Theses Doctoral

Iron Gongs and Singing Birds: Paths of Migration and Acoustic Assemblages of Alterity in the Former Dutch Colonial Empire

Clark, Emily Hansell

This dissertation investigates the roles of nonhuman (object and animal) entities in auditory practices that construct selfhood, homeland, and memory for people in migration, in order to draw broader conclusions about the aural formation of subject-object relationships in colonial empires and in present-day Europe and the Caribbean. I focus on two sonic objects that have traveled with colonial and postcolonial migrants in the former Dutch colonial empire: (1) traditional Javanese gamelan (pitched percussion orchestra) instruments that traveled with indentured laborers and their descendants to Suriname and the Netherlands, and (2) Caribbean songbirds raised and trained for singing competitions held by Surinamese men in Suriname and the Netherlands. By attending ethnographically to historical and contemporary human encounters with these objects, I argue that individual sensory perception is shaped by historically formed societal paradigms of difference such as "ethnic plurality" in Suriname and "multiculturalism" in the Netherlands, and that such notions of difference perpetuate a colonial zoopolitics that in turn shapes contemporary relations between different groups of humans and between humans and the nonhuman world.

Chapter 1 is concerned with the notion of Javanese ethnicity in Suriname. Through historical inscriptions of colonial listening and ethnographic vignettes of contemporary Javanese performance in Suriname and the Netherlands, I investigate the formation and perpetuation of a sense of Javaneseness with origins in a migration of indentured laborers from the Dutch East Indies to Suriname between 1890 and 1939. Chapter 2 recounts the development of gamelan music and Javanese-Surinamese culture during the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries by tracing specific sets of gamelan instruments in their circulations between Indonesia, Suriname, and the Netherlands. Chapter 3 provides a contrasting ethnographic exploration, namely of Caribbean songbirds who are bred, raised, and trained to compete in songbird competitions in Suriname and in Surinamese migrant communities in the Netherlands. Chapter 4 develops outwards from these ethnographic studies to pose larger questions about epistemologies of nature and culture that can be traced from Caribbean plantations to contemporary projects of cultural preservation and natural conservation and to discourses of resources, rights, (bio)diversity, sustainability, and environmental justice. Taken together, these chapters interrogate epistemologies and discourses that form culture and nature as separate realms, from the plantation colony to the present, from a perspective informed by aural and multisensory engagements with human and nonhuman difference.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Ochoa, Ana M.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 7, 2020