Project Summary

The age of the anthropocene has shaken us into the realization that we are not an isolated species interacting within our cultures alone. We are now in fact geological agents whose actions have caused, and continue to cause, irreversible damage upon the planet. The challenge facing every discipline of study today is not only to find new ways of coping with these changes but how to salvage our different forms of knowledge that have been founded on the very idea that we are both isolated from and transcend nature.

There is urgency, therefore, to perform an ‘anthropodecentering’ approach to our inquiries, to look for knowledge that includes the perspective, or at least the contributions of other, nonhuman, agents that make up the complex interactions of the world. This is a conceptually challenging task, but one with wide-ranging practical consequences. For one, what should happen to historical practice after the anthropocene, as history traditionally was founded on man as chief protagonist? How would we include the nonhuman in history if they cannot ‘speak’, what more if these nonhuman agents exist only in the past? Can wisdom from the present age inform and change histories in light of what we’ve learnt from the anthropocene?

This project attempts to answer these questions with an anthropodecentered history of the elephant in the Malay Peninsular through the 19th and 20th centuries. The elephant’s status in the eyes of diverse, nonsecular communities in the Malay Peninsula shifted from that of a supernatural beast of special personhood in the 19th century into a mere agricultural pest in the 20th century.  This radical shift in a relatively brief time stores rich instances of negotiations made between both the human and nonhuman, and an anthropodecentered history must find these dialogues within the archive of animal remains, animal-made and animal-derived objects and its long-term impact on the environment

The thesis argues that nonhuman testimony exists in animal remains, in their impact on the environment and in man’s imagination. Man is not mere master of the terrain, but has always been in debate, struggle and mutual influence with the formidably intelligent and charismatic elephant.

Finally, there is a second, but equally important task to the study. Tracing the ‘forgetting’ of the elephant’s role in society is archeological – we are potentially unearthing the origins of our illusory sense of disconnect from the rest of nature and piecing together a history of how we had come to isolate ourselves so totally as to be rudely awakened by the anthropocene.

As a creature of supernatural status and yet potential ancestor – the elephant of the 19th century was also capital, a beast of burden, an export and diplomatic symbol. Within and from the elephant there is a hybrid worldview that challenges our reliance on labels and separations, a world that can offer us insights into what a truly interconnected world, with all its uncertainties, may look like; the very insights we will need as all of us enter the equally indeterminate age of the anthropocene.



Why does this study matter?

  • Formulating new methods of historical and theoretical practice after the anthropocene

An anthropodecentered approach necessarily requires new ways of thinking about history and philosophy, melding various schools of thought with new ways of reading and using the archive that is ‘future-oriented’ to the concerns of the anthropocene. There is also opportunity to include new research in ethology retrospectively to historical research.

  • Decolonizing Malay History and The Malay Archive

Until recently a vast majority of Malay manuscripts containing supernatural references have been dismissed by postcolonial academics for their ‘unscientific’ nature. There is opportunity to relook at these forgotten manuscripts with new relevance, as it is the supernatural element that can offer a unique lens to understand past perspectives of a nonsecular world. The nonsecular, yet cosmopolitan communities of 19th Century Malaya also challenges Posthumanist ideas that have centered largely on a Western critique of humanism.  

  • Contributions to Environmental Thought on The Imaginaries of Extinction

The cultural frameworks that shape narratives and images surrounding conservation are not straightforward. The charisma of megafauna, for example, has sparked ambivalence among conservationists for the reliance on anthropomorphic charm for attention. As scholars delve deep to understand the affective politics of when and how we invest emotionally to the plight of other species, this critical history seeks insight from the root problem – the origins of our disconnect of animals, or in this case, the forgetting, of the elephant.  



Contemporary art and the nonhuman animal

Currently there is a growing fascination for the animal question in contemporary art. How far can art unshackle its humanist roots to carry the visceral, often nonverbal and embodied methods that frame the nonhuman question in current academic research? 

Phases in my thesis require refining and reframing my research not only in academic terms but also in exhibition spaces (the idea of exhibition space here being as expansively understood as possible). The politics of display, of representation and object phenomenology require a component in praxis as these structures, too, influence epistemologies. 

Outreach that offers a tactile, often nontextual dimension will also being historical research into dialogue with the present. 





Do you manage or are affiliated to an independent research unit, archive, or gallery pertaining to human-animal studies, ecology and/or anthropocene scholarship or Southeast Asian studies? I am always looking for opportunities for collaboration to share knowledge and explore new, public platforms such as exhibitions and reading groups to further enrich the research method and its questions.


This project impacts and traverses many fields, from the humanities to the sciences. It also concerns the imaginary of the cosmopolitan Malay peninsular during the 19th and 20th century periods. It will require up to four-years of field work that involves confronting archives from its source. Any support for research, study and teaching during my PhD is warmly welcome. I am happy to provide research, teaching and writing services in gratitude for your support, after my post-doc.


Are you an expert in a related, intersecting or even completely opposing field that may shed new light into the above research territories? I'd love to hear from you. I encourage any one with an interest in my questions (from any axes) to share reading lists, questions and counterpoints.

©2019 by Kat Rahmat

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