A Life Beyond Boundaries, by Benedict Anderson

Book of the week: Joanna Lewis on nationalism’s truest friend and the books that made him a world authority

June 2, 2016
Benedict Anderson speaking at lectern

In 1983, Benedict Anderson published Imagined Communities. The rest is history.

Admittedly, I’ve always wanted to write those words, but they could not be more applicable here. Anderson’s conceptualisation of the origins of nationalism became so well known and so widely used that I don’t think I’ve ever come across a student who has failed to mention “imagined communities” in at least one essay. The book established Anderson as a world authority in the field. It was reprinted in 1983, reissued with an additional chapter in 1991, and revised for a new edition in 2006. He was a pioneer in other ways, too. He became one of the world’s leading lights in area studies, and – unusually – his writing was read by those who were not interested or not specialists in that particular region. His other books include The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia and the World (1998); Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia (1990); and Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination (2005). He published extensively through his life, particularly on the history, culture and politics of Indonesia. General Suharto repaid him by expelling him from the country in 1972, and he remained banned until the downfall of Suharto’s regime in 1998.

A Life Beyond Boundaries is Anderson’s final book. Sadly, he died in December 2015, a few months after it was completed. This gentle intellectual memoir grew out of a suggestion that it would be useful for Japanese scholars to understand the social and cultural milieu of an Anglo-Saxon academic and writer. Embarrassed, Anderson refused at first. “Professors in the West”, he writes “rarely have interesting lives. Their values are objectivity, solemnity, formality and – at least officially – self-effacement.” How true. But, thankfully, he was persuaded. The result is a charming, insightful and short memoir that also brings his ideas and arguments up to the present day.

Benedict Richard O’Gorman Anderson was born on 26 August 1936 in Kunming, China. His father, from anticolonial Irish stock, typically adventurous and independent-minded, took the family back to Ireland via the US during the Second World War. His mother Veronica was extremely bright but suffered badly from anorexia. Both parents encouraged voracious reading and learning languages. As luck would have it – and luck features heavily in Anderson’s theory of individual success – he was made to learn Latin at school, composing poems in the language en route to the University of Cambridge via Eton.

He left university with what he calls “a useless first-class degree”, eventually making his way to Cornell University for his doctoral study. Cambridge shaped him, he claims, in only two ways: he went to the cinema a lot and he saw black students being physically attacked during the 1957 Suez Crisis. It was his childhood and upbringing that prepared him for a “cosmopolitan and comparative outlook on life”, he insists, also giving him “a useful feeling of being marginal”. Cornell became his home – he would remain there until his retirement in 2002 – and he eventually chose to research in Southeast Asian studies, a new field whose expansion in the US reflected its importance to strategic interests. Much of his academic career was spent living and working in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. He found Indonesia, because of its lack of class structure, “a kind of social heaven”.

Anderson was 47 when he published the groundbreaking Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Although its geographical scope was broad and comparative, it included much on the origins of the European nation state. Nations could be imagined or political communities created, he explained, because of the emergence of print capitalism. To maximise profits, Latin was ditched. Local vernaculars allowed more people to understand each other, enabling criticism by the majority of minority rule through divine right and hereditary monarchy. Thus, through the circulation of ideas, history and symbols, feelings of comradeship, fraternity and a belief in being part of the same communion fed powerful feelings of nationhood.

Fascinating to read in this memoir is Anderson’s explanation for how the book’s ideas and purpose emerged. He gives great credit to his “more intelligent” brother Perry, who was then working at the New Left Review. Anderson wanted his book to address the Eurocentrism in nationalism studies, to bring a Marxist interpretation to bear on world history, and to better explain the emotion behind an ideology with a huge “ability to make people willing to die for its sake”.

Very interesting, too, are Anderson’s reflections on academia. As one might expect, he is keen to stress the importance of area/comparative studies, and of learning languages. Today’s equivalent of Imagined Communities could not be written, he laments, because of the pressures on academics to specialise and to publish early. He had the freedom to read what he liked, when and where he liked. His relations with his institution seem to have been amicable, as, luckily for him, he was valued. But he nevertheless takes a swipe at general academic snobbery with respect to writing style; Imagined Communities was deliberately written in a popular style, rather than in a stiff, formal, rule-bound way. And academic arrogance is rightly rounded on. “It is easy enough”, he observes, to despise journalists, civil servants and corporate executives, but it is harder to recognise the narrowing effects of “the academic structures in which we are embedded”.

Elevating nationalism as a super-analytical category or positive driver of human behaviour has always had its critics. There is the porosity of the subject; the fact that one person’s nationalism is another person’s masculinised discourse; the risk of liberating connectivity slipping into narrow ethnic chauvinism; and the fact that romantic emotional attachment to a symbolic national project most famously and horribly morphed into fascism. But Anderson remains strong and true to his passionate belief in nationalism as a meaningful, relevant vehicle for understanding and humanising the modern world. In this memoir he eloquently reiterates its usefulness for understanding the particularity of European history over the longue durée (and perhaps the roots of today’s intolerant fundamentalism). “Because Europe, after Rome never experienced a single stable master, it remained an arena of conflict, cooperation, commerce and intellectual exchange between many medium-sized and small states”; the conditions, he maintains, that allowed for the birth of modern nationalism and nation states – “linguistic/ethnic nationalism, typically directed from below against despotic dynastic regimes”. Borrowing from the Creole nationalism of the Americas, it was also heavily influenced by European Romanticism – poets, novelists, painters, philosophers and so on – in drawing on feelings of emancipatory solidarity with others, aided by the rise of print capitalism.

Anderson’s romantic attachment to this form and formation of nationalism remains loyal to the end. In his afterword, he insists that today’s narrow nation-state projects and aggressive takeovers of nationalism to buttress state control arose from the way “many young nationalisms typically got married to grey-beard states” after the two world wars. This was then compounded by the collapse of socialism and left-wing international social democratic movements that, in his very positive view, had provided “a ‘global’ framework in which a progressive, emancipationist nationalism could flourish”. And for Anderson, the study of comparative countries’ history and nationalism through learning languages – the only means, he argues, of understanding how a people think and feel – can help to mitigate against narrow ethnic chauvinism, or “egotism and narcissism”, as he terms it. Moreover, he views a healthy dose of nationalism as essential in combating the negative effects of globalisation, and capable of putting the brakes on the hegemony of one power, idea or language.

Nationalism – or internationalism – never had a truer friend.

Joanna Lewis is assistant professor in the department of international history, London School of Economics.

A Life Beyond Boundaries
By Benedict Anderson
Verso, 224pp, £14.99
ISBN 9781784784560 and 4577 (e-book)
Published 12 May 2016

The language wall

An excerpt from Benedict Anderson’s A Life Beyond Boundaries.

When you start to live in a country whose language you understand barely or not at all, you are obviously not in a good position to think comparatively, because you have little access to the local culture. You feel linguistically deprived, lonely and even isolated, and you hunt around for some fellow nationals to stick with. You cannot avoid making comparisons, but these are likely to be superficial and naive. But then, if you are lucky, you cross the language wall, and find yourself in another world. You are like an explorer, and try to notice and think about everything in a way you would never do at home, where so much is taken for granted. You can no longer take your class position, your education, even your gender, for granted. What you will start to notice, if your ears and eyes are open, are the things you can’t see or hear. That is, you will begin to notice what is not there as well as what is there, just as you will become aware of what is unwritten as well as what is written. And this works both for the country you are living in and the one from which you came.

Often it starts with words. Indonesian, for example, has a special word, gurih, for the taste of rice (“deliciously pungent” according to one dictionary). If you come from England, you are then startled to realize that the taste of rice can’t be described with a designated English word. On the other hand, Indonesian has no word like the English “sepia” for the beautiful colour of old photographs. The same is true of concepts. Javanese has a word, longan, for the empty space under a chair or bed, which English does not.

Such a period of struggling with a new language is especially good for training oneself to be seriously comparative, because there is not yet any automatic lovely translation of foreign words into the language in your head. You gradually get to know enough to notice more, and yet you are still an outsider. If you then stay on long enough, things get taken for granted again, as they were back home, and you tend to be much less curious and observant than before. You start to say to yourself, for example, “I know Indonesia inside out.” The point being that good comparisons often come from the experience of strangeness and absences.

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Related universities


Print headline: A useful feeling of being marginal

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most Commented

Home secretary says government will support 'best' universities

Man handing microphone to audience member

Academic attainment of disadvantaged students can be improved if they can decide how they are assessed, study claims

Woman drinking tea from saucer

Plugging a multibillion-pound deficit exacerbated by June’s poll result may require ‘drastic measures’, analysts have warned

Italy's gold medallist

New measures to ensure universities are ‘not penalised’ for taking poorer students also outlined for next stage of TEF

Classroom, school

Higher education institutions can and should do more to influence education at a secondary school level, says Edward Peck