breaking the silence

I apologize for the interminable silence. Term hasn’t even started and I am neckdeep in work, and feel I cannot possibly read quickly enough.

My fieldwork year abroad is in sight: come this September or so, I’ll be around and about Southeast Asia peering into archives and meeting various generations of intellectuals, politicians and peoples, cobbling together the components of a protean thesis that I’ll spend my third year back in Cambridge writing. (This is the general form of British PhDs; I understand they are assembled a little differently on the other side of the Atlantic).

This has been on my mind of late. I’m to spend my fieldwork time primarily in Malaysia and Indonesia. The former I know well, being, so to speak, native: I speak the language(s), I know how the place and people are, I keep up with — am enmeshed in — its politics, I am steeped in its world in ways I probably hardly know. The latter I know not at all, and consequently I am finding that I think about and absorb information about it in an entirely different way — I’ve noticed something of this in my readings and research. And as I’m to be a historian to both, the following question presents itself: is the historian privileged in her treatment of her own country’s history, or rather somehow disabled? When I look at Malaysia, can I really see past what of it is me-as-Malaysian? — and conversely, when I look at Indonesia, how much of it can I not see because I am not of that world?

one of the reasons I’m excited about my fieldwork year, then, is because I get to assess, within myself, exactly how effective historical research can be — I will be the control experiment for two very different ways of looking at a world: one as an insider, and one as an outsider. But within myself, I think — rather, I want these modes to be complementary. Being a historian in Malaysia will force me to hold myself apart, look critically at things and to take nothing for granted; being a historian in Indonesia will force me to learn to immerse myself, to learn how to know a place. And I want the experiences in both countries to reflect upon each other: as a historian in Indonesia I should aspire to the kind of insider sense I have in Malaysia, and vice versa: that it is from Indonesia that I should learn to regard my own country as though through new, foreign eyes.

tall orders! and around all this careful positioning of my Historical Hats, I shall have a thesis to discover. I hope you’ll forgive me if my posts are erratic. On days like these, when I have done literally nothing but sprawl on my sofa inhaling books, I find myself entertaining Matrix-related fantasies about uploading enormous quantities of information into my head, via a hole in my neck. Why does this technology not exist yet? why are we not streaming our best minds into this noble, vital cause? Why can we develop explosives that can destroy nine city blocks but not find a way to upload the entire corpus of Indonesian revolutionary literature into my head at once? Pfft, I say.


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