- Figures of Southeast Asian Modernity eds. by Joshua Barker, Erik Harms, and Johan Lindquist
Figures of Southeast Asian Modernity offers a surprisingly readable composite of life in contemporary Southeast Asia as experienced by nearly eighty individuals. The book is divided into nine chapters, each covering a different country (Timor Leste and Brunei are omitted). The chapters then subdivide into pithy essays that provide snapshots of a moment in the lives of specific individuals in each country. The innovation offered by Barker, Harms, and Lindquist is their request that authors, in less than a thousand words, “identify and describe a specific figure of modernity … that offers a vivid and intimate portrait set against the background of contemporary Southeast Asia” (p. 2). Over eighty scholars contribute to the book, each offering one of a “cacophony of voices” (p. 17). Far from being discordant, however, the book is remarkably harmonious. In part, this is the happy consequence of the similar educational backgrounds of the book’s contributors, the majority of whom are early career anthropologists who have recently conducted fieldwork. Their ethnographic writing style is uniformly intimate and accessible, bringing their “figures” alive. Ben Anderson closes the volume with an epilogue.
The editors’ introduction offers a cogent explication of what they mean by “figures of modernity,” which they define as “persons within a given social formation whom others recognize as symbolizing modern life” (emphasis in original, p. 1). Each person figured is real, which not only brings “life and humanity to historical processes and transformations,” but it also opens a window onto larger, impersonal conditions that exist in contemporary Southeast Asia (p. 2). A focus on figures allows for a glimpse at the lived reality within particular cultural and historical contexts.
The introduction shrewdly addresses the possible critiques of the editors’ study of modernity—a global phenomenon—within a geographically delimited region. They acknowledge the criticisms of area studies and risks that can come with the focus on particular countries, but they argue their focus on examples from outside the West attest to the fact that “modernity must be understood as emerging in particular contexts” (p. 12). In detached fashion, the editors treat Southeast Asia as a container, a convenient “historical fiction,” that enables them to limit a study that is otherwise potentially global in its reach. However, Southeast Asia as a geographic region is not a blank slate, seamlessly interchangeable with other regions. Southeast Asian figures of modernity are “animated by the advent of industrial modernity in the context of authoritarian and interventionist states and the ensuing boom-and-bust cycles” of their economies (p. 8). Neoliberalism, economic inequalities, rural–urban divides, and transnational flows of people as laborers and goods are all notable similarities within the region. “By examining modernity through the lives of particular figures, we are able to explore how people across Southeast Asia position themselves in relation to global configurations of modernity and to create a panoramic snapshot of a region in motion” (p. 15). This productive tension between revealing something particular about a given culture or place and something general about what it means to be modern in the region characterizes the book as a whole. [End Page 127]
The editors confess that organizing the volume around nation-states is problematic, but argue that the nation-state remains relevant because it is the dominant organizational form of everyday life for the majority of people in the region. An innovation that helps decenter the nation-state organization of the volume is the appendix, which reveals the various ways that the figures link to each other across the region based on other types of commonalities. The index enables readers to disrupt a linear or exclusively nation-state reading of the “figures” by referring to those examples in the index that have been placed in over fifty diverse thematic categories, including activism, development, imaginaries, media and technology, body, history and memory, neoliberalism, and sexualities. If this were an e-book, readers could hyperlink to all figures based on such connections. This also helps...