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  • Mimicry and Projection in the Colonial Encounter: The Dutch East Indies/Indonesia as Experimental Laboratory, 1900–1942
  • Frances Gouda

Colonial Forms of Knowledge and the Process of Mimicry

“Java, as little Holland itself, is cultivated from edge to edge like a tulip garden” observed a Victorian travel writer from the United States, Eliza Scidmore, in her book Java, Garden of the East, published in 1899. “All the valleys, plains, and hill sides are planted in formal rows, hedged, terraced, banked, drained, and carefully weeded as a flower bed.” In a quaint and simplistic manner, Scidmore identified one of the most mundane correspondences between the Javanese countryside and the physical appearance of the colonizers’mother country in northern Europe: the orderliness of the landscape and the creative but intensive cultivation of the soil that accompanied a high population density in both Java and the Netherlands. But this superficial resemblance comprised only a visible manifestation of the complex patterns of material replication, cultural negotiation, and political contestation that were inherent in the encounters between European imperial powers and the people and physical spaces of their colonial possessions in Asia.

Recently, the Indian postcolonial critic Homi Bhabha defined the bilateral cultural processes that transpired in the liminal spaces, or contact zones, of colonized societies as “mimicry.” With this term he both refined and expanded upon a classic scholarly treatise. In 1946 the German literary critic Eric Auerbach had published Mimesis:The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, in which he explored the interpretation of reality through literary representation or —imitation.’In Auerbach’s vision, mimesis embodied the pivotal challenge of writers throughout history, beginning with Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, of translating verbally and rendering in textual format observations made in the world of nature and in the realm of human interactions (Auerbach 1957). Bhabha has refocused this basic conundrum of Western literature in a different direction, however, by concentrating on the kinds of cultural exchanges and complementary interactions that occurred in the interstices of colonial societies, in what he calls the “overlap and displacement of domains of difference” (Bhabha 1994).

In the setting of the Netherlands East Indies — as was the case in most other colonized territories in Asia or Africa — mimicry implied a reciprocal process. On the one hand, Dutch civil servants and colonial residents looked at the Malay world through a uniquely European prism that yielded distinct forms of colonial knowledge. They projected upon their surroundings in colonial southeast Asia a set of cultural values, social categories, and intellectual taxonomies that were forged within a small, densely populated democracy in northern Europe with its own peculiar structures and preoccupations. On the other hand, the Indonesian region’s many different ethnic groups, customs, and traditions (adat), styles of religious worship, agricultural methods, and distinct forms of artistic creativity that collectively constituted the object of the Dutch colonial gaze influenced, in turn, what colonial observers saw or chose to identify as compelling and conspicuous features of the Malay world.

A dictionary definition tells us “that mimicry refers to the act, instance, practice,” or “result of mimicking” or “emulation,” the latter consisting of “a desire to equal or excel others.” According to the dictionary, mimicry also involves the superficial resemblance of organisms to other organisms or to a given environment designed to protect or to conceal. Hence, mimicry entails more than a simple act of imitation. The verbs to equal, to excel, to protect, and to conceal — or what the French theorist Jacques Lacan has called “camouflage” evoke a whole range of aggressive practices and defensive subterfuges that were at the core of the Dutch-Indonesian colonial encounter, as well as most other colonial interactions (Lacan quoted by Bhabha 1994). Projection, in this context, also constituted an important aspect of the manner in which Dutch colonial scholars, administrators, or ordinary residents rendered account of the southeast Asian world in which they collectively lived. Referring to a practice of ascribing ones’s own convictions, sensibilities, or preferences to others, Europeans’ cultural grammar commanded the power to impose their own values onto and thus circumscribe the realities of colonized peoples and their lands in such a way that the West could stake its claims in...