12 May 2016

'A Life Beyond Boundaries' by Benedict Anderson – an extract

Posted by the Bookshop

Ahead of our panel event on Benedict Anderson's work, chaired by Tariq Ali on 17 May, here is an extract from Anderson's memoir A Life Beyond Boundaries, completed shortly before his death.

"For a long time, different forms of socialism – anarchist, Leninist, New Leftist, social-democratic – provided a ‘global’ framework in which a progressive, emancipationist nationalism could flourish. Since the fall of ‘communism’ there has been a global vacuum, partially filled by feminism, environmentalism, neo-anarchism and various other ‘isms’, fighting in different and not always cooperative ways against the barrenness of neoliberalism and hypocritical ‘human rights’ interventionism. But a lot of work, over a long period of time, will be needed to fill the vacuum. To explore what can be done and to carry out its findings is a task to which young scholars can make vital contributions.

When I arrived at Cornell in 1958 I had to learn in a hurry how to type my seminar papers, with four fingers, on a manual typewriter. For distribution to other students, we typed on a kind of green gelatin paper, which allowed us to erase small errors with white paint, and then run off the corrected final text on a simple mimeograph machine. Changing anything was a slow and painful matter, so we had to think carefully before typing. Often we worked from long-hand drafts. Today, working on a computer, we can change anything and move anything in a matter of seconds. The decline in sheer pain is a blessing, but it is worth remembering that the pearl is produced by an oyster in pain, not a happy oyster with a laptop. I am not sure that today’s seminar papers show any stylistic improvement over the products of forty years ago.

In those days libraries were still sacred places. One went into the ‘stacks’, dusted off the old books one needed to read, treasured their covers, sniffed their bindings, and smiled by their sometimes strange, outdated spellings. Then came the best part, randomly lifting out books on the same shelf out of pure curiosity, and finding the most unexpected things. We were informally trained how to think about sources, how to evaluate them, compare them, dismiss them, enjoy them. Chance was built into the learning process. Surprise too.

Today, libraries are trying monomaniacally to digitalize everything, perhaps in the expectation that eventually books will become obsolete. Everything will be findable ‘online ’. Randomness is perhaps disappearing, along with luck. Google is an extraordinary ‘research engine ’, says Google, without irony in its use of the word ‘engine ’, which in Old English meant ‘trickery’ (as is reflected in the verb ‘to engineer’) or even ‘an engine of torture ’. Neither Google nor the students who trust it realize that late- nineteenth-century books feel this way in one’s hands, while early-twentieth-century books feel that way. Japanese books are bound one way, Burmese books another. Online, everything is to become a democratically egalitarian ‘entry’. There is no surprise, no affection, no scepticism. The faith students have in Google is almost religious. Critical evaluation of Google? We do not yet teach it. Many students have no idea that even though Google ‘makes everything available ’, it works according to a program.

Nationalism and globalization do have the tendency to circumscribe our outlook and simplify matters. This is why what is increasingly needed is a sophisticated and serious blending of the emancipatory possibilities of both nationalism and internationalism. Hence, in the spirit of Walt Kelly as well as Karl Marx in a good mood, I suggest the following slogan for young scholars:

Frogs in their fight for emancipation will only lose by crouching in their murky coconut half-shells.Frogs of the world unite!"

Taken from the Afterword to A Life Beyond Boundaries by Benedict Anderson, published by Verso.

Tickets for our Benedict Anderson event are now sold out, but you can see what other cultural events we have coming up here.