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Open Access Publications from the University of California

A Liquid World: Figuring Coloniality in the Indies

  • Author(s): Trumbull, Raissa DeSmet
  • Advisor(s): Clifford, James
  • Gonzalez, Jennifer
  • et al.

This dissertation explores the history of colonial representations of the Dutch East Indies and analyzes the tropes that undergird those representations. The relentless damp of the tropics, it argues, suffuses European evocations of the Indies; from drenched forests and malarial clouds to the lush figure of the concubine, the islands of the archipelago have long been made synonymous with natural abundance and tireless sensuality. As my study demonstrates, these figures are also distinctly feminine, part of the ongoing colonial project to render the tropics yielding and dominable. The dissertation aims not only to demonstrate the endurance of colonial figurations, but also to revalorize the turbid, teeming forms of tropical life that have historically been denigrated. To this end, while the first half of the dissertation is concerned with the colonial period, the latter half analyzes indigenous images of liquidity as gateways to local, Indonesian knowledge. What would it mean, this project asks, to rethink Indonesia's "liquid world" in terms that originate in the islands, rather than the metropole?

To forge an answer to this question, the dissertation develops a new methodological approach. Analyzing regimes of representation, my project is, at its core, tropological. It is concerned with the deep structures of colonial fantasy that endure over time, and in the texture and gender of those structures. And it is interested in the ways Indonesian imaginaries escape and resist the colonial fantasy. This semiological focus requires taking the figurative seriously, as substance rather than reflective surface, and it means reading materials and material processes as assiduously as texts. My corpus includes botanical writing, literary fiction, painting, and performance. Laying European and indigenous figurations of water, women, and the tropical landscape alongside each other, I track the resonances and tensions between them. This produces a new critical framework for reading representations of the Dutch East Indies, and for understanding the colonial residue that stakes its claims on the bodies of contemporary Indonesians.

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