Fluid Iron: State Formation in Southeast Asia

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As a set of analytic terms, man of prowess, maala, and localization provide Wolters with an effective way of connecting parts of Southeast Asia that remained largely untouched by Hinduization northern Vietnam, the Philip- pines to those that were the Malay world, Java, Cambodia, Burma, and Siam. Wolters does not deny that state-forming concepts arrived in Southeast Asia from India and China, but he is concerned with demonstrating the continuousness of the regions early histor- ical development and defining its unique identity as a cultural region.

Foreign ideas became fragments, Wolters says, that [submitted] to the influence of local cultural statements Wolters , This seemingly natural historical process through which various combinations of foreign and local cultural statements came together to form the cultural mosaic we call Southeast Asia is one of the most impor- tant attributes of Southeast Asia as a regional concept according to Wolters , Wolters is particularly interested in reading cultural texts temples, inscriptions, poems, historical narrativesfor evidence of what he thinks happened during localization.

Thus the visible sig- nifiers of Angkor Wat, built during the first half of the twelfth cen- tury, came to stand for a Khmer formulation.

Similarly, in his analyses of Vietnamese court poetry from the fourteenth century, Wolters argues that Chinese poetic conven- tions and references to Chinas golden age under sage-rulers were used to celebrate the uniqueness and antiquity of Vietnams own cul- tural space, rather than assert foreign political norms or lay claim to disputed territory. These same poetic enactments, in another reading of the same texts, might well be called contributions to the formation of a state Wolters , ; , ; see chapter 5. Both Wolters and Geertz eliminate questions of power from their examinations of the Southeast Asian state.

In an essay he first published in , , Anderson addresses the nature of Javanese power directly, but in a way that still does not bring the state directly into view. Like Geertz, Anderson argues that Javanese political ideas are fundamentally different from those in the West. The approach he takes to apprehend them is based on Webers idea that social action needs to be explained in terms of the subjective meanings attached to them by the agents who carry them out B.

Andersons adoption of the term Power to denote his ideal-type Javanese keyword for understanding Javanese political thought and action is also Weberian. Like Geertz in Negara, Anderson presents his essay as a constructive critique of Webers concept of charisma. Study of the Javanese polit- ical tradition demonstrates that in Old Java, all rule was charis- matic insofar as it was based on belief in Power. Bureaucracy there was, but it drew its legitimacy and authority from the radiant center, which was seen to suffuse the whole structure with its energy.

In such a society, charisma was not a temporary phe- nomenon of crisis, but the permanent, routine, organizing prin- ciple of the state.

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Notwithstanding his commitment to history, Andersons em- brace of a cultural ideal-type for explaining Javanese political think- ing and behavior results in the imposition of a kind of timelessness on Java that we also find in Geertzs treatment of Bali or Wolters examination of early Southeast Asia. Political ideas and actions dur- ing the Sukarno period in Indonesia are explained by examples taken from Old Java, a designation that itself spans sev- eral centuries of Javanese politics and cultural change. The Javanese idea of Power has the same kind of suprahuman agency in the crea- tion of unstable, centered political formations as does the exem- plary center in Geertzs Indic Southeast Asia or Wolters localizing prowess in early Southeast Asia.

In all three cases the focus of analysis is the political center of a social formation that is not, or is only weakly or irrelevantly, a state. The one element of significant historicization in Andersons discussion, one that foreshadows the Marxist and anticultural turn that his work took after his essay, is found in the suggestion that concepts of Power from Old Java in modern Indonesia are but temporary residues of a previous cul- tural mode that exercise a continuing cultural hold of a negative kind on the minds of Sukarno and his successors B.

Anderson , 73, Anderson thus posits a disjunction between Old and New Java that in effect raises implicit questions about the cultural authen- ticity of the Javanese idea of Power. The thought that Javanese Power is an atavism echoes Marxs characterization of the use of classical Roman culture by the French state under Louis Napoleon and lays a methodological basis for treating modern Southeast Asian culture as invented, inauthentic, and a tool of state domination.

As in the writings of Geertz and Wolters, the state in Andersons essay is virtually invisible as either an object of or keyword in the analysis of power.

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I want now to take a brief look at some of the studies of tradi- tional Southeast Asia that draw on or draw away from the ideas of Geertz, Wolters, and Benedict Anderson in order to bring the elusive Southeast Asian state more clearly into view. Michael Aung-Thwin, for example, tries to close the separation, insisted on by Geertz, between the ideology of the exemplary center and practical eco- nomic activity in his study of Pagan, the most powerful state forma- tion in Burma before the fourteenth century Aung-Thwin The kings of Pagan were exemplary centers and men of prowess in their realms, but their chief importance in Pagan history was as redistri- butors of merit, since it was the accumulation of merit and its redis- tribution in the form of donations to the building and upkeep of tem- ples that explains, in Aung-Thwins view, the cyclical nature of the rise and fall of the state in Pagan.

Power in early Burma, unlike the case in Andersons Old Java, was meant to disperse, to be converted into prosperity and security for all those who chose to serve either the king or the Buddhist sagha community of monks in pursuit of merit for themselves and their families Aung-Thwin , 78, Anthony Milners early nineteenth-century Malay ceremonial ruler is closer to Geertzs model than Aung-Thwins Pagan cakkavatt world conqueror. Like Wolters and Anderson, Milner uses literary texts to tease out the categories of experience that help us understand Malay political behavior Milner , What he discovers through reading them is not a state, but a kerajaan, or the the condition of having a raja Milner , Milner provides a demonstration, based on early nineteenth-century case studies taken from another part of Southeast Asia, that, as Geertz had argued for Bali, ceremonial, symbolic kingship was effective in a practical sense.

Like Aung-Thwin, Milner concludes that having a raja also condi- tioned the nature of economic activity in the Malay world. Rather than risk direct confrontation with the ruler, orang kaya who found themselves caught up in the life of a kerajaan had an- other option: accumulating nama, or reputation, rather than wealth.


The quest for immortal nama through loyal service to the raja had a force that activated the entire kerajaan system, with the same kind of appeal and function as ascetic prowess in Wolters early Southeast Asian maala Milner , Nama and prowess resemble the accumulation of merit in Pagan in that all three contributed to the creation of hierarchical, statelike formations. Both Aung-Thwin and Milner develop synchronic, ideal-type cultural models of state formation that do not involve examination of the effects of transcultural contact or difference over time. Of the approaches to the Southeast Asian state considered thus far, only Wolters considers the question of transcultural interaction at all seri- ously, but localization emphasizes the smooth assimilation of for- eign concepts into preexisting cultural patterns in Southeast Asia, rather than possible disruptions, conflict, or change.

Although Aung- Thwin mentions spirit worship and ethnic diversity in Pagan, his analysis of Burmese kingship, unlike E. Leachs study of political systems in upland Burma , does not develop a sense of how forms of transcultural contestation, emulation, or resistance might have affected the development or workings of state formations. Milner suggests that one of the texts he examines was written as a manual on kerajaan doctrines intended for Bataks living under the authority of the Malay raja of Deli in late nineteenth-century East Sumatra, but there is no further reflection on how interethnic relations in Sumatra or the contacts and confrontations between Malays and Europeans that had been going on since the early sixteenth century might have contributed to the formation of the kerajaan as ideology or practice Milner , Barbara Andayas book on the struggle for control of the pepper trade in Southeast Sumatra in the seventeenth and eigh- teenth centuries , on the other hand, addresses the effects of Dutch-Malay relations on political activity directly.

Andaya shows that the rivalry between Malay rajas and representatives of the Dutch East India Company VOC was carried out in terms of conflicting cultural perceptions and values. In Dutch eyes, Javanese-Sumatran modes of political authority were merely displays of base pomp that failed to conceal the weakness of the rajas actual authority, especially in the unruly, multiethnic upriver regions where pepper was grown. Although the Dutch exploited such practices as exchanging gifts in order to win Malay commercial allies, they refused to be turned into trusted kin.

Their own practices were governed by cultural attitudes toward contracts and orderly, bureaucratic states.

Fluid Iron: State Formation in Southeast Asia

The victor in this clash of cultures was neither side, but rather the market forces of international trade that brought them into contact and conflict in the first place. Andaya does not suggest that either the Malays or the Dutch modified their views about the state in fundamental ways, even though the glory and power of both the rajas and the VOC had faded by the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Unlike Aung-Thwin, Andaya does not factor religion into her account of kingship, although the period she examines was one in which appeals to Islam in the face of European incursions were wide- spread. She is also not interested in the problem that occupies the thinking of Geertz, Wolters, and Anderson, namely, the lack of fit be- tween Western state theory and Southeast Asian political practices. Sumatran assumptions about the role of kinship in political affairs are not so much an analytic problem as a given in her historical account. This account is full of diachronic complexity and forward movement, but the market rather than culture explains, in the end, the way things turn out.

Culture is given a much more powerful and nuanced role to play in another study of Sumatra, Jane Drakards book on seventeenth- century Minangkabau, the kingdom of words Drakards case study is even more paradigmatic of the apparent contradiction between real and titular political authority than the examples studied by Geertz, Wolters, Anderson, and Milner. It exerted its authority through wordsinscribed in royal letters and on royal sealsthat circulated through the peripheral regions of the Minang- kabau state, attracting loyalty and creating unity.

It was the words and names inscribed and broadcast in royal letters and cre- dentials from the interior, Drakard writes, which had the power to unite Drakard , Drakard uses Foucault to argue that, for the Minangkabau in the seventeenth century, words, seals, and regalia were substantive resemblances and effective agents rather than mere symbolic rep- resentations of royal power Drakard , ; Foucault In this cultural world, there was an unbroken, intimate relationship between signifier and signified that explains why seals and letters brought about obedience to the king even though he was distant, unseen, and powerless to enforce his authority except through the agency of the mysterious besi kawi, or force of iron, that brought disease to rice crops and humans if they disobeyed the kings au- thority Drakard , , Drakard shows that the language of royal letters drew on the imagery of universal overlordship taken from the traditions of the earliest Tantric Buddhist rulers of Minang- kabau as well as metaphors of all-pervasive heavenly fragrances and waters found in the Quran.

We might say, she says, that the letters bring together and concentrate the elements of the kingdom for use on occasions when the idea of kingdom needed to be condensed for the purposes of dissemination Drakard , Far from being atavistic residues from Old Minangkabau, concepts about royal authority drawn from Buddhism and Islam were repeatedly activated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by means of the circula- tion of seal letters surat cap that stimulated an ongoing process of state formation in the Minangkabau-controlled regions of Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula.

Like Andaya, Drakard takes up the ques- tion of Javanese cultural and political influence in Sumatra and locates its effective beginnings in the fourteenth century. Drakard localizes cultural concepts in seventeenth-century Minangkabau by showing how royal words were interpreted and used by the conflicting groups of human agents who enacted the his- torical events she examines.

Prehistoric copper-base assemblages in Southeast Asia

She analyzes Dutch cultural assumptions in even greater depth than Andaya. For them, the surat cap were pompous claims to bare titles, lies, and forgeries. But VOC agents also had a sense, derived from their own political experience in the Netherlands with the royal House of Orange, which exerted its royal influence in subtle rather than direct ways on the political decisions of the stadtholders, that it was important for forms sake kwan- suis to establish diplomatic relations with the bombastic and hypo- critical Minangkabau rulers Drakard , 70, Drakard shows that, paradoxically, the Dutch enhanced rather than weakened the authority of the Minangkabau kings and their circulating letters through their negotiations with them about commercial matters.

Apart from the unseen king and his agents, the Dutch also had to deal with various claimants to the Minangkabau throne who stirred up anti-Dutch unrest through appeals to Islam and the circulation of royal lettersforgeries, according to the Dutchthrough wide areas of Sumatra, Java, and the Malay peninsula. In her analysis of the careers of Rajas Sakti, Kecil, and Ibrahim, Drakard offers a very precisely historicized critique of the notion of charisma, since she shows that in all three cases the rebel leaders used the language of the surat cap to [fashion] a language of resistance that affected people who never saw the three rajas in person, but only read or heard their letters Drakard , , Like the Dutch, the three rebel rajas used royal letters and seals in ways that increased the substantive and effective reality of words.

Raja Kecil was even referred to by the Dutch metaphorically as in himself a cap, so hegemonic did the influence of royal letters become Drakard , Drakard shows how Minangkabau kings, their various verbal signs constructed out of Javanese, Tantric Buddhist, and Islamic as well as Minangkabau cultural concepts , VOC agents, and Minangkabau rebels interacted to form what I would venture to call the seventeenth-century Minangkabau state through a process of transcultural contestation and adaptation.

Drakard remarks that Minangkabau power was too diffuse to be easily co-opted by the Dutch. The VOC was much more success- ful in infiltrating, and, indeed, in being infiltrated by, the more vis- ible and geographically centered Javanese state. Merle Ricklefs charts the course of this interaction in his studies of Karta- sura, Surakarta, and Yogyakarta during the seventeenth and eigh- teenth centuries , , Although he insists that cultural identities remained unbridgeable over the two centuries surveyed in his books, Ricklefs demonstrates that a process of cultural inter- action between the VOC and Javanese made them co-creators of a culturally hybrid Indic-Islamic-Javanese-Dutch kind of state forma- tion Ricklefs , Ricklefs argues that Islamic Sufi concepts of the king as a Per- fect Man united in a mystical union with both God and his subjects, combined with ritual royal practices as old as Majapahit, offered a temporary solution to political disorder and Dutch encroachments in the early eighteenth century cf.

Milner This solution dissolved in the face of Kartasuras destruction by Chinese marauders in Ricklefs The sacking of Kartasura cast doubt on the effective- ness of Sufism as a political strategy for safeguarding the Javanese state, so much so that from that time onward, the elite of Central Java turned away from both Islam and the cultural heritage of Majapahit and became directly dependent on the Dutch for their survival. This hybrid Dutch-Javanese state was challenged twice: once at the end of the eighteenth century, when Javanese ideas about the need for dy- nastic change at the beginning of a new Javanese century led to the founding of Yogyakarta, a state that reduplicated rather than de- parted from the existing state form Ricklefs ; and once in , when Dipanegara unsuccessfully rebelled under the banner of Islam and in the name of the Just Ruler ratu adil , a poltical concept derived from messianic Buddhism.

It is clear from Ricklefs studies that Indic, Islamic, and Java- nese cultural concepts and practices were used both to combat and collaborate with the VOC in the formation of a state in ways that in- volved constant tinkering with the mix of cultural elements in search of one that would work.

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This is a dimension of state formation that Wolters would have called the localization of Indic and Islamic ideas in Central Java in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Jean Taylors study of the social world of Batavia in the seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries demonstrates that Dutch culture was indeed localized and combined with Asian elements at the center of Dutch power in Southeast Asia during the same period studied by Ricklefs J.

Taylor Viewed from outside the courts of Central Java, from Batavia or from the north coast of the island, the eighteenth-century Dutch- Javanese state appears to have a less monolithic form than the one Ricklefs depicts. Luc Nagtegaal has called this state form a net- work consisting of a personalized structure. A state of flux is also what we can expect to find when we turn our attention to the Tagalog region of Luzon in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, according to Vicente Rafael Rafael presents a picture of stateless society in which local men of prowess, called datu, exerted authority over shifting net- works of followers who were indebted to them in various ways and to various degrees of bondage.

Into this situation intruded the Spanish at the end of the sixteenth century. During the next three centuries, the Spanish converted natives to Christianity and their political forms of shifting alliances into a fixed hierarchy leading from the vil- lage via the colonial bureaucracy all the way to the Spanish king and his God. Positioned on the boundary between the village and the colonial state, the datu, now known as principales, exacted tribute for the Spanish from their followers in exchange for access to the Span- ish God and the promise of eternal life in His heaven. Although he is not interested in the question of state formation as such, Rafael clearly demonstrates how Spanish colonization and conversion to Christianity created a state where none had apparently existed before.

I say apparently because in the process of developing his main themeWolters idea of localization in early colonial Luzon Rafael suggests that tendencies toward state formation preexisted the Spanish and helped shape the way political relationships devel- oped under Spanish rule. Rafael refers to the work of W. Scott W. Scott ; see also , who studied early Spanish accounts of Filipino societies in order to reconstruct the nature of preconquest social and political orders. Scott , Rafael is more inter- ested, however, in the nature of transcultural change that occurred once the Spanish had landed.

He calls this process of change trans- lation, the Tagalog localization of Christian concepts and practices in the face of Spanish attempts to convert and dominate them. Over- all, he concludes at the end of his study, [t]ranslation, in whatever mode, leads to the emergence of hierarchy, however conceived Rafael , But in the Tagalog case, translation also gave rise to expressions of resistance along the way.

In an analysis of an early seventeenth- century Tagalog primer of Spanish, for example, Rafael shows how the treatment of Spanish words had the effect of inoculating the Tagalog reader against the larger shock of conquest Rafael , In other contexts as wellduring confession, for example Tagalog converts employed various strategies to avoid being vic- timized by the evil spirits that animated incomprehensible Spanish words. What is also telling for an understanding of state formation in Rafaels analysis of how the language and techniques of conver- sion were turned against the Spanish priest is the important role of fear and the search for protectionvalues that Alfred McCoy, in an essay on animist religion and Philippine peasant ideology , argues are centrally important in political cultures throughout South- east Asia.

The desire for invulnerability made the promise of dying a beautiful death and entering the Christian heaven a powerful in- centive for submission to the authority of Spanish priests and Tagalog principales, as did the fear of being overcome by hiya, or shame, in relations of indebtedness Rafael , Rafael demonstrates the cultural and affective basis for the formation of a hierarchical, colonial state even as he illustrates the manifold ways in which, in a colonial situation, the states authority could be deflected and avoided.

Keith Taylors studies of early Vietnam , a offer an- other perspective on the role of transcultural translation in state for- mation. Starting in the third century b. Vietnamese political culture took shape during the centuries of Chinese occupation until the ninth century c. As Wolters also argues, Taylor shows that the overall effect of attempts to con- vert Vietnamese to Chinese civilized norms was to strengthen local sensibilities K. Taylor , ; b. Chinese characters were being used to translate Vietnamese words as early as the eighth century c.

Rather than suppress indig- enous spirit cults and the exaltation of military prowess exercised by the paramount political leaderas Christianity did in the Tagalog region during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries according to RafaelVietnamese Buddhism coming from India as well as northern China was elastic, providing the basis for a dynastic religion under the independent L rulers that allowed the ruler to [arouse] the slumbering spirits and [galvanize] them into a super- natural shield to protect the nascent kingdom K.

Taylor , ; a, The dominant cultural forces at work in the formation of the Vietnamese state up to the thirteenth century came from the Indic Cham kingdom to the south and from China and Buddhism, as well as from the deep Austronesian cultural past of the coastal Viet- namese.