Academic journal article Oceania

Seeking the State: Appropriating Bureaucratic Symbolism and Wealth in the Margins of Southeast Asia

Academic journal article Oceania

Seeking the State: Appropriating Bureaucratic Symbolism and Wealth in the Margins of Southeast Asia

Article excerpt


Drawing on Foucault's ideas, much recent research on Southeast Asia holds that governing in the modern period ostensibly aims to safeguard the welfare of the population in all respects. By such means people are transformed into 'legible', governable subjects. Other research, based on the theories of James Scott, argues that people in peripheral areas engage with the state in ways that enable them to avoid state rule. In the overlap between these two theories, an emergent literature demonstrates the creative and diverse roles people can play to actively bring the state into their lives, on their own terms. As we observe, states are constituted situationally and are entangled in peoples' everyday lives. When people seek the state we have to attend to which aspects of the 'state' are sought. Their motivations and actions may be diverse or even contradictory, reflecting different material and symbolic concerns.

In making this case we structure the argument as follows: firstly outlining respective 'art-of-government' and 'art-of-not-being-governed' theories; and secondly considering how different researchers have understood entanglements of state power, in ways that emerge from the two theories. This forms the backdrop to our ethnographic findings based on three fieldwork locations. In Banyuwangi, local residents seek to emulate and adopt the symbols and power of state surveillance and violence. On the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, local residents seek state patronage. In Perth, Indonesian migrant women dancers attempt to adhere to state ideals of femininity and to be accepted as cultural representatives of Indonesia. In all these fieldwork sites, people peripheral to state control seek to bring the state into their daily lives.


A working definition of the word 'state' should now be provided. In the modern context a state is minimally understood as an institution (Anderson 1983) or bureaucracy (Weber 1970) to which is delegated the provision of health, justice, education, defence, and so on for a nation of people. The 'state effects' approach, which dismisses such a minimal understanding, holds that the state as we know it is merely an ideal construct, and remains hidden to ordinary people (Abrams 1988; Aretxaga 2003; Trouillot 2001). Bourdieu (1999) further argues that, as scholars deeply implicated in the state, we would hardly be able to understand it: our thinking is already deeply 'statist'. Taken to an extreme, this would mean that our research with people who occupy formal offices, such as the Shire CEO on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, and how they interact and engage with others, was an impossible project; clearly a view we do not share.

However, the 'state effects' idea can be usefully employed to redirect focus onto what the state represents in the realm of ideas; that is, what the state symbolises and what it means ideally to our participants. Graeber (2011) sums up two aspects of this. First, as famously described by Weber, the state represents the exclusive right to legitimately use force. For Agamben (1998), the modern state has arrogated a right to create a situation of exception such as military curfew, capital punishment, euthanasia, and so on. This is the state's ability to create what he calls 'killable bodies'. Graeber (2011: 7) goes further to argue that it is a state's 'right to exercise violence with impunity'. Yet Taussig (1992: 138) argues that it would be a mistake to read this right as signifying a concrete entity of state; if we did so, we could be caught up in precisely the kinds of fetishism that the state projects.

The other aspect of modern states is a promise to provide for a national people. Many states purport to be able to create justice and prosperity for all through means such as nationalism, development, or socialism. This Graeber dubs the 'utopian' aspect of states.

How do these ideas which circulate around the state, and the people who work within the state, stand in relation to the society of which they are part? …

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