BOOK REVIEW: Rudolf Mrazek’s Engineers of Happy Land

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Through the lens of technology and modernity, Rudolf Mrazek (Engineers of Happy Land: Technology and Nationalism in a Colony, 2002) offers a compelling, frenetic journey through the landscape of the last decades of Dutch colonial rule in the Indies. Mrazek’s multifaceted historical method mirrors his complex topic of research—he zooms in and out, zips through time and space, and pauses on certain individuals to dwell on their lives, dreams, and fantasies. Mrazek focuses particularly on Kartini and Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006) and their encounters, fascination, and moments of translation (the hearing Sukarno’s “soft voice”) with technology. Notably, Mrazek loosens the representation of historical time; he challenges a chronology towards independence in order to understand the flurry of cultural and political change through the eyes and ears of historical actors.

Mrazek divides his work into six chapters, all of which embody how inhabitants of Dutch Indies envisioned themselves and their cultural world. Rather than a celebration of processes of modernity and nationalism, Mrazek exposes the ‘dark side’ of these socio-cultural transformations. The six chapters thus cover the following complexities: 1) moving and collision 2) dwelling and floating 3) looking and examining 4) posing and pretending 5) listening and silence 6) exile and the impossibility of disconnection. Mrazek’s nuanced examination of colonial modernity demonstrates the power differential of colonial modernity depending on class, race, and gender. (He states how the Dutch population was in fact only .34 % population or 208,000 at its highest). Engineers of Happy Land indicates that the building of modern world also increasingly distinguished those who had socio-political power, from those who did not. Mrazek vividly represents the ‘road’ as a meeting of the bourgeois and beggar, a violent collision of the literal sense and the metaphoric sense. In this way, Mrazek creates an optical illusion-image in which two worlds of technological modernity exist over a single space. Unlike other studies on colonial modernity concerned only with white colonials or native bourgeois, Engineers of Happy Land exposes the labor and human cost of modernity: Javanese technicians, builders, radio mechanics, and servants. Although Mrazek references Karl Marx’s ‘engineers’ definition as a “superior class of workers” who “believe that there is a calculated sameness between the planning and the dreaming,” I argue that Mrazek’s definition of ‘engineers’ is actually much more expansive. Mrazek’s ‘engineer’ concerns labor rather than skill, and planning and dreaming is more of a confused frenzy of ideas, unfulfilled hopes, and disparate dreams.

The central themes of control and order, presentation and representation weave through Mrazek’s discussion of technology. Mrazek describes how colonial initiatives to map, explore, record, and develop urban infrastructure (roads, lighting, communication), embody the flattening of a diverse society and culture. These projects were fueled by the discourse on bringing visions of ‘order’ to a native world of ‘disorder.’ While Mrazek is effective in conveying the power hierarchy embedded in the ‘miniturizing, inventorying, and surveying’ of the colony (p. 130), the hybridity of Dutch Indies society was not always as apparent. To some extent, Mrazek’s fourth chapter on the dandy and material performance touches on the topic of cultural hybridity, but under the lens of mimicry. Aside from the usual native mimicry of ‘colonial white’ power, Mrazek’s discussion of ‘re-presentations’ characterize a technological ‘mimicry’. “There were more photographs of maps than maps themselves.” (p. 105) Mrazek thus adds a technological dimension to understand the voyeuristic colonial gaze and cultural distancing between colonizer and colonized. Photographs, maps, touristic journeys, colonial exhibitions all embody the reproducibility and anonymity of a colonial subject. Mrazek is quite successful in reinforcing how modernity existed as an imagined space, a performance and embodiment acquired through certain totems and access to knowledge.

There is an authentic, honest character to Mrazek’s research and writing style. At one point Mrazek slips into the first person to draw a connection between language (speaking Czech v. English) and the metaphoric building of a smooth road in a land of disorder, that is, the writing of a historical narrative over messy fragments. Mrazek’s approach to history also requires a creative amalgamation of the archives. It seems that Mrazek relishes in the fragmented nature of local archives and the overt subjectiveness of diaries, intimate letters, and photographs. Many critical historians recognize the limitations of writing a linear, one-directional, thematic history; however, in their work they often undermine their claims and continue to write neatly packaged histories following a simple chronology and theme. Yet Mrazek somehow manages to overcome this tendency in both method and content. Mrazek writes a beautiful musical repertoire of cultural history.

At the same time, I wonder if other topics in Southeast Asian studies could be written in a similar way, or if this approach is more suitable for a history of technology or cultural history. Would a more focused work, say, on a history of the radio, achieve a deeper understanding of a historical moment? Additionally, how unique is Indonesia’s modernization process in comparison with other European colonies or semi-colonies? Vietnam? Philippines?

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