Media and Nation Building: How the Iban Became Malaysian. John Postill.

New York: Berghahn Books, 2006. 231 pp. Review by Gordon T. Gray (Temple University) Published in American Anthropologist, June 14, 2007
Media and Nation Building is an intellectually engaging and thought-provoking book, and is a rich contribution to several arenas within anthropology. Media and Nation Building provides an analysis of the processes by which the Iban (one of the ethnic groups in Sarawak often referred to as Dayak) have been incorporated into the modern Malaysian state. In their nation building project the Malaysian state has controlled and employed various media, which Postill productively takes to include not only television, radio and newspapers, but clock and calendar time. That inclusive definition of media leads to a breadth of analysis in Media and Nation Building that researchers and teachers of media anthropology, as well as those interested in nationalism or political anthropology, should find useful. This inclusive definition of media combines with an ethnological approach (one that crosses boundaries of time, space and culture) that Postill suggests is also a strategy to move the media anthropology discourse out of the theoretical dichotomy of the production model of the Frankfurt School/ early communication studies versus the reception model of British cultural studies. Postill's take on nation/state creation is likewise intriguing and provocative. Building from a discussion of the relative merits of primordialist versus contructivist (what the author refers to as ethno-symbolist versus modernist) notions of the nation, Postill argues that the Malaysian case (as with much of Southeast Asia) requires a more "state-led" understanding of nation or state creation, summed up by his choice of the phrase nation building. Postill actively engages with other theoretical conceptualizations and ethnographic examples of state and nation formation, and in particular areas where these formations and media have overlapped as they have in Malaysia. Due to the historical specifics of the Malaysian state history and the larger global forces at play in the late 20th/early 21st century the "imagined community" approach to nationalism does not work. The author posits that an ethnological rather than strictly ethnographic (bound in time and space to one group) approach to this analysis is particularly informative. What Postill argues in Media and Nation Building is that the Malaysian state's nation building program has been overwhelmingly successful. The state's Malaysianization propaganda became "sustainable propaganda" (analogous to sustainable development), which in turn became an ideolect, an Iban remaking of the state ideology though which they make sense of the various media and ultimately their world.

In Media and Nation Building, Postill actively engages with a wide array of theoretical paradigms. Though any work contains some debatable definitions or interpretations of theoretical models, there are instances where the choice of model or methodology does seem to impact the outcome. One instance is the link between the author's attempt to recover Diffusionist approaches and his ethnological methodology. Both choices seem to promote a "top-down" approach to the issues of media and nation building; an ethnographical analysis might have provided the rich local detail where unexpected or unusual sites of resistance might be lurking. A second criticism is that Postill's theoretical engagement is at times excessively confrontational. An example would be that there are instances of overly Manichean readings of theories or theorists, such as when Postill critiques what he considers to be the prevailing approach within media anthropology (reception-oriented). While this confrontational strategy has the advantage of firmly placing the author within the theoretical literature, and makes the book attractive as a teaching tool for courses on nationalism, media anthropology, or political anthropology, it also become excessive. This confrontational tone becomes less evident in the latter stages of the book, such as the chapters on media exchanges (principally the 'life cycle' of television sets, especially how they are acquired and disposed of), clock time, and calendar time. These latter chapters are also the most interesting and, arguably, the strongest chapters in the book. Postill's inclusive approach to media, his serious reconsideration of older theoretical approaches, a thorough and well-researched case study from a part of the world often overlooked in the anthropology literature, and an extensive review of the media anthropology field all contribute to Media and Nation Building's significance as a useful and provocative addition to our understanding of issues in media anthropology, nationalism and political anthropology.

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