Photographies East: The Camera and Its Histories in East and Southeast Asia

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Introducing Photographies East, Rosalind C. Morris notes that although the camera is now a taken-for-granted element of everyday life in most parts of the world, it is difficult to appreciate “the shock and sense of utter improbability that accompanied the new technology” as it was introduced in Asia (and elsewhere). In this collection, scholars of Asia, most of whom are anthropologists, describe frequent attribution of spectral powers to the camera, first brought to Asia by colonialists, as they examine the transformations precipitated or accelerated by the spread of photography across East and Southeast Asia. In essays resonating across theoretical, historical, and geopolitical lines, they engage with photography in China, Japan, Taiwan, and Thailand, and on the islands of Aru, Aceh, and Java in what is now Indonesia.

The contributors analyze how in specific cultural and historical contexts, the camera has affected experiences of time and subjectivity, practices of ritual and tradition, and understandings of death. They highlight the links between photography and power, looking at how the camera has figured in the operations of colonialism, the development of nationalism, the transformation of monarchy, and the militarization of violence. Moving beyond a consideration of historical function or effect, the contributors also explore the forms of illumination and revelation for which the camera has offered itself as instrument and symbol. And they trace the emergent forms of alienation and spectralization, as well as the new kinds of fetishism, that photography has brought in its wake. Taken together, the essays chart a bravely interdisciplinary path to visual studies, one that places the particular knowledge of a historicized anthropology in a comparative frame and in conversation with aesthetics and art history.

Contributors. James L. Hevia, Marilyn Ivy, Thomas LaMarre, Rosalind C. Morris, Nickola Pazderic, John Pemberton, Carlos Rojas, James T. Siegel, Patricia Spyer

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Highly recommended.” - P. C. Bunnell, Choice

Photographies East is a brilliant and densely written elaboration of the potency of photographs in a range of cultural contexts and historical settings. This outstanding book illustrates that there is much more and new to be said about the entanglement of the camera and photographs with a history of ruptures. Its significance stems less from the regional focus than from the way in which highly sensitive narrations of empirical detail are used to address broad questions of photography, power and modernity.” - Ursula Rao, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology

“I found Photographies East to be a gripping, marvelously varied, trawl through the photographic worlds of East and Southeast Asia. Like photographs, the material contained in this volume will undoubtedly exceed its initial essay-frames, and stimulate interest and debate for years to come.” - Liana Chua, Anthropological Forum

Photographies East provides an engaging and often provocative collection of nine essays, marked by their theoretical and analytical rigour, which examine the diverse social and historical applications of photography in various regional contexts in Indonesia, Thailand, China, Taiwan and Japan. . . . [T]his volume is an essential contribution to an ever-expanding field of investigation. . . . Photographies East is a compelling and thought-provoking volume of detailed case studies, which succeeds in its multidisciplinary aims to further the critical debate on photography’s histories and legacies in Southeast and East Asia. With its astute and wide-ranging use of theoretical and empirical approaches to materials on the periphery of academic attention, it will help foster dialogues between visual anthropologists, cultural historians, area specialists, and historians of photography both in local and transnational contexts, inside and outside Asia.” - Luke Gartlan, History of Photography

“[T]his is a stimulating and cogent addition to the growing body of studies of photography in historical contexts. This volume should help erode any lingering notions that universalizing statements by some professional photographers are sufficient for understanding the multitude of meanings generated by the practices, images and readings in specific settings. . . . [T]he wealth of ideas contained in this collection of articles will stimulate the exploration of new directions in the study of photography.” - Hyung-Gu Lynn, Pacific Affairs

“[T]his is without question an important collection that greatly expands our knowledge about the history of photography and photographic practice in Asia. This book will surely inspire valuable new projects in the years to come.” - David Odo, International Journal of Asian Studies

Photographies East is remarkable in many ways. As the first systematic consideration of photography in East and Southeast Asia, it offers some of the most acute reflections on the different workings and effects of photography in non-Western contexts. It will also stir fresh thinking about the relationship between history and anthropology in the wake of the camera.”—Vicente L. Rafael, author of The Promise of the Foreign: Nationalism and the Technics of Translation in the Spanish Philippines

“Through its ‘radical attention to the unexpected,’ this bold and provocative collection asks vital questions about the disturbance created by photography. The sweep and intensity of this stellar ensemble make an essential contribution to our understanding of the photographic world-system.”—Christopher Pinney, author of Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822342052
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 3/23/2009
  • Series: Objects/Histories Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 328
  • Product dimensions: 6.90 (w) x 9.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Rosalind C. Morris is Professor of Anthropology and Associate Director of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University. She is the author of In the Place of Origins: Modernity and Its Mediums in Northern Thailand, also published by Duke University Press, and New Worlds from Fragments: Film, Ethnography, and the Representation of Northwest Coast Culture.

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Read an Excerpt


The Camera and Its Histories in East and Southeast Asia

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4205-2

Chapter One


The Ghost in the Machine

As thus presented, minds are not merely ghosts harnessed to machines, they are themselves just spectral machines. -GILBERT RYLE, THE CONCEPT OF MIND

Not only did he disbelieve in ghosts; he was not even frightened of them. -SIGMUND FREUD, JOKES AND THEIR RELATION TO THE UNCONSCIOUS

A photograph recalls the Netherlands East Indies governor general A.C. D. de Graeff, his long arm stretched forward, hand held palm down, blessing sacrificial offerings prepared for machinery at the Tjolomadoe sugar mill in Central Java on 21 May 1928. De Graeff performs this gesture ostensibly in acknowledgment of the ceremonial attitude associated with setting into motion milling machines at the advent of each harvest season in Java. He is presented in the photograph as calm, confident. He is as reassuring that the mill's enormous cogwheels of production will perform smoothly, without accident, profitably, as he himself appears reassured. It is as though he does not see the ghost in the machine, particularly machine Number One.

This ghost does not have a name, or at least her name was no longer known by the time the photograph was taken. She is a spectral presence that appears momentarily, sometimes as a detached head, vaporously projected and enlarged within the cogwheels of the machinery, sometimes as a well-dressed figure, wholly intact, suspended in midair. She is Javanese. She never speaks. She wears a watch. Her sudden appearance threatens to induce distraction that turns fatal. Grasp slips, a machinist is drawn into the cogs, and the sugar for a while runs red. The ghost is said to be as old as the once-modern Dutch milling machines themselves, already well worn in 1928 and still in operation at the close of the twentieth century: remainders of modernity-this ghost and its machinery-become vestiges of antiquity.

The name of the photographer (who was most likely Dutch, though quite possibly not) is also no longer known, to Javanese at least. The album in which the source of this print is preserved by the Mangkunagaran Palace in Surakarta, Java, notes only, "In Remembrance of the Visit of Netherlands East Indies Governor General JHr. Mr. A. C. D. de Graeff to Surakarta on Monday the 21st of May 1928." What remains in the photograph is the specter of de Graeff poised in a moment when sacrifice is acknowledged. Behind him, also dressed in colonial whites, appears Prince Mangkunagara VII, remembered for his commitment to cultural preservation, a commitment matched only by his devotion to technological innovation, to the unabashedly "modern" (that is, modhèren in Javanese, moderen in Malay, and modern in Dutch). Just eight years earlier, in 1920, the prince had officiated at ceremonies that dedicated the setting of the cornerstone for the palace's Tirtomarto Reservoir, the epicenter of a massive Javanese waterworks system that rivaled even Dutch accomplishments in modern hydraulics. The year 1920 also marked the prince's meticulously documented, highly publicized "traditional" (tradhisionil in Javanese, tradisionil in Malay, and traditioneel in Dutch) performance as a Javanese groom, executed in royal fashion, a fashion so lavish that it might even exceed the ritual performances of his ancestors. The Tirtomarto dedication itself marked, in fact, the first in a series of calendrically divined postnuptial ceremonial events that wedded signs of a technologically driven modernity to cultural scenes portraying, in effect, tradition. These events thus wedded what was perceived in the Indies at the time, by Javanese and Dutch alike, as the quintessentially modern to the patently cultural. Moments of dedication-the opening of the Mangkunagaran's southern territories Wonogiri railway line by means of shadow-puppet performance; the presentation of choreographically reconfigured Javanese dance traditions under the insistent glow of newly installed electric lighting; the unveiling of architecturally reconstituted traditional monuments, now retrofit through modern techniques-were all attended, necessarily, by the camera. All such moments anticipated a place in palace photograph albums.

From about 1900 on, palace archives were increasingly devoted to documenting, on the one hand, scenes self-consciously celebrated in the Indies as traditional ritual performances (weddings, shadow-puppet theater, princely coronations, village commemorations, funerals, harvest festivals) and, on the other, the machinery so emblematic of modern times (sugar mills, hydroelectric plants, locomotives, railway stations, telegraph lines, radio towers). These twin photographic obsessions-rituals of tradition and machines of modernity-were no doubt informed by the dialectically charged opposition "traditional/modern" (again, tradisionil/moderen in Malay, with the concept "traditional" itself expressing a fundamentally modern shift in perspective), an opposition which in the Indies at the time (and particularly in Java) characteristically associated tradition with culture and modernity with technology. And yet what the archived albums reveal, time and time again, is an obsession of a different order, an obsession which would transcend traditional/modern or cultural/technological dichotomies, a truly singular obsession with a force that is (now) ritual, (now) mechanical, (perhaps always) habitual. This is the force of repetition, of repetition itself.

Dedication ceremonies such as those just noted, which wedded technological innovation to cultural tradition, thus redoubled the attention paid to just such a force. The 1928 gala event in the Tjolomadoe sugar factory was no exception. The moment marking, ritually, the advent of the annual harvest coincided exactly with the dedication of the factory's recently renovated facilities, now modernized, expanded through a novel technology of skeletal ironwork. As de Graeff leans forward to bless the offerings just before they are transported by the new conveyor belt into the geared four-ton rolls of the first milling machine, it is as if the camera is similarly compelled, almost automatically, by such a force-this force of repetition. For the apparatus of the camera is yet again drawn to a scene of repetition and enmeshed, momentarily, with the click of its shutter, in precisely the machinery of the modern for which the camera would seem to stand, on its tripod at a distance, as the hallmark. Such enmeshment suggests, as we shall see, a point where the critical distance between the camera and its subject might collapse and the machine consume its own mechanism of reproduction. Coincidentally, this photographic moment of shutter-cock timing also suggests a point, the point, as we shall see as well, when the ghost in the machine cannot be seen. What remains in the 1928 photograph is the figure of de Graeff himself, suspended, ceremonially buoyant. Prince Mangkunagara VII and others look on, ceremonially attentive.

So many worlds-those of farmlands and their villagers; the palace with its numerous kin, servants, artisans, and advisors; the colonial bureaucracy with its local administrators and their families and servants; Dutch engineers and native trainees; Javanese machinists, Chinese chemists, and Indies coolies; railway personnel, security men, and shamanic technicians-coincide in the strange convergence that produces a sugar factory that it feels almost inappropriate to speak of place. Yet a ghost would seem to desire siting. To the extent that one might attempt to locate a specific place for this vast machine called Tjolomadoe, it would no doubt lie in the very coincidence of such worlds, as ephemeral as that may be. Were one to retrace the various paths out of cane fields lined with ox carts, paved roads with bicycles and personnel, and railway lines tracking milled cane to storage and market, they all cross, eventually, the threshold of the mill proper as they pass under the clock that watches over the mill's acutely synchronized operation. There is a precarious sense in which the convergence of routine labors and the geared coupling of the machines themselves reiterates the peculiar logic of coincidence conjoining such worlds. "Without the strictest punctuality in promises and services the whole structure would break down into inextricable chaos," observed Georg Simmel of modern life in 1903. "If all the clocks and watches in Berlin would suddenly go wrong in different ways, even if only by one hour, all economic life and communication of the city would be disrupted for a long time."

For colonial administrators in Tjolomadoe, one of the primary perceived threats that accompanied this novel synchronization-beyond breakdown, accident, and the subsequent loss of profit-was the sheer monotony of the thing. Having worked for decades in a Javanese sugar mill from 1902 on, Jan Poll wrote late in his career to correct this commonplace perception: "Life in the sugar business is not as monotonous as it may seem." Poll recalls happily, "One could always play bridge, dance while the gramophone is played, and billiards were soon available.... When one loves the Indies one does not need much to be happy there. You can be happy there without champagne. A social club with its own cinema and gramophone is all one needs for conviviality." Leisure times, amusements, and socials also were mechanically engaged, synchronically sensed-"a social club with its own cinema and gramophone"-and the camera was drawn, of course, toward these times as well, these pastimes of modernity.

In Tjolomadoe, at the virtual center of all such mechanized synchrony, monotonous or otherwise, looms machine Number One. One particular place appears to give this factory a certain grounding, and that is a gravesite just east of the mill where Nyai Pulungsih is entombed. (Pulungsih-her very name recalls the Javanese myth of a woman who dreams she devours the moon and begets future kings.) Through monthly séances, Pulungsih is invoked as the founder of Tjolomadoe, whose farmlands she commanded through inheritance and whose initial crude machinery she procured in the early nineteenth century through a bold exchange in which she hawked all of her heirloom jewelry. She is also invoked as a figure endowed with magical powers, manifested in amulets, especially brilliant agate stones whose refracting centers reveal undulating snakes. And she is invoked, finally, as the ancestress of kings, the last woman of common birth to be of genealogical significance to the Mangkunagaran royal house. Not only was she a power source for dominant bloodlines, but she demonstrated formidable economic prowess. Countering such a power emanating from outside the walls of the palace, as well as the specter of an enterprising woman operating on her own, Prince Mangkunagara IV (grandfather of Mangkunagara VII) took over the sugar estate in 1861, secured investments from Dutch financiers, named its factory Tjolomadoe (Mountain of Honey), expanded facilities, formalized administrative structures, and inscribed his name as the enlightened founder of this highly profitable sugar business.

It is not surprising, then, that workers employed by the mill have speculated, from at least the 1920s on, that the ghost of machine Number One is intimately associated with, if not identical to, the spirit of Pulungsih: a specter of origins that seeks revenge for a legacy lost-appropriated by Mangkunagara IV and his successors, all men-and demands continued sacrificial exchange in a ghostly economics no longer thoroughly comprehended, senior machinists say. The fact that this ghost's most commonly sighted companions assume the form of snakes bearing rust-gold stripes, snakes said to vary in length from the size of a thumb to full-blown crowned serpents, recalls as well the amber agates in Pulungsih's paraphernalia of power. But this speculation stops here, for the ghost never speaks. Her name is never revealed.

It is also speculated that the spectral appearances within the milling machinery emanate from (as do many other commanding spectral forces in Central Java) Ratu Kidul, spirit consort of kings and legendary, all-powerful empress of Java's southern coastline and waters. This possibility is reconfirmed by the fact that Central Javanese palaces were known to have engaged this spirit queen's army of protection as guardians of the royal walls, sealing off inside from out. But again, the ghost in Tjolomadoe never reveals her identity and shows no outward signs of Java's famous spirit queen-none at all.

It is thus further speculated that this specter was once a member of Ratu Kidul's spirit entourage and sought out by Mangkunagara IV as a guardian of the factory, but who then developed a special late nineteenth-century fondness for machinery, parted ways with her commander, and began to operate with powers all her own. This possibility repeats, in turn, the logic of Pulungsih's threatening prowess of the uncannily undomesticated, of forces moving on their own, operating by uncertain contracts and demanding untoward sacrificial exchange. It, too, necessarily stops short of conclusion, unnamed, silent.

All such speculation concerning Tjolomadoe's origins and the peculiar spirit of the thing was meant to be put to rest, officially, on 18 April 1937. This date marked Mangkunagara VII's unveiling of a stone taken from the palace's south coast hills and erected in a formal courtyard facing the factory entrance, a stone said to have mysterious powers, a stone sculpted in the likeness of Mangkunagara IV. This figure, reckoned the twentieth-century prince at the time of the unveiling, represented the real spirit of the place, a nineteenth-century Javanese ancestor who appeared to foresee the undeniably mechanized age ushered in by Tjolomadoe. The monument would act as a sort of formal lodestone, somehow centering the modern factory squarely within a Mangkunagaran legacy, thus permanently grounding the mill's unsettled past and ghostly encounters. Ever since the stone's emplacement in 1937, each year just before the milling season commences the twentieth-century classically European bust of Mangkunagara IV, which rests on an Art Deco pedestal, has been treated in the fashion of a ninth-century classically Hindu-Javanese lingga, that is, a figure of phallic design and fertile intent. The marble head is proffered incense and incantation, anointed with consecrated water, ritually scrubbed, and circumambulated in silence. This Mangkunagaran ritual moment is, indeed, most remarkable. Nevertheless, a few weeks later in 1937, just after the monument was dedicated and at a point of peak intensity in milling, the newly ground sugar yet again ran red. Inside Tjolomadoe, Javanese machinists were not at all surprised.

It seemed self-evident to those close to the milling machines that the monument, magically endowed or not, had little effect in securing protection from accidents associated with ghost appearances-thrown tie rods, blown boiler heads, sudden irregular grinding of tensed mill rollers, and so on. Even offerings such as those blessed by de Graeff in 1928, poised before the camera and machine Number One, were not really all that effective. These were offerings placed upon the conveyor belt of the primary milling station at the beginning of each year's "campaign," or campagne, as it was termed in Dutch (with kampanje following in Malay, then Indonesian): a season of overdrive, of round-the-clock machine operation attempting to keep pace with freshly harvested cane as it rolled into the factory. It was also a season of acute industrial fatigue, a highly modern concept that, circa 1900, applied equally to the machinery and its operators. "The curves of fatigue for metals coincided in a remarkable way with the curves of fatigue for muscular effort," reckoned the Smithsonian's Yearbook in 1911. One is tempted to say that it is just such a coincidence, whether charted or not, that so haunted Tjolomadoe, from its nineteenth-century colonial-era inception to the repeated campaigns of its late twentieth-century postcolonial operation.


Excerpted from PHOTOGRAPHIES EAST Copyright © 2009 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction. Photographies East: The Camera and Its Histories in East and Southeast Asia Rosalind C. Morris....................29
The Ghost in the Machine John Pemberton....................57
The Curse of the Photograph: Atjeh 1901 James T. Siegel....................79
The Photography Complex: Exposing Boxer-Era China (1900-1901), Making Civilization James L. Hevia....................121
Photography and the Power of Images in the History of Power: Notes from Thailand Rosalind C. Morris....................161
In and Out of the Picture: Photography, Ritual, and Modernity in Aru, Indonesia Patricia Spyer....................183
Mysterious Photographs Nickola Pazderic....................207
Abandoned Cities Seen Anew: Reflections on Spatial Specificity and Temporal Transience Carlos Rojas....................229
Dark Enlightenment: Nait Masatoshi's Flash Marilyn Ivy....................259
Cine-Photography as Racial Technology: Tanizaki Jun'ichir's Close-up on the New/Oriental Woman's Face Thomas LaMarre....................291
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