Thursday, January 21, 2016

Interview with James Siegel

James Siegel
Interviewed by Johan Lindquist
Published by Duke University Press
In Public Culture

 This interview is a result of an extended written and spoken conversation between October 2011 and March 2012. Lindquist began by sending a series of questions to Siegel, who responded in writing. The text was then sent back and forth as Lindquist added questions and asked for further clarification. In January 2012 Lindquist conducted a two-hour interview with Siegel in Paris and then integrated parts of the transcription into the written document. The text was then again sent back and forth before being finalized in March 2012

Johan Lindquist (JL): Throughout your career, which began in the early 1960s, you have remained focused on the study of Indonesia. You are also arguably the anthropologist who has been most committed to developing a Derridean deconstructive approach. Before we return to these broad themes, could you say something about your background and how you became
interested in anthropology and Indonesia?

James Siegel (JS): I was born in Superior, Wisconsin, on the edge of the lake, in the north. Superior is a small town, about twenty-five thousand inhabitants when I was born, but founded by speculators to be a rival of Chicago. Sixty-some years later, when I was born, it had the world’s largest sewage system, the high stone arches extending far beyond the inhabited areas of the town, the town never attracting many settlers. It was a ghost town before it was born, but it never felt uncanny, probably because nothing ever happened there to repeat itself. But perhaps what repeats there is something not occurring.

I was a student in one or maybe two classes of Clifford Geertz in the late 1950s as an undergraduate at Harvard, where he had just received his PhD. That I don’t remember how many classes I took with him shows the nature of his effect on me. Geertz lectured with an intensity I had never before seen. He rolled up his tie (it was the late fifties, all men and even undergraduates [all were male] wore ties), put it in his mouth, dropped it to scratch the side of his head, moved his hand down (I remember it as his left hand) to scratch his behind, moved his hands to the front, and with both hands rolled up his tie again and repeated this gesture from the beginning to the end of the lecture. I don’t remember what he said. In any case, he spoke so rapidly no one person could get it down. Students worked in teams to get what they could into their notes.

Geertz was not precisely an intellectual influence—I can’t remember what he said in the classes I took with him, only the topic, “Indonesia.” Not only because it was over fifty years ago, but also because I was incapable—and still am—of learning from teachers. I can’t even read the instructions that come with appli- ances. Geertz was not a model—a model is someone one consciously tries to be like. One can decide to have a model. I cannot decide much of anything, but I am easily moved by what I come across. Geertz was an important person to have come across. He was electricity generating words that issued in formulations often mixed with irony and humor. One didn’t know if the latter was a product of his nervousness or his ability to stand aside from what he said. In any case, like everything he uttered, his humor passed quickly. Geertz to me was not a person but an image of the flow of words through a human body. It seems to me now that I felt blocked. Words were there, but nothing came out. As a result I was a mediocre student, always disappointing my teachers, who thought I should do better. I had no method and did not know there was such a thing. Geertz, more than anyone else I met as a student, showed me that words need not stay inside the head even if one has no method. All you had to do was connect the parts of your body with them. But you could not do that to yourself; it had to happen. Watching Geertz, it seemed this happened in Indonesia. I still think so, and I still go there.

JL: Was there anything beyond Geertz that drew you to anthropology?
JS: The humanities and history were less analytical than they are now, a matter of culture as the proper [focus], it seemed to me then. The social sciences in contrast were characterized by a vitalizing optimism, particularly in relation to decolonialization and modernization. Anthropology even appeared to offer an alternative, in the sense that it could replace religion and politics. This would be impossible today.

JL: Could you say something about your graduate studies?

JS: I went to Berkeley to do my graduate work. I read Christaan Snouck Hurgronje on Aceh.1 I was upset because he seemed able to know and say everything about Aceh and still be a colonialist—that is, on the wrong side. This was the period of decolonization. Those who understood were against colonialism. I did not understand the difference between a moral sentiment and understanding. I wanted to show that Snouck was wrong on both counts. If Geertz was important at all in that regard, it was because he was brilliant and he was anticolonialist. The opposite of Snouck in an important way. Once I sank into Aceh and began my fieldwork, Geertz did not have much to say. But he was kind and helpful to me. He was not on my thesis committee because he left Berkeley before I was ready for my exams. He invited me to Chicago, where I spent a year on the Committee for New Nations mainly trying to avoid abstractions about development and democracy (due more to Edward Shils than to Geertz) that came with thinking about “modernization” but seemed to me to be obstacles to engagement with place.

JL: The year 1965 was a transformative moment in Indonesia with the fall of Sukarno and the rise of the dictator Suharto, as perhaps one million people were massacred, most notably those accused of belonging to the Communist Party. Suharto would rule Indonesia until 1998, when the effects of the Asian economic crisis and demands for political reform forced him to resign. You conducted your fieldwork just a few years before the killings, which no one had been able to predict. How did this affect you?

JS: I shared the optimism of the early 1960s by identification with Indonesians engaged in doing what they did at that time. But I did not understand them, and I did not know I did not understand them. I only knew I was for them. It was not the ideas of the time as taught at the Committee for New Nations that was the real obstacle for me. It was the exclusiveness of my identification. Had I myself not confused the moral and the intellectual I would have advanced, but I did not unravel the difference until I was forced to. That came in 1965 with the massacres of those accused of communism and with the allegiance of my Acehnese friends with the butchers. It seems simple now in retrospect, an innocent characteristic of the young. But it was not simple, because without such identification with the Acehnese I would have gotten nowhere at all, and it was not innocent, because I had avoided thinking about murderous violence, plentiful enough in Acehnese history up till the present. After that, I needed more than moral shock. I needed another form of understanding to permit me to engage intellectually and to latch on to people while showing me their necessarily uncertain status. The Vietnam War duplicated the shock, as generations in the United States struggled against each either in support or in opposition to the war. Most profoundly, it became clear to me that if you follow the path of those you admire, it appears that it is as likely as not that you will follow the path of murderers. For me there was no way to conceptualize this.

This was obviously a critical time. In analytical terms, it highlights your need to break from an earlier form of anthropological engagement and hermeneutics.

JS: When I began reading about deconstruction in the late 1960s, it fused with my experience and gave me a way to begin thinking. I had been hired as an anthropologist at Cornell, which quite by chance became a center for the study of Southeast Asia and deconstruction in literature. It helped immensely that I learned about deconstruction not in the first place by reading Jacques Derrida but by listening to friends at Cornell—Neil Hertz, Richard Klein, Piero Pucci—talk about it between themselves. I had never heard such talk. I learned French over again to read what they had read. Reading Derrida was so absorbing that it altered my personal relations. It strengthened my friendships, but in some important cases it led to conflict. It was the opposite trajectory of the one I describe above. Teaching with these friends in departments such as classics also helped me learn and develop a new way of thinking. But beyond that, those interested in Southeast Asia and deconstruction had nothing to do with each other.

JL: We’ll return to the question of deconstruction later. Before we go on, could you please speak about Victor Turner, who was an earlier influence on your work?

JS: Victor Turner was my colleague the year I began teaching in 1965. Of course, I read the famous essays on rites de passage (see, e.g., Turner 1967), and like everyone, I am sure, I was strongly impressed. The essays alone would have done that, but it was also the times. Vic gave courses and seminars on the topic that were attended by faculty from the literature departments and the university’s leading hippies. Talking about the Ndembu, it seemed as though he spoke about us. I think he felt that himself, though not for the same reason. He found in liminality—the middle section of rites of passage where the initiand is stripped of social identity—a world of absolute authority with meanings inverted. It seemed fundamental, as though one could find moments when the social as constituted had no prise[leverage], and at the same time the nature of the symbolic was revealed and the social refounded. This wasn’t archetypical, à la Carl Jung for instance. It was rather that a moment of nondefinition was built into social transition in tribal societies. At that instant, instead of alienation, instead of putting the social in question, the social reasserted itself, but one had to know how to understand it. Turner was able to do so, because in his studies of micropolitics he of course became familiar with the terms in which this politics was set.

The political and cultural disruption that came with the Vietnam War, the awful break between children and parents, took on the beginning of sense seen through the Ndembu. Vic showed us ourselves in them. I thought this was just what anthropology was meant to do. Vic was a wonderful person, full of words, removed from involvement in the local politics of the university, his mind on other things, and still au courant of it all. He was warmhearted, sensual, and impressively intelligent. All the more impressive at that moment because he was not an intellectual, not someone who thought that ideas ruled. It was impossible, in the face of all that, to avoid his thinking.

The difficulty for me was that I had already done my fieldwork and made my analysis and found nothing of the sort he spoke about. At the same time, I thought that not finding anything much like liminality (2) and its phenomena was itself interesting. When I reread Turner today I find it equally impressive but local. The life of the Ndembu now seems mostly of African importance. But I think Vic’s account of them should be studied carefully again, not because “we” are “them” in the way that they were taken at the time, but because they still have the power to raise the comparison. It is still necessary to resist them. Therefore, they still have something to say. The problem would be not to find the cultural phenomenon of their liminality in our “marginality” or pilgrimage, as Vic went on to do, but to find the openings in culture where a crisis of culture occurs.

Vic’s way of working—proceeding from close observation, the sort that comes best with immersion, moving to strange sorts of connections in thinking and culture—is what anthropology does best. I think that does not happen unless, from the beginning, one takes the other seriously as having something one lacks. The mistake at the time, it seems in retrospect, was to take the Ndembu capacity for social regeneration as a universal. But if one took their seriousness as they faced the dissolution of the social built into their society, one might well benefit. There is no model for this in anthropology, but literature, of course, does this all the time. It is encouraging to read, something I would not think of saying, it being so obvious, if literature were not so easily put aside now.

Vic’s way of proceeding was also that of Geertz. Geertz wrote The Religion of Java (1960) to show what the generalizations about religion were based on. Like Turner, he was sure that the statements of the people he spoke with added up. It is not the case in my work, but it was initially. Assuming consistency and congruence severely warped my first book, The Rope of God (Siegel 2000 [1969]), and was one reason I overlooked the causes of the massacre that occurred a year after I returned from Sumatra. On the other hand, I have retained Geertz’s insistence on the importance of words. He relied on paraphrase, however, and I like to have the precise words in the original language. Geertz might have done the same had handheld recorders been available in his epoch.

JL: But at the same time, discontinuity was already there in The Rope of God. The book describes how people who think they understand each other actually do not, yet still manage to live together. Rosalind Morris notes that even this book offered a “radical alternative to hermeneutic models” (2007: 378).

JS: Roz is a brilliant thinker and an excellent reader of texts. I myself had not formulated the contrast with hermeneutic[ interpretive] models; I simply held on to what I had seen and heard. I wish I had known Roz earlier.

JL: Could you say more about how you attempted to move beyond Geertz and Turner?

JS: You cannot do what Turner and Geertz did unless you identify with the other, unless you are interested in understanding the other and believe that what they say is the truth. To do that kind of anthropology you need to be divided in two, but that leaves you God knows where. If you choose their side, you end up where they are; if you choose the other side, you break your connection with the source of your understanding. This problem was what had led to my initial crisis.

JL: What was your choice?

JS: If you have a way to think not only who the other is but how otherness is formed, how the fact of that identification is built into the very possibility of speaking with them or speaking at all, then you have some way of thinking through it again. There is no solution or resolution, but it opens up new kinds of questions. This was one step further for me.

JL: You developed this perspective—an engagement with how otherness is formed, rather than with meaning per se—as you followed Derrida’s seminars in Paris for fifteen years. This concern with and investment in deconstruction led you away from anthropology toward critical theory and literature. For instance, you have published only one article in an anthropology journal during your entire career. Could you say something about how you understand the relationship between anthropology and literature?

JS: Literature makes its own laws, and within those laws it shows us a world. In my mind this is what we study. You have the right to make laws, and they hold until you stop writing. When I go to Indonesia I sometimes feel like I am going mad. They are normal; I, who might share their normality, am not. By definition, normality integrates, whereas madness isolates. You learn from literature how to deal with that. It is the possibility of putting yourself in the position of the reader of fiction. But that comes about through a gradual habituation, not through formulation. I am not by nature patient, but in Indonesia I nonetheless am.

The debates going on in literature today is what anthropology once was about. A few years ago Samuel Weber asked me if, as an anthropologist, I could tell him if it was necessary to separate the dead from the living. Is it necessary to bury the dead? This is a question that anthropologists haven’t asked since 1860. What anthropology does now is sophisticated and local but does not speak beyond that because it doesn’t ask the questions that allow it do so. I think it is important to work locally, but the questions that are critical, life and death first of all, are often neglected. As I point out in my work on witchcraft (Siegel 2006), the focus on structure is actually a way of avoiding these issues.

JL: Please say something about this in relation to your ongoing work in Aceh.

JS: I had begun a study of experiences of the 2004 tsunami in Aceh, but I had not gone so far as to think that perhaps the effort that was put into putting the dead into mass graves as soon as possible was anything but common sense. In the tropics, decay and then disease come quickly. Of course they had to bury the dead. Then, when I went back to the recordings I made of people who had gone through the tsunami, I realized that, in fact, if one listened carefully, people were speaking to the dead and were hearing them speak. Sometimes by mistake, at a time when it was not evident (and it still isn’t) who was alive and who was dead. But sometimes not by mistake at all but by accepting the conditions of what they thought to be total destruction. Religious conviction told them it was the end of the world. But they avoided thinking about divine judgment and thought instead about dealing with the world after the end. This allowed them to accept the dead as part of their (non)existence. This is a very complicated subject, and I have grossly simplified it.

I don’t know where Sam Weber got his question from. But, of course, he is a fore- most interpreter of Derrida, and that from a long time ago. In his mind it must have challenged the necessity for logocentrism and its continuation—phallogocentrism. Life is associated with voice. One breathes, one speaks, one extrudes something from deep inside. The breathless cannot speak and might be dead. If one com- municates with the dead—as often people do in trance in Indonesia via spirits— it takes a substitute voice, one that comes through someone alive, but not speaking in her everyday voice. If there were everyday communication with the dead, as happened during and after the tsunami, the everyday voice would be avoided. This happened without previously formed conventions or rituals. It will take me some time to make these provisional conclusions convincing.

JL: Could you say something about this in relation to Derrida and deconstruction, more generally.

JS: The first book of Derrida’s I read, Of Grammatology (1976), shows speech is thought to be an emanation of life. Therefore, it would be impossible for the dead to speak or at least to speak in the manner of the living. But making this “impossible,” Derrida showed, was a construction that ties language to structure. In a time when dead and living are confused, in Aceh at least, people speak to the dead, thinking they are speaking normally. To call it simply a “mistake” is a refusal to admit the possibility of speech being separated from life. In Aceh, people were imagining a world of the dead, thinking they themselves were dead, and in a certain way even saying “I am dead.” I give you this necessarily compressed account as an example of how, at a certain point, starting from simple observation, I have been led to Derrida.

 I say “starting from observation” all the while being well aware that there is nothing simple in that beginning. I first realized its complexities when I read Sam Weber’s The Legend of Freud (1982). I knew that one could not recognize something one did not have the means to recognize, but I did not know the complications Sam outlines. To talk about matters such as death, one quickly comes to a point where observations are not replicable by others. I thought that anthropology was then severely limited. I realized that I should simply do what I do—look carefully, then say carefully what I see (and especially hear), accepting that it is necessarily provisional, that I too am part of history. Anthropology, to be what it can be, can do this (and not only this). In that way we can raise again the questions that began our discipline, such as the one Sam posed. It makes anthropology like those other disciplines that rely on continual revision to be what they are. What’s left to us is to stimulate such revision in the first place by putting “the other” forward, even if this other is itself a necessarily complicated idea.

JL: What does it mean to “put the other forward”?

JS: To put the other forward in ethnography means to think how the other is constructed in the places we study. One has to know the sociological distinctions that compose a society. That goes without saying. But it is something else to see how this other takes shape. It’s at the boundaries that this question comes most clearly into view. With the “mad”—the way that the mad come to be called that, the possibilities of communication with them, their usefulness—one asks, “Why are there mad persons?” As Michel Foucault pointed out, at a certain moment the mad were integrated into society, then they were separated. He showed how this was done historically. It remains to ask the purpose that is served by having a class of people with whom one is said to be unable to communicate and who are put aside. What does it mean, in other words, to preserve a moment where one asserts that communication is not possible and at the same time thinks the opposite?

JL: Is a deconstructive anthropology possible, in more general terms, considering that anthropology can hardly exist without the human?

JS: There can’t be anything by the name of “deconstructive anthropology” in the way there might be, say, “psychoanalytic anthropology” The latter requires a set of assumptions and even a method, the conclusions necessarily being set in a particular vocabulary. Deconstruction is not a method and has presented no ideas that one necessarily has to use. But it has a guiding question about origins— their necessity and the impossibility of their firm establishment. Of course, one does not have to speak about voice to engage in deconstruction. One can’t say what might appear in something that later might be called a “deconstructive ethnography.”

JL: In some quarters there is still a sense that deconstruction is apolitical or neo- conservative, as for instance Jürgen Habermas once identified Derrida and Foucault. How do you view the question of the political in relation to deconstruction?

JS: There are many ways to answer your question. Derrida did not aim at a particular political program. Rather, he opened the way for change in the broadest sense. With deconstruction, nothing is left in place. Deconstruction gives us a way to see political movements or moves that are not expressed in conventional terms of a consistent political subject. Again, take for instance the reactions to the tsunami in the midst of a rebellion against the Indonesian government. Some of those struck thought they were dead; they tried to communicate with the corpses in their midst and tried to join the dead once they were faced with Indonesian soldiers. They did so out of the possibility of identifying with the complete other of their selves. (I use the pronoun they, but I do not want to imply that there was a communality of reactions. There could not be when the conditions of social life were practically all wiped out and people had to invent new forms.) At that moment, they were able to evoke an identity that would have been thought delirious in any other condition than the seemingly total devastation they found themselves in. They not only were in a lifeless landscape; they belonged there. In this place, life and death were not mutually exclusive. I doubt that before Derrida we could see such a reaction as anything else but the formation of “myth.” But these people put Derrida’s succinct formulation “Tout autre est tout autre”—“All others are other and all others are completely other”—to work. Later, with “reconstruction,” the government and the NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] tried to formulate the event quite differently. They depended on an idea of suffering that demanded to be consolidated within ethnic and national terms, insisting on identity as unified and exclusive, incorporating them in the old political order. Yet the experience of the tsunami led in another direction. Something might still come of it. Deconstruction lets us think through such experiences without imposing ideas similar to those of the government. Its value is to show us the political where we would overlook it and to show what it depends on in places where we are familiar with it. And when I say that “something might still come of it,” I want to stress that the condition at which it might come is that we don’t know what that “something” might be. Through relentless (or restless) questioning and displacement, deconstruction destabilizes, shakes and is shaken, and in that sense also it has a political force. But it is a force at odds with any idea of program and programming, at odds with conventional politics in this sense. For Derrida, it is precisely what escapes any form of teleological thinking (the kind of thinking that informs conventional political programs and calculations) that opens up the future. The future in this sense, including the future of society and culture, can never be entirely foreseen or foregrounded, no more than the effects of a tsunami.

JL: The question of the political is of great importance in relation to perhaps your key interlocutor throughout your career, Benedict Anderson, a fellow scholar of Indonesia whom you worked with at Cornell. From what I understand, your book Fetish, Recognition, Revolution is largely a response to his Imagined Communities (Siegel 1997; Anderson 1983), one of the most influential books in the social sciences since its publication. Could you comment on this?

JS: I met Ben a few days after I arrived for the first time in Jakarta, in 1962. From the first I knew he was someone whom I could not describe by using the word talent. That word applies to those who have an aptitude for what they do, as if they were suited to their work. Ben seems to me to understand so many things in such different registers, the gap between himself and his objects of study (and his talk, for that matter, always so agreeable and so penetrating), that one never knows where his understanding comes from. It is not an “aptitude,” a “talent,” but a surpassing of the person. He draws on a range of things that have nothing to do with Indonesia at all, for instance, but that show us things we never had known before about it. He has his way with languages—a genuine polyglot. Unlike other polyglots I have known, he does not stop with mastery of a language. He learned Javanese, Indonesian, a little Balinese, and I don’t know what else, not because he found similarities in these languages but because the differences between them seemed to lead him on. He knew from the beginning in an untheoretical way that understanding passes through language. How he came to know this, I don’t know. But it seems to me that he must have learned what is essential to him (and it is an enormous amount) the way one learns from him—through apprenticeship, by watching him do what he does, rather than by having him tell you how to go about learning. This leaves the boundary of knowledge wide open. By contrast, for me to reach that point takes skepticism about those who claim they know. (My favorite word is but when it is not no, no doubt something I learned living here in France.) Ben can be an excellent polemicist, but that is not how he goes about his work. I, by contrast, am still angry with Snouck. Not Ben. He moves on.

At Cornell, we taught seminars together on Pramoedya Ananta Toer.(3)His ability to question a single word often was critical in understanding the stories. He always picked out the telling passages and made me realize I had skipped something. I envy him his classical education and his ability to use it in ways that close it off from view. I would have been jealous of him—we are the same age, and I am ferocious as a brother—had I not benefited so much from him

As for Imagined Communities, I had not conceived Fetish, Recognition, Revo-lution as an answer to him or even imagined it had a connection with his book. His thesis, published as Java in a Time of Revolution (Anderson 1972), seemed to me then and still now to have an importance that has been neglected. Ben showed, in the face of George Kahin, his teacher and thesis director, that revolution had to be considered by itself, apart from nationalism, as George had presented it in a book that remains important (Kahin 1952). Ben carried this further in Imagined Communities. Whereas in European history it is a truism that revolution led to nationalism, revolution is put aside on the first page of Imagined Communities. In contrast to the debates that preceded it, we can understand the rise of nationalism without recourse to revolution. But there was revolutionary violence in Indonesia, a revolution that from a traditional point of view would have been said to be uncompleted. I think this violence has its own roots outside nationalism—and Ben in his introduction to Java in a Time of Revolution suggested as much. I think Ben was right to do as he did, and I hope he still will do more on the subject.

My own book was not meant as an answer to Ben’s. I had not formulated the problem for myself when I wrote it. Rather, it came from looking at a relation of literature to revolution in a place where literature had uncertain boundaries and uncertain forms. It was popular literature, the work of amateurs, kitsch really. Close to life, naive but accurate in describing its fears in the way of melodrama. No heroes, but rather various bad guys. This is literature not set apart as such and probably taken by its readers as a reflection of the world. In the case of Toer, [it is] that literature that needed education to write. Not the well-known Buru Quartet but the early stories written during or just after the revolution attracted me. Here it is not revolutionary fighters or politicians that matter. Nor is it the culture of Java. It is rather the pictures of remnants of the colonial world. These people, often servants, are not heroes, but they are important, not for the fears they embody but because they are not admirable; they show no resistance. They lead lives, for the most part, outside the dictates of nationalism or politics of any kind. But life wears on them in ways that they do not always notice. The roots of revolution are shown not in conflict but in something previous to it that makes the clash that ensued not more understandable but less so. Opposition is formulated in ideology, and the formation of opposed identities does not take account of this. It has its effects in the strange attempts at memorialization of that time. Today the celebration of the revolution shows brave Indonesians but rarely the Dutch they are supposedly confronting. A mystery, but solvable.

JL: This series of interviews is largely about scholarship as a process and a craft. Could you consider your own work more explicitly in these terms?

JS: I start with looking and hearing. I take notes; I make comments; now I record what I hear others say. The result does not add up. But the connections between the fragments seem to me important. The words of those I meet convey more than intentions. Out of that I try to make something. I do not present this as a model for anyone. It depends where you go, for one thing. I spent a year in Jakarta in the 1980s futilely, because I could not find such connections. It was the result of life in the capital under the rule of dictator and murderer (Suharto, of course). Life there was dominated by denial and evasion practiced unselfconsciously. It was important to me to see this even if I could not formulate it out of ethnographic observation. Were I to have written an ethnography of that moment, it would consist of my consistent failure to find out anything of importance. I should have done that. I might have had something to say about how such blockage occurs. But I did not have the heart. Instead, I wrote a book about the fear of revolution, based on newspaper reports of criminals, for the most part (Siegel 1998). The lack of overt resistance to Suharto until the end of his decades of rule meant that he simply fell for causes to be found in the economy and in the limited politics of the army. I could find no way to get under the deceptions embedded in daily life. But simply to have seen them was important to me because it goes some way to explain how a man responsible for the murder of, at the least, hundreds of thousands of his co-citizens was never brought to trial for it and lived his life undisturbed till his natural death. Of course, Indonesians were angry with him at the end, but it was more for having stolen billions than for his lethal acts. I take it as an offense that Suharto was let off and a warning not to let myself think I have a way to avoid the omissions that mark my first work.

“Craft” implies a method that can be passed down. I can now, after a long (but not long enough) time at work, find only a pattern. What I learn is stimulated by knowing persons. My transferential or identificatory relation to them has been modified since 1965 by intellectual interests. When I begin anew, the series repeats itself—thus a “process.” But how does one start over? I feel, rather than know, that I have made errors or important omissions. I want to make up for this, not directly by revision, though that happens, particularly recently, but by feeling pulled again to the same place—“Indonesia,” where I can do better next time. “Indonesia” by this time has become for me not only a political and geographical location but any place where electricity surges through the body and words come out. The less I interfere with the process, the more I can momentarily put aside whatever frames a place in advance, the luckier I feel. But after that, the more likely it is that I feel I misunderstood. Thanks to your question, I ask myself who it is that tells me I have made a mistake. Perhaps it has to do with growing up in a place where nothing ever happened, where authority therefore was not clearly delineated as it needs to be when one deals with events. My father told me when I was quite young that because of the Depression they had waited four years to have a child. No doubt the person who writes is the one born in 1933 and the person who regrets the one born four years later.

Insofar as I can now imagine, I see what made me do what I have done so far; it all started with friends: Ben Anderson, Tim Bahti, Anne Berger, Claude Guillot, Richard Klein, Phil Lewis, Neil Hertz, Michael Meeker, Roz Morris, Rudolf Mrázek, Piero Pucci, Sandra Siegel, Sam Weber. And others as well. To say how would fill the entire journal. I have not seen enough of these people.

JL: This is a good place to end. We should end here.

1. Snouck Hurgronje (1857–1936) was an influential Dutch scholar most famous for his studies of Aceh and Mecca. Because of his knowledge of Acehnese society and history, he became a key advisor to the colonial regime of the Netherlands East Indies, helping crush resistance and impose Dutch rule in Aceh in the early twentieth century

(2) n anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning "a threshold") is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete ...

3. Toer (1925–2006), Indonesia’s most celebrated writer and a leading social critic, was imprisoned by the Dutch during the Sukarno era and for fourteen years during the Suharto era, during which time his writings were banned.


Benedict Anderson; NY: Cornell University Press.
———. 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso.
Barker, Joshua, and Vicente Rafael. 2012. “The Event of Otherness: An Interview with James T. Siegel.” Indonesia no. 93: 33–52.
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Interview: James Siegel
Public Culture
Published by Duke University Press


  1. When I go to Indonesia I sometimes feel like I am going mad. They are normal; I, who might share their normality, am not. By definition, normality integrates, whereas madness isolates. You learn from literature how to deal with that. It is the possibility of putting yourself in the position of the reader of fiction. But that comes about through a gradual habituation, not through formulation. I am not by nature patient, but in Indonesia I nonetheless am.

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