Karen Strassler, Demanding Images: Democracy, Mediation, and the Image-Event in Indonesia
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Please contact email@example.com to use this work in a way not covered by the license. :
For more information, read Michigan Publishing's access and usage policy.
Karen Strassler’s highly anticipated book, Demanding Images, is a compelling work that centers on the photographic media of post-reform Indonesia. Strassler is not merely a narrator of the “social life” of Indonesian photographs (to use Pinney’s term), but also a curator and historian of the present. Demanding Images collects one of the most impressive and well-curated sets of photographs that have marked Indonesian history. Elegantly designed and persuasively argued, Demanding Images is a singular contribution to the study of contemporary Indonesian politics and visual culture.
Strassler’s first book, Refracted Visions: Popular Photography and National Modernity in Java, covers the history of Indonesian photography from the beginning of the twentieth century to the crucial moment following the 1998 resignation of Suharto, the authoritarian president of the New Order era. This second book begins precisely where the first ended. Strassler gathers a series of images — primarily photographic — that have changed the fate of the country, in either a big or a small way. The significance of these images, Strassler suggests, lies not only in their properties as affective media, or as evidence, but also in being “central to the formation of contested political imaginaries in an exciting but anxious time of transition” (8). Through the study of evidentiary and ludic modes of image-making and reception, Strassler revisits the ideals of post-reform Indonesia, namely transparency, authenticity, the free circulation of information, and popular participation (9).
After thirty-two years under the authoritarian rule of the New Order (1966–1998), Indonesia has seen the expansion of civil and political rights. The democratic reforms have offered the country and its people a path toward a more open and democratic society. There is also a real shift in the way the country envisions its future. However, as Strassler and other scholars have rightly observed, the democratization of the political sphere is not followed by the democratization of economic resources. The country is still marred by inequality and the widening gap between the poor and the rich. And although reforms have become a moment of opening and possibility, democratic politics, as Mouffe argues, is by nature temporary and shaped by “precarious articulation of contingent practices” (2016, 1). Slowly, Indonesia has seen the rollbacks of the achievements of the reforms in recent years.
Demanding Images begins with a photograph (taken by Strassler herself) of a mural with multiple images of the face of murdered human-rights activist Munir Said Thalib. Drawn by Yogyakarta-based artists Alit Ambara, Samuel Indratma, Ong Harry Wahyu, and Butet Kertaradjasa, Munir’s image is iconic as it symbolizes competing visions of the country during this political transition. His image is, as Strassler writes, “eventful.” She attends to images like Munir’s to trace the shifting meanings and forms of mediation after the reform. She looks at the effects and attention these images generate, but most important, she examines the impact of these images on the political imagining of the country. If the New Order established its power through its visual order, what did a post-authoritarian order look like? What kinds of images did this opening, this possibility, and this dangerous moment demand?
Demanding Images is organized into five chapters that examine six image-events, which the book defines as “a political process set in motion when a specific image or set of images erupts onto and intervenes in a social field, becoming a focal point of discursive and affective engagement across publics” (9). In the first chapter, “Face Value,” Strassler looks at the reemergence of Suharto’s portrait on stickers, posters, T-shirts, and the Internet. The production and circulation of Suharto’s image seemingly mark the return of his charismatic power, a nostalgia for authoritarianism. However, as Demanding Images shows, ludic modifications, manipulations, re-inscriptions, and circulations of Suharto’s portrait, most interestingly in the Indonesian currency rupiah, tell a more complicated picture.
Appropriated by artists and ordinary Indonesians, Suharto’s portrait in the rupiah bill is modified with portraits of artists and new political figures associated with the reforms, such as Megawati and Amien Rais. Strassler also tracks the intense circulation of counterfeit and fake money, discovering that the note with Suharto’s picture was the most circulated. In 1999, partly in response to this situation, the Indonesian government replaced the portrait in the 50,000-rupiah bill with a more neutral image of the composer of the Indonesian national anthem, W. R. Supratman. In the same year, Indonesia held the first democratic election after the reforms. The election was marked by the circulation of fake money portraying the first Indonesian president, Sukarno, whose daughter Megawati led the nationalist party, Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan. Both the reemergence of Suharto’s portrait on the Indonesian streets and the Internet and the circulation of counterfeit and fake money with Sukarno or Megawati portraits during the election represent what she calls “auratic reproductions” — acts of reproduction that “bring the owner of the image into contact with a charismatic political figure who becomes the source of the bill’s authenticity” (56).
In contrast to Benjamin’s notion of the loss of authenticity in the technological reproduction, the reproduced images in auratic reproductions still retain their indexical tie to an authenticating origin. In its controversial challenge to scholarship on authority in Indonesia, especially Siegel (1998, 54), this argument contends that this auratic copy reverses the logic of the aspal, the authentic counterfeit. “[The sticker money] lays claim to political authenticity,” she writes, “precisely because it comes from outside” (57). The auratic reproductions, in other words, are a potential site for both the emergence of a new locus and form of authority and sovereignty and the return to the authoritarian past in post-reform Indonesia.
In chapter 2 and 3, as Strassler explores more extensively, images become the battleground on which the notions of truth, evidence, and authenticity are being contested and reconstituted. The second chapter examines the rape of Chinese-Indonesian women during the 1998 transition period. This is the most difficult chapter to read, but also the most powerful. Strassler narrates the debate surrounding the question of evidence and the systematic nature of the 1998 rape cases. Written reports and testimonies about the rapes are abundant, but without any visual records incriminating the rapists, the cases cannot be brought to court due, as the Indonesian authorities say, the “lack of sufficient evidence.” In the Indonesian public sphere, the rape victims are also invisible, as to testify in public ran the risk of their being shamed, re-traumatized, and not trusted. Thus, compared to the tsunami disaster, for example, after which survivors spoke and recorded their testimonies in public, the rape victims could not elicit public sympathy for their plight. Moreover, the silence and invisibility around rape in the 1998 cases was shaped not only by the nature of rape itself but also by a long history of the Indonesian state’s terror that “exploits this ideology of political visibility” (84).
Indeed, one can even argue that the rapes were intentionally designed to preclude the possibility of visibility. Strassler calls this phenomenon a “negative image-event” (88). A negative image-event demonstrates how images shape and limit the possibility of inclusion. It also shows that the Indonesian post-reform fetish of transparency is quite limited in addressing the long history of the state’s and nation’s refusal to recognize Chinese-Indonesians as citizens. Here, Strassler’s theorization of the negative image-event poses a challenging theoretical stroke about the relationship between events and structure. Is a rape merely an event or is it a structure of Indonesian nationhood and history? As a corollary, is the rape an image-event or an image-structure? How one can understand the systematic yet spectral nature of invisibility in Indonesian history?
Strassler continues discussing the challenge that image-events have to the conception of authenticity and transparency through the study of exposure of images scandals in chapter 3. Here, she considers the birth of a new category of expertise called “telematika expert,” the authenticity expert who uses new technology like digital forensics to verify the authenticity of digital images. The spectacle of verification and exposure has characterized the Indonesian press, as it has fulfilled the ideal of transparency and provides a form of entertainment that attracts the audience through its performance (125). Here, in contrast to the prevailing metaphors of images in film theory as a picture frame, a window, or mirror, an image is not considered as a transparent window into reality but instead as a material that is subject to ongoing processes of modification and reinterpretation. The drama and spectacle of revelation point to the possibility of changes but also skepticism toward its claim for authenticity and transparency. The drama also leads to the creation of a new kind of public authority figure, one that replaced the authority of the state.
Roy Suryo, a highly interesting telematika expert in this case, becomes a focal point in which state authority can easily co-opt and reconfigure democratic authority. It is here that Strassler revisits the debate around transformation and rupture within the convergence of democratic reforms, neoliberal governance, and the introduction of digital technology in post-reform Indonesia. Whereas some argue that Roy Suryo’s unexpected turn to becoming a state agent — he was at the forefront of the electronic information and transactions law that curtailed the civic rights recently achieved by democratic reforms — marks the continuation of the authoritarian state, Demanding Images argues persuasively that there is something new going on here.
This newness is also reflected in the fourth chapter, which focuses on the redefinition of what constitutes pornographic images. Here, Strassler looks at the case of Pinkswing Park, an art installation by Davy Linggar and Agus Suwage, that portrays “naked” images of Indonesian celebrities Anjasmara and Izabel Jahja. Turning to the realm of reception, Strassler argues that the work is an image-event not only from the internal features of the images but also from the reception and circulation side, as it reached unintended audiences through different media channels. The market, as a dominant organization of post-reform Indonesia, offers both authoritarian and democratic forces a site for battle. Pornography and its definition became the privileged site of the ongoing struggle between various competing authorities, especially from the conservative Islamic establishment and the liberal middle class. Conservative Islamic leaders, in particular, have seized Pinkswing Park as a “hyper object” that allows them to assert their right and authority to define the landscape of the Indonesian public sphere. Strassler argues that the conservative group has “cast itself as the moral guardian of the post-Suharto nation” (135), demonstrating that morality is also part of the logic of the market.
Sites of circulation and the making of the audience are also discussed in chapter 5, on which Strassler concentrates on urban inscriptions in the city of Yogyakarta, the site of her first book. With a nod to prior anthropological studies of infrastructure, she uses the street, which became the focal point of anti-Suharto rallies, as a theoretical point of departure to envision different conceptions of audiences. Traditional conceptualization of the publics that are based on reason (Habermas), resistance/counter hegemony (Fraser), and attention (Warner) seem unable to address new modalities of engagement in the digital era, such as distraction. Through the study of streets and street arts, Strassler conceptualizes the new public that constitutes the Indonesian street and digital sphere. For her, the new public encompasses passersby who are “the captive, unwitting addressees of a multitude of signs” (175). Her discussion here reminds us of a long genealogy of the relationship between democracy and spectacle, a subject of the final chapter.
In conclusion, Strassler examines the 2014 Indonesian presidential election as a moment of images, a culmination of citizen participation in politics through voting but also through the production and circulation of images. She shows that Indonesians actively participate and formulate their position in this new democratic order as agents of vision (239). To be precise, she examines various productions and circulations of images, including crowd selfies that blur the distinction between collective and individual agency, between spectacle and political deliberations, between a crowd and a public. Here, Strassler strongly argues against a simplistic notion of participation and political agency. Through the study of the presidential-campaign crowds and the conversations around them, Strassler demonstrates that “the people” in post-reform Indonesia constitute not “a blind crowd,” but “a crowd that not only sees itself, but that also knows the importance of being seen; a crowd sophisticated about the political potentials of its public visibility” (235). When she writes that the making and circulation of pictures suggests political agency, she expands the notion of democratic participation to what Hariman and Lucaites call the “individuated aggregate” — that is, “individuals are used to depicting collective experience in a manner that fulfills both the need for collective action and the primacy of individual autonomy in a liberal-democratic society” (2007, 21). In dialogue with the previous chapter, the conception of politics and publics here challenges the prevailing distinction between politics as spectatorship and as participation. Both image-making and voting through elections demonstrate a civic performance of citizenship that is not necessarily a guarantee of a democratic result.
The book thus offers an important examination of a new conception of politics and public life after authoritarianism. Grounded in a rigorous ethnographic method, Demanding Images is not interested in the question of whether making, circulating, and responding to images are an assertation of political agency. Instead, the book looks at how people actually assert their agency. In this sense, Demanding Images is anthropology at its finest. For media studies, Demanding Images also successfully avoids the trap of utopian and dystopian views of digital technology and democracy. Through its careful and judicious examination of digital ontology, the book demonstrates that images exist not as stable objects that one can use as an anchor to evaluate reality, but instead as a process in which events — political or otherwise — are unfolding. Without a doubt, this book will make a profound contribution beyond the confinement of Indonesian studies and anthropology. And for Indonesia, this book serves as a historical document but also as a reminder that Indonesian democracy is a process in which the past, present, and future are evolving.
Veronika Kusumaryati is a political and media anthropologist working in West Papua, a self-identifying term referring to Indonesia’s provinces of Papua and West Papua. Her scholarship engages with the theories and historiography of colonialism, decolonization, and post-coloniality. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow in Harvard’s Department of Anthropology and a member of the university’s Sensory Ethnography Lab.
- Hariman, R., and Lucaites, J. 2007. No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Mouffe, Chantal. 2016. “Democratic Politics and Conflict: An Agonistic Approach,” in Política Común 9:np.
- Siegel, James. 1998. A New Criminal Type in Jakarta: Counter-Revolution Today. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.