Benedict Anderson and the Philippines’ place in the world
“Are you an evangelist for the Philippines?” a Latin American scholar asked Professor Benedict Anderson in one event in that part of the world.
Ben’s interlocutor said that in Under Three Flags (2005), the Philippines was being discussed for the first time alongside Cuba and Puerto Rico, and of course, Spain. These and other countries were tied together by a network of political anarchists with whom the ilustrados of the late nineteenth century were entangled.
In the introduction to Under Three Flags, Ben Anderson made it clear that his book, the closest to a novel that he could write, “embarks from the Philippines for two simple reasons. The first is that I am deeply attached to it, and have studied it, on and off, for 20 years. The second is that in the 1890s, though on the outer periphery of the world-system, it briefly played a world-role which has since eluded it.”
Ben was glad to have put the Philippines on the global academic map. It was his way of giving back to the country he loved. Ben passed away in Indonesia on 12 December 2015. He was 79.
He began his career as a dedicated Indonesianist. In 1967, under the supervision of another great Indonesianist at Cornell University, George Kahin, Ben completed his doctoral dissertation on the pemuda (youth) and their role in the Indonesian revolution. A year earlier, he had co-written a paper that, contrary to the official version, pinned the bloody 1965 coup to army officers rather than communists. Suharto was not pleased, especially with the paper’s publication in 1971. As a result, Ben was barred from entering Indonesia, a ban that lasted until Suharto fell from power in May 1998.
The ban compelled Ben to look for another Southeast Asian country to study, which meant learning the language and soaking everything important that had been written on it. He would have studied the Philippines, but Marcos’s declaration of martial law pushed him away. He turned to Thailand, Buddhist and at that time democratic, which offered a fine contrast to Indonesia, Muslim and at that time despotic.
If Ben wrote on Indonesia, it was no great wonder. This most populous Muslim country in the world possessed a cultural complexity that had also attracted another intellectual giant, Clifford Geertz.
If Ben Anderson wrote on Thailand, it seemed necessary that he did, in view of the claim that it was the only country in Southeast Asia to have escaped European colonialism. Ben quickly put that common proposition aside by asserting its neocolonial status in “Studies of the Thai State: The State of Thai Studies,” a paper he presented at an Asian studies conference in 1977.
But the Philippines? Why not? This country in the “outer periphery” was interesting in its own right. Ben sought to rectify its reputed status in the world system by returning to the 1890s. In some ways, Ben’s initiative to put the Philippines on the world intellectual map mirrored that of Isabelo de los Reyes’ who, as a young man, sought to assert his country’s place in the then emerging new science of folklore.
In his attachment to the Philippines, notwithstanding its rapacious political elite whose genealogy he traced famously in the essay “Cacique Democracy in the Philippines” (1988), Ben had taken as it were the native point of view, engaging in what Filipino intellectuals from the late 19th century until today have sought to do: Locate the Philippines in global history and consider it an important actor in the international scene. Given his towering stature in the world of scholarship, Ben Anderson contributed so much more than many of us could dream of achieving.
While many of us in the Philippines see José Rizal’s execution in trite ways, in Under Three Flags, Ben Anderson completely recast it as more than simply a Philippine event. Five months after Rizal’s execution on December 30, 1896, the Italy-born Michele Angiolillo attended a huge demonstration in London’s Trafalgar Square, where he heard a call to avenge the death of Rizal and other victims of the regime of Spain’s Prime Minister Antonio Cánovas del Castillo. On August 8, 1897, Angiolillo assasinated Cánovas, which led to the fall of “cacique democracy” in Spain and of Valeriano Weyler’s brutal governship in Cuba. In making these connections, Ben Anderson made us realize that, even without digital communication technologies, Rizal’s execution was world news and had global ramifications.
Ben also enabled us to see Rizal’s novels in a different light. He taught himself Spanish by reading the Noli Me Tangere, and in the process discovered the many flaws in León Maria Guerrero’s English translation of the novel. (See “Hard to Imagine” in Spectre of Comparisons.) For instance, while Rizal in the opening pages of the novel writes about the multiplication of the hordes of bootlickers in Manila in the present tense, in the English translation the past tense was regnant, making the novel irrelevant to the present. Rizal’s interjections in Tagalog are effaced and the narrator’s stance of talking directly to the reader is erased.
In fact, in Imagined Communities (1983, revised 1991; Philippine ed. 2003) Anderson used the opening lines of the Noli as an example of the intimacy that the novel conjured between author and readers, in much the same way that the nation generates a sense of intimacy among the members of this imagined community. (For citing Rizal, Ben received a note from a Filipino in the US to thank him for “promoting” the national patriot.)
If we take Ben’s dissection of English translations of the Noli seriously, it will not be easy to accept any translation of the novel without referring to the original Spanish. By extension, the Tagalog translations that are used in mandatory high school subjects need a similar examination.
To clarify many tendentious assertions about Rizal’s novels, Ben Anderson resorted to a quantitative approach in which he manually counted the occurrence of key terms; first in the Noli, and then in El Filibusterismo. His two articles were first published in Philippine Studies and then put together as a slim volume under the title Why Counting Counts (2009).
Amid his cunning counting, Ben noted conspicuous absences, such as the paucity of references to the ethnic diversity of the Philippines in the first novel, and to political ideas, classes, and institutions in the second. Ben also made us notice that, unlike non-serious characters in the Noli, Elias spoke in perfect Spanish as a mark that he was not contaminated by coloniality. Yet in the Fili, Ben was excited about Rizal’s use of español de Parian, the language of the marketplace that we can identify with Chabacano, which Ben thought could have been the democratic lingua franca of the Philippines had the US not come into the picture.
But it’s the counting that is astounding, a method seemingly unthinkable for someone whose erudition could not be reduced to numbers. Yet, given Ben’s emphasis on the nation’s bounded seriality, one could think of it as Ben taking the nation’s penchant for counting and applying it onto the Philippines’ two foremost novels, revealing insights that could not have surfaced otherwise.
One study the Philippines lacks, Ben had always insisted, is an in-depth history of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century. This institution has been off limits from critical scrutiny, as though a lèse majesté law existed. This challenge remains to be taken up by a Filipino scholar.
Ben Anderson taught us to see the Philippines in comparative terms, even if the exercise could be dizzying. To encapsulate this doubled vision, Ben borrowed Rizal’s phrase, el demonio de las comparaciones, which he turned into the title of a collection of essays on Southeast Asia, Spectre of Comparisons (1998).
Ben saw the Philippines in world-historical terms. Despite our own inhibition, we need to cultivate the same sensibility.
We lament his passing, but at the same time are grateful for his missionary work on behalf of the Philippines. – Rappler.com
Filomeno V. Aguilar Jr. is Professor in the Department of History and former Dean of the School of Social Sciences, Ateneo de Manila University.