Asian Studies

2022 Stephen C. Soong Translation Studies Memorial Award Winner Announced

We’re pleased to announce the winner of the 2022 Stephen C. Soong Translation Studies Memorial Award, given by the Research Centre for Translation to original research in Chinese Translation Studies: “Chinese Folklore for the English Public: Herbert A. Giles’s 1880 Translation of Pu Songling’s Classical Tales” by Shengyu Wang, published in Comparative Literature volume 73, issue 4. Read the essay, freely available for three months, here.

“Stephen C. Soong (1919–1996) was a prolific writer and translator, as well as an active figure in the promotion of translation education and research,” writes the RCT on their website. “To commemorate his contributions in this field, the Stephen C. Soong Translation Studies Memorial Awards were set up in 1997 by RCT, with a generous donation from the Soong family. It gives recognition to academics who have made contributions to original research in Chinese Translation Studies, particularly in the use of first-hand sources for historical and cultural investigations.”

Congratulations to Shengyu Wang!

New Books in July

No matter where or how you choose to escape the summer heat, we have you covered. Check out the great new titles coming out this July.

For those looking to learn more about international relations and globalization, Neferti X. M. Tadiar’s Remaindered Life offers readers a new vocabulary and framework for examining the relationship between global capitalism and permanent imperial war.

Drawing on ethnographic research in postconflict Peru and Colombia, Kimberly Theidon examines the lives of children born of wartime rape and impact of violence on human and more-than-human lives, bodies, and ecologies in Legacies of War.

Students of the World by Pedro Monaville follows the inspiring footsteps of a generation of Congolese student activists whose work became central to national politics and broader decolonization movements following Congo’s independence.  

Felicity Amaya Schaeffer paints a story of resistance in Unsettled Borders by tracing Native people’s efforts to continue ancestral practices in the face of ecological and social violence at the militarized US-Mexico border.

Cover of Making Peace with Nature: Ecological Encounters along the Korean DMZ by Eleana J. Kim. Cover is a photograph of DMZ wetlands, photographed by Kim Seung in 2005. Photo shows a border fence next to a field of brown grass.

If you are interested in reading about the relationship between nature and human society, Making Peace with Nature by Eleana J. Kim reveals the inseparable link between biodiversity, scientific practices and geopolitical, capitalist, and ecological dynamics found in South Korea’s Demilitarized Zone.

In the Skin of the City by António Tomás weaves sociology, urban studies, anthropology, and African studies to illustrate the transformation of Luanda’s capital Angola through continual redefinition and negotiation of its physical and social boundaries.

History lovers may like Penny M. Von Eschen’s Paradoxes of Nostalgia, which examines the cold war’s lingering shadows and how nostalgia for stability fuels US-led militarism and the rise of international xenophobia, right wing nationalism, and authoritarianism.

As high school and college history teachers begin to plan for the next school year, A Primer for Teaching Digital History by Jennifer Guiliano offers a practical guide for teachers new to digital history, while providing experienced instructors with the tools to reinvigorate their pedagogy.

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Welcoming Trans Asia Photography to Duke University Press

We are pleased to announce that “Photography,” the first issue of the open-access journal Trans Asia Photography published by Duke University Press, is now available. Start reading “Photography” here.

In this inaugural Duke University Press issue, contributors explore photography through the lens of Asia—variously defined as a geographic territory or cultural imaginary—in order to fundamentally rethink the history and nature of photo studies from a different perspective. Examining photography both as a material object and as a concept, the authors cover wide-ranging topics such as photography’s intermediality, transnationality, haptic/audible qualities, vernacular dimensions, and relationship to the “real.”

Trans Asia Photography, edited by Deepali Dewan, Yi Gu, and Thy Phu, is the first and only open-access internal journal devoted to the interdisciplinary exploration of historic and contemporary photography from Asia and across the Asian diaspora. Established more than a decade ago, the journal examines all aspects of photographic history, theory, and practice by centering images in or of Asia, conceived here as a territory, network, and cultural imaginary.

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New Books in June

Summer is almost here! Kick off the new season with some of the great new titles we have coming out in June.

Perfect for vacation reading, Shola von Reinhold’s decadent queer literary debut LOTE immerses readers in the pursuit of aesthetics and beauty, while interrogating the removal and obscuring of Black figures from history.

Examining the reception of evolutionary biology, the 1925 Scopes Trial, and the New Atheist movement of the 2000s, Donovan O. Schaefer theorizes the relationship between thinking and feeling by challenging the conventional wisdom that they are separate in Wild Experiment.

In Gridiron Capital, Lisa Uperesa charts the cultural, historical, and social dynamics that have made American football so central to Samoan culture.

Thulani Davis provides a sweeping rethinking of Reconstruction in The Emancipation Circuit, tracing how the four million people newly freed from bondage created political organizations and connections that mobilized communities across the South.

In The Small Matter of Suing Chevron, Suzana Sawyer traces Ecuador’s lawsuit against the Chevron corporation for the environmental devastation resulting from its oil drilling practices, showing how distinct legal truths were relationally composed of, with, and through crude oil.

In Discovering Fiction, eminent Chinese novelist Yan Lianke offers insights into his views on literature and realism, the major works that inspired him, and his theories of writing.

The contributors to Grammars of the Urban Ground, edited by Ash Amin and Michele Lancione, develop a new conceptual framework and vocabulary for capturing the complex, ever-shifting, and interactive processes that shape contemporary cities.

In Myriad Intimacies, Lata Mani oscillates between poetry and prose, genre and form, register and voice, and secular and sacred to meditate on the ways in which everyone and everything exists in mutually constitutive interrelations.

Working at the intersection of urban theory, Black studies, and decolonial and Islamic thought, AbdouMaliq Simone offers a new theorization of the interface of the urban and the political in The Surrounds.

Sophie Chao examines the multispecies entanglements of oil palm plantations in West Papua, Indonesia in her new book In the Shadow of the Palms, showing how Indigenous Marind communities understand and navigate the social, political, and environmental demands of the oil palm plant.

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Ken Wissoker’s Sale Recommendations

Image reads: use code SPRING22, Spring Sale, 50% off all in-stock books and journal issues through May 27
A white man with short, graying dark hair, wearing rectangular glasses, a black and white collared print shirt, and a black jacket.
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Our Spring Sale is rapidly coming to a close. You only have three days to save 50% on in-stock books and journal issues. If you’re still not sure what to purchase, here are Senior Executive Editor Ken Wissoker’s suggestions.

I don’t need to tell most DUP readers that this moment requires transformative thinking. The pandemic and the racist agenda of the last US administration are not over in the least. Rarely a day goes by where rights and conditions central to our well-being are not under attack. Thank you, SCOTUS. What can we as thinkers, readers, and publishers do to make a difference? I would start my sale recommendations there. I’m thinking about books that will help all of us get through: Sara Ahmed’s Complaint!, Max Liboiron’s Pollution Is Colonialism, Katherine McKittrick’s Dear Science and Other Stories. Tools for thinking differently.

My own thinking has been transformed this spring by Jennifer L. Morgan’s Reckoning with Slavery, which centers Black women in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, giving them agency, not merely footnoted presence. Morgan points a way for historians to restore the power and feelings of those who were of no account in the archives, while putting the numeracy of the slave trade at the core of capitalism.
 
Morgan’s friend and colleague Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu has shown exactly how this can be done, similarly working between disciplines and archives, but across the Pacific rather than the Atlantic. Her book Experiments in Skin won the publishing equivalent of March Madness this year, the Prose awards from the Association of American Publishers. They choose 106 finalists in categories from Mathematics to Philosophy; then 39 category winners, 4 area winners for humanities, social sciences, bio sciences, and physical sciences—and one overall winner, Thuy’s incredible book, which combines a history of imperialism and chemical warfare with that of dermatology and concepts of beauty showing how they all come together in present-day Vietnam.

Cover of Planetary Longings by Mary Louise Pratt. Cover features a brown landscape with a muddy orange river running through it.

Mary Louise Pratt is one of the theorists who made the intellectual and political work of the last decades possible. Her long-awaited Planetary Longings is just out, as is Jonathan Sterne’s Diminished Faculties: A Political Phenomenology of Impairment, a brilliant and personally driven account of impairment. 
 
The presence and care of a writer’s personal voice feels especially necessary at this moment, given the wearing politics of our time. Rather than being separate from scholarship and theorizing, the voice is central part to it. We see that in Jafari S. Allen’s gorgeous There’s a Discoball Between Us—his account of Black gay male life from the 80s and after and what it owes to Black feminism—and in Kevin Quashie’s similarly inspiring Black Aliveness, or a Poetics of Being. You hear it in La Marr Jurelle Bruce’s stunning How to Go Mad Without Losing Your Mind and in McKenzie Wark’s pathbreaking Philosophy for Spiders.
 
In this vein, one book I can’t recommend enough is Mercy Romero’s Toward Camden, a memoir and a way of understanding raced geography at once, where the two are inseparable, and written with intense beauty and insight.

Finally, in other political registers, I would strongly recommend Tania Murray Li and Pujo Semedi’s Plantation Life: Corporate Occupation in Indonesia’s Oil Palm Zone, an analysis of emergent forms of capitalism based on the massive expansion of plantations in the present. You should also check out Vicente Rafael book on Duterte, The Sovereign Trickster; Jodi Kim’s long-awaited and incisive Settler Garrison; and Leslie Bow’s superb Racist Love: Asian Abstraction and the Pleasure of Fantasy.
 
I could easily come up with another list this long (where is Beth Povinelli’s new book or Joshua Clover’s Roadrunner??) so get over to the website and look around yourself. Just do it quickly!

Use coupon SPRING22 to save on all these titles and more. If you’re located outside North and South America, we suggest you order from our partner Combined Academic Publishers using the same coupon. You’ll get faster and cheaper shipping. See the fine print here.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat Interviews Vicente L. Rafael

On May 9, the Philippines will elect a new President. For those interested in autocracy, it is a dramatic situation. The current illiberal president, Rodrigo Duterte, is not standing for re-election, but his daughter, Sara Duterte, is on the ticket with Bongbong Marcos, the son of the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Once a country has an experience with strongman rule, the leader can haunt a nation for decades.

To better understand Duterte—a violent man who engaged in extrajudicial killings—and the stakes of this election, I talked with Vicente L. Rafael, who is Professor of History and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is the author, most recently, of The Sovereign Trickster: Death and Laughter in the Age of Duterte (2022), and Motherless Tongues: The Insurgency of Language Amid Wars of Translation (2016). Our conversation took place on March 5, 2022, and has been edited for clarity and flow.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat (RBG): Why do people support these violent fraudsters? In your book you talk about how the culture of fear that Duterte disseminated was actually part of his charm. Many don’t understand why these extreme figures have such devoted followings.

Vicente Rafael (VR): In the case of the Philippines, there’s a long tradition of authoritarian leaders. And people tend to think that strong male leaders are the best way to deal with the uncertainties of life. Someone like Duterte who comes in and promises to not just solve the crime problem, but basically wipe out criminals, drug dealers and drug users, can be popular.  

Although of course this violence doesn’t solve the problem, but it creates a sense of false security. People feel, well, someone’s in charge, so I don’t have to worry. It’s very common to hear people say, oh, my neighborhood is really safer these days. And when you ask them, what do you think about all these people who got killed? I mean, many of them are your neighbors. And they would say, well, they were warned. They didn’t want to stop dealing or using, so they got what they deserved.

RBG: This is one way that autocrats are different than democratic leaders. Duterte came on my radar when he started talking, as a candidate, about the violence that he would perpetrate if he won the election. And in the US we had Trump warning as a candidate that he could shoot someone and not lose any followers.

VR: Duterte’s political style was really developed and honed while he was Mayor of Davao. He used threats, he hired thugs, like former rebels, and turned his police force into vigilantes. He himself liked to play vigilante. He would get on his motorcycle or borrow a taxi cab and roam around at night. As he said, he was looking for trouble he could fix.

So there was this sense that he was a hands-on mayor who didn’t hesitate to do what was needed without having to go through the bureaucracy or the judicial system. And that was the basis of his popularity. People were afraid, but also impressed that he actually went and did these things. When he became president, he basically nationalized these local practices.

Cover of Sovereign Trickster: Death and Laughter in the Age of Duterte. Cover features a photograph of an alleged drug dealer—and Duterte supporter—arrested after a buy-bust operation in a slum area in Manila on September 28, 2017. The photo is a close-up of the person's handcuffed hands, one of which bears a Duterte writstband.

RBG: Your book discusses Duterte’s brand of machismo. I’m happy to see that because I feel that we don’t take masculinity seriously enough as a tool of authoritarian rule. You capture the complex masculinity of Duterte, and his blend of fragility and brutality.

VR: Duterte talks unabashedly about sexuality, he makes these obscene vulgar jokes about rape, about women. But when you look more closely at his use of misogyny and machismo, you see they are part of complex storytelling devices. He’s a great storyteller, his way of using the vernacular is really quite amazing. It’s one of the ways he connects to people.  

As an example, he might say, oh, gee, they raped the women. And it was so beautiful and I should have been first. I was the mayor. And instead I was sort of left out of the whole thing. People crack up because it’s really about how his authority was obviated. And they can even sympathize with him.

RBG: It’s beyond awful, but it’s effective in terms of him building community and legitimating misogyny and sexual assault.

VR: Another example is a story he used to tell on the campaign trail about being sexually abused by an American Jesuit while he was going to confession. I think he connects with people who might have experienced the same thing. And yet he relates this painful trauma in a humorous fashion, saying, well, I still came out on top. I was abused, but I survived to tell this story.

Duterte also expresses vulnerability when he talks about dying, about how fragile his body is. So he says, I’m going to kill all of you. But he also says, I’m probably going to die tomorrow.

RBG: This sounds nihilistic. Many strongmen have a nihilistic streak.

VR: Yes, there’s a really close relationship between authoritarianism and nihilism. It’s this idea that well, I don’t mind risking the lives of my soldiers and my citizens, because we’re all going to die anyway. Someone’s going to assassinate me sooner or later. Someone’s going to launch a coup against me sooner later. So I’m just going to go all in now.

RBG: That’s great context for Duterte stepping aside from the presidency. How does someone like that fade into the sunset?

VR: Well, physically he’s very tired. I think that’s part of the reason he wants to step down and retire. Yet he’s got this legacy. His mode of governing and the practices he engaged in will continue. His daughter Sara will be there (even though they don’t get along), and if Marcos junior becomes president, he will be surrounded by a lot of Duterte allies and cronies.

Duterte’s also empowered the police to an enormous degree. It’s really the police that run the show. In the Philippines, unlike in the United States, police are nationalized. So it’s really the office of the president that controls the appointment of the chief of police and so forth.

In addition, in the Philippines Congress designates intelligence funds, a massive amount of money, and no one knows what it’s used for, it’s never accounted for. So the economic power, the political power, and of course the military power of the police will continue.

RBG: Isn’t there also some nostalgia for the Marcos era?

VR: Yes, and it comes out of a decade of propaganda, a lot of it on YouTube, about how wonderful martial law was, and how the son will continue what the father did—the attraction of continuity. People who support Duterte will support Marcos Jr. because Sara’s there. In fact, Marcos Jr. himself doesn’t have much of a platform. He always says I’m going to unify the country. Whatever that means.

RBG: Ah, the strongman slogan for one hundred years, still going strong!

Ruth Ben-Ghiat is Professor of History and Italian Studies at New York University and author of Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present (W.W. Norton & Company). This interview is republished with permission from her Substack newsletter Lucid. Vicente Rafael’s books are available for 50% off with coupon SPRING22 through May 27.

New Books in May

As we approach the end of the semester, kick off your summer reading with some of our great new titles! Here’s what we have coming out in May.

Shannen Dee Williams provides a comprehensive history of Black Catholic nuns in the United States in Subversive Habits, tracing how Black sisters’ struggles were central to the long African American freedom movement.

The contributors to Re-Understanding Media, edited by Sarah Sharma and Rianka Singh, advance a feminist version of Marshall McLuhan’s key text, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, repurposing his insight that “the medium is the message” for feminist ends.

In Queer Companions, Omar Kasmani theorizes the construction of queer social relations at Pakistan’s most important Sufi site by examining the affective and intimate relationship between the site’s pilgrims and its patron saint.

In The Impasse of the Latin American Left, Franck Gaudichaud, Massimo Modonesi, and Jeffery R. Webber explore the Latin American Pink Tide as a political, economic, and cultural phenomenon, showing how it failed to transform the underlying class structures of their societies or challenge the imperial strategies of the United States and China.

In Passionate Work, Renyi Hong theorizes the notion of being “passionate about your work” as an affective project that encourages people to endure economically trying situations like unemployment, job change, repetitive and menial labor, and freelancing.

Allan E. S. Lumba explores how the United States used monetary policy and banking systems to justify racial and class hierarchies, enforce capitalist exploitation, and counter movements for decolonization in the American colonial Philippines in Monetary Authorities.

In The Lives of Jessie Sampter, Sarah Imhoff tells the story of the queer, disabled, Zionist writer Jessie Sampter (1883–1938), whose body and life did not match typical Zionist ideals and serves as an example of the complex relationships between the body, queerness, disability, religion, and nationalism.

Jodi Kim examines how the United States extends its sovereignty across Asia and the Pacific in the post-World War II era through a militarist settler imperialism that is leveraged on debt in Settler Garrison.

In Legal Spectatorship, Kelli Moore traces the political origins of the concept of domestic violence through visual culture in the United States, showing how it is rooted in the archive of slavery.

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New Books in March

Need something to read over Spring Break? Check out our amazing titles coming out this March!

In Bigger Than Life, Mary Ann Doane examines how the scalar operations of cinema, especially those of the close-up, disturb and reconfigure the spectator’s sense of place, space, and orientation. Doane traces the history of scalar transformations from early cinema to the contemporary use of digital technology.

In Poetic Operations, artist and theorist micha cárdenas considers contemporary digital media, artwork, and poetry in order to articulate trans of color strategies for safety and survival. Drawing on decolonial theory, women of color feminism, media theory, and queer of color critique, cárdenas develops a method she calls algorithmic analysis.

In Intimate Eating, Anita Mannur examines how notions of the culinary can create new forms of kinship, intimacy, and social and political belonging. Drawing on critical ethnic studies and queer studies, Mannur traces the ways in which people of color, queer people, and other marginalized subjects create and sustain this belonging through the formation of “intimate eating publics.”

In Warring Visions, Thy Phu explores photography from dispersed communities throughout Vietnam and the Vietnamese diaspora, both during and after the Vietnam War, to complicate narratives of conflict and memory. While the visual history of the Vietnam War has been dominated by American media, Phu turns to photographs circulated by the Vietnamese themselves.

In Familial Undercurrents, Afsaneh Najmabadi uncovers her family’s complex experiences of polygamous marriage to tell a larger story of the transformations of notions of love, marriage, and family life in mid-twentieth-century Iran.

In Racist Love, Leslie Bow traces the ways in which Asian Americans become objects of anxiety and desire. Conceptualizing these feelings as “racist love,” she explores how race is abstracted and then projected onto Asianized objects.

Throughout Atlantis, an Autoanthropology, Nathaniel Tarn captures this multiplicity and reaches for the uncertainties of a life lived in a dizzying array of times, cultures, and environments. Drawing on his practice as an anthropologist, he takes himself as a subject of study, examining the shape of a life devoted to the study of the whole of human culture.

In Workers Like All the Rest of Them, Elizabeth Quay Hutchison recounts the long struggle for domestic workers’ recognition and rights in Chile across the twentieth century. Hutchison traces the legal and social history of domestic workers and their rights, outlining their transition from slavery to servitude.

In Earworm and Event, Eldritch Priest questions the nature of the imagination in contemporary culture through the phenomenon of the earworm. Through a series of meditations on music, animal mentality, abstraction, and metaphor, Priest uses the earworm and the states of daydreaming, mind-wandering, and delusion it can produce to outline how music is something that is felt as thought rather than listened to.

In Scales of Captivity, Mary Pat Brady traces the figure of the captive or cast-off child in Latinx and Chicanx literature and art between chattel slavery’s final years and the mass deportations of the twenty-first century. She shows how Latinx expressive practices expose how every rescaling of economic and military power requires new modalities of capture, new ways to bracket and hedge life.

In Queer African Cinemas, Lindsey B. Green-Simms examines films produced by and about queer Africans in the first two decades of the twenty-first century in an environment of increasing antiqueer violence, efforts to criminalize homosexuality, and other state-sanctioned homophobia.

In Living Worth, Stefan Ecks draws on ethnographic research on depression and antidepressant usage in India to develop a new theory of value. Framing depressive disorder as a problem of value, Ecks traces the myriad ways antidepressants come to have value, from their ability to help make one’s life worth living to the wealth they generate in the multibillion-dollar global pharmaceutical market.

In The Florida Room, Alexandra T. Vazquez listens to the music and history of Miami to offer a lush story of place and people, movement and memory, dispossession and survival. She transforms the “Florida room”—an actual architectural phenomenon—into a vibrant spatial imaginary for Miami’s musical cultures and everyday life.

In Plastic Matter, Heather Davis traces plastic’s relations to geology, media, biology, and race to show how matter itself has come to be understood as pliable, disposable, and consumable. The invention and widespread use of plastic, Davis contends, reveals the dominance of the Western orientation to matter and its assumption that matter exists to be endlessly manipulated and controlled by humans.

In Lesbian Potentiality and Feminist Media in the 1970s, Rox Samer explores how 1970s feminists took up the figure of the lesbian in broad attempts to reimagine gender and sexuality. Samer turns to feminist film, video, and science fiction literature, offering a historiographical concept called “lesbian potentiality”—a way of thinking beyond what the lesbian was, in favor of how the lesbian signified what could have come to be.

The contributors to Reframing Todd Haynes, edited by Theresa L. Geller and Julia Leyda, reassess his work in light of his long-standing feminist commitments and his exceptional career as a director of women’s films. They present multiple perspectives on Haynes’s film and television work and on his role as an artist-activist who draws on academic theorizations of gender and cinema.

In Vulgar Beauty, Mila Zuo offers a new theorization of cinematic feminine beauty by showing how mediated encounters with Chinese film and popular culture stars produce feelings of Chineseness. To illustrate this, Zuo uses the vulgar as an analytic to trace how racial, gendered, and cultural identity is imagined and produced through affect.

Jia Zhangke on Jia Zhangke is an extended dialogue between film scholar Michael Berry and the internationally acclaimed Chinese filmmaker. Drawing from extensive interviews and public talks, this volume offers a portrait of Jia’s life, art, and approach to filmmaking.

In this new edition of Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, C. L. R. James tells the history of the socialist revolution led by Kwame Nkrumah, the first president and prime minister of Ghana.

In Climatic Media, Yuriko Furuhata traces climate engineering from the early twentieth century to the present, emphasizing the legacies of Japan’s empire building and its Cold War alliance with the United States.

China in the World by Ban Wang traces the shifting concept of the Chinese state from the late nineteenth century to the present, showing how the Confucian notion of tianxia—“all under heaven”—influences China’s dedication to contributing to and exchanging with a common world.

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Q&A with Tania Murray Li and Pujo Semedi

AuthorsTania Murray Li is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto and author of Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier, also published by Duke University Press. Pujo Semedi is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Universitas Gadjah Mada and author of Close to the Stone, Far from the Throne: The Story of a Javanese Fishing Community, 1820s–1990s. In their new book, Plantation Life: Corporate Occupation in Indonesia’s Oil Palm Zone, Li and Semedi examine the structure and governance of contemporary palm oil plantations in Indonesia, showing how massive forms of capitalist production and control over the palm oil industry replicate colonial-style relations that undermine citizenship.

What led each of you to plantation research?

Pujo Semedi:

Well it is basically a continuation of my previous research on a fishing community in the north coast of Java where in a matter of decades fishers were able to destroy the natural stock of fish in a fertile marine ecosystem. A precious opportunity to obtain welfare from the richness of mother nature sunk into an abyss. The fishers were living in poverty, the government failed to obtain a sustainable supply of protein to feed its people, and the sea was stripped of its fish.  I found the destruction of the fishery a perfect illustration of what Garret Hardin (mistakenly) called a “tragedy of the commons,” which is more accurately described as a tragedy of open access: anyone could access the resource hence no one took responsibility for protecting it. Both fishers and government officials dreamt of a fish stock cornucopia while in fact living the sad consequences of an open access situation.

My research in the fisheries led me to pose a new question: what happens when resources are highly privatized, owned by a single person or institution? Is privatization a sure way to avoid destruction of resources, as Hardin proposed? A plantation is a large and highly privatized institution in which people make a living from hundreds of hectares of land and an array of machinery that belong to a single company. So I did research on a coffee/tea plantation in Java in 2003-6; the book is not finished yet. And then came this project in 2010.

Tania Li: 

For me the interest started with crop booms which bring dynamism to rural economies. I had studied a spontaneous, farmer-driven cacao boom in Sulawesi and wanted to see what happened in a boom that was driven by corporations. I also became aware that since 2000 the plantation format, which had been in decline, was again expanding massively in the Indonesian countryside. I wanted to understand what that meant in human terms.

How does the contemporary plantation compare to and differ from colonial-era plantations? How does the rise of global capitalism/corporatization affect the ways in which plantations operate today?

Semedi:

The first difference is scale. In the heyday of colonialism there were around 2 million hectares of plantation in Indonesia. About half were located in Java where labor was relatively easy to obtain and the rest were in the east coast of Sumatra, the infamous Deli plantations supported by indentured labor mostly from Java and China. Now there are more than 10 million hectares of plantations and new concentrations in Kalimantan and Papua.

The expansion began in the 1980s when the Indonesian government facilitated capital owners to invest in the countryside, based on the idea of increasing the country’s productivity and the wrong assumption that the area was unoccupied. Now the government knows the land is occupied but implicitly assumes that the people who live there are people of low value whose livelihoods can be sacrificed without compensation or recognition. Officials also assume that plantations grow oil palm more efficiently than local farmers, but that is unproven.

The second difference concerns the actors involved. In the colonial period plantations were sites for European capital; a century later at least half the plantation corporations are owned by Indonesian capitalists, and transnational corporations also have a heavy component of Indonesian ownership. A dozen Indonesian oligarchs are firmly in control. So colonial-era plantation-style capitalism has become Indonesianized.

Li:

At one stage in our writing we made a diagram in which we attempted to identify common elements and differences between colonial and contemporary plantations. The labor regime is an obvious place to start. Colonial plantation labor in Sumatra was indentured but in Java plantation workers were always free to come and go, as they are in the plantation sector today, so the difference is less stark than it seems. Plantation infrastructure, technology, layout, housing and hierarchy are almost unchanged.

The most significant difference we identified is in the political milieu. In colonial times plantation owners and managers expected government officials to facilitate their ventures. This is still true today but now government officials and politicians expect to profit from plantation presence, so a much larger set of actors have an incentive to support them. Sadly this expansion of the political field does not make plantation presence more democratic; quite the opposite. It brings the political, administrative and corporate regimes into new kinds of alignment and leaves citizens unprotected. In colonial times Indonesian villagers did not have the rights of citizens; the shocking part is that they do not have these rights now either because the people whose job it is to protect citizens are busy protecting corporations.

We argue that plantations are intrinsically colonial. Not only do contemporary plantation corporations rely on the racialized, colonial “myth of the lazy native” to justify appropriating land and importing workers; they continue to create colonial situations not just economically, as resources are extracted and sent overseas, but politically and socially as well.

The title of your book indicates a focus on plantation “life,” even though plantations, as you argue, operate as machines (a word usually associated with the non-biological) and cause a great amount of destruction and death. What led to your decision to emphasize “life” even so, and how does that shape your project?

Semedi:

This machine of production is operated by people—real people, not theoretical and abstract ones—whose life is structured and shaped by relations set in place by plantations.

Li:

Pujo’s response opens towards the ethnographic aspiration of the book. There are many studies of the death and destruction that accompany plantation presence, but so far not much attention to the new sets of relations or what we call the forms of life that emerge in a plantation zone. Plantation presence shapes not only landscapes and livelihoods but also communities and subjectivities, law and government, aspirations and claims. We estimate that around 15 million Indonesians are now living a plantation life, whether as workers on plantations or as residents of the residual nook and cranny spaces between plantations. So what kind of life is it?  Our ethnographic approach is designed to address that question.

What are some of the unique, theoretical concepts your book offers for understanding modern-day plantations?

Semedi:

For me the theorizing followed from an empirical puzzle. I found from my study of plantations in Java that some of them ran at a loss for multiple decades, yet they did not fold. So what kind of entity is a corporate plantation, and what kind of cultural, political and economic relations enable it to persist and replicate?

Li:

Theorizing the corporation is one part of our conceptual tool kit. Another is the concept of occupation, and specifically corporate occupation. Again, we devised this theorization inductively from our ethnographic research. I noticed that in the margins of my fieldnotes I had written many times “this is a war zone; these people are at war.” But talking it through with Pujo we came to the realization that war was not quite the right term. It suggests armed conflict, which we did not encounter; indeed we did not see any guns anywhere, as security guards do not carry them and we did not witness any direct confrontations involving armed police. The violence was real but it was built into the infrastructure: the presence of a plantation on customary land; roads designed to transport palm fruit not people; credit schemes that entrap and impoverish; laws that favor corporations.  Violence was also ambient. An early draft had a chapter we called “an uneasy feeling” where we described an atmosphere of strain, resentment, frustration, anger, and anxiety about the future. These are the structures of feeling of an occupied population. Villagers and workers know that the presence of massive corporations in rural spaces produces an unjust situation, but they cannot change it and have to find ways to live with it. This often means collaborating with the occupying force, which leaves a bad feeling. 

Plantation Life draws on collaborative research involving around a hundred students from your two institutions, Gadjah Mada and the University of Toronto. (You speak to your collaborative practices in the appendix to your book, but perhaps you’d like to say a bit for our blog readers.) What was the greatest reward of this collaboration, and what was the greatest challenge?

Semedi:

As a teacher, the greatest reward is seeing how the students learned about plantations as a form of life on site.  They obtained knowledge that I cannot simply teach in a classroom. Some of the students continued further to write their master’s thesis about the plantation; and three students wrote PhD dissertations on palm oil in Kalimantan. The training opportunity was really valuable.  Challenges? It takes some energy to organize a good number of students to work in several villages at the same time. But the students were good in supporting each other, especially in dealing with language barriers.

Li:

The big plus for me was collaborating closely with Pujo. We had a partnership in both the fieldwork and the writing, which I found very enriching. As I read the book now, I can reconstruct how we came up with the ideas, the fieldnotes we drew on, and hundreds of discussions, decisions and most of all, revisions! We took the text to pieces and reconstructed it several times, something I’m used to doing with my own writing but I wondered if Pujo would have the patience. It turned out he was equally determined not to settle for something that wasn’t quite right.

Who do you hope will read your book? That is, who is it for?

Semedi:

I hope this book will be read by scholars in agrarian/plantation studies, either for teaching material or input for further research, that in effect will spread critical knowledge on plantations and help us to decide what we are going to do next. I also hope this work will be read by agrarian policy makers for more or less the same reasons, that they will take the message in this book as serious consideration for their further policy in Indonesian agriculture; that they should not see agriculture in a cost-benefit calculus but as a world lived by people, by their own fellow countrymen.

Li:

The book addresses topics currently under academic and public debate including new and old forms of capitalist globalization, racialized landscapes, and our changing planet. In addition, I believe the political stakes of the book are quite high. In Indonesia plantation corporations and their government allies endlessly repeat the message that plantations are necessary for agricultural productivity and that they bring development and jobs to remote regions. Transnational development agencies like the World Bank echo this mantra on a global scale. Yet none of them provide credible evidence to support their claims, as if the necessity for corporate domination in agriculture is self-evident.

Our book counters the corporate narrative by exposing the distorted form of development that emerges in a plantation zone: the losses are huge and the gains are not as advertised. It also counters the sustainability fix—the notion that massive mono-crop plantations can be certified “sustainable.”  Even a virtuous corporation that obeys all the rules is still a giant, occupying force. In Indonesia, not only is the domination of plantation corporations over a third of all agricultural land harmful, it is unnecessary, as farmers have shown for three centuries that they are capable of highly efficient production.  We hope that our work will be useful to activists who have been mobilizing against plantation corporations for decades without making much headway. 

Read the introduction to Plantation Life for free and save 30% on the paperback with coupon code E21PLTNL.

 

New Journals in 2022: Agricultural History & Trans Asia Photography

This coming year, we’re thrilled to welcome two journals to our publishing program: Agricultural History and Trans Asia Photography. Both journals will begin publication with Duke University Press in the spring.

Agricultural History, edited by Albert Way, is the journal of record in its field. As such, it publishes articles that explore agriculture and rural life over time, in all geographies and among all people. Articles in Agricultural History use a wide range of methodologies to illuminate the history of farming, food, agricultural science and technology, the environment, rural life, and beyond. The journal includes innovative research, timely book and film reviews, and special features that unite diverse historical approaches under agriculture-related themes.

Trans Asia Photography, edited by Deepali Dewan, Yi Gu, and Thy Phu, is the first and only open-access international peer-reviewed journal devoted to the interdisciplinary exploration of historic and contemporary photography from Asia and across the Asian diaspora. The journal examines all aspects of photographic history, theory, and practice by centering images in or of Asia, conceived here as a territory, network, and cultural imaginary. Bridging photography and area studies, the journal rethinks transnational and transcultural approaches and methodologies. By centering photographic practices of Asia and its diasporas, the journal foregrounds multiple ways of seeing, knowing, and being, which are distinct yet inseparable from other regional formations. The journal brings together the perspectives of scholars, critics, and artists across the humanities and social sciences to advance original and innovative research on photography and Asia, and to reflect and encourage quality, depth, and breadth in the field’s development.

Check out our full list of journals here.