Memorial Essay: Benedict Anderson
Publisher: Against the Current
Date Written: 01/09/2016
Year Published: 2016
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX21479
The reception of Imagined Communities took its author by surprise. Anderson was like a person who posts a home video online and then discovers the next morning that she is an international celebrity.
Imagined Communities came up in many of the classes I took in the 1990s. The book was meant, as its subtitle indicated, to be a set of "reflections" occassioned by events in Southeast Asia - Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia in late 1978, which ended the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, and China's invasion of Vietnam in early 1979, which punished Vietnam for its move against China's client state.
For Andrson, these wars between three socialist states were further confirmations that nationalism had trumped Marxism. Why, he wondered, was nationalism so powerful? Why, for instance, had communist parties always been formed along national lines?
Anderson's answers to these questions were unusual, as was the prose style in which he expressed them. Anderson's idol was the uncategorizable Walter Benjamin who was repeatedly cited, from the epigraphs to the last page.
Like Benjamin's work, the book displays impressive erudition while defying the protocols of academic disciplinarity. It seems to be a work of history: it moves chronologically through some five centuries. But one cannot imagine a professional historian daring to move so quickly and unpredictably over such a vast terrain.