In his research, Professor Pemberton considers various points of conjuncture between history and anthropology, and does so in pursuit of the ethnographic shadows of an emergent modern subject. He has addressed issues informing colonial encounters, translation, ritual practice, and the political implications of cultural discourse under colonial and postcolonial conditions, with a particular focus on Indonesia . In his book On the Subject of "Java" he explored the peculiar relationship between culture and politics in Java, attempting to disclose the limits and horizons of cultural critique within New Order Indonesia as well as within the field of anthropological inquiry.
His present work on Javanese exorcism, shadow-puppet narrative, circuitries of voice, black magic, the crowd, and criminality in late New Order/post-Suharto times, extends this analytical mix of historical, ethnographic, and political concerns, and, at the same time, shifts its emphasis to issues of translation, performance, event, voice, and temporality. Another, related, domain of interests concerns the spectral effects of machineries of the modern as such effects emerge for example, with sacrifices made to the gears of sugar refinery machines. Of particular interest here are issues of accident, apparition, repetition, and the appearance of coincidence. A third domain concerns music.
Professor Pemberton's recent teaching has been about the history and culture of Indonesia , and includes a course entitled " Recording Angels" in which he "traced connections between machineries of the modern and fields of cultural production. Crisscrossing late-19th/early-20th century technologies (in colonial sugar refineries, electricity, railways, silent cinema, radio, the gramophone) and cultural concerns (sacrifice, theater, exorcism, narration, music, and religion), the course pursues shadows of an emergent modern subject."
His publications include On the Subject of "Java" (Cornell University Press, 1994); "Open Secrets: Excerpts from Conversations with a Javanese Lawyer, and a Comment" in Vicente L. Rafael, ed., Figures of Criminality in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Colonial Vietnam (Cornell University Southeast Asia Program, 1999); "Disorienting Culturalist Assumptions: A View from 'Java'" in Nicholas B. Dirks, ed., In Near Ruins: Cultural Theory at the End of the Century (University of Minnesota Press, 1998); "Recollections from 'Beautiful Indonesia' (Somewhere Beyond the Postmodern)," Public Culture 6:2, 1994; and "Musical Politics in Central Java (or How Not to Listen to a Javanese Gamelan)" Indonesia 44, 1987.
Professor Pemberton received his Ph.D. from Cornell University and taught at the University of Washington before joining the Columbia faculty in 1997.