Have You Seen Your Mother Standing in the Shadows

From the Series: Plantationocene

Paul Klee (1879-1940). Der Dampfer fährt am botanischen Garten vorbei, 1921, 199. (The Steamboat Passes by the Botanical Garden, 1921, 199). Pen on paper on cardboard. a) 11,9 x 28,9 cm b) 10.4 x 28.8 cm. Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern. Image credits: Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Image archive. Image contrast has been edited from the original.

Hortense Spillers considered plantations as “shadow worlds.”

So, while chattel slavery in its juridical sense may have limited application to thinking through the predominant forms of contemporary capture, if we think of it as beta, a continuously reformulated social calculus, the architectures its antebellum applications introduced to modernity remain salient.

These are architectures that upend the relationships of locality, proximity, intimacy, and touch. If commonly held notions of locality are associated with the capacity of persons to directly touch each other, be in touch, and view the implications of the sociality engendered by touch, enslavement, as Spillers explains, robs the haptic of its power to bind, cohere, and cure. Sexual predation and its ruptures thus mobilize touch as an invasion of coercive power. In the process, the body, as a juridical personality characterized by access to due process, is rendered flesh—something which extends without definition.

Given these entanglements of intimacy and violence, of proximities that become scenes not only of abjection but the very undoing of bodily integrity that otherwise is to find its “reason” and authorization in proximate relations, locality must be operationalized elsewhere.

Locality must be pieced together across distance and deformation, and then not in the form of conventionally instituted judicial bodies, but as something more dispersed and extended, always potentially monstrous in that it entails a materiality without ideal form.

Locality thus entails the unmaking and rearticulating of things, through reconstitution, repurposing, and repair. New constellations and baselines are not simply consolidated either through the formatting of existent forms and functions in the commonsense notion of formatting or even in terms of the milieu of assemblages where entities retain their participation in multiple actualities. But rather those aspects of things "opening" themselves out, availing, affording themselves in indeterminate ways.

Take Eastern Indonesia, with its heterogeneous black populations, where a form of the metropolitan is elaborated in the forward and backward linkages of the extraction of nickel, lithium, copper, cobalt, gold, and rare earth metals. Chinese investment and mining operations underpin most of this economy, but so do the extensive circuitries of movement on the part of youth, who not only make up the labor of mines and plantations, but in much larger volumes, the ancillary domains—all of that which surrounds the plantations—laboring as hawkers, hustlers, drivers, domestics, smugglers, scavengers, artisans, and fabricators. They move across inter-connected towns and coastal cities, surrounding mines, plantations, pearl beds, fish processing centers, and natural gas installation, seldom settling in definitively anywhere.

Their circulations, across different territories, occupations, compositions of residence, resource accumulation, and institutional affiliations, engender their own regional articulations, which coincide in sometimes complicit and antagonist ways to the articulations occasioned by the burgeoning “green extractive” economies. In these circuits, everyone seeks something from each other—confirmation about impressions, tips about possible work opportunities, assessments about conditions in particular places or work sites. Many of the discussions are also about exceeding the position of labor. Some of the participants in these discussions have eked out university degrees in subjects that they will never use; others have completed just a few years of primary education.

While they may be “condemned” to lifetimes of provisional manual labor, they also view themselves as poets, intellectuals, artists, and performers. They turn to each other as a captured audience through which to rehearse sensibilities, stylize speech, and valorize their aspirations as works in progress.

As major retail and wholesale corporations increasingly dominate agricultural production and cycles all the way down to the field, as large investors from Jakarta and beyond swallow up large tracts of land on and offshore in formerly remote locales, as the plantation system returns to consolidate individual landholdings, as already dry climates face further reductions in wet seasons and as larger amounts of small-scale agricultural production is left to older women, the stage is set for a preponderance of youth riding fast and loose.

Many are the offspring of long-disappeared migrants, of reworked households from which they have been sometimes excluded, sometimes made unwilling centers of. They were sometimes the ones on whom extended family hopes were placed, ones designated not to work the fields or those for whom fields were already overcrowded or fallow. Some were designated as those who could best “do without” —whether it be a parcel of land, a spouse, a normal future—so that the meagre savings of households could be applied to those seen as more vulnerable.

It might even be possible to consider their “blackness” as a logistical operation in that it is being deployed as a means to articulate disparate genealogies and forms of identification into an operational sense of “we,” but without necessarily seeking to anchor or consolidate itself into a specific historical narrative or political agenda. In West Papua, particularly, migrants bring with them particular skills and orientations cultivated by their original locales and the colonially shaped expressions they were allowed to take: ex-fighters, brawlers, drivers, thieves, mechanics, tricksters, marketeers, seafarers.

The solidity of any consolidation of ethnicities and regionalisms into a “black identity” in Indonesia’s “far east” (Papua) waxes and wanes, shows up and dissipates according to the situation or place at hand, and who and what is being contrasted or enjoined. It is particularly enjoined in attempts to counter the substantial state subsidized influx of Muslims from Java. Sorong and Jayapura, Papua’s main urban centers, have an overwhelmingly young population, and schools, churches, mosques, and clubs are teeming with different experiments, with words, performances, sensibilities, and tensions.

The growing articulations between Nusa Tenggara Timur, Maluku and West Papuan provinces through new forms of distributed plantations, substantiates a vast new metropolitan region of interlinked populations, resource extraction, migratory flows, infrastructure development, and an increasing subsumption of diverse ethnicities into an overarching Melanesian (Black) identity. While caught in oppressive contexts of hyper-militarization, systematic attempts by governing regimes to divide and rule, and seductions into the highly particularized practices of sects and micro-territories, youth seek to configure new spaces of operation with others, if not necessarily of belonging.

Vulnerable to manipulation and the extraction of their energies and ideas, blackness seems particularly well suited for pointing to solidarities that are being continuously worked out, that open up new possibilities of adjacency and locality that remain unembedded with the logistical universes they attempt to navigate.