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Emotive Banners and Billboards

Worlding Covid-19 and Orders of Feeling in Kupang, Indonesia

In: European Journal of East Asian Studies
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  • 1 Freie Universität Berlin, Germany, Berlin
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Abstract

This paper analyses the affective ramifications at the onset of the emerging Corona pandemic in Kupang, Indonesia. Steering towards now established social and political orders of public conduct outside one’s home and neighbourhood, public billboards and warning signs became early visible manifestations of worlding Covid-19 into the city’s infrastructure. Rapidly emerging governmental and entrepreneurial banners communicated new orders of personal and communal hygiene practices. They created messages of Covid-19 infectiology based on globalised public health rhetoric calling familiar socialities and ordinary feelings into question. This paper scrutinises the pandemic worlding of spaces and socialities and reflects on the relationship between newspaper reports, billboards and the feelings they evoked. The article proposes the concept of ‘orders of feelings’ as a valuable complement of ‘worlding’ theories via the analysis of banners, signs and newspaper articles as ‘emotives’. Ultimately, it contemplates anthropological knowledge production in a pandemic context that obstructed traditional ethnographic engagement.

Abstract

This paper analyses the affective ramifications at the onset of the emerging Corona pandemic in Kupang, Indonesia. Steering towards now established social and political orders of public conduct outside one’s home and neighbourhood, public billboards and warning signs became early visible manifestations of worlding Covid-19 into the city’s infrastructure. Rapidly emerging governmental and entrepreneurial banners communicated new orders of personal and communal hygiene practices. They created messages of Covid-19 infectiology based on globalised public health rhetoric calling familiar socialities and ordinary feelings into question. This paper scrutinises the pandemic worlding of spaces and socialities and reflects on the relationship between newspaper reports, billboards and the feelings they evoked. The article proposes the concept of ‘orders of feelings’ as a valuable complement of ‘worlding’ theories via the analysis of banners, signs and newspaper articles as ‘emotives’. Ultimately, it contemplates anthropological knowledge production in a pandemic context that obstructed traditional ethnographic engagement.

What can be studied is always a relationship or an infinite regress of relationships. Never a ‘thing’.

Bateson 1972: 249

My family and I arrived in Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia, on 13 March 2020. We landed at El-Tari airport when the neighbouring nation of Timor-Leste closed its borders due to the uncertainties related to the Covid-19 pandemic. We found out through online conversations that colleagues and expatriates were making their way out via the capital Dili before airports, harbours and border posts were about to close down. Across the border, in Kupang, the pandemic conundrums were about to unfold. We spent our first days with our host family, whom we knew from fieldwork the year before. No one wore masks yet in the public spaces and the crowded areas of the city, and there were no confirmed cases of Covid-19 infections yet. While Kupang restaurants, markets and hotels were operating, some areas in our country of residence, Germany, went into lockdown. Federal governments shut down public institutions, schools, shops and offices, limited public transport and ordered citizens to stay home. With this news from home and Covid-19 related media reports from the capital, Jakarta, starting to rise in Indonesia’s newspapers and national TV stations, we decided to move into a hotel room on 16 March. We did not want to expose ourselves and others to unnecessary risks and kept social contacts to a minimum. Since the intended fieldwork on environmental education in West Timor and Timor-Leste could not take place under such insecure and pandemic circumstances, we followed the foreign office’s request to return to Germany as soon as possible. And yet the situation was too intriguing (and confusing at the same time) not to attend to and document it.

In a social and mass media-saturated atmosphere that disseminated reports and images of a korona wave looming to ‘roll into’ Indonesia and the island of Timor from Europe via Jakarta and Bali, I decided to systematically document the daily reports of Kupang’s three leading newspapers, Timor Express, Pos Kupang and Victory News, between our arrival on 13 March and our departure back to Germany on 24 March. In addition, I went on daily walks to gauge the atmosphere in public and commercial spaces and document them via photographs and field diary jottings. Taking the unpredictability of the health consequences of moving and engaging across the city into account, I decided to keep physical distance and not tag along with other persons, familiar interlocutors from previous fieldwork, or inquire into their experiences through conversations or interviews during sensory and other walkalongs. I asked myself: how does an anthropologist track the local repercussions of a globally circulating virus that are not always detectable to the ethnographer at the onset of a newly worlding pandemic infrastructure? How does an anthropologist who usually relies on repeated and open-ended encounters, conversations and sharing everyday lives with interlocutors over long periods conduct fieldwork in times of physical distancing without exclusively resorting to digital ethnography? In a climate of collective—even global—puzzlement, and with little time to reflect on other methodological options, I decided to document the prominently emerging Covid-19 related public banners and signs, alongside which I focused on situations where emotions were running high.

To theorize how media discourses started creating an emotional atmosphere where banners and signs could develop significant emotive potentialities to reorder inner-city mobilities and socialities, I will introduce ‘orders of feelings’ as analytic concept. I focus on the interplay between media narratives and emotive public signs as infrastructures of worlding spaces and socialities affectively. After reflecting on methodological constraints and potentials of studying orders of feeling ethnographically in times of an unfolding pandemic where mobilities and the possibilities for familiar social encounters were impossible, the article introduces Kupang’s demography and history and explores disruptive outcries, anxieties and irritations in the vicinities of emerging Covid-19 billboards and signs. Employing close-reading and discursive analyses of public billboards and media reports during the emergence of new korona orders in the Timorese city between 13 March and 23 March 2020, I theorise whether these hinted at the emergence of new orders of feeling and conduct that later translated as the ‘new normal’ (Sparrow et al. 2020). Finally, this article discusses whether the short time window of eleven days could in hindsight be recollected as an affective tipping point when a looming and abstract pandemic started transforming into significantly felt irritation and disruption of familiar everyday routines. By probing the concept of ‘worlding’ (Ong 2011) from an affect and emotion theory perspective (Slaby and von Scheve 2019), I hypothesise that emotional outbursts can indicate disruptions of everyday familiarities and hint at newly emerging orders of feeling and conduct. This theoretical tinkering relates to the limited temporality and fieldwork immersion due to Covid-19 disruption. It uses the speculative character of ‘worlding’ to its advantage. Since worlding, as one anonymous reviewer pointed out convincingly, involves uncertainty, ongoing changes, shifts, possibilities and speculation, it forms a theoretical hook to connect the uncertainties of pandemic fieldwork and subsequent anthropological analysis. Flâneur-type fieldwork (see below), then, becomes a similarly ambiguous probing. Its results, in turn, do not have the usual ethnographic gravitas, but they figure into the emergence of future affective potentialities and governmentalities. Similar to the Covid-19 pandemic itself, which reshuffled familiar socialities, this contribution cannot claim to be a traditional article in which ethnographic data supports the faît accompli of an already established new order of feelings or a ‘new normal’. Instead, this article draws on the observations, banners, signs and newspaper articles as suggestions, speculations or signposts of where we might find the ‘new normal’ or what new orders of feeling might look like.

1 Worlding Infrastructures and Orders of Feeling through Emotives

As a conceptual framework, ‘orders of feeling’ focus on the relationship between discursive and infrastructural arrangements of emotives and their affective repercussions of feeling and conducting oneself appropriately (Stodulka 2019). It brings into focus the emergence of new or the collapse of formerly established feeling rules (Hochschild 1979) and asks how persons’ feelings change vis-à-vis new orders, laws or discursive infrastructures. Alongside the worlding concept, which focuses on the emergence, adaption and contestation of infrastructures and travelling concepts of socialities and imagined futures, orders of feeling relate the infrastructural, social and imaginary to the personal and emotional. A combined approach opens up theoretical pathways to track the emergence of continuously worlding political and legal imperatives of authorities that affect the emotional dimensions of experiencing human life and sociality in particular times and places. This article engages the two concepts to study emergent discourses (Covid-19 related media reports) and objects (signposts and banners) as emotive worlding of Covid-19 infrastructures. It carefully asks whether and how they emote city dwellers and shape local orders of feeling and behaving appropriately in public.

The focus on feeling orders highlights persons’ bodies and their affective experience in the worlding and emplacement of global public health infrastructures. By bringing the actors’ bodies and feelings explicitly into focus, I build on Aihwa Ong (2011), who relates worlding to unique and diverse local assemblages of globally circulating standards, measurements and visions. Accordingly, the worlds of people dwelling in cities are neither stable nor structured but processual and emergent. Relating to Martin Heidegger (1962 [1927]), who defined ‘worlding’ as multiple assemblages of being in, with and attending to the world, attending to orders of feeling as research focus underlines that worlding relates to dynamic arrangements of ever-renewing infrastructures, emerging sensations, perceptions and feelings through which humans must constantly work their way. To extend Donna Haraway’s multispecies perspective, in which ‘companion species’ engage in relentless processes of ‘becoming with’ a world in which ‘natures, cultures, subjects and objects do not pre-exist their intertwined worldings’ (2016: 13), the novel coronavirus seems particularly effective regarding its potentialities of worlding local infrastructures, socialities and feelings. Referring to Helen Palmer and Victoria Hunter (2018), worlding

is informed by our turning of attention to a certain experience, place or encounter and our active engagement with the materiality and context in which events and interactions occur. It is above all an embodied and enacted process—a way of being in the world—consisting of an individual’s whole-person act of attending to the world.

Ethnographically studying orders of feeling as an affective gauge of emerging worlding infrastructures opens up a variety of research foci on different spatial, social and political scales. In the case at hand, it might help capture the rather abrupt shift from pre-pandemic to pandemic orders of appropriately acting and feeling in public spaces by zeroing in on emerging Covid-19 media discourse and the spatial arrangement and emotive potential of oversized banners. Such an affective perspective on placemaking takes the friction, embodiment and experience of normative orders seriously. It attends to the affective dimensions of governmentality and media narratives. Newspaper headlines and billboards (see images in sections below) such as ‘be careful not to …’, ‘stay away from …’, ‘avoid engaging with …’ or ‘take care of/not to …’ intend to address persons’ public conduct and affect their feelings, so my reasoning goes.

Identifying emotives (Reddy 1997) in mass media texts and public banners can convey explicit authoritative commands of governing, disciplining and worlding the city’s public and commercial spaces. In the literal sense of the New Oxford American Dictionary, emotives are defined as

arousing or able to arouse intense feeling … The words emotive and emotional share similarities but are not interchangeable. Emotive is used to mean ‘arousing intense feeling’, while emotional tends to mean ‘characterized by intense feeling’. Thus an emotive issue is one likely to arouse people, while an emotional response is one that is itself full of arousal.

William Reddy considers emotives as predominantly performative utterances, which refer to a person’s inner feelings and ‘actually do things to the world’ (1997: 331) in terms of social parole. In an extension to the author, I will illustrate that emotives are not exclusively related to utterers’ feelings. Emotives can be arranged spatially and discursively to provoke affective arousal and response in others not only by human beings but also through media and objects: rhetoric, mediatised and materialised emotives impact affective experience. They can shape how persons perceive emerging governmentalities, how they feel and act upon them. They impinge on persons’ bodies and socialities. In the context of the emerging Covid-19 pandemic, humans across the globe witnessed how (social) media discourses and public signposts and banners affected them directly. Signposts admonished that persons, collectives and whole societies adhered to the newly established global orders of physical distancing, alerted hygiene, wearing masks and staying at home. An analysis to what extent, whether or why people adhered to, resisted, tweaked or ignored those emerging and emoting infrastructures is not within the scope of this article. It focuses on the first weeks of pandemic worlding and the emotive and affective dimensions of emergent governmentalities. It discusses how new orders of feeling and conduct, later dubbed the ‘new normal’, could manifest in East Nusa Tenggara’s capital Kupang.

2 Out of Options? Or: The Covid-19 Fieldwork Flâneur

In addition to the growing anxiety and confusion over how to behave appropriately and avoid possibly infectious environments, the pandemic situation was methodologically challenging. Ethnographers had to find new ways to continue research beyond exclusively drawing on online surveys, online interviewing and the analysis of virtual media and online spaces. Thus, this article is also an attempt to carve out practices of knowledge construction in pandemic times and with regard to limited time, constrained in-situ mobility and haphazard sociality. It suggests possibilities of being present in the field without actually being there. Instead of shifting my focus on to social media and other online communication, I decided to observe disruptive situations: that is, emotional outbursts around emerging Covid-19 signposts on multiple routes through the city between 13 and 23 March 2020. I will contextualise these through quantitative content analysis and a close reading of collected hardcopy newspapers published during these days.

While I was in Kupang, I was striving for a methodological figure that would fit my otherwise limited scope for familiar ethnographic engagement. I remembered Peter Nas’ (2012) text on the symbolic pattern of Indonesian cities, in which he framed the urban anthropologist as flâneur. In twenty years of fieldwork in Yogyakarta and recently in Kupang, I never considered myself an urban symbolist, even less a flâneur. Yet the early phase of the pandemic forced anthropologists to probe ethical and responsible ways to navigate the challenges related to social and physical distancing, impossible neighbourhood visits and wearing masks during social encounters in hot and humid environments. With few other options left, I asked myself how to become a flâneur in pandemic times, ‘an active and intellectual observer driven by curiosity and (who) combines the casual eye of the stroller with the purposeful stare of the detective’ (Nas 2012: 432). When in-depth and repetitive conversations, extended case study observation, sensory walkalongs (Low 2015) or systematic mind-mapping or photo stories (Varvantakis et al. 2019) were obstructed by an atmosphere of anxiety and suspicion, and by pandemic rules that restricted movement in and towards crowded places, micro-focusing on newly emerging public signs and emotionally charged situations around them seemed like a viable option. Aside from this, I could combine the daily walk to the newspaper stand inside a mall with observant and documented flâneries across Kupang’s public and commercial spaces. Instead of drawing on the flâneur’s bygone connotations as elite and masculine (Wolff 1985), I call on the methodological figure’s critical and sensuous engagement with places and urban spaces. Jamie Coates describes the flâneur as ‘an icon of movement in the city and a methodology for understanding themes of embodiment and the urban’ (2017: 31), without focusing too much on the anthropologist him or herself.

3 Worlding New Orders of Feeling: Emotive Signposts

The provincial capital of Eastern Nusa Tenggara (NTT) is a rapidly growing middle-sized Indonesian port city on Timor island. Despite its population number rising to 434,972 in 2019 (BPS Kupang 2020), it ranks only as number 35 of Indonesian cities, similar in size to Ambon in the Moluccas, Manado in North Sulawesi, or Mataram in Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara. It is the provincial capital of the islands grouped around Flores, Sumba and Timor, and also the biggest city in the area. In addition to the impressive new and old colonial-style administration buildings, Silvia Tidey (2012) writes that the infrastructure of visible governmentality makes it difficult not to notice state orders and images.

Since 2012, the national governmental plan for the development of Indonesia’s eastern provinces, also known as ‘The Timor-Leste–Indonesia–Australia Growth Triangle’ (TIA-GT), was initiated by former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and then, spearheaded on the Indonesian side by the current president Jokowi, resulted in a significant expansion of administrative, transportation and economic infrastructures. With its recently built new upmarket hotels, restaurants and malls, the city caters to a new cosmopolitan class in addition to labour and kinship migrants that have transformed Kupang into a multi-ethnic and pluri-religious hub over the centuries (Van Klinken 2014). The city of Kupang is home to a majority of Protestant Christians with a growing Muslim community that conflates with a historically grown Buginese presence along the coast, whereas the majority of the NTT province is Catholic. Since 2002, Timor island has been home to two nation-states, Indonesia in the west and Timor-Leste in the east. In response to the island’s long history of colonial, interethnic, interreligious or state- and military-sponsored violence, the provincial government has erected gigantic sculptures of multi-ethnic harmony and peace. De Giosa (2011) has illustrated that East Nusa Tenggara’s provincial capital is structured along an ‘axis of harmony’—a city boulevard that runs through the city from the west to the east where monuments of multi-ethnic and multi-religious symbolism tower over traffic roundabouts. Aside from concrete-structured painted monuments promoting harmony and statues of heroes reminding the younger generations of the struggle for independence against the Dutch colonisers in the 1940s, Kupang’s governmentality symbolism also comprises gigantic banners (spanduk) and billboards (papan). Compared to many Javanese cities, where religious, neighbourhood and civil society movements orchestrated the banners (see Duile and Tamma 2021; Stodulka 2017), Kupang’s public symbolism was under the stewardship of the municipal and provincial governments. To substantiate these claims with an example from my flâneries, the banner below (Figure 1) reflects the mayor’s initiative not so much to counter deficient waste management and sewage systems, but to address the (moral) behaviour of its residents. The banner shows the mayor and his deputy in uniform with a thumbs up to encourage the public to ‘become aware’ (sadar) that one ‘can change’ (berubah) and ‘be clean’ (bersih).

In addition to banners related to waste management and environmental pollution, signposts that explicate dengue fever (demam berdarah) precautions are another prominently visible feature in NTT’s cities, towns and villages. In 2020, on 17 March, the provincial government set up dengue fever reminders that were different from the years before. Figure 2 illustrates the mixed message between the national government’s newly implemented 3M orders (Harmadi 2020) that translated the World Health Organisation’s Covid-19 directives of wearing masks, washing hands and physical distancing into Indonesian (Memakai masker, Menjaga jarak dan menghindari kerumunan, Mencuci tangan pakai sabun), ‘plus’ preventing dengue (plus mencegah demam berdarah). The following sections theorise on this shift of discursive attention. They reflect on both the print media’s significant shift from dengue fever to almost exclusive Covid-19 reporting despite the evidence. The flâneur’s witnessing of increasing public Covid-19 notifications and related emotional outbursts in their close vicinities carefully suggests the emergence of new orders of feeling and conduct in public spaces.

Four days later, on 21 March, the Province’s Public Health Services (Dinas Kesehatan Provinsi NTT) erected Kupang’s first Covid-19 signpost that offered new orders of containing and preventing infection (Figure 3). The governor and his deputy advised the public to ‘KEEP ONESELF and ONES FAMILY SAFE from the Coronavirus with GERMAS’, the latter being an acronym of Gerakan Masyarakat Sehat, the national government’s health community movement that targets lifestyle changes for illness prevention (Karso and Wibawa 2017). The six recommendations merged the GERMAS movement with the World Health Organisation’s pandemic recommendations as follows:

d346126948e359

Figure 1

Banner at the newly constructed urban park Tugu Ina Bo’i (Monument of the Beloved Mother): ‘Let’s change—it is possible to be clean if we become aware’

Citation: European Journal of East Asian Studies 2022; 10.1163/15700615-20220121

© author
  1. Wash hands with soap under running water/use antiseptic liquids.

  2. Take care of personal and environmental cleanliness.

  3. Boost your body stamina by consuming nutritious food.

  4. Minimise physical contact and proximity with others.

  5. Sports and enough rest.

  6. Use mask in case of cough or protect the mouth with your inner upper arm.

From an affective perspective on placemaking that focuses on billboards as a materialised discourse of emerging pandemic infrastructures, I consider the conveyed messages as significant emotives that address the city population in affective ways. Billboards and signs aimed at establishing new orders of feeling and conduct thriving on the global WHO directives, the national government’s policies to implement these, and the local press coverage.

d346126948e412

Figure 2

Novelty: Dengue and Covid-19 prevention billboard

Citation: European Journal of East Asian Studies 2022; 10.1163/15700615-20220121

© author
d346126948e426

Figure 3

First Covid-19 billboard in Kupang

Citation: European Journal of East Asian Studies 2022; 10.1163/15700615-20220121

© Palce Amalo, Media Indonesia

4 Worlding New Orders of Feeling: Emotive Media

Vidi Sukmayadi (2019) writes that Indonesia comprises the highest number of mass media in the world. She reminds us, however, that all of them are controlled by only twelve major media groups. Over half of these twelve media tycoons are members of national political parties, some of them even their chairpersons. Media consolidation in Indonesia is ‘a mechanism by which businesspeople and the politicians convey their interests and at the same time, take profits from their media empire’ (Sukmayadi 2019: 61). Without oversimplifying the interlinkage with political parties and business empires, it is important to remember that billboards, banners, signposts and media narratives are more often than not originating from very similar, if not the same, sources.

The quantitative analysis and close reading of nineteen editions of Kupang’s three newspapers, Timor Express, Pos Kupang and Victory News, between 13 and 23 March reveal how the otherwise prominent topics of seasonal dengue fever (November to April), the provincial government’s commitment to counter stunting and reduce poverty, and waste management were pushed back almost into oblivion by an initially speculative Covid-19 journalism. Table 1 singles out the comparison between newspaper articles and images (photographs and illustrations) related to Covid-19 and those related to dengue fever to exemplify this discursive shift. While reports on dengue prevention measurements and infection rates were still on balance with Covid-19 news reports until 14 March, the wabah korona (corona plague) dominated after this.

Table 1

Shifting media discourse: worlding korona

Date

Corona

Corona

Dengue

Dengue

Newspaper

articles

images

articles

images

23.03.20

25

17

1

1

Timor Express

23.03.20

24

11

1

0

Pos Kupang

22.03.20

22

12

0

0

Victory News

21.03.20

16

9

1

0

Pos Kupang

20.03.20

17

8

0

0

Pos Kupang

19.03.20

10

7

2

2

Pos Kupang

19.03.20

15

10

0

0

Victory News

18.03.20

10

3

1

1

Pos Kupang

18.03.20

9

5

2

1

Timor Express

18.03.20

13

9

1

0

Victory News

17.03.20

9

6

2

0

Pos Kupang

17.03.20

15

10

1

1

Victory News

16.03.20

13

5

3

1

Pos Kupang

15.03.20

5

3

4

2

Pos Kupang

14.03.20

10

9

2

2

Pos Kupang

14.03.20

2

3

2

2

Timor Express

14.03.20

4

5

4

4

Victory News

13.03.20

3

2

3

1

Pos Kupang

13.03.20

2

1

3

2

Victory News

Total

224

135

33

20

Covid-19 related reports (224) and images (135) between 13 and 23 March amounted to 359, whereas dengue reporting was comparably low with 53 reports and images altogether. From a strictly evidence-based perspective, this imbalance is surprising. While the number of detected dengue infections reached a nationwide record high in NTT during the rainy season of 2019/2020, the first Covid-19 infection was only confirmed on 10 April, with the first Covid-19 related death in the entire city of Kupang and NTT on 11 May. Up to 1 December, the number of Covid-19 infections reached 1,355 cases, and hospitals registered 25 deaths throughout the NTT province. By contrast, the number of persons infected with dengue fever between January and June 2020 alone amounted to 5,482 persons, and 55 persons died. When accounting for the infection rates of both illnesses and comparing them to the number of media reports, the numbers indicate a clear shift of attention from dengue to Covid-19. Reports on the governor’s promised initiatives to counter stunting, poverty and littering almost disappeared from media focus and coverage. When juxtaposing Covid-19 related journalism with the emergence of Covid-19 related banners and signposts (see the section below), these eleven days might be considered a transitional phase from known and familiar orders of feeling and conduct to new ones that later resulted in national governmental rhetoric of the ‘new normal’, a term that was later substituted through the slogan of ‘adapting to new habits’ (adaptasi kebiasaan baru) in the national government’s rhetoric.

New orders of feeling in public spaces and new ways of behaving within them were rapidly promoted by the media, following the measures recommended by the globalised health regime of the WHO. These measures were later also proclaimed in markets and malls through banners and signposts. While on 14 March Victory News printed the national health minister’s advice to residents and health workers to ‘overcome dengue first, and then focus on korona’ (Atasi dulu DBD baru Fokus ke Korona) on its front page, with Pos Kupang encouraging travellers to ‘not be afraid to stay in hotels’ (jangan takut ke hotel), and Timor Express reporting that Kupang was ‘Covid-19 free’ (Kupang bebas pemantauan Covid-19), the tone of reporting changed significantly only one day later.

On 15 March, Pos Kupang reported that the ‘WHO urges [us] to declare a national emergency’ (WHO desak umumkan darurat nasional) only to be followed by the headline that the national ‘House of Representatives Proposes a Lockdown’ (DPR usul Lockdown, Pos Kupang, 16 March 2020), with five articles and three images on Covid-19 infectiology on the front cover, and a story on the death of a Covid-19 infected patient in Cianjur, West Java (which is almost 3,000 kilometres away), on page 2. The front cover of the same newspaper’s edition of 17 March reads, ‘NTT Refuses European Tourists’ (NTT Tolak Turis Eropa), ‘Forbidden to Kiss/Rub the Nose’ (Larang Cium Hidung), and shows a picture of the province’s governor on his way to the office where his temperature is measured by a thermal screener (caption: ‘Preventing Corona’, Cegah Corona). Taking into account the many Covid-19 related articles which directly address readers on how to behave reasonably vis-à-vis the pandemic in terms of diet, sports, medicalisation and staying at home, the sudden emergence of new discursive orders was impressive regarding their rigidity and force. Reports on ‘Mayor Disperses Crowd—Minimal Awareness’ (Wali Kota Bubarkan Kerumunan Massa—Kesadaran Minim, Pos Kupang, 23 March) at Kupang’s nightly hangout place at the Tirosa (acronym for the three islands Timor, Rote and Sabu) roundabout, or the warnings to close local marketplaces (Pos Kupang, 23 March) in case of continued ‘inappropriate’ behaviour regarding the new corona orders of physical distancing and abstaining from familiar greeting customs such as nose-kissing, intended to emote readers to care, social responsibility and compliance. These emotives connected to the rationale of global public health recommendations, but they failed to resonate locally. Initially, they infused disordered feelings of anxiety, fear, suspicion and confusion. In particular, global orders of physical distancing in public ran contrary to local concepts of space where private and public dimensions of conduct and feeling are entangled. The streets, the beach or roundabouts can become extended homes and settings of intimate encounters, where kinning and socialising take place. Similar to other towns and cities across East Nusa Tenggara and the Indonesian archipelago, fellow-feeling, compassion, care (peduli), social and kinship ties are often communicated less through talk than through embodied presence and positioning in space. Embodied get-togethers are inevitable practices of cultural sociality, even more so in marginalised areas where telecommunication infrastructures are either non-existent or left to residents’ financial responsibilities, such as buying phone credit (pulsa) to connect to the internet and its promoted virtual platforms.

5 Worlding New Orders of Feeling: Disruptive Situations and Emotional Outbursts

The proclaimed urgency displayed in banners and media narratives fuelled their emotive potential of addressing citizens affectively, as commands that targeted the restructuring of feelings: who was expected to ‘adapt to (which) new habits’ (adaptasi kebiasaan baru; Harmadi 2020)? And which feelings were prohibited and prescribed towards—or not towards—whom?

In focusing on emotives’ disruptive affective repercussions, I draw on Birgitt Röttger-Rössler, who writes that emotional phenomena resonate in almost every social encounter, yet they become particularly salient in situations of adversity, irritation and conflict (2004: 196). I illustrate such disruptive situations as they unfolded at the onset of the pandemic worlding. I relate to Jarrett Zigon, who writes that, as a concept, ‘the situation allows us to understand how persons and objects that are geographically, socioeconomically, and culturally distributed get caught up in the shared conditions that emerge from the situation’ (2015: 501; emphasis in original). Hence, I understand ‘disruptive situations’ as tenacious predicaments between the familiar and the novel that affect persons in emotionally significant ways. The first example relates to the affective ramifications of mediatised ‘corona news’ in the public space of a seashore promenade, whereas the second illustration focuses on emotional outbreaks in response to banners, signs, thermo-screens, gloves or hygiene masks at the entrance gates of a mall, a private hospital and a newspaper agency building.

5.1 ‘Go Home, Bule!’

Studying orders of feeling calls on researchers to put their own emotions and affects into perspective and juxtapose them with the analysis of media reports, billboards and observation of others. As socially and affectively positioned subjects within the orders they study, neglecting the researcher’s own affective experiences in emerging pandemic worldings equals scientific distortion (Davies and Stodulka 2019). How else, one might ask provocatively, could ethnographers possibly research and write about the dynamic entanglements of orders and their affective dimensions in emerging infrastructures?

This section draws on field notes, which I made to understand what was at stake at the disorienting onset of the pandemic. The field notes comprise three different documentation formats: methodological reflections, ethnographic descriptions and documented emotions.

On 21 March, when the newspapers had started publishing Covid-19 stories excessively, embassies and foreign offices started ordering foreigners to return home. Yet affordable flight tickets were difficult to obtain. After five days of living in a small hotel room together as a family of three, I jotted the terms ‘fatigued’, ‘intimidated’ and ‘anxious’ in my log’s emotion section. The emotion terms were related to the following incidents that I had witnessed during the day.

The hotel staff asked for our passports and took pictures of all the visas and stamps reaching back as far as 2014. On our further inquiry, the hotel’s managing director monosyllabically commented that the police had ‘recently’ (barusan) issued a new order that entitled governmental and police authorities to track all visitors’ transnational movements. On our way from the reception desk back to our room on the second floor, I ran into a middle-aged man with prayer marks on his forehead, wearing a Javanese batik koko shirt. We greeted each other with a smile and polite Javanese language (I had lived in Java for almost five years) before he took my hand and instructed me, ‘It seems that the burka now seems not such a bad idea all along’, pointing to the mask on my face. He continued in an authoritative voice, ‘The al-Quran teaches not to be close with the bodies of the other gender. That comes in handy now.’ Although he was not wearing a mask, I could not tell whether he was joking. A few hours later, on our sunset walk at the very short seashore esplanade (a wall with a narrow road facing the sunset) near our hotel, we realised it was hardly possible to keep physical distance from other strolling couples or groups of friends and family. It was impossible to adhere to the mediatised recommendations once we were outside our one-bed hotel room, especially since our hotel restaurant and the lobby hosted large wedding receptions of sometimes more than a hundred persons on an almost daily basis. I jotted in the field diary, ‘How does all this fit with checking our passports because of “police orders”?’

Feelings of insecurity and anxiety peaked on 22 March. One day after the unexplained and intimidating document check inside our hotel, I described in my field notes that

today I got insulted for the first time by a gang of five youngsters that were hanging out at the promenade near the hotel. Every time I passed them on my sunrise laps, they shouted at me in a coarsely loud and derogatory tone, ‘Where are you from? Corona! Corona! Corona! Go home, whitey!’ (Dari mana? Belum pulang? Korona! Korona! Korona! Pulang saja, bule!)

In the evening and during the following two days until our departure, the same group of young men shouted, ‘Whitey, corona, corona!’ (Bule, korona, korona!) in my direction whenever they spotted me in the hotel grounds from the outside promenade. No one interfered. Everyone averted their gaze. My jottings further read, ‘What does this mean for citizenship, residency and mobility issues? What backlashes in terms of social cohesion, stigmatisation, racism, and xenophobia are to be expected?’

This incident resonates with the online circulation a few days earlier of a citizen’s open letter to the regent of Central Manggarai, on the neighbouring island of Flores, which is also part of the East Nusa Tenggara province. In the letter, which shared, on social media on 17 March, the location and travel route of a group of ten bule students intending to learn about local cosmologies in Flores, readers were urged to stop the buses along a particular route, report the students and their instructors to the police and deport them from the country. In twenty years of fieldwork in the archipelago, I have never encountered such forcefully and publicly voiced xenophobia towards ‘White Westerners’. I am far from carelessly diagnosing parochial tendencies in an otherwise highly diverse society. I understand that such emotional outbursts might be contextualised as an affective response to newly emerging orders of how to feel and act in a climate of insecurity and anxiety vis-à-vis foreign bodies, non-familiar viruses and the new societal orders the latter carried with them. After our return to Germany on 24 March, I kept track, filed and read daily online news reports in the three local newspapers until the end of May 2020. Reports on the closed borders with Timor-Leste and the shutdown of the fifteen other airports in East Nusa Tenggara province to avoid exposure to foreign bodies and viruses became routine narratives. Yet one controversial debate surrounding the docking of the national passenger ferry KM Lambelu at a harbour in Flores stood out. After ten days of intensive media coverage from 10 to 20 April (Bana 2020; CNN Indonesia 2020) and political debate between the provincial governments of East Nusa Tenggara (destination port of Maumere, Flores) and South Sulawesi (departure port of Makassar), the crew and passengers were not allowed to leave their quarantine zones at Maumere harbour. Even when rapid Covid-19 tests proved negative, passengers ‘primordially’ foreign to the island of Flores were sent back to their point of departure in Makassar, Sulawesi, to self-quarantine there. What seemed unthinkable before the new coronavirus started worlding mobility infrastructures through lockdown and shutdown policies has become global hegemonic practice since. Instead of creating infrastructures that promote solidarities, mobilities and cooperation, anachronistic ‘blood and soil’ policies singling out citizenship, residency, locality and nationality have regained discursive power as legitimate governmentalities and worlding ethos.

5.2 ‘There Is No Corona in Kupang!!!’

A few days earlier, on 18 March, when careful flâneries through the city still felt appropriate despite globally circulating news and reports of rising infection rates in Europe, I went on a four-hour walk from the shoreside esplanade to one of Kupang’s two malls. I stopped by at the city’s new private hospital and the office and printing workshop of a local newspaper, and traversed public parks and residential areas. To avoid potential sunset crowds, I decided to walk in the early afternoon heat. I chose the route because I wanted to continue exploring whether the emerging Covid-19 media narratives and an increasing number of billboards conveyed affective traces in otherwise mundane and familiar flows of conduct and speech in commercial, public, health care and residential areas.

5.2.1 Disruptive Situation: The Gates of the Mall

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Figure 4

Closed mall side gate with provisional notice

Citation: European Journal of East Asian Studies 2022; 10.1163/15700615-20220121

© author

The mall opened in 2015 as the sixtieth retail and entertainment centre of Indonesia’s largest property developer. The property group also owns the neighbouring private hospital, inaugurated only a few months earlier. I reached the mall at its northern entrance, where I encountered a printed note glued to its locked doors (Figure 4): ‘Announcement. In connection with the increasing spread of the coronavirus (Covid-19), as of 15 March 2020, visitors are asked to enter the mall through the Main Gate (Ground Floor) for sterilisation. Thank you. Building Management.’

I headed onwards to the main gate, located some 200 metres away. There was an unusual crowd gathering around a guarding security officer. Uniformed (mostly) male security officers are a familiar sight at the entries to any official building all over Indonesia, but the pointing of a gun-like thermo-screen at every forehead that wanted to access the airconditioned mall was a new sight (Figure 5). Most of the persons were denied entrance without the officer even checking the new gatekeeping gadget. Soon, it became a familiar gatekeeping object and regulated access to the city’s commercial, office and governmental spaces.

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Figure 5

Main gate to the mall with a crowd and security officer with a thermo-screen

Citation: European Journal of East Asian Studies 2022; 10.1163/15700615-20220121

© author
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Figure 6

Instructions at the main gate

Citation: European Journal of East Asian Studies 2022; 10.1163/15700615-20220121

© author

The main gate also exhibited a newly pinned-up poster that requested flâneurs and consumers (once admitted) to adhere to four instructions of conduct inside the mall: ‘use hand sanitiser once per hour / use cashless payment / a maximum of six persons per elevator / keep 1-metre distance if you are queueing or in the elevator’ (Figure 6). These orders of appropriate conduct to prevent Covid-19 infection were new not only to Kupang residents. While wearing masks can be a common sight in motorbike-riders due to pollution and exhaust in Indonesian cities, being rejected at the entrance gate was a novelty. There was commotion and disbelief, and nobody seemed to move away, enduring the confusion despite the heat.

All of a sudden, a woman in her early thirties shouted with a loud and shaky voice: ‘But there is no corona in Kupang!!! There is no corona in NTT!!’ (Tapi disini tidak ada korona di Kupang!!! Di NTT itu tidak ada korona!!) Her loud and angry voice cut through the silence. Exhausted, she had to be supported by four companions, who carried their friend alongside the mall’s wall and fanned her with their handbags.

5.2.2 Disruptive Situation: The Gates of the Hospital

I left the scene timorously and headed to the private hospital, located only a few hundred metres away. When I reached the main entrance and registration area, I encountered locked doors and an array of banners outlining the new procedures of registration and administration (Figure 7).

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Figure 7

Closed main entrance at the hospital

Citation: European Journal of East Asian Studies 2022; 10.1163/15700615-20220121

© author

To get admission to the hospital, patients and their accompanying aide (now only one person, which is very unusual in Kupang, where otherwise whole families care for ill family or friends) had to go through a new screening process in a tent in front of the hospital’s side entrance. Figure 8 shows the new bureaucratic and hygiene procedures of admittance effective of 16 March: ‘For the sake of mutual safety, we carry out screening with the following stages: (1) Complete the health declaration form, (2) Temperature recording, (3) Form checked by staff, (4) Clean hands’. The only clientele gathering in front of the banners was a team of five male nurses. They wore latex gloves and medical masks, but no one else was around. Our conversation was limited to the following few lines:

‘Excuse me, can I take a picture of the banner?’

‘What for?’

‘Documentation.’

‘Okay, but do not write badly about us! Do not blame us for being incompetent! We are doing the best we can!’ the doctor shouted at me.

Compared to my mundane visits to the hospital one year before during previous fieldwork, the situation felt unfamiliar, uneasy and emotionally tense.

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Figure 8

New bureaucratic procedures of hospital admittance

Citation: European Journal of East Asian Studies 2022; 10.1163/15700615-20220121

© author

5.2.3 Disruptive Situation: The Gates of the Newspaper Agency

The route back to the hotel led me past the printing agency of one of Kupang’s three newspapers. There were no Covid-19 related signs there, but I encountered a printing apprentice instead. He spotted me from afar and asked me why I had made this long walk in the afternoon heat. We sat down opposite each other at the appropriate distance on two parked motorbikes.

‘Where are you from?’

‘Germany.’

‘Are you not going back to your country?’

‘I would rather stay here, but this whole corona situation is too unpredictable, isn’t it?’

‘Don’t get me started on corona. All we print now is corona, corona, corona! Do not accuse us and say we are not doing enough against corona!’ he insisted firmly.

(See also Djalante et al. 2020 on media practices in Indonesia between January and March 2020.)

On the downhill walk back to the hotel, I wandered through residential neighbourhoods. There were no thermo-guns, no banners, signposts or locked doors, and no outcries of despair or anxiety. The doors of the houses were open, and children played on the streets. One boy rubbed his snotty nose on another boy’s shirt. A young woman gave a man a haircut on the side of the road, and another middle-aged woman gave a man a neck and shoulder massage. Under a tree on an empty lot, there was a group of six teenagers hanging out on their scooters. They smoked, watched videos on their smartphones and giggled. Walking past three more dengue and Covid-19 billboards along the main road, I finally reached the hotel. When I entered the elevator, I discovered a new bilingual sign in both English and Indonesian (Figure 9): ‘Social distancing in lift. For social distancing, given the current COVID-19 situation. Please follow this structure when using in groups or sharing with other building occupants.’ The clashing of contrastive socialities could not have been more disparate between the public and commercialised spaces of the governed city adhering to globalised pandemic worlding and the neighbourhood realities of residents’ everyday lives.

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Figure 9

‘Social distancing’ in a hotel elevator

Citation: European Journal of East Asian Studies 2022; 10.1163/15700615-20220121

© author

The emotional outbursts and the disruption of otherwise mundane flows of everyday sociality in regulated and ordered public and privatised spaces, and the appearing continuity of neighbourhood life, resonates with Ong and others’ analysis that worlding never manifests as linear or schematic processes of governmental or neoliberal orchestration. A further in-depth ethnography might reveal the shifts and continuities of everyday sociality and feeling ‘at home’ and ‘in public’, and illustrate ‘that worlding refers not to a single unified political process, but to diverse spatializing practices that mix and match different components that go into building an emergent system’ (Ong 2011: 12).

6 Conclusion

Brian Larkin writes that ethnographies of infrastructure are ‘a categorical act’ because infrastructures are not just ‘out there’ (2013: 230). This article has categorised billboards, banners, posters and mass media narratives as emerging pandemic infrastructure that shaped persons’ feelings and behaviour in public spaces.

The worlding of Covid-19 through public signposting, the sudden appearance of ‘temperature guns’, installed hand sanitisers and face masks, or distance markers glued to floors or chairs to proscribe appropriate body movement, could develop new and initially significantly disruptive orders of feeling and conduct. In the early phase of the pandemic, a fearmongering media discourse and omnipresent emotives, such as ‘be careful not to …’, ‘stay away from …’, ‘avoid engaging with …’ or ‘take care of/not to …’, could contribute to disordered feelings and disruptive situations of unfolding xenophobia, panic, anxiety and frustration. The translation of global health recommendations to public signposts and related restrictions of access and mobility created social and emotional crises vis-à-vis the unfamiliar, the looming and the unknown. Almost two years later, at the time of this article’s publication, it has become clear that Covid-19 has created havoc in multiple ways: economically, socially, politically, emotionally, for many existentially. And yet, many researchers have witnessed another form of crisis, particularly at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic: a predicament that relates to collectively experienced ‘breakdown of communication when elites become disconnected from the masses that they govern. When the ruling system no longer reflects the realities of those governed’ (Noor 2020). The configuration of pandemic orders of feeling and conduct in the city of Kupang reflects such temporary disruption between the implementation of globally circulating public health orders and their application to divergent local realities. In Kupang, the early phase of the Covid-19 pandemic and its orders of feeling and adhering felt like a crisis of sociality and fellow-feeling that could result in xenophobia or misanthrope outbursts.

This article has reflected on pandemic worlding through newspapers, governmental billboards, temperature guns, signposts, warning signs, closed gates and barrier tapes. It has theorised that these discourses and objects contributed to reimagined orders of feeling appropriately towards persons and across spaces. It suggests that emotional outbursts in otherwise mundane situations might indicate new worldings through shifted orders of feeling and conduct.

With regard to local mobility and the manoeuvring of public and commercial spaces, the emerging pandemic infrastructure reshuffled social and cultural practices in a local context where the street, the roundabout, the market or the mall was not only considered as traffic corridor or consumption hub but always also regarded as extended spaces of ‘home’ where kinning and socialising were paramount. In local worlds where fellow-feeling, compassion and care (peduli) are communicated not only through talk but embodied presence without words, get-togethers are inevitable practices of essential sociality and solidarity. Moreover, in areas outside the commercial zones of malls and other connectivity hotspots like cafes or public parks, where flat-rate and online communication infrastructures are less accessible, staying at home and self-isolating was not a socially, culturally or personally appropriate crisis aversion. The infrastructural marginalisation of city areas, which lack regular access to running water and sewage plants, represented fundamental obstacles in adherence and falling in line with new orders of conducting and feeling. If governments expected residents to adopt new habits then residents might, in return, ask their governments to implement public infrastructures that also enable them to engage in sustainable and responsible illness prevention and care.

This article has emplaced the methodological figure of the ‘Covid-19 fieldwork flâneur’ affected by media narratives and emoted by disruptive situations around billboards and signposts as a pandemic adaptation of anthropological knowledge construction. Yet, to fully grasp shifting orders of feeling and conduct, engaging in in-depth and long-term conversations is paramount to ethnography, which aspires to understand, reflect and discuss actual emotions as they emerge in social life. Billboards and media reports can be considered valuable signifiers of potentially worlding infrastructures, but ultimately anthropology and worlding are not about ‘things’. They are about (talking about) relationships and people.

Acknowledgments

I want to thank the guest editors of this special issue and two anonymous reviewers for their excellent guidance and substantial support throughout the process of writing this article.

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