On Friday at 12:30 PM, I will be presenting this talk at the Harvard University Asia Center as part of their Southeast Asia Seminar Series. This is a draft chapter of my dissertation, and I am soliciting feedback after the talk. Open to the public. Please attend if you’re in Cambridge.
I have been struggling with the strange kind of fieldwork I did in Aceh for the past few years and how to both acknowledge that strangeness and write about it. Rudolf Mrázek’s new book, A Certain Age: Colonial Jakarta Through the Memories of Its Intellectuals, doesn’t solve the problem, but it gives me a toolkit of methodological and theoretical possibilities for the task. “Speed and lightness over the mud and dust define the city and this observer of the city as well,” Mrázek writes in the book’s preface, and in the role of the observer he conjures up Walter Benjamin’s flaneur, but with a rushing twist. He is not just an idle passerby, doing a series of household interviews in Jakarta, sampling his informants like one might browse paintings in a gallery before moving on to the next. There is also an element of compulsive flight, as if Mrázek was never too comfortable getting into the lives of his informants (“keeping my distance from my subjects, my passing by, the burden of my method”); in fact one might find comfort in the moving on, and Mrázek quotes Sartre: “he knew that it was possible for him to make his escape at any moment with the flap of the wings.”
In spite of, or rather because of his methodological burdens (which inspired in me an awesome sense of déjà vu), Mrázek’s data still generates “cognitive sparks” all through the book. With their words, solicited by gentle prompts from Mrázek, his informants produce historical landscapes located in the noisy present of the interview. Fragments from the interview transcripts that recall memories of youth during the colonial and revolutionary era are recomposed, in vivid collage. Rescuing these fragments from the “dustbin of history” (these are, at heart, informants that the vast majority of Indonesians today have no knowledge of) is intended to disrupt the logics of modernity, nationalism, and progress. And it’s a delicate effort, because if you get into these fragments, if you touch them, the fragments either crumble apart or crumble you, leaving us with only a momentary rupture, just a fleeting glimpse, of what modernity looked and felt like in another age, exposing its illusory effects in the present.
But there are redemptions to be found in the refuse. The trick is to find the unexpected tangential points where your fragments meet your informant’s serendipitously. During my work in Aceh, I had several moments like these that resulted in productive and complicit engagements. (A-ha! I could write about this!) And here Mrázek introduced me to a French anthropologist I had never heard of before named Marc Augé, who writes about “non-places” and the anthropology of “supermodernity.” A non-place lends itself to generic memories at best; they are typically spaces of motion and travel, such as airports, stations, vehicles, hotels, mobile offices, and refugee camps. These are the spaces in which humanitarians work, and this resonates strongly with my experience working in Aceh. Like the flaneur, we are always passing by, checking in and then out of non-places. That makes the serendipitous and tangential touch with the Other much more difficult, but, when it does happen, so much more memorable too.
Mrázek likes those meetings even more when they are fraught with tone deaf misunderstandings: “Misunderstanding is another word for the rhythm with which the only true reality forces its way into the conversation. The more effectively a man is able to speak, the more successfully he is misunderstood.” In so many ways, I think my fieldwork was characterized by misunderstanding, sometimes willful, and other times, for lack of trying. A memorable encounter does not translate into an effective one. What would it be like if we thought of humanitarianism not as “supracolonial” but as “supramodern” or maybe just “supermodern”? That brings the industry down to earth without losing that awesome sense of mobility that so strongly characterizes humanitarians and their work. We could set aside debates on “mobile sovereignty” and focus instead on just the “mobile,” the blasé sense of just “passing through,” where perceptions are blunted to the point where we no longer see the “meaning and differing values of things…in the constantly moving stream of money.” In order to be noticed (Mrázek quoting Georg Simmel), “people have to exaggerate their personal element in order to remain audible, even to themselves.” We may be touched by our informants in unexpected ways, but the filters that mediate those encounters inevitably leave us “touched away” from them, and more than likely leave them misunderstood.
And so as I try to collate and make sense of my overwhelming piles of data, I have to figure out who and what remains audible through all that noise. I have to identify the tangential meeting points of productive engagement and misunderstanding. Upon retrieving a memorable voice, or recalling a tangential meeting point, I need to acknowledge the mediating distortions (exaggerations or otherwise) in my data that made retrieval and recall possible at all. To bring this all to life and render it sensible, I have to describe ethnographically the “non-places” in Aceh where I spent the majority of my time that prevented me in specific ways from ever really getting to know Aceh as a memorable place.
A few months ago, while I was still in Indonesia, Zone Books published Contemporary States of Emergency: The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions, co-edited by anthropologists Didier Fassin and Mariella Pandolfi. I’m pleased because this is my first peer reviewed academic publication to appear in an edited book (albeit only as third author on my chapter). When I got home to the USA, my complimentary copy was there waiting in the piles of mail my parents had set aside for me while I was away.
The editors lay out the reasons for putting together this collection of essays in their introduction:
Disasters and conflicts are now embedded in the same global logic of intervention, which rests on two fundamental elements: the temporality of emergency, which is used to justify a state of exception, and the conflation of the political and moral registers manifested in the realization of operations which are at once military and humanitarian. This book is devoted to that dual reality of contemporary interventionism: the generalization, at the international but also at the national level, of states of emergency and the institution of a military and humanitarian government as a mode of response to situations of disorder.
The book is organized into three sections. The chapters in the first section, Foundations, lay out some of the historical and theoretical underpinnings that justify intervention as a mode of governance in which tropes of urgency and morality supersede the rule of law. The second section, Scenes, offers several case study chapters that provide the necessary ethnographic detail to support critical inquiry into the humanitarian encounter. The third section, Landscapes, plumbs down into the logics of intervention, juxtaposes field experience with the ethical imperatives that frame intervention, and nods reflexively at us, the social scientists who have entered into the fray with our own partisan commitments.
My chapter, co-authored with my academic advisors Mary-Jo Good and Byron Good (who are first and second author respectively) is in the second section. The title is “Complex Engagements: Responding to Violence in Postconflict Aceh,” and it tells the story of our collaborative work with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in the heady days of Aceh’s postconflict humanitarian encounter following the Helsinki MOU in August of 2005. In their introduction to the book, the editors describe our chapter as follows:
Mary-Jo DelVecchio-Good, Byron Good, and Jesse Grayman focus on the problems posed when humanitarian action takes place in a military context. The December 2004 tsunami, which resulted in an unprecedented natural disaster in Indonesia, affected populations that included some who were already subject to violence in the armed conflict between the government and resistance fighters. Aid operations, including the medical-psychological programs described by the authors, were thus embedded in a context of police monitoring by the government and compromises on the part of the NGO involved. Here, the conflict of sovereignty was played out between the government, the intervening organization, and the population concerned.
Our chapter lays out several ethnographic “scenes” that describe our collaboration with IOM and what we discovered while conducting our psychosocial needs assessment in conflict-affected communities.** My main contribution to this chapter is a description of when I presented the findings of our research to members of Aceh’s police force, which turned out to be one of the most memorable and gratifying moments in all my years of working in Aceh. The end of the chapter takes these various scenes and uses them to draw attention to some of the analytical issues that arose from our experience as social scientists conversant with the prevailing critiques of humanitarianism (and yet) “working from the inside” of a major intervention. First we highlight the facile assumptions that support taken-for-granted concepts such as “psychosocial” and “bearing witness” and without too much exegesis we at least acknowledge some of the deeper complexities. Then we describe how the NGO world plays by donor time, developing projects that must be fit into a highly compartmentalized portfolio of programs. For example, it was an administrative and fundraising challenge to develop a mental health program at IOM that involves both “medical” and “livelihood” components because those kinds of programs do not traditionally intersect. Then there are politics, sometimes ugly, within and between NGOs, donors, host governments, beneficiaries, and research consultants. We describe some examples in brief, not to assign blame, but rather to–again–acknowledge the complexity.
But when you have an opportunity to raise more than a million dollars for designing and then providing mental health outreach to conflict victims, the payoff is worth some of the compromises and frustrations. At least that’s how it was in our experience. Just as I reject the absolute moral arguments in favor of humanitarian intervention, I am equally uncomfortable with the strident and theoretical critiques of humanitarianism as a “supracolonial” endeavor because the facts on the ground are so much more complicated than that. That is the simple premise from which my dissertation will begin, and that’s what I take away from our chapter’s modest contribution to this book.
** The primary findings of this research were published by IOM here (in 2006) and here (in 2007). We used some of the data from this project to analyze conflict nightmares, published here and here. Treatment outcomes from the mental health and livelihood intervention have not been formally published yet, but early analyses are complete with publications forthcoming.
Any book might have been a compelling jolt out of the academic ambivalence that precedes (and prevents) my dissertation, but it happened to be Conflict, Violence, and Displacement in Indonesia, published last year by the Cornell Southeast Asia Program, and edited by Eva-Lotta E. Hedman. I was surprised to find it at Aksara on my last trip to Jakarta so I picked it up, not least because I had dinner once with Eva-Lotta here in Banda Aceh a few years ago and should familiarize myself with her work. The cover has a terrific photograph that for me perfectly captures the inherent tension between structure and agency that animates so much anthropological debate. This woman IDP returning home to Halmahera from her displacement in Ternate in 2002 is decidedly *not* interested in the policeman’s direction, but she probably doesn’t have much choice or where else to go.
The back cover states the book’s mission: “This volume foregrounds the dynamics of displacement and the experiences of internal refugees uprooted by conflict and violence in Indonesia.” In doing so, Hedman hopes to achieve a threefold intervention, described in the last paragraph of the Introduction (p.27):
- Instead of a focus on explaining violence and conflict in Indonesia, which has the unfortunate–some might say unavoidable–byproduct of displacement, this book highlights displacement itself as an actual mode of governmentality. She invokes Agamben’s “state of exception” theory here.
- Instead of reducing Indonesia to one case study in a global comparative analysis of sectarian or communal violence, terrorism, or failed states, this book allows for a deeper and multi-layered analysis within Indonesia’s borders, which has more diverse comparative material on “conflict, violence, and displacement” than most other nation-states could claim.
- Instead of situating this book within discourses of the emergent and well-funded transnational humanitarian industry, concerned with describing the distribution of conflict and violence and prescribing solutions for it, an industry that arguably reflects and reproduces “a more pervasive/violence discourse, … this volume serves as a reminder that the very processes involved in the production of knowledge about displacement cannot, by definition, remain somehow outside or above politics.” (p.27)
Each “intervention” grips and excites me, but each in their own particular way. I’ll start with the second one, because that poses no disagreement. I’ve accepted that in some elite institutions regional studies may be unfashionable second tier academia, but I think of myself as an Indonesianist, so I enthusiastically support Hedman’s claim that a more fine-grained analysis of Indonesia at the nation-state and regional levels precedes, and supersedes, global comparison. Anthropologists, at least in a Boasian tradition, have the least problem with getting “intensely local,” multi-sited theoretical developments aside, so at least in my discipline I don’t have to apologize for putting regional and thematic issues on an equal footing. I love this book already because it’s all about Indonesia! It even has two chapters about Aceh!
The first “intervention” drags me back, kicking and screaming, to my anthropological training. I think I was assigned Agamben in at least two courses, and the “state of exception” (also a highlight in Walter Benjamin’s work) is a powerful analytic deployed frequently in contemporary ethnography. It’s not that I think it’s wrong; rather, my day-to-day work in Aceh over the years has not encouraged, broadly speaking, a discursive analytical framework. Foucault & friends do not come easy to begin with, and I have to flex the brain a few times to “get it.” When I first read Hedman’s Introduction, I thought her writing was strange, excessive, and strident… even as I found myself agreeing with her. Writing about late Soekarno-era military adventures along the nation’s borders, here is an excerpt that stands out:
The West New Guinea and Konfrontasi campaigns served, in distinct ways, to shape the social (re)production of state borders and national space in Indonesia through militarized conflict, violence, and displacement. In the case of the West New Guinea campaign… it prompted a creeping militarization of the long border with Papua New Guinea and the emergence of a growing and, eventual, so-called ‘protracted refugee situation’ across this border, thus anchoring Jakarta’s claims to the last remnants of the (former) Dutch East Indies colonial territory in new lived experiences of political boundaries and violent geographies on Indonesia’s easternmost frontier. … The undeclared border war known as Konfrontasi prompted a new consciousness of the border between Indonesia and Malaysia and the wider social and economic effects thereof, as ‘people from across the border came to be viewed as outsiders rather than relatives.’ (p.12)
Violence and displacement not only consolidate national boundaries but are also productive of national consciousness among displaced populations at Indonesia’s most distant frontiers. I get it. I’ve even written papers like this. It’s just been awhile. Like I said, any decent ethnography may have (re)oriented me (natch!) back to my discipline’s theoretical for-granteds, but I am grateful that this one did the job.
I take issue with the third “intervention,” and only partly because it kicks me where it counts. She writes: “The mobilization of a massive transnational ‘humanitarian’ machinery, with its own considerable complex of national and international, governmental and non-governmental, resources, networks, and discourses, has propelled an entire industry focused on ‘conflict and violence in Indonesia,’ including the so-called mapping of conflict and violence, the search for conflict intervention mechanisms, and the design of peace and conflict resolution programs.” Such efforts, she says, arguably reflect and reproduce “a more pervasive conflict/violence discourse ‘grounded in a set of institutions that promotes its persistence.'” (p.27) At the end of the line there she is quoting from a book I haven’t heard of before, by Paul Brass, titled Theft of an Idol: Text and Context in the Representation of Collective Violence, published in 1997 by Princeton University Press. After a quick browse online, here is how the publisher describes the book, which is an ethnography of communal violence in northern India:
Brass shows how, out of many possible interpretations applicable to these incidents, government and the media select those that support existing relations of power in state and society…some incidents remain localized while others are fit into broader frameworks of meaning, thereby becoming useful for upholders of dominant ideologies. Incessant talk about violence and its implications in these circumstances contributes to its persistence rather than its reduction. Such treatment serves in fact to mask the causes of violence, displace the victims from the center of attention, and divert society’s gaze from those responsible for its endemic character.
OK now let’s compare Hedman’s words and her reference point with my current job. I work for World Bank Indonesia’s Conflict and Development team (read: massive transnational ‘humanitarian’ machinery…focused on ‘conflict and violence in Indonesia,’). My job is to support The Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies at Syiah Kuala University, which receives much of its funding from the World Bank (read: the search for conflict intervention mechanisms, and the design of peace and conflict resolution programs). Our signature product is the Aceh Peace Monitoring Update, which relies on a newspaper monitoring methodology to map conflict and violence in Aceh since early 2005 (read: including the so-called mapping of conflict and violence). In Hedman’s own chapter, “Back to the Barracks: Relokasi Pengungsi in Post-Tsunami Aceh,” she cites one of these monitoring updates (when it was still called the Aceh Conflict Monitoring Update, and still produced directly by the World Bank). It’s not unlikely that the critique in her Introduction is directed squarely at my employer and its publications. In a word: Ouch!
It’s not like she is the only one to make this critique. There is a blooming critical literature in the social sciences about humanitarianism, Mariella Pandolfi’s “mobile sovereign” and all that, wherein the state of exception figures heavily as well. The problem with this critique though is that it sets up a straw man figure of the (faceless) Humanitarian, and if that is your image, then The Bank is such an easy and obvious target. In that conversation, structure beats agency every time, with a knockout punch, except it’s rigged! I prefer the more productive tension illustrated on the book cover.
So in an effort to balance Hedman’s third intervention, I just want to say two things. The first is that these conversations and critiques also take place within the humanitarian industry itself. Humanitarians might possibly be the most reflexive professionals around, after anthropologists of course. The second is that humanitarians are not (only) cylon machinery. One could argue perhaps that some are more “interpellated by structures of power and domination” than, say, some critical anthropologists think that they’re not, but they’ve got agency in there somewhere (In Jakarta, for example, I choose Starbucks over Oh-La-La). Humanitarians also have lives, and frustrations, and lovers, and even moral commitments, and well, experience, that are ethnographically rich, and that is something still missing from this critical literature.
I should add, now that I’ve got that off my chest, that Hedman is partially right. My office does not have total neutrality and autonomy when it writes a peace monitoring update, but I think most of us are aware of that. There are subtle and blunt forces that shape the content, style, and language of those reports. The details of such forces are indeed ethnographically rich; I savor them actually (because the process is so fascinating), even as they frustrate and compel me/us to self-censor. The net effect favors, though hardly explicitly and certainly not intentionally, an assemblage of powerful interests. This is what draws me to the Paul Brass book, in due time; I don’t think I’ll find that one at Aksara.
There is so much more to write, to fill in the details of the previous two paragraphs just for example, but that’s beyond the scope of this post. Regarding this wonderful new book that got my head ticking again, I’ve only really addressed the Introduction, but there is a great collection of chapters, and so far I’ve read the two excellent Aceh chapters (Hedman wrote one about the early and decisive days for managing the tsunami IDPs, Ed Aspinall wrote the other one about three major waves of conflict IDPs between 1998 and 2005). I am really looking forward to the last chapter which is about ghosts with trauma and a haunting drakula in post-conflict North Maluku. But for now, I’ve got my own chapter to write, for another book, and I’m hoping this conversation here serves as an inspiration.