Sunday, December 13, 2015

For Benedict: A Transnational Elegy

Today we have just learned that scholar, activist, theorist- the list goes on-
Benedict Anderson has passed away.

Image result for benedict anderson                               I first encountered Benedict Anderson in a wonderful 100 -level 'Canadian Literature' major-required course at the University of British Columbia. We read his book, Imagined Communities, and I don't think my life as a scholar today would be the same if I had never been assigned it. Amazing for that time, and quite possibly, even today, the course syllabus was not populated by the Margaret Atwood's of CanLit (however magnificent Atwood is), but rather by the literature of those whose families had come from Asia to make Canada their home. I remember reading Leaf in the Bitter Wind,   Obasan, and The Concubine's Children while interrogating what it meant to be Canadian- through choice- desperation- accident-  with myself having the strange privilege of diplomatic immunity with my 'international student' status as a U.S. citizen (who was spending weekends with my own Indian-Canadian family in Van-city proper).

Image result for imagined communities
Ten years later, I still find myself referencing 'Imagined Communities' on an almost daily basis, and thinking about Anderson's words every time the insecurity of a nation rears it's head in the form of isolationist and discriminatory policies.

Travel can be a privilege, but it can also be a necessity begat by violence, oppression, and poverty among many other things. Dangerous kinds of community/nation-enforced segregation and isolation are, I believe, the more worrying privileges. In our age of globalization- even when we are tightening borders and building fences- I am reminded of Peter Schneider warning that it will take us far longer to tear down the walls inside our heads than any physical divisions these border paranoias create, and no work illustrated the costs of those 'walls in our heads' better than Benedict's Imagined Communities.

Yet- even in context of international travel advisories, terrorist attacks, and isolationist political feeling that is oddly reminiscent to a Cold War ( that's been re-warmed once or twice) - today, in mourning Benedict's passing, I found a touch of joy in discovering the personal history of this scholar while revisiting the evolution of his thought, though the occasion for such a discovery was his loss.
Theory and the personal are things that we don't normally talk about in the same breath with without being invited to do so- usually, they must choose to let us in: the Eve Sedgewick's of the academy.
Benedict wasn't that kind of writer, but occasionally ,in his essays, a bit of the personal would escape from his activism-motivated efforts to find a better way (of __ ).

So today, it was with a feeling of newness that I learned of a birth in China, a life at Cornell, family's post-colonial legacy in Ireland, and peacefully- a falling asleep, a death, in Indonesia. The collected places of a nationalism scholar's collected works- his personal transnational history. Benedict's life speaks to the enrichment of thought that comes from yearning beyond the boundaries of the national even as we recognize the material functions of its imagined divisions.

How many lives could be saved with the kind of thinking derived from a life well-traveled?

Benedict, you will be missed.

“I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community-and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.... Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.... Finally, [the nation] is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately, it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willing to die for such limited imaginings.”

                             - Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities

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