ARTICLE REVIEWS: Van Leur (1934), Smail (1961), Benda (1964)

By John Pinkerton – Pinkerton, J., A Modern Atlas,1818,

Van Leur, J.C., Excerpts from Indonesian Trade and Society: Essays in Asian Social and Economic History, (Holland/USA: Foris Publications, 1983) (originally written in 1934)

Smail, John R. W. “On the Possibility of an Autonomous History of Modern Southeast Asia.” Journal of Southeast Asian History 2, no. 2 (July 1, 1961): 72–102.

Benda, Harry J. “Democracy in Indonesia.” Journal of Asian Studies 23, no. 23 (May 1964): 449-456.

Euro-centric and Asia-Centric Historiographies as ‘False Antithesis”

Well before other scholars even considered the possibility of orientalist and moral biases within the field, J.C. van Leur (1934) introduced the methodological issues of Euro-centric and externally driven perspectives on the study of Indonesia. In his historiographical articles “On Early Asian Trade”, van Leur examines existing histories of Indonesia and notes how indigenous and ‘Indonesian’ aspects of social and political organization are represented as weak, primitive, and decaying. Closely exploring the body of scholarship on Indonesia, van Leur draws attention to its preoccupation with Hindu sources, the overemphasis on Hindu immigration, and a few historical tropes such as the eighteenth century defined by the dominance of the Western economic systems (notably the Dutch East Indies Company). From these few articles, we get a sense of van Leur’s dissatisfaction with the current trajectory and treatment of Indonesia in Indonesia scholarship. Rather than an externally defined Indonesia, J.C. van Leur advocates for the understanding of an indigenous cultural core underneath the ‘thin and flaking glaze’ of foreign influences.

John Smail disentangles and expands upon van Leur’s methodological proposition in his article “On the Possibility of an Autonomous History of Modern Southeast Asia” (1961). Smail pays tribute to J.C. van Leur and D.G.E. Hall’s historiographical intervention, but is concerned with the realistic application of such a call to action. Smail approaches this question by exploring the historiographical shifts between Euro-centrism and Asia-centrism, noting the important yet simplistic ways in which both approaches reify analytical problems. Smail takes the reader on a close analysis of these historiographical shifts, distinguishing between ‘centrism’ and perspective in two ways: that of viewpoint and of relative importance. In this way, Smail is able to draw out historigraphical trends in Indonesian history in which scholars engage in the process of casting certain historical actors, events, places as ‘important’ and ‘valuable’ to the progression of history. Smail characterizes this process as the making of moral and value judgments, alluding to the inherent subjectiveness of history. The Benda/Feith debate (1964, 1965) is an example of such a process, examining the role and determining the relative importance of colonialism in the attempted paths towards constitutional democracy.

Smail examines van Leur’s methodological propositions for studying Indonesia, notably, van Leur’s various discussions on the concept of ‘autonomy.’ Once again, Smail undertakes a semantic argument, meditating upon van Leur’s use of ‘autonomy’ to mean something between uniqueness and independence. Smail briefly recognizes the potential risk of ‘finding autonomy’, such as the sweeping diminishment of Dutch colonial rule in Indonesian history. However, like van Leur, Smail finds the current overemphasis of colonial- anticolonial binaries in Indonesian history not only inadequate, but entirely reductive of the complexity and vibrancy of Indonesian history. Rather than colonial rule as the symbol of modern history, Smail proposes the shift away from foreign relations as the prime mover of history towards internal and local dimensions. Smail in no way entirely excludes the influence of foreign actors, but instead attempts to reorient history from abstract nation-defined actors to geographically and culturally specific communities. Using the Aceh Revolution as an example, Smail reincarnates the traditionally externally focused narrative into “a story of rapid and far-reaching internal developments complicated by disturbance and assault from the outside.” (Smail p. 98)

A few reflections: Smail’s description of author biases and moral biases seems to engage with a larger debate prevalent in anthropology and ethnic studies, that is the question of positionality. Smail alludes to the illusion of objectivity in the historical profession (I think of Peter Novick’s later work on this topic, The Noble Dream, 1988), but seems to quickly move away from this critique that could of in fact reinforced his evaluation of historical shifts. It seems that while Smail is aware of these author biases, he is not immune to slipping into such claims. For example when referring to shifts in Southeast Asian historiography, what does Smail mean by a ‘neutral’ viewpoint rather than a Euro-centric? Earlier Smail comments on the historian’s objectivity as a cultural construct, yet seems to use ‘neutral’ in a similarly problematic way. Lastly, another of Smail’s underlying claims is the fading of away from nation-oriented perspectives towards the emergence of a ‘single thought-world’. Does Smail envision the convergence of multiple thought worlds, or the dominion of certain thought worlds over another? In his final comments, Smail argues that colonial rule should only play a part in Southeast Asian history (rather than wholly define the region). He offers the opposite situation wherein Southeast Asia is only a part of Western histories. However, this reversal does not take into consideration the power imbalance between the dominant colonizer and exploited colonized?

Although published half a century ago, debates regarding indigenous or autonomous histories first posited by J.C. van Leur still resonate in the contemporary academy. Although the binary of external and internal, Euro-centric and Asia-centric has ceded way to more nuanced debates, the core questions of van Leur’s articles and John Smail’s reflection remain important topics of discussion: who and what is considered important, authentic within the writing of history. But even more so now after the linguistic turn, shifts in the landscape of the academy (ethnic studies, women, gender, and sexuality studies, hyphenated identities) the question of ‘who is legitimate to write those histories?’ seems to finally rise to importance in Southeast Asian studies. Laurie Sear’s edited volume Knowing Southeast Asian Subjects (2007) addresses these exact concerns; yet rather than van Leur’s Euro-centric or Asia-centric histories, a new point of debate is also the decentering of American dominated studies of Southeast Asia.

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