TAMARA LOOS: Welcome everyone. Thank you for coming. I'm Tamara Loos. I'm the director of the Southeast Asia program. And we're going to try to start pretty much right on time. Before I introduce the speaker, please let me say a few words about Frank Golay, after whom this lecture series is named.
Golay is a Filipinist, or was a Filipinist. He joined Cornell in the 1950s and taught economics here. We're grateful to his wife Clara, who unfortunately recently passed away, because she along with many others, some of whom I think are in this room, helped establish the Golay endowment that supports this lecture series. It's my genuine honor to introduce to you our speaker giving the ninth Golay Memorial Lecture, Professor Benedict Anderson.
He's the professor emeritus of Government and Southeast Asian Studies at Cornell. Many of you probably know this already. Professor Anderson was born in Kunming, China to an English mother and an Anglo-Irish father who served in China's Maritime Customs Service from just about the beginning of World War I to the beginning of World War II. From China, the family moved to various places, including-- and not in this order-- London, Waterford, Ireland, Colorado, and California.
Now as an aside, those of us who have had the benefit of studying with Professor Anderson have witnessed SoCal's sartorial influence on him-- the ubiquitous poncho-- I don't know if you will remember that-- which he often wore to class. And just a week ago, at a conference on Thailand, he sported surfer shorts and sandals. It was very chic.
As a young man, Professor Anderson graduated from Cambridge in Classics and winded up almost by chance at Cornell in 1958. He came here to study government with Professor George Kahin. And he also said he came here-- and this is a quote from an article he had written-- for no better reason than that Indonesia was in the news. And he talks a little bit about the chance and chances that play a role in the choices we make.
He conducted fieldwork in Indonesia, which was politically explosive in the 1960s, yet also a place he found infinitely rich to experience in full. Not just in terms of the politics but perhaps more importantly, in terms of the language and culture that imbued his days and nights on Java. Professor Anderson's dissertation research on the 1945 Indonesian revolution resulted in his acclaimed book, Java in a Time of Revolution.
His work with Ruth McVeigh on the 1965 coup that led to the massive purge of Indonesian communists became known as the Cornell Paper and led eventually to his being banned from Indonesia for 26 years. His scholarship on Indonesia continued despite the ban. And it led him to adopt an even wider comparative perspective, with significant research on Thailand and the Philippines, learning Thai and Tagalog and Spanish along the way.
Professor Anderson is most widely known for his 1983 masterpiece, Imagined Communities-- Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. The last I checked, this was translated into about 30 languages. He's also published widely-- and I stopped counting after 350-- on literature. He's produced translations, Congressional and UN testimonies, film studies, sexuality studies, and recently, on Buddhist hell.
As if this was not impressive enough, he began the now award-winning journal Indonesia while he was still a graduate student at Cornell in 1966. He served as editor for 18 years, which is a labor of love. In the first issue of the journal, his editorial note highlighted a few themes that characterized his scholarly approach more generally.
He aimed to create a fiercely interdisciplinary field of Indonesian studies. So culture, literature, language, the arts, now film, were seen as essential as a window onto understanding a place, including that place's politics, economics, and history. His work has long been recognized as stellar in this regard, if his honors and awards are any indication. I did not list them all, just listed a few here.
He's a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Philosophical Society. He was awarded, among many other things, Fukuoka Prize in 2000 for Outstanding Scholarship on Asia. And most recently, he was awarded the Hirshman Prize in 2011 by the Social Science Research Council.
On a more personal note, as a former student of Professor Anderson's, I can honestly say that he was intimidating, even in the poncho. And I never worked harder to please. I don't think any of us did. But it made all of us better scholars. In the classroom, I remember his twist on the Socratic method.
We had just read-- actually [? Adjunct ?] [? Huck ?] and I just assigned parts of this book-- William Skinner's ruling 300-plus page book on the Chinese in Thailand. And this is a mammoth, encyclopedic text. He stood before us at the beginning of class, and he asked the simple question, what's missing? We shrank.
Nothing-- I mean, Skinner sieve's so tightly woven, there was nothing he didn't include in that book. There was about an hour of silence. And I think he took a nap. I'm not sure. No one raised their hand. The point is, the idea of absences, searching for them, is a theme in all of his courses and maybe the inspiration for his best works.
In a world overflowing, brimming to the gills with data, when we struggle to discern the useful from the useless, Professor Anderson's lesson to look for absences is apropos. And with that, I would like to introduce Professor Benedict O'Gorman Anderson, who will talk to us about letters, secrecy, and the information age-- the trajectory of historiography in Southeast Asia.
BENEDICT ANDERSON: Thank you all. Am I audible in the back or not? It's OK? Anybody who says no should say, no, no, no, loudly. First of all, I want to thank our director for an embarrassingly long introduction. And at least she put in a lot of teases and jokes, which makes me feel much better.
And she explained the Golay lecture and its origins. And I'm very proud to be the ninth person who will give you this talk. I have to warn you that this is a rather eccentric and experimental talk. And the reason is this, that as the Golay Lecture Series has been intended to do two things, or actually one thing, which is to find a way to reach over the typical campus walls of each discipline, of each area studies and many other things.
So what I'm going to try to do is to speak to you in some way which is open to try to make an opening with the larger campus community. This isn't an easy task. But I decided to write or speak about the life and death of archives. That is covered, in some way, by letters, secrecy, and the information age.
And I'm doing this, I should say, frankly, in honor of what I regard as the most important institutional network at Cornell, and its network of fantastic libraries and all the people who are responsible for keeping those libraries as fantastic as they really are. We can't live without libraries.
And we have a terrific one here. So this is a thank you letter to libraries, and especially ours. This talk is broken into five related, but probably you will find other eccentric sections. The first section I call the specter of the state without archives.
And let me spend about five minutes on this. The great Somali novelist, Nuruddin Farah, during the 1970s when he had already gone into almost permanent exile from his home country, he wrote these three novels as part of a trilogy, which he called the Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship.
It's a portrait of his country's terrifying experiences during the first decade of General Siad Barre's ruthless autocracy, which began with a coup in 1969 and ended in a civil war in 1991, from which Somalia is still in many ways still suffering, which is 20 years later.
The reader learns that-- learns, at least is told-- that the regime actually puts nothing on paper. And all orders, threats, decisions, and dreams are conveyed by unidentified whispering voices on unplaceable telephones. Written communications from the citizenry are never answered. In this way, the Somali state, which is disintegrating actually, was described as a state without archives.
And under this dictatorship by the mouth and by the ear, not the eye, information such as it is, consists of rumors, mostly, it turns out, initiated by the dictatorship itself. Middle class opponents of the regime are scared enough to destroy their personal and family archives. If they're interrogated in safe houses, neither questions nor answers are recorded.
There are no meaningful courts. This is not an exact picture at all of the regime, but it's a kind of grotesque or scary caricature or allegory of the regime. And you can see that the novelist in exile is thinking of himself as you can imagine somebody like Borges or as the archivist without archives as well as Walter [? Brenneman's ?] fabled storyteller.
The following reader will find that the allegorical novel's mix of magical and social realism is quite riveting. You can't put the books down. But he or she needs to be reminded that the Somalis had never had a state of their own and never had monarchies. And they fell into British and Italian imperial hands-- British in the north, Italians in the South-- in the late 19th century.
And this lasted until the middle of World War II, when the fascist regime in Italy collapsed and the British were asked by the-- what was left of the League of Nations to take a mandate to put the two colonies together and prepare for independence around 1960.
This new independent state, which barely exists now, was extremely poor. And the literacy rate was extremely low too. A standard Somali writing system didn't exist until the early 1970s in the early days of the dictatorship. And it's interesting that the autocrat himself actually created a large number of primary schools and secondary schools, which were all obliged to use text in the printed Somali language.
This program obviously had its positive sides. But as in many other post-World War II new states, behind it lay a hidden agenda for the long run. This can be described as the linguistic isolation or sequestering of the colonial archives in order to make them not disappear, but unreadable.
It was easy to do this, you can imagine, in the former parts that were Italian. Because once the fascist regime collapsed, there was nobody going to teach anybody Italian any more, although Nuruddin Farah himself actually always in his novels calls the capital of his country Mogadiscio, whereas of course in the atlas today, which is Italian, today you will find as simply Mogadishu.
English archives are not so easily put aside, given the enormous global hegemony of American or Anglo-American language. So this just gives you an idea of how a very gifted novelist conceives of the relationship between the state and the archive. And it's always negative. That is, the regime is the stronger the less archives there are, which is not the normal way we think about things.
The second topic is a continuation of this. And it's about the isolation or sequestration of languages in the Third World eruption of nationalist movements, some heavily armed, some not so, and the consequences of this enormous break that is the breakdown of classical colonialism from the middle '40s up until, let's say, somewhere in the-- goes on in the Portuguese empire til 1970. But let's just say roughly 1960.
I want to show you two cases which are in some ways similar in other ways quite different in the process of how and why this sequestration of colonial files has come about. And what does it mean to say to be sequestered or isolated? Let me start with the Philippines.
Spain ruled most of today's Philippines for somewhere between 300 and 350 years, during which time a huge accumulation of Spanish language archives of different kinds were accumulated, both in the colony itself and in Madrid. Unlike the situation in Spanish America, where the population was over time heavily Hispanicized, so there was no problem about having Spanish as the national language of a dozen or so states, the Philippines was not like that.
Only at the very end of the Spanish regime, which collapsed in 1998, the number of people who could speak and read Spanish fluently was very small, maybe not more than 5% or so. The Protestant Americans who first defeated the Spanish and then paid them an obnoxiously small amount of money to take over the colony, there was a very interesting transformation which is the Americans who were very Protestant in those days were completely contemptuous of what they regarded as feudal, Catholic Spaniards or Spanish Catholics, and worked very hard to create a new, expanded educational system which would displace Spanish and replace it by American.
And by the end of the colonial period, it was estimated that something like 14% of the population could speak English or American reasonably. But this was less than two of the internal domestic languages. But since many members of the first generation of upper class politicians under the Americans came from mixed backgrounds, mestizos of Spanish blood, Chinese blood, and local blood, and because there was still a kind of social prestige attached to Spanish, they went on talking in Spanish, even as the files, the archives became more and more American.
And there were even really attempts after World War II to revive or to do something about Spanish in the Philippines. And this was subsidized for quite a long time by none other than one of our favorite figures, Generalissimo Francisco Franco, the dictator of Spain forever and ever. And this lasted until he died. After that, there's not much left, except in small, elite circles.
And this is meant in effect that the intervention of the Americans has actually made the Spanish archives pretty much illegible. There are some people, scholars, who work on them. But it's much easier for everybody to just use the American files, complicated by the fact that in the after independence, there was a decision to make Tagalog, which was spoken in those days primarily around Manila-- to make it a national language has made the situation more difficult.
It's still not really accepted at the colloquial a national language, and is unable to replace that of the empire. The irony is this. If the Americans had supported or at least didn't interfere with the first republic of the Philippines, which lasted just less than a year in 1998, you can be only sure that these people who ran this short republic were all Spanish speakers, would have made sure that the educational system would have been based on the Spanish. So in this way, the isolation of one of the really beautiful languages, Spanish, would not have happened. In the case of Indonesia, we have something quite different but very interesting. The consequences are rather similar.
As you may know, for the first 200 years of Dutch meddling in the archipelago, that is basically the 18th and 17th centuries, power is exerted, not by a royal state as in the case of Portugal, Spain, or England, but of a gigantic transnational corporation called the United East Indies Corporation, a company which was dominated by Dutchmen but had lots of different kinds of people from northern Protestant America plus people from Africa and India and so forth and so forth. This company was a real company, like all the ones we know and don't like here, which is that they are not interested typically in doing anything except making money.
And this was the case with the UEIC. That is, they saw no reason to educate anybody in Dutch. It was kept as the language of reporting to the headquarters in Amsterdam.
But they discovered-- and it was a brilliant discovery-- that actually it was an existing lingua franca all across the archipelago, what is today Malaysia, Philippines, and so forth, Indonesia, which was used before the arrival of the Dutch and developed after the Dutch arrived as a lingua franca linking monarchies and traders and merchants traveling through these waters.
And what the company had to basically say, well, that's fine. We're going to use that too. So you can find in your archives there are plenty of missives and things dealing with foreigners or not Dutchmen, which are actually written in bad but legible Malay.
And the consequence of this in the long run is that when a true colony was formed-- and there's a bit of interesting history there in 1815-- London [? heavily ?] defeated in the [INAUDIBLE] and eager not to have the Prussians and the French occupying the river mouths opposite England. They enforced and put a monarch on the throne, which was a startling development, because for 200 years the Dutch had never had a monarchy. They were a republic.
And the colony fell as the private property of the monarch and his sons. And therefore it was only really in the end of the 19th century that the Dutch started to think about really opening schools seriously, because the times were changing and economies were changing and so forth. And this was not very successful.
If you look at the numbers of people who graduated even from high school, it's tiny compared to the 60 million population at the time. And one reason it didn't work very well was the Dutch themselves were not confident of the prestige of their own language. They knew very well that nobody outside Holland spoke Dutch. And nobody intended to know it.
This is different from the arrogance of the French and the British, who assumed that everybody wanted to know French and used it in English too. So there was this sort of nervousness about this. And that means that the kind of program to Dutchify the native population never really amounted to much. And when the Japanese occupied or conquered the islands in the 1940s, Dutch was basically ready to be destroyed. It was destroyed by the Japanese.
It was destroyed by the revolution that followed immediately after the World War II and by decision taken already in the '20s by young nationalists that the country would have a single national language, which would be based on the lingua franca and had the enormous advantage of not belonging to any particular ethnic group. Dutch simply stopped being taught. And once the generation that was educated in colonial schools was gone or was retired, then there was nobody much for speaking for this language, although there's a huge file on the history of the country.
In the '80s and '90s, there were attempts made in Holland to give scholarships to get young Indonesian intellectuals or students to study Dutch in Holland. Spent a lot of money on that. But the signs of its success are very limited. People went because they wanted to see the world. But how much they really absorbed Dutch is a very big question.
Now, these cases are not the same. But they have something in common, which one can see I think in other parts of the so-called Third World. That is that archives get isolated, get segregated when there is a violent or fairly violent overthrow of the existing regime, when the incoming rulers decide they want to really install a new kind of archive which will take the place of the one that was there. And the easiest way to do that without a lot of money and energy is to switch languages.
And what you see in both the Philippines and Indonesia that each of them got rid of one language, killing their language, and in the case of the Philippines, they had to keep the American one. At the same time-- and it's interesting that in metropolis themself-- I'm thinking about London, Amsterdam, Paris, and so forth-- once colonialism is dead, it really is dead in the sense that the French people, the British people, and the Dutch people lose interest in the colonies. It's over.
And therefore in a certain kind of way, these vast archives are open. You can go and read what you want. But Indonesia is not really taken seriously as a part of the history of-- I mean, everybody knows they were there, but for young Dutch people, it's increasingly irrelevant. And of course the use of the archives in Jakarta itself is also quite limited.
You can see the same kind of thing happening in the fall of Nazi Germany wherein all Hitler's files were made available, or most of them. And you can see it obviously in the Soviet Union for a short time after the end of Communism, when very secret archives were open for the first time for research. So any regime that is steady and doesn't have big troubles can hide its secrets better than those that are born and die in turmoil.
The third topic I want to raise is something which I am calling leakage. And it's a very short section, because I want to describe something which is relevant to many Third World countries and perhaps one day is going to be relevant even in the north, as it were.
When I'm talking about leakage, I'm not talking about Wikipedia. When I first came to Indonesia in 1962, it was very clear that the country was already having rising inflation and that hyperinflation was a real possibility for the next few years. And as I stayed there until 1964, I could experience the hyperinflation itself.
And what I found when trying to do research for my thesis was that in the flea markets of Jakarta, one can find and perhaps buy very cheaply, not only a huge number of Dutch language magazines, books, and so forth from the colonial period, texts and journals in regional languages, including Chinese, which were longer in print, publications of the Japanese occupation, and so forth.
It was clear that this huge flow of things that some were extremely precious came from the fact that the private libraries, built by middle class people mostly, who were the children or close families of these people who had libraries could no longer survive on their present income. And they started to sell these pre-colonial or these colonial-era books and things because they had no use for themselves. They couldn't read them. And it was simply a way to avoid sinking into poverty.
But the striking thing is that, as far as I ever discovered, I never found any bundle of private letters. That is, private letters were the things that were kept when everything else was sold. The most startling discovery was that you could find, almost everywhere in the flea markets, five kilo or 10 kilo-- they were heavily measured-- packets, bundles, of which the inside was state archives.
The flea market people bought these bundles-- perhaps they made the bundles themselves-- because in very straightened economic circumstances, the paper could be used for insulation in homes. It could be used for lighting and keeping stoves going and also for packaging this and that.
And nobody was expected to read these leaked files. They were just energy, if you like, in some form or another. And the sellers would tell you if you asked, quite frankly.
Well, most of this stuff comes from lower, middle level civil servants whose already low salaries are being ruined by hyperinflation, which is reducing the value of their income they by day. And their only way out was to steal and sell whatever files or documents that they could lay their hands on so that the state archive was actually leaking and leaking and leaking like crazy in those years.
We were also told later that the ministries didn't have money to create archives to house them, to look after them, to catalog them. Universities were still in their infancy and didn't have resources or professionalism, financial support, protection, et cetera, et cetera. So there was no obvious alternative, that is, to put the archives into universities or anything like that.
When I look back on the sources of my thesis-- I never talked about this before, but just for fun, I did this time-- it's really quite amazing that there's a lot of resources from the colonial archives, which include the interrogations of Japanese prisoners of war. The Japanese basically tried to burn everything they had before they surrendered as war.
And the second is these interviews. And interviews are quite fascinating of veterans and political leaders. But what didn't come into my bibliography was any serious state archives. Couldn't find them. Didn't know where they were and maybe they weren't there because they had long gone to the flea market.
And this is one reason why, when I was sent to Indonesia or went to Indonesia with various graduate students like myself, we were given warm instructions by one of Cornell's great men, Professor John Eccles from the Modern Language Department in those days, who spent a huge amount of his life without any penny to building the Southeast Asia Library Collection, which is universally regarded as the best in the world.
And what he did for us was to say, look, we're not going there. Everything is being destroyed. People are burning as they shouldn't be burning. People lose things. Please bring back anything you can, and we will reimburse you.
Well, we got into the spirit of doing this, as it were, for scholarship and also for Cornell. I don't remember ever actually asking for any money for the things that I was able to bring back to Cornell. And that's very important element in the building of the program.
OK, we've got two more to go. The fourth one takes us a bit back to Nuruddin Farah, who titled it Autocracy and Paranoia. And it's more about what happens in the height of the Cold War in Southeast Asia, which was really at its height from the end of the '50s until the end of the '70s.
In that period, many of what were once reasonably democratic and constitutional regimes crumbled before military dictatorships backed, I'm sorry to say, by the US of A, and of course the successful Communist autocracies in Indochina. Now as you can imagine, under autocratic regimes, everybody has to be very careful.
And the paranoia that occurs in Nuruddin's novel is not fictitious. People were very scared about what files they kept and where they kept them. And especially after the massacres of Communists on the colossal scale, in the hundreds of thousands of people. Even more people were scared as to what might be found by the regime-- very important.
But I think actually, beneath this simple fear, especially among people who you would expect to keep a lot of documents because they're high politicians, bureaucrats, and intellectuals and so forth, what you find is in fact the deepest possible suspicion of any national archive, in fact, almost any archive except perhaps sometimes safely in the American institution.
Handed over to the state, the idea was this. You handed it over to the state private letters, memoranda, diaries would if not lost, if not destroyed, deliberately or accidentally, quietly sold off to flea markets. Could be used to damage their political and moral reputations.
That is the fear that the really personal documents could ruin them politically and perhaps even legally. So typically, these documents where they survive, are kept inside the family. But as you can imagine, over time, from parents to children to grandchildren, interest in the family file and capacity to safeguard it as time passes means that there is a kind of, from what I know of the documents, they're put in an attic somewhere.
People forget where they are. Bad rains come. We forgot to make-- get rid of all the water. Rats are running loose, and so forth. What's interesting is that the grandchildren typically are not interested in the, as it were, the secret files of Grandpa.
They didn't read it. But as a family property and as a kind of totem for the distinction of the lineage, hey, grandfather-- you used to be the governor of what, what, what, and so forth, that's enough for social climbing. It's not necessary to read the documents themselves, as long as they're there.
That's pretty much most-- in my experience, and it's very interesting thing, you could interview people quite easily in Indonesia and later about other countries that I worked in, very easy to get interviews. But the best interviews were always the ones where the interviewee didn't want to be recorded on tape.
Why not? Where's it going to go? But he doesn't know where it's going to go, but you can never tell. But at the same time, this generosity in terms of stories, anecdotes, memories of all kinds, I find it almost impossible to see or read any of these secret family archives. I don't think I've ever seen one.
Oral memory, which there's plenty of, is wonderful and often funny and to the point. But it is profoundly unreliable. The older people get, as I know to my cost, the less you really remember. You remember what you want to remember and that's all. But distrust of universities and libraries also is a function of their politicization as social conflicts, political conflicts became worse.
And as far as the universities were a politicized state and eventually also private ones, it was very difficult for libraries to get going on this. They didn't have the financial resources. They didn't have the technology. They didn't have the professional capacities to collect, safeguard, and organize the documents, to say nothing about reliability of a promised time concerns.
That is, they were, please don't open this file until 30 years. You can be sure that within nine years, it would somehow appear or would somehow have been opened. So distrust is very important to the history of the archive or archives in places like Indonesia.
Actually there were few very extraordinary exceptions. And the one I just want to mention briefly is this. The very long-lived literary critic H.B. Jassin who knew almost every Indonesian writer of his generation and, more important, corresponded constantly with them, created a unique archive of almost all the important and even not very important writers and poets of that time.
And these were kept by him as open to the public and had nothing to do with family. It had to do with an idea of duty to the country. And as long as he was alive, it was carefully looked after, cataloged and so forth.
But after his death, as you might expect, money became scarcer. The Indonesian state, which is run basically by barbarians or philistines, never read anything except newspapers or probably porno magazines, I don't know. In any case, they're not destroyed. This kind of institute is not destroyed, but it's not going to be helped very much. And so it's basically stagnant since the old man died.
One outcome of this imbalance between-- or this situation is a fascinating imbalance between biographies and autobiographies. Those of you who study other parts of the Third World will be interesting to know what you think about this. But my impression is that serious biographies of important people, intellectuals, military, politicians and so forth in the region are actually quite rare. And most of the ones that we know of, that I know of were done by foreigners who don't run any real risks, at least normally don't run any great risks. Whereas writing a biography in your own country of people who are still alive or just passed away, very incalculable repercussions might come from it. Even foreigners sometimes get badly punished.
The famous example of recent years is a book called The King Who Never Smiles, written by a American reporter, Paul Handley, who studied and gathered information over years to write this biography, which is not-- it's critical, but it's not damning in any way. And the first reaction of the state in the form of the king was to try to get Yale University Press to stop, not to publish the book and to burn whatever there existed of it in their offices.
For once, Yale had some spine and said no. Immediately, the book was banned in Thailand. Of course secret copies circulated around. And Handley himself was, as it were, permanently exiled from a country he was very fond of. Obviously local scholars run more risks.
But there are a few, and these interesting cases, where the grandchildren or children of a very top political figure, who somehow after his death was despised and written down and so forth, may have enough in the family files to publish books defending their grandfathers.
And these rare but very thick volumes actually are full of stuff that otherwise no one would ever see. For it isn't if the grandchildren are all lousy. Some of them quite dedicated, even though these books are of course, naturally-- Granddad was perfect is the main theme.
There is one extraordinary case to the lack of serious biographies. And this is so interesting that it will tell you something about how archives changed under different regimes and different times. And that is this, that there are dozens and dozens of books about the great Filipino hero Jose Rizal.
It's amazing how many there are, but the reason why there are so many is because in the American period, for reasons that I mentioned, lots of people got together to collect all his correspondence. And it wasn't very long after he had been executed by the Japanese and when things was quite fresh.
And volume after volume after volume-- I think there are 20 in all-- of his letters probably cataloged put in chronological order, divided by subject matter, and so forth. This guy never stopped writing. And these are extraordinary impressive record of the personal and intellectual life of one of the great men of Southeast Asia. There's nothing like that for any other person in modern Southeast Asian history. And it's fantastic.
And you can go on writing books about him on the basis of these really amazing, sometimes funny, sometimes very desperate letters that he wrote to hi family, to his friends, against this enemies, foreign scholars who are interested in him, and so forth and so forth.
It's very cosmopolitan in many ways, which is very unlike the files of most Southeast Asian people of that period. The question is, why did this vast collection of letters came into existence was the good luck that the Americans had no invested interest in Rizal.
He had been killed by the lousy Spanish, so that there was no attempt by the Americans to, as it were, isolate him. In fact they helped to popularize a kind of cult of Rizal. And I think that some of the money, quite a lot of the money, for the publication of these letters came from the colonial government.
The irony of this is that if Rizal had not been executed at 35 and had lived to be 80, that is well into the Japanese occupation, we have no idea what would have happen to those documents in dark times. The American era was the right time, because everything was more or less orderly and people felt an obligation to the national heroes. So these letters that he wrote with the cooperation of his family created this absolutely exceptional archive.
It's the most open archive I can imagine, and very rare. They were getting-- contrastively, autobiographies are very common. And you find them given mainly by retired generals and retired politicians, some retired intellectuals-- not many.
Typically, they are vanity publications, usually without any footnotes or if the footnotes are there, they're probably wrong, contain a lot of lies, lots of omissions, ugly prose, and so on. Nonetheless, they're always very readable, because you want to see, ah, it's like, gotcha. When you read this thing, oh my God, look what he said, this, that, and the other. So it actually is quite fun.
But curiously enough, in contrast to these vanity autobiographies, everybody who's anybody wants to have even if it's ghostwritten by something else, they'd love the idea that my life is there for everybody to admire. There are some remarkable documents from the colonial period in the form of truncated autobiographies, which are absolutely opposite to this. And these are really not very well known on the whole. I will only pick one, which is in some ways for me the most remarkable document which has never been published in complete form.
It's a story about a truly horrendous childhood and adolescence of a young boy in East Java in the late teens or '20s. Was written when he was about 28 years old. And it's about his life, really until he was about 22. It's written in rather clunky, sometimes, Malay, but it's absolutely intelligible.
And what's interesting about it is that it's recurrent primarily on what happened to him when his parents broke up. The father went to jail. The mother was forced to marry a brute who constantly beating the little boy. Stopped him from going to school.
And finally at the age of 15, he ran away, all alone with no money and started roaming the East Java province, barely surviving. But it's an absolutely fascinating account of absolute poverty, absolute abjection, and so forth. And it's told with amazing honesty and grief, bitterness, but very sharp social critic.
The thing that really makes it really extraordinary is the fact that in the first part of this document-- it's quite long-- there is a whole section devoted to this boy when he was 13 years old, had a love affair with a senior boy was two years older than him. And the story of that lasted a year, because then the parents took the children away in different directions.
The crucial thing is the unbelievable frankness. It's not pornographic at all, But he tells you what lovers do. And there's never been a single book written in Indonesian since then which talks about the young man, although they were actually just boys, really deeply in love with each other.
And it's very touching, and also at the same time it's very funny. And how this got into the colonial archive is not very clear. It probably came from a Dutch civil servant who worked to know this guy and [? payed ?] to copy them.
In the 1970s, a well-meaning Chinese doctor decided, this is important. And he published a version of it in which almost everything except the sex was left out. And not surprisingly, it was immediately banned by the regime.
And it's [INAUDIBLE] because actually, the whole thing is all about social conditions, about social stratification, about why people are so miserable, and so forth. It's really a very fascinating book. And you can be sure that this kind of document would never enter the Republic of Indonesia's archives. It would be thrown out or burned. So [INAUDIBLE] has to have things in them which need to be looked at.
I'm going to end now. The topic is the twilights of letters. This is a little bit personal. I hope you don't mind if it's annoying to you. My mother died in 1990. I realized at that point I was no longer getting any letters, letters from home. She had faithfully written to me every 10 days or so since I left for America in 1958.
And I replied, not quite as diligently. But there it was. I took these letters completely for granted and always answered fairly promptly. And both of us spent money on stamps and sending. And we didn't wait particularly. Letter would come in, money would come in.
And it was nice when it came, but there was no anxiety about the correspondence at all. Walter [? Brenneman ?] famously says that one feels the beauty of things at the moment that they are vanishing. And I remember after she died, I looked at all her letters, which I'd kept quite faithfully, with no particular purposes.
And I found something absolutely astounding, that in all those letters she wrote in those years-- she wrote in ink on paper. And in all those letters, that wasn't a single deletion, a single crossing. She wrote. She thought about what she was going to write, and she wrote it.
And I discovered later that my grandfather's letters and my father's letters too that these people were absolutely astounding. They wrote reports. They were diaries and so forth-- no crossing out, no white paint, no delete. It's really astonishing. You can see how a reflective culture, which is still very dear to me, still to this day.
I used often to send letters to her that were not handwritten, but were on a ratty old typewriter. And it still has a certain kind of life, because you can see the typical typographical mistakes I made and was too lazy to change.
It's full of blotches and so forth, but it's my blotches, not somebody else's blotches. And the reason for this, obviously, which we all know, is that there are enormous pressures to speed everything up. And in fact the early computers were regarded basically as high speed electric typewriters and were used.
It was not until the arrival of the internet or worldwide whatever it is came into existence. I should say also that I look at those letters and I can see still traces. She kept some of my letters, not all. You can see the blotch of the tuna salad sandwich had somehow got there.
And you could also see, my mother had a way that she would tilt her sentences slightly upwards across the page if she was feeling good and slightly down on the other side. Even if what she said was cheerful, if I saw the sentence going down, I knew she wasn't happy. So there were all these very private and close and intimate things which I still miss a lot.
And the crucial thing is we didn't write with attachments and we didn't write with forward, please. Letters were supposed to be private. And if you wanted to send it to somebody else, you had to ask permission. And that's, I think, disappeared.
The whole idea of sending any letter simultaneously to a couple of hundred people was absolutely unthinkable in that time. I knew that if I had destroyed the letters, they would be gone forever. That was it. I was the last guardian, if you can put it.
Now when the computers began-- and we're getting near the end, I hope-- what one finds is that people used them, I think, to correct spelling, get rid of indiscretions, edit all kinds of written documents, which they were able to do much more efficiently than the electronic, electric typewriters. Still, even at that stage, one printed final drafts and one still paid for stamps and still sent the letter as first hand documents.
But then came very fast, the era of the internet. And I remember when I first, as it were, got smacked in the head by it-- it's a ridiculous story about my ridiculousness, so I don't mind telling it to you. I gave a talk at the University of Indiana about that time.
And in the course of the talk, at the end of it, I made some snarky and badly informed comments on what the internet was all about, and so forth. And then at the end, there was a woman in the audience, quite a large audience, who was enraged and got up and said, how could you talk like this essentially this disgusting way that you've been discussing this.
Let me tell you that the best sex I've ever had in my life, I had on the internet. She went on to say that her partner was South African and that she didn't need to meet him. And she hadn't. I was completely stunned. I'm sorry, she meets him in the cyber sphere.
I couldn't think of what to say. What really astonished me was that the youngsters in the audience-- undergraduates and so forth, graduate students-- enthusiastically applauded her, and without irony about the meaning. It was clear the intention was, go, go, go. And it was very supportive.
And I was just really amazed, because all I could think of at the time-- I didn't know what to say at all. And suddenly it occurred to me, I started to think about what happens to cheap red wine in Catholic churches at mass. That is, they become transfigured. And I started to think, well, does the internet actually make it possible to be transfigurative in other circumstances?
Let me conclude with what I consider the interesting contrast between the letter and the e-mail message, or if you like, communication. Because when often people do this, and it's quite interesting, if one opens one's laptop one notes at least five characteristics of that machine, compared to the former, that is, the letters. The first is easy, simple.
It must be surely the sheer volume of messages, which in my personal experience is at least 10 times, maybe 15 times, what it was per day, compared to the early '90s, when I was still-- or '80s, when I was still writing letters. At the same time, these messages, which pour in all the time, are obviously or straightforwardly so, they are very hectoring. That is the idea. I've just sent you a very fast mail. I want as fast as possible, you send one back to me.
And then I want to know why you haven't written or emailed me in the last 24 hours and so forth, so this very pressure is great. And something that was intended originally to save time-- you got this great communication speaking with anybody in the world, actually take up much more time than letters used to. I reckon probably on average up to two hours a day is spent doing this stuff.
The second thing that's very striking are the command signs on the computer. They really are commands. And behind those commands, there is the real one, which I will reveal to you in a minute. These commands are, Delete, Empty Trash, Forward, Attach, Print, Save. And behind all these, the central sign is, for God's sake, decide, and fast.
There is no sign saying, Reflect. Or, one for Delay. The third, obviously, difference-- you don't in the least feel intimidated by the basic typewriter or one's pen and ink or [? marrow ?] or ballpoint pen. But you can be intimidated by this set of military-like audience.
The third is obviously deep changes in writing style, which come much closer to telephone calls than does the outmoded letter. The need for speed and save time means that typical messages are actually very short, colloquial, clumsy, coy, ungrammatical, plenty of typos-- but who cares anyway-- and using a very limited vocabulary.
The transformation is explicitly visible. This is where a new kind of language is amending a written language, which is not really-- it's halfway between a written language and a phone call. And it can be very funny in the hands of the right person. But the whole of it is very annoying and tedious. That this transformation has shifted into other spheres comes with-- I don't know if any of you here do the New York Times crossword puzzle and compare the crossword puzzles today with what they were like 15 years ago.
And the striking thing is this, that in the old days, 15 years ago, the crossword puzzle was still intended to educate readers, expand their vocabulary, check their spelling and so forth. And basically, the sources you go to-- the standard dictionaries, this has disappeared. Now, I calculate on the basis of a lot of these crossword puzzles is that about 30% of every crossword puzzle doesn't actually have words. It has suffixes.
It has affixes. It has abbreviations. It has acronyms. It has the names of minor TV personalities, long-gone American football or basketball heroes. Once in a while, you might get a foreigner mentioned, but never a Canadian and never a Mexican. And in fact, the easiest way to solve the puzzle, the machine will do it for you. That is, you plug into Google, it's all there, even down to logo names, which the crossword puzzles love, the logo names of various corporations. And who wants to remember that? But Google does it for you. So you can check it.
The fourth, I think, is the obvious one, which is the technique of almost instant reduplication with any number of receivers. And finally, the one I think probably is most important is the question of longevity. Our libraries have in their rare books sections letters which have survived half a millennium. But the life span of messages or communications is likely to be very short.
Printouts decay rapidly. Incessant technological change makes the codes for deciphering old disks from, say, 10 years ago or the forms of storage make these frequently accessible, except for those who have the money and the giant machines which allow for this stuff to be saved. When I kept thinking about this, I thought, the saddest part of the computer's commands is Save, since actually what it really means is Reprieve.
Last word-- a few days ago, I read an interesting article by a well-known historian on the sway of Google, this giant American corporation that covers the world and the reach of digitalization. The author pointed out that the digitalization of an archive can in fact the only done when the site of the documents is known and its contents are already cataloged.
That is, he concluded that the most secret documents in the world are preserved, private letters in places that no one expects and that one knows, and often in languages, hypothetically, languages which very few people understand.
Under these conditions, the research engine has to give way to the slow, dogged, tactful, maybe detective work by diligent single scholars. I don't mean unmarried. I mean individual scholars who very often have to be polyglot. They have to know plenty of languages.
Finding and accessing unknown files is one of the greatest pleasures available to scholars, not least because they never come free of charge. One might even go so far as to say that these unknown collections, none of us knows where they are, are more secret than the most secret of state files, to say nothing of the Vatican. Thank you.
BENEDICT ANDERSON: How did we do? Was that enough or is there a question period or what?
SPEAKER 1: Do you mind fielding your own questions?
BENEDICT ANDERSON: Hmm?
SPEAKER 1: Do you mind fielding your own questions?
BENEDICT ANDERSON: Yeah, I don't know whether-- I hope some people are insufficiently enraged that I can be stunned like I was in Indiana.
SPEAKER 2: You said in the beginning that [INAUDIBLE]
SPEAKER 3: Can you stand up, please?
SPEAKER 2: The regimes with the lesser archive [INAUDIBLE] But I can think of some regimes that hoard and hoard and hoard and hoard. They don't stop. They lock them up. [INAUDIBLE] So are there different kinds of state's regimes that work as [? different ?] [INAUDIBLE]
BENEDICT ANDERSON: Yeah, I deliberately didn't talk about the suppression of archives and hiding because it's too well known. But it's also vulnerable. Somebody someday is going to break the lock or something's going to happen to it. I mean, I think that leakage is what we're going to be looking for-- I mean, don't be too worried about Wikipedia.
But I think it's going to be harder and harder for these locked files to stay locked. And no, there was no doubt one of the reasons why-- I mean, if you look at the Siad Barre regime, I'm sure he was storing documents. But the point is that he told people that they were none at all. Nothing could be traced.
It's a brilliant image. But almost every year you can find some great scandal breaking out in Britain or Paris or Germany or America, whatever it has. And it has origins in the breaking into files that were supposed to be closed.
And sometimes they're just kept because they're so rare. I mean, there are plenty of things in the rebel collection which you're not allowed to take out or not allowed to bring up all point-- anything. I mean, it's very careful to make sure that the space for doing something that you want to do is nil.
And what you have to do is what the rare book room allows you can do. And that's a kind of mild fall of this kind of suppression. People want to actually touch the thing, not read a goddamned copy of it. And it's this kind of aura around letters which is little hopes them alive. Yes?
SPEAKER 4: Many of your students still use archives [INAUDIBLE] These are open archives for [INAUDIBLE] What kind of advice would you have for them now? Should they be working on those archives or [INAUDIBLE] Because these archives [INAUDIBLE]
BENEDICT ANDERSON: It's a highly political institution so that those enormous parts of that file which absolutely closed except for insiders, maybe. And the answer to that is that it's the way all the other archives were opened eventually, which is fall of a regime.
I mean, the minute the monarchy falls, which is a possibility, then the files will be opened or made more open. There's no way that the royal family as it stands now with its power and its money is going to tolerate poking into any archives which they think might be damaging for them.
So we want a bit of-- maybe a mini-revolution wouldn't be a bad idea. I mean, the reason why it's so powerful is because there's never been blocked. That is, Thailand has been subjugated, so that from a distance by Britain and later America.
But the regime has stayed the same, so there's no break in the system which would encourage this. All the other cases that I mentioned, it all depends on a real crisis, either economic or political, which changes the whole condition under which files, archives survive. Yes?
SPEAKER 5: So I'm struck by both the response of the [INAUDIBLE] record [INAUDIBLE] electronic storage capacities. Assuming we get [INAUDIBLE] We can store everything [INAUDIBLE] We can digitize everything. What that does is it changes the point of the texts from being a description of the totality of experience to being a source of a snapshot that can be used for data.
So the most I ever learned about politics in Southeast Asia was when I read the entire newspaper everyday for seven months. When I look at that [? as a focus ?] of data that I can search and count the number of times per day that China is mentioned in [INAUDIBLE] Malaysia, I get nothing but the most superficial understand of what the newspaper's actually trying to tell me. So would you tell the data librarians to continue their wonderful digitization projects or would you encourage them to slow down, read, try to focus on not how much you can do but on small, focused, but more, perhaps, total descriptions of the world that's being described?
BENEDICT ANDERSON: Well, yes. I mean, I have nothing against digitalization itself. What I think this is-- I was going to say Looney Tunes. But actually it reminds me of some of the most brilliant stories by Borges, his fantastic stories about madmen who want to create this, that, and the other.
I mean, the idea that Google is going to have all the information in the world from time, it's not going to happen and it shouldn't happen, because no one country should have of this kind of power. Unfortunately, I think that some of the larger foreign companies, states are saying, we don't need you. We don't need you. Get out of here.
But I mean, it's an enormously-- it's like [INAUDIBLE] build the tower of Babel. You know what happened with that. And I don't believe that. There's a huge problem in translation, because all these automatized translations are just laughable.
And I'm not reading anything that has any depth to it in the original markings. And that's a rather distressing thing, that more and more you see books written in America's scholarly books in which if you look at bibliography, all the publishing, all the books that is rely on is the US or the internet. That shouldn't be right.
And the attempt basically to build Anglo-American into a kind of permanent planetary emperor language, I think it also really produces a lot of junk by people that's not their first language but they feel under pressure to do this. And it also means that people here feel less and less any need to learn any other languages. Ours is the universal language. That's in the back of Google's mind.
This is naturally-- of course I'm very prejudiced. But there's something really ugly about it. I mean, they're making millions, billions of dollars out of this. And in some ways it's worse than the state archives, because it's got higher ambitions. Yes?
SPEAKER 6: Yes. What secret archives would you like to look at if you could look at any secret archives in the world? [INAUDIBLE] focus on [INAUDIBLE]
BENEDICT ANDERSON: It depends what the motivation is. If you want scandal, and scandals that really-- I mean financial scandal is so common that nobody can be excited about them. Obviously sex gossip is something that regimes try to mask as much as possible. So in a sense, if you wanted to make trouble for the regime, that's what you'd look for. But I think these are not really files. They're just items.
The files, obviously everybody wants to see what the intelligence service has been writing to itself other people over a given period of time. This is probably the most secret of these state documents. But it's also tiresome, because somebody made this wonderful note that the relationship between military intelligence and intelligence is the same difference between Mozart and a parade band.
I mean, they're not in the same spirit at all. Why should [? we ?] [? persuade ?] them not to use intelligence anymore. I mean, they should use intelligence, but not call themselves intelligence. Actually, because they collected data as much as they could on all the people they hated.
So it's quite interesting to see what these files and their informants were in destroying reputations, which they all in different ways trying to do. I mean, everybody has their own choice because they want to dig up. But actually, I'm not that interested. But I would love to find an unknown file.
And it's that excitement of being the [INAUDIBLE] seen this [INAUDIBLE]. And what can they do with it, what can they learn from it and so forth. This is the real pleasure, rather than endlessly batting your way in databases and so forth, at least with my temperament. Yes?
SPEAKER 7: As a quite reflective scholar, I wonder if you have self-censored or omitted something in your [INAUDIBLE]
BENEDICT ANDERSON: Well, I think everybody does that, that is you write to communicate, not to confess. That is, you know that your auntie's worried about you and you respond to what she wants to know. And you talk to your colleagues. You don't talk about the quarrel you had with your mother or anything like that. I mean, every letter that you send is based on the idea that it will be replied to.
And therefore you have to create a communication on what concerns them. If you want to write a my true life somewhere, then you can publish it as a book, how scandalous I was and so forth. But in the come and go of these kinds of family letters or personal letters, very often you find it's not so much that you're lying.
You couldn't actually do lying [INAUDIBLE]. Most of it is silence. That is, you don't talk about it. You omit it. Even though the person at the other end actually probably has a pretty good idea of what you're staying silent about.
But there's a kind of decorum, an idea of meddling in other people's affairs too much. It's a very good question. But I think that if you look at your own practice, I mean, when you get onto the internet and look at what you say to different people, it's actually very interesting.
But I certainly don't write the same letters to everybody, except in these terrible forward, mass forwards, which are absolutely empty. I have never seen a circular letter like that [INAUDIBLE] throw away anyway. I mean, it's no fun doing the crossword if you just go to the computer and find all the answers. What's the point?
[? SPEAKER 1: ?] Maybe you could take one more question from over there, and then we'll head to the reception.
SPEAKER 8: You had mentioned before earlier in the Q&A-- and given you quoted [? Brenneman ?] several times, I was thinking about the work of art [INAUDIBLE] It seems as though your [INAUDIBLE] your reflection on what will archives look like and [INAUDIBLE] mechanical reproduction [INAUDIBLE] digital. [? But for many, ?] the end of [? auras ?] and a new sort of [INAUDIBLE] was liberating. He thought it was good because it would open up a new form of political contestation in the way you looked at [INAUDIBLE]. And I wonder if you see any potential for a positive value in the end of [? auras ?] in archives if it will open up any sort of positive political potential for this. Or do you think that the end of [? auras ?] in archives is going to be quite bad [INAUDIBLE]
BENEDICT ANDERSON: It's a very smart question. I mean, it's partly [? Brenneman's-- ?] part of him that I like, which is a kind of romanticism. But I think that the situation of the storyteller, which is eclipsed. He has this long passage where he says that [INAUDIBLE] doesn't exist anymore.
Because what [INAUDIBLE] did to tell you ways to live. And these stories that they tell have a kind of power that even after hundreds of years are still there. And he goes on to say, well, you know, today everything is information.
And the crucial thing about information, which is everywhere, is that it's a-- doesn't matter. It's a-- what he says, it's explanation. Everything has to be explained in information. Once it's been explained, then it has no longer any value.
And obviously he's thinking a bit about the relationship between state documents, for example, and poetry or novels or whatever it is. I mean, I think that-- I can yell. I think I've posed the unknown letters in the place of the storyteller.
May not be worth it. But it has an aura, because nobody knows where it is. And you can go on searching it and never find one at all. But it can to be a kind of passion. Things are retrieved which never thought that they would actually achieve.
And I mean, this is also a romanticized version. I've been as nasty as I can about some things and sympathetic to others. But in a time when everybody's very busy with the internet and et cetera, et cetera, it's seemed to me it might be useful just to remind ourselves of why things lasted so long.
I was looking at something the other day and it was an outstanding collection of letters sent by small merchants in some Italian town in the 14th century that are writing notes to each other, the price has gone up. The fact that this should survive over, what is it, 600 years, I just can't imagine what's going to survive from our time. And how would you know, anyway.
SPEAKER 1: Sorry about the mic. Is it working now?
BENEDICT ANDERSON: I already yelled.
SPEAKER 1: Thank you, Professor Anderson.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about this request.
Benedict Anderson, renowned scholar of Southeast Asian studies and author of
Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, gave the 9th Golay Lecture. His talk "Letters, Secrecy, and the Information Age" reflects on the trajectory historiography in Southeast Asia and traces how information has been stored, circulated, hidden, or extinguished.