Benedict Anderson: An Appreciation

By Timothy G. McMahon

Late in 2015 saw the passing of Benedict Anderson, Aaron L. Binenkorb Professor Emeritus of International Studies, Government & Asian Studies at Cornell University. His book Imagined Communities (first published in 1983) is a staple in discussions of nations and nationalism, subjects that are at the heart of much of my research, and I have been wrestling with his ideas for more than two decades now and inviting my students to join that struggle too. Indeed, just before Anderson’s death, my graduate readings course debated and wrote papers on the method and implications of his adaptations of Walter Benjamin’s ideas.

Had Andandersonerson (1936-2015) never written IC, however, it is likely that I would have encountered him (or at least his father) at some point in my research into Irish actors in the British Empire. The elder Anderson, you see, was an Anglo-Irishman whose career took him to China, where he worked for the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service, which had been overseen by another Irishman, Sir Robert Hart, from the 1860s through the first decade of the twentieth century. Hart’s voluminous papers are vital source material for scholars of nineteenth-century China, but (as I hope to show in the near future), they are also important records of Irish engagement with the world beyond the United Kingdom. Hart famously recruited European agents to oversee his Chinese staff—the majority of whom came from Ireland and Britain—and among the many traits he required of his subordinates was a facility with Mandarin and a respect for indigenous customs. Facility with languages beyond English seems to have passed through the generations in the Anderson family, as an appreciative piece in the New Republic noted over the weekend. Benedict alone could read Dutch, German, Spanish Russian, and French and was fully conversant in Indonesian, Javanese, Tagalog, and Thai, though he claimed in the 2006 edition of IC that English and Indonesian were the only two languages in which he felt truly at home.

That comment came near the end of the Afterword that Anderson included in the 2006 edition, which might seem at first blush a self-serving 22-page homage to how widely known IC had become since it first appeared. But I choose to read these pages, and particularly its concluding sentence, as a call to the rest of us to pick up the baton where Anderson left it. What is, after all, the intent of scholarship? It is to seek out new knowledge, both for its own sake and for the sake of informing wider audiences, whether in the classroom or the public sphere beyond the university. Too often these days we hear universities and faculties portrayed as out of touch with the “real world” and in need of a reminder of their duty to their students—a charge that I find laughable when not offensive given the work I know colleagues put into their careers. It is difficult to envision someone more engaged in the real world than Anderson, whose wider career looked deeply at southeast Asia and especially at Indonesia, deeply enough in fact that he was banned from Indonesia for several decades after his work had exposed some of the worst atrocities of the Suharto regime.

In no way am I suggesting that all of us—or even a high percentage of us—would ever have that kind of impact, but in his recognition that translations of IC had subtly changed its meaning for different audiences (“IC is not my book anymore,” he once wrote), Anderson offers the most generous piece of advice to scholars and students that one possibly can.1 It is that what we are all really involved in is a prolonged conversation, a game of telephone, in which our ideas become part of a stream of others’ ideas that, over time, helps us to perceive our world with greater clarity and, hopefully, to act accordingly. That is a vision I can imagine with a smile.

  1. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London and New York: Verso, 2006 rev. ed.), p. 229.

 

Tim McMahon is associate professor of history and Vice President of the American Conference of Irish Studies. He is the author of Grand Opportunity: The Gaelic Revival and Irish Society, 1893-1910 (Syracuse, 2008) and editor of the memoir Pádraig Ó Fathaigh’s War of Independence: Recollections of a Galway Gaelic Leaguer (Cork, 2000). He is currently writing a monograph tentatively entitled Éire Imperator: Ireland’s Imperial Ambivalence.

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