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Aceh Anthropology Book Club Indonesia Reflexive

Book Club: A Certain Age

Book Cover for "A Certain Age: Colonial Jakarta Through the Memories of Its Intellectuals" by Rudolf Mrázek
Book Cover for "A Certain Age: Colonial Jakarta Through the Memories of Its Intellectuals" by Rudolf Mrázek

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.

More than likely... a misunderstanding.
More than likely... a misunderstanding.

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.

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Aceh Anthropology Book Club Conflict Indonesia Publications

Book Club: Contemporary States of Emergency

Book Cover for "Contemporary States of Emergency: The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions" edited by Didier Fassin and Mariella Pandolfi
Book Cover for "Contemporary States of Emergency: The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions" edited by Didier Fassin and Mariella Pandolfi

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.