Two opposing approaches have recently dominated studies of states in the Asia-Pacific region.

The art of government approach maintains that the modern state employs techniques of tracking and recording citizens, ostensibly for their betterment, but also allowing for greater state control. The way this works could be imagined in three stages. If, for example, the state embarked on a campaign to improve citizens’ nutrition, it would first collect information about people. It would track, through ‘state’-istical information; their names, age, weight, IQ, residence, employment, shopping practices, and so on. Second, people would assume they are under constant surveillance and thus begin to monitor themselves. Third, a new kind of person would thus be created; an individual citizen whose life and identity are tied up with the state. This kind of process is also often called “governmentality” (Foucault, 1982, 1991a, 1991b).

The ‘art of not being governed’ is a term introduced by Scott (2009) to describe the tendency of people to avoid state rule. In the hills and mountains of mainland Southeast Asia, eastern India and Southern China–an area Scott calls “Zomia”–a variety of ethnicities has sought refuge. These upland people have turned to swidden cultivating and hunter-gathering to avoid the state taxes and control associated with agriculture in the lowland areas of Southeast Asia, to the extent that, today, these ‘anarchists’ number in the millions. Thus, the ‘art of not being governed’ approach implies that governmentality has failed in peripheral areas.

However, as Joel Kahn (personal communication) once reflected, forms of desire and political energy can be distinct from the state but end up being part of the state and energizing it. This is demonstrated in ethnography by Australian anthropologists such as by Jaap Timmer (2010) and Andrew Walker (2009, 2012) who have shown how local residents, in different parts of Southeast Asia, seek to emulate the state and bind it to their everyday practices. This desire for a connection with the state can also be seen, in my fieldwork location, Tegalgaring , in far-east Java, where people bring the state into their lives through with martial enthusiasm.

Martial enthusiasm is partly evoked through stickers. Local residents in Tegalgaring expressed pride and loyalty associated with the Armed Forces. Stickers proclaiming, “Part of the Big Armed Forces Family (“Keluarga Besar ABRI”) or “Special Forces” (Kopassus) were prolific on the motorcycles and cars of ordinary civilians. Given that the Armed Forces, particularly the Special Forces, in Indonesia have been associated, by some, with human rights atrocities this perhaps requires some explanation.

These stickers find their way onto mopeds and/or helmets of the richer teenage boys of the village. They were placed next to stickers of ‘rebellious’ bands that were popular during the period–“Jamrud”, “Slank”, and so on. As these ‘tough’ guys burned around the countryside in torn black jeans and no muffler, protection from the police (whose interest is usually limited to extracting an expensive bribe for the most minor traffic transgression–with or without a sticker supporting the Armed Forces) was apparently not uppermost in their minds. So, I am convinced that the symbolic significance of the stickers is not protection from, but rather protection with, the Armed Forces.

Seeking the symbolic auspices of the state, and particularly the Armed Forces, was a common phenomenon. For instance, during Independence Day celebrations in Tegalgaring village, local boys created floats representing the army: tanks, planes and so on. Others donned military uniforms and camouflage. All received hearty applause as they proudly strutted over the potholed and dusty lanes around the neighbourhood. Also widespread were pictures of a ‘reform’ figure, the head of the PDI-P party, Megawati, in combat fatigues. These were displayed in houses throughout rural villages. It seemed that the idea of a strong and militant leader, even for a ‘reform’ figure, was popular.

More than anything else, this martial symbolism evokes a desire to bring in the auspicious and violent power of the state. In this sense, the stickers could be seen as an attempt at symbolic protection– a powerfully patriotic sense of nation and state that could be brought into one’s life. The state that was being emulated was not the deeply equivocal and malevolently enthralling state depicted by Taussig (1992) in his idea of “state fetishism”.

An analysis of ways in which people emulate the state, particularly its perceived legitimate authority and capital, shows that rather than accepting, avoiding, or resisting the state, people spend a lot of time seeking it out. Various reasons explain why they do this, such as those relating to personal gain and cultural capital.

Attending to the way people actively build up states from the bottom will help provide a more balanced and richer understanding of the state, especially in peripheral areas. Hopefully, further research in Southeast Asia can establish the historical conditions or situations in which seeking the state occurs.

Nicholas Herriman lectures in Anthropology at La Trobe University. He is the author of The Entangled State, a study of sorcerer killings in Indonesia. He podcasts for La Trobe on iTunes U as the ‘Audible Anthropologist’. Some of his lectures can also be found at here. This article first appeared in the Australian Anthropological Society Newsletter, Number 129, March 2013. Image source.


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