Vicente L. Rafael is Professor of History at the University of Washington. His books include
The Accidents of Area Studies: Benedict Anderson and Arjun Appadurai
This chapter offers a set of reflections on the “crisis” of area studies in the post–cold war United States. Setting aside the institutional aspects of this crisis, it delves into the contingent and accidental ways by which practitioners of area studies in the United States encounter that which is foreign and distant, then seek to consolidate this encounter as an integral part of the intellectual and politico-ethical trajectory of their lives. In the personal accounts of those who have engaged in study of other places and peoples, we often hear stories of encounters with the foreign and experiences of suddenly becoming foreign oneself. The two examples here are Benedict Anderson and Arjun Appadurai. In their respective autobiographical accounts, they locate the beginning of their scholarly interests in their accidental encounters with unknown peoples and imported objects. In doing so they decisively recast their lives as ongoing translations, both cultural and linguistic. Their reflections indicate how autobiographies are about self-becoming to the extent that they entail being and speaking otherwise.