Compromising Power:Development, Culture, and Rule in Indonesia

Peer Reviewed

Essay Excerpt

Relations of rule are cultural relations, formed and reformed in the context of specific discourses, practices, rituals, and struggles. They offer a rich and important field for ethnographic analysis.1 In this article I examine the set of relations framed through the discourse and practice of "development," critically engaging the work of Arturo Escobar (1992, 1995), James Ferguson (1994), and others inspired in various ways by Foucault.2 My argument is that a Foucauldian understanding of governmentality (the attempt to constitute governable subjects) is an accurate guide to development as a project of rule, but that the actual accomplishment of rule owes as much to the understandings and practices worked out in the contingent and compromised space of cultural intimacy as it does to the imposition of development schemes and related forms of disciplinary power.3

My study is grounded ethnographically in an analysis of Indonesia's official program for the resettlement of isolated people. Resettlement programs are familiar enough as objects of anthropological study and critique, and there are many important accounts of the damage done to indigenous folk by inept bureaucrats and bullying regimes. My focus is rather different, for I seek less to expose the all-too-predictable havoc wreaked by state power in the periphery than to highlight the significance of that periphery, and the activities that go on there, in the constitution of the self-proclaimed center. Just as others have shown that colonialism was critical to the self-fashioning of the West (Cooper and Stoler 1997), "development" is here explored as a modern state's attempt at self-fashioning and rule, considered always as fragile and contingent accomplishments.4 

As it turns out, there is a rather large gap between what program proponents and critics had primed me to expect at Indonesia's resettlement sites and what I encountered there. In brief,I found a program to civilize "primitives" performing its operations on rather ordinary folk, changing them very little, but maintained despite its failures and even construed, in some quite specific ways, to be a success. The gap between findings and expectations and the attempt to puzzle out the reasons for it offer the opportunity for reflections on "how rule is accomplished" and on the compromises integral to rule.

To clarify my theoretical concerns and to contextualize my ethnographic material, the following section outlines some of the features of development regimes in general and Indonesia's New Order in particular.  (Li, 294-295)

About the Author

Dr. Li's early research in Southeast Asia concerned urban cultural politics in Singapore. Since 1990, her research has focused on questions of culture, economy, environment, and development in Indonesia’s upland regions. She has written about the rise of Indonesia’s indigenous peoples’ movement, land reform, rural class formation, struggles over the forests and conservation, community resource management, and state-organized resettlement. She recently published The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics (Duke University Press, 2007). The book explores governmentality in its colonial and contemporary iterations, tracking interventions devised by experts to improve landscapes and livelihoods in Indonesia. It includes programs of Dutch missionaries, New Order officials, the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, the Nature Conservancy, and Indonesian NGOs.

Post a Comment

Please log in or register to comment