Friday, March 13, 2020

Trais Pearson's "Sovereign Necropolis"

Trais Pearson is a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Boston College. His work has appeared in journals including Modern Asian Studies and Bulletin of the History of Medicine.

Pearson applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Sovereign Necropolis: The Politics of Death in Semi-Colonial Siam, and reported the following:
Opening to page 99 of Sovereign Necropolis, readers will find a full-page black and white picture of a distinguished Siamese (Thai) gentleman in his civil servants’ uniform. His impeccable posture gives him a commanding air, but his eyes reveal a certain world-weariness. He is flanked to his immediate right by a young woman, his daughter, whose arms are gingerly draped across her father’s, her cheek resting affectionately against his right shoulder.

The image on page 99 is the final image in the book, which contains only eight images in total. The book is based primarily on archival documents including inquest files, or records of police investigations into unnatural death in the Siamese capital, Bangkok, in the 1890s. Image criticism is not at all central to the research methodologies or arguments in the book. My first inclination is therefore to conclude that the page-99 test does not work for Sovereign Necropolis.

On second thought, however, the image of the Siamese government minister and his daughter presents a rather striking combination of eminence and intimacy. That dynamic is actually quite a useful one for thinking about the central subject matter of the book, which is the ways in which the Siamese state began to take an interest in the dead and injured bodies of its subjects in the final decades of the nineteenth century.

Here eminence refers to the ways in which representatives of the Siamese state, including Prince Naret Worarit, (the subject of the photograph, who was the government minister in charge of municipal governance for the capital city), worked to adopt new medical, legal, and institutional practices and procedures for dealing with death and injury. These reforms were part of a broader effort to perform good governance and statecraft at a time when Siamese sovereignty was under threat by expansionist European imperial powers with designs on mainland Southeast Asia. These new legal and medico-legal forms of concern, however, intruded on the intimate social and cultural practices surrounding ‘bad’ or ‘inauspicious’ death (Thai: tai hong) as observed by the cosmopolitan classes of people who inhabited the capital.

In the most abstract sense, this performance of eminence through a concern for the intimate is not so different from the workings of European imperial projects in places like the Dutch East Indies (as Anne Stoler’s work has revealed). But the peculiar performance of eminence in the intimate realm of death was perhaps more exceptional, and it would reconfigure Siamese political life in troubling and enduring ways.
Learn more about Sovereign Necropolis at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue