Review: A Life Beyond Boundaries (Benedict Anderson)


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I really enjoyed reading Benedict Anderson’s memoirs in A Life Beyond Boundaries. What I enjoyed the most was actually the simplicity of the language and the ease in which the narrative moves along. (I took a peek into Imagined Communities. No such luck in that one..) Anderson explained how the began the task of writing his memoirs for a Japanese audience and so was aware to make it simple enough to be translated accurately, and I think he did well in that aspect. Throughout the book however, I felt a tinge of sadness to know that he had passed away just the year before. It would have been quite something to have met or at least communicated with the person who was actually banned by a neighbouring political regime.

But more than that, reading Boundaries, I became aware (why didn’t I think about it before?) that there is a tradition of passing down knowledge in modern scholarship which is not unlike traditional (Islamic) scholarship. Anderson takes time to introduce the individuals and ideas who have shaped him and his ideas with the same effort introduce the reader to the individuals who he had worked with in his lifetime. In that sense, I feel Boundaries is actually a great starting point for any individual serious about going deep into Southeast Asian studies – namely in Indonesia, Thailand (which Anderson calls “Siam”) and The Philippines. There are numerous references to the political events that shaped the late colonial and post-colonial histories of these countries as well as references to readings and writers which undoubtedly will provide a useful launch-pad for future.

The title is indeed apt. Anderson discusses commonalities across academic disciplines and between Southeast Asian countries, going beyond the restrictive boundaries set by politicians and academics themselves. It is poetic that the main theme of his memoirs reflect his vibrant life – from growing up to China and Ireland, to studying in the UK and then in the United States, before doing his fieldwork in Southeast Asia.

Here I present three more quote-worthy extracts from A Life Beyond Boundaries that undoubtedly resonated with me:

On fieldwork and its intrinsic benefits:

I began to realize something fundamental about fieldwork: that it is useless to concentrate exclusively on one’s ‘research project’. One has to be endlessly curious about everything, sharpen one’s eyes and ears, and take notes about anything. This is the great blessing of this kind of work. The experience of strangeness makes all your senses much more sensitive than normal, and your attachment to comparison grows deeper. This is why fieldwork is also so useful when you return home. You will have developed habits of observation and comparison that encourage or force you to start noticing that your own culture is just as strange – provided you look carefully, ceaselessly compare, and keep your anthropological distance. (p.102)

…In the process, I came to realize that nothing is better for a scholar than being blessed with such deep and enduring attachments, which are often much more valuable than lonely library research. (p.107)

On the constraints of modern research:

In political science, students are supposed to come up with a hypothesis to be confirmed or disconfirmed within the coming year. This time limit is a bad idea, since it is too short to attempt anything rather difficult. The demand for a hypothesis is often a bad idea too, because it implies from the start that only two general answers are possible: yes or no. Scale is always a problem. If a student says he wants to study sexual ideology and practice in the Meiji period, he will usually be told something like this: ‘Stick to sexual ideology, find an interesting decade, and confine yourself to Tokyo. Otherwise you will never finish and get a job.’ This kind of advice is not unreasonable, given the real financial and market constraints, but it is not likely to encourage bold or ambitious work.

The ideal way to start interesting research, at least in my view, is to depart from a problem or question to which you do not know the answer. Then you have to decide on the kind of intellectual tools (discourse analysis, theory of nationalism, surveys, etc.) that may or may not be a help to you… Often you also need luck. Finally, you need time for your ideas to cohere and develop. (p.154)

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