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.