Benedict Anderson dies in his sleep in Indonesia.
Benedict Anderson, a Cornell University scholar who became one of the most influential voices in the fields of nationalism and Southeast Asian studies, died Sunday in Indonesia. He was 79.
Anderson died in his sleep during a visit to the city of Malang, Indonesian media reported. His death was confirmed on the Facebook page of Thai historian Charnvit Kasetsiri, his close friend and colleague. The cause of death was not immediately known.
Anderson is best known for his 1983 book “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism,” whose controversial thesis is that nationalism is largely a modern concept rooted in language and literacy.
“Many readers of ‘Imagined Communities’ did not know that his knowledge of Southeast Asian languages gave him insights into Indonesian, Thai, and Philippine political culture and history,” said Prof. Craig J. Reynolds of Australian National University.
Anderson’s influence was not limited to the sphere of theory, as he engaged with the contentious issues of the day with a rigorous analysis and dry wit that inspired his students.
“Throughout his life, he inspired successive generations of students to brush history against the grain by similarly marshaling every ounce of their intellectual creativity and courage to look at history and politics in totally new and greatly more profound ways,” said Steve Heder, a research associate at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies who studied under Anderson at Cornell.
Born to Anglo-Irish parents in 1936 in Kunming, China, Benedict Richard O’Gorman Anderson grew up in California and was educated at Cambridge and Cornell, where he studied Southeast Asian politics.
His early specialization in Indonesia turned out to be both a curse and a blessing. A curse because a near-forensic analysis of Indonesia’s bloody 1965 coup that he wrote with fellow scholar Ruth McVey led to him being banned from that country until 1999. The “Cornell Paper,” as it came to be known, questioned the conventional wisdom that the coup was the consequence of an abortive communist uprising, suggesting instead premeditation on the part of the army.
But while retaining an active interest in Indonesia, Anderson’s enforced absence from that country encouraged him to turn his energies elsewhere, with Thailand becoming another specialization by the mid-1970s. He learned enough Thai to co-author a 1985 collection and study of translated modern Thai short stories.
Anderson’s most influential work on Thailand was his 1977 essay “Withdrawal Symptoms,” which analyzed the social forces behind a 1976 counterrevolution in Thailand just three years after a student-led revolt toppled a military dictatorship.
“His scholarship and commitment to progressive political change meant that he was an icon for scholars in the region and for all those who have studied the region,” said Kevin Hewison, a professor of politics and international studies at Australia’s Murdoch University. “His analysis of Thailand’s 1970s political turmoil remains unsurpassed and is as important today as it was when published.”
Thailand is currently under military rule after another coup last year.
Anderson later turned his attention to the Philippines — learning Spanish so he could study colonial-era documents — which led to his last major book, 2005’s “Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination.”
For many on the left Anderson’s study Imagined Communities remains deeply influential.
Great titles are especially dangerous. Imagined Communities is one of the greatest, and I shall be arguing that the cluster of concepts it sums up deserves still to be central to our thinking about the world. But it is understandable, and touching, that the first footnote to Benedict Anderson’s afterword to his new edition should read, in explanation of the trimming of the title in his text: ‘Aside from the advantages of brevity, IC restfully occludes a pair of words from which the vampires of banality have by now sucked almost all the blood.’
Part of the force of Imagined Communities as a title – as an idea – comes from the way the two words immediately set the reader wondering whether they are meant as oxymoronic, and if they are, 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 be on its way to an indestructible, maybe redeeming future.
Anderson defined a nation as follows,
“I propose the following definition of the 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…. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined…. Finally, [the nation] is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately, it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willing to die for such limited imaginings.”
For Anderson the ‘imaginary’ of nationalism is the result of a number of historical developments: the declining importance of elite classical languages such as Latin or Sanskrit, because of mass literacy in spoken languages; the erosion and movements of state legitimacy based on divine right and hereditary monarchy; and the emergence of printing press capitalism (“the convergence of capitalism and print technology… standardization of national calendars, clocks and language was embodied in books and the publication of daily newspapers”—all phenomena occurring with the start of the modern industrial capitalism.
A nation emerges within these emerging networks of power and communication.It becomes a community because,
regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.
Anderson , some writers have suggested, underplayed the class dimensions of the social imaginary, the neglect of the way ruling classes have cultivated – deliberately or unconsciously – national imagery – and his lack of sustained analysis of the French Revolution (which had a strong ‘universal’ appeal) as a ‘model’ of nationalism.
His work is also perhaps only suggestive in tackling the importance of ‘trans-national’ imaginaries’ and communities, from democratic socialism, early Communism, liberal internationalism to the anti-‘national’ and genocidal dreaming and practice of Daesh.
To our mind Anderson stands out for this double-edged description of the importance of language in shaping our sense of social being,
“What the eye is to the lover — that particular, ordinary eye he or she is born with – language – whatever language history has made his or her mother-tongue — is to the patriot. Through that language, encountered at mother’s knee and parted with only at the grave, pasts are restored, fellowships are imagined, and futures dreamed.”