Some notes on reading

Benedict Anderson, The Spectre of Comparisons


Philip Jenkins


Benedict Anderson became famous for his book IMAGINED COMMUNITIES (1983), which describes how groups of people imagine themselves into nations, and then come to believe that such organizations have existed into the immemorial past. Though based on his observations of fairly recent national entities such as Indonesia, his point is that the same processes are true everywhere, even of such seemingly eternal structures as France. For a summary of that book’s argument, see . The Spectre of Comparisons is a collection of essays that ostensibly focuses on Southeast Asia, but its observations range very widely. (Of course, since Southeast Asia comprises around one-tenth of humanity, that is no insignificant share!)


Personally, I found this book incredibly rewarding. Apart from its content, and what it has to say about identity and nationality, it is a wonderful example of different strategies that can be used to write history, and especially how to use highly specific case-studies to make far-reaching general points.


BTW, the footnotes of the book contain some of the best material, and may in themselves justify reading the work. To see what I mean, look at typical instances on page 24 note 44, or page 48 note 5.


Anderson’s basic theme is the doubletake we find when we look at an object or phenomenon with familiar eyes, but also see it from afar, from the eyes of a distant culture – the “spectre of comparisons”. This approach helps us look at familiar things, and realize just how strange and constructed, even how revolutionary, they actually are. It is a process of “estrangement,” using the word in its literal sense, of the World Made Strange. Some of the things/institutions that he subjects to this approach include:


             the census


             national flags



             majorities and minorities


What meanings does he derive from these seemingly inevitable things? Why are the concepts so important for expanding state power?


What is Anderson’s political/ideological approach? Do you believe this slants his interpretations? How?


Why does Anderson place so much emphasis on “print-capitalism”?


Why does the census work against the working of traditional communities and identities?


In 1861, shortly after Italian unification, Massimo d’Azeglio pronounced that "We have made Italy. Now we have to make Italians." Much of Anderson’s work describes how nations “make” their citizens, and how those citizens come to believe they have always had that identity. How is this process achieved?


Anderson is also strong on the structures of the academic world, and how powerful they can be in creating nations and supporting national mythologies. How for instance do they do this? Look at page 18n37. How does one go about writing a history of a nation such as Indonesia? What is wrong with writing the “prehistory” of the area, and the earlier political structures that occupied that territory? Why is this politically dubious? What, in brief, is Anderson complaining about here?


Tell me about the changing construction of “the Chinese” in various nations. How do these experiences compare with the construction of other ethnic/religious groups elsewhere in the world, such as the Jews? How and why are “minorities” constructed?


Look at the speech he quotes by Haji Misbach on page 30. What implications does he draw from this? Why is this incident so significant? What does it say about the changing nature of language? What are the implications for concepts such as “the world” and “politics”?


Look at the Mary Rowlandson quote on page 60. What importance does Anderson attach to these words? What does this passage suggest about the origins and meaning of nationality and communal identity?


Central to his work is the invention or reinvention of history. One example that I call to your attention: see page 57 for how “the state of Israel” (founded 1948) became the ancestor of the Warsaw Rising” (1943). What does he mean by this?


What do we learn about these processes from the very concept of Southeast Asia? What is wrong with this terminology, or rather, what are the dangers in using it without further thought or qualification?


What do we learn about the importance of war and occupation as an engine of social change? As a force making nations?


Anderson often speaks about the power of technology and media in promoting and changing concepts of nationality and identity. How do his arguments apply to changes in the contemporary world, and its “nomadism”?


What are the issues in commemorating great events or individuals? What are the dangers and/or advantages of such commemoration? When and why do such commemorations “succeed” or fail? How do they support state power and national identity? For a more recent example of commemoration, that precisely illustrates Anderson’s themes, see the debate over commemorating Flight 93 ( ; ; ). What are the Politics of Commemoration?


In the nineteenth century, Lord Acton said that “Exile is the nursery of nationality”. What did he mean by that? Have subsequent events proved him correct?


Anderson discusses at length the career and writings of Dr. Soetomo. Why? What would be lost by a more conventional or less subtle reading of the text with all its nuances. Personal note: this chapter is quite humbling for a historian, because it suggests how a more simplistic approach would lose so many of the details and subtleties that so enrich Spectre of Comparisons. The reading here also suggests the complex origins of “nationalism” that others would attribute to the influence of merely western ideologies. Read this chapter in detail, and tell me the main points that strike you.


Many of the same points emerge from his remarks on Philippine authors, above all Jose Rizal, which is interesting because of course Rizal was working in a Catholic context, which should in theory have been much more congenial to a Euro-American readership. Even here, though, we see the massive problems in translating texts with any kind of faithfulness. Remember the proverb: traductor traditor; the translator is a traitor! What alternative/additional meanings does Anderson draw from the Philippine texts?


As I look at the readings for this course, two themes come out forcibly and repeatedly, namely Darkness and Light – posed for instance in the racial confrontation of “white and colored”, but also in the theme of Light (modernity) eliminating the Darkness of primitivism and superstition. How and where does this theme emerge in Anderson’s book, for instance in his account of Indonesia?


At first sight, Anderson’s discussion of the themes of sodomy and conjuring in the Centhini looks willfully bizarre, almost a parody of specialist academic history. And yet he makes some wonderful points out of this unpromising evidence. Like what?


Why does he persist in calling Thailand “Siam” throughout? It’s more than mere bloody-mindedness.


Anderson writes at length of the role of violence in Siam/Thailand, which has a long tradition of assassination and mass political murder. How does he explain this tradition? Do you find his arguments convincing?


Anderson says surprisingly little about religion, at least in terms of the great traditions like Buddhism and Islam. Why? Is this a weakness of his work? Or how might he justify his relatively light coverage?


Anderson goes into enormous detail about the emergence of national identity in both Indonesia and the Philippines. How do these two case-studies illustrate his basic theses, and the overall themes of the book? How far can we project what we learn from these two examples to societies elsewhere in the world?


Though Anderson speaks about the United States in passing, his book does not primarily address US conditions. Can you think of examples where he could or should make fuller use of American examples? How might you apply Anderson’s ideas and observations to topics or regions that are of more direct interest to you?


BTW, cultural anthropologist Montgomery McFate writes on the use of anthropology in the making and defense of empire, especially in Southeast Asia, at . Her work provides a fascinating complement to Anderson’s points about the role of the academic in shaping nations.


What criticisms would you make of Anderson’s book, and thesis? Do you believe he is too sweeping in his sense that all national/communal identity is constructed and imagined? In challenging established approaches, does he over-react towards extreme relativism? Are there passages or chapters where you think an alternative interpretation would fit his evidence?


FYI, scholar Liah Greenfeld of Boston University has written that "One can go on and on listing the instances in which 'the spectre of comparisons' fails to haunt Anderson: the amount of available empirical counterevidence - to his general argument as well as specific statements - is staggering."


Some Related Materials

See also Anderson’s article on “Western Nationalism and Eastern Nationalism,” at .


The London Review of Books has an excellent (September 2006) review article on Anderson’s recent work that you can find at


For major interviews with him on these subjects, see ; .


Anderson’s most recent book is Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination, which also focuses on Jose Rizal, the “First Filipino”. For a review and summary, see


Much of Anderson’s book concerns the growth of academic/bureaucratic categories, and how these empty concepts shape and transform millions of lives. To see a magnificent parody of these categories, and just how absurd they can appear once we defamiliarize ourselves with them, look at Jorge Luis Borges’ famous classification of animals, supposedly drawn from an “ancient Chinese encyclopedia”: . See also the learned disquisition on this passage in .