Seeing Conjunctions, Making Comparisons: An Essay In Honor Of Benedict Anderson

benedict_anderson_up_asian_centerHere are some excerpts of my/our tribute to Benedict Anderson for Asian Studies: Journal of Critical Perspectives on Asia. He was a member of our international advisory board. Photo: UP Asian Center. 

The weekend of 12–13 December 2015 marked two milestones in the history of Southeast Asian Studies. First, scholars in and on Southeast Asia—or a country therein—gathered in the ancient capital of Japan, Kyoto, for the Southeast Asian Studies in Asia (SEASIA) Conference. Organized by scholars and institutions based in the region, this was a historic first in the annals of Southeast Asian Studies. Second, a luminary of the field passed away in East Java, Indonesia around midnight of 12 December (Aguilar 2016). News of Benedict Anderson’s death came early and as a shock on the second day of the conference, 13 December. And it spread just as the participants were delivering their presentations. 

Juxtaposing these events is a tribute to a great scholar, who himself had a fondness for doing so. His death is a deep loss, but it is perhaps fitting all the same that Benedict Anderson left us when scholars were inaugurating new topics and novel approaches to the study of Southeast Asia. One might say that this conjunction symbolized a passing of the scholarly torch. Benedict Anderson did so much to help advance Southeast Asian Studies. And one could claim that his work and that of his generation brought the field to that historic point in Kyoto. Many of the papers read at the SEASIA Conference represent an emerging, if not wholly established, breed of Southeast Asianists; and their scholarship builds on, critiques, or departs from that of Anderson and his contemporaries.

……..As far as the Philippines was concerned, Anderson’s work came at a time when Filipino scholars were refining and advancing their knowledge of Philippine history and society. His thinking on the subject became—and still is—part of a lively, ongoing critique of Philippine historiography. He inspired many Filipino scholars, including his students in Cornell University, whose scholarship on Philippine literature, history, and politics bears, in varying degrees, the marks of his influence. Today, Anderson’s global approach—exemplified by Under Three Flags—has arguably formed part of what might be called a “global turn” in Philippine studies.

Because of migration and globalization, among other reasons, scholars in and of the Philippines have paid closer attention to the Philippines’ relationship with other countries, regions, empires, or even the global trading system. Benedict Anderson will forever be remembered for teaching us that nations are “imagined communities.” And the global turn in Philippine historiography—of which Under Three Flags is a part —represents, among other things, a reimagining of the Filipino nation. Not just as an autonomous, self-contained unit, but also as an entity embedded in regional, transnational, and global contexts.

……Even in death, Benedict Anderson would not be rooted down in typical fashion; in his “funeral,” the urn containing his ashes were laid at the bottom of the Java Sea. It was a fitting gesture because Ben loved Indonesia, Java in particular. In his memoir, he mentions that the “spirit of adventure” is “crucial to a really productive scholarly life.”  To explain this point, he cites a phrase in Bahasa, “lagi tjari angin, which meansI am looking for a wind’, as if you were a sailing-ship heading out of a harbour onto the vast open sea.” Indeed, in life and in death, Ben Anderson sailed out of the harbour and found the wind. At the same time, his cremation alludes, albeit obliquely and inadvertently, to his dear “Lolo José” (José Rizal; ‘lolo’ is grandfather in many Philippines languages) who, in his farewell poem written days before his execution, wished of his ashes to form a carpet (alfombra) on which the Filipino nation would stand.

Given his own penchant for comparison, comparing Benedict Anderson is a way to honor his memory and methodology. To do so, one might say, is to give him a dose of his own intellectual medicine, which I think he would welcome, if not find amusing. At any rate, because he has roots in Ireland (he held an Irish passport), it is tempting to see his similarities with Irish modernist writers such as James Joyce, who likewise led an itinerant life. Joyce settled in and made frequent trips to Zurich, and taught English language lessons in Pola and Trieste, which were then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (2). Joyce also spent time in Paris, where his novels, Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, were published in 1922 and 1939, respectively. And when the Nazis occupied France in 1940, he fled back to Switzerland (O’Brien 1999). Joyce died in Zurich on 13 January 1941, less than five years after Benedict Anderson was born.

Despite differences, there is much in the Joyce-Anderson comparison that many Filipinos—who live, work, or study abroad while maintaining ties with their homeland—can identify with. It’s been said that leaving Ireland is a native Irish tradition (Eagleton 1999, 105), just as emigration is for Filipinos, whose government has brokered many of its citizens for overseas employment (Rodriguez 2010). And just as the city of Dublin haunted the writings of James Joyce, from Dubliners to Ulysses, so does the nation—in all its spectres and complexities—pervade the scholarship of Benedict Anderson and many Filipino academics…..

This is a slightly revised version of an essay that appears in Asian Studies: Journal of Critical Perspectives on Asia 52:1 [2016], in which I said, wrongly, that Ben Anderson’s ashes were scattered across the Java Sea. The essay has been revised — specifically the third paragraph from the bottom — to reflect and account for this. 

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