Letters, Secrecy and the Information Age: The Trajectory of Historiography in Southeast Asia

This is an interesting talk by Ben Anderson delivered for the 9th Golay Lecture in Cornell, about libraries and archives in Southeast Asia, with many points particularly addressed to Indonesia. He begins by addressing the specter of the state without the archive, using Nuruddin Farah’s novel as a starting analogue: How The regime put nothing on paper, and how all orders, threats, decisions and dreams are conveyed through unidentified whispers. A state dictated by the ears and the mouths, not the eyes or meaningful records, mostly orchestrated by the state themselves.

Sounds familiar? Anderson then proceeds to address how (colonial) archives are sequestered and isolated, made unreadable. When there is a violent overthrow of the existing regime, when the incoming rulers decide they want to install a different kind of archive (and erase memories and histories of previous regime), archives get isolated and segregated through a relatively easy, cheap, but thoroughly efficient means—language switching. Indonesia particularly poses an interesting case since unlike the French and the Englishmen, Dutchmen themselves were not confident of the prestige of their own language.

The third point is leakage, how one could find, and even buy very cheaply from the free market, 5-10 bundled kilos of various archives. These files and documents were leaked from both the state archives and private libraries built by middle classes. Papers were sold for insulation, packaging, to lit up stoves, not expected to be read.

Perhaps this is nothing new for those who’ve lived in Indonesia. But while these might seem to elaborate the obvious, Anderson points out the importance of trust in building archives and libraries, and the people behind them. The Cold War destabilisation brought about deepest suspicions of any archives. There is a deep belief that personal documents, handed over to the state, if not lost, will be destroyed, quietly sold off to the free market, or potentially ruin them politically or legally. Where they survive, they are kept in families. Yet, interest in family files and capacities in safeguarding them, decrease across generations. Files merely become totem of distinction of lineage, for social climbing, not necessary to be legible. Anderson mentioned the exception of HB Jassin’s archive of Indonesian literary works and figures, which unfortunately remains stagnant (if not deteriorating), after the old man died. I wonder what Anderson would think regarding the Koin Sastra, though we’ve heard no more updates about it for more than 1 year

Central to this, I think is the lack of attention paid to long-term management and communication protocols. We’ve seen too many projects based on the rhetoric of democratic governance falter and stall since it proposes a solution (for example, koin sastra) without—like Castells said—paying attention to identifying, other than in normative terms, the processes by which these protocols of communication are to, or could, be created and maintained.

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