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The Event of Otherness: An Interview with James T. Siegel
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The Event of Otherness:
An Interview with James T. Siegel

About the Interview, by Joshua Barker

The following interview took place in Aceh, Indonesia, in 2007, against the backdrop of a short period of collaborative fieldwork conducted by James Siegel, Arief Djati, and myself. Aceh was the site of Siegel’s doctoral research in the early 1960s, and he has returned there on several occasions in the years since. For this visit, we rented a car and drove from town to town along the coast, from the southwest corner of the province up to Banda Aceh and back down the east coast. Prior to leaving on this trip, I sent out an email request to some of Siegel’s former students and colleagues for questions I could put to him in an interview. I received questions from a number of people, including Benedict Anderson, Rosalind Morris, John Pemberton, Pietro Pucci, Vicente Rafael, Danilyn Rutherford, and Andrew Willford. Upon our meeting in Indonesia, Siegel agreed to participate in the interview on the condition that I give him all the questions in advance so that he could decide how best to answer them, and in what order. He also indicated that he intended to record his own answers to the questions, without me being present. The interview as it transpired was thus an odd one. Each day for a period of about ten days, late at night or early in the morning, Siegel would record a reply to one or more of the questions posed by his interlocutors. I would then listen to the recording on my own, and we would discuss it together during the long hours of travel between towns. Sometimes Siegel would choose to record some further thoughts that addressed questions that emerged from that discussion. [End Page 33]

In important respects, the form the interview took was consistent with the broader epistemological stance Siegel adopts in relation to cultural anthropology.1 We are all familiar with the critiques surrounding the manner in which ethnographic writing “orientalizes” or “others” the people it studies. The assertion of cultural difference, which was once thought to provide the basis for a critique of ethnocentrism, is said to reify and naturalize differences. Siegel is a bit unusual among American anthropologists in his continuing insistence that the problem of otherness and difference ought to remain the foundation of cultural anthropological work. In a certain respect, one could say that he drew very different conclusions from Anthropology’s self-reflexive moment in the 1970s and 1980s than those drawn by many others. Rather than reflexively problematizing his own culture’s tendency to “other” the object of inquiry, Siegel focused primarily on how the peoples he studies deal with the problem of otherness. In Solo in the New Order, for example, Siegel wrote about how urban Javanese use others, including the figure of the foreigner, to construct social hierarchies. Indeed, virtually all of his work since Solo in the New Order has focused on this question of how people deal with both proximate otherness, which can usually be symbolized and named, and more profound otherness that can only be symbolized, or whose effects can only be seen, in displaced form.2

This concern with otherness is also evident in his method of interviewing others. He gets people to start talking, and he allows their thoughts to direct the course of the conversation, much as a psychoanalyst would, and he listens for the appearance of various kinds of otherness in what they say. Otherness is not here understood in terms of an ethnic group, or any kind of social group necessarily; on our trip, we were looking at events that people would be trying to make sense of, but which might not be easy to assimilate, such as the tsunami, events in the civil war, or the killings of 1965–66. In Meulaboh, when we asked people about the tsunami and who had died, people repeatedly said that those who had been killed were not killed by the wave, they were killed by the garbage (carried by the wave). Rather than treat this kind of statement as insignificant, Siegel would...