Asia

Error message

  • Deprecated function: The each() function is deprecated. This message will be suppressed on further calls in _menu_load_objects() (line 579 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/menu.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type int in element_children() (line 6600 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).
  • Deprecated function: implode(): Passing glue string after array is deprecated. Swap the parameters in drupal_get_feeds() (line 394 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/common.inc).

Book Review: Vernacular Rights Cultures: The Politics of Origins, Human Rights and Gendered Struggles for Justice by Sumi Madhok

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 04/04/2022 - 9:12pm in

In Vernacular Rights CulturesSumi Madhok challenges dominant understandings of human rights by exploring how subaltern groups mobilise for justice through particular political imaginaries, conceptual vocabularies and gendered political struggles. Combining theoretical discussion and ethnographic research with a commitment to decolonial praxis, this rewarding book will be of great interest to scholars and students of decolonial and postcolonial theory, anthropology, South Asia and human rights, writes Moritz Koenig.

Vernacular Rights Cultures: The Politics of Origins, Human Rights and Gendered Struggles for Justice. Sumi Madhok. Cambridge University Press. 2021.

In much public discourse, human rights are presented as values of ‘inherent universality’ that originated in the West and have since radiated outwards to ‘the rest of the world’. Sumi Madhok’s Vernacular Rights Cultures is a marvellous challenge to these all-too-familiar narratives on the unilateral direction of travel of human rights and their originary tale in the West.

Madhok’s book is part of a recent trend in the international legal literature of countering ‘triumphalist’ narratives of a unilateral, linear and progressive vision of human rights and international law (see, for example, Ratna Kapur 2018). But Madhok goes further than recent critiques. Her book is the result of extensive ethnographic research in South Asia and takes to task an impressive range of theoretical literature.

Vernacular Rights Cultures places human rights in the context of rights struggles and subaltern mobilisations, especially among women, in India and Pakistan. The book traces the ambivalent relationships of subaltern struggles with the state, international human rights law and gendered power relations. The latter, while often sidelined in the literature, is placed at the centre of rights struggles.

Madhok is committed to a ‘sociologically aware’ (15) analysis of power relations underlying the multiple lives of human rights and political subjectification. For the author, human rights, and rights more broadly, are not simply elaborated and adjudicated at the national and institutional levels. They have lives of their own with intricate trajectories as they are adopted, modified, unmade, hybridised, remade and deployed for struggles by subaltern groups. These processes are not simple acts of translation and localisation (12). Instead, rights discourses are generative substances that create and redefine political subjectivities and imaginaries. Human rights, in turn, are also redefined as they are taken out of the hands of liberal, market-oriented institutions (3) and re-made into political potentialities for subaltern groups.

Multicoloured hand prints on a purple background

Image Credit: Pixabay CCO

Such a conception of rights and law in general takes to task simplistic narratives on East/West or the ‘cultural relativism’ often espoused in mainstream accounts of human rights. Madhok also goes beyond recent critiques that have established human rights as hegemonic, privilege rejection over accommodation (Audra Simpson 2014) or advocate ‘delinking’ them from Western models (34-35), a concept associated with much decolonial literature. While the author notes these types of critique as vital, she suggests that they alone cannot account for the practices of subaltern mobilisations and struggles over rights (18). Instead, Madhok points towards the ‘push and pull’ (16) of human rights discourses – they are hegemonic yet insurgent, disciplining yet facilitate mobilisation, neoliberal yet redistributive. Within these frictions, the author argues, the productivity of human rights discourses is born. As such, subaltern mobilisations also lead to an expansion of our anthropological toolbox through which we can challenge one-size-fits-all epistemic containers.

Madhok deploys the concept of ‘haq’, a transregional vernacular conception of rights, to shift universalist human rights discussions towards an epistemic frame that is more fluid and attentive to local political forms and their entanglement in power relations with the state and its institutions (51). Through haq, the author argues, subaltern groups, especially women, self-fashion themselves into rights-bearing subjects (58) by transforming human rights into a vernacular discourse. But the book also shows that haq, as a process of subjectification, is itself implicated in gendered, racialised and historical contingencies, and suggests different shades of grey (72). Madhok commits to a disaggregation of these intersections by placing South Asian rights struggles in intricately entangled gendered power relations.

In Chapters Four and Five, the author analyses the struggles of South Asian subaltern mobilisations across a range of issues, from land ownership to environmental degradation, private capital and food security. Women are always at the centre of these struggles although their grievances are, in academic theory and global practice, often considered separate. Madhok narrates through these accounts the making of human rights in South Asia with great attention to the entanglements of the local and the global and the centrality of women’s struggles. She describes the ensuing vernacular rights cultures as ‘explicitly non-party political, articulat[ing] political claims in a language of rights [… that do not] regard the state as the dominant mainstay of citizen rights’ (104-105).

Madhok’s aim is an explicitly anthropological one in which vernacular practice challenges received theory through ‘a cautious–reflexive view’ (39). Madhok urges us to ‘run with’ our ethnographic observations, sustain them and be self-reflexive about the theoretical toolboxes we use to categorise: ‘Critique must also lead to the formulation of alternative […] thinking that would not only enable a shift in perspective but also generate a more expansive repertoire of conceptual and methodological tools with which to think’ (18).

Madhok’s commitment to a sustained engagement with vernacular critique, her focus on self-reflexivity and the production of ‘conceptual diversity’ (178) clearly speak to recent contributions in anthropology on the ‘ontological turn’. In particular, Martin Holbraad and Morten Axel Pedersen’s monograph (2017) resonates with the arguments in Madhok’s book as both are characterised by a commitment to radical methodological interventions. Madhok frequently makes use of the term ‘ontology’ as she develops a ‘feminist ontology’, an intriguing methodological tool to make sense of  intersectional struggles. She discusses various contributions to the recent debate about the ‘ontological turn’ in anthropology and sociology, especially in relation to the idea of alterity and as a displacement of epistemology (78-82). The author positions her definition in proximity to Ian Hacking’s Historical Ontology (2004), while grounding ontology in ‘a feminist critical reflexive politics’ (88).

However, Madhok also states that she is not engaged in an ‘exegesis of […] the “ontological turn”’ (72). I would argue, though, that Madhok’s book has multiple connections to recent contributions to the ‘ontological turn’. In Holbraad and Pedersen’s reading, a move towards ontology is not so much a metaphysical statement as an ethnographic sensibility. Alterity, one of the hallmarks of ontological interventions, according to them, is a tool to re-think anthropological method, not an ethnographic conclusion in itself. While Madhok does not explicitly reference such a conception of ontology, she nevertheless seems keenly attentive to its shared objectives. Therefore, it would have been interesting to see a more sustained engagement by Madhok with such contributions – her commitment to decolonising epistemic frames overlaps in many ways with Holbraad and Pedersen’s advocacy of the ‘decolonization of all thought in the face of other thought’. In line with this, Madhok’s book should be seen as an important contribution to the ontological turn.

Madhok’s book is a marvellous account of subaltern and women’s struggles in South Asia and their engagement with human rights. The author’s discussions are theoretically dense yet rewarding, and her ethnographic expositions are always enlightening. But like other decolonial interventions, Madhok’s discussions are not of mere theoretical value – they are located in a specific decolonial praxis: ‘The conceptual work on rights from the margins is essential in order to not only stretch and dislodge the existing normative boundaries of the universal, expand the existing languages of entitlements, impact and transform public policy but also to provide different visions for equality and justice’ (25). Madhok clearly shows what is at stake in discussions of subaltern struggles and decolonial theory and refuses to commit ethnographic work to the production of theories and concepts alone (94-95). Vernacular Rights Cultures should be of great interest to scholars and students of decolonial and postcolonial theory, anthropology, South Asia and human rights.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

 

In Indonesia the past is another country

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 04/04/2022 - 4:24am in

Tags 

Asia

Nationalism in the world’s fourth largest nation is rising – but so far unthreatening. Indonesian passions are being driven not by demagoguery but through discovery of the country’s pre-colonial, pre-Islam heritage with added ghosts. Java is one of the world’s most culturally rich islands, but its ancient history has been smothered by modern politics. Generations Continue reading »

Book Review: Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene edited by Matthew Schneider-Mayerson

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 28/03/2022 - 9:57pm in

In Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene: Environmental Perspectives on Life in Singapore, editor Matthew Schneider-Mayerson weaves together a spirited anthology that looks at the broad web of life between and amongst human and non-human species in the island state with new eyes. The collection offers thought-provoking imaginaries and opens up an avenue of youthful hope for anyone concerned about the looming climate catastrophe, writes Alexandria Z.W. Chong.

This book review is published by the LSE Southeast Asia blog and LSE Review of Books blog as part of a collaborative series focusing on timely and important social science books from and about Southeast Asia.

Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene: Environmental Perspectives on Life in Singapore. Matthew Schneider-Mayerson (ed.). Ethos Books. 2021. 

Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene book coverThe Anthropocene is a powerful concept. By challenging the conventional ontological boundaries of society, culture and nature, it unleashes the power of storytelling and presents a pedagogical opportunity to ‘decentre the human as the sole learning subject and explore the possibilities of interspecies learning’ (Affrica Taylor and Veronica Pacini-Ketchabaw 2015, 507). In other words, the Anthropocene concept transforms our discursive inheritance and the long-term research agenda is therefore ‘how it can be used to guide attitudes, choices, policies and actions that influence the future’ (Xuemei Bai et al 2016, 351).

The twelve essays in Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene, written by scholars born between 1993 and 1998, deploy the analytical strength of the Anthropocene concept to eloquently reframe Singapore’s development story and how it is tied to the workings of the global economy, while demanding the reader to broaden their thinking of what possible futures for the island state might look like.

The book opens with Neo Xiaoyun’s title essay. Through a rich analysis of Singapore’s food heritage, habitat loss as well as the ethical issues arising from overconsuming certain crab species, Neo reflects upon the messy socio-cultural and environmental entanglements that define all biological life on the island state. In ‘To Build a City-State and Erode History’, Sarah Novak superimposes Singapore’s permanent territorial transformation on the Southeast Asia region (specifically Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam), and asks if there is an end in sight to the destructive practices of sand-mining. And in ‘Dumpster Diving in Semakau’, Fu Xiyao traces the intergenerational grief and nostalgia Orang Laut communities experienced when they were forcibly displaced in 1994 for the construction of Semakau ― Singapore’s first offshore landfill. Fu’s essay not only chronicles the epistemological violence of indigenous displacement and erasure, but it also brings to light how contemporary Singapore, an island state in the Malay Archipelago, is shockingly disconnected from the sea.

Yogesh Tulsi’s ‘An Oily Mirror’ turns to the golden age of Malay Cinema (between 1947 and 1972), to examine Singapore’s outsized role in global petro-capitalism. In particular, Tulsi posits how the orang minyak, a monster often depicted as being covered in some dark, oily substance, represented fears of a fossil-fuelled modernity. But as petro-capitalism became a ubiquitous part of the post-World War II zeitgeist globally, the orang minyak disappeared from the public consciousness. Tulsi’s essay wonderfully complements Aidan Mock’s ‘Singapore on Fire’, which traces how five decades of national policy have fostered the petrochemical industry in Singapore, and the immense urgency for climate activists to build compelling movements against it. Lastly, in ‘Another Garden City is Possible’, Bertrand Seah interrogates the state’s hegemonic narratives of green growth, nature and conservation, and puts forth the case for a just ecological transition.

Bowl of chilli crab

Image Credit: ‘More Chilli Crab’ by megawatts86 licensed under CC BY SA 2.0

By deeply reflecting on the complicity of contemporary Singapore lifestyles, and demanding the reader recognise the ethical responsibilities that the Anthropocene concept signifies, these essays evoke anger, pain, frustration, disappointment and even despair. At the same time, they are unabashedly united by the ethos of activism as well as the empathic motivation to explore new ways of seeing, thinking, writing, sensing, feeling and acting. However, as rich as the conceptual framing and analyses are in Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene, the book would have at times benefitted from establishing greater clarity between the usual sociological categories (notably race, class, gender, sexual identity, migration status and religious affiliation) and paying more attention to the complex realities of multispecies entanglements.

For instance, it slips into an idealisation of Orang Laut communities and their way of life as being in perfect harmony with nature. This stereotype, known as the ‘ecologically noble savage’ (Kent Redford 1991), not only at times misrepresents indigenous belief, knowledge and practices; it also maintains the colonialist stereotype of indigenous people as environmentalists par excellence by Western-centric environmental standards (Hames Raymond 2007). In turn, this analytical idealisation is symptomatic of the book’s rather uncritical deployment of ‘the Anthropocene’, as quoted below, which might frustrate some readers familiar with the debates surrounding the concept:

‘It’s a term that originated in the early 2000s in stratigraphy [… and] has proven useful in acknowledg­ing and announcing that we’re now inhabiting a different planet than the one our grandparents were born into. This novelty is marked above all by climate change, but also by the other global socio-ecological processes and phenomena that receive less attention but are similarly catastrophic, such as deforestation, ocean acidification, extinction, factory farming and plastic pollution’ (10-11).

Literature about the Anthropocene is valuable for its ability to engage us ― to make us understand our impact on the Earth; to make us aware of environmental injustices and the uncertain future we face as an ongoing species; to make us augment our awareness of the connections that make up the intricate web of life (Alexa Weik von Mossner 2016). Reflecting on the power of storytelling, Jan Kunnas (2017) argues that we are now at a tipping point where both the ‘good Anthropocene’ and ‘bad Anthropocene’ are possible; it all depends on whether direct actions to stay within planetary boundaries are taken. In the ‘good Anthropocene’ narrative (the mainstream Anthropocene narrative), humans are active creators of their surroundings and a force of good that ‘transcends and defeats the structural obstacles, sufferings, and moral lapses that seem to threaten it’ (Clive Hamilton 2015). Kunnas further argues that the ‘good Anthropocene’ narrative ideologically drives the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (143). Yet, no one has resolved the central dilemma of the sustainable development approach: how to help the world’s poorest people out of poverty and into a decent standard of living without increasing anthropogenic ecological damage? Leslie Sklair (2019, 305) forcefully writes that the central task in the Anthropocene is to instead establish ‘universal norms for ecologically sound quality of life’ rather than continuing with a developmental approach that is driven by the rhetoric of ‘good’ growth.

It’s not a final word on the subject, but an invitation to conversation, critical thought and, above all, action. Because action — immediate and transformational — is what is now needed to preserve Singapore’s very existence as a nation and global city. (15)

Schneider-Mayerson reminds the reader in his introduction to Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene that the book’s aim is to ‘make space’ for climate action in Singapore (and beyond). Despite its lack of rigorous theoretical engagement with the Anthropocene concept, the book inspires much-needed discussions about the choices, contradictions, contestations and costs that go far beyond its empirical focus. As it seeks to reorient the dominant values, priorities and politics shaped by global petro-capitalism and present radical possibilities seen through the eyes of young scholars or ‘the climate generation’ who are rarely represented in the Singaporean public discourse, the book will particularly interest scholars and students in the fields of environmental humanities, urban studies and media and cultural studies. The highly accessible writing style will also find the book a broader readership.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

 

In Asian Media: Imran Khan hits turbulent point in Pakistan politics

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 26/03/2022 - 4:57am in

Tags 

Asia, Media, Politics

In Asia Media: Blinken draws an admission from Myanmar; US has big problem in India; food security a looming concern; South Korea logs a sad COVID record; and HK food goes back to basics Not one of Pakistan’s 22 prime ministers has completed their full five-year terms and only three have managed to serve for Continue reading »

Keep calm and carry on with President Widodo

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 25/03/2022 - 4:58am in

Tags 

Asia, Politics

There’ll be few Valentine’s Day greetings and faux flower mall displays in Indonesia two years hence. That’s not because Muslim scholars will again warn followers not to celebrate ‘values that are considered to be against the Islamic Sharia.’ The key reason to forget pink hearts and rose bouquets is that Wednesday 14 February 2024 will Continue reading »

Quad in trouble in new cold war.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 24/03/2022 - 4:56am in

Tags 

Asia

For those in Australia clinging to the ‘‘Indo-Pacific’’ as the titular proof of a new regional zeitgeist, where India is concerned, they are relying on a strategic partner that simply does not exist. Scott Morrison’s Americanisation of Australian foreign policy is troubling considering the high economic costs of imposing sanctions on China should it give Continue reading »

ASEAN/US summit postponement raises serious questions for ASEAN about relations with US and China

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 23/03/2022 - 4:56am in

Tags 

Asia

ASEAN and its members want to be courted on their own merits and not as part of a scheme targeting China. The planned ‘special summit’ between the U.S. and ASEAN scheduled for 28-29 March in Washington DC. has abruptly been postponed. According to the current ASEAN chair Cambodia, the reason was that ”some ASEAN leaders Continue reading »

Book Review: Footprints of War: Militarized Landscapes in Vietnam by David Biggs

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 21/03/2022 - 10:16pm in

Footprints of War by David Biggs offers readers an intriguing new perspective on the long history of military conflict and occupation in central Vietnam by integrating environmental perspectives with more traditional military and political histories. The book is a welcome contribution to creating a richer local history of central Vietnam in the context of the wider Wars for Indochina and is an inspiring application of robust historical research to solving modern environmental problems caused by war, writes Jon Formella.

This book review is published by the LSE Southeast Asia blog and LSE Review of Books blog as part of a collaborative series focusing on timely and important social science books from and about Southeast Asia.

Footprints of War: Militarized Landscapes in Vietnam. David Biggs. University of Washington Press. 2018. 

In recent years, the historiography of the Vietnam War has undergone a brilliant rejuvenation with fresh input from a new generation of scholars. One such work, Footprints of War: Militarized Landscapes in Vietnam by David Biggs, provides a new perspective on the history of conflict in Vietnam from the angle of environmental history by recognising the lasting impact of successive layers of military occupation upon the Vietnamese landscape. Utilising rich sources ranging from Vietnamese provincial library archives to US aerial intelligence and Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping, Biggs provides a valuable addition to the study of Vietnamese history in pursuing a multidimensional understanding of the legacy of successive conflicts’ ‘creative destruction’ in central Vietnam. While not devoid of certain controversial interpretations and methodological limitations, this book provides an inspiration for how robust historical research may be applied to solving modern issues caused by the scars of war.

The longue durée perspective provided in the opening chapters of this work helps readers to position the more well-known French and American military operations in the long history of conflict and occupation in central Vietnam, centring on what is now the modern city Huế. In engaging with the history of central Vietnam from the early settlement of the Bronze Age Đông Sơn culture through the Nguyễn Dynasty (1802 to 1884) to the present Vietnamese regime, Biggs demonstrates how technological adaptations in combination with outside geopolitical forces both aided and frustrated attempts to exert military force on what is now central Vietnam. For instance, Biggs compellingly illustrates how the Vietnamese adaption of Ming China’s gunpowder technology and later Portuguese tactics enabled militaristic forays into previously impenetrable central Vietnamese territories by the Nguyễn lords starting from the 1400s.

Huế, Vietnam

Photo by Xiaofen P on Unsplash

While narrating successive attempts to pacify the region, Biggs also convincingly demonstrates remarkable historical continuities in the limits of military and political exertion due to the region’s unique environment and cultural resistance. Due to frustrated attempts at external control by the Nguyễn lords, for instance, the area around Huế became labelled by the Nguyễn as Ô Châu, or the ‘Terrible Lands’. Just as French, Republic of Vietnam and US forces would discover centuries later, military occupation of central Vietnam did not necessarily enable rulers such as the Nguyễn lords to remould the inhabitants of the region to their visions of civilised modernity. Sent by the Nguyễn court to spread state-sponsored Buddhism and thereby help to tame the peoples of Ô Châu, Chinese Buddhist monk Thích Đại Sán frustratingly remarked, ‘In some remote lands due to the isolation of high mountains and unfathomable seas, the greatest king could not send his troops to wipe out local conflicts […] As a result, residents […] ignored moral-cultural values.’ Such frustrated attempts at pacification would also be echoed by the later Saigon regime in its struggles to stifle insurgency through its strategic hamlet programme, as Biggs demonstrates. In this way, Biggs positions later French, Republic of Vietnam and US attempts to tame central Vietnam in a much longer history of frustrated governance.

Entering the modern era, Biggs’s examination of central Vietnam from the perspective of environmental and local history provides a highly welcome addition to the established historiography of the First and Second Indochina Wars. While macro-histories of the First Indochina War such as Fredrik Logevall’s Embers of War understandably examine the conflict by centring major campaigns in Tonkin, Biggs provides a valuable localised history of French military operations and Viet Minh resistance amidst the rugged landscape of central Vietnam. Especially helpful in understanding the First Indochina War from a wider perspective is Biggs’s application of French military intelligence and Viet Minh records to detail the 1953 French military’s Operation Camargue launched from the sea. Utilising aerial footage and GIS technology to complement familiar historical sources such as Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joy and Mai Nam Tràn’s The Narrow Strip of Land, Biggs provides an enriching new perspective to classic accounts of the First Indochina War and brings the reader to a grittier understanding of the French-Viet Minh conflict in the local environmental contours of central Vietnam.

Just as Biggs uses the local history of central Vietnam to expand the Tonkin-dominated historiography of the First Indochina War, another especially fascinating section of the book explores the history of central Vietnam as the newfound Republic of Vietnam (RVN) under the ruthless Ngô Đình Cấn attempts to pacify the region following the 1954 Geneva Accords. While much of the historiography of the ill-fated Republic of Vietnam (1954-75) regime centres on the rule of Ngô Đình Diệm and Nguyễn Văn Thiệu from the halls of power in Saigon, Biggs’s examination of Ngô Đình Cấn’s brutal attempts to establish a footing in the power vacuum in central Vietnam following both French and Viet Minh withdrawal in 1954 is a highlight of this work. Biggs’s detailing of Ngô Đình Cấn’s bloody stratagems to forge a regional empire through tenuous alliances among anti-communist and anti-French elements and through brutal purges amongst the chaotic landscape of central Vietnam is an especially enriching addition to the post-1954 history of Vietnam which often centres the rival power bases in Saigon and Hanoi. In this section, Biggs combines an explanation of local political forces with a layered presentation of local features such as a repurposed French bunker system through detailed maps to transport readers to the sites where brutal arrests, interrogations and executions of undesirables were carried out as a part of this network of repression.

Though Biggs’s study of interrelationship between the central Vietnamese landscape and attempts to exert governance rightly details both the violence and environmental brutality of pro-Saigon and US forces, it would seem that later sections of the book overlook essential nuances such as the unsavoury tactics on the part of communist forces in the region, especially during the 1968 Battle of Huế. While the detailed narration of the environmental destruction and violence is highly convincing, the author’s unbalanced attention away from the Viet Minh and communist forces suggests a subtle bias in positioning these as unbending defenders of both the people and the environment of central Vietnam. An especially problematic characterisation by Biggs states that the 1968 assault on Huế resulted in the ‘inadvertent killing of many civilians’. The author’s use of ‘inadvertent’ in this section mischaracterises events established by historical records from multiple sides witnessing the battle during which besieged communist forces willfully executed defenceless prisoners characterised as ‘lackeys’ by going house to house and killing males of military age. Despite citing evidence from Nhã Ca’s firsthand account of the Battle of Huế, Biggs’s one-sided characterisation of the battle and emphasis on civilian assistance to communist forces fail to highlight the antagonism and outright fear many local Vietnamese felt towards the communist forces articulated in Nhã Ca’s account as communist forces committed war crimes. This unbalanced examination towards the factions vying for control of the region in this later section is this work’s greatest flaw.

While the author’s repeated emphasis on the ‘aerial perspective’ from the powers seeking to control the region is convincing from the position of the French and US forces, the assertion that this ‘aerial perspective’ was formative in Vietnamese nationalist conceptualisations of the Vietnamese environment in the modern history of Vietnam is not convincingly backed by supporting primary source evidence in the book. While the term ‘aerial perspective’ is useful to describe the aerial intelligence collected by external forces and in a modern scholarly context, this terminology does not seem to be found among the Vietnamese nationalist actors mentioned in the work, communist or otherwise.

Overall, however, this new work by David Biggs is a great addition to the study of conflict in Vietnam, not only for its environmental history perspective but especially in telling the localised history of a region often de-centred in the historiography. Especially inspiring is Biggs’s application of his research and GIS toolkit not only to broaden understandings of history, but also to partner with locals and the Vietnamese government in removing harmful traces of the war such as chemical waste sites. Combining sturdy local history research with a layered environmental perspective and a strong altruistic component, this book will help readers understand both Vietnam and the possibilities for applied historical study from a fresh perspective.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

 

Book Review: Genre Publics: Popular Music, Technologies, and Class in Indonesia by Emma Baulch

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 17/03/2022 - 10:24pm in

In Genre Publics: Popular Music, Technologies, and Class in Indonesia, Emma Baulch explores the interconnections between the Indonesian public sphere and popular music. This is a rich contribution to the theorisation of genre publics, examining the varied socio-cultural dynamics of popular music and its role in constituting the public sphere in Indonesia, writes Rituparna Patgiri.

This book review is published by the LSE Southeast Asia blog and LSE Review of Books blog as part of a collaborative series focusing on timely and important social science books from and about Southeast Asia.

Genre Publics: Popular Music, Technologies, and Class in IndonesiaEmma Baulch. Wesleyan University Press. 2021.

Book cover of Genre PublicsIn recent years, a lot of social science scholarship has been devoted to understanding the soft power of Hallyu – South Korea’s cultural wave. However, not much is known about cultural trends in other parts of Asia. Hence, Emma Baulch’s book, Genre Publics: Popular Music, Technologies, and Class in Indonesiapublished by Wesleyan University Press in 2020, is a timely intervention. It explores the interconnections between the Indonesian public sphere and popular music. Academic interest in popular music is historical, with one of the twentieth century’s most famous thinkers – Theodor Adorno – publishing an essay titled ‘On Popular Music’ in 1941. Baulch’s book is yet another attempt at exploring the varied socio-cultural dynamics of popular music and its role in constituting the public sphere in Indonesia.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part on technological paradigms explores the changes and continuities in the constitution and articulation of genre publics between 1965-2005. The second part looks at how middle-classness is built and understood in a globalised and deregulated world. The third and final section pursues patterns of organisational life that emerge in the context of the new technological paradigms. It is both theoretically and empirically rich, with all three sections containing case studies of different popular music bands and magazines and other forms of media.

Microphone in music venue

Photo by BRUNO EMMANUELLE on Unsplash

With globalisation, new local centres have emerged in Indonesia, which have facilitated the growth of pop music. Baulch interrogates the way local pop music is produced in this global context. Claims of authenticity in music are raised, with pre-existing genres classified by their association with a village-metropolis (kampungan/gedongan) dichotomy (3). Genres that use ‘Indian’ elements are categorised as kampungan/Melayu, and those that use ‘Western’ elements are classified as gedongan/Indonesian. The music genre publics are thus classified and also subsequently ranked. The genres using ‘Indian’ elements are ranked lower than those using ‘Western’ ones. The role of the print media is particularly significant in how gedongan has been portrayed in opposition to kampunganGedongan has been seen as the more ‘refined’ genre of music.

As such, it becomes important to also understand who listens to which form of music. While the urban middle class prefers to listen to the gedongan genre, the rural public prefers kampungan. This clearly indicates how ideas of taste themselves are social location-based (class, caste, race, gender, ethnicity, etc), as French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued. Thus, genres of popular music become useful in highlighting the class relations that exist in Indonesian society.

The Indonesian middle classes have been heavily dependent on the state. But the pop music magazine Aktuil, through its content, made these classes feel that they were a part of the public sphere. By reading about rock music, they were made to feel like they belonged to the changing globalised world (46). Aktuil also addressed readers through glittering images and advertisements. A new kind of ‘consumer citizenship’ was created, which enabled the articulation of an ‘ideal democratic personhood’ (49) to its large readership. Thus, the story of popular music is also a story of changing class and democratic relations in Indonesia, as captured by these lines from the book: ‘As well as providing a link to an imagined community of readers, Aktuil furnished youth with sartorial equipment that gave them a sense of power over public space (47).

The book also explores another dimension of pop music and its relationship to the public sphere – the impact of technological advancements. Media deregulation and digitalisation have meant that the range of technologies that can mediate pop music has significantly advanced (7). Television in this context has emerged as a powerful form of media that has been able to increase the popularity of popular music. In fact, it became an alternate way in which kampungan was reinvented by the masses as a counter-public.

There is also integration/intersection between forms of media. For instance, the fans of the popular provincial boy band Kangen initially came together through CDs that were informally circulated and then became mediatised televisionally. The Kangen band was seen as representing poor people who played their own versions of pop music, often considered to be technically incorrect. Although it was ranked lower than gedongan in terms of genres, kampungan offered the poor a chance to participate in the consumer economy.

Media plays a key role in shaping modes of social organisation and citizenship. New communicative practices were ushered in by changing digital technologies. There was a ‘boom’ of local musical forms that can be generally categorised as kampungan spearheaded by the growth of private television and the recording industry. The media plays a critical role in decentralising and diversifying the existing public sphere. Baulch writes that: ‘The valorisation of kampungan evident in the pop Melayu case arises not from the political empowerment of the masses, but from a new technological landscape that visibilized the lower classes in new ways (79).

This understanding of kampungan/gedongan is thus also a study of genres. Genres have social and public meanings, as exemplified by this study of popular music in Indonesia. While I feel that the book could have been simpler language-wise, which would have increased its appeal, it is a rich contribution to the field of theorisations of genre publics. It is also an interesting exploration of the concept of the public sphere as the author has richly engaged with various theories of the public.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

 

Measuring the decibels of piety in Indonesia

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 14/03/2022 - 4:35am in

Tags 

Asia

Visitors to Indonesia beware: Sound off about visual pollution from billboards or trash in rivers or the CO2 assaults on lungs and listeners will nod. But stay mum about noise if the source is a place of worship. That could be considered blasphemous. The government is tentatively inching towards reform – but not all see Continue reading »

Pages