Looking for a Wind: On reading and remembering Benedict Anderson
It was six miles outside Oxford, pausing on the crest of a hill to check the afternoon’s weather, that I heard the news: Benedict Anderson was dead. The morning was unusually warm, and a lone kite circling overhead threw its shadow, like a longbow, across the postcard landscape. There was little in that moment and its surreal tranquillity – or even over the next weeks, as we swept into Christmas – to suggest just how much Anderson’s death (and life) would resonate across the following year. And as we watched the old narratives of parochialism and power playing out around the world, Anderson’s dictum rang ever louder: the nation is conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. ‘Ultimately, it is this fraternity’, he wrote – in 1983, though it could have been today – ‘that makes it possible […] for so many millions of people not so much to kill, as willing to die, for such limited imaginings’.
Few minds have altered the intellectual terrain of our time as extensively as his. Best known for Imagined Communities, his ground-breaking study of nationalism’s inner workings and global permutations, Anderson was foremost a student of Southeast Asia who cut his teeth studying the upheavals of Indonesia in the early 1960s. He counted himself part of an ‘older world’ where scholarship knew fewer disciplinary boundaries, and his publications ranged from analyses of international politics to critical texts of the region’s film and literary traditions.
Such a wide-ranging oeuvre did not come easy. Published posthumously, Anderson’s memoir A Life Beyond Boundaries (London: Verso, 2016) narrates for the first time an intellectual career devoted to ‘looking for a wind’ (‘as if you were a sailing-ship heading out of a harbour’, he explains). The turn of phrase is borrowed from Bahasa Indonesia, which Anderson learnt at Cornell as a young graduate student before leaving on three fruitful – and formative – years of fieldwork in the country. These not only produced his doctoral thesis, which challenged prevailing views of the archipelago, but also a controversial report on the events of October 1, 1965 which resulted in a ban on his returning to Indonesia for nearly three decades. Nevertheless, it was in Indonesia that Anderson began a lifelong love affair with Southeast Asia, and the groundwork for what would become Imagined Communities.
A Life Beyond Boundaries is particularly illuminating for two reasons. It points us, first, towards the distinctive nature of Anderson’s contributions to his world: a post-war, Western imaginary made and remade in the image of empire. Despite the profound changes that were underfoot, the political scientists, sociologists and historians of this time were far more prepared to compare ‘like with like’ as they saw things, rarely drawing comparisons that extended before the Euro-American hemisphere. When Anderson wrote ‘The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture’ in 1972, it was still a relatively original notion that ‘Javanese or Indonesians [could] be seen as just as “rational” as Westerners and other peoples’ – or that Southeast Asian societies could be shaped by the same constructs of nationalism, egalitarianism or rationality that were, till then, still associated predominantly with the West.
Against this intellectual orthodoxy, Anderson gleefully filled Imagined Communities with examples and illustrations which placed ‘Hungary [alongside] Siam and Japan, Indonesia with Switzerland, and Vietnam with French West Africa’ so as to subvert the biases of his academic counterparts. He also applied the same theoretical terms to nationalisms across the global North and South – calling Franklin and Jefferson ‘Creoles’, for example, ‘as if they were simply an extension of patterns everywhere visible south of the US border’. His texts were thus able to articulate a truly global mode of scholarship found wanting among his peers, and pave the way for others studying Southeast Asia to enter the debate.
At the same time, however, A Life Beyond Boundaries points us towards a cosmopolitan personal ethic, and a set of internationalist political ideals, that is increasingly rare in our world. Delving into Anderson’s recollections, one is struck by the deep and impartial affection he accorded to interlocutors from various countries and cultures (regardless of the barriers of space, time, and language) as well as his long-held commitment to seeking out side-lined voices and narratives, or scholarship on marginalized issues. Almost all his books challenge readers to do the same; in Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination (2005), we are ‘invited to leap back and forth between Naples, Tokyo, Manila, Barcelona, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Brussels, St Petersburg, Tampa and London’. Such breadth of regard, and a willingness to hold the unfamiliar close – let alone to advocate for a world with more permeable, if not fewer walls altogether – seems in particularly short supply today.
Another quality missing from contemporary discourse is Anderson’s unusual readiness to have his own convictions challenged and revised, an open-mindedness that complemented his ecumenical outlook. While he clung stubbornly to the values of gratitude, decency, and interdisciplinary inquiry, he was also remarkably open to what his colleagues and associates (including those outside of academia) had to offer. He describes, in the memoir, the extent to which early interviews with retired military men like former Rear Admiral Maeda Tadeshi after arriving in Indonesia unexpectedly shaped not only his views on the roles of individuals in world conflict, but very focus of his research; he also describes – a decade later – meeting, and warming to, the Marxist intellectuals associated with the New Left Review through his brother (the historian Perry Anderson), and being ‘profoundly re-educated in the process’. This open-mindedness was a quality Anderson equally admired in those he met and knew: George Kahin, his old supervisor at Cornell, is remembered especially for his ‘intellectual broadmindedness’.
Few memoirs, perhaps, contain greater understatements than Anderson’s reflection in the book’s preface that ‘professors in the West rarely have interesting lives’. If anything, the quip tells us as much about Anderson’s characteristic modesty as the uncharacteristic curiosity, energy, and generosity that he poured into a distinguished and far-reaching academic career. Given the qualities he exemplified, and a conspicuous shortage of public intellectuals on the left today who share his convictions, his passing – at this tumultuous point in history – seems especially untimely. But we shouldn’t mourn. After all, he’d much rather we go ‘looking for a wind’ of our own.
* All quotes, unless otherwise stated, are from A Life Beyond Boundaries (London: Verso, 2016).