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Knowing Indonesia: Intersections of Self, Discipline and Nation

Chapter 1

Morally Engaged

Herb Feith and the Study of Indonesia

Jemma Purdey

Advocacy and activism do not diminish the validity of one’s scholarly research. On the contrary, activist scholarship reminds us that all research is inherently political – even, and perhaps especially, that scholarship presented under the guise of ‘objectivity’, which is really no more than a veiled defense of the status quo (Sanford 2006, 14).

After Herb Feith’s sudden death in November 2001, through the facility of cyberspace, his fellow Australian Indonesianist Anthony Reid and Indonesian journalist and writer Goenawan Mohamad, engaged in a dialogue of sorts. It was Reid’s heartfelt tribute to Feith relayed from Los Angeles that Mohamad picked up when preparing his weekly Tempo column, which he devoted to Feith. Both men were old friends of Feith and students of his work. In his email posting Reid wrote:

He seemed to know everybody worth knowing in Indonesia and what’s more to be loved by them in a way that opened every door … he gave an ethical quality to the whole Indonesia-Australia (or north-south, as we now say) relationship which made it seem perfectly right that we were as committed to this project as they were. The huge and growing differences of wealth, education, and perspective seemed minor in light of his self-forgetting passion. Of course these differences weren’t really minor, and most of us couldn’t really overcome them especially in later years. But I am sure that whenever I was in ‘the field’ I had the model of Feith in my brain as the way it morally could and should be done.1

Goenawan Mohamad included a part of Reid’s testimony in his column, then went on,

The ethical character and spirit of selflessness – which did not formulate ‘the Other’ as something captured in the knowledge of ‘the Self’ – is not something that can be readily obtained and achieved. Social sciences (particularly the humanities) are not an easy scientific process, because they always exist within various ambivalences and tensions. There is always a problem between ‘knowing’ and ‘mastering’, between ‘detachment’ and ambivalence’, between ‘relativism’ and ‘anti-relativism’ (Mohamad 2001).

The tributes made by Reid and Mohamad to Feith’s ethical character, his morality and its impact, not only on them but on the study of Indonesia, mirrored the sentiments of many others of his colleagues. This was the sense that Feith’s ethical and moral model, although increasingly difficult (if not impossible) to replicate personally and professionally within the institutions and disciplines within which they worked and the world in which they lived, was an ever present challenge, and was provocative; a model for scholarly engagement to strive towards.

From his earliest encounter with the idea of ‘Indonesia’ in the late 1940s as an undergraduate deeply involved with questions about world peace, the liberation of oppressed peoples and an intellectual engagement with these issues, Feith’s passion for Indonesia, its politics, people and its future was infectious. By the force of his personality, his intellect and also critically, his timing, Feith’s influence on the development of the study of Indonesia in the Australian academy in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s was foundational. Of course, he was not alone and the field would have not have evolved without the likes of J. D. Legge, J. A. C. Mackie, Heinz Arndt, Anthony Johns in the beginning, and so many more since. Feith was but one important figure in this history. What is intriguing about him, and was made even more apparent after his death, is that Feith’s contribution to the field as a scholar and researcher, as important as it was, is rarely separated from his role as an advocate and activist.

Where did it come from?

In a letter to Feith in 1959, his father Arthur Feith repeated a by now familiar opinion (to Herb, that is) on his son’s future prospects and career direction. He wrote:

You know that Mum and I have never thought that you are cut out for an academic career but if academic – teaching would be much more in your line than research. I don’t mean to say that you cannot do a good job researching, but your organisational abilities and your skill in handling people would not get full scope in the sort of research one does in Canberra, research in a library. Besides, after three years at Cornell, won’t you be fed up with this type of work? Even when you accepted the Cornell fellowship I had similar doubts; it has no doubt increased your skill for research work but even so I cannot see this as the field where your natural gifts can be put to best advantage.2

Feith’s journey to scholarship and academia was not inevitable. Clearly a great intellect, he excelled at school and in his undergraduate degree. However, as his father observed, Feith also had an often overriding impulse to action – a drive, which again his father worried, would not necessarily be accommodated from within academia.

The Feith family came from a Central European Jewish culture of intellectualism, music and multilingualism, although these were rarely attained by way of formal education. Feith’s father, a businessman, was largely self-educated (he left school aged 14 years) and his mother, Lily, trained as a radiographer’s assistant. There was no ‘tradition’ of higher education in either family. As they understood it, this was not the only way to deep intellectual experience. Rather, for the Feith household back in Vienna and here in Melbourne, it was a part of their everyday life – reading Arthur Koestler, George Orwell and Karl Kraus was as commonplace for the young Feith as Ginger Meggs comics and Boys Own Adventure magazines may have been for his childhood contemporaries in Melbourne in the 1940s. Alongside this intellectualism was always a life of action. For Arthur and Lily, this was in the necessary world of business – from which they made their living – but also as members of clubs, committees and through their general community involvement. This compulsion to act as well as reflect and intellectualise was something Feith would inevitably bring to his career as a scholar and more specifically, to his approach to the scholarship itself.

As a child who had escaped the horrors of Holocaust Europe and yet who was from the earliest times and despite being worlds away in Melbourne, intellectually and emotionally aware of them, Feith grew up with a particular sense of his role in the world. As he wrote in diary notes in the late 1980s, ‘I grew up feeling I was a special person with a special calling, with a special moral responsibility …’3

Understanding ‘moral engagement’ in Indonesian studies

Denouncing injustice and oppression is not a naïve, old-fashioned anti-intellectual concern or a superannuated totalizing vision of Marxism. On the contrary, it is a vital historical task intellectually, because globalisation has become synonymous with military intervention, market-driven poverty, and ecological destruction (Bourgois 2006, x).

Today, academic arguments around questions of morality, authorial values imbued within scholarship and challenging objectivity and ‘scientific’ evaluation, are commonplace in the social sciences and humanities disciplines. This includes the post-modernist critique that such a position is unavoidable and inherent to the process. As Jean Bethe Elshtain argues in an essay for the volume In Face of the Facts, ‘Description … is always from a point of view and hence is always evaluative: it cannot help but be moral in some sense or secrete moral notions and ideas’ (1998, 43). For others, the notion of moral engagement in scholarship is a much more an active and goal-driven process. As anthropologist Athena McLean defines it, ‘The morally engaged researcher does not simply hope the community does well, but actively seeks to improve its position through “responsible criticism”’ (2007, 280). Burma researcher Monique Skidmore is even more insistent of this for those carrying out social science research in situations and countries suffering under authoritarianism and violence, ‘In such conditions of repression, terror, and civil war, there seems to me to be no ethical alternative to becoming engaged’ (2006, 54).

It is from within the social science and humanities disciplines, notably anthropology, history, cultural studies, gender studies and literary theory that some of the deepest reflection, debate and often, discipline redefining writing and theorising is done around these questions (Sears 2007, 39–58). As disciplines where scholarship itself is deeply narrative and description based, where representation of other peoples, cultures and times is their raison d’être, these debates around ethnography and objectivity, the relationship between a researcher and their subject and the conditions within which they produce their work, have preoccupied scholars for more than 40 years now. As John Legge put it in 1976; ‘The problems of values are not new problems’ (Legge 1976, 404).

A practice of reflexivity like this which tackles questions about the values, social and national backgrounds of researchers and its impact on their perspective and approach has however, little tradition in Indonesian studies. Little progression has been made from the work of John Legge, Rex Mortimer (1973) and Benedict Anderson (1982) in the early 1970s, to apply these questions to the field as a whole in more recent times. In Anderson’s essay ‘Perspective and method in American research on Indonesia’ he writes: ‘That academics are not simply specialists in particular fields of knowledge but also members of specific cultures and social orders, is something at once obvious and yet too frequently ignored, not least by academics themselves’ (1982, 69). Mortimer’s essay, ‘From Ball to Arndt’ published in Showcase State (1973) took the form of something like a genealogical approach to the ways in which a field or discipline of study develops – its history. The anthropologist Kay B. Warren, referring specifically to her discipline but making the argument for social science more broadly supports this approach, ‘The generation one belongs to is a crucial but often neglected aspect of anthropological analysis and our experience as teachers’ (Warren 2006, 215).

The 1970s was a decade of significant reflection, self-critique and debate within the field of Indonesian studies in Australia in particular. These were critical debates – engaging with the ideological and theoretical arguments of the time, but which as Warren argues in relation to the American Social Sciences, led to a cleavage between academics and activists that ‘overdetermined norms of inclusion and exclusion in research networks …’ (Warren 2006, 215). So too, in the Australian academy by the mid-late 1970s these cleavages were deeply drawn between those Indonesianists who were considered sympathetic to the New Order government and those who opposed it – both highly homogenous and unfair classifications, but nonetheless soon rigidly aligned along institutional lines and it can be said, around particular personalities and their affiliations. To some extent the legacies of this acrimony, although no longer relevant in political terms, remain present and have in part inhibited reflexive thinking from within the field of study upon itself.

In her 1995 essay ‘Change and continuity in Southeast Asian studies’ Ruth McVey observed about the field of Southeast Asian studies more generally:

… I am struck by how little has really changed in the way in which we study Southeast Asia. For in spite of the questioning of America’s role, and of the internationalization and diversification of scholarship, the mental framework within which most of our research has been carried out has remained largely the same (McVey 1995, 1).

As an interdisciplinary field, Indonesian studies relies on Indonesianists bringing such critique from their disciplinary viewpoint to bear on their Indonesia-related work. Exemplars of this include Anthony Reid’s ‘Alterity’ essay (1981), Smail’s ‘autonomous history’ (1961), Geertz’s various more recent essays on ethnography, a volume edited by Audrey Kahin and Benedict Anderson, Interpreting Indonesian Politics, published in 1982, and more recently Simon Philpott’s (2000) critique of Indonesian politics. These contributions have served our field very well and, as Laurie Sears and Carlo Bonura argued, ‘The vitality of area studies, its reflexivity or ongoing reconsideration of core theoretical conclusions depends on communication with other interdisciplinary concerns …’(2007, 20). Just as Sears and the contributors to their edited volume Knowing Southeast Asian Subjects, argue for re-investigation of the broader area of ‘Southeast Asian studies’, the particularities of the study of the complex and now more than 60-year-old ‘Indonesia’ in our Australian academy in particular, and in the West more generally, warrants deeper reflection on its own.

As a now mature field of study in Australia with a significant international reputation, which is facing challenges perhaps not for its survival, but certainly regarding its prominence and about its perceived relevance; questions about who does it, why they are attracted to it, the ways in which we do our research, write and present our work, need to be asked and answered. Will this be a dynamic and questioning field of study in the future?

As demonstrated in the testimonies for Feith by Reid and Mohamad mentioned here, the emphasis on his moral engagement with Indonesia and his pursuit of peace, highlights this characteristic (albeit in one pioneering figure) as one important element of what we do or strive to do as Indonesia scholars. Indeed, as Victoria Sanford observes, ‘… advocacy and activism, if not the initial impetus for research in zones of social conflict are its inevitable outcome when one achieves an understanding of the everyday lived experience of violence and survival’ (2006, 14).

Will there be space for personalities and provocateurs like Feith in Indonesian studies in the Australia academy in the future? His example raises questions too about how to value the importance of teaching, mentoring and relationship building, in addition to research outputs in the form of writing. These are questions for current practitioners in the field, and so encourage a revised or new self-consciousness about how we do our Indonesia-related research and writing (Warren 2006).

A lasting engagement

As Feith’s biographer, it seemed to me that I was in a position to investigate some of these questions of generation and the relationship between a scholar’s initial or first engagement with his subject – Indonesia – and its impact on the life and work that follows. How does our personal story and experience influence our analysis of another political system, culture and society? As one of his former students, Jean Gelman Taylor has observed, the Indonesia Feith studied in the late 1950s and taught at Monash in the early 1960s, ‘was Indonesia now and looking forward. He did not look back’ (Gelman Taylor 2012). It was in many ways an inherently optimistic and forward-looking approach born of the time at which he commenced his engagement with the new nation state.

As my discussion above about the ways Feith was perceived by others and how he saw his own role from an early age shows, his was a deeply embedded commitment to ethical and moral values from childhood until his death. He was an exemplary person in this regard and so therefore perhaps an unsuitable example for reflecting of the field as a whole. Critically, however, in his chosen profession as an academic researcher, as for most of us, his was never a straightforward or even comfortable role. It is not possible to describe this journey at any length or completeness; rather the focus is on Feith’s initial engagement with Indonesia and its impact on him, and the early challenges he faced to find a balance between the roles of scholar and activist, revealing a pattern of discomfort and tension that would endure personally and professionally, and both inspire and provoke his peers in the field of Indonesian studies.

In 1951, Feith’s decision to go to Indonesia as a 20-year-old, had a moral impetus. A call from Indonesian students to assist their new nation, relayed to a small group of active, politically and morally aware Melbourne University students, planted the seed. Feith’s critical early impressions and reactions in his first months in Indonesia from June 1951 remained central to his lifelong engagement with it. He immediately adored the vibrancy and passion of the newly independent nation, and particularly apparent among the cohort of people he engaged with, the high degree of intellectualism and, simultaneously, spiritualism. However, in these early months he struggled to come to terms with the class disparity and deep poverty in society, and the corruption and laziness in politics and the bureaucracy within which he worked. In his frank exchange with an old friend back in Melbourne, his moral position at that time comes through and serves as indication of the existential but also practical challenges he was facing:

It is wickedness, moral wickedness that causes the terrible inequality here, the terrible indifference of the rich to the sufferings of the poor. Although this level of looking at it obviously doesn’t exclude the other socio-political level, it is itself terribly real and not to be forgotten … It all presents terrible problems: how far to go to show one’s moral indignation at it all, how far to fit in; how far to work for social equality in an organised systematic way and how far to be uncalculatingly true to one’s momentary passion and desire to witness. These things are indeed often on my mind, and I’m far from having got far with solving them. But I’m fairly sure these are things where ethical norms are though necessary, yet in a way inadequate in themselves.4

In his first year in Indonesia, Feith suffered from depression and the physical manifestations of that, which was exacerbated by exhaustion brought on by overwork. The state of the world around him replete with its poverty, inequality and oppression proved overwhelming for the still young and unworldly idealist. The effects of such deep emotional, moral and also physical stress, first manifest here in his early twenties, would reappear in his forties and fifties with similarly debilitating effects.

From his first months in Indonesia he had great difficulty working out precisely how to engage – whether to detach as observer, or to engage deeply, morally and emotionally with the subject. They remained lifelong questions. These concerns were first manifest in his negotiation of his position as both employee of the Ministry of Information (Kempen) and foreign researcher and also in his personal relationships with members of the national bureaucratic and political elite. In assessment of his masters thesis on the Wilopo Cabinet submitted to Melbourne University’s Politics Department in 1953, although his examiners agreed that the research was first class and its descriptions of unrivalled detail and close insight, they were also united in their criticism of the absence of sharper critique and analysis. As he had as a government employee and research student in the 1950s and again as a graduate and young scholar in the 1960s, Feith struggled to identify and choose the correct mode of delivery for his analyses and writing on Indonesia; to know when it was ‘appropriate’ to reveal his moral position and when to subsume it in favour of more objective analysis. This was made even more problematic by the increasingly chaotic and critical political situation in Indonesia at various times, particularly early in his career. As Monique Skidmore writes about her work on Burma, ‘To be an engaged scholar under conditions of authoritarianism and in a climate of fear is not an easy decision to make’ (2006, 50).

Self-identification and its impact on approaches to the subject

Feith described himself as a scholar-activist. Since his youth he was actively committed to causes. His friends at Melbourne High School and Melbourne University knew this about him, and soon after arriving in America at Cornell University it became a central element of his identity among his growing network there. In 1959, then living in Ithaca, Feith wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times about the displacement of ethnic Chinese from rural areas in parts of Indonesia. It was an act which drew the attention of his fellow Indonesia scholars in America and their admiration. His friend and fellow Indonesianist, Clifford Geertz, wrote to him,

For someone whose work depends so much on maintaining workable relationships with Indonesians, I think such a clear stand on principle represents a level of morality which is, in my country at least, rather rare nowadays, to put it mildly … I don’t want to be too sticky: enough to say that its initial effect on me was to make me feel guilty that I had not had the same impulse to make the same sort of public condemnation of a set of policies to which the term fascistic can be given in a quite literal, non-name-calling sense.5

Geertz’s admission of feeling guilt for not acting as Feith had echoes 40 years later in Reid’s testimony. His strong values and activism based on them was critically important to Feith’s sense of identity, his ego. However, it was not long before he too was challenged by precisely the constraints Geertz gave him praise for overcoming or ignoring in 1960, and the reality of his situation as a scholar and the expectations of him as an objective social scientist came to bear.

This moment of realisation probably came in 1964 when while editing the second edition of the volume Governments of Southeast Asia for which Feith wrote the Indonesia chapter, his mentor, supervisor and friend, George Kahin found himself in the fairly unusual position of reprimanding and faulting his former student:

This is going to be a difficult letter for me to write … My major concern is that there has crept into your writing a tendency towards value judgements and moralising, which, while perfectly appropriate to certain kinds of writing … seems to me to have no place in the kind of book we are collectively writing … There is, I feel (and so do Jamie [Mackie] and Dan [Lev]), a degree of partisanship in your writing … moral judgements are infused which bend much too far away from the actual base which you are in a position to lay.6

Feith took this criticism and advice in his stride and responded to it with apologies and corrections. As the political and social conditions in Indonesia fell deeper into crisis in the next couple of years, Feith’s analysis was sharp, and not without judgement, particularly where Sukarno was concerned. Greater challenges, however, lay ahead.

Now established in the Politics Department at Monash University as one of Australia’s foremost experts on Indonesia at a time of critically poor relations between the two countries, and of heightened anxieties about the communist threat in the region, Feith became a public commentator and thereby became increasingly aware of his Australian identity and its national preoccupations. In August 1965, he gave a seminar at the World Council of Churches conference on ‘Christian Responsibility in World Order’ in Sydney, about ‘the moral dilemmas involved in Australian decision-making in relation to Indonesia and Malaysia and on the question of how one is to judge a regime like Indonesia’s which tends to produce confrontations of its neighbours as part of its internal dynamics’.7 A few months earlier, Australia had deployed its first battalion of combat troops to Vietnam, and at the time of the conference, the earliest anti-war and anti-conscription demonstrations were taking place. In the coming months, successor to Prime Minister Menzies, Harold Holt, would announce an escalation in Australia’s troop commitment to Vietnam, including conscripts, and pledge support for the American’s with the infamous phrase, ‘All the way with LBJ.’8 Within such an atmosphere of anti-communism and growing fear in relation to ‘Asia’, for Feith questions about how to analyse the Indonesian situation and represent it to an Australian public were increasingly pressing preoccupations.

In February 1966, Feith wrote and published an article in the Australian journal Nation, which lays bare the extent of his dilemma – by then 15 years long – about how to balance a scholarly analysis of Indonesia with a moral one. In his essay on the alleged coup and mass killings of communists in Indonesia since the previous October, Feith presented the ‘analysis’ and ‘moral’ positions starkly as A and B arguments. The decision to choose such a format or methodology for this piece was because, he later admitted, he wanted to reach an Australian public that was anti-communist; that supported the defeat of the Sukarno government and of the Indonesian Communist Party. Whether those who read the piece were more open to the B argument, which Feith intended should prevail (humanitarian approach, anti-violence regardless of who is the victim), as a consequence of giving the A (anti-communist side) its airing, is unknown. However, the article elicited a devastating response from some of his Indonesianist colleagues at Cornell, who had only recently ‘finished’ their preliminary report into the coup and its aftermath, in which they pointed not to the communists for responsibility, but to the army. As George Kahin wrote to him soon after receiving the piece from Feith sent by post, he found it difficult to believe that the author of this article was one and the same as the author of the 1959 NYT letter. Benedict Anderson and Ruth McVey, the authors of the preliminary report into the alleged coup circulated among a select group of academics and journalists the same month, reacted even more strongly, comparing Feith’s essay to that of apologists for the Third Reich. The ferocity of the criticism was unexpected and shocking but Feith did not entirely concede to their condemnation. He defended his motives as sound, although in the end misplaced. However, this exchange, at this moment in time, coupled with the findings of his own research and witnessing of the repression in Indonesia over the next 12 months, represented a turning point for Feith.

As Edward Said explains in his memoir Out of Place (1999), cataclysmic events combined with personal witnessing can have life-changing effects. Said wrote, ‘I was no longer the same person after 1967; the shock of the war drove me back to where it had all started, the struggle for Palestine’ (293). Over the course of the next years, as Feith personally witnessed the plight of the political prisoners and the tightening grip of the military on Indonesian politics, he ended his long struggle to balance the moral with the analytical in written scholarship. Although demonstrably capable of presenting brilliant work, he was no longer satisfied of its importance or relevance on its own. Again, the characteristic that was most critical to how he saw himself and for which he wished to be seen by others – his moral position and advocacy for good – faced its gravest challenge. It was not something he could or would forgo. But of course, such a decision was not without cost. After the late 1960s, Feith did not write anything about Indonesia considered by his peers to be of great significance to the study of Indonesia. Although he was content with his choice, it was not without some regret. His bouts of depression often triggered such reflections and regret about what ‘big ideas’ he might have had, and the intellectual difference he might have made.

Writing a life: that which cannot be left apart …

A tension exists … between speaking the truth and deploying that truth in an argument for social change (Hopgood 2006, 5).

Feith was keenly aware of what he described as his ‘moral responsibility’ and ‘special responsibility’, probably for most of his life. He was also aware in his lifetime that others regarded him in this way. In 1977 Jamie Mackie named him as being among the ‘saintly people’. One can only wonder at the effect that such a description and awareness of the way he was perceived by others had on his expectations of himself. How could one live up to such high expectations?

In early 2005, in my email correspondence with Indonesianist and biographer Daniel Lev, he gave me, Feith’s biographer, this advice, ‘The problem is, as I have discovered in writing a biography of Yap Thiam Hien, the late human rights lawyer, psychologies are complex and worrisome and filled with traps and uncertainties, and yet cannot be left apart.’9 In many ways, trying to understand and write about Feith’s moral engagement with his scholarship and particularly with his primary subject for study, Indonesia, is also a psychological investigation, for which few of us are equipped and yet, unavoidable. Following a session with his psychologist in 1989, Feith himself reflected on his engagement with Indonesia and was extraordinarily frank, ‘One of the things I cherish about being in Indonesia is being always able to do good to people. The other aspect of that is the high status I have there – some of it directly because of those actions of doing good …’10

Feith was aware that most humans are a mass of contradictions. How does this expression of ego and self-pride sit alongside the common sentiment expressed by others about his saintly altruism? This starkly honest self-proclamation or admission is precisely an example of Daniel Lev’s worrisome traps and uncertainties involving unknowable human psychologies. Lev’s own personal set of question marks around his old and close friend involved such a quandary of how to reconcile the entirely selfless, generous and moral man he knew well, with the flicker of self-promotion and aggrandisement in Feith he very occasionally caught glimpses of.

Conclusions: the need for provocateurs

As a scholar who engaged in activism Feith was not unique, and on the surface he did not seem to be particularly prominent outside of his own networks. When I surveyed the extent of his activism in terms we might understand as ‘actual deeds’ in the form of lobbying, organising, publishing of essays and so on, the results are surprisingly limited. However, those actions he did carry out in this way – letters to the editor, submissions to parliament, marching in demonstrations (although rarely organising them), policy recommendations and essays on topics ranging from the need for post-war emergency relief for German refugees in Europe, opposition to the New Order, East Timor, and nuclear proliferation – were simply the tip of the iceberg. Lying beneath these visible and vocal ‘activist events’ was Feith’s deeply embedded commitment in all he did as teacher, researcher and scholar and university administrator to consideration of moral questions. This is something that is not always quantifiable in terms of recordable ‘events’. As a former mentee Richard Tanter explained, the means of Feith’s influence took various forms and worked, ‘[s]ometimes overtly, in speaking of paths to peace in particular horrors of this world, [but] more often indirectly, by demanding both attention and intellectual honesty to the problem at hand. Always by listening and making space for the other to speak’ (Tanter 2002).

My informants, Feith’s friends, and colleagues in particular, repeatedly described to me what can only be explained as his almost ‘spiritual’ or ‘moral’ presence and power in his relations with people. There was something about his very being that people responded to and described as Feith’s ‘saintliness’ or, more specifically, as contained in his ability to listen, to show genuine concern and to empathise. In this way his influence was transmitted through simple contact, conversation and displays of concern. Of course, this was not how everyone regarded it, particularly among his colleagues within the field of Indonesian studies. Lack of action in such a world meant a declining status and therefore influence in real terms. For some, Feith’s prioritising, from the mid-1970s on, of moralism at the expense of ‘action’ in the form of writing, organising and researching was a loss and disappointment. The tension he experienced personally and professionally throughout his career and near lifelong engagement with Indonesia as subject of study and ‘home’, was projected into and onto the field of Indonesia studies and served to provoke.

Herb Feith’s trajectory, his historical pathway as a social scientist working on Indonesia during periods of authoritarian rule and violence, is unique to him as an individual. However, the way in which his approach has been highlighted as exemplary by his peers begs for reflection on our field more widely.


Anderson, Benedict. 1982. ‘Perspective and method in American research on Indonesia’. In Interpreting Indonesian Politics: Thirteen Contributions to the Debate, edited by Anderson, Benedict; Kahin, Audrey. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Modern Indonesia Project, Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University: 69–91.

Bourgois, Phillipe. 2006. ‘Foreword’, Engaged Observer: Anthropology, Advocacy and Activism, edited by Sanford, Victoria; Angel-Ajani, Asale. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2006: ix–xii.

Elshtain, Jean Bethke. 1998. ‘Political theory and moral responsibility’. In In Face of the Facts: Moral Inquiry in American Scholarship, edited by Wightman Fox, Richard; Westbrook, Robert B. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press; Cambridge: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge: 40–56.

Gelman Taylor, Jean. 2012. ‘A complicated life’, Inside Indonesia (January–March): 107. Accessed 12 March 2012. Available from:

Hopgood, Stephen. 2006. Keepers of the Flame: Understanding Amnesty International, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Legge, J.D. 1976. ‘Southeast Asian history and the social sciences’. In Southeast Asian History and Historiography: Essays Presented to D. G. E. Hall, edited by Cowan, C D; Wolters, O W. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press: 388–404.

McLean, Athena. 2007. ‘When the borders of research and private life become blurred’. In The Shadow Side of Fieldwork: Exploring the Blurred Borders between Ethnography and Life, edited by McLean, Athena; Leibing, Annette. Malden, MA: Blackwell: 262–287.

McVey, Ruth. 1995. ‘Change and continuity in Southeast Asian studies’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 26 (1) (March): 1–9.

Mohamad, Goenawan. 2001. ‘Herb’, Tempo 12/11 (November 27 – December 3).

Mortimer, Rex. 1973. ‘From Ball to Arndt: Liberal impasse in Australian scholarship on Southeast Asia’. In Showcase State: The Illusion of Indonesia’s ‘Accelerated Modernisation’, edited by Mortimer, Rex. Sydney: Angus & Robertson: 101–130.

Philpott, Simon. 2000. Rethinking Indonesia, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Reid, Anthony. 1981. ‘ “Alterity” or “reformism”: The Australian frontier in Indonesian studies’, Archipel 21: 7–18.

Said, Edward. 1999. Out of Place: A Memoir. NY: Knopf.

Sanford, Victoria. 2006. ‘Introduction’. In Engaged Observer: Anthropology, Advocacy and Activism, edited by Sanford, Victoria; Angel-Ajani, Asale. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press: 1–15.

Sears, Laurie J. 2007. ‘Postcolonial identities, feminist criticism and Southeast Asian studies’. In Knowing Southeast Asian Subjects, edited by Sears, Laurie J. Seattle/Singapore: University of Washington Press in association with NUS Press: 39–58.

Sears, Laurie J; Bonura, Carlo. 2007. ‘Introduction: Knowledge that travels in Southeast Asian area studies’, In Knowing Southeast Asian Subjects, edited by Sears, Laurie J. Seattle/Singapore: University of Washington Press in association with NUS Press: 3–32.

Skidmore, Monique. 2006. ‘Scholarship, advocacy and the politics of engagement in Burma (Myanmar)’. In Engaged Observer: Anthropology, Advocacy and Activism, edited by Sanford, Victoria; Angel-Ajani, Asale. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press: 42–59.

Smail, John R W. 1961. ‘On the possibility of an autonomous history of modern Southeast Asia’, Journal of Southeast Asian History, 2, (2): 72–102.

Tanter, Richard. 2002. ‘In memory of Herb Feith’, Author’s Blog (27 July). Nautilus Institute, RMIT.

Warren, Kay B. 2006. ‘Perils and promises of engaged anthropology: Historical transitions and ethnographic dilemmas’, In Engaged Observer: Anthropology, Advocacy and Activism, edited by Sanford, Victoria; Angel-Ajani, Asale. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press: 213–227.

1  Anthony Reid, Email correspondence to Indonesian studies online group, 16 November 2001.

2  ‘Letter Arthur Feith to Herb, Betty, David Feith’, 19 September 1959, Herb Feith Papers, MON 78, Monash University Archive.

3  Handwritten notes, 20 June 1989, Herb Feith Papers, National Library of Australia Manuscripts, MS 9926.

4  Letter from Herb Feith to Eric. 15 August 1951, Herb Feith Papers, Monash University Archive.

5  Letter Clifford Geertz to Herb Feith, 6 May 1960, Herb Feith Papers, Monash University Archive.

6  Letter George Kahin to Herb Feith, 22 October 1963, Herb Feith Papers, Monash University Archive.

7  Herb Feith Papers, National Library of Australia Manuscripts, MS 9926.

8  Holt said this when visiting Washington, 30 June 1966.

9  Dan Lev, Email correspondence with author, 12 March 2005.

10  Handwritten notes, 20 June 1989, Herb Feith Papers, National Library of Australia Manuscripts, MS 9926.

Knowing Indonesia: Intersections of Self, Discipline and Nation

   by Jemma Purdey