U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On Benedict Anderson’s Passing

As you probably already know by now, famed scholar Benedict Anderson died this morning in Indonesia. His impact on scholars across the humanities and social sciences was apparent from the outpouring of grief over his passing last night, and this morning, on Twitter and Facebook. I can tell you that his book Imagined Communities has had an impact on my work in a variety of ways.

My training in journalism history was my first exposure to Anderson’s book on the ways in which nationalism can be crafted. Imagined Communities stands out because it causes anyone reading it to think harder about the assumptions he or she makes about their sense of national pride and belonging. It has been an indispensable work and, already, much has been written about Imagined Communities since its release in 1983. benedict andersonBut we should not just remember Anderson for this book. As important as Imagined Communities has been (and will continue to be) to scholars everywhere, his overall body of work is impressive.

Anderson’s book Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination (2005) offers an incisive look at the links between anarchism and Filipino independence movements in the early 20th century. His writings on Indonesia, such as this piece in New Left Review from 2008, illustrate both a passion for a country that was his final resting place, and a concern about the aftershocks of that nation’s troubled Cold War history. And the way in which Anderson affected others with his work is remarkable—just consider this story from Dissent magazine in 2013 about the impact Imagined Communities had on a member of the Kurdish Workers’ Party.

Do not, of course, take my word on Anderson’s influence. Make sure to read the obituary in the New York Times, and also Corey Robin’s reflections on Anderson’s life and career. It has certainly been a difficult year for deaths in the academy. And it is especially unfortunate that Anderson was unable to live long enough to see the reactions to his memoir, due out in the summer of 2016. Let us all pause and reflect on why Anderson matters to us so much. We would also do well to use his work to think about not just the past, but also the present—an age in which nationalism (along with other –isms) is making a comeback. Certainly, we no longer live during “the end of history.” Instead, human beings live as we have for a long, long time—torn apart by imagined communities and identities, struggling to create something new for the sake of our shared (whether we like it or not) futures.