At the end of every year, a considerable amount of digital print is written concerning those notable individuals who shed their mortal coil in the previous twelve months. Material ranging from compilation playlists to quirky tributes and heartfelt retrospectives flood our search engines, and we read voraciously in hopes of saying goodbye, and learning something new on the way out. Myself included, as someone who just consumed testimonies to singer Natalie Cole’s history of health problems or former M*A*S*H star Wayne Rogers’ career renaissance as a Wall Street investor and involvement in an ongoing paternity suit. Indeed, you can argue that it’s only after death that those transcendent figures we think to know in life become their most transparent and luminescent to our gaze.
In the case of Benedict Anderson, who died quietly in Indonesia on December 13, I learned that his brother Perry was a longtime editor of the journal New Left Review.
Anderson wasn’t a person who would have made any of the mainstream lists to which I allude. In fact, most people outside of academic circles would have little cause to know who Anderson was or his broader importance. Those of us who spent any time in graduate seminars in the humanities and social sciences, however, know him as the man who wrote the book influencing the modern intellectual discourse on the phenomenon of nationalism.
Anderson was already a well-known professor in the Department of Government at Cornell and influential scholar of Indonesian culture and politics when Imagined Communities was first published in 1983. At that point, the concept of nationalism was considered by many to be an analytical relic stemming from Enlightenment conceptualizations of nations based in language (via Jean-Jacques Rousseau) or volksgeist (via Johann Gottfried Herder). In the wake of the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, academic interest in nationalist ideologies once again became relevant, and Anderson’s work became indispensible in framing this concept in the age of a creeping global consciousness. His poignant argument about nationhood, gleaned from his intimate knowledge of the complex social and political structuring of the modern Indonesian nation-state, was as a modular construction. Vast, beyond the direct experience of its inhabitants, but also limited to a number less than the entire population of mankind. Within this space, he argued, lay the uniquely modern phenomenon of print capitalism to draw disparate groups of people together in ways impossible in premodern epochs. The nation, Anderson thought, was not a wellspring, but a series of cultural practice put into action by agents.
(My apologies for the crackerjack box analysis. I do limit myself to 1,000 words per post!)
But I’m not here to wax nostalgic about Imagined Communities, or reiterate its importance in the wake of Anderson’s death. Rather, I want to draw attention to another of Anderson’s works – less well-known, less methodologically influential, yet has proven to have been far more influential on my own work and research interests than its more famous predecessor.
I first read Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination (Verso, 2005) as part of a graduate anthropology seminar on postcoloniality. Immediately, I was taken by both the global historical scope of the project coupled with its intimate portraits of the protagonists. “This book,” Anderson states in the introduction, “is an experiment in what Melville might have called political astronomy. It attempts to map the gravitational force of anarchism between militant nationalisms on opposite sides of the planet.” True to his thesis of print culture drawing disparate and disengaged people together into networks of belonging, Anderson traces how the anarchist playbook crafted by figures like Michael Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin began to influence a generation of nationalist radicals populating the embers of the Spanish colonial world. Figures like José Martí in Cuba and José Rizal in The Philippines are weaved into a complex narrative showing the ways in which national and transnational ideological movements become intertwined in various ways. In essence, it provides a thematic variation of the thesis established in his earlier work.
What I like most about Under Three Flags, though, is that its weaved cosmology feels as messy and intimate as the world – the late nineteenth century – that it portrays. As noted by Victor van Bijlert in his 2007 review of the book, Anderson doesn’t so much outline a broader movement of political consciousness reflecting the influence of anarchism as chart a different way of thinking about the political biographies of certain figures central to Filipino nationalism in the late nineteenth century – Rizal, Isabelo de los Reyes, and Mariano Ponce. The gravitational force of anarchism may not represent a profound effect in the grand scheme, but it’s a detail that once unearthed gives an enriched understanding of the political world in which these figures lived. Coherence of narrative is traded for a thickness of experiential understanding.
This desire to unfold the thick, undercharted aspects of cultural practice is what drew me to the book, and what has so profoundly influenced my own work. In many ways, Under Three Flags seems to be an experiment in what Nicholas Mathew and Mary Ann Smart call quirk historicism, where “the historical micronarratives that once obediently fell into contextual patterns or acted as isolated anecdotes have staged a kind of mutiny, multiplying in service of a narrative logic that overwhelms and even supplants any larger critical goals” (2015:62). Anderson’s quirk lay in this desire to thread together a different, global cosmology through the power of the printed word. This has certainly stood as a lesson to me, as I seek to navigate my own desires for the quirk of rethinking the historical relationship between sculpture and music through statues that make sounds.
As I recall, the book was not well received by the rest of the class precisely because of its status as quirk. Knowing the impact of Imagined Communities and in the wake of reading other methodologically influential works like Arjun Appadurai’s Modernity At Large, I think they were somewhat let down by what they saw as an overly ambitious and elaborate pet project. So it was with many of the critical evaluations of the book upon its release, but I’m happy to note that it’s gained something of a cult following amongst political historians in recent years.
Anderson may not have been the first to embrace the power of quirk (the übertext of this will always be Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project). But his quirk was the first that I encountered, and it changed the way I approached research and writing in ways I’m only now starting to appreciate. When I cracked open my copy yesterday to read through the introduction once again for the first time in several years, my first thought mirrored that which I had ten years ago: political astronomy…damn straight.
Godspeed, Dr. Anderson, and thanks for the memories.
Nicholas Mathew and Mary Ann Smart, “Elephants in the Music Room: The Future of Quirk Historicism,” Representations 132 (2015): 61-78.