Benedict Anderson, 1936-2015

Benedict Anderson has died. In the coming days, I’m hoping someone at Crooked Timber like Henry Farrell or Chris Bertram writes something more substantive about his contributions. While I read Imagined Communities, it never touched me in the way it has so many other scholars and students. Reading people’s comments on Facebook and Twitter, I’m struck by how intellectually diverse his audience was, how ride-ranging his reach. All morning, people from so many different fields and persuasions have been testifying to Anderson’s impact upon them and their work. Which leads to a thought: I’d put Anderson up there with Clifford Geertz and, increasingly, Jim Scott as among the most influential scholars of the last half-century. All of them scholars of Southeast Asia. I’m sure other people have noticed this and/or perhaps written about this, so forgive my saying the obvious, but what is it about that region that has made it such a site of transformative scholarship and fertile reflection?


  1. cynicalatheist December 13, 2015 at 10:27 am | #

    I haven’t read any of these scholars. But put simply: it might be because the US unexpectedly lost a war there.

    • LFC December 13, 2015 at 5:16 pm | #

      prob. doubtful as explanation. see the comments attached to the same post at Crooked Timber.

      • cynicalatheist December 14, 2015 at 12:12 am | #

        Thanks for the tip LFC, interesting thread over there!

  2. jpaulmanzanilla December 13, 2015 at 10:35 am | #

    Asia’s southeast was colonized by the major colonial powers of Europe’s west and America. Major world religions. Violent upheavals of traditionalism and modernization.

  3. Fuad Rahmat December 13, 2015 at 11:03 am | #

    If I’m not mistaken, Geertz and Anderson benefitted from grants and funding at a time when Southeast Asian studies were needed to match the broader geopolitical focus the region was getting due to the Vietnam War and the British Emergency. Indonesia had the biggest Communist Party outside China and the Eastern bloc, including India. Scott’s work came at a later time and at a relatively stable time in Malaysia though.

    In any case, Southeast Asia in general is known for its diversity: not just linguistic, ethnic or religious, but even in late colonial history. Southeast Asia had more colonial inter-sections than the Middle East and the Americas, including the Caribbean. Spain and Portugal settled there early and then more recently the Japanese brought a different experience of empire altogether.

    What does that all amount to? A very curious interface of tradition and modernity, where each continue to struggle against one another at a stalemate: Thailand, Brunei and Malaysia are good examples of how Feudalism co-exists and in many ways benefits from liberal capitalism. Singapore may claim first-world status, but its governance bears hallmarks of a distinctly Confucian authoritarianism. Indonesia has a fascinating Revolutionary history, and its Republican lineage remains stronger with Jokowi in power but Islamic discourse remains a real relevant lifeworld there, where its syncretic history continues to be rejuvenated in different ways.

    This tapestry of polities makes it a fascinating place to study contradictions. Europe’s cultural and historical imprints allows for some base though insufficient points of dialogue with broader questions of Western history: modernity, national boundaries, Revolution etc. but with a comparative post-colonial lens.

    Side note: Scott, Geertz and Anderson also built their best work on the Malay Archipelago , which is interesting for other distinct reasons but for now the above is a general sketch to answer your question.

  4. "Once_Upon_102_West_Ave" December 13, 2015 at 11:18 am | #

    That’s more a shot in the dark than an idea. With no insult intended toward any of the three scholars, whom I admire, I’ll offer a related but more mundane proposition: That Southeast Asian studies boomed during the Vietnam War era, highlighting and supporting the work of the three. That they and their institutions seeded the profession with their acolytes resulted in a multiplier effect in terms of their influence.

  5. graccibros December 13, 2015 at 11:27 am | #

    I think it’s good, from time to time, for writers to plead total ignorance. I now do to these authors and their works. I try to see real life and the life of the mind whole, but it’s an impossible task in 2015, and for some of the still valid reasons the recently deceased Carl E. Schorske summarized in his Introduction to Fin-De- Siecle Vienna: the extreme division of labor and of the mind’s products in “modern” societies. A summary I’ve quoted at length in comments at this site. I have to add that the title “Imagined Communities” is intriguing.

  6. J. Otto Pohl December 13, 2015 at 11:42 am | #

    Anderson deserves a lot better than the leftist hacks at Crooked Timber.

  7. Rick Perlstein December 13, 2015 at 12:48 pm | #

    How black-hearted and small-minded do you have to be to call people like Henry Farrell “hacks”?

    • LFC December 13, 2015 at 5:33 pm | #

      @ Rick Perlstein
      There’s a back story here that you are unaware of because you are, understandably, too busy writing your books to waste (oops, I mean spend) a lot of time in the blogosphere. I’ll leave it at that.

      Also, I appreciate F. Rahmat’s comment above and linked it at the CT thread.

  8. LFC December 13, 2015 at 5:29 pm | #

    Geertz is definitely worth reading (a superb stylist), so is B. Anderson. And I’m sure J. Scott is too, though I really haven’t read him except little bits like an occasional review essay.

    And J. Otto Pohl, why not stick to substance and stay off the “leftist hacks” remarks.

  9. Thomas L. Dumm December 14, 2015 at 8:25 pm | #

    For those speculating about research funding in the 60s: something that was gossip in the hallways at Cornell in the late 70s/early 80s was a rumor that Ben couldn’t return to Indonesia after a certain point because one of his colleagues in the department was so closely identified with the CIA that Ben got smeared with the same brush, so to speak. This led him to reflect at a more theoretical level which led to Imagined Communities.

    He, Martin Bernal, Ted Lowi, and Susan Buck-Morss were true models of intellectual curiosity and courage, interdisciplinary scholars before interdisciplinarity was coined as a term.

    Ben was also a decent human being, which ought to count in the world of theory, but unfortunately doesn’t as much as it should (in my opinion).

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