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Imagining Ben Anderson


Augusto Espiritu teaches history and Asian American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of Five Faces of Exile: The Nation and Filipino American Intellectuals and co-editor of Filipino Studies: Palimpsests of Nation and Diaspora. He also edits Brill’s series Southeast Asian Diasporas in the Americas.


Benedict Anderson was a giant in the human sciences and I am both honored and daunted by the task of contributing some reflections about him. I am reminded of something Victor Turner said about systems, which now seems strangely apropos: “the culture of any society at any moment,” said Turner, “is more like the debris, or ‘fall-out,’ of past ideological systems, than it is itself a system, a coherent whole.”[i] In the wake of Anderson’s passing, I suspect that we (his intellectual inheritors) shall be living with “the debris,” the “fall-out,”—the specters, as Jacques Derrida might say—of all that he has contributed to this unstable field of knowledge. I take comfort in the fact that it will take some time to comprehend Anderson’s life, work, and activism. And so I offer these fragmentary, fleeting thoughts towards the realization of that future project. While I am no Anderson expert, what I have discovered in writing these reflections is that throughout my entire intellectual life, I have been inspired and engaged by him. It has been a critical engagement, but an engagement nonetheless, an ongoing conversation, even if I have only imagined it. I am not unique in this, but this is perhaps the highest tribute I can give him.


I have no special relationship to Anderson. As an undergraduate, I saw him speak once at UCLA. I don’t recall anymore what the topic was. I just remember a dry presentation by a tall, elderly white man, though he impressed me as being extremely knowledgeable. No doubt I was more interested in the quotidian struggles I was going through as an activist—affirmative action, ethnic studies, boycotting grapes, ending martial law in the Philippines, or divesting from South Africa—to appreciate his wisdom. To my regret, I did not come up after his talk to shake his hand or to introduce myself, as that was the only time I ever came face to face with him.


Like so many scholars, my acquaintance with Anderson came through Imagined Communities.[ii] It was in 1991, while taking Michael Salman’s “History of the Philippines” class that I encountered him. He will forever be associated in my mind with his former students—Reynaldo Ileto and Vicente Rafael—to whom Michael had also introduced us. At that time, I was in my second semester of the master’s program in Asian American studies at UCLA. I would encounter the book again as a doctoral student in history. My cohort of scholars in U.S. history—Ned Blackhawk, Bob Myers, Jaime Cardenas, Arleen de Vera, Joan Johnson, and Anthony Macias—was exposed to his ideas. For several of us doing work in Philippine and Filipino American studies, working with Michael Salman for our dissertations, Anderson had a special importance—Arleen de Vera, Catherine Ceniza Choy, and myself. Having spent some of his most fruitful years as a scholar of Indonesia and as a notable participant in its history in the 1960s and 70s, Anderson had turned his sights to other Southeast Asian countries, especially for us, the Philippines, as evidenced by his long sections on Jose Rizal, the Philippine national hero, martyr, novelist, and intellectual par excellence. I suspect this phase was what concerned us most of all. I confess that to this day, with the exception of a scintillating article on power in Java, which helped to inspire Reynaldo Ileto’s landmark study of Philippine popular movements under Spanish and American rule,[iii] much of Anderson’s writings on Indonesia remain, for me, terra incognita.


For my dissertation, I decided to do research at the Carlos Bulosan Papers at the University of Washington Archives, something that was de rigeur for all scholars of this worker-intellectual. Bulosan (1911–1956) was a giant of Asian American studies and labor history. I was asked to enter my name on the sign-in sheet and, lo and behold, I saw the name before mine: “Benedict Anderson.” I had to do a second take. Was this the “Benedict Anderson”? What was he doing here? At that time, I had become a fan after having done a fuller reading of Imagined Communities as well as another essay in Southeast Asian studies appraising the role of the vernacular in the work of Reynaldo Ileto, as well as a few essays praising and employing the very acts of imagining the nation Anderson described in the book, and examining the development of print capitalism in other arenas. A shudder went through me: had he taken an interest in Bulosan? What would be left for me to say about him for my dissertation after he is done with Bulosan? The very insecurities I would later find in my doctoral students I experienced then—the fear that another scholar was going to beat you to your archive and publish the work you wanted to publish. After a few moments, I calmed down. Having seen the vastness of the archive, I took comfort in the fact that readers brought their unique perspectives to a text; that the context in which one reads a text also changes depending upon the circumstances; and that a rich text such as Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart could yield (and will continue to yield) a number of potentially fruitful interpretations. And how could Anderson possibly be looking at Bulosan from my standpoint, in the context of patronage, performativity, colonialism, and transnationalism through which I was re-examining Filipino American intellectuals? As it turns out, there was nothing for me to fear. He was after a different quarry altogether—something the traditional historian in us loves—the discovery of a new source. With the Philippine scholar, Caroline Hau, he was working on a hitherto unpublished novel of Bulosan, which was later published in the Philippines as All the Conspirators.[iv]


When I first started at the University of Illinois, one of the first courses I taught was a U.S. immigration history course called “Immigrant America.” It is uncanny how the ways of thinking that Anderson was developing in Imagined Communities apply to the U.S. immigration context. One set of reflections has to do with the conditions that give rise to ethnic or immigrant ethnic consciousness—the transition of archaic forms of life to industrial modernity, the rise of print capitalism, the ways ethnic nationalism embodied new forms of solidarity that religion once assumed (although, as we have come to understand better, in ways that did not eliminate religion), and the rise of an intellectual class whose pre-nationalist bureaucratic movements already marked out the geographic spaces for the rise of ethnic nationalism.[v] A second set of reflections involves the importance of exile in the construction of nationalism, what Anderson later calls “long-distance nationalism,” something which gives teeth to the notion of transnationalism in migration studies today. And indeed, Anderson helps us to move from a notion of immigration to migration. And finally, a third set of reflections brings us back to the usefulness of thinking about migrants either as pilgrims or outsiders in a ritual process (rites de passage)—from separation to limen to reaggregation or reintegration. The traditional story of migration has been told as an “uprooting,” to paraphrase Oscar Handlin, a “separation” in Victor Turner’s phrase, which simultaneously leads to a threshold moment. The critical difference between the less teleological conception of migration today and that of Handlin’s is that scholars are just as likely to see the “reaggregation” of migrants back to their homelands as they are to the assimilationist assumptions of Handlin and of immigration history of the consensus era. The qualification, I realize, has to be that these ritual processes not be seen in a rigid way, but through a lens open to the possibilities of failure, that is to say, the failure to adjust, or maladjust, to one’s chosen adopted country, as Edward Said would say.

V. Anderson’s chutzpah.

In a recent interview, Anderson had this to say about his work on Imagined Communities:

“Fools step in where angels fear to tread. In fact, I have always been surprised how little severe criticism I ever got about IC [Imagined Communities]. One reason must have been the fact that I didn’t concentrate on any one country or region, so the scale of the theory was supermacro. Basically it was also very simple: technology + capitalism + Tower of Babel = nationalism! Hahahaha! Mistakes: I am sure there were and are heaps of them. But what theory does, if it is any good, is to push readers to think about the world in a new way, especially to abandon fossilized ideas and unmask fantasies and legends, for which each nationalism has plenty to answer.”[vi]

While Anderson opined this about Imagined Communities, the quote might just as well be applied to his terribly ambitious work, Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination. His goal was to trace early globalization to the late nineteenth century rather than to the late twentieth century (as do David Harvey and Arjun Appadurai), describing  an era of flexible capital, the division of productive processes into several different global sites, ethnoscapes, and technoscapes.[vii]

The chutzpah of Under Three Flags!!! Like so many scholars, myself included, after the 1898 Centennial commemorations, many were in search of the connective links between the Caribbean and the Philippines and the United States and Spain. Anderson pushed this as far as it could go, for in truth, there were few substantial linkages especially among anticolonialists from the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, and so such a transnational anticolonial political alliance against Spain and against the United States has thus far been more prominent as a problem in the critical literature than a reality.[viii] But Anderson pushes these tenuous threads as far as they could go—he discovers a far wider global conspiratorial network in anarchism, which throws up a new cast of characters or leads us to an appreciation of old actors in a new light, from the Philippines (Isabelo de los Reyes, Jose Rizal), Cuba (Tárrida del Mármol), Puerto Rico (Ramón Emeterio Betances), and China (Colonel Pawa, Sun Yat-sen), in addition to the Russian, Spanish, French, and Italian anarchists with whom they somehow made connection. The centerpiece of this book is Jose Rizal’s novel, El filibusterismo,[ix] which has a terrorist plot at its center (a bomb in the shape of a pomegranate to be exploded at a party bringing together the colonial elite under Spanish rule) and shows the influencesof anarchism, romanticism, spiritism, and other European ideological influences that could have been imagined by a “young” and exceptional Filipino intellectual and polyglot and polymath from the Spanish colonial tropics. It is a fantastic tale! One that will not leave one looking for a narrative of satisfying beginnings, middles, and endings happy. But that is precisely the point—the book mirrors the transnationalism and the early globalization it seeks to explain, with its simultaneous developments, its conjunctures, its disjunctures and divergences, its expansive, worldly, coalitional, pan-national, and pan-ethnic beginnings. The book is a marvelous performance—it is about as close to a postmodern history text I’ve read and one that reminds me of Jessica Hagedorn’s novel of the martial law era in the Philippines, Dogeaters (1990) in its imagining of multiple events occurring at the same time and its postmodern emplotment of events.[x]

VI. Long-distance nationalism.

In 2008, I presented a paper to the Asian American Studies Conference at a panel on Asian American transnationalism that Pei-te Lien and Christian Collett had coordinated. So again, I became reacquainted with Anderson, this time taking in his concept of long-distance nationalism, which had appeared in his book, The Spectre of Comparisons.[xi] Anderson provided for me, as for many in the emerging field of transnationalism, a historical framework from which to ground contemporary research in transnationalism—in my case, the radical activists of the anti-Marcos dictatorship struggle who had made the “journeys of discovery and difference” to the Philippines that sowed the seeds for the People Power Revolution of 1986.[xii] Anderson seemed to approve of such transnational movements during those eras of creole nationalism, official nationalism, and the “last wave” of decolonizing nationalism he had described in Imagined Communities. But for Anderson, transnational movements after these post-nationalist eras were no longer to be celebrated or regarded with optimism. Anderson was quite understandably fearful of overseas right-wing movements like Hindutva and others that could claim the mantle of nationalism in their home countries from afar without any accountability to their homelands for their actions.  However, I found this view of transnational social movements unduly pessimistic, especially for the movement I was studying, the anti-Marcos campaign in the United States. I situated this movement in a different context perhaps than Anderson, in the many long-distance movements to expand democratic rights in American history, from the Underground Railroad to Irish nationalism to campaigns against Jewish persecution in Russia and later Germany. Yes, even in U.S. history, there had been transnational movements similar to Hindutva, just as much as there were for German Nazism and Italian fascism in the United States in the interwar years. That should not, however, lead to framing all movements in such a negative light, however pressing the concerns of this moment of globalization.


Many have already critiqued the more positivistic part of Anderson’s Imagined Communities, including Partha Chatterjee, who questioned Anderson’s claim to the modularity of nationalism, which grants too much to Europe for the national visions of Indians and other non-Westerners.[xiii] Still, I think Anderson’s re-localization of nationalism, from political ideology to cultural “artefact” (as a site of “horizontal comradeship,” in his memorable phrase) will be of permanent value. It will be, I think, a permanent contribution to the critical literature on the subject, even as studies of national imagining have morphed into studies of transnational, global, planetary, and cosmic imaginings and solidarities that seem to exceed the nation.

I am finishing my book—a comparative intellectual history of race, gender, and national identity across the U.S. insular empire, and of the particular imaginary of Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Filipino Hispanists.[xiv] No, I did not start out writing the book with Anderson in mind. I realize now though that perhaps, in some subconscious way, it is a response to Anderson’s challenges throughout the years, his provocation to be daring, to be foolish enough to go where angels fear to tread. Certainly with such a lively mind having graced our world, fearlessly setting off conceptual explosions in whatever he touched, we have been all the better for the encounter.


[i] Turner was quoting his colleague, Harold Rosenberg, the art critic, who had often argued this point. Victor Turner, Dramas, Fields and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974), 14.

[ii] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 1983, 1991).

[iii] Benedict Anderson, “The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture,” in Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990); Reynaldo Ileto, Pasyon and Revolution: Popular Movements in the Philippines, 1840-1910 (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1979).

[iv] Carlos Bulosan, All the Conspirators, introduced by Benedict Anderson and Caroline Hau (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2005). That same year, my book was published, Five Faces of Exile: The Nation and Filipino American Intellectuals (Stanford, CA: Stanford UniversityPress, 2005), with its second chapter “Suffering and Passion: Carlos Bulosan.”

[v] By the way, I once remember reading Nancy Cott’s Bonds of Womanhood: “Woman’s Sphere” in New England, 1780-1835, Second Edition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997) through the lens of Imagined Communities, just to see the applicability of his anthropological approach to the making of communities outside of national ones, and it maps onto the rise of feminism as a cultural community very well.

[vi] Benedict Anderson, quoted in Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Perspectives, Vol, 59, No. 1 (2011), p. 127.

[vii] David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1990); Arjun Appadurai, “Disjunctures and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,” Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 27-47.

[viii] See Javier Morillo Alicea, “Uncharted Landscapes of ‘Latin America’: The Philippines in the Spanish Imperial Archipelago,” Interpreting Spanish Colonialism: Empires, Nations, and Legends, ed. Christopher Schmidt-Nowara and John M. Nieto-Phillips (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2005), 25-53 and the intriguing essay by Julian Go, “Ilustrado Transnationalism: Cross-Colonial Fields and Filipino elites at the Turn of the Twentieth Century” on Filipino linkages with the Caribbean in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Filipino Studies: Palimpsests of Nation and Diaspora, ed. Martin Manalansan and Augusto Espiritu (New York: NYU Press, 2016), 128-150.

[ix] José Rizal, El filibusterismo: A Sequel to Noli Me Tangere, transl. Soledad Lacson Locsin (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2007). “El filibusterismo” means “subversion” in Spanish.

[x] Jessica Hagedorn, Dogeaters (New York: Penguin, 1991).

[xi] Benedict Anderson, “Long-Distance Nationalism,” The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World (New York: Verso, 1998), 58-76.

[xii] Augusto Espiritu, “Journeys of Discovery and Difference: Transnational Politics and the Union of Democratic Filipinos,” in The Transnational Politics of Asian Americans, ed. Christian Collett and Pei-te Lien, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009), 38-55.

[xiii] Partha Chatterjee, “Whose Imagined Community?,” Mapping the Nation, ed. Gopal Balakrishnan (New York: Verso, 1996), 214-225.

[xiv] Augusto Espiritu, “In Defense of Spain: The Politics of Race, Gender, and National Identity in the U.S. Insular Empire.” Mss. Work-in-Progress.