Teaching Against The Grain
Benedict Anderson reflects on the modern nation-state as an imagined construct, the value of pedagogy and the nature of being human.
The young man seems to have completely forgotten himself in the frenzied act of dancing. His white shirt puffed up in the back, its tail end left to flutter freely in the wind. The scene suggests total self-abandon. A mysterious glaring halo zooms in from the top left of the image; the nameless dancer’s face is strategically shrouded in the shadow cast by his left arm. The right hand points downward, toward something beyond the camera’s lens—or again, there might not be any hidden deliberation behind the gesture. Across the top of the picture are some cropped-out paraphernalia, recognisable only by Thai nationals, and maybe by a few others who happen to know a thing or two about this country.
That is the cover personally chosen by Benedict Anderson for the Thai translation of his classic book, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. The latest rendition in the series, it is the 31st language since the book’s first appearance in 1983. (See The Riddle of Nationalism elsewhere on this site.)
“Usually I was not allowed to say anything about the cover except the first one, the original [depicting a group of Indonesian/Javanese aristocrats in Western dress]. But this time I said ‘Please, it might be the last one.’ I’d like to show that the world of art and the world of academia can meet. I asked Juey [nickname of Thailand’s avant-garde film director Apichatpong Weerasethakul] if he could help me and he said ‘Of course’.”
Anderson is clearly pleased with the undertaking by his film-maker buddy. The original shot of an intoxicated man on the back of a pick-up truck dancing to loud music at 3 o’clock in the afternoon has been morphed into a purposely darkened shot with that mysterious light from above . “The ‘indirect’ effect is much more subtle,” Anderson reckons. His eyes sparkle with a certain youthful relish as he describes at length the behind-the-scenes cover operation.
On reflection, such a show of earnestness is pretty reassuring. During the interview with ‘Outlook’, Anderson was warm, down-to-earth, even infectiously gossipy at times. His insight is still lucid—he shares his views on the threats of dictatorial leadership on the health of the society (and the ability of the people to think critically), the tragedy and farce of popular upheavals, the backwardness of Thai-styled nationalism—but it appears he does not seem to want to take it as seriously any more.
At 72, Anderson’s name commands high respect among Thai intellectuals (as it does elsewhere). Referred by his former students and associates in Thailand as Acharn Ben, the retired Cornell scholar has taught several generations of Thais and other Southeast Asians, a few of whom are presently high-profile heavyweights, at least in the academic sense. The recent Thai translation of Imagined Communities is a years-long project led by historian Charnvit Kasetsiri, who recruited a team of prominent translators and edited the book. (Anderson added he spent four full days with Charnvit in a coastal town going over the Thai manuscript line by line.)
A trail-blazing work in the 1980s, Imagined Communities challenges the preconception that accepts “the nation” as a given. Here, Anderson argues that the construct of an “imagined political community that is imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” has been a rather modern product (in the last two centuries), and yet has continually exerted a tremendous influence on the collective psyche. The sense of “deep, horizontal comradeship” among members of a so-called national community has transcended the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail there to the extent that millions of people have demonstrated their willingness “to die” for their father’s (or mother’s) land (and on numerous occasions, did). Considering the current spate of conflicts between and within a number of nation-states around the world, the seed of nationalism looks like it will remain a part of humanity for years to come.
Indeed, Anderson has made wry observations on a recent phenomenon, which he dubs as “Internet nationalism” and could be one of the most dangerous, he claims. Despite the long distance and time of settlement in the host country, a few diaspora communities have, he elaborated, grown to be more sentimentally attached to their original home country, and even become more parochial than their local counterparts. There are “funny” cases, he cited, ranging from leaders of an Irish community in New York who believed they were entitled to define what constituted true Irishness and what did not (such as being homosexual, ironically tolerated in Ireland itself), to a Canada-based Sikh businessman who was hooked to the Internet and sent money regularly to support a separatist movement to set up Khalistan ... and “people who live far away and send guns, money, information, who feel they are helping their home[land], but are in fact ignorant about reality.”
But otherwise, there is an uncanny modest sense of detachment between Anderson and his much-acclaimed work.
“It’s a boran [old] book; the context that gave birth to it were much different from nowadays. It’s very abstract—when you talk about the whole globe, you have to talk in a great abstract way—which is not what I normally do. It might be the one [book] that lasts the longest, but it’s not the one I am personally most fond of.
“I didn’t feel at all that it was going to be this big, mainly because I didn’t know anything at all about anything, apart from Southeast Asia. But I guess it [the subject] must have been on my mind because when I sat down to work, it actually took me only three months to write.
“Sometimes I had a strange feeling—do you ever feel that it was not you who did the writing, that something was coming through you? Sometimes I looked at what’s on the screen, and I was completely surprised, mai-chai-phom [that it wasn’t me].”
Underneath the dense amalgamation of information, Anderson’s background in Classicism and world history is certainly vast and profound; his Imagined Communities does read at times like a string of insights that go beyond the intellect. One such passage reveals his roguish perceptiveness, especially in little details:
“No more arresting emblems of the modern culture of nationalism exist than cenotaphs and tombs of Unknown Soldiers. The public ceremonial reverence accorded these monuments precisely because they are either deliberately empty or no one knows who lies inside them, has no true precedent in earlier times. To feel the force of this modernity one has only to imagine the general reaction to the busy-body who ‘discovered’ the Unknown Soldier’s name or insisted on filling the cenotaph with some real bones. Sacrilege of a strange, contemporary kind! Yet void as these tombs are of identifiable mortal remains or immortal souls, they are nonetheless saturated with ghostly national imaginings. (This is why so many different nations have such tombs without feeling any need to specify the nationality of their absent occupants. What else could they be but Germans, Americans, Argentinians ...?)”
In a way, it is thus not so surprising to learn of Anderson’s early aspiration.
“I wanted to be a person who wrote nawa-niyai [novels]. When I was a teenager, I was reading nawa-niyai all the time. I didn’t want to be a professor at all. But then I realised ‘mai-mee’ [I don’t have the] talents.” He follows with a light chuckle. A large part of Anderson’s works have still revolved around, and been enlivened by, literature. Especially literary works penned in the midst of political oppression. They reflect the dire human conditions at any given time—as well as the brave, creative minds that try to overcome/undermine such oppression. Among Anderson’s favourites, as evidenced in Imagined Communities, are Jos ‘Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere (which inspired the nationalist movement in the Philippines) and Indonesian Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s The Buru Tetralogy. During the Suharto regime, Anderson befriended the latter through correspondence: He himself was declared persona non grata due to his critical writings on the military’s brutality while the Indonesian author was not allowed out of the country for the same period.
The septuagenarian’s new “hobby” over the last couple of years has further allowed him to dabble in the world of art, and in particular of young movie-makers, which he said is a stark contrast from academia. Through his friendship with film director Apichatpong, Anderson has turned to writing—about movies this time. Specifically, he wrote two long essays in the latter’s honour, and in his self-styled prose, with its mix of personal touch and mischievous saeb-saeb khan-khan sense of humour, shares his memories of going to the cinema in Ireland when the audience could still “talk to the screen”, of the boos and obscene remarks thrown at a Catholic priest who tried to block “any slightly sexy images” on the screen, his discovery and love of non-Hollywood stuff while at Cambridge and, last but not least, his sardonic views of the capricious reactions of the mainstream, middle-class Thais to Apichatpong’s oeuvre.
During the interview, Anderson has one word reserved for the censorship board in Thailand: Ngi-ngao (stupid).
It must have been an iconoclastically eye-opening ride to be in Anderson’s classes. He confided that when he was young(er), he simply loved teaching, “to watch the students grow and help them”. But then retirement came and he lamented the loss of such symbiotic, long-term relationships. Anderson took a long pause on another question on what he thinks is his proudest achievement.
“It is hard to say. [But] if you asked me what I enjoy the most, I can tell you: My students. I have very good students. The idea is that when I’m gone, which is probably not that far away from now, to think that there are a good bunch of younger people whom you trained so that they think they have to create their own younger generations, [pause] I think it’s okay.
“People call me ‘Acharn’. I think of the word ‘Khru’ now—I like that; the Khru is good; it’s friendly.
“It’s like birds. Think about the way the birds nest. [He makes a chirping sound.] The little eggs [come] out like that ... What teaching does is like teaching the birds on the day the birds will fly. What I do is to prepare them for the day. The problem with old-fashioned teaching is people want students to be like them. But I think what you should do is to help the young ones be themselves.
“The other day, I went to the One-Hundred-Year Market in Sam Chuk. There is an old photo shop there. One picture dated from 80 years ago showed the grandfather and all the sisters and daughters. Everybody was dressed in the jong-kraben, except one boy, aged about seven, who was completely naked. It was a great picture. The 80-year-old shopowner said to me, ‘in those days, all the children, boys and girls, ran around naked; it was expensive to get them clothes; they kept getting bigger.’ I asked her why did it come to an end, and the answer is so beautiful: ‘In those days, there was yet no school’.”
But what keeps Anderson going these days?
“I often think that even though you get old, if you can have a young heart, then you will enjoy life.”
And the secret of keeping that heart young despite the ravages of time?
“Hua-roh [to laugh]. You know that manus [human beings] is the only animal that can laugh? Even a dog can cry. It’s very good for stress. It’s very good for frustration if you can laugh, laugh. It’s a very human thing to do. Well, even a nasty laugh, but [one you can] enjoy. Still. Hmm ... it’s so good.”
The ring of knowing playfulness in that soft handsome voice is unmistakably engaging.
Published in the Bangkok Post, 23 February 2009