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Benedict Anderson (1936-2015): a Scholar of Nationalism and a Doyen of Southeast Asian Studies

Since Benedict Anderson passed away on December 13, 2015, I searched, collected, and read the many obituaries written both in English and Indonesian about the brilliant scholar. With each new piece, I learned a little bit more about Ben Anderson’s fascinating life and uncovered additional pieces of his scholarship. Up to now I have collected 29 obituaries and found one website containing 34 short essays remembering Benedict Anderson. Cornell Southeast Asia Program dedicates a website of Ben Anderson’s online “Memorials.” Never have I seen these many homages accorded to a passing scholar, all of which are fitting tributes.

To those who have gotten to know him, this should not be a surprise. Ben Anderson was a down-to-earth, easygoing, highly approachable, light-hearted, and amicable person. As a teacher and dissertation advisor, many of his former advisees attest that he was generous with his mentorship, taking the time to read thoroughly, carefully, and critically his students’ drafts.  As a scholar, perhaps Ramachandra Guha’s obituary published in The Telegraph on 15 December 2015 says it best when he describes Anderson as “the last of the polymath social scientists.”  His vast knowledge of the politics, history, and languages of Southeast Asia (and Europe) enabled him to read and synthesize many scholarships and produced highly influential original works. 

I was fortunate to have rubbed shoulder with the great scholar while I was completing my graduate training at Cornell University between 2007 and 2015. My first “encounter” with him (as is the case with many people) was through his well-known book Imagined Communities Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (2006). It took place serendipitously in the fourth floor of the Olin Library. One day in the fall of 2007, while browsing the course reserves for a seminar I was taking at the time, I saw a copy of Anderson’s book in a political science course. I had heard about his book in passing before but hadn’t really read it. Curious, I picked it up, read the the introduction, and decided to order a copy online.  Three years later it made it into a list of my required reading for my PhD candidacy examination (A-exam).  My graduate training was in Science and Technology Studies (STS), a field that is hardly mentioned in any of the previous Ben Anderson’s obituaries.  It is a testament of how influential his book had become that even people in a less-known and strangely-sounding discipline read and discussed his book. In a word, Ben Anderson was a remarkable intellect, a polymath who was not (and could not be) confined into just one discipline. Lawrence Chua, one of his former advisees who studied and now teaches history of architecture and urban development, remarks that his advisor’s knowledge was “finely attuned to the discipline” and “not just the remote, amateur interests of a political scientist.”    

My real first encounter with Om Ben (as Indonesians affectionately called him and variously written as Oom Ben or Omben) was when he delivered a keynote address titled “Cosmopolitanism from Below: Late Colonial Java and After” at the eleventh annual Southeast Asia Studies Graduate Students Conference in October 2008, the first time I participated in that conference. Typically, the conference is held during the spring semester, but to accommodate Om Ben’s presence in Ithaca before he leaves for his “winter” home in Southeast Asia, the conference organizers changed the schedule that academic year. For a celebrity scholar, Om Ben’s appearance when he delivered his keynote address was far from what I imagined. Dressed in poncho and devoid of self-importance, he reminisced his time doing fieldwork in Indonesia in the 1960s. A friend of mine who attended the lecture commented later to me how he could see the seeds of Anderson’s idea about nationalism from his time there.

Subsequent encounters took place in a more intimate setting in the kitchen of his house in Freeville, NY where he generally hosted several Indonesian graduate students for lengthy conversations on many topics including nationalism, reading culture, Indonesian politics, and more. Sometimes I would catch and speak with him briefly either at the Kahin Center or at another place on the Cornell campus. One moment was etched memorably in my mind. It was the evening of October 25, 2012. Om Ben was about to deliver the ninth Frank H. Golay Lecture titled “Letters, Secrecy, and the Information Age: The Trajectory of Historiography in Southeast Asia.” Before the start of the lecture, I caught up with Om Ben to lament my struggle in completing my dissertation because I was being consumed with my teaching role that semester. He advised me to patiently develop both teaching and research skills simultaneously to become a good scholar. Focusing solely on research he told me would not serve me well. I nodded and thanked him. Ever since that time I have been seriously trying to integrate my teaching and research. The prize is the rewarding feeling I get doing both. Om Ben’s advice proved valuable. Terima kasih banyak, Om Ben.

Om Ben left many important works and his scholarship have been praised to be original and thought-provoking, debated and discussed by many students and scholars in a variety of different fields (for example, see the UC Berkeley Center for Southeast Asia Studies’s reminiscences of Om Ben).  His book Java in a Time of Revolution (1972), which was based on his dissertation research, offers a different perspective from that of his mentor and teacher George Kahin.  His thesis that the Indonesian pemuda (youth) played a prominent role in the Indonesian revolution stands in mark contrast to George Kahin’s study who examined it mainly from the standpoint of the country’s political leaders. In his long academic career, Om Ben wrote and published a number highly-regarded books (including his influential thesis on nationalism) and countless articles published in the journals New Left Review and Indonesia, among other publications. Om Ben founded the latter in 1961 and helped make it into a respectable journal devoted into the study of Indonesia's culture and society from multi disciplinary perspectives.

Om Ben’s works and writings have also influenced my thinking and research.  My dissertation research, for example, explored national identity and technology in Indonesia and Om Ben’s book was a source of inspiration. His other writings, equally insightful and elegantly written, have made me critically think not just about nationalism, power, Indonesia’s history, but also other diverse topics such as militarism, literature, letters, libraries, films, books, and languages.

His ideas about books, for example, struck a lasting impression in my mind. In a 2010 keynote address at the Nippon Foundation, Om Ben wrote, “Good books can be read many times over and can survive, reanimated, over very long periods. … They allow space for everything that is complicated and complex. They are read privately in a person’s mind. And they have no specified-in-advance readers, anyone can learn from them.” Om Ben had advised (and urged) me to put down my thoughts to paper in a form of a book to ensure the passing down of knowledge to posterity occurs more enduringly than merely writing short articles in newspapers as many Indonesian academics prefer to do.

He also stressed that having access to a good library is vital to producing good books. Of his book Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia (1990), he once told me that most of the sources he used are housed in the Cornell University library’s John M. Echols Collection. The vast library holding on Southeast Asian publications enabled Om Ben to write insightful analysis on the idea of power in Javanese culture without having set foot in Java (Om ben was banned to enter Indonesia by the “New Order” regime between 1971 and 1998 for his “Cornell Paper” that challenged the founding legitimacy of the Soeharto government.)

Similarly, his analysis on languages and his remarkable command of multiple languages fascinate me. Understanding a foreign language was not just about being able to speak the tongue or to gain access to texts written in the language. It was much more than that. To Om Ben, mastering a language meant opening up another worldview.

With Indonesian, I observed that Om Ben managed to internalize his understanding of the Indonesian culture so effectively that he was not only able to speak the language, but also to think and act like a typical idiosyncratic Indonesian. Whenever we talked, it was as if having a discussion with a fellow Indonesian. He would sprinkle his conversations using Indonesian neologism and poke fun of many people and institutions in such a humorous way that only Indonesians could truly appreciate (or be offended by) . This made him highly relatable with many of his Indonesian friends.

His impressive command of Bahasa Indonesia was one of the reasons why Om Ben lived a way of life that did not fit a typical celebrity scholar. Despite his prominence, he was not arrogant. As a matter a fact, I think he embodied an Indonesia adage “ilmu padi semakin berisi semakin merunduk,” which loosely translated means “the more knowledge you have the humbler you become, just as a paddy plant when filled with rice bends down.” Anderson’s influential intellectual contributions and a great name-recognition did not fill his head with vanity.

Another good example of Om Ben’s deep understanding and embodiment of the Indonesian language is the English title of his upcoming autobiography A Life Beyond Boundaries: A Memoir.  At face value the title seems innocent enough, aptly captures a life this cosmopolitan intellectual who was born in China, educated in England and the U.S. and became a distinct scholar of Southeast Asian studies and world traveler. But it is actually deeper than that.

In a tribute of Om Ben during his memorial service, Professor emeritus Tsuyoshi Kato mentioned that the title of the Anderson’s autobiography (a book Anderson didn’t really want to do had his Japanese friend not requested it be completed), is actually a response to a well-known Indonesian proverb. The adage “seperti katak dalam tempurung” literally means “just like a frog inside a coconut shell.” But loosely translated it can mean a person with limited horizon and knowledge defined by the boundary of his village or country.  In fact, the book cover illustration shows a frog jumping high out of an opened half coconut shell.  It is no coincidence that Om Ben picked this title. But beyond merely conveying that his was a life blessed with no confining boundaries, I think subtly (as a Javanese would do) Om Ben also wanted to urge many people (Indonesians especially) to get out of their coconut shells!

Om Ben would understand the phrase that many of his Indonesian-speaking friends use to bid him farewell is “have a safe journey” (“selamat jalan”) instead of “Rest in Peace” (R.I.P.) as many English-speakers would say. Many Indonesians believe that a person’s passing is the beginning of another journey in the afterlife. It is therefore comforting to learn that Om Ben died while he was having a journey in a country he studied most, critically examined, and dearly loved for this seems to be a prelude for his next journey. 

Selamat jalan, Om Ben. You will be greatly missed.

Anto Mohsin

Doha, March 16, 2016