Competing Views on Korea’s National History

A review of The Great Enterprise: Sovereignty and Historiography in Modern Korea, Henry Em, Duke University Press, 2013.

Henry EmAchieving sovereignty, and attaining equal standing with other sovereign nations, was Korea’s great enterprise as referred to in the book’s title. It was a thoroughly modern project: previous generations did not feel the urge to compare with other sovereign states or to assert Korea’s distinctiveness. Beginning with the turn of the century, Korea’s commitment to the great enterprise was a necessary condition for avoiding subordinate status in the face of imperial ambitions. Then, as Japan came to dominate Korea, it became a way to break free from its colonial ruler and to campaign for its independence. Later on, emphasizing national sovereignty meant proclaiming the nation’s unity in the face of the North/South division.

Achieving national and individual sovereignty

Historians played a great role in this endeavor. They produced the great narratives that allowed Korea to project its national identity onto citizens. As Henry Em writes in his introduction, “sovereignty provided the conceptual language for writing national histories, but it also constituted the site for the continuous production of oppositional subjectivities and political alternatives.” Sovereignty is not just a prerogative of the state; it is also an attribute of the modern subject. In order to become sovereign subjects, Koreans had to severe their ties with tradition and to reorder their society into a unitary whole. The beginning of the twentieth century saw the birth of the modern individual in Korea. New figures emerged, such as the modern girl with bobbed hair or the political activist facing state persecution. Although collective affiliations are constitutive of the sense of identity in Confucian cultures, the individualist streak runs deep in Korean society. Especially mistrust of rulers is ingrained in the Korean people, who cultivate the spirit of resistance and autonomy.

The discourse of national and individual sovereignty remained a contested field throughout the twentieth century. Competing visions were offered on what it meant to be Korean; when and where national identity originated; and how it could assert itself in the face of imperial dominance or political repression. A characteristic of Henry Em’s book is to refuse simple binaries: between the colonizer and the colonized, between North and South, or Right and Left. At the beginning of the twentieth century, he demonstrates that liberalism retained “an essential link to imperialism and colonialism”. During the colonial period, Japanese were instrumental in shaping Korean identity and helping Koreans connect with their past. After independence, many southern historians migrated north, and continued to be referred to in the historiographic literature, albeit in oblique fashion so as to avoid censorship. In the modern era, the so-called New Right welcomed scholarship inspired by postcolonial studies, and developed a critique of the nation-state that the nationalist Left had left untouched.

Translating and enforcing the nation-state in East Asia

Sovereignty is different in essence from the Mandate of Heaven that Choson dynasty rulers claimed as a justification for their rule, along with the subordinate status they maintained with Ming and then Qing China. Paradoxically, it was the Japanese who introduced the notions of sovereignty, independence, and modern statehood in Korea, confirming Carl Schmitt’s remark that “a nation is conquered first when it acquiesce to a foreign vocabulary, a foreign concept flaw, especially international law.” King Kojong’s Oath of Independence, pronounced in 1895 in a ceremony mixing the antique and the modern, was inspired if not dictated by Inoue Kaoru, Meiji Japan’s envoy to Korea. As the author notes, “by leading the way in utilizing the post-Westphalian sovereignty-based conception of international relations, Japanese statesmen like Inoue Kaoru positioned themselves as the preeminent translators and enforcers of international law in East Asia.”

Whereas the China-centered theory and practice of tributary relations, based on ritual hierarchy and actual autonomy, provided a buffer for the Choson state and warded off imperial ambitions, it was the principle of equal sovereignty and national independence that paved the way for Japan’s domination over Korea. The paradox of sovereignty extended beyond the realm of international law. In order to be what they claimed to be, aspiring sovereign states had to become others, and incorporate cultural traits from European civilization. They had to demonstrate their commitment to modernization by adopting Western institutions and practices, and by discarding some of their age-long traditions.

Korea’s entry into modernity

Lastly, the emergence of the individual as sovereign subject required sweeping reforms touching on language, education, and imaginaries. Korea’s entry into modernity was accompanied by the “inauguration of the Korean alphabet as the national script in the last decade of the nineteenth century, the beginning of modern Korean historiography in the first decade of the twentieth century, the emergence of modern Korean literature, and a host of other beginnings.” As is well known, many Korean words were taken from the Japanese, including minjok (ethnic nation), kukmin (national citizen) or even the word designating the economy (kyongje). Less well-known is the role of Protestant missionaries in promoting the Korean vernacular script, the hangeul, helping to transform it into an icon of national identity. Protestant missions were also instrumental in the creation of the first Western-style schools and modern newspapers, which stand as necessary elements for the emergence of a public sphere and the formation of “imagined communities”.

More controversial perhaps, the author shows that the Japanese authorities played a critical role in shaping Korean’s national identity. Nowhere is this more conspicuous than in the field of patrimonial policies and art history. As the author notes, studying the story of the “discovery” of the Buddhist statue of Sokkuram in southern Korea, “the colonial authorities did not just teach Koreans about their past; they had to restore it for them.” Japan’s encounter with Korean art did not only take the form of looting and plundering, although such forms of colonial exploitation also took place. “Like the British in India and the Americans in the Philippines, the Japanese colonial state invested time, money, and human resources to carry out excavations and surveys, to study Korea’s past and restore some cultural sites (but not others) in order to establish the categories and the narrative strategies by which Korea and Koreans would be understood.”

Competing visions of Korea’s history

It was the Japanese colonial state that identified Sokkuram as an example of Korea’s cultural and religious past, and that restored the statue to its former glory. Yanagi Soetsu, founder of the Mingei folk craft movement in Japan, praised Sokkuram as the “culmination of the religion and the art of the Orient.” Of course, Japan’s self-designated role as a curator for Asia’s art did not just emanate from a consideration of art for art’s sake, and it had political and ideological motivations as well. As reinterpreted by the Japanese, “the story of Sokkuram — its creation and subsequent slide into obscurity — was the story of Korea: a brilliant past that was Asian rather than Korean, followed by a downward slide into the vulgar and trivial art of the Choson dynasty, pointing to the necessity of Japan’s tutelage of Korea and Koreans.” This imperialist vision of art was reinforced by colonial historiography. Through popular essays and media reports, “the Japanese came to believe that Japan had ruled Korea in ancient times and that the Japanese colonization of Korea in modern times represented the restoration of an ancient relationship.”

Of course, Korean historians developed a completely different story. Whereas ancient Korea was divided in terms of village or region, clan or lineage, class or social status, the Koreans became Korean partly thanks to national historiography, when modern intellectuals such as Sin Chae-ho began to write Korea’s national history. “In place of loyalty to the king and attachment to the village, clan, and family, and in place of hierarchic status distinctions among yangban, chungin, commoners, and chonmin, nationalist historiography endeavored to redirect the people’s loyalty toward a new all-embracing identity of Koreans as a unique ethnic group.” It is Sin Chae-ho who emphasized the mythical figure of Tangun as the common ancestor of the Korean people. The Tangun legend later led to various interpretations. Japanese historians dismissed it as a story fabricated in the thirteenth century by the Buddhist monk Iryon. As a nationalist historian, Choe Nam-son read the Tangun story as the expression of religious practice dating to prehistoric times, as an ancient narrative that indicated a common cultural sphere for all of northeast Asia centered around Ancient Choson. In the story of the female bear transformed into a woman and married to Tangun’s ancestor, the Marxist historian Paek Nam-un saw evidence of the beginning of both class differentiation and the privileging of the male over the female descent line in primitive times.

The three schools of Korean historiography

The 1930s saw Korean historians coalescing around three competing schools: nationalist historiography, Marxist or socioeconomic historiography (Paek Nam-un), and positivist historiography (Yi Pyong-do and the Chindan society). Paek Nam-un’s Chosen Shakai Keizaishi was the first book of a comprehensive history of Korea’s historical development in terms of class formation and social forces internal to Korea, as it went from primitive tribal communism to a slave economy and to an Asian feudal society until “sprouts of capitalism” began to emerge independently from outside interference. In the immediate post-liberation period, Marxist intellectuals, with Paek Nam-un taking the leading role, sought to establish hegemony over intellectual production, reaching out to non-Marxist scholars, including nationalist historians who had not capitulated to colonial power. By 1948 many Marxist intellectuals had left Seoul and gone north of the 38th parallel, pushed by anti-communist repression in the South and pulled by offers of employment and opportunity to take part in the DPRK’s national democratic revolution. The progressive historian scholars who stayed found refuge mostly in economics departments.

Although the student revolution of April 19, 1960, that toppled the Rhee regime was crushed by a military coup in 1961, that democratic opening nevertheless allowed a younger generation of historians to narrate history in new ways. Under a nationalist canopy, scholars like Kim Yong-sop and Kang Man-il revived and confirmed Paek’s disclosure of the internal dynamic underlying Korea’s historical development, in which class struggle was central. In Korean History Before and After Liberation, Song Kon-ho presented an ethical critique of how 1945 marked the beginning point of the most horrific chapter in Korean history. Song reminded his readers that it was Syngman Rhee who had allowed notorious collaborators to evade punishment, including former Korean police officers who had hunted down, tortured, and killed independence activists. Spurred by Bruce Cummings’s research on the Origins of the Korean War, a passionate debate took place on the role of various parties and events in starting the war.

The New Right and post-colonialism

As “revisionist” historical narrative gained currency in the 1980s, conservative historians became increasingly frustrated at historiography that conceded nationalist credentials to North Korea and seemingly denied historical legitimacy to South Korea. In an interesting twist, the so-called New Right welcomed scholarship inspired by postcolonial theory that insisted on the acquiescence and participation of colonized people in their imperial domination. With this, the New Right turned to criticism of nationalism in general, and leftist-nationalist historiography of the 1980s in particular, attacking the later for questioning South Korea’s legitimacy. But this accommodation with postcolonial and postmodern scholarship was only tactical, as shown by the New Right’s support of alternative history textbooks that are avowedly nationalistic. In a region still marred in border disputes and nationalist sensibilities, historians should look forward to the day when nationalism can be dispensed with.

Jogo do Bicho

A review of Laws of Chance: Brazil’s Clandestine Lottery and the Making of Urban Public Life, Amy Chazkel, Duke University Press, 2011.

Amy ChazkelThe Jogo do Bicho, a number game based on animal figures, has often been described as Brazil’s national vice. It is part of the local urban landscape, just as pachinko defines Japan’s popular culture or PMU is a component of Parisian café life. The difference is that whereas pachinko parlors and PMU counters operate under the law, the Jogo do Bicho is a clandestine lottery that takes place in the shadow of the informal economy. Born on the outskirts of the zoo in Rio de Janeiro around 1890, it has thrived in a gray area between the legal and the illegal, and has been pushed into clandestinity by police repression. Understanding how this great partake between the lawful and the unlawful was made, and chronicling Brazilian citizen’s engagement with the state by way of an illegal activity, is the subject of Laws of Chance, a fine piece of scholarship published in the Radical History Review Book Series at Duke University Press.

A clandestine lottery in the shadow of the informal economy

The Jogo do Bicho has already attracted quite a deal of scholarly interest. Rudyard Kipling, visiting Rio in the 1920s, wrote of seeing bookies wandering the streets carrying placards with colorful pictures of animals. Roger Caillois, a French public intellectual, showed that the game was bound to a system of forecasting the future through dream interpretation, with its own code, classics, and expert interpreters. Gilberto Freyre, probably the most famous of all Brazilian sociologists, described the Jogo do Bicho as a holdover from Brazil’s indigenous and African totemic past. A common tendency of these authors has been to link the game to irrational forces: dream, superstition, fetishism, paganism. The Jogo do Bicho is seen either as a relic of the past or as a way by which tradition encrusts itself upon the modern.

By contrast, Amy Chazkel shows the Jogo do Bicho as a thoroughly modern and rational phenomenon. It became popular at just the moment urbanization and consumer capitalism took hold, and must be interpreted as the product of modernity rather than a refuge from it. It is based on numbers, with elaborate combinations that require the skills of a mathematician as much as the intuition of a dream interpreter. It is part of the money economy, and can be seen as an alternative to saving or insuring against future events. More generally, Amy Chazel distances herself from macro explanations such as invocations to culture, psychology, societal laws, or tradition. To invoke such determining factors is to lose the specificity of historicl causality. The Jogo do Bicho has to be studied at close range, without imposing anachronistic analytical categories, and by paying attention to the few traces the game left in the archives: police records of the arrests of buyers and sellers, judicial cases when these convicts were brought to justice, references to the game in popular culture and in legislation.

Brazil’s only reliable institution

Most commentators on Brazilian culture have marveled at the reliability of the clandestine lottery. “In the Jogo do Bicho, what’s written down counts,” says a local proverb, and the game has sometimes been described as Brazil’s only reliable institution. In his classic work on the sociology of games and play, Roger Caillois comments on the “scrupulous honesty” of the bicheiro, the lottery dealer. Writing in the late1930s, Stefan Zweig also testified to the reliability of these underworld figures: “In order to avoid the police checking up on the jogo do bicho they played on agreement. The bookmaker didn’t supply his clients with tickets, but he has never been known not to pay up.” Amy Chazel exposes the scrupulous honesty of the bicheiro as part truth and part fiction. The lottery dealer lived by his word: no legal recourse was available if he refused to pay for the winning number. The internal logic of the game and its code of ethics surpassed, in the eyes of ordinary Brazilians, the legitimacy and reliability of the judicial system that censured it. But there were cases where the bicheiro and the banqueiro who backed him refused to pay, either due to turf wars and petty infighting, or because a fortuitous event (say, the death of the elephant in the zoo) had induced a large number of ticket buyers to play the winning animal.

Popular writings on the Jogo do Bicho have long underscored its longevity and popularity in the face of police repression. For sociologists of deviance, it is the law that creates crime. The Jogo do Bicho did not begin as a unitary, distinct practice operating outside the law. Its criminalization brought it into existence by both joining disparate, informal lotteries under a single criminal nomenclature and creating an illicit source of income for police through paybacks and corruption. Yet reversing the causal arrow between criminality and policing does not give full justice to the way the Jogo de Bicho operated. It posits the existence of a clear dividing line between the legal and the illegal, whereas this distinction is precisely the result of negotiated compromises and mutual encroachments. According to Amy Chazkel, “law is, in both form and function, an integral part of society, not something outside it.” She uses the informal lottery as an example of how law and society constitute and interact with each other. Likewise, state and state actors have to be included in the realm of the informal and unofficial which they contribute to create and sustain.

How the “animal game” escaped from the zoo

The Baron de Drummond is commonly credited with creating the game as a marketing tool for promoting the zoological garden that he had created in the new urban settlement of Vila Isabel at the periphery of Rio de Janeiro. Drummond requested a concession from the city government to operate a game that, it was hoped, would raise the zoo out of insolvency without depleting the city’s coffers. Every ticket to the zoo bore the image of an animal, and early each day the baron himself would randomly select one of the twenty-five animals printed on the tickets. Tickets were soon being sold by independent bookmakers or “bicheiros” to those who hadn’t even visited the zoo. By 1895 lottery “bankers,” or banqueiros, unaffiliated with Drummond were taking bets of their own on the outcome of the drawing at the zoo and paying winners out of their own earnings. It did not take authorities long to notice the Jogo do Bicho and remark on its patent illegality. Within months, the municipal government made its first attempt to shut down the game. The animal lottery simply shifted to a new habitat in the city centre, an environment in which it has thrived ever since. Once dissociated from the zoo, it took the outcome of the licit lottery to determine the winning number associated with one of the twenty-five animal series. Jogo do Bicho tickets began to appear among the merchandise offered for sale in kiosks that sold snacks and coffee on street corners. The “animal game” had escaped from the zoo, and would develop in conjunction with police repression and legal jurisdiction.

City authorities who banned the game stated that “games of chance depending upon luck… are prohibited in all times in Roman law and in our own Penal Code.” Yet entrepreneurs like Drummond who set up lotteries at first operated legally, and there was a National Lottery that brought revenue to the public coffers. Indeed the Jogo do Bicho challenged the legal lottery concessionaires with unwanted competition, and they actively petitioned the city government to suppress it. It was only in 1946 that all forms of gambling in Brazil were legally banned, after repression had taken an increasingly moralistic tone. It is no coincidence that the Jogo do Bicho emerged amid Rio’s social upheavals and alteration in its urban environment in the early First Republic, at just the moment it became urgent to demarcate the formal from the informal in myriad realms of urban society. The state attempted to modernize the city by signing concession contracts with large companies to provide the city with public work and infrastructure, including docks, public lighting and other utilities, roads, and civil construction, as well as entertainment and retail commerce. Corruption occurred regularly not only in determining who could win contracts and sinecures, but also in the complicity of public officials with monopoly-seeking concessionaires wishing to suppress competition by making spurious accusations of illegal practices.

The criminalization of everyday life

Amy Chazkel describes this privatization of urban space as a process of enclosure akin to the “enclosure of the commons” that marked the transition from medieval agrarian societies to modern capitalist economies. Alternatively, she uses the expression “criminalization of everyday life” to describe how some parts of the public domain formerly outside the state’s purview came to be associated with public disorder and criminal activity. Jogo de Bicho dealers, unlicensed street vendors, and other participants in Rio’s nascent informal economy were entangled in a struggle over de facto rights and access to resources and became part of the way both the state and the market operated. There was a subtext of moral panic behind urban modernizers’ battle cry of “Ordem e Progresso.” Practices common in the poor and working classes such as gambling, vagrancy, begging, prostitution, and drinking, as well as the martial art called capoeira, were criminalized as part of the authoritarian politics of “enlightened intolerance” that accompanied urban modernization. The issue of public order in Rio and other cities was made more pressing by the explosive growth of the urban population and the flood of immigrants from southern Europe, as well as by racial anxieties following the abolition of slavery.

The criminalization of the Jogo do Bicho was always ambivalent and contested. Compelling evidence shows a lack of consensus within Brazilian society as to whether the state should permit and regulate the game or outlaw it and punish its participants as criminals. During the period from the game’s origin to around 1917 it appears that virtually no one who was arrested for playing the Jogo do Bicho was evec convicted, fined, or handed a prison sentence. The unusually high rate of acquittal in cases of illicit gambling resulted from the wide discretionary power judges and police exercised, but also from the shared belief that “this was only a game”. Above all, men and women of all socioeconomic backgrounds showed their approval of the game simply by buying and selling chances to win. It doesn’t mean the law was ineffective: it protected the interests of the legal lottery concessionnaires, and it gave the police a blanket authorization to intrude into the lives of the working classes. For the poor urban population, most daily interactions with the state occurred at the level of the street police. The policeman was, in effect, the state, and his authority to control and arrest manifested the state’s coercive power over the everyday life of citizens.

A major work of imaginative historical scholarship

I read Laws of Chance as part of a survey of modern anthropological writings, many of which are published by Duke University Press. I would recommend it not only to historians of Brazil and Latin America, but also to anthropologists or sociologists working on contemporary terrains and to scholars engaged in critical studies. This book is proof that you can conduct anthropological work without resorting to participant observation. Familiarity with the archive—and especially with menial, obscure texts and artefacts that have so far escaped the purview of historians—gives a unique perspective into the life-world of ordinary people. Although the topic of a clandestine lottery in early twentieth-century Brazil may appear as mundane and recondite, it allows for a gripping narrative, full of twists and turns as well as theoretical developments. The informal, the illegal and the marginal appear not as residues of a bygone era that are bound to disappear with the advent of the modern economy, but as constitutive concepts that stand at the center of our modernity. The history of the Jogo do Bicho brings a fresh view on the relationship between the state and society in Brazil in the first decades of the twentieth century. It is a delight to read, as well as a major work of imaginative historical scholarship.

A Bad Case of Pemuda Fever

A review of Activist Archives: Youth Culture and the Political Past in Indonesia, Doreen Lee, Duke University Press, 2016.

Doreen LeeDoreen Lee had all that was required to write a great history of Reformasi, the period of transition that led to the downfall of president Suharto and the establishment of democracy in Indonesia. Although she wasn’t there during the transition years of 1998-1999—she conducted her fieldwork between 2003 and 2005—, the Indonesia she observed was still resonating with the lively debates and political effervescence that arose out of the student movement and popular protests against the Suharto regime, also known as the New Order. She met with some of the key players of the democratic transition, and gained their trust as an outsider committed to the same progressive agenda. Having spent part of her childhood and teenage years in Jakarta, she was fluent in the local language, Bahasa Indonesia, and had the personal acumen to interpret words and deeds by putting them into their cultural context. She had access to a trove of previously unexploited documents—the activist archives mentioned in the title—, which consisted of leaflets, posters, pamphlets, poems, diaries, drawings, newspaper clippings, and numerous other fragments (“the trash of democracy”, as she calls it) that activists shared with her or that were deposited in the public libraries of Western universities. Using these fragments and testimonies would have allowed for a kind of micro-historical approach that is currently in fashion among historians. Alternatively, it could have been used to challenge conventional assumptions about the Reformasi by crossing sources, checking facts, debunking myths, and reassessing the role of students and activists in the popular movement that ushered a new era in Indonesia’s political history.

This is not a history of Reformasi

But Doreen Lee is adamant that her book doesn’t constitute a new history of the Reformasi or of the various groups that composed the movement itself. She expedites the presentation of the events that form the background of her study in a two-pages chronology in the preface. She dismisses the causal explanations and the attribution of responsibilities made by conventional historians as a mere “whodunnit approach.” Her treatment of activists’ archives is more literary and evocative than historical. She is more interested in the interplay between the archive and the repertoire, between fixed objects and embodied memory, than in the material traces documenting a given period or movement. Her private collection of Reformasi memorabilia, which includes flyers, diaries, T-shirts, drawings, text messages, and numerous other fragments, is more akin to a stockpile of fetishized souvenirs than to the carefully ordered archive of the historian. She is not interested in tracing the alliances and group names and identities scattered across her documents. History usually defines periods, highlights events, sets milestones, and identifies transitions from one period to the next. Doreen Lee’s narrative is set in broad chronological order: there was a before and an after 1998. She begins with the student movement’s “missing years” (1980-1990) which didn’t leave any trace in official archives but nonetheless left a paper trail she was able to document. She then covers the 1997 monetary crisis or krismon that evolved into a total crisis (krisis total, or kristal) when students and the people (rakyat) took to the streets and forced President Suharto to resign. She follows the student activists in their demonstrations for various social causes in the post-Reformasi period, when they were increasingly seen as troublesome and irrelevant by the broader public. She then concludes with the 2004 legislative and presidential elections, during which many former students activists ran for office or campaigned for established politicians. But she doesn’t put the main events into perspective or draws the lessons, achievements and failures of the Reformasi movement.

Alternatively, Doreen Lee could have established herself as a political scientist with a unique expertise on regime transitions and street politics. Youth activism is a hot topic in political science at the moment, especially in the countries were democracy seems most at stake. The Arab spring and other colour revolutions have highlighted the transformative power of nonviolent resistance and street demonstrations, and brought to the frontline a new generation that grew up with Facebook and Twitter. New geographies of contestation have emerged, with places like Tahrir square in Cairo and Taksim square in Istanbul becoming the symbols of a new wave of democratic aspirations. The mass demonstrations that brought down the Suharto regime in 1998-99 were the harbinger of this worldwide trend. Indonesian students were at the forefront of Reformasi. Those killed in violent protests became martyrs and Reform heroes, and those who survived became pioneers of Indonesian democracy. Activist students who espoused a radical agenda stood the risk of being accused of communist sympathies, a strong indictment in a society where signs of “latent communism” were monitored, reviled, and punished by the authoritarian state and by citizens themselves. But Doreen Lee doesn’t specify the nature of the students’ engagement, their ideological convictions and political positions. She only mentions that they rally in favor of labor rights, the protection of the environment, and other social issues, but she treats the content of their mobilization as irrelevant. Likewise, she does’t address the issues of electoral politics, political institutions, mass organizations, and collective endeavors. Instead, she focuses on the lifeworld of the activist and the intertwining between history and memory. Her book, which illustrates the turn toward affects that one observes in the humanities and social sciences, will be of little use to the political scientist.

Pemuda fever

A third option for Doreen Lee would have been to order her findings in sociological terms. A sociologist would have highlighted the role of young people in mass mobilizations and used the concept of generation to show how each cohort of activists drew from the experience of their predecessors at various junctures of Indonesia’s history. In Indonesian, the word for “youth”, pemuda, has a strong political meaning. The official history of pemuda nationalism begins with the colonial-era mobilization of the 1928 generation, who declared the nationalist charter of the Sumpah Pemuda (Youth Pledge) emphasizing “one language, one people, one nation.” The revolutionary generation of 1945 fought for independence from Dutch colonialism, and was followed by the students of generation 66, who allied with the military to overthrow Soekarno’s Old Order. After the mass student protests of generation 74 and 78, who rose against the repressive regime of Suharto’s New Order, there was a long pause before the baton was passed on to generation 98. Generation 98 understood their place in the world as an extension of this nationalist history, as mandate, calling, and destiny (takdir). In a country where more than a third of the population is classified as youth, the Reformasi movement was in many ways a youth movement. Revolution was transformed into a youthful style that could be worn and circulated with ease. There was a signature pemuda style that included new ways of looking, seeing, and being. Demonstrators referred to the leftist iconography of Marx, Lenin, Mao, and Che Guevara as well as to local figures such as the poet Wiji Thukul, the movie actor Nicholas Saputra, and the pop singer Iwan Fals. But Doreen Lee only gives vignettes and indications, and doesn’t develop a full-blown sociology of the student movement.

If Activist Archives isn’t about history, political science, or sociology, then what is left? The name of this residue is anthropology. It is here conceived as the science of what’s left behind when all the other social sciences have done their job. It focuses on debris, remnants, detritus, leftovers, fading memories, and intangible affects. But building a disciplinary identity on such fleeting ground is fraught with difficulties. Lee’s ambition is to contribute to social theory and to set the parameters for a social history of Reformasi. She writes interesting paragraphs on “a sensory ethnography of heat,” on techniques of the body, and on the visual culture of the student movement. As befits an anthropology book, Activist Archives is based on fieldwork, and puts the social scientist in the position of the participant observer. Besides the street that forms the main battleground of student activism, Doreen Lee  takes as sites of her research the transitory and semi-private spaces of student socialization: the basekemp (organizational headquarters), sekretariat, posko (command posts), kost (rented rooms), and self-study clubs. These are not the institutions that we assume are fundamental to leftist and secular nationalist student movements, such as the school, the university, the army barrack, and the factory. They also stand in sharp contrast with the middle-class home: they are spaces of domiciliation rather than domesticity, and they are often chaotic, unclean, and marked by mixed-gender cohabitation. Camping out, staying overnight, and “playing house” make the kost and the basekemp places of minimal transgressions, allowing young men and women to enjoy their newly acquired freedom. Unsurprisingly, the ethnographer notes that “spring love (cinta bersemi) buds in the season of demonstrations; it is like spring fever, hard to resist.” These notations based on fieldwork observations are, in my opinion, the best part of the book.

Race, ethnicity, religion, and gender issues surface through the text

But even as an anthropology book, Activist Archives suffers from serious shortcomings. Doreen Lee refuses to address the classic categories of race, ethnicity, religion, and gender, despite their overwhelming role in Indonesian society, not to mention their canonical value in anthropological literature. Her self-censorship on these issues may reflect her own effort to blend into the group and to be accepted as a participant observer. She stood out as an ethnic Chinese woman educated in the United States and endowed with a cosmopolitan outlook, in a student activist milieu composed mostly of young men originating from Java who belonged to the Muslim majority and who were fiercely nationalistic. In Indonesia, references to ethnicity, religion, and inter-group relations are referred to as “SARA” issues (for Suku Agama Ras Antar Golongan) and they are best avoided in public discussions, but never far from people’s minds. Tensions between the ethnic Chinese minority and local Javanese or other autochthonous groups run high in Indonesian society. The memories of the 1965-66 massacres are still vivid, and ethnic Chinese  are often the target of civil unrest and discrimination. During the city riots of May 1998, property and businesses owned by Chinese Indonesians were targeted by mobs, and over 100 women were sexually assaulted. Doreen Lee glosses over these aspects of Indonesian society: it is revealing that reference to Chinese ethnicity are mostly relegated to endnotes. This murky social background nonetheless surfaces through the text.

Because she was identified as an ethnic Chinese, Doreen Lee was confronted with desultory remarks and witnessed mechanisms of exclusion at work. For instance, making money out of selling T-shirts or other cooperative joints exposed the initiators of these ventures to the accusation of being “like the Chinese, with their trickery and ability to make money.” Similarly, men circulated derisive and cautionary stories about female activists who were so borjuis (bourgeois) they could not eat roadside food or stow away on the train. There was a class and gender aspect to these remarks: the street was associated with crime and public violence, and most middle-class Indonesians avoided exposure to its suffocating heat and lurking dangers in their everyday practices of work and leisure. Doreen Lee notes that she sometimes felt isolated as a female researcher doing fieldwork in a predominantly male environment. She mentions in passing that several of her informants were female, and that young women occupied a subordinate position in the student organizations and militant groups. In a predominantly muslim society, she makes only scant references to Islam. The anthropologist presents the student groups she associated with as inter-faith and multi-ethnic, distinct as such from the Islamic militant groups which were highly structured and tied to existing parties. Despite the fact that Christianity is only a minority religion in the fringe of mainstream Indonesia, there are several references to Christian groups, Christian individuals, and the Christian University of Indonesia as well as to Catholic liberation theology. But these references are made just in passing, and do not lead to developments on the place of Christianity in Indonesia.

Indonesia Raya, Merdeka, Merdeka! (Freedom)

The expression “Stockholm Syndrome” designates the psychological attachment and affective dependence that hostages might feel towards their captors. It is seldom used in the context of ethnographic fieldwork, where the social scientist’s empathy with the group is considered the norm. Even so, Doreen Lee’s rendering of her fieldwork appears to me as a case of intellectual capture. As a rebuttal to the state and media’s depiction of mass demonstrators as unruly and anachronistic in the context of post-Reformasi politics, she argues that demonstrations are a site of expertise, strategy, and discipline. She devotes a whole chapter to violence on the side of student activists, which she condones as a rightful answer to the structural violence of the state. There were indeed many student victims of state violence, with the kidnapping, torturing and killing of activists that are remembered as a series of tragedies, but it doesn’t justify the use of violent means to fight back against the state, especially at a time when democratic transition had already occurred and clashes with the police had no other purpose than to keep student politics alive. Doreen Lee embraces the romance of resistance and adheres to the students’ radical agenda without distance or reservation. This, maybe, was just a phase: in the conclusion, written ten years after fieldwork, she reunites with some former student activists and they together look back at their past with nostalgia and irony. Youth must be served.

Korean Cinema in Search of a New Master Narrative

A review of Virtual Hallyu: Korean Cinema of the Global Era, Kyung Hyun Kim, Duke University Press, 2011.

Virtual Hallyu.jpgKorean cinema occupies a peculiar place in relation to hallyu. In a way, Korean movies were the harbingers of the Korean wave. They were the first Korean cultural productions to attract foreign recognition in international film festivals; they carved a global niche that was distinct from Hollywood movies or other Asian productions; and they emphasized distinctive aspects such as violence, romance, or geopolitical tensions. Cinema was the cultural medium through which Korea sought to establish itself as a new global standard. And yet K-movies are not considered part of hallyu the way K-drama, K-pop and even K-cuisine have now become. Only a handful of movies (Shiri, JSA, My Sassy Girl…) came to be seen as representative of the Korean wave, while other movies and moviemakers were perceived through the more traditional categories of film critique—national cinema, auteurship, movie genres, visual aesthetics, and narrative analysis. Korean cinema in many ways set the condition for hallyu’s expansion by inducing a shift in foreign perceptions of Korea. The country came to be seen as the producer of a different brand of modernity, distinct from Japan’s or China’s globalized cultures. Its movies were not only cheap imitation movies known collectively as Copywood; they were original productions in their own right. In addition, Korea’s movie industry demonstrated that critical and commercial success were not always incompatible: commercially successful movies could get critical acclaim, and art movies lauded by critics could also get a significant presence at the box office.

This success was due in no small part to the existence of a corps of movie critics and a roster of movie publications that made commenting on recent movies a legitimate intellectual pursuit in Korea and beyond. Kyung Hyun Kim played an important role in this reevaluation of Korea cinema. The back cover blurb on Virtual Hallyu describes him as “not just the most important Anglophone critic of South Korean cinema but a key figure in film and cultural studies generally.” In his first book on The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema (which I reviewed here), he established the label of “New Korean Cinema” by focusing on movies produced in the 1980s and 1990s. His thesis was that Korea at the time was a post-traumatic society: men had to overcome their masculinity crisis by resorting to masochism and to sadism and by denying women’s agency. In his latest book, he concentrates on movies produced during the next decade, end 1990s to end-2000s, which follow a different master plot. According to Kyung Hyun Kim, Korea has managed to untie itself from the narrative of post-crisis recovery and male failure that dominated Korean movies in the preceding period. Male hysteria no longer provides the dominant theme in more recent productions, and female characters are no longer reduced to the twin roles of the mother and the whore. The themes and characters have become more diverse and cannot be subsumed under a single heading. He nonetheless proposes the two categories of hallyu and of the virtual to define Korean cinema in this new age of commercial success and global expansion.

Riding the Korean wave

More than the commercial expansion of Korean productions abroad, hallyu refers here to a new sense of national consciousness that arose in the wake of the 1997 financial crisis and culminated with the stellar performance of the national soccer team in the 2002 World Cup tournament. It is synonymous with a nation reconciled with itself and basking in its newly acquired global status. Pride and affluence characterized the new Korea that had been able to overcome the masculinity crisis diagnosed in the previous period. This self-consciousness translated in box-office figures: Korea is one of those rare countries where domestic movies consistently outperform Hollywood productions. And yet the author diagnoses a disconnect between the success of Korean films at home and abroad. Films like April Snow, which was specifically designed for the Japanese market, flopped badly in Korea, whereas domestic blockbusters such as The Good, the Bad, the Weird failed to reach a global audience. In addition, Kyung Hyun Kim sees hallyu as a phenomenon limited in time: based on box office figures, he heralds its demise by the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. After Korean film exports earned a record $75 million in 2005, there was an enormous decline, with only $24.5 million reported in 2006 and $12 million in 2007. For the author, this sudden decline in the popularity of the Korean wave since 2007 is just as inexplicable as its emergence. Of course, a plausible explanation is that there was simply a shortage of lucrative and attractive Korean blockbusters to please Asian tastes during that year and the next. The film industry is one of the most unpredictable in the world, and even critics cannot forecast future hits and flops.

Kyung Hyun Kim borrows the concept of the virtual from Gilles Deleuze and his twin books’ analysis of the movement-image and the time-image. Like Deleuze, he considers movies to be thought-experiments: in this sense, thinking about cinema is inseparable from making it. Through a century-long transformation, we have come to understand ourselves individually and socially through spatial and temporal articulations that were first advanced in movies. Nothing illustrates more the interdependence between philosophy and film-making than the category of the virtual. Virtuality refers here to a kind of being-in-the-world that increasingly eschews reality in favor of escapist pursuits and fictitious worlds. As the author notes, “the high-speed Internet boom that took place in Korea after the late 1990s ironically meant that Korea’s urban youth rarely needed to venture beyond their schools, homes, and offices. If they did choose to go outdoors, it was to the theater.” The virtual complicates the question of what is real and what is unreal. Despite our perception of film as the art form that most closely approximates reality, movies are pure fiction, akin to the simulacra that Baudrillard defines as images without models. Unlike the image, the virtual no longer dwells on the difference between the way things appear and the way they really are. In the virtual world, neither the opposition between true and false nor the one between reality and imagination can be resolved.

Virtual pasts and futures

Cinema itself is built on a technology of virtuality: the projection of twenty-four frames per second is perceived as continuous time and movement by our synapses. With the integration of computer graphics, the virtual has taken a whole new dimension, and the advent of virtual reality promises an era of unlimited possibilities. Everything that can be dreamed, imagined, or conceived, can be put on screen. Special effects and computer-generated graphics allowed Korean movie-makers to expand back in time, as with saguk or historical dramas, or forward to the future as with science-fiction movies. With the help of CG-generated images, directors were able to recreate images from the Chosun Dynasty period or to project their viewers into imaginary worlds. Deleuze’s use of the term “virtual” refers to something that is not only a thing of the past, but of a past that coexists with the present and also of a truth that coexists with the false. Similarly, the movie Lost Memories 2009 (2002) presents a virtual future in which Japanese occupation of Korea has continued into the twenty-first century, mixing memories of a colonial past and imaginaries of an uncertain present. The fascination with the colonial past was also rekindled by the rediscovery of old movies from the 1930s and 1940s that were thought to be lost but had been preserved in the film archives of Soviet Russia and Communist China.

The films covered in Virtual Hallyu more or less correspond to the period when the democratic party led by presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun was in power. During that decade, South Korea established itself as a full democracy as well as one of the most economically successful and technologically advanced countries in the world. Kyung Hyun Kim sees a correlation between the liberal policies pursued by these two presidents and the rise of hallyu. The state favored the expression of artistic sensibilities and adopted policies deemed favorable to the creative industries. Lee Chang-dong, an art-movie director, became the minister of culture, tourism, and sports in the Roh Moo-hyun cabinet. Most notably, the Sunshine Policy of peaceful coexistence and cooperation with North Korea, initiated by Kim Dae-jung and continued by his successor, allowed for a more nuanced view of the Communist neighbor country. If Kang Che-gyu’s Shiri (1999) was the last film to rely on a Cold War dichotomy to produce a ruthless North Korean villain and to attempt to reclaim South Korean male agency through the destruction of a North Korean femme fatale, Park Chan-wook’s JSA: Joint Security Area (2000) was the first film to defuse the stereotype of North Koreans as South Korea’s belligerent Other. Other films addressed the taboos of national history: Im Kwon-Taek’s The Taebaek Mountains (1993) depicts the period of guerrilla warfare and civil strife in the Jeolla Province before the start of the Korean war, whereas The President’s Last Bang (2005) and The President’s Barber (2004) concentrate on the controversial figure of President Park Chung-Hee, the first one as tragedy, the second as farce.

The recombination of traditional genres

Movies are shaped by market forces as much as by the political zeitgeist. In the late 1990s, the Korean industry started again to blossom, and showed an impressive success in the domestic market. Korean films enjoyed an average market share of 54 percent over the following decade, with record peaks of 60-65 percent. Last but not least, the Korean film production continued to earn many prestigious awards at top international film festivals, making Korean culture increasing attractive. This happened in the context of limited subsidies by the state and increased free-market access of US film-makers in Korean distribution. If anything, increased competition between US and Korean films induced the Korean cinema industry to create more attractive and lucrative movies than foreign films. Big industrial groups or chaebols, expecting high returns of investment, expanded their power by acquiring individual theaters and creating multiplexes and theater franchises. They invested in the production of genre movies previously considered as the preserve of the American movie industry: Westerns (The Good, the Bad, the Weird), science fiction (The Host), eco-disaster stories (Tidal Wave), urban disaster thrillers (The Tower), and heroic fantasy (Jeon Woo-chi: The Taoist Wizard). Film-makers challenged conventional boundaries and they mixed established genres to create a hybrid repertoire of multi-genre movies: comic-family-melodrama-monster (Bong Joon-ho’s The Host), erotic-horror-crime mystery (Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy), or comic-romantic-women’s tearjerker (Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine). It is this recombinatory power of Korean cinema that foreign audiences found most attractive.

For Kyung Hyun Kim, the role of the film critic is to unveil the latent meanings beneath the apparent surface of a movie. The message of a movie is made clear only when one confronts it to the other works of an auteur, or when one places it in a series that defines a genre, a historical sequence, or the broader tradition of a national cinema. His analysis is consistent with the discourse of political modernism, founded on the holy trinity of Saussure’s semiotics, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and Althusserian Marxism. Words like postmodernism, postcolonialism, late capitalism, and neoliberalism pepper the text and give it a radical cachet. For the author, none of the films produced in the period were radical enough; they only tinkered with the system, and provided imaginary solutions to real problems. As he concludes, “not only is Korea still scarred and traumatized by its colonial era and the Cold War, but—given the continuing US military presence and occasional threats of war from North Korea—it has yet to claim a true postcolonial and post-Cold War identity.” Curiously, although his previous book was all about masculinity and gender roles, he does’t address the issue of gender in Virtual Hallyu. The resolution of Korea’s masculinity crisis didn’t lead to a more balanced repartition of roles between men and women, and none of the directors listed in the book are female. In this era marked by the end of history and the advent of postmodern identities, Korean cinema has yet to find its new master narrative.

How Happy is the Person Who Says I am a Turk

A review of Nostalgia for the Modern: State Secularism and Everyday Politics in Turkey, Esra Özyürek, Duke University Press, 2006.

Ezra OzyurekThere is one country in Europe where people feel nostalgic for the 1930s, and where they almost unanimously cherish the memory of a one-party state which multiplied statues of its great leader on every street corner. The country is Turkey and the golden age that Turks remember with nostalgia is the first two decades of the republic founded in 1923 by Mustapha Kemal, the father of all Turks. The climax of this era of bliss and hope occurred with the tenth anniversary celebrations of the declaration of the Turkish Republic, when Atatürk famously declared: “How happy is the person who says I am a Turk!”

Nostalgia is a thoroughly modern sentiment. Or maybe a postmodern one: it is fair to say that modernity ended with the end of hope for tomorrow. Since then, people have looked for their utopias in the past rather than in the future. As Esra Özyürek notes, quoting another author, the twentieth century began with a futuristic utopia and ended with nostalgia. A belief in the future is now only a relic of the past. What people look for in the past is the kind of pride and hope in the future that seems to have disappeared from our present.

The twentieth century began with a futuristic utopia and ended with nostalgia

By locating their modernity in the past, rather than in the present or future, and by cultivating a vivid memory of the 1930s as a modern past utopia in which the citizens united around their state, many Turks with a nationalist-secular worldview tend to reject the visions, revisions and divisions that characterize the present situation. They are discontent with the new definition of modernity that the European Union imposes on Turkey, becoming resistant to criticisms of the way Turkey has handled the Kurdish issue and human rights violations. They firmly oppose the rise of political Islam and what they perceive as attacks to the foundations of the secular state.

For nostalgic Republicans, the end of the single-party regime and the transition to democracy formed the starting point of selfishness and factionalism in Turkey. They agree that the golden age came to an end with the first fair general elections of 1950, when the Democrat Party replaced the Republican People’s Party. Everything apparently got worse afterwards. Suddenly, there was more than one vision for the future of the country, and citizens were divided along the lines of gender, class, ethnicity, and religion. People started putting their private interest above the common good embodied by the state.

Of course, paradise is always and forever lost, and nobody in Turkey really wants to turn back the clock backward to the 1930s. The militaristic and patriarchal feelings associated with the early Republican era no longer match the contemporary ideals of European modernism, which promotes voluntarism, spontaneity, and free will in state-citizen relations. The nationalist march songs with lyrics glorifying the construction of railroad tracks and the devotion to the leader are revisited today with a new aesthetic of postmodern kitsch and disco rhythm. Nostalgia is also used to silence the opposition, as when the remix of nationalist songs blasted by discotheques compete with the calls to prayer of the muezzin.

In Nostalgia for the Modern, Esra Özyürek explores how nostalgia for the single-party era is indicative of a new kind of relationship citizens have established with the founding principles of the Turkish Republic, one that manifests itself in affective, domestic, and otherwise private realms generally considered outside the traditional field of politics. She takes as the sites of her ethnography the seventy-fifth anniversary Republic Day celebrations arranged by civil society organizations; the popular life histories of first-generation Republicans who transformed their lives as a result of the Kemalist reforms; the commercial pictures of Atatürk that privatize and commodify a state icon; the pop music albums that remixed the tenth-anniversary march originally made in 1933; and museum exhibits about the family lives of citizens that articulate metaphors of national intimacy.

Metaphors of national intimacy

Özyürek sees a parallel between the neoliberal policies of market reforms and structural adjustment and what she describes as the privatization of state ideology. Both are characterized by a symbolism of privatization, market choice, and voluntarism that contrasts with the statist, nationalist and authoritarian ideology of Kemalism in the former period. With neo-Kemalism, a secular state ideology, politics, and imaginary finds a new life and legitimacy in the private realms of the market, the home, civil society, life history, and emotional attachment, transforming the intimate sphere along the way.

This shift of secular ideology from the public to the private, which (just like neoliberal economic reforms) involves processes of deterritorialization and reterritorialization, occurred just at the same time as, and in reaction to, the growing importance in the public sphere of religious beliefs and practices that were once confined in the private realm. Secularism went private just when Islam went public, as both had to face the shift produced by market reforms and liberalization. This exploration of cultural imaginaries associated with the neoliberal ideology opens up new possibilities for political anthropology: according to the author, “anthropologists are uniquely equipped to understand the newly hegemonic culture of neoliberalism in the fields of economy, society and politics.”

Fieldwork and family work

There is also an autobiographical aspect to this ethnography. For Esra Özyürek, fieldwork was intimately linked to family work. As she confesses, “I am the granddaughter of a parliamentarian of the single-party regime and the daughter of two staunch Kemalist and social democrat activists affiliated with the Republican People’s Party.” Raised as an orthodox Kemalist, her mother is a firm believer in Westernization, secularism, and Turkish nationalism. She doesn’t hesitate to chastise her daughter for her sympathy with the cause of veiled university students. Her father is also a stalwart Republican who was elected to Parliament in the course of her research. Analyzing further her motivations for undertaking this project, the author notes that “this study became a tool for me to negotiate daughter-parent relations and establish myself as an adult in some ways.” Coming of age as an anthropologist also involves dealing with the father-figure of Atatürk, whose towering presence makes itself felt in every chapters of the book.

Written as a scholarly essay with a rich theoretical apparatus, Nostalgia for the Modern can also be read as a very personal rendition of the author’s effort to come to terms with her Turkish identity.

Do You Speak Te reo Ma’ori?

A review of Entanglements of Empire: Missionaries, Maori, and the Question of the Body, Tony Ballantyne, Duke University Press, 2014.

ballantyneCultures from the South Pacific have provided anthropologists with a rich array of words and concepts: “mana” (power, charisma), “hau” (life’s energy), “tapu” (taboo) and its antonym “noa”, “hara” (a violation of tapu) and “wairua” (spirit) all originate in the languages of Polynesian cultures. These terms first came to the attention of western anthropologists through the reports of missionaries in the Pacific islands. Armchair theorists like James Frazer or Marcel Mauss used the observations of the first ethnographers to lay the foundation of their discipline. Their theories were built on the idea that it is possible to isolate cultural traits from their social context and bundle them together to draw comparisons and infer anthropological laws. Surveying the practice of gift-giving, Marcel Mauss famously came to the conclusion that it involved belief in a force binding the receiver and giver, which he labeled “hau” after the word used by the Māori. Such concepts derive their theoretical potential precisely from the lack of equivalence in common language. But as Claude Levi-Strauss later argued, the indiscriminate use of indigenous categories hampers the analysis of symbolic systems, which he proposed to process through the description of unconscious structures. Anthropological words have nonetheless entered common language, from totem to taboo and to tattoo, while anthropologists still use words like mana and hau as specialized vocabulary in their profession.

Māori loan words in New Zealand English

More recently, many Māori words or phrases that describe Māori culture have become part of New Zealand English, and have even entered global English. “Tā moko”, or tattooing, has become a globalized symbol of Māori’s cultural reach, with rock stars and football players exhibiting intricate design patterns on their legs and shoulders. So has the rite of the haka, the war song and dance popularized by the All Blacks rugby team. Young New Zealanders learn to “show their pūkana in the haka” by rolling their eyes and sticking out their tongue, or to practice “hongi” by pressing together their noses as a greeting. “Kia ora” (literally “be healthy”) is a Māori term of greeting that is often used in Aotearoa (New Zealand). According to Kiwitanga (“Kiwi” culture), we can all claim Te Ao Maori (the Maori world) as part of our identity, regardless of the color of our skin, where we were born or what our passport says. As long as we walk the talk and speak the language (Te reo Māori).

According to Tony Ballantyne, the incorporation of native words into everyday vocabulary has become a hallmark of New Zealand’s state ideology of biculturalism. So has the narrative of the first encounter between natives and missionary settlers in the Bay of Islands. The early activities of the mission stations provide a kind of national prehistory of Māori and Pākehā (European) coming together. The Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840, has acquired the status of the nation’s founding document, and marks the start of its official history. There is a black legend and a rosy version to this period’s history. The dark narrative postulates that missionaries were the “advanced party of cultural invasion” and that they committed nothing short of an ethnocide by undermining Māori communities and their cultural traditions. The white fairy tale is framed in terms of “first encounter”, “inter-cultural exchange” and the birth of “biculturalism”. This version postulates two homogeneous groups coming into contact and adding their “differences” to form a distinctive whole. New Zealanders have even found their Pocahontas in the figure of Hongi Hika, a local chief or rangatira who travelled to England and met with King George IV and who later assisted the missionaries in developing a written form of the Māori language.

First encounters between Māori and Pākehā

Tony Ballantyne takes issue with both versions of the national narrative. Both produce the cultural difference that seem to separate the evangelized from the evangelizers, the natives from the settlers, the colony from the empire. Both versions too readily conflate missionary work with the project of empire-building and also offer misleading assessments of the sources, directions, and consequences of cultural change. Both use the colony to illuminate European history, either as the cradle of genocidal imperialism or as the crucible of multicultural Enlightenment. The colonized counts as little in these narratives: they are reduced to the receiving end of imperial projection, or to the role of the spectator (the native’s “gaze”) of a destiny on which they have no hold. According to Ballantyne, much of the recent work on encounters between Māori and Europeans in the late eighteenth century and earlier nineteenth has seen these cross-cultural engagements as anticipating the bicultural social formations that have become central to state policy and national identity in New Zealand. This conventional image of New Zealand’s past has been cultivated by the state through agencies such as the Waitangi Tribunal (aimed at national reconciliation between Māori and Pākehā) and Te Papa Tongarewa (the national museum).

To the tropes of “contact”, “meeting”, “collision” or “exchange” between “two worlds”, Ballantyne prefers to develop the metaphor of “entanglement”, showing that Protestant missionaries and Māori tribes were enmeshed in “webs of empire”. He portraits the British empire as “a dynamic, web-like formation, a complex and shifting assemblage of connections that ran directly between colonies.” The words “web” or “entanglement” refer to something that is complex, intricate, involved, interlaced, with each part connected with the rest and dependent on it. Webs or threads entangled in a fabric have long been a metaphor of history. Think about Penelope in the Odyssey, untangling the webs she spun during the day to delay the time she would have to give in to her suitors. Think of the Bayeux tapestry, an embroidered cloth nearly 70 meters long which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England, and which hasn’t revealed all its mysteries. Similarly, spiders make webs which are nearly invisible until the dew fall on them. They are made with threads stronger than steel and take their shape from the surrounding circumstances and from the spider herself. History is not made by stable and discrete cultural formations coming together in a “clash of civilizations” or a bicultural exchange: it is composed of forever shifting realities, composite cultural patterns, and identities in flux. History is an accumulation of threads, pathways and contingencies that embed human action over time. It doesn’t have any ultimate directionality; it is simply the sum of a long series of inventions, actions, interventions, and accidents over decades or centuries.

Protestant missionaries and Māori tribes were enmeshed in “webs of empire”

From the beginnings of the mission on the ground in the Bay of Islands in December 1814, missionaries and Māori were linked by complex, shifting, and often unpredictable forms of connection. Europeans visiting or living in the Bay of Islands entered a world that remained governed by Māori ritenga (customs, practices) and tikanga (rules, protocol). The missionaries were not only dependent on the ability of the people and chiefs of the northern alliance to furnish them with basic foodstuffs, but also dependent on them for labor. They were unable to undercut the authority of leading rangatira, such as the great warrior-chief Hongi Hika, or to effectively challenge local customs such as polygamy or the centrality of slavery in Maori social formations. The great rangatira were able to administer justice though traditional methods, make war, trade with European vessels for weapons, procure, and if they wished, kill slaves in open defiance of the missionaries. At the same time, they enjoyed the benefits of close association with Europeans, gaining access to new skills (like reading and writing), as well as tools, seeds, livestock, and weapons. They adopted some of the missionaries’ beliefs and practices, turning them into domestic institutions by blending them with native concepts. For instance, Sunday became known as “ra tapu”—the day that is set apart or the sacred day—and working on the Sabbath was seen as a “hara”, a violation of tapu, or in the language of the missionaries, a “sin.”

The “threads of association” between the British Empire and its South Pacific outposts were also webs of texts and documents. Textual production and circulation helped lay the foundation for the making of empire itself. It was the dense body of information collated on James Cook’s first and second voyage that fed the imaginations of imperial visionaries. They were excited by the potential role that New Zealand might play within the empire in the future—whether as a site for refitting and resupplying, a source of “naval stores”, a site of colonization, a destination for convicts or even a purveyor of tea. Later on, the missionaries’ writings, maps, sketches, engravings, and reports emphasized the commercial acuity of Maori, as well as the potential of the islands of New Zealand for imperial activity and future colonization. In their celebration of mission stations, both missionary propaganda and the narratives of European travelers in the 1830s offered very partial readings of the development of missionary work. These narratives tended to underplay the uneven progress of missionary settlements and marginalized the role of Māori in the genesis of mission stations. Mission archives were also littered with gossip, rumors, innuendo, allegations, and outraged reports of wrongdoing. In one chapter, Ballantyne recaptures the story leading to the dismissal of William Yate in 1836, from his arrival when his coreligionists “were sorry to learn that there was no Mrs. Yate” to his spectacular accusation with “the crime alluded to in Romans I.27.”

Like a mosquito caught in a spider’s web, the incorporation of peripheral territories into empires had vast consequences. Once communities were connected to these webs of interdependence, it was often hard for them to assert control over the direction and consequences of the cultural traffic that moved through these meshes of connections. While Māori still typically exercised control over such encounters on the ground in Te Ika a Maui, their ability to ultimately direct the long-term consequences of these relationships was heavily constrained by British commercial power and military capacity and the sheer scale of British society (when measured against te ao Maori. The narratives, handwritten reports, journals, letters, maps, and sketches that laced Maori and New Zealand into the empire created knots that could not be undone. Metropolitan publications tended to produce the cultural differences that were seen to separate the evangelized from the evangelizers. Social practices such as slavery, whakamomori (suicide), the execution of slaves, the taking of head as trophies, war-making, and cannibalism were read as emblematic of the moral corruption of “natural man” and evidence of Satan’s hold on Maori. In the 1830s, humanitarian campaigns painted an alarming picture of social crisis and population decline among the natives, produced by the combination of alcohol, tobacco, venereal disease, prostitution, and infanticide. This image of an indigenous society in a state of crisis induced through contact with Europeans was pivotal in prompting British intervention in 1840.

Reading the archives against the grain

By reading the archives against the grain, Ballantyne is able to convey the anxieties, uncertainties, and even fear that were an integral part of empire-building. There were profound limits to the missionaries’ ability to remake Māori beliefs and practices, or even to recreate European conditions of living in their settlements. Missionaries not only found that it was hard to get Maori to follow new modes of thinking, but that it was difficult for their own families to maintain many of the practices that they understood as routine parts of “civilized” life. For instance, burial practices on the mission stations diverged from practices in Britain. Christians were buried in close proximity to missionary homes, a practice that reversed British trends where there was a growing separation between the worlds of the living and the dead. It was often those Māori attached to missions—as workers, converts, or even chiefly patrons—who were the most potent critics of the old gods and old ways of doing things, a dynamic entirely glossed over by arguments that attribute cultural change to the “cultural imperialism” of missionary work. Although the presence of missionaries precipitated cultural change, Māori were primary agents in the actual spread of Christianity. These “entanglements of Empire” show the complexity of the early history that modern New Zealand obfuscates by peppering its modern culture with Māori words and cultural traits. Neither a melting pot nor a salad bowl, the British empire as experienced from its Pacific edge was a spaghetti plate.