Interview with Benedict Anderson: Being a cosmopolitan without needing to travel

During my research for the new overview over open access anthropology journals, I made many great discoveries. I’ll try to present some of them.

One of the discoveries was Invisible Culture. An electronic journal for visual culture. The most recent issue includes an interview with famous Benedict Anderson about colonial cosmopolitism or cosmopolitism from below.

Cosmopolitism does not mean that you have to spend more time in airports than in your own bed. You don’t need to travel at all, Anderson, the author of “Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism” says.

In this interview he takes a different take on this term than in 2005 when I interviewed him. “I haven’t met many cosmopolitans in my life, perhaps no more than five", he said.

In the interview in Invisible Culture, he tells us the story of Kwee Thiam Tjing, a poor Chinese-Indonesian journalist, in order to explore the role of cosmopolitanism in the life of the “colonial subject". Kwee lived in Indonesia.

Anderson says:

In terms of colonial cosmopolitanism, I thought it was interesting because this guy was absolutely a cosmopolitan, but he almost never went anywhere—not even to China, as many of his Chinese acquaintances did. So I had to think about cosmopolitanism to talk about Kwee.

Interviewer Cynthia Foo asks Anderson how he would describe Keew as a cosmopolitan.

Anderson answers:

His family had been in Indonesia for 300 years, but Dutch colonial policy had been always, as much as possible, to segregate the Chinese and not let them assimilate with the natives (a policy which was of course quietly resisted). So Kwee was very aware of the fact that he wasn’t a native of the country, although he was extremely patriotic about the country.

He spoke Hokkien, which nobody except the Chinese spoke, as well as Indonesian and Javanese. He started out, really, with 4 languages: he had a home or “in-the-house” language of Hokkien; he spoke Javanese, which is a street language; Dutch he got in school; and Indonesian he learned in his teens, I think, maybe early 20s, because that was the popular medium for writing in newspapers and magazines.

 So you start off with a guy who at 20 is a master of 4 languages, and you’ve got something right there.

The second thing to add was that this was a very rich colony, yet little Holland didn’t have the power to say “only for us,” so all kinds of people came to seek their fortunes: Indians came, Yemenese came, Europeans of different kinds—Germans, Austrians, English, Americans—and so forth. This is why the population was very mixed; there was also a huge migration of natives, mainly Javanese, from the interior where people were looking for better ways to live. The Chinese ghetto system broke down in the 1910s, so, wherever you went, you were running into all kinds of people.

>> read the whole interview


Owen Sichone: Poor African migrants no less cosmopolitan than anthropologists

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Thomas Hylland Eriksen: Cosmopolitanism is like respecting the ban on smoking in the public

For an Anthropology of Cosmopolitanism

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