In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • Laughing at Leviathan: Sovereignty and Audience in West Papua
  • Joseph Errington (bio)
Danilyn Rutherford . Laughing at Leviathan: Sovereignty and Audience in West Papua. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2012. 336 pp.

Many readers of Indonesia know Raiding the Land of the Foreigners,1 Rutherford's first book, as an ethnography of engagements between people of Biak, West Papua, and outsiders who become for them fetishized sources of danger, surprise, and power. Among nonspecialists in Indonesia it became known as an eloquent argument by example against epochalist accounts of national modernity, insightfully demonstrating, sometimes in considerable detail, how subjectivities and identities emerged not through "a sheer and abrupt break with the past," but as "contingent outcomes of engagements between emergent social worlds."2

Laughing at Leviathan extends Rutherford's keen double vision in broader purview. On one hand, it considers a wide range of engagements between people of West Papua and agents of foreign sovereignty. On the other hand, those engagements are framed as elements of a sustained critique of influential philosophical approaches to the state and state sovereignty. By intertwining these thematics, Rutherford demonstrates convincingly that anthropological orientations to the local and processual can be framed to speak compellingly and in unique ways to abstract, broad, interdisciplinary issues.

In Laughing at Leviathan, West Papua again figures as a region defined through its marginality to outsiders bearng projects of sovereignty from elsewhere: Tidore, the Netherlands East Indies, the Netherlands proper, and now the Indonesian state. Rutherford's aim is to show not just how those projects were imagined and prosecuted, but how, in particular situations, they produced and were limited by points of disjuncture, indeterminacy, and incongruity. Unsettling, sometimes unimaginable, consequences come to the fore when West Papuans were engaged not just as would-be objects of sovereignty, but as "audiences" for its sociosymbolic realizations. Rutherford argues that sovereignty's legitimacy presupposes such audiences, and that these witnessing entitites are never fully governable, definable, or controllable by sovereign power. Agents of sovereignty discover this most immediately when they get the unsettling feeling (known to ethnographers as well) that they are being "drawn to see [themselves] through new eyes" (p. 36). On the other side of the divide, West Papuans engage this same feeling as a source pleasure and power. Rutherford searches out traces of these self-limiting lines of difference, and reads them diagnostically to show the limits of sovereign power to project successfully exclusionary categories on West Papuans.

This theme brings Laughing at Leviathan into close engagement with a very different, ontologically grounded political philosophy of the state associated with Giorgio Agamben.3 In effect, Rutherford shows how people of West Papua have [End Page 141] recurringly eluded the kinds of the exclusionary categories that are sanctioned by and sanctioning of sovereign power, as Agamben argues in Homo Sacer.4 This argument hits closest to home at the book's end, in Rutherford's account of the exclusionary, self-legitimizing violence perpetrated by the Indonesian state in Western Papua in 1998 and 2002.

The book opens, though, with laughter as a thematic that is broached with Orwell's story about his time as a military policeman in Burma. Laughter can be an embodied, situated response to the strange, uncertain, or ridiculous, and then it can mark limits of sovereign power as it is performed. Rutherford also borrows cold mirth from Furnivall's account of the Netherlands East Indies to open the first chapter of Part I of her book, "Geographies of Sovereignty," and introduces also his conclusions about the limits of Hobbes's Leviathan as a model for understanding the constitution of society. Laughter like this is heard also in fictional accounts of colonial power (e.g., Conrad's Heart of Darkness or Douwes Dekker's Max Havelaar), but in Laughing at Leviathan Rutherford seeks it in prosaic records of projects of power—imagined, some prosecuted, none fully completed—in West Papua.

Chapter three develops the notion of spectral or "alternative" audiences as part of a diagnosis of Dutch fixations on West Papua in the aftermath of World War II, and its efforts to repossess the region. These were partly licensed by the region's perceived distinctness...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 141-144
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.