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Diacritics 29.4 (1999) 135-149
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Ghostly Comparisons: Anderson's Telescope
H. D. Harootunian
While the formation of area studies in the universities and colleges of the United States was initially inaugurated as a response to the Cold War "necessity" to win the hearts and minds of the unaligned, many of whom were new refugees of decolonization, one of its unintended consequences was to foster the development of comparative perspectives of study across disciplines and different cultural regions. But this secondary goal was often diverted by the principal purpose of area studies programs to supply authoritative information on regions outside of Euro-America (the second and third worlds) considered crucial to the national security and to private businesses thrown increasingly into an expanding global market seeking new regions capable of providing buyers, workers, and materials. In time, the vocation of comparison became part of the unconscious of area studies, as the unit of the nation-state took precedence over all other considerations. Instead of envisaging genuinely interdisciplinary agendas that were able to integrate different disciplines, area studies have too often settled for simple multidisciplinarism, substituting coverage for comparison, language acquisition for method, the nation-state for the totality of the cultural region. Benedict Anderson's recent Spectre of Comparisons reminds us of the role played by area studies programs in the American academic profession during the nervous days of the Cold War and the wartime exigencies that led to their postwar organization and installation in a number of universities. But it also recalls for us the comparative promise associated with area studies and how it was either redirected to a multidisciplinary approach poorly disguised as interdisciplinarism or simply incorporated into large developmental narratives like modernization theory. It is instructive to see how Anderson's own work, rather than Southeast Asian area studies, has been able to achieve the remote goal of integration and comparison in a number of stunning examples that have eluded the collective efforts of many institutional programs. This singular success magisterially discloses how he was trained to envisage the region as a "unified" area studies program, even though little more than a geographical term named this unity, and what he needed to do to actually realize the dim prospect of achieving some sort of larger, integrated understanding, which was eventually inscribed in his seminal book, Imagined Communities. At the most basic level, Anderson was able to secure this effect first by roaming around the area (turning his banishment from Indonesia in 1972 to good use by shifting his attention to Thailand and then the Philippines). Yet, as his essays show, there were other, more intellectually and epistemologically compelling reasons which, if amplified, might provide such diversity with a sense of commonality that only geography and the putatively integrative approach of an area studies program seemed willing to promise even as they failed to deliver.
Anderson situates his own intellectual trajectory within the institutional circumstances of the region as an area studies which he and his contemporary fellow students "helped give a certain reality" [Spectre 19]. In fact, "Southeast Asia" has always been [End Page 135] the common frame that structured the particular relationship between Europe of the colonizers and its Asian colonized and thus became the location that best exemplified for him the peculiar nature of the "haunting," as he puts it, as both the place of comparison and the necessity of comparability. In other words, Southeast Asia was the locus that best afforded a sighting of the spectacle of specters that recalled authorizing sister images in Europe and provided a perspective that was necessarily comparative. In Anderson's reckoning, comparison first referred to the circulation of images between metropole and colony and secondly between the various colonial sites that constituted Southeast Asia. As a result, Southeast Asia, and by extension all colonies, became the overdetermined place of haunting.
Beyond the agency of the war, of course, was the experience of colonialism and those first modern interpreters of Asia who, as administrators, spent long years in the field serving imperial bureaucracies and who were in the incomparable position of examining such sites...