It is a common scene among the community of Southeast Asia specialists in Washington. At a talk, or a visit by a leading Southeast Asian politician, the conversation inevitably comes around to the same mantra. Why is the audience relatively small? Why do we know everyone in attendance?
But before Benedict Anderson, academics and writers interested in Southeast Asia, that region between India and Australia, would have struggled to find a policymaker interested in much of the region. Anderson, a longtime professor of international studies and Southeast Asia studies at Cornell University, began teaching in the mid-1960s; at the time, there were only two sizable departments focusing on Southeast Asia in the United States, at Yale and at Cornell.
Anderson would become best known for his book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, which redefined the study of nation-states, concluding that modern nationalism only dated to the era of printed material produced in a common language. The book sold over a quarter of a million copies, and like a Velvet Underground record, its influence was exponentially greater than its actual sales. Everyone who picked up the book seemingly wound up heading a department at a major university, or starting their own versions of New Left Review, the bimonthly journal to which Anderson was closely tied.
But prior to Imagined Communities, released in 1983, Anderson shaped how outsiders saw Southeast Asia. For more of my review of Anderson’s posthumous memoir, go to: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jun/30/life-beyond-boundaries-benedict-anderson-review