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Benedict Anderson on literature, Philippine politics, etc.

(April 30)— Benedict Richard O’Gorman Anderson, renowned and distinguished scholar of Southeast Asian studies, spoke at a special public forum at the Asian Center at UP Diliman on March 11. ┬áParticipants from UP and other schools and universities attended the event. 

Entitled A Conversation with Benedict Anderson, the forum took the format of a panel interview conducted by four UP professors from different academic disciplines. The panel consisted of Prof. Eduardo T. Gonzalez of the Asian Center, Prof. Lily Rose Tope of Department of English and Comparative Literature (DECL), Prof. Ramon “Bomen” Guillermo of the Department of Filipino and Philippine Literature and Prof. Michiyo Yoneno-Reyes of theAsian Center.

Before a full house crowd of about 300 at the GT-Toyota Asian Cultural Center Auditorium, Anderson fielded questions on, among other issues, Southeast Asian regional identity; the link between literature, politics and nationhood; the relationship of the Philippines to Southeast Asia; the Filipino diaspora as part of the Filipino imagined community; prospects for socio-political change in the Philippines; and the link between the idea of imagined communities and Orientalism.  

Anderson is Professor Emeritus of International Studies, Government and Asian Studies at Cornell University. He is best known for Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, which was first published in 1983 but has since undergone countless editions. The book is a path-breaking and highly innovative work that has supplied one of the most popular and oft-quoted concepts in the academe and beyond. His other books include The Spectre of Comparisons (1998); Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-colonial Imagination (2007); and The Fate of Rural Hell: Asceticism and Desire in Buddhist Thailand (2012).

Anderson discussed his intellectual development, which involved reading philosophy and literature, among others.  His was one of the last generations reared on classical (Greek and Latin) education.  This exposure to the literary, in the broadest sense of the word, proved to be a huge influence on his political ideas. Indeed, when asked whether literature has been effectively used to create a sense of nation, he explained how his fascination with the subject, along with language, shaped his analysis of nationalism and nation-building. He read the Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo in the original Spanish to dissect how people thought of the nation and how their perception related to their own historical situation.

On nation-building, Anderson named two primary social elements that play into and influence the development of a sense of nationality: language and geography. Discussing the former, he compared the Philippines to Indonesia, both of which are composed of different ethnic groups with their own languages. The Philippine state, however, had inadequate power to “instill one unifying language,” which inadvertently led to preservation of various ethnic languages. In contrast, the Indonesian state intensely and successfully promoted a national lingua franca, a project that effectively marginalized many ethnic dialects. The concept of boundary, on the other hand, involves an imagined geography, which can expand or shrink through conquest or colonization.

Anderson also shared his thoughts on the Philippines as part of Southeast Asia. He said although the country has experiences of colonialism similar to that of other Southeast Asian states, the Philippines has stood out because of the deep influence of Spanish culture and “commitment to Catholicism.” Indeed, one feature that sets the country apart, according to Anderson, is that the Philippines has not legalized divorce.

The forum was organized by the Asian Center in partnership with the Asian Politics & Policy journal (Wiley-Blackwell/PSO); the Asian Studies journal; the DECL; the UP Department of Political Science; and the UP Third World Studies Center (TWSC).  The interview will be published by Asian Politics & Policy later this year, but a video recording has been posted on the blog of the TWSC (http://uptwsc.blogspot.com/). — Asian Center