A reflection on Benedict Anderson by Rita Padawangi

TCS logoBenedict Anderson: A Reflection by an Indonesian Urbanist







He is not a relative. He is not even an Indonesian [citizen]. Some of us do not even know him in person.

Yet, here we are, a group of people who are touched by his works and by him as a person.

 And we are all saddened by his passing. We miss him dearly.



Earlier in December 2015, a colleague sent me the open invitation to Benedict Anderson’s public lecture at Universitas Indonesia on “Anarchism and Nationalism”. I could not attend the event, but I was already planning for a trip to Indonesia the week after that lecture. I had a tiny hope that perhaps there would be other chances to meet him if he was still in Indonesia.

My trip to Indonesia included a flight to Surabaya on 18 December 2015 to attend the Urban Social Forum, a gathering of Indonesian urban activists, practitioners, and observers. I was scheduled to speak at the Forum. Indeed, I met with Anderson then. But when I booked the flight, I did not know that it would be the day of his final goodbye.

Benedict Anderson is a scholar whose works greatly influence and inspire my writings. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism has been cited more than 60,000 times, which indicates how much the concept has spread in many scholarly works. As an Indonesian urbanist, my learning from Anderson’s works is biased towards his writings on Indonesia and would not do justice to his overall scholarship. This short essay is my reflection on how Anderson’s ideas are useful to examine social and cultural dynamics in contemporary Indonesian urbanisation. It is not to undermine his other works and contributions, but it might be a reflection of my limitations in comprehending his vast body of works.

First is Anderson’s interest in political cultures: how power is asserted through cultural beliefs and practices. Spatial experience may not be the focus of much of his work, but it is peppered throughout his analysis on the manifestations of power in everyday life. Anderson’s attention is not only limited to spectacular monuments that are built by those in power, such as nationalist-themed ones during Guided Democracy and subsequent “nonutilitarian monuments” (1990: 174) in Suharto’s New Order in which ideological iconographies were dominant in their designs. He also examined the emergence of village portals that were designed to show the date of Indonesia’s Independence Day as a “sustained program of monument construction and distribution” all the way to the spaces in which ordinary people practice their daily life. Anderson claimed that Jakarta as a city is “in its own way an authentic Mini”, which refers to an eclectic mix of politically defined ethnic cultures in Indonesia as represented in Taman Mini Indonesia Indah that was a signature project of the then First Lady, Mrs Tien Suharto (1990: 193).

Second is his thesis that a nation is limited by territorial boundaries, as much as it is sovereign (2000: 7). Maps help to shape the spatial imagination of what constitutes Southeast Asia, and where the nations are. Inspired by Thongchai Winichakul’s work “Siam Mapped” (1988), Anderson acknowledged the importance of maps as symbolic representations of spatial realities in legitimising power, domination and subordination. His example of post-1963 mapping of Irian Jaya (now renamed as West Papua) reflects the power of the map in becoming the basis of West Papuan nationalists from various ethnic groups to imagine themselves as part of one Indonesian nation. At the same time, the map subordinates the Papuans through stereotypes of less developed people of colour. In contemporary Indonesian cities, as many other cities in the region too, boundaries are often taken for granted as the basis of defining urban territories. Borrowing Anderson’s idea about the social and political construction of the nation, maps and censuses solidify the definition of the city in policy realm, which is echoed among the residents. Maps show inclusions and exclusions within city boundaries. Maps are tools of planners to look at the city from bird-eye view. Maps feed into the illusion that cities are manageable and governable from the top, while the choice of representations of spatial realities to be put on the map are those that are in line with the administrative discourse rather than the realities on the ground. The relatively recent emergence of community maps in various cities, in which residents mobilise to draw their own maps together with non-governmental organisations, academics and activists, is one form of social movement to counter the dominance of official maps. At the same time, these community maps are also consistent with Anderson’s claim that maps “penetrate into the popular imagination” (2000: 175), both in shaping imaginations of communities and in the trust in visual representations.

Third is the notion of imagined communities in the context of cities. Anderson was, of course, elaborating about the origins of nationalism and the importance of language in the process. Yet, in the era in which many political authorities are devolved to the cities, including those with millions of inhabitants, it becomes clearer that cities, not just countries, are also sites of imagined communities. Ten million people reside in Jakarta, and the average Jakarta resident would never know most of other Jakartans. Uneven development feeds into waves of migration that densify existing self-built neighbourhoods (kampungs) complicate this imagination, as spatial boundaries may not be the only measure of who belongs to Jakarta community. Identity cards become another basis of imagination of Jakarta as one city. In reality, Jakarta is a fragmented city, in which many neighbourhoods are aliens for others, which makes it ever more difficult to define what Jakarta is and what it should be. The imagination of Jakarta as a community of citizens seems to come down to the communion of identity card holders who may not know the conditions of other neighbourhoods. One neighbourhood can be sacrificed in the name of urban development, and these developments are not about citizenship. Rather, urban development projects are competing images of what the city could and should be; a competition that is perpetuated through extreme segregation.

I personally would want to hear his response to my three reflections above. I am not Benedict Anderson’s student at Cornell. I only know him through his texts. I met him just once when he was a keynote speaker at the EuroSEAS conference in Vienna, four months before his passing, and I did not get the chance to interact with him then. What I sensed from that brief encounter was that he was openly critical of research projects and scholarships that are supported by big corporations and riches from political elites. This is consistent with what Heryanto (2015) said in his obituary, that Anderson’s “suspicion of the political and economic elite was always blunt, not to mention his disgust of corrupt officials and their cronies.”

His firm ethical stance is consistent with his strong commitments, particularly his continued attention to Indonesia, as well as friendships, even as he was banned from entering Indonesia from 1972 until the fall of Suharto in 1998. On this ban, he wrote: “[I]t is rather surprising that I was permitted to return three times to Indonesia (in 1967, 1968, and 1972) after the leaking of the so-called Cornell Paper… In any case, by 1972, the Indonesian government had had enough. Irritated to discover that, owing to confusion and rivalry among its intelligence services, I had managed to get into the country once again, it lost little time to expelling me.” (1990: 8)

Anderson’s works have influenced Indonesian studies greatly, including urban studies. Although he was rarely associated directly with urban studies, his writings on Indonesian society, culture and politics have influenced scholarly publications on Indonesian cities. For example, in his book Behind the Postcolonial: Architecture, Urban Space and Political Cultures in Indonesia, Abidin Kusno wrote: “Benedict Anderson’s pioneering work on nationalism and Indonesia opened up a terrain that made this study possible” (2000: xiii). AbdouMaliq Simone’s Jakarta: Drawing the City Near (2014) also made references to Anderson’s work in examining the political traumas that influenced Jakartans’ “spatial mentalities”.

For me, Anderson’s scholarship has influenced mine in at least two domains: the concepts and the perspectives. The concepts are along the lines of the three reflections that I elaborated: the manifestation of power in everyday spaces; the tools to legitimise and to challenge territorial boundaries of power in the city; and the impact of uneven development on the imagination of the urban. In the domain of the perspectives, I manifest Anderson’s influence by continuously putting an effort to make research relevant through attention to marginalised groups in the city and by maintaining a critical stance toward political and economic elites. One of the ways to do so is to make space in my research work to examine the everyday life of various marginalised communities in cities where I conduct fieldwork, and to relate the findings with the historical and political contexts of urban development. I started with my own dissertation on the use of public spaces for demonstrations as social movement strategies in Jakarta, and am currently expanding it to examine grassroots activisms in shaping the city socially, culturally, politically, as well as in its built form.

Indeed, my tiny hope of being able to meet Anderson this December was met. However, I did not get to exchange these thoughts with him, as I met him only five days after his passing. It was the day when prayers from three different religions, Islam, Buddhism, and Catholicism were read as he embarks on his final journey. People wept when a Javanese tembang to unleash the spirit was sung for ‘Pak Ben’ by one of his friends. Everyone was invited to sprinkle perfume on him while having our final glance, before his coffin was sealed.

The words in the beginning of this essay are extracted from my interactions with Hendro Sangkoyo and Melani Budianta about Anderson. I believe it is not a coincidence that I also thought this way. His scholarship has constructed a community around him. It is not an “imagined community”. It is a community of those who are informed, inspired, and touched by his works and friendships that were formed through the process.

Rita Padawangi

Surabaya, 20 December 2015

Works Cited:

Anderson, B (2000) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Revised Edition, Tenth Impression). London and New York: Verso.

Anderson, B R O’G (1990) Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Heryanto, A (2015) Benedict Anderson: The One and Only. New Mandala, Australian National University. Available at http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2015/12/15/ben-anderson-the-one-and-only/ (accessed 23 December 2015)

Kusno, A (2000) Behind the Postcolonial: Architecture, Urban Space, and Political Cultures in Indonesia. London and New York: Routledge.

Simone, A (2014) Jakarta: Drawing the City N

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