Notable Lectures on Zoom

Indonesia’s Genocide: New Perspectives 55 Years On hosted by New York Southeast Asia Network, Oct 7, 2020, 8 PM EST


I treat the study of the effects of Cold War strategies and policies of the United States on Southeast Asia as an extension of my research interest which focuses on the cultural legacies of American colonial occupation. The presence of the American empire in Indonesia is a subject of study that is lesser-known compared to their colonial occupation of the Philippines and the Vietnam war. Academic knowledge about the killing of hundreds of thousands of people in Indonesia in 1965-1966 remains scant and imprecise. In this seminar, I was able to acquaint with the authors of two important new books who discussed their findings which move beyond previously abstract and inaccurate understandings about Indonesia’s “Night of the Long Knives”. John Roosa, professor of history at the University of British Columbia, author of Buried Histories, and Taomo Zhou, humanities professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and author of Migration in the Time of Revolution each delivered a short spiel followed by a conversation that explored questions such as: who were the perpetrators of the massacre and who bears responsibility? Is the word genocide apt, and was there a broader anti-Chinese undercurrent to the violence? How did mass violence transform Indonesian society in terms of ethnic relations, economic development, and the country’s position in the world? The contextualization of the 1965-1966 mass violence in Indonesia in the larger global Cold War, was helpful for me in creating connections between the two-pronged approach of outsourced military force and espionage to the exercise soft-power and cultural diplomacy which the United States mastered from their experience in the Philippines before World War II.

“Duterte’s Phallus: On the Aesthetics of Authoritarian Vulgarity” hosted by University of California-Berkeley, Oct. 28, 2020, 4 PM, PST

Dr. Vicente Rafael, who is currently a Professor of History at the University of Washington, presented an intriguing talk that felt like it was taking a jab at soon-to-be former President Donald Trump. By discussing the sources of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s symbolic authority he was able to introduce some concepts that enabled me to have some understanding of the latest global populist phenomenon. Like Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte is widely known for his irreverence and bawdy humor that constitute important elements of his governing style. His stories reveal a reliance on invective and an obsession with obscenity. He also makes frequent references to genitalia—his as well those of his critics—to the delight of his listeners. Rafael uses Achille Mbembe’s notion of “aesthetic of vulgarity” that has the effect of establishing a relationship of “conviviality” between himself and his audience. The effect of this is an “intimate tyranny,” much of it centered on the tales of his phallus as it encounters the world. The talk attempted to explicate the terms of this intimate tyranny by closely reading some of his well-known jokes and stories that establish a dialectic of vulnerability and vengeance that shores up his popularity even as it consolidates his authority. In between uncomfortable laughers, I learned a lot about how humor is applied by authoritarian leaders.

Online Dialogue: “Walker Evans and Renewals of American Documentary” hosted by Terra Foundation, Nov 2, 2020, 6 PM Paris (GMT +1)

Walker Evans (1903-1975) is a famous American photographer whose images are very familiar to me though I knew so little about him until I read the last Chapter of Alan Trachtenberg’s Re-reading American Photographs last week. His legacy is addressed along with renewals of American documentary from the 1960s to the present by this dialogue hosted by the Terra Foundation from Paris with Stephanie Schwartz, Associate Professor in American Art, University College London, and Quentin Bajac, Director of Jeu de Paume. Expanding from her recently published book Walker Evans: No Politics, Stephanie Schwartz discussed the issue of “remakes” as a concern that shows how the photographer revisited his work throughout his long career, as well as how Evans and documentary reemerged in the 1960s and 1970s through the work of Allan Sekula (1951–2013). Quentin Bajac, the curator of the survey exhibition Stephen Shore at the Museum of Modern Art, focused on the fascination that Shore (b. 1947) has always had for Evans’s work. More than an influence, Shore prefers to characterize his relationship with Evans in another vein, closer to sentiment, a kinship, or a way of being of “the same constitutional type”. As I am curious why an American Studies scholar like Alan Trachtenberg devoted an entire chapter to a hagiographic depiction of Walker Evans, the speakers were very helpful in addressing the issue and trouble of “influence,” and in their discussion of what it means for photography and its histories.

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