If Anderson had a homeland, it was Indonesia, which he threw his whole heart and mind into not just studying, but also emotionally inhabiting. (Jeet Heer, New Republic)
Benedict Anderson, just two days before his death, discussing his newest book, Di Bawah Tiga Bendera (Under the Three Flags) at the University of Indonesia.(Photo from Twitter)
Benedict Anderson, a Marxist and anti-colonialist scholar, one of the most influential voices in the fields of nationalism died on 13 December 2015 in East Java, Indonesia, in his sleep during a visit to the city of Malang. He was 79. Thai historian Charnvit Kasetsiri, Anderson’s close friend and colleague, said in an email to fellow scholars: “This is to inform you that Ben Anderson has passed away in Java: the land and its people he loves most,”. Indonesians reacted with an outpouring of tributes on Twitter and Facebook.
Born to Anglo-Irish parents in 1936 in Kunming, China, Benedict Richard O’Gorman Anderson grew up in California and was educated at Cambridge and Cornell, where he studied Southeast Asian politics. His early specialization in Indonesia turned out to be both a trial and a blessing. A very detailed and thorough critical analysis of Indonesia’s bloody 1965 coup by Suharto that he wrote, as a graduate student in Cornell University, with fellow scholar Ruth McVey led to him being banned from the country, in 1972, for the duration of Suharto regime. As a result, Anderson became an exile from the country he made his own. He would return to Indonesia 27 years after, only in 1998, after the overthrow of the Suharto regime.
In an article in the magazine Lingua Franca, the journalist Scott Sherman described Anderson’s return to Indonesia:
“at a luxury hotel in downtown Jakarta, the sixty-two-year-old Anderson, wearing a light shirt and slacks to combat the stifling heat, faced a tense, expectant audience of three hundred generals, senior journalists, elderly professors, former students, and curiosity seekers. In fluent Indonesian, he lashed the political opposition for its timidity and historical amnesia—especially with regard to the massacres of 1965-1966.”
Anderson published more than 250 articles in academic journals and authored books including, Java in a Time of Revolution(1972); In the Mirror: Literature and Politics in Siam in the American Era (1985); Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia (1991); and Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anticolonial Imagination (2005).
Anderson’s most famous work, Imagined Communities, arose from the predicament of Indonesian history. How do distinct nations like Indonesia, made up of many languages, religions and ethnicities, hold together? Why do they occasionally fall apart? What prevents people in nations from killing each other and what leads to conditions that national cohesion sometime collapse? These were born out of Anderson’s long-standing involvement in Indonesian history. The book is now considered by all experts by far the most influential study of nationalism, and was translated into over two dozen languages.
“I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community-and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion…. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined…. Finally, [the nation] is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately, it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willing to die for such limited imaginings.” (Imagined Communities, 2006 Verso edition, p.6)