In Chapter 4 of A Life Beyond Boundaries, Benedict Anderson reflects on the increasingly comparative direction his work began to take in the 1970s and '80s.
In my early days at Cornell, use of the concept of 'comparison' was still somewhat limited. I do not mean that comparisons were never made; they were made all the time, both consciously and (more often) unconsciously, but invariably in a practical way and on a small scale...
Historians, anthropologists, economists, and sociologists rarely thought systematically about comparison at all. The political science department was a partial exception, since it had a subsection called 'comparative government,' to which I belonged. But the comparisons my classmates and I studied were primarily focused on Western Europe...
For me, the odd thing was that comparative government did not cover the US itself, which was the preserve of a different subsection called American government..
One of the central myths of American nationalism has long been 'exceptionalism' — the idea that US history, culture and political life are by definition incomparable. The US is not like Europe, not like Latin America, and absolutely not like Asia. Needless to say, this fancy is absurd. In different ways, the US is perfectly comparable, especially with Europe, South America, Japan and the British Dominions of the Empire (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and so on.)
Below is one of Anderson's comparative engagements with US history; a consideration of national monuments, the primary coordinates of which are the United States and the Philippines, adapted for The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia and the World from an essay first published in a 1993 issue of Qui Parle.
“There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument,” wrote Robert Musil
Towards the end of A Life Beyond Boundaries, Benedict Anderson describes how his retirement allowed him to renew his passion for film. "No one interested me more," he writes,
than the young Thai genius Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who won two top Cannes prizes in three years for his Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady...The irony is that Apichatpong's films have never been allowed a normal commercial run in Siam itself, and he has been locked in a running battle with the imbecilic censors in Bangkok. So, for fun, I wrote a long article about Tropical Malady itself, but especially about the reactions of different audiences (villagers, arrogant and ignorant Bangkok know-it-alls, students, middle-class families, teenagers, etc.) It turned out that people in the countryside understood better what the film had to say than urban intellectuals. In July 2006 the article was translated by my former student Mukhom Wongthes as "Sat Pralaat arai wa?" (What the Heck is This Beast?) in Silapa Wattanatham. Three years later the text was republished in as "The Strange Story of a Strange Beast: Receptions in Thailand of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Sat Pralaat," in James Quandt's edited collection Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Later I also joined, in a quiet way, the fight against the imbeciles. It was in this way that I first met Apichatpong, with whom I soon became close. (The deliciously unacademic cover for the Thai translation of Imagined Communities was designed by my new friend.)
Below we present the version of Anderson's essay that appeared in James Quandt's Apichatpong Weerasethakul, published by the Austrian Film Museum. Though out of print, the book is currently included with the Film Museum's DVD release of Apichatpong's Mysterious Object at Noon.
(From Sat Pralaat [Tropical Malady])