Continuity and change: (re)conceptualising power in Southeast Asia
University of Cambridge 26-28 March 2009 Report by Nicholas J. Long Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge Over the last half-century, Southeast Asia has witnessed the rise of postcolonial nation-states, rapid industrialisation, economic growth and democratisation but also genocide, political upheaval and widespread repression. Power lies at the core of these developments, whether in the form of brute military force or as a more capillary ‘disciplinary’ influence on religious and political subjectivities. This conference facilitated one of the first truly interdisciplinary and international engagements with power in the region, revisiting and debating the ‘classic’ analyses of power in Southeast Asia that helped mark the region out as a distinctively compelling area to study, and providing an opportunity to workshop new paradigms, theories and approaches. Panels covered a wide variety of topics, including virtue, sovereignty, welfare, landscape and the arts. Contributors – drawn from Europe, Australia, North America and Singapore – hailed from a range of disciplines, including social anthropology, political science, music, law, architecture and Asian studies. The fruits of such interdisciplinarity were evident in the first keynote speech, given by James Scott, who argued that the physical geography and ecology of Southeast Asia is central to understanding historical hill-valley relations. Scott suggested that so-called ‘hill tribes’ were ‘societies against the state’ who had escaped from lowland states into ungovernable mountainous terrain. This was followed by a screening of the film Terlena by activist Andre Vltchek. Both events set the stage for two of the major issues to be debated in the conference: the role of aspiration and desire, and the significance of connection and encompassment. Throughout many of the papers, aspirations, expectations and desires – for prosperity, modernity and recognition, or for the ability to bring these to others – played a central role. Holly High examined motivations for giving in rural Laos, arguing that they were driven by multiple, competing – fantasies of what it meant to be a good person. The broader question of how such fantasies and aspirations are forged thus emerged as a key research priority. The consequences of their being thwarted also appeared to offer great potential as a site for studying ‘power’. Ruth Toulson suggested that the failure of working class Singaporeans to realise the aspirations integral to contemporary capitalism led to their performing a ‘necessary mistake’: the invocation of ‘the dead’ as exerting power over their lives. Could the phenomenological realities of power that Southeast Asians inhabit sometimes be artefacts of crushed expectations, inexpressible in their own terms? ‘Connections’ comprised the second major theme. Andrew Walker suggested that in Northern Thailand, ‘string’ represents a distinct local modality of power, as individuals seek to bind themselves into localised fields of auspiciousness. The same practice, he argued, could also be seen in development projects. As the conference continued, it became clear that binding oneself into networks was of wide significance. Patron-client relations were extensively discussed, whilst Yanuar Nugroho and Nicola Frost’s papers suggested that ‘networks’ were not just instruments for achieving aims: ‘connection’ could be powerful in itself. This raised questions regarding how consistently ‘networks’ or ‘fields of auspiciousness’ were construed across Southeast Asia. Moreover, several papers examined how national polities appeared to be binding themselves into ‘Western’ projects of statecraft and good governance – the values of the ASEAN Charter, constitutionalism, and anti-narcotics programmes – raising the intriguing question of whether these could be seen in similar ways to smaller-scale networking. Could aspirations be increasingly inflected by non-Southeast Asian ideals, whilst the practices of connecting to ‘fields of auspiciousness’ remain influenced by regional understandings of power? The possibility is exciting, although Michele Ford and Lenore Lyons warned that the apparent inclusion of certain actors in a network – notably global capital – has misled many scholars into attributing more power to such actors than they deserve. For them, the best analytic framework was less the network than the concrete relations between states, territories and subjects. A final theme concerned the enduring usefulness of classic notions of power in Southeast Asia. In her keynote speech, Shelly Errington traced the intellectual trajectory of such concepts, and suggested they remained relevant, but were taking on new inflections, now that hierarchies were becoming unmoored by globalisation and political instability. Catherine Allerton argued that notions of power as an energy that animates the landscape remained salient in contemporary life; Adrian Vickers drew on Indonesian horror films to make a similar point, but stressed that the meaning of ‘power’ is being rendered increasingly national, and freshly imbricated in class and commodity relations. ‘Classic’ understandings of power have also been instrumentalised as political techniques. Ingrid Jordt and Nicholas Farrelly explored how notions of Buddhist merit, royalty and chieftainship were used as strategies of control by the Burmese military, but had also been turned against them in the Saffron Revolution. Other papers charted the innovation or resurgence of novel, yet distinctly Southeast Asian, tropes of power – such as wibawa (charismatic authority) amongst Indonesian parliamentarians, or ‘prayer power’ in the Christian Philippines. ‘Indigenous’ notions of power thus appeared to be fertile areas of study for years to come. The conference was organised by Liana Chua, Joanna Cook, Nick Long and Lee Wilson, of the University of Cambridge. It was supported by the Department of Social Anthropology, Trinity College, the Evans Fund and the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), University of Cambridge.