- Knowing Indonesia: Intersections of Self, Discipline, and Nation ed. by Jemma Purdy
Academic self-reflection in the sometimes contentious study of Indonesia is as welcome as it is rare. That Jemma Purdy’s edited volume seeks such reflection and takes as its point of departure the work of Herb Feith, who spent much of the latter part of his academic career in such self-reflection, is especially welcome. Reflection opens the door to frankness and these collected essays are revealing. Not least, they make explicit what has long been implicit in the work of this volume’s contributors and in much of Australia’s Indonesia Studies paradigm.
Full disclosure: I was invited to contribute to the volume being reviewed but declined, given that the collection’s premise was less self-reflection and more a critique of the field of inquiry. This review will, however, belatedly address some of that critique, in an attempt to unpack the book’s central themes. It is worth noting, too, that, along with another academic, I was banned from entering Indonesia in December 2004. Some time later, after the other individual’s ban had been lifted, I was told I could also have my ban lifted if I wrote “more favorable” articles on Indonesia. I replied that my writing on Indonesia was fair, but, as journalists say, “without fear or favor.” This, then, goes to Edward Aspinall’s observation (p. 72) that fear of being banned from Indonesia is a “constraining factor” in some academics’ writing, or what George Aditjondro referred to as “visa-driven scholarship.”1 This review is, then, written by an academic still banned from the site of the study.
Returning to the reflective theme informing this book, Purdy’s account of Feith’s engagement with Indonesia is an honest, often lyrical and moving tribute to a person many considered a mentor as well as a friend and great scholar. One of the issues that continued to trouble Feith’s appreciation of post-New Order Indonesia, however, was the state’s treatment of Melanesian West Papuans.2 That subject dominates the core of this book.
Importantly, Purdy, as do others, also discusses the decline of Australia’s academic interest in Indonesia. She recognizes Islamist terrorist attacks and consequent Australian travel warnings as being partly responsible for this decline. Similarly, as touched on by Lea Jellinek, Indonesia is viewed by some as less interesting than it once might have been.
But, critically, Purdy also identifies an exclusionary “community of assessment” (pp. xx–xxi) as being in part responsible for this decline, as highlighted by Robert Cribb’s “circle of esteem.”3 According to Arjun Appadurai, this circle decides “whether knowledge is new and compliant with the protocols in the field [my italics]. A decision to step away from this system or to operate outside it will result in the marginalisation of [End Page 203] your work”4 (pp. xx–xxi). As Purdy rhetorically asks, who has—or does not have—the “right” to comment on Indonesia (with the New Order-like overtones of censorship that implies)?
Perhaps as importantly, this paradigmatic Indonesian exceptionalism precludes comparative understanding, and thus casts itself as self-referential (p. 116), hegemonic, and alienating. As Purdy notes, this may have contributed to declining public acceptance of Indonesian Studies, at least in the form long dominant in Australia.
Jellinek was a student of Feith’s, and Jellinek’s chapter is the most “late-Feithian,” being more concerned with ordinary lives than interpreting macro events. Jellinek practices what is referred to in the development literature as “participant response analysis,” where one learns from within, interacting with and being part of the context. In this, Jellinek reflects Feith’s concern with “how to balance scholarship with moral obligation” (p. xi), an important and underrated quality in this field of study.
This underrating then leads to the common argument against “moral obligation,” which, according to Robert Elson, is that Indonesia needs to be understood in its own terms. Yet Indonesia and its past can also be well understood comparatively, for example...