center for Southeast Asia Studies

I learned that Ben had died while I was attending a Southeast Asian Studies conference in Kyoto. It was the right place to get terrible news. Leonard Andaya told me. He heard it from Jojo Abinales, who got a text from Coeli Barry in Bangkok, who received the news directly from Surabaya. We huddled together at lunch: me, the Andayas, Kaja McGowan, some current Cornell graduate students. And we remembered Ben and Ithaca, and told our stories, just as we had done the day before when Ben was still alive. The Cornell Mafia always talks about Ben Anderson. Our fables remind us of the rigorousness of the training we received from Ben, and how fortunate we were to have had him as our teacher. He could be generous and terrifying, and even to his advisees he was an almost-mythical presence. I arrived at Cornell in 1990. Ben could have had his pick of students interested in nationalism. But he focused on Southeast Asianists. There was a cohort of Philippinists, of Vietnamists, but we knew that as Indonesianists we would always have favored status. Our Ben Anderson stories help us to claim, whether we deserve it or not, a small part of one of the greatest Southeast Asianist careers. And they are pedagogical—through these stories we can give our students a sense of what it was like to be taught by Ben, since his own classroom presence is impossible to imitate. I've had some great teachers but none of them generated stories like Ben did. Here are two of mine.

1. In 1998 I had defended but not yet submitted my dissertation, and was living in Jakarta, enjoying "Reformasi." Ben phoned. There was a rumor that his name had been removed from the blacklist, and he was planning a grand public homecoming. But first, he wanted to make sure the ban was truly lifted, so he wanted to slip quietly back in to Jakarta and on to Cirebon. In Jakarta he hoped to at last meet with Pramoedya, and he asked me to set this up. So on November 13 I drove across Jakarta to Utan Kayu to meet with Pram. It was "Black Friday," student protestors had again been murdered by the military and the city was rioting. I dodged clouds of teargas, explosions, roving mobs—no risk would prevent me from playing my role. I met with Pram (who was giddy, the local police station had just been firebombed), set up the meeting, and returned to my apartment. When I reported back to Ben I let him know that Pram had been transfixed by the photo on the back of the first edition of Imagined Communities. In it Ben was young, thin, and dashing. I warned Ben that this was the man Pram expected. And Ben told me not to worry, he'd been playing tennis and watching his weight, and would be considerably less "sluglike" when he arrived. Ben's preliminary visit and their meeting was a success. When Ben returned formally and gave his speech, "long live shame," he could relax knowing that it wasn't really his true reunion with Indonesia.

2. Years earlier, as a new graduate student, I had tortured Ben with two seminars of witty but entirely empty work. "Either you don't know how to do research, or you're stupid." So I had to prove myself, and spent months on a journeyman's piece about the writer Hamka. Writing for Ben's seminar on Biography and Autobiography, the essay was a breakthrough for me as a scholar. After he read it Ben phoned me at home, letting me know he was delighted with the work, encouraging me to submit it to the journal Indonesia for publication. He gave me an A-.

Ben cared deeply about scholarship. And not just his own—he felt a kind of responsibility to shape an entire field. In the lean years of area studies, the late '80s through the mid 1990s, funding was drying up. Ben could have shifted his identity, started a program in Nationalism Studies, and given up on Southeast Asia. But instead he doubled-down—writing monographically on Southeast Asia and focusing his teaching and advising on Southeast Asianists. It is not an exaggeration to say that Ben almost single-handedly kept Southeast Asian Studies alive in the US during these years. He made it clear to us that we needed to have an emotional commitment to our work. There needed to be passion and we had to be prepared to have our hearts broken. For him he called this commitment, broadly, politics. And it deserved work of the highest caliber. Ben will always be my imagined and ideal reader. If my work is good it's because of him. And if it makes a difference the it's because of him too.


Ben Brinner

Professor of Music

CSEAS core faculty

I did not have the benefit of studying with Benedict Anderson, or even meeting him, though I knew of him not only through his writings but through the many Southeast Asia specialists who studied at Cornell. His impact on them was clearly immense. He has been a significant, too, for music scholars, particularly — but not only — those working on nationalism. Searching Ethnomusicology, the flagship journal of my discipline, one finds several hundred articles referencing Anderson’s work. Ethnomusicologists writing on music from every corner of the earth have turned to Anderson. Most make reference to Imagined Communities, because ethnomusicologists have been deeply concerned with connections between music and identity (national, regional, ethnic, etc.) for several decades now. Some authors simply tip their hats to a foundational work, as Jane Sugarman notes in an article on theory in ethnomusicology, “Certainly it has become commonplace to cite scholarship that directly addresses certain aspects of “identity”; Butler on “gender”and “performativity” (1990); Anderson on “national” identity (1991); Appadurai on media and the “realm of the imagination” (1996).” (2010: 342). Similarly, Perman writes, “Since the seminal writings on nationalism, tradition, and the performance of politics (or the politics of performance) in the 1980s (Anderson 1983; Hobsbawm & Ranger 1983), ethnomusicologists have been drawn to the important ways that musical performances shape power relations, inspire resistance, and help generate social movements.” (2010: 442)

Others have actually engaged with the book more extensively:

“For the student of expressive culture the most intriguing part of Anderson's argument is the notion that imagined communities are to be distinguished not by their falsity or genuineness, but by "the style in which they are imagined" (1983:16).” (Waterman 1990: 376)

“Benedict Anderson,in one of his rare digressions into music, muses on the peculiar power of collective performance:” (Daughtry, 2003: 45, citing Anderson’s invocation of the unisonance of people singing the same national anthem)

“Anderson links the rise of national consciousness in Europe to the effects of the communicative power of new technologies, primarily movable type printing. He argues that this innovation enabled linguistic communication to move beyond oral transmission on an increasingly mass scale (1991). Extending the thrust of Anderson's argument, the equivalent technological advance for music was the advent of mechanical sound reproduction that allowed musical performances to circulate beyond their initial immediate production. Recordings and radio provided the musical tools with which to push the limits of the "known" of the imagined community in Nicaragua, as well as in other national imaginaries.” (Scruggs 1999: 305).

In an article titled “Music in the Hong Kong Handover Ceremonies: A Community Re-Imagines Itself,” Witzleban writes, “After a century and a half of British administration, Hong Kong was about to become a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People's Republic of China (PRC), under the novel and untested promises of "one country, two systems" and "Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong"; it is hard to think of a more compelling example of a political entity as an "imagined community." And in a footnote: “Here, as in the title of this article, I am deliberately playing with Benedict Anderson's concept of the nation as an imagined community.” (2002: 120).

And some who cite, do so to disagree: “By focusing on the nationalist logic of master narratives, many scholars attribute a false sense of consensus to nationalist movements and neglect the ways that nationalist narratives are made meaningful in the lives of those incorporated by the nation, while also ignoring the localizing work that is carried out by regional leaders in service of the nation (e.g., Anderson 1991; Gellner 1983; Hobsbawm 1990; Chatterjee 1986 …” (Schultz 2008: 32)

But well before the huge impact of Imagined Communities, ethnomusicologists — particularly those interested in music of Java — turned to Anderson’s relatively early article "The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture" in Culture and Politics in Indonesia, edited by Claire Holt (1972: 1-69. Ithaca: Cornell University Press). The keen understanding of wayang and other aspects of mid-twentieth-century Central Java that informed this article influenced many. Judith Becker, R. Anderson Sutton, and Marina Roseman are among the leading ethnomusicologists working in Southeast Asia who cited it.

I was drawn to one of the smaller points in the article, Anderson’s discussion of mystical keys to knowledge, which resonated with conversations I had with Javanese artists a decade after he published the article:

“Benedict Anderson refers to this sort of mystical kunci [key]: "The traditional image of the acquisition of knowledge is that of a search for a key which opens the door between ignorance and knowledge, making possible the qualitative leap from one to the other. Such a learning process contains nothing in the slightest degree heuristic or pragmatic (1972:45)."

And a bit later in the article, I noted his observation on the prestige associated with an esoteric key to knowledge: "The residual power of this old conception is not hard to detect in contemporary Indonesian thinking. Bearing it in mind does much to render comprehensible the typical division of the population by the political elite into two radically separate groups, those who are masih bodoh ("still stupid, still unenlightened") and those who are insjaf or terpeladjar (aware, educated)" (1972:45).”

I quoted him at length because I could hardly hope to improve on his pithy eloquence. Anderson’s analysis shaped the thinking of several generations of Indonesianists. One can only wonder what he would have written next on Java had he not been banned from Indonesia.


Becker, Judith . “Earth, Fire, Śakti, and the Javanese Gamelan,” Ethnomusicology 32/3: 385-391. On p. 388

Brinner, Benjamin. 1995 “Cultural Matrices and the Shaping of Innovation in Central Javanese Performing Arts,” Ethnomusicology 39/3: 433-456.

Daughtry, J. Martin. 2003. “Russia's New Anthem and the Negotiation of National Identity” Ethnomusicology 47/1: 42-67

Perman, Tony. 2010. “Dancing in Opposition: Muchongoyo, Emotion, and the Politics of Performance in Southeastern Zimbabwe,” Ethnomusicology 54/3: 425-451.

Roseman, Marina. 1984. “The Social Structuring of Sound: The Temiar of Peninsular Malaysia,” Ethnomusicology 28/3: 411-445.

Schultz, Anna. 2008. “The Collision of Genres and Collusion of Participants: Marathi "Rāṣṭrīya Kīrtan" and the Communication of Hindu Nationalism,” Ethnomusicology 52/1: 31-51.

Scruggs, T.M. 1999. “”Let's Enjoy as Nicaraguans": The Use of Music in the Construction of a Nicaraguan National Consciousness” Ethnomusicology 43/2: 297-321.

Sugarman, Jane C. 2010. Building and Teaching Theory in Ethnomusicology: A Response to Rice,”Ethnomusicology 54/2: 341-344.

Sutton, R. Anderson. 1996. “Interpreting Electronic Sound Technology in the Contemporary Javanese Soundscape,” 40/2: 249-268. on p. 263

Waterman, Christopher A. 1990. “'Our Tradition Is a Very Modern Tradition': Popular Music and the Construction of Pan-Yoruba Identity.” Ethnomusicology 34/3: 367-379

Witzleben, J. Lawrence. 2002. “Music in the Hong Kong Handover Ceremonies: A Community Re-Imagines Itself,” Ethnomusicology 46/1: 120-133.


Aihwa Ong

Robert H. Lowie Distinguished Chair in Anthropology

CSEAS core faculty

I did not know Benedict Anderson except through his books. I was introduced to him briefly at the SSRC office in NYC. I remember him as cool and perhaps shy. On campus, I heard him give a talk, "The pebble in the shoe," on the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. Here, I share some thoughts on how Benedict Anderson has influenced anthropology and my work.

The notion of 'imagined communities' perhaps has not had as much impact on anthropology (though still significant) as it did on other disciplines. After all, anthropology is about the imaginative and symbolic making of human communities. But when Imagined Communities was first published, it did serve to remind anthropologists to refocus on the work of imagination in contemporary social life that is not solely generated by 'culture' (another problematic construct). One is reminded of Marx's quote that unlike the spider and the bee, "the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality." In a creative interweaving of Marx, Weber, and also Foucault, Anderson critically intervened in the analysis of modern society. He proposed an 'ideal type' of the nation-state, an imagined construct of the national community that emerges from the interplay of language and media technologies. Not inherited 'culture' alone, but contingent interrelationships of salvation imaginings and 'print capitalism, of local natives and diasporic populations, wove disparate peoples into imaginable, viable nations.

As a scholar of postcolonial nations, Anderson offered dazzlingly insights for bridging modern history and socio-cultural anthropology. With Eric Hobsbawm and others, he dealt with a world on the move since the Industrial Revolution, with new nations emerging out of the convergence of disparate things -- languages, peoples, capital, techniques, and aspirations -- that circulate the globe. Taken together, the corpus of Anderson's writings provides an outline of an early phase of globalization studies. His framework is 'the world-system' of nation-states (many now disintegrating in the midst of the return of repressed), with sympathetic imagination as a means for claiming and stabilizing fluid collectivities. And indeed, 'print capitalism' foreshadows the critical ways the informational economy now fuels a bewildering array of imaginative possibilities for affiliations, often beyond the nation.

Perhaps because Anderson was more interested in literary texts than in tech literacy, in the romance of national belonging than in practices of political governance, he considered technologies mainly props to styles of collective representations. My own approach is very different. Nevertheless, Anderson has been a helpful interlocutor as I investigated topics such as the re-emigration of 'overseas Chinese’, neoliberal governing in emerging nations, the reinvention of Asian cities, and genomic science in Southeast Asia. I just checked my books, and found that 'imagined communities' was cited in almost all of them. I found Anderson's writings on 'exodus,' ' ethnic series,' and 'long-distance nationalism' particularly stimulating as I explore practices of 'flexible citizenship' and neoliberal modes of governing in emerging nations. More recently, Anderson's 'the specter of comparison' came to mind when I examined status-competition among ambitious cities in contemporary Asia. Benedict Anderson is the one scholar whose insights continue to engage me as an anthropologist of the region. He introduced 'Southeast Asia' to an academic world often indifferent (despite or because of the American war in 'Indochina,' the CIA-aided coup in Indonesia, etc.) to this far-flung, fragmented, and fractious region, and for that we owe him a debt of scholarly admiration and gratitude.


(1) The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

(2) Stephen Collier and I introduced Global Assemblages as a concept to analyze emerging global situations crystallized by the interactions of global forms and situated politics and ethics. We drew on Deleuze and Guattari, Beck and Luhmann, Weber and Arendt for considering the constitution of global milieus (not communities), in the Foucauldian sense of contingent spaces of problem-solving. Thinking of Anderson now, there is perhaps in our formulation a distant echo of 'imagined communities.'


Peter Sahlins

Professor of History, UC Berkeley

At the time of the publication of Imagined Communities (1982), the study of nationalism and national identity was dominated by modernization theory. Not only was the “nation” of recent construction, but it depended on a material infrastructure of “social communication,” to borrow the 1953 term of the Czech political scientist Karl Deutsch. Among French historians, the belief that national identity rested on the state’s construction of a network of roads, railroads, but also schools and military service, found its foremost expression in Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen (1976), who argued that only before the First War (and even then) did France modernize, in both social and cultural terms. Benedict Anderson so fundamentally disrupted this paradigm that he was a scientific revolution onto himself. Overnight, the cultural revolution wrought by Anderson’s work made us understand the symbolic construction of the nation, imagined in a wealth of different ways. On both sides of the Atlantic, scholars of the French nation began to examine not only print culture and politics but also the nation imagined in maps, in law, in language, in literature, and in art, back to the sixteenth century and before. Historians and others, myself included, found in Imagined Communities inspiration for the project of writing the history of the French nation from the ground up, even though we may not have focused on print capitalism, creoles, novels, revolutionary periods, or even the nineteenth century. Anderson’s thinking reached across themes and time; like long-distance nationalism, it also reached around the globe. Who would have imagined that a formidable scholar of Indonesian political culture could possess such universal insight that he would forever change our understanding of the making of the French nation?


T.J. Clark

Emeritus Professor of Art History, UC Berkeley

I did not know Benedict Anderson personally, but admired his writing very much. What follows is adapted from the opening of an essay on his work published a few years ago.


Authors only pretend to be embarrassed at the fame a book sometimes brings them, but there is nothing assumed about the irritation they can feel at having a new line of argument, and a universe of unfamiliar examples, reduced to a single phrase. Great titles are especially dangerous. Imagined Communities is one of the greatest, and the cluster of concepts the two words sum up deserves to be central to our thinking about the world. But it is understandable, and touching, that the first footnote to the afterword Anderson wrote for a recent edition of his book should read, in explanation of the trimming of the title in the text: ‘Aside from the advantages of brevity, I C restfully occludes a pair of words from which the vampires of banality have by now sucked almost all the blood.’

But the words live on. Part of the force of Imagined Communities as a title – as an idea – comes from the way the title immediately sets the reader wondering whether it is meant oxymoronically, and if it is, with what degree of irony or regret. The words bring to mind the true strangeness, but also the centrality, of the human will to be connected with others ‘of one’s kind’ whom one will never meet, and never know. Connected with them in the present, by blood or language or difference from a common enemy (or combinations of all three); and connected through time by a shared belonging to something that seems to emerge from a steadier, thicker, more grounded past and to be on its way to an indestructible, maybe redeeming, future.

Anderson was the very opposite of an atheist in the face of this religion; or, if he was an unbeliever – and one senses in all his writings an extraordinary final outsidedness to the worlds he studied and clearly often loved – it was very much in Santayana’s spirit, with the old philosopher’s ‘There is no God and Mary is His mother.’

The first move in Imagined Communities, then, was of sympathy, accompanied by a recognition of nationalism’s ability to provide answers to the questions that previous religions had made their own. The nation, Anderson persuaded us, gives form to a shiftless and arbitrary being on earth; it offers a promise of immortality; it is oriented time and again towards – and beyond – the individual’s death. ‘With the ebbing of religious belief’ – Anderson was writing in 1983 – ‘the suffering which belief in part composed did not disappear. Disintegration of paradise: nothing makes fatality more arbitrary. Absurdity of salvation: nothing makes another style of continuity more necessary. What then was required was a secular transformation of fatality into continuity, contingency into meaning.’ For a moment again it is hard to be sure of the tone here. ‘Composed’ is an interesting choice of word. The syntax that follows is lapidary, but brutal. There is a tension in the sentences, which I think is productive in Anderson’s work as a whole; he is sometimes accused of being a Romantic, yet I hear Diderot constantly debating in his pages with Rousseau and Herder; but nonetheless it is sympathy – a determination to pose the question of nationhood at the level of creaturely pain and vulnerability and fear of the grave – that is the first move. ‘The great weakness of all evolutionary/progressive styles of thought,’ he wrote, ‘not excluding Marxism, is that such questions are answered with impatient silence.’

‘Not excluding Marxism’. The fascination of Anderson’s approach lies in the way the initial leap of understanding in 1983 was made to coexist with a strong (Marxist) commitment to materialist explanation. In many of Anderson’s books he was, necessarily, a teller of particular national tales: a recorder of all the unlikely things that went to make a ‘Filipino’ or an ‘Indonesian’. But in the beginning, what Anderson wanted to clarify (and keep hold of in subsequent storytelling) were the conditions of production of imagined communities. What technologies of representation did they depend on? And who did the representing? From what classes and professions did nationalists come, and how did their particular interests and social styles inflect the great thing represented? How did the invention of the printing press and the imperatives of early European capitalism interact to make ‘nations’ possible? If there was such a thing as ‘print capitalism’ – such a contingent, but in the end decisive and creative thing – then exactly what were its effects on the vernacular languages, on the segmentation of elites and non-elites, on the look of the map and the sense of belonging to a bounded place? Are not nations always, from the start, one moment in a complex drive to explore and exploit the totality of the globe – to make a new world-system?

These are, I am sure, the large questions that the phenomenon of nationalism requires us to ask. Benedict Anderson laid them out with exemplary tact and clarity, and gave them strong, careful answers, open to point by point dispute. He put us all massively in his debt.


Ivonne del Valle

Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese, UC Berkeley


Benedict Anderson and Latin America

To welcome the new viceroy to Mexico City, Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora, one of the best-known intellectuals of the Americas at the time, wrote Teatro de virtudes políticas (1680), inviting the arriving bureaucrat to learn civic virtues from the lessons of Aztec history. “And clearly, if the intention is to propose examples for imitation, it would be an insult to one’s PATRIA to scavenge for foreign heroes…all the more so since even among peoples reputed to be barbarous there are more than enough precepts upon which to found a civil order,” he stated in pages in which he presented Aztec gods and kings as models for imperial rule, while making constant reference to his duty to and love for his homeland. Though not writing in a newspaper, Sigüenza y Góngora was one of those Americans whom Benedict Anderson would posit as imagining a nation out of the complexity characteristic of Spanish colonial milieus.

Thanks to his knowledge of writings similar to those of Sigüenza y Góngora, and in keeping with what he found in the vast historical record that he knew from multiple regional perspectives and in many languages, Anderson showed that nations—those strange inventions—were first conceived of not in Europe, but in the Spanish-speaking Americas, and also that the problems hindering discussions of nationalism in a serious way sprung from the “provincial European thinking” (47) that had to locate every important development on its own soil.

His Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1982) provided an astute correction of this skewed view and presented us with a nuanced understanding of the reasons and structures from which nations developed. One somber reflection relates to the fact that these creations were far from perfect and that, just as Sigüenza y Góngora’s own relationship with indigenous communities shows, they were limited—imaginings by which the Creole successors of the Spanish who had conquered the new territories were envisaging those same places as altogether different both from those Spain wanted to see, and from those previously created by indigenous polities. As many books after Anderson’s have corroborated, in the case of Latin America, the impact of the limitations of the “world-historical era” in which nations were created—criollismo being its main inflection—has been strong and very difficult to reverse throughout the continent.

By showing the relevance of the colonial period (that of the 15th to 18th centuries and not the 18th and 19th centuries), Anderson also corrected another important oversight, since in his pages, the Spanish colonies hold a strong sway for the future history of the world. Paradoxically, he tells us, born out of imperial designs, out of the functions and everyday life of empire, and of the plural resistance to it—nations emerged.

Anderson’s influence on Latin Americanists will be long-lasting, and many important books and articles have engaged his ideas (see, for example, Claudio Lomnitz’s corrective chapter dedicated to him in Deep Mexico, Silent Mexico: An Anthropology of Nationalism), but what I’d like to emphasize here are two things. First is that these nations were thought of and imbued with such strong passions that they were considered worthy of the most extraordinary sacrifices. What kind of inventions, but those replacing the old religious world, would be capable of exercising such a powerful allure as to make people capable of this excess—that of giving one’s life in order to have and/or defend one’s own patria? Second is the simple fact that Anderson, a Marxist, a universalist therefore, could see this development occurring in what might be considered an area on the world’s “periphery.” This might seem a small feat, yet it is not. For example, in Political Spaces and Global War, a superb book that makes the dispelling of Eurocentrism one of its many objectives, Carlo Galli states that the lack of difference between warfare and non-warfare, one of the topics he addresses in the final chapters, “was better, or perhaps only first, conceptualized by Chinese culture, free from the intellectual weight of modernity, than by Western culture.” This odd sentence, which conveys a sense of surprise to be celebrated, reinstates what it disavows. Anderson, by contrast, was very comfortable in a world in which not everything important happens over and over in the same place. Latin Americanism will always thank him for his capacity to see things from multiple perspectives, and his being able to understand areas that because of the exciting and troubling developments taking place in them deserve all our attention.


(1) Translation taken from Anna More, Baroque Sovereignty. Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora and the Creole Archive of Colonial Mexico. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. 115.

(2) See for example, his comments on creole racism. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1991. 60.

(3) Imagined Communities, 63.

(4) Carlo Galli, Political Spaces and Global War. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. 188.