This essay looks at the social, aesthetic, and violent life of fake documents. It suggests that fakes and forgeries, both as a general phenomenon and in the specific context of communal violence, offer a useful analytical site for an investigation into the relationship between empathy, power, and authenticity. Based on an analysis of a series of false letters that appeared in the lead-up to violent conflict in Indonesia, I approach the politics and poetics of forgery by setting the fake letters within a broader political discourse about falsity in Indonesia and beyond. Exploring the dynamics of empathy and intimacy that are necessary for the production and validation of fake documents and letters during conflict, I suggest that, contrary to received wisdom, empathy may be closely associated with violence. I also argue that empathy arises within particular political ontologies and specific forms of cultural intimacy that circulate in and beyond nation-states. An ethnographic enquiry into the social life of fake documents is therefore a useful starting point for an inquiry into the emotional aspects of instigation as well as for a political ethnography of empathy.
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