GRADUATE STUDENT SPOTLIGHT: Thiti Jamkajornkeiat
Thiti Jamkajornkeiat is a PhD candidate in South and Southeast Asian Studies with a Designated Emphasis in Critical Theory at UC Berkeley. His doctoral research investigates anti-capitalist praxis, decolonization, and leftist internationalism in post-war Indonesia with an endeavor to conceptualize Marxism from the periphery.
Critical Theory: Could you tell us how, personally and professionally, you became interested in Southeast Asian Studies and Critical Theory more generally? Did broader political or social concerns play a role in shaping your research?
Jamkajornkeiat: I only received formal training in both fields of Southeast Asian Studies and Critical Theory at Berkeley, where the specific genealogies of these two fields are inherited and promoted. For the former, in my reading, Berkeley’s Southeast Asian Studies builds upon a synthesis of two interpretive, as opposed to purely empiricist, interdisciplinary traditions. For the sake of generalization, I identify these two traditions as thus: a largely culturalist Cornell school (Benedict R.O.G. Anderson) and a political-economic and agrarian Yale school (James C. Scott). The “superstar” generation of Anderson, Scott, Clifford Geertz—and let me add Barbara Andaya, Ann Stoler, Aihwa Ong, Yến Lê Espiritu, Syed Hussein Alatas, Chua Beng Huat, and Wang Gungwu—sets the standards for the best of Southeast Asian Studies that motivates my scholarship. They are remarkable comparativists and concept-generators whose works advance theoretical pronouncements while deeply grounded in Southeast Asian specificities. I cannot stress enough that it was my late teacher Jeffrey Hadler who imparted this wealth of Southeast Asian knowledge to me. Due to Thai education’s auto-provincialization and the region’s enduring colonial segmentation, I seek in American Southeast Asian Studies a critical alternative to hyper-nationalist, colonial, and provincial modes of knowledge production—with varying degrees of success.
Image: Jeffrey Hadler imitating Indonesian President Soekarno’s cheering, spirit-lifting pose in front of Sudjojono’s Kawan-Kawan Revolusi (‘Revolutionary Comrades’) painting at Gedung Agung Presidential Complex in Yogyakarta. Source.
Image: Indonesian President Soekarno. Source.
During my pursuit for critical approaches to Southeast Asia, my theoretical inclinations pulled me to Critical Theory. These Critical Theory classes revealed the deficiencies of my prior education as I lacked textual knowledge of many of Critical Theory’s foundational writings, which are assigned even for freshmen at Berkeley and other Westernized elite institutions. Make no mistake, I had great mentors and teachers back in Thailand, notably Charturee Tingsabadh who first opened my world to postcolonialism, new historicism, and Levinasian ethics, and Kasem Phenpinant, an advisee of Agnes Heller, who introduced me to the Frankfurt School, phenomenology, and hermeneutics. Only that the intellectual infrastructure did not easily permit sustained epistemic communities based on a shared textual knowledge of certain theoretical traditions.
I take Berkeley’s Critical Theory to be faithful to the Frankfurt School’s first and second generations, specifically Benjamin and Adorno, whose critical and interdisciplinary socio-cultural research contended with orthodox Marxism’s dogmatism, reductive economism, and vulgar Hegelianism. A strong sympathy for post-structuralism, particularly Foucault and Derrida, is also shared across Berkeley’s Critical Theory. Even as my work currently departs from this Western Marxist and post-structuralist version of Critical Theory, I learned immensely about various contradicting ways to interpret Marxist texts from different disciplinary and theoretical standpoints—from anthropology to sociology, geography, history, political theory, film and media, literature, and art history. In other words, I have gained insights into Marxism’s use and usefulness in several analytical situations, along with its long interpretive traditions.
The lack of Southeast Asian “theories” in academia led me to become interested in both Southeast Asian Studies and Critical Theory. I initially chose Southeast Asian Studies for a very simple purpose: namely, to learn more about Indonesia, a neighboring country in a region about which I knew nothing. Similar to most of the region and much of the Global South, the Thai Eurocentric epistemic structure, put in place by Thai elites during European colonialism and reinforced by American dependency during the Cold War, fetishizes European and North American thinkers, powerful nations, and prestigious civilizations while ignoring or dismissing the “rest.” While there are many Thai Foucauldians, Zizekians, and Japanophiles, we have little more than superficial knowledge about our “developing” neighbors like Indonesia or Bangladesh, internal colonization of the northeastern Isaan region, or subaltern Burmese migrant workers in the fishing industry. In the truthful words of my non-Berkeley mentor Chen Kuan-hsing: “We only look above but rarely look around.” Though work in Southeast Asian Studies tends to support research on decolonization, its major concerns do not lie in conceptual history or the reconstruction of intellectual traditions. My project seeks to fill that lacuna and think seriously about intellectual production from the region that I once heard a scholar call “the periphery’s periphery.” A simple question, what theoretically rigorous Southeast Asian texts should we read, continues to drive my academic endeavors.
Whereas Berkeley’s Critical Theory led me to discover Marxism as the most fitting analytical framework and worldview for my theoretical inquiry, that inquiry requires the real work of translation. Marxism in Thailand was, and to a great extent remains, non-existent. To undertake such theoretical work outside the North Atlantic sphere, I sought out other Berkeley scholars and “theorists” (for example, decolonial theorist Ramon Grosfoguel, feminist Paola Bacchetta, subalternist Janaki Bakhle, and media scholar Bao Weihong), reading groups both on- and off-campus (i.e., UC Santa Cruz’s abolitionism group, UC Davis’s racial capitalism group), and other global theory collectives (notably the Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Society, the Caribbean Philosophical Association, the Barcelona Decolonial School, and the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa). My engagement with multiple critical theories, across multiple sites, from Marxism to decoloniality and ethnic studies, paves the way for me to investigate the interlocking critiques of capitalism, imperialism, and racism in my research, making up for their relative absence in a more traditional Critical Theory.
In Critical Theory, I was fortunate enough to have the rare professor-that-changed-my-world experience. Colleen Lye, whom I only met in my last coursework and concurrently qualifying exam semester, taught me to appreciate the historical-materialist and political-economic Marxism—the Marxism embodied and practiced by real world activists—that some might deem “vulgar.” Her graduate seminar on Marx’s Capital that I took during my write-up year (and despite her mild objection) was the best I ever took at Berkeley. We read both Capital Volume I and several upshots of Capital in thinking through questions of value, social reproduction, race, and colonialism. Many of my research interests just fantastically converged in this seminar’s readings.
Critical Theory: Could you tell us about your dissertation and what you see as the significance of your research? And/or could you tell us more about your broader research interests? How do you utilize concepts and/or research from Critical Theory scholars in your work?
Jamkajornkeiat: My dissertation is a global intellectual history of Indonesian Marxism in the period of postcolonial transition. It analyzes the international collaborations between Indonesian communists and their Soviet, Chinese, and Third World counterparts in the Long Sixties that cut across the national, geographical, and racial boundaries to achieve a global revolution or revolusi global in Indonesian. I combine insights from Marxist and postcolonial theories with critical ethnic studies to develop an experimental “peripheral Marxist” interpretive method (more below) to study Marxist movements outside of the capitalist core and world metropoles.
As a project of global intellectual history, I discovered that Indonesian left internationalists drew from a global variety of Marxist perspectives to comprehend the capitalist world system. My key finding is that Indonesian leftists were innovative in thinking about how to forge leftist international collaborations, not just through the Soviet and Chinese parties’ mediation, but rather through the subaltern connections between minor communist figures. In this process, they renewed and innovated what we may conceive as “Marxist theories” out of these collaborations, such as becoming more attentive to the role of women, inter-racial solidarity, trans-oceanic struggle, and “minor” communist movements.
Image: PKI supporters campaigning for the 1955 election, towing a fish-looking float adorned with numerous Communist hammer and sickle icons. Source.
This project began with my interests in Marxism, decolonization, and knowledge production in Southeast Asia. The Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), the main subject of my research, has already received some scholarly attention on several aspects, but what I found most fascinating about the PKI was its great emphasis on Marxist-Leninist training for both party cadres and largely illiterate workers and peasants during the 1950s, when Indonesia’s literacy rate was around 10%, despite the party leaders’ concerns about the lack of sophisticated theoretical materials and knowledge infrastructure. The party built academies, formed reading groups, held classes at the rice field after work, translated books, and ran presses. Basically, it became almost a state within a state that provided several politicized social services for the Indonesian working class and what they collectively called “the people” (rakjat). Another way of thinking about this is that they were creating a new everyday life “common sense” (to borrow a Gramscian term), transforming the bourgeois hegemony from within. For example, as the Indonesian language used Romanized script, the PKI taught alphabets by attaching them to political concepts like “r” for revolusi or “revolution.” Unfortunately, the state’s ban on the PKI, and specifically Marxist-Leninist thought, remains in place to this day, rendering both archival and ethnographic research on the topic even more difficult. There is much work to do on figuring out the PKI’s whole, somewhat improvised, epistemic system which flourished until its demise in 1965. Basic information like what kind of Marxism the PKI subscribed to and generated, or what texts exactly were on the party’s reading lists, are not sufficiently established.
Image: Examples of the PKI’s various translations of “theories,” including Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Lin Biao, and Chen Boda. These communist primary materials almost never appear in the Indonesian public because of the still active anti-communist law but occasionally, rare book hunters could get a hold of them and sell them as a set. Source.
My study connects Indonesian communism with the global development of Marxist thoughts. What often happens in area studies scholarship is the fetishism of empirics that either points to loopholes in theoretical generalizations or exhibits more details about a topic. I situate my intellectual historical work at the intersection between history and theory: I historicize theoretical ideas and theorize from history. Through this, I intervene in the fields of Marxist and postcolonial theories. While the Eurocentric residues from the former’s original development neglect and dismiss peripheral intellectual production, the latter’s remaining culturalism does not afford a fuller examination of the Global South in its totality. What I find remarkably absent in these two fields is a materialist understanding of the postcolonial condition, the most important issue for me being the linkages between capitalism, imperialism, and racism. In simplest terms, the Indonesian left internationalism in my research is a shorthand for how Indonesian leftists challenged and opposed these interlocking oppressive forces that were global in nature.
In my research and writing practice, I have been led to develop an experimental “peripheral Marxist” interpretive method in order to capture a Marxist worldview that had hoped to register and transfigure conditions of history outside of the capitalist core. Marxist concepts that I have been thinking with include Karl Marx’s primitive accumulation and formal subsumption, V.I. Lenin’s imperialism, Leon Trotsky’s combined and uneven development, Samir Amin’s world-systems, and Stuart Hall’s conjuncture.
In my findings, Indonesian left internationalism made two critical gestures. First, geopolitically, it prompted an internal critique of the abstract internationalism propagated by Soviet and Chinese communist centers, a priori Marxist-Leninist principles, and vertical inter-communist relations. Instead, following prescient dialecticians of and from the margins like Rosa Luxemburg (Poland), José Carlos Mariátegui (Peru), and Harry Haywood (Black America), Indonesian leftists built internationalism from the periphery through horizontal solidarity based on what I call a geohistorical analysis of capitalism’s unevenness. Second, it recentered world history to the periphery, a zone produced by interlocking forces of capitalism, imperialism, and racism. Indonesian leftists were thus encouraged to work through the contradictions generated by these multiple oppressions in a processual movement that this dissertation names “peripheral dialectics.” Some contemporary works in this strand of thinking that my research is in conversation with include Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the Margins, Harry Harootunian, Marx after Marx, Nikhil Pal Singh’s Race and America’s Long War, Andrew Liu’s Tea War, along with scholars Peter Hudis, Jairus Banaji, Radhika Desai, Gillian Hart, Sharad Chari, Kanishka Goonewardena, Ruthie Gilmore, Wendy Matsumura, Iyko Day, Kristin Plys, Verónica Gago, Charisse Burden Stelly, and Lucia Pradella.
Critical Theory: What are your future research or career plans?
Jamkajornkeiat: I have to admit outright that it is a true privilege to be able to think about the livable future and habitable planet at all during such difficult times. Since the outburst of the Thai protests in mid-2020 during the pandemic, I have been more involved in organizing activities related to Thailand, such as with the Association for Thai Democracy. Most recently, I have also written a piece in Spectre and was interviewed by Asia Art Tours. I have organized a series of talks on contemporary Thai politics with the Berkeley Center for Southeast Asia Studies, featuring wide-ranging topics from Thai republicanism to royal capitalism, judiciary politics, opposition party’s democratic struggle, and feminist and queer movements against dictatorship. It is high time to put all theories to practice. In terms of my research, it might go either way of thinking more with theory or history—whether I should focus on further deepening my thoughts on peripheral Marxism or investigating the intellectual history of Marxism in other Southeast Asian epistemic communities. Lately, my increased writing on Thailand pulls me back to my interests in “Thai” decolonial and revolutionary thoughts, which unsurprisingly came from the margins like Patani in the Deep South, Isaan in the northeast, Lanna in the north, and even the diasporas outside of Thailand.
For career plans, I recently accepted a tenure-track position as Assistant Professor of Southeast Asia in the World at the University of Victoria in Canada. As a comparative Southeast Asianist and global intellectual historian, I am extremely fortunate that I got a job that allows me to make full use of my academic specializations.
Though I try the best I can to plan my life (taking extra years for writing a dissertation totally indicates the futility of my planning ability), I want to leave some room in my life in the future for (hopefully) good surprises, which makes me curious about how it will unfold.