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.