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From the Enemy's Point of View: Violence, Empathy, and the Ethnography of Fakes


This essay looks at the social, aesthetic, and violent life of fake documents. It suggests that fakes and forgeries, both as a general phenomenon and in the specific context of communal violence, offer a useful analytical site for an investigation into the relationship between empathy, power, and authenticity. Based on an analysis of a series of false letters that appeared in the lead-up to violent conflict in Indonesia, I approach the politics and poetics of forgery by setting the fake letters within a broader political discourse about falsity in Indonesia and beyond. Exploring the dynamics of empathy and intimacy that are necessary for the production and validation of fake documents and letters during conflict, I suggest that, contrary to received wisdom, empathy may be closely associated with violence. I also argue that empathy arises within particular political ontologies and specific forms of cultural intimacy that circulate in and beyond nation-states. An ethnographic enquiry into the social life of fake documents is therefore a useful starting point for an inquiry into the emotional aspects of instigation as well as for a political ethnography of empathy.

"False religious pamphlet known as the letter of 'Bloody Sosol.'"

Editorial Footnotes

In recent years, Cultural Anthropology has published numerous essays on Indonesia. See, for example, Karen Strassler’s “The Face of Money: Currency, Crisis and Remediation in Post-Suharto Indonesia” (2009), Daromir Rudnycki’s “Spiritual Economies: Islam and Neoliberlism in Contemporary Indonesia” (2009), Leslie Butt's "'Lipstick Girls' and 'Fallen Women': AIDS and Conspiratorial Thinking in Indonesia" (2005); Celia Lowe's "Making the Monkey: How the Togean Macaque Went from 'New Form' to 'Endemic Species' in Indonesians' Conservation Biology" (2004); and Tom Boellstorff's "Playing Back the Nation: Waria, Indonesian Transvestites" (2004).  

Cultural Anthropology has also published extensively on the dynamics of violence.  See, for example, Lori Allen’s “Getting By the Occupation: How Violence Became Normal During the Second Palestinian Intifada” (2008), Nancy Rose Hung’s “An Acoustic Register, Tenacious Images, and Congolese Scences of Rape and Repetition” (2008), Danny Hoffman’s “The City as Barracks: Freetown, Monrovia and the Organization of Violence in Postcolonial African Cities” (2007) and Daniel Jordan Smith’s “The Bakassi Boys: Vigilantism, Violence and Political Imagination in Nigeria” (2004).

About the Author

Nils Bubandt is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Ethnography at the University of Aarhus and co‐editor‐in‐chief of the anthropological journal Ethnos. He has conducted extensive fieldwork in Indonesia for two decades and published on globalization, conflict, and millenarianism.

Additional Work by the Author

2004. Violence and Millenarian Modernity in Eastern Indonesia. In Cargo, Cult and Culture Critique. H. Jebens, ed. Pp. 92–116. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.

2006. Sorcery, Corruption, and the Dangers of Democracy in Indonesia. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 12(2):413-431.

2008a. Rumors, Pamphlets and the Politics of Paranoia in Indonesia. Journal of Asian Studies 67(3):789–817.

2008b. Ghosts with Trauma: Global Imaginaries and the Politics of Post-Conflict Memory. In Conflict, Violence, and Displacement in Indonesia. Eva-Lotta Hedman, ed. Pp. 275–301. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, Southeast Asia Program.


Baptist Missionary Video of War in Maluku

Related Readings

Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

--1998. Dead Certainty: Ethnic Violence in the Era of Globalization. Development and Change 29(4):905–925.

--2006. Fear of Small Numbers. An Essay in the Geography of Anger. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Comaroff, John, and Jean Comaroff. 2006. Law and Disorder in the Postcolony: An Introduction. In Law and Disorder in the Postcolony. John Comaroff and Jean Comaroff, eds. Pp. 1–56. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Geertz, Clifford. 1983 Local Knowledge. Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology. New York: Basic.

Stoler, Ann Laura. 2009. Along the Archival Grain. Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Editorial Overview

In the August, 2009 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Nils Bubandt investigates the social, aesthetic and violent lives of fake documents. Through an ethnographic analysis of false letters that appeared during a lead-up to violent conflict in Indonesia, Bubandt identifies the roles of empathy and intimacy in the production and validation of false documents within conflict situations. Bubandt allows us to recognize the false letters as an emergent form of bureaucratic writing and modern politics, developed within a particular historical moment in Indonesia.

Ultimately, Bubandt suggests that fakes and forgeries, both as a general phenomenon and in the specific context of communal violence, offer important analytical sites for examining the emotional aspects of instigation or developing a political ethnography of empathy. Empathy’s close association with violence, argues Bubandt, arises within particular political ontologies and specific forms of cultural intimacy which circulate within and beyond nation-states.

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