Benedict Anderson

Benedict Anderson, who died in 2015, taught at Cornell for many years. He was the author, most famously, of Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.

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.’

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