Abidin Kusno has authored a new book titled Jakarta: City of a Thousand Dimensions (National University of Singapore Press, 2023). A megacity of 30 million under threat from rising sea levels and temperatures, Jakarta and its resilient residents improvise and thrive. The book teases out some of the dimensions that have given shape to contemporary Jakarta, including the city’s expanded flexibility in accommodating capital and labor, and the consistent lack of planning that can be understood as a result of both politics and the poetics of governing in the region. He talked with summer EUC Research Assistant Igor Lutay on the forces that shaped Jakarta into the city it is today.
Q: What inspired you to write this book on Jakarta?
A: For the student of postcolonial urban theory, the megacity such as Jakarta and its surrounding areas is an interesting place for study and reflection. Jakarta and its resilient residents have been enduring challenges of environmental degradation, largely because of capitalist modernization and urbanization with little planning intervention. But what inspired me to write this book is not because of this known characteristic of a city in the Global South, in which Jakarta can be treated as a case. Instead, I wanted to see Jakarta more as a method, a way of thinking, than as a case study. I chose to follow the contemporary era, or the current events, taking notes of the way the urban politics evolved and my own experience of the city. I started in the years when the city has increasingly become a site for political experiments, which called for a change in the way the city is governed, and urban space is transformed. Such a dynamic coincided with the reign of a populist political regime, the changing configuration of power relations and the new expression of democracy which took the form of identity politics.
Q: Did any of your previous research work inspire you to write this new book?
A: This is my fourth book about what people and their built environment have done to each other. And all these books are largely about Jakarta. The first one, Behind the Postcolonial: Architecture, Urban Space and Political Cultures in Indonesia came out in 2000 just after the fall of the 32 years reign of the authoritarian Suharto regime, followed by the The Appearances of Memory: Mnemonic Practices of Architecture and Urban Form in Indonesia in 2010 and After the New Order: Space, Politics and Jakarta in 2013. They came one after another. We could number them consecutively, but the stories are not progressing linearly. Looking back, they are characterized by a mood of wondering about the meaning of “new time” or “moving forward” and an attempt to respond to questions concerning the future of both the city and the nation. But in the end, they looked rather gloomy which is perhaps what I like about them too. They have nevertheless inspired me to write this book, to consider a new episode with some goodies and underdogs on the power field whom I can root for, even though they could turn bad, just like in any drama. So, Jakarta in City of a Thousand Dimensions, belongs to a different epoch, at least that is how I conceived it, out of my previous works.
Q: What led you to choosing Jakarta as the city of focus for your book?
A: Jakarta is where I once worked and where my extended family and friends in Indonesia live. The choice therefore is grounded in both personal and intellectual reasons. It allows me to work with the residents of the city, seeing myself relationally as both an insider and outsider. While there are shared concerns about the current pattern of urbanization in the Global South, but given my roots, there is an aspect of learning from the city through its experiential quality that guided my study. Moreover, I have always interested in questions of nation-building, as this is an important part of the history of decolonization. Jakarta is a former headquarters of the world’s first multinational corporation (The United East India Company - Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie - VOC) before it become the capital city of the Netherlands East Indies and of postcolonial Indonesia. Such a background offers an opportunity to keep reflecting on the global legacy of colonialism and the changing role of the nation-state in the neoliberal time, and to raise questions of what the city and the nation have done to each other.
Q: Can you describe some of the main themes of the book?
A: There is a series of topics that run through the book, such as urban resilience, informality, infrastructure, and environmental issues which include flooding, traffic, housing, peri-urbanization, but they are brought together by three interrelated questions of governance, urban form, and everyday life that are at once social and political. I sought to engage with issues around the informality of governance, and how it works in dealing with serious social and environmental issues. This does not suggest that informality is less than its opposite, the formal or the planned. While such a binary opposition can be useful as a heuristic device for understanding a city, it is also misleading. The formal and the informal are one-which-is-two, or they are two-which-is-one. Such a configuration informs a strategy of rule – a statecraft or a governmentality – that is both desolate and productive, one that is evolving as it is being configured, contested, and defended. I explore such a dynamic through disparate chapters in the book, each one deals with a particular infrastructure, for instance the governing and the un-governing of roads and transport, canal and flooding, new city projects, irregular settlements, bureaucratic culture, religion and public space.
Q: What are you most excited for the readers of your book to learn about?
Since the government of Indonesia has decided to move the capital city from Jakarta to a new location in Kalimantan, this book can be seen as offering a way of understanding such a decision, but in a way that I hope will allow readers to appreciate Jakarta and its resilient residents. Theoretically, I hope it can contribute to a way of seeing cities in the Global South as a method, not just a case study for theories that developed out of Euro-American urban experiences.
Q: Having completed this book, how do you see your work moving forward in the future?
The title of one of the last chapters is “Escape from Jakarta?” This is not just the fact that the nation-state is trying to escape from Jakarta, but it is a question for myself. Should I too take the opportunity to liberate myself from Jakarta? But this book (and the ones before) could not have been written without my extended family and friends in Jakarta, so I would have to stay with the city. But I should perhaps also begin to learn about other places that have been living as “ordinary cities” if that can be defined as not carrying the burden of a capital city. Or perhaps I should open my eyes to the new capital city to see if it attracts ghosts from Jakarta.
Abidin Kusno's academic work draws upon a range of fields including anthropology, history, politics, architecture, design and urban geography. His research focuses on Indonesia, especially Jakarta. His teaching encompasses issues around politics, planning and urbanization in the context global and local power. For more info on his latest book, view the live discussion of Kusno's new book organized by the National University of Singapore (NUS) Press.