Response to “The hyper-local Indonesian revolution: Stories and sensations from around Bojonegoro and Mojokerto” by Remco Raben
By Babs Boter and Susan Legêne, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
Remco Raben, Professor of Colonial and Postcolonial Literary and Cultural History at the University of Amsterdam, on 12 September 2019 published an account of his journey through East Java. The travel text appeared on Facebook as “The hyper-local Indonesian revolution: Stories and sensations from around Bojonegoro and Mojokerto,”[i] and was also published as “Verhalen en ervaringen rond Bojonegoro en Mojokerto” on the website of Ind45-50.org (19 September 2019).[ii] In many respects this is an impressive and relevant account of his current research project, and we understand that the post received only little skepticism and many likes and other positive replies. But we also have major concerns about the text and would like to critically respond to it—not only because the author invites “comments and suggestions,” but also because he is preparing a much larger publication “on the administrative and political contexts of the violence in the Indonesian revolution.” Our response is based on a close-reading of Raben’s account, and is informed by work done by scholars such as Sara Ahmed, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Johannes Fabian, Selma Leydesdorff, Sara Mills, Mary Louise Pratt, Carl Thompson, and Michael Rothberg.
The First Concern
Raben starts off by stating he wishes to share some of his experiences “not because they were so successful or because they led to particularly original insights, but because they may tell something about the difficulties and possibilities of writing history from Indonesian perspectives in a history that can easily be weighed down by an overflow of Dutch archival material.” This is a noteworthy case of apophasis, a rhetorical device of a speaker or narrator who first introduces a topic—here: his experiences—then states that it is really not all that significant, and consequently moves on to write about the topic at length. But, more important perhaps, the modest self-presentation of the narrator who will do nothing more than “tell something” also contrasts starkly with the major role that the autobiographical I-narrator reserves for himself in the remainder of the text. This is the first of our concerns.
The text presents a main figure whose project is an “explorative search for local voices from the revolutionary period of Indonesia.” The use of “explorative” is telling here, in combination with the other four explicit references to “exploration” in this travel account. As a matter of course we read “This was meant to be a reconnaissance trip” as “The purpose of this journey was exploration.” The account thus constitutes a classical travel text as defined by Carl Thompson in his study Travel Writing (2011), complete with an autobiographical I and many of the tropes that travel texts contain: the individual quest, going off the beaten path, strange encounters, surprise and wonder. Just like many 19th and 20th century travel writers who presented experiences of chancing upon something unexpected Raben’s narrator pronounces “I stumbled upon,” which hints at naïve luck, intuition, adventure, and fearlessness. Another classical trope that the text contains is that of the monarch-of-all-I-survey scene. This term was coined by Mary Louise Pratt, in her seminal study Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (1992). Clearly echoing the travel texts Pratt studied, the narrator of Raben’s text makes up his mind to “leave [the archival sources] for what they are and take a deep dip into local histories.” It is in these local histories that “villagers” appear, and through their information that the monarch-of-all-I-survey scene acquires a present-day, high-tech counterpart in the notion of “hyper-local” as referred to in the travel account’s title.
It is intriguing but also problematic that the narrator mostly refers to himself as if, indeed, he is on an individual quest: the statement that “my exploration certainly had a clear result”, as in the case of the “village monument” that exists despite of the lack of local archives, unmistakably suggests a solo quest. This is confirmed in many places in the text, such as when the narrator states, “I decided to look into local memories …” and “I was not after that story. I was interested in …” This reads as if no other individuals are partaking in his quest and as if the production of this knowledge is not a collective and institutional effort. But as readers we do know he was, at least for part of the time, accompanied by a colleague, as he refers to “my fellow researcher Ayuhanafiq,” and has asked “many Indonesian colleagues” about the whereabouts of local Indonesian archives. So, although Raben’s narrator brings up informants and at the end of the account thanks six individuals and a collective group of informants and interviewees, his quest seems to be his own. The informants do not get their own, active and, possibly decisive, role in how meetings happen, and stories are being told.
The Second Concern
The second of our concerns is the ways in which the I-narrator creates his distance to the “stories” he is trying to uncover. For us as readers this occurs in two different ways. First, his use of “seems,” as in “The house seems to have been indicated by an informant helper” and “Most village heads seem to have refused to work with the Dutch,” implies that he does not at all frame the stories, and only recounts them from a distance. This is further substantiated by his use of “The local story goes” and “Purportedly this involved…” Second, the narrator’s search for a “consistent and continuing storyline,” and “A recurrent story line” suggests that what he wishes to do is find the plot, or to find a confirmation of the plot that he knows from Dutch archives. The stories conveyed by one of his informants, he asserts, “constituted only one installment of the killing party.” The use of “storyline” and “installment,” and of lines such as “Temayang … served as the backdrop of a meeting,” indicates that the narrator is not at all a subject who is implied in the processes of remembering, selecting, reconstructing, and presentation (Rothberg 2019, Leydesdorff 2004). At the same time, of course, the I-narrator is the one who is in full control of the text, and surreptitiously inserts his own assessment of the narrative figures involved, such as “revengeful soldiers” and “this wonderful man Pak Sukardji.” This ambivalent position of the narrator evokes another key concept of Pratt: that of “anti-conquest.” This complex term entails, among other elements, European bourgeois subjects who present themselves as harmless, benign and vulnerable individuals who innocently pursue and produce knowledge, while simultaneously asserting European hegemony (cf. Chakrabarty’s argument on the hyper-reality of Europe (2000)). Symbolically this discursive hegemony shows in the 52 mentions of the word “Dutch,” seven of which indicate the Dutch as a people, the remaining references involving adjectives such as “Dutch troops,” “Dutch violence,” and “Dutch attacks.” Jointly these references suggest that for the villagers as well as for the I-narrator “the Dutch” constitute a crucial category of analysis, even though we anticipate that in the end this category will not hold.
The Third Concern
This brings us to our third and final concern, which is related to the historiographical and epistemological framing of the travel text. Raben published his account on Facebook. Like other travel accounts it may have been written and published on the spur of the moment, without much scholarly analytical distance. Such personal narratives on social media often lead to validating likes and encouraging comments—especially if they are accompanied by photographs that present both the narrator and the villagers, and thus positivistically authenticate the travel account. This is how Facebook works. So, is our close-reading not like the proverbial sledgehammer taken up to crack nuts? We’d like to answer this question by stating that our response is first and foremost triggered by a rather fundamental historiographical and epistemological issue: The sensations referred to in the subtitle (“Stories and sensations from around Bojonegoro and Mojokerto”) seem only to apply to the I-narrator. The latter does mention “havoc and fear” on the part of the Indonesian villagers, but those appear to stand for past experiences. In addition he maintains that “surprisingly, perhaps” the villages where “younger people know the stories [of the 1945-1950 period] from the village elders” are still able to “retain a sense of cohesion and collective memory”—as if they are placed outside of time, to use Johannes Fabian’s phrase from Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (1983). Instead the narrator refers to his own present-day perception and awareness of how history impacts on individuals and communities as a hyper-local phenomenon. He recounts his sensations of “walking in the landscape of history” and relates of a “sensory knowledge that is essential to the historical imagination.” The question then arises: for whom exactly is such a presence, and such an awareness and sensation, feasible?
Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (2000).
Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (2008, 20001).
Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (1983).
Selma Leydesdorff, De mensen en de woorden. Geschiedenis op basis van verhalen (2004).
Carl Thompson, Travel Writing (2011).
Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (2008, 19921).
Sara Mills, Discourses of Difference: An Analysis of Women’s Travel Writing and Colonialism (1991).
Michael Rothberg, The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators (2019).