Benedict Anderson

Benedict Anderson died on 13 December 2015, a few days after correcting the proofs of his memoir, Life beyond Boundaries. Initially written for Japanese academics, and published there in 2008, it comes out from Verso in March 2016. His essay in the LRB of 16 January 2016 is an extract.

Frameworks of Comparison

Benedict Anderson, 21 January 2016

The 35 years I spent as a professor of government at Cornell taught me two interesting lessons about US academia. The first was that theory, mirroring the style of late capitalism, has obsolescence built into it, in the manner of high-end commodities. In year X students had to read and more or less revere Theory Y, while sharpening their teeth on passé Theory W. Not too many years later, they were told to sharpen their teeth on passé Theory Y, admire Theory Z, and forget about Theory W.

In 1994, torpid Unesco awoke to the reality that Luang Prabang, the tiny royal capital of colonial-era Laos – core population about 16,000 – is the best-preserved, most beautiful old town left in South-East Asia, and so, the following year, solemnly declared it a World Heritage Site. ‘Besides, it’s true,’ as we used to say. The town is set on a remote bend of the legendary Mekong River, which runs almost 4500 kilometres from the Tibetan plateau down to the China Sea near Saigon, with only two bridges along its entire length. It is ringed with majestic, bluish tropical mountains that, when the burning swidden fields create the right pollution, seem to come straight out of the most bewitching Sung landscapes. In its heart is the hundred-metre-high hill of Phou Si, crowned with a restored Buddhist stupa (nicely floodlit at night) and an abandoned Russian antiaircraft gun. Below is a town that one can stroll across in 25 minutes but which has about forty elegant, modest Buddhist temple complexes, almost all warm browns, blues and whites, backed by huge bo trees, and opal-fired with the saffron robes of monks and novices. Here and there, one picks out former residences and office buildings of French colonials, which have by now acquired the charm of gentle provincial decay. Not a Hilton or Hyatt in sight: no Burger King, McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts. One BMW.’‘

On 11 March, 32 years after he directed the coup de force which brought him to power, President Suharto of Indonesia spoke the following words as he was sworn in for a seventh term of office: ‘We will never enjoy again an economic growth such as we have experienced for more than a quarter of a century.’ This is the language of the milltowns of New England, the coal-and-steel belts of Pennsylvania and Belgium, the ghost towns of Australia and the American West – places where capitalism has been and gone, leaving behind scarred landscapes and ruined social edifices. It is a language that poses two related questions about the ‘Asian crisis’ which are rarely raised in the flood of contemporary analyses of its proximate causes. The first: what made the World Bank’s ‘Asian miracle’ of the past two decades possible? The second: is Suharto’s prognosis correct, not merely for Indonesia, but also for the other advanced countries of South-East Asia?’‘

First Filipino

Benedict Anderson, 16 October 1997

Few countries give the observer a deeper feeling of historical vertigo than the Philippines. Seen from Asia, the armed uprising against Spanish rule of 1896, which triumphed temporarily with the establishment of an independent republic in 1898, makes it the visionary forerunner of all the other anti-colonial movements in the region. Seen from Latin America, it is, with Cuba, the last of the Spanish imperial possessions to have thrown off the yoke, seventy-five years after the rest. Profoundly marked, after three and a half centuries of Spanish rule, by Counter-Reformation Catholicism, it was the only colony in the Empire where the Spanish language never became widely understood. But it was also the only colony in Asia to have had a university in the 19th century. In the 1890s barely 3 per cent of the population knew ‘Castilian’, but it was Spanish-readers and writers who managed to turn movements of resistance to colonial rule from hopeless peasant uprisings into a revolution. Today, thanks to American imperialism, and the Philippines’ new self-identification as ‘Asian’, almost no one other than a few scholars understands the language in which the revolutionary heroes communicated among themselves and with the outside world – to say nothing of the written archive of pre-20th-century Philippine history. A virtual lobotomy has taken place.

Gravel in Jakarta’s Shoes

Benedict Anderson, 2 November 1995

Oldest among its European competitors, the Portuguese transcontinental empire lasted the longest, collapsed the fastest, and left the most bloodshed and ruin behind it. It owed its durability to Portugal’s own backwardness and poverty – which ruled out the ambitious modernising colonialisms of industrial America, France, England and the Netherlands – and to its strategic position in Spain’s armpit, at the mouth of the Mediterranean, which earned it for centuries the backing of London’s naval might. It collapsed fastest because of the bizarre longevity of the Salazarist dictatorship, and its fanatical determination to fight three Vietnam Wars simultaneously – in Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau, thousands of miles apart from one another – with a half-mercenary pre-professional army and no prospect of success. Within a year of the April 1974 coup in Lisbon, engineered by disillusioned officers, the empire was gone. The bloodshed and ruin, however, were only indirectly the responsibility of Lisbon. The atrocious 12-year ‘civil war’ endured by Mozambique was orchestrated and financed by South Africa. Pretoria and Washington bear most of the blame for the 20-year conflict in Angola. But the holocaust in Portuguese East Timor, half a small island off the northern coast of Australia, was the doing of the Indonesian dictatorship of former general Suharto – with crucial support at the outset from the United States, and later, to lesser extents, of the Governments of the big EEC states, Japan and Australia.’

Djojo on the Corner

Benedict Anderson, 24 August 1995

More than almost all of its sister disciplines, anthropology in the modern sense has been – until very recently – linked to global imperial power. The big intra-European states of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had their famous sociologists, economists, historians, linguists, philosophers and literary theorists, but only the global powers – Britain, France and the United States – produced the (figurative) ‘big men’ of anthropology who are still read seriously today. One can think of their production as coming in three distinct waves. The first generation came to maturity in the palmy days before the Great War, when the empires were assuming their final consolidated form, and colonialism seemed unchallengeable: in the long decade of 1872-84 were born Marcel Mauss (1872), Alfred Kroeber (1876), A.R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881), and Bronislaw Malinowski (1884), with Ruth Benedict (1887) at the tail end. The second generation were born in the decade 1901-11: Margaret Mead (1901), Edward Evans-Pritchard (1902), Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908), Edmund Leach (1910), Louis Dumont and Max Gluckman (1911). They were formed in the age of Hitler and Stalin, and, in the cases of France and Britain, of impending imperial decline. The last generation came to adulthood during World War Two, and made their careers during the Cold War, the zenith of American intercontinental power, when dying colonialisms were replaced by a vast congeries of ‘new nations’. Thus, between 1919 and 1930 were born the modern – one might also say pre-Post-Modern – masters: Jack Goody (1919), Victor Turner (1920), Mary Douglas (1921), and Marshall Sahlins (1930). Right in the middle came Clifford Geertz, who was born in San Francisco in 1926. In the quarter-century between 1960, when he published his masterly The Religion of Java, and the middle Eighties, he was, after Lévi-Strauss, the most widely-known and influential anthropologist around. After the Fact, a collection of his recent Jerusalem-Harvard lectures, is, as indicated by its subtitle, an informal, if personally reticent, retrospective on a remarkable career, and on the worlds that shaped its characteristic contours.’’

Creole Zones

Benedict Anderson, 7 November 1991

In the early hours of 12 October 1692, a lookout on the Pinta shouted in Latinic-Spanish to his captain and fellow seamen: Tierra! Tierra! The answering choral roar from below was, it appears, the Arabic-Spanish Albricias! That is to say, ‘Rewards!’ Since the last centennial commemoration of this operatic, multicultural exchange, its sonorities have profoundly changed. A hundred Years ago, tierra sounded fortissimo, and Cristoforo Colombo’s landfall in the Caribbean was generally understood as a world-historical event, which, following on the heels of Bartolomeu Diaz’s rounding of the Cape of Good Hope, opened an Age of Discovery during which the whole planet became known for the first time to a single, powerful civilisation. Read as a triumph of science and reason over what Washington Irving, in his biography of the Discoverer, called ‘the long night of monkish bigotry and false learning’, it seemed also to presage the eclipse of the Old World and the lasting ascendancy of the progressive New. Today, this providentialism, which took on cousinly forms in Protestant North and Catholic South America, is still quite audible, notably during wars and election campaigns, but albricias more and more carries the tune.


Benedict Anderson, 21 January 1988

New York, Nueva Leon, Nouvelle Orléans, Nova Lisboa and Nieuw Amsterdam – already in the 16th century, Western Europeans had begun the strange habit of naming remote places in the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania as ‘new’ versions of (thereby) ‘old’ toponyms in their lands of origin. Moreover, they retained the habit even when these places passed under different masters, so that Nouvelle Orléans calmly became New Orleans, and Nieuw Zeeland New Zealand. Just how odd this practice was can be seen from the fact that although Arabs settled, and sometimes set up statelets, all round the perimeter of the Indian Ocean, and speakers of various Chinese dialects spread all over South-East Asia during the same period (say, 1500-1800), we find no traces of any New Baghdad or New Damascus, New Wuhun or New Tientsin. What we do find are toponyms like Chiangmai (New City) or Pekanbaru (New Market), for which no ‘old’ comrades exist, and which, in any case, by using the general words ‘city’ and ‘market’, imply none of the specific bondings that link York to New York – for the oddity of the pairing was that the two places existed contemporaneously in homogeneous time, and that their inhabitants could easily and peaceably communicate with one another. They might, one day, fight each other, but the outcome of the struggle would always leave their respective titles unchanged: New York would never obliterate York, or vice versa.’

Old Corruption

Benedict Anderson, 5 February 1987

She is today, as the widowed ‘Cory’ Aquino, Time’s widely admired Woman of the Year. But she started life as Corazon Cojuangco, daughter of the wealthy sugar magnate Don Jose Cojuangco, and cousin of that Eduardo Cojuangco who in the Marcos era became one of the most notorious plunderers of the Filipino economy. She owes her present eminence to both names, but it is the earlier one that is the more significant for assessing the situation in which the Philippines finds itself.


In Hell

13 September 2012

I would like to thank Marina Warner for her friendly, amusing and sharp-eyed review of The Fate of Rural Hell: Asceticism and Desire in Buddhist Thailand, my ‘bizarre opuscule’ (LRB, 13 September). I am writing only to alert readers to two misapprehensions. First, at the end of a list of the tortures inflicted on the praed she mentions ‘breasts lopped off and genitals horribly swollen...

Who’s quaint?

24 August 1995

David Apter (Letters, 16 November) is quite right in insisting that the Committee for the Comparative Study of New Nations was founded in the late Eisenhower rather than the Kennedy era. He may well be right in claiming to have thought the Committee up, although its first chairman and major spokesman was the late Edward Shils. In all other respects, I think Apter has worked himself up into a needless...

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