Laurie Sears

Walker Family Endowed Professor in History
Laurie Sears



Laurie Sears is a social and intellectual historian of Southeast Asia with particular knowledge of the 19th and 20th century colonial Indies and postcolonial Indonesia and Java. She has spent about six years in Indonesia; her first visit to the islands of Java and Bali was in 1972-1973 before Sears began her graduate career. At that time she spent almost two years in central Java and Bali studying the connections between the Javanese performing arts and Javanese mystical traditions. Sears also lived in India for a few years and traveled between India and Greece overland several times.

Sears has carried out research in central Java, Bali, and Jakarta. Her specialty is the oral and written literary traditions of Java and Indonesia in Javanese, Indonesian, and Dutch. She has more recently published on the transnational discourse of psychoanalysis as it spanned the world in the 20th century. Her teaching runs from more general courses on the 19th and 20th century histories of Southeast Asia to more specialized courses on the performing arts in Java. She also teaches about Indonesian Islam, colonialism, imperial formations, and issues of diversity.

Her first monograph Shadows of Empire: Colonial Discourse and Javanese Tales (Duke 1996) was devoted to the oral traditions surrounding the transmission of Ramayana and Mahabharata stories from India to Java. This brought Sears to the theatrical world of the Javanese shadow puppet theatre, the conveyer of the Indian stories in much of the Southeast Asian world. She has looked at how the stories changed over the years as they moved between villages and courts, and then between village traditions and contemporary fine arts academies. She attended over 150 shadow and wooden puppet performances, as well as human performances of these stories, over the years that I have spent in Java and Bali.

Her second monograph Situated Testimonies: Dread and Enchantment in an Indonesian Literary Archive (Hawai’i 2013) is devoted to the written literatures of Indonesia as they exist in Dutch, Malay, and Indonesian languages and literary traditions. This is where she has most fully developed my idea of literary works as “situated testimonies” of the past, drawing on the work of Donna Haraway and her term “situated knowledges.” She developed a methodology for historians to use literary works as part of their archives, and Sears suggests that fiction may be the best vehicle for capturing the social histories that elude much historical work. This book is also where she traces the discourses of psychoanalysis as they moved from Vienna to Paris and Amsterdam and then to the Indies in the early 20th century.

Sears has also edited a number of books, two with co-editors and three alone. Fantasizing the Feminine in Indonesia (Duke 1996) was the first book to bring together Indonesian and American scholars and activists to look at ideas of feminism in Indonesia. It is now a standard work in the field. She has also edited Knowing Southeast Asian Subjects (Washington 2007), an exploration of the changing nature of Southeast Asian area studies in the first decade of the twenty-first century.


  • University of Wisconsin, Madison, Ph.D., History, 1986