1869, Ep. 106 with Arnout van der Meer, author of Performing Power
1:43PM Jun 24, 2021
Welcome to 1869, the Cornell University Press podcast. I'm Jonathan Hall. This episode we speak with Arnout van der Meer, author of Performing Power: Cultural Hegemony, Identity and Resistance in Colonial Indonesia. Arnout is an Assistant Professor in History at Colby College. His research explores the importance of material in visual culture, such as dress, architecture, deference rituals and symbols of power for both the legitimization of colonial authority, as well as its contestation in turn of the 20th century Indonesia. We spoke to Arnout about how a photographic collection of Dutch colonial officials in Java sparked his interest in researching the topic of his new book, how the use of cultural history has unveiled new insights on the development of Indonesia that have up to this point been missed by other more traditional historical approaches, and how individual acts of rebellion against Dutch colonial power by Indonesians helped subvert the state from the grassroots up.
Hello, Arnout. Welcome to the podcast. Yeah, Jonathan, thank you. Thank you for having me. Well, we're very excited about your new book, Performing Power: Cultural Hegemony, Identity and Resistance in Colonial Indonesia. It's been published by our imprint Southeast Asia Program Publications. And thanks to the Sustainable History Monograph Pilot and the Mellon Foundation, the book is available now for free as an open access ebook. So we encourage our listeners to go to our website, as well as JSTOR, Project Muse or even Kindle for that matter, you can download the free ebook, but it's also going to be available as a paperback in August. We encourage our listeners to get both to have the ebook and then you can also have the hard copy, which is great. So tell us now How did this book come about? What's the backstory to this project? That's, you know, and that's always such a intriguing question, because in hindsight, right, you start wondering, where did this project begin? And
As you know, and a lot of other scholars know, sometimes that's not that clear to you, when you set out right when when is the moment you really embark on a project. But I do think for me, if there is a moment, it actually was in grad school, when you're kind of you're looking for what's going to be your larger dissertation project. And in my case, that meant that I was talking to my academic advisor at the time, Michael Adas, Rutgers University. And he showed me this this great photographic collection of images in colonial Indonesia, of Dutch colonial officials, who are basically surrounded by a Javanese status symbols, who are being honored in job with new Japanese etiquette, Japanese deference, traditional deference forms, but also pictures off the docks, living in houses that are clearly inspired by Javanese architecture that are wearing clothing that is very clearly mimicked. Or there's very clear 30, mimicking Javanese dress styles. And his questions were very basic and simple, like, what is going on here? How do we make sense of these images? And
illustrates does as well too is the fairgrounds as the plays a big part in one of my chapters, chapter six, and colonial fairgrounds were really intriguing places. During the late colonial era, the Dutch, basically stimulated D create the creation of large fairgrounds in most of our cities. And these were massive success. They drew a lot of visitors, for instance, in Batavia as fairgrounds, at its peak drew 500,000 visitors in about two weeks. So it run for only two weeks at these fairgrounds to Colonial state would offer a lot of our digital displays. Showing how, of course to the lodge after colonial state was beneficial to local artists and industries. It would show traditional performances of duration Performing Arts, but it would also have actually the majority of the fairgrounds would consist of stands for modern Western companies. And these are companies a lot of them from the Netherlands and from Japan, but also from United States, big companies that we still have with us today that are trying to sell consumer products. We also have a lot of modern entertainments for movie theaters to gas performances to modern restaurants. So these are really intriguing places where culture really serves to
legitimize, but also contest power. And what we see here then is that visitors to these fairs use these fairgrounds then also as a way to experiment with their identity and also to challenge colonial hierarchies. So for instance, in 1907, that's what is fair, I read in a European weekly, the frustration of a European journalist who basically was was angry with what he called the modernized Javanese, I think, ridicule, because that's their initial response of the doctors to ridicule this. So he ridiculed the Japanese were wearing strange hats and a striped tie a, basically a chain, watch a dress shirt, perhaps a black jacket, but also at the same time, a traditional saddle. And they kind of ridiculed this as a way of almost disarming the attempt. But what we see here is really the emergence of experiments with appearance to become modern, also to separate people on your power. Because by the late 1920s, and 1930s, the modernized Javanese has become omnipresent at these fairgrounds. So what I'm describing a chapter of precisely how we go from that moment in 1907, when the Dutch are completely taken aback by this particular occurrence, to the late 1920s, where the modernized Japanese is, is everywhere. And there's one great example in that chapter of how a Dutch woman there is a wooden submarine and a bus or Gumby or the Jakarta affair. And he she wants to basically lift up her son so that her son can look through the periscope. And at that particular moment, a Japanese man addresses her induction. He's fully dressed in European clothes, and he dresses her in Dutch. And basically, he says, Well, you know, do you need a hand? But she says, No, no, it's fine. She cleans the periscope with the handkerchief and the Japanese men said, Oh, that's very smart. And that's very hygienic. and European woman is kind of amazed by this, because in her diary, she wrote down Well, it almost looked, they treated me and they almost spoke to me as if they were my equals. And she was really kind of taken aback by this, he was surprised by this. That was not how the Japanese or Tunisians behaved a few decades earlier. So I think it really shows how to fairgrounds art is a great kind of prison where we can look at the performance of colonial power in an intriguing way.
Wow. It makes me angry, do hearing these some of these stories, because you just see this inequality and this assumption that, you know, how dare they dress like a European? Yeah, how dare they dress, you know, or they have the pocket watch, or they're trying to copy us and we have the power and they shouldn't and any type of emulation of us is a threat. Yeah, no, it's
what's really fascinating and, and also how it develops. And I, you know, I haven't even gotten to that particular part. But what happens is, of course, initially the 19th century to dodge kind of behave like Japanese lords, like Japanese aristocrats, but then around 1913, that starts to shift. And then suddenly, they go all in on their own maturity. So they want to contrast their own modernity with that of the Indonesians. So every Indonesian who starts to dress, let's say, as a European is suddenly a threat, and ever needs to be ridiculed. Right? Because you want to put that down. And you want to kind of present yourself as ever more modern, which essentially, is the essence of the civilizing mission discourses, this notion of We Are The superior civilization, we're gonna, we're gonna bring you along, right. But of course, the racist element is a civilizing mission also means that the Dutch never truly believe that Indonesians can become as advanced as they are. And it's that paradox. Fourth, that it's very palpable, and all of these encounters. And that's, that's, that's the thing, what makes this project so fascinating to me. But also, I think the parallels sometimes with other moments in time are really intriguing to not just in sort of the history of colonial societies, but I think Yeah, you can, you can look at, you can use the same framework to look at more contemporary societies as well. No, definitely, definitely. Yeah. I don't know. That's just a, it was a, it was a fun project to do. Also a pretty complex because you have to find all these individual examples, and nuggets and then tie them together. In a way that makes sense. And I think that was the hardest part. That was the hardest part of the project. Sounds like what's next on the next project that you're on? So that there are some some loose some loose change, as they say, right from this project? So there's a short article, actually. So at Cornell, I don't know maybe you need to guess the of course, there was a big conference on T two years ago, okay. And I gave a, I was one of the speakers there. And I gave a talk on tea in Indonesia. So I have an article on tea and Indonesia, where I basically also talk about how tea basically emerges as this colonial drink but it becomes a patriotic drink and I describe that process of how tea then becomes or is appropriate. By Indonesian nationals tea, you know what we're going to not accept that the Dutch control this because it's grown in Indonesian soil, it's grown with Indonesian labor. This is ours now. I'm describing that process of how do we move from seeing it simply as a colonial product to that's one and the other has to do with mountain resorts in Indonesia, and how essentially the Dutchman basically mountain resorts created modern, basically more modern tourist destinations. And just raising the question of what is that problematic? or What does it mean that tourists today go to the same destinations that the colonial Dutch selected 100 years ago. And in many cases, they selected specific locations because it actually emphasized and helped legitimize their colonial power and their colonial rhetoric. So what does it mean that we as modern day tourists actually are following those same footsteps. We're reinforcing that. Yeah. But the bigger project that comes after this is probably as it goes back to the fairgrounds, because I was so intrigued but a fairgrounds for this project. And I discovered that in the Philippines, something very similar was going on in Darien was called the Manila carnival. And in French Indochina, something similar was going on where I was called to Florida, Hanoi. And I also connected, I also found various connections between these events to so before of our step that would travel through Southeast Asia to visit all these events, for instance. So I think the next project is going to be on these fairs kind of as a vehicle both of so very much in the same theme, looking at culture, looking at these places of encounter, but I think also making a larger, larger argument about globalization, and consumerism. You know, I often talk to my students about this, and you know, all of these things, if you understand colonial societies from from the late 19th, early 20th century, and we really does help you understand societies today, right? You really need to, you really need to kind of study these to understand what is going on today. What are we talking here about the United States, clearly has a very different colonial history, but also very problematic one, but a lot of these narratives and discourses are very similar. And then it's interesting to note you can apply to to African countries, Asian countries of European countries, it's it's really, yeah, I think, really key to understanding our modern world.
Yeah, I think it's brilliant, tied in with globalization, those fairs. We see the ramifications of those now with all the advertising all the social media, all the consumerism that's everywhere in the world now. Yeah. So yeah,
so deliberate. That's the other thing, right? It's that and I think that's the other part about my book that I found so interesting. It's all of these things are deliberate. I didn't we didn't just become consumers, right. We were made to be consumers. And it's, it's presented to us as a choice, but it's not.
Oh, no. And even even the history within that within the United States of we're after World War Two, the advertisers saying hey, we can create this whole system based on advertising. And the old way was, you have one item that you purchase, and you you fix it and repair it, and and hold on to it, as long as you can be very frugal. And we got it, they had to change the culture to say no disposable, get the new thing, then improve thing. That's all just within 6070 years. Yeah.
Yeah, it's, it's, it's no, no, that's why well, you know, this is why history is amazing, because he thinks, and it's also I think cultural history is so amazing, because it it approaches these kinds of questions from a different angle. So rather than looking at politics or economics, right, we are asking this question more from from the cultural realm, but also, I feel more from the perspective of the consumer and perspective. Yeah, I think that's, that makes this really fascinating. And it's
more relatable, is I'm just speaking for myself, you know, I can relate as a, you know, a consumer or someone who has experienced this type of cultural conditioning, versus the big theater, the big politicians, the Western governments are doing. It's, it's more accessible to the average reader. Because it's double.
Yeah, yeah. No, I think that's it. That's actually a great point about my Yeah, I'm gonna use that for my own book. Well, because as you were saying, It's like when you when you read through, like, I haven't, same with with whatever, first about summer, so no, and it was like dozens of pages and you read through his words about how he experienced that particular moment. And, and then, if that's what it is, right, it is relatable because you could feel that anxiety and you could feel that, that that that uncomfortable moment. And, and I feel it without actually knowing how it must have failed in a colonial relationship and a power dynamic is so unequal, so it must have taken him incredible courage to actually because he stands up to his bus. He doesn't show up for work for two months. He continued work, other part of his work as a public prosecutor, with a judge who is my more lenient. And he only comes back later on when the Governor General himself has intervened and basically scolded the European official for for, for his behavior. And it's, yeah, for him. Yeah. And it sets in motion a whole series of offense, which eventually sees some more sono transferred by you a few months later to another station. But it also means that the Governor General has basically put out a new circular that decrees that all European civil servants need to behave with great respect to Indonesians that they can no longer demand traditional deference. And that if they will, that they will have to face the consequences from his office. And most importantly, that document that circular is picked up by the vernacular press by the Indonesian press, and they publish it in MLA as well. And then it's being used as document, you know, at political rallies, but also, it's read at just just, you know, local town halls. And then people are reading a document saying, civil servants are there to serve the people not to rule the people. And it becomes this this powerful moment. So out of that one, small encounter something really big emerges. And that's what my what of course, I talked about in the book. That's it becomes a really empowering moment. Yeah,
unfortunately, example of civil disobedience. It's a Rosa Parks moment for Yes, yeah. Yeah. A person's action effects the whole group.
Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And so far, this person has been unknown. Because our focus has always been on political parties, no political movements. And while he's involved in some of those political parties and movements, in many ways, his actions led to this particular circle or an epic or circular, I argue is so important in seeing this and the circulars announced in August 1913. And in September and October 1913, the newspapers in Indonesia suddenly full with men with small messages of like, teachers in Jakarta are changing your saddle for trousers and railroad personnel in London are changing yourself and for trousers, and because one of the things that they figured out is if we're going to trousers, we cannot be asked to sit on the ground anymore. So in 1913, in reaction to the circular, a lot of young Indonesians immediately begin wearing trousers of signaling their newfound basically self confidence of signaling their desire for respect to be treated with equality. And they do so unmask, which is 19, late 1932. Newspapers are filled with messages like this, and nobody has picked up on it.
That's so powerful, so powerful. in plain sight, you reading this in newspapers, but it's amazing, you know, you're the first historian to pick up on this, you know, look,
look at what's going on, versus, you know, versus let's looking at these officials in the government. It's, the timing is so key, right, because it's so tied to what happens with super Soto. And the timing explains them, this particular changing in dress. And in basically in reaction to this, a lot of the Dutch who were still wearing at least at home, dress akin to Japanese clothes. Suddenly, we're now forced to Europeanized themselves. To keep that contrast between colonizer and colonized. The moment of colonized start wearing European clothes, Europeans cannot keep wearing Javanese clothes. So they have to stop. And I think this is great because it shows power. It shows that the colonial relationship is not just about power from the colonizer here is to colonize with power. They are forcing change in a cultural way, not a political way. And I think that's,
yeah, that's one of the bottom up to grass roots from the bottom up. Yep, yep. Oh, that's great. That's great. Wow, we're so we're so honored that we're publishing your book. This is cutting stuff. I hope so. I hope so. Yeah, it is it is. That's fantastic. Well, again, so good talking with you. And congratulations on your new book. cultural hegemony, identity and resistance in colonial Indonesia. It was a pleasure talking with you. I know.
Yeah. That was all mine. Really, this was, this was a lot of fun. And, yeah, thank you so much, Jonathan. I really appreciate it.
That was arnout VanderMeer, author of performing power, cultural hegemony, identity and resistance in colonial Indonesia. If you'd like to read his new book, you can download the free open access ebook on our website at Cornell press cornell.edu. You can also use the promo code 09 pod to save 30% on the paperback. If you live in the UK. Use the discount code see us announce for the paperback and visit the website combined academic.co.uk Thank you for listening to 1869 the Cornell University Press podcast