Categories
Anthropology Indonesia Reflexive Ruins

Puncak in Ruins, Part 5: The AnthroLOLogist in Ruins

This post is the fifth of five in a series.

The first is: “Puncak in Ruins, Part 1: Arrival Scene”

The second is: “Puncak in Ruins, Part 2: Lost Detour”

The third is “Puncak in Ruins, Part 3: The Year of Living Dangerously”

The fourth is “Puncak in Ruins, Part 4: Return to Villa Kota Gardenia”

Since I started writing about the ruins we saw at Villa Kota Gardenia (VKG) up in Puncak, West Java, I’ve been attuned to the presence of and fascination with ruins all around us. Ruins, it turns out, are EVERYWHERE, and there is no shortage of literature to evaluate our preoccupations with them whether we find ruins utopian, dystopian, or somewhere in between. The ever-growing corpus of printed words devoted to ruins over the centuries is nothing short of an accumulated ruin of its own, every scholar pushing their analysis forward, leaving prior analyses behind them in the academic dustbin of history. I fear the whole subject—so comprehensively reviewed elsewhere and with more sophistication—began to feel rather mundane and pointless (kinda like my dissertation, frack dammit!).

I found a nice review of the social science literature on ruins by Shannon Lee Dawdy that narrows its focus and critique upon two of anthropology’s subfields:  archaeology and socio-cultural anthropology.* Dawdy relies generously upon my hero Walter Benjamin, and also name-checks the piece by Ann Stoler that I wrote about in my previous post. In a broad-stroke summary, Dawdy writes:

“The creation of ruins is a function of capitalism’s fast-moving frontiers and built-in obsolescence, as well as political hubris and social conflicts.” *

Yep, so that’s about it … j/k!!1

When I was searching for online documentation about VKG, my jaw dropped when I found this proposal to build a small waterslide park (called a “water boom” in Bahasa Indonesia) next to the swimming pool, right where the annotated map in my previous post shows a small pond near VKG’s main entrance:

"before"
"before"
"after"
"after"

The cognitive dissonance between this proposal and the kind of engineering that resulted in so much devastation at VKG (the drainage channel turned out to be a kind of “water boom” did it not?) utterly mocks the hubris of slapdash Indonesian contractors. The last thing I expect anyone who is left at VKG would want to do is simulate the sensation of riding down the slopes of Gunung Gede upon an avalanche of water! What’s worse, the fiberglass contractor markets their Kabayan Waterboom at VKG as if it already exists on site. Even the reputable Tempo magazine name-drops Kabayan Waterboom in a list of other waterpark developers that joined together to construct a new water boom in Sulawesi, without even checking to see whether Kabayan Waterboom actually exists.

As I wrote in the previous post, a moment of rupture—such as the flash floods that took out VKG’s main road up in Puncak—is an easy starting point for a discussion of ruins. It’s a raw knockdown of the arrogant impulses that characterize development practice up in Puncak. Moments of construction and destruction easily propel the development plot line forward, which in turn privileges certain kinds of progressive stories we tell ourselves about modernity, but it’s harder to look at the economic downturns and slow aftershocks that characterize the long social life of ruins. Periods of decay and vacancy frequently last much longer than the golden ages of construction and production that preceded them. Back to Dawdy:

“Studying why and how ruins are not only made but also erased, commemorated, lived in, commodified, and recycled can tell us at least as much about society as the processes that created the original edifices.” *

If there is one thing we’ve learned about Indonesian society from the VKG story, we’ve confirmed that it’s possible to win contracts based on the as if merits of sham achievements that were built on sites of shameful catastrophes, as if there were never any floods that prevented the construction of a marvelous water boom. Ruins beget more ruins so easily!

Apart from my quick overnight trip to VKG when Dezant and I took the pictures that figure in these blog posts, I’ve relied upon the following mass media texts to thematically explore the ruins we found there. Not surprisingly, they all highlight moments of creative or destructive rupture:

  1. Lost’s Dharma Initiative commences its ruination and decline around “The Incident,” one of the most climactic moments of the entire series, when an atomic bomb detonates near a powerful source of electromagnetic energy.
  2. The Year of Living Dangerously has a plot that culminates in the destructive military coup on September 30 1965 that effectively ended Soekarno’s rule and ushered in Soeharto’s New Order regime. The scene set among the ruins of an old Dutch villa up in Puncak echoes the destruction of an earlier regime, highlighting what is at stake for the story’s ex-patriate characters living in Jakarta while simultaneously effacing what is at stake for the Indonesians who live and work there in between historical ruptures (which is to say, most of the time).
  3. The mudslides that bring about VKG’s ruin are recounted through newspaper reports archived online, from both Pikiran Rakyat and Pelita.
  4. Kabayan Waterboom is brought to you by an Indonesian fiberglass contractor that advertises a design for their imaginary construction at VKG via several promotional blog sites online. Kabayan Waterboom inadvertently receives further legitimation from Tempo magazine in their story about Indonesia’s latest water boom being built in faraway Sulawesi.
Better Homes & Gardens:  Villa Kota Gardenia
Better Homes & Gardens: Villa Kota Gardenia

But if I could seriously take up Dawdy’s (and Stoler’s) suggestions, I would spend more time up in Puncak, i.e. conduct actual fieldwork and not simply rely upon mass media documents that stick to rupture-oriented moments in relation to their ruins. It takes more time than a weekend and some googling online to make sense out of how people live with decay and vacancy in their midst. Dawdy suggests that a different kind of plot line may emerge in which the creative and regenerative forces of social life take center stage instead of the overdetermined but reckless designs of development practitioners and the capital they mobilize for both production and destruction. Everyday life among ruins yields not only dystopian resentment (see previous post), but maybe also some utopian—or at least some make-do—improvisation. If there was anything that gave me an inspirational pause among so much wreckage at VKG, it was the small garden that someone had planted on the banks of the ravine forged by the mudslide that destroyed VKG’s main boulevard. Then again, I’m a sucker for pastoral nostalgia. The point is, we’re left with images slightly more nuanced than total destruction and disillusion. A tiny terraced garden among the VKG wreckage brings Puncak’s primarily agricultural past into our present scene of destruction, and vice versa. Ruins fold our temporal perceptions upon each other in unexpected ways. For at least a moment, modernity’s temporal logic—that endless linear series of ruptures that progressively usher in ever new creations—enjoys a temporary reprieve. Another perspective. Living with the ruins amongst us.

* Dawdy, S.L., 2010, “Clockpunk Anthropology and the Ruins of Modernity” Current Anthropology, 51(6), pp. 761-78.

The AnthroLOLogist in Ruins
The AnthroLOLogist in Ruins
Categories
Anthropology Indonesia Reflexive Ruins

Puncak in Ruins, Part 4: Return to Villa Kota Gardenia

This post is the fourth of five in a series.

The first is: “Puncak in Ruins, Part 1: Arrival Scene”

The second is: “Puncak in Ruins, Part 2: Lost Detour”

The third is “Puncak in Ruins, Part 3: The Year of Living Dangerously”

What happened at Villa Gardenia?

In my previous two posts, I wrote about the haunting and nostalgic associations that ruins inspire when portrayed in popular film. I chose the artifactual remains of the Dharma Initiative on the TV show Lost and the old Dutch villa in The Year of Living Dangerously because the broken housing development that I visited up in Puncak earlier this year strongly reminded me of them. The once grand but now crumbling and overgrown entrance of Villa Kota Gardenia (VKG) in Cianjur has rusted abandoned buildings and a fetid stagnant swimming pool that tweaked my mass media memories:

This mess was just the main entrance, at the bottom of a hill, just off of Puncak Pass. A treeline blocked our line of sight up into the residential area (VKG’s so-called villas), which is why upon arrival we thought we had the wrong location because there was nothing to suggest that these damaged buildings were part of a functioning development. After confirming that we were at the right place, we cautiously pulled into the entrance and drove up the hill.

Road Collapse at VKG
Road Collapse at VKG

Past the trees and around a bend we discovered that the main artery of the housing development had been almost completely washed out by landslides. Emergency embankments were temporarily preventing more of the road, and also the villas, from falling into a constricted river. I use the word “constricted” because it appears that the developers had originally built a deep but narrow channel to direct the flow of a mountain stream (a tributary of the Ciherang River, coming down the slopes of the volcano Gunung Gede) that passes through the VKG complex. The cement conduit used to be a lane divider for VKG’s main residential boulevard, now a minor ravine after the landslide. We got lost on a lattice of emergency roads that were built around fallen sections of the road that cut off access to the houses further up the hill.

no access
No Access

We settled into the house where we would spend the weekend and I explored the neighborhood. Puncak is typically mobbed with visitors on weekends but VKG was nearly empty. Many of the houses had small “for sale” signs posted on their fences, and indeed I discovered later that if you browse for “Villa Kota Gardenia” on Google, the majority of listings are real estate sales (“dijual MURAH!!”). Toward the bottom of the hill, the dangling power lines were hanging dangerously low over the stream, while someone had resourcefully turned the banks of the landslide into a small terraced garden.

Electric Garden
Electric Garden

When I got back to Jakarta, some further Google reconnaissance quickly revealed the broad contours of what happened. A screenshot from Google Maps reveals a picture of VKG before its destruction, when it was still under development (a different annotated version of the same map is available here on wikimapia):

annotated map of VKG development in Cianjur
Annotated map of VKG development in Cianjur

According to local news sources archived online (links in the next paragraph), on at least two occasions in early 2010 (4 January & 10 March), the Ciherang River sent flash mudslides through the VKG complex. Boulders and other large debris from above clogged up the narrow drainage channel. The massive volume of mud spilled out of the drain and over the landscape, taking out the main road of the VKG complex and then completely covering the main entrance down below with so much mud and rocks that VKG residents were unable to reach the main road (Puncak Pass). The floods also damaged at least five houses beneath VKG across the road.

Resentment

While the Pikiran Rakyat article from January 2010 reports just-the-facts of the flood and damage, the March 2010 article in Pelita after the second flood strikes a more activist tone and speculates broadly on the causes.* After describing VKG as “luxury housing” owned by people with “deep pockets,” the Pelita piece relays an eyewitness account from one of the VKG security guards who asked that his name not be published but is qualified to speak about Ciherang flash floods since he was witness to the Ciherang ash mudslides after Gunung Gede erupted a few decades ago. The article suggests that a number of unlicensed developments up above VKG may be responsible for the floods due to the environmental degradation they caused, but sources from VKG management refused to join in on such speculation. Uncontrolled development projects disregard both local and national environmental regulations, the article states, and somehow avoid the required impact assessments. The Pelita journalist gives a brief historical summary:  since roughly 1984 rampant development of tourism infrastructure and real estate have radically transformed the Puncak landscape and destroyed the region’s ecological functions as watershed and buffer zone. My favorite sentence from the article verges on the poetic:

The hills and valleys, the farm fields, have been transformed into steel-reinforced concrete gardens with glowing neon lights.

To be fair, VKG did not strike me as a “luxury” development for the super-rich. The villas are densely packed, modestly sized, and few (if any) have remarkable views. Each house on the hillside struck me as an “I made it!” status symbol, a weekend getaway retreat for upwardly mobile Jakartans that are newly able to afford it. But collectively the VKG development is a recklessly engineered pox on the Puncak landscape. A critical development failure occurred here, and the wreckage all around VKG suggested to me that one year after the mudslides no one had been held accountable. In fact, a sign at the foot of the hill announced that road and drain repairs are paid for by VKG resident contributions. With so many “for sale” signs across the complex, and no doubt a collapse (along with the road) in the value of their VKG investments, it’s no wonder that the community hasn’t raised enough money to repair the damage. Where has the developer disappeared to? What do local officials who allowed VKG to be built on such shabby foundations think of this ruinous outcome? Are the VKG property owners really wholly accountable for cleaning up this mess?

"perbaikan jalan & saluran dibiayi oleh sumbangan warga villa gardenia"
"perbaikan jalan & saluran dibiayi oleh sumbangan warga villa gardenia"

Ruination:  Disenchantment, Disavowal, and Disenfranchisement

As I thought through these questions, that precious enchantment I first felt upon arrival at VKG’s desolate entrance increasingly gave way to a combined sense of disgust and outrage. As a part-time resident of Jakarta for several years now, I have heard the abstract accusations lobbed up at overdeveloped Puncak for causing the floods that regularly plague us. But it doesn’t make all that much sense to frame the question in terms of antagonistic geographies when the rapacious appetites that have destroyed Puncak are indistinguishable from (if not have their origins in) business-as-usual in Jakarta.

These are the corrosive forces that ruin, i.e. “inflict or bring great and irretrievable disaster upon; destroy agency; reduce to a state of poverty; demoralize completely” (Concise Oxford Dictionary). The ruins I described in the prior three posts are objects, trace metaphors of decay that inspire introspective contemplation, but I agree with the anthropologist and historian Ann Stoler who argues that an account of the ruin-as-object remains incomplete without a complementary account of the ruin-as-process.** We must traverse and explore the inherent tensions between “two poles of decay,” both the evocative metaphors and violent degradations.

By definition ruination is an ambiguous term; both an act of ruining, a condition of being ruined, and a cause of loss… These three senses may overlap in effect but they are not the same. Each has its own temporality. Each identifies different durations and moments of exposure to a range of violences and degradations that may be immediate or delayed, subcutaneous or visible, prolonged or instant, diffuse or direct.**

Villa Kota Gardenia in Ruins

The catastrophic mudslides at VKG in early 2010 do not signal the beginning of ruination in Puncak. Pelita suggests 1984, and I might even go further and look at Puncak’s history as a hill station retreat for Dutch colonials in Batavia and Bandung. But the recent floods are a good place to start not just because the event is a relatively contained illustrative example of a larger problem, but also because the disaster and its immediate aftermath are a great point of entry. Disasters momentarily disturb everyday business-as-usual and in turn render ordinarily opaque (and unequal) social relations suddenly visible. Setting aside for now its journalistic merits, I enjoyed reading the Pelita article because it inadvertently reveals a lot about local dynamics in Puncak. Readers know why the security guard does not want his name given, just as we can probably guess why VKG management refused to comment on the allegations that rampant unlicensed development caused the disaster. The journalist ascribes more authority to local knowledge—the security guard who witnessed Ciherang River ash floods decades ago—than any developer that refuses to conduct an environmental impact assessment before building touristic agribusiness ventures and densely-packed villas. The total absence of any government officials from the account is as telling as it is troubling. Pelita’s accusations and sympathies are implicit and disorganized, but unambiguous.

In the wake of the Sidoarjo mud lava catastrophe in East Java, we can well imagine that the destruction at VKG was simply written off as a “natural disaster,” allowing the conspicuously absent voices from Pelita’s account to continue their destructive business-as-usual without accountability. Meanwhile VKG lies in ruins and life goes on there, albeit more quietly and at a much lower net worth, despite so much damage and loss to VKG investors and the surrounding community. Stoler’s call to ask “how people live with and in ruins” snaps us out of the melancholic gaze upon the leftovers and redirects our engagement with ruins toward processes of ruination, and their attendant disavowals and disenfranchisements.** Along the way we begin to understand not just the mechanisms by which ruination occurs with impunity, but also how resentment sediments almost imperceptibly into the lives of the ruined. The Pelita article only begins to hint at festering resentments in the community around VKG.

To be concluded:

“Puncak in Ruins, Part 5:  The AnthroLOLogist in Ruins”

* Note that the two newspaper articles use the names “Bukit Harmoni” and “Villa Kota Gardenia” interchangeably, or in some combination of the two. Perhaps VKG replaced the original BH name for the development at some point.

** Stoler, A.L., 2008, “Imperial Debris:  Reflections on Ruins and Ruination” Cultural Anthropology, 23(2), pp. 191-219.

Categories
Anthropology Indonesia Reflexive Ruins

Puncak in Ruins, Part 1: Arrival Scene

“there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” —  Walter Benjamin

Villa Kota Gardenia entrance sign
Villa Kota Gardenia entrance sign

Driving through Puncak Pass in the mountain resort area of Cianjur in West Java, Dezant and I pulled over into a large abandoned lot with broken oddly-shaped buildings to wait for the other cars in the family caravan to catch up. The family of Dezant’s brother-in-law owns a Puncak villa, and they let Dezant’s entire family use it for the weekend to celebrate his sister’s birthday.  We called his brother-in-law to confirm the location—a development called “Villa Kota Gardenia”—only to discover that the apparently abandoned lot where we parked was Villa Kota Gardenia’s main entrance.

Villa Kota Gardenia Main Entrance
Villa Kota Gardenia Main Entrance

.

The entire complex—overgrown, desolate, wrecked—looks like it was built in the late 1970s and without any maintenance since the early 1980s. I don’t actually think Kota Gardenia was built in the 1970s, but the security post—a swirling abstract two-story catastrophe—and the administrative and recreational buildings behind and off to the side have a tasteless grandeur reminiscent of the era. A wide and weedy circular boulevard leads up to a dense patchwork grid of villas, but from the entrance the villas remains entirely hidden behind a line of trees, leaving nothing to suggest signs of habitation.

Villa Kota Gardenia:  Administrative or Recreational Building Villa Kota Gardenia: Administrative or Recreational Building Entrance

Villa Kota Gardenia:  ???

I’m writing about the architectural ruins we found at Villa Kota Gardenia because I found myself gripped by their terrible eeriness. I explored the whole complex; Dezant took pictures. I will describe in a future post (“Puncak in Ruins, Part 4”) what we found among the actual residential villas behind the trees—an absolute show-stopper—because that deserves a separate discussion of its own. For the final images in this arrival scene near Villa Kota Gardenia’s main entrance, here is the stagnant scummy swimming pool we discovered next to the recreation building:

Villa Kota Gardenia:  Swimming Pool with Sunken Bar
Villa Kota Gardenia: Swimming Pool with Sunken Bar
Villa Kota Gardenia: Overgrown Archway Entrance to Pool
Villa Kota Gardenia: Overgrown Archway Entrance to Pool

Although the ruins we “discovered” at Kota Gardenia felt disturbing and even a little menacing, I was compelled to explore them with the same interest that I would explore the ancient Hindu shrines at Dieng Plateau or the Greek and Roman temples at Paestum. Ruins are good to think with, material fragments that signify loss and evoke absence. Aestheticized objects for contemplation, ruins stimulate the imagination to fabricate histories and memories, monumental achievements and colossal failures, inspirations for living and whispers of death, to fill in the blanks.** Ruins generate nostalgia, an uncanny sense, for something one has never known. There is something incredibly uncanny about the Kota Gardenia ruins that itches me. So far, I only have recourse to two associative resemblances from popular film with which to scratch it.

To be continued:

“Puncak in Ruins, Part 2:  Lost Detour”

“Puncak in Ruins, Part 3:  The Year of Living Dangerously”

“Puncak in Ruins, Part 4: Return to Villa Kota Gardenia”

“Puncak in Ruins, Part 5: The AnthroLOLogist in Ruins”

** Dirks, N.B. 1998, In Near Ruins: Cultural Theory at the End of the Century, in In Near Ruins: Cultural Theory at the End of the Century, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, pp. 1-18.

Categories
Aceh Anthropology Book Club Indonesia Reflexive

Book Club: A Certain Age

Book Cover for "A Certain Age: Colonial Jakarta Through the Memories of Its Intellectuals" by Rudolf Mrázek
Book Cover for "A Certain Age: Colonial Jakarta Through the Memories of Its Intellectuals" by Rudolf Mrázek

I have been struggling with the strange kind of fieldwork I did in Aceh for the past few years and how to both acknowledge that strangeness and write about it. Rudolf Mrázek’s new book, A Certain Age: Colonial Jakarta Through the Memories of Its Intellectuals, doesn’t solve the problem, but it gives me a toolkit of methodological and theoretical possibilities for the task. “Speed and lightness over the mud and dust define the city and this observer of the city as well,” Mrázek writes in the book’s preface, and in the role of the observer he conjures up Walter Benjamin’s flaneur, but with a rushing twist. He is not just an idle passerby, doing a series of household interviews in Jakarta, sampling his informants like one might browse paintings in a gallery before moving on to the next. There is also an element of compulsive flight, as if Mrázek was never too comfortable getting into the lives of his informants (“keeping my distance from my subjects, my passing by, the burden of my method”); in fact one might find comfort in the moving on, and Mrázek quotes Sartre: “he knew that it was possible for him to make his escape at any moment with the flap of the wings.”

In spite of, or rather because of his methodological burdens (which inspired in me an awesome sense of déjà vu), Mrázek’s data still generates “cognitive sparks” all through the book. With their words, solicited by gentle prompts from Mrázek, his informants produce historical landscapes located in the noisy present of the interview. Fragments from the interview transcripts that recall memories of youth during the colonial and revolutionary era are recomposed, in vivid collage. Rescuing these fragments from the “dustbin of history” (these are, at heart, informants that the vast majority of Indonesians today have no knowledge of) is intended to disrupt the logics of modernity, nationalism, and progress. And it’s a delicate effort, because if you get into these fragments, if you touch them, the fragments either crumble apart or crumble you, leaving us with only a momentary rupture, just a fleeting glimpse, of what modernity looked and felt like in another age, exposing its illusory effects in the present.

But there are redemptions to be found in the refuse. The trick is to find the unexpected tangential points where your fragments meet your informant’s serendipitously. During my work in Aceh, I had several moments like these that resulted in productive and complicit engagements. (A-ha! I could write about this!) And here Mrázek introduced me to a French anthropologist I had never heard of before named Marc Augé, who writes about “non-places” and the anthropology of “supermodernity.” A non-place lends itself to generic memories at best; they are typically spaces of motion and travel, such as airports, stations, vehicles, hotels, mobile offices, and refugee camps. These are the spaces in which humanitarians work, and this resonates strongly with my experience working in Aceh. Like the flaneur, we are always passing by, checking in and then out of non-places. That makes the serendipitous and tangential touch with the Other much more difficult, but, when it does happen, so much more memorable too.

Mrázek likes those meetings even more when they are fraught with tone deaf misunderstandings: “Misunderstanding is another word for the rhythm with which the only true reality forces its way into the conversation. The more effectively a man is able to speak, the more successfully he is misunderstood.” In so many ways, I think my fieldwork was characterized by misunderstanding, sometimes willful, and other times, for lack of trying. A memorable encounter does not translate into an effective one. What would it be like if we thought of humanitarianism not as “supracolonial” but as “supramodern” or maybe just “supermodern”? That brings the industry down to earth without losing that awesome sense of mobility that so strongly characterizes humanitarians and their work. We could set aside debates on “mobile sovereignty” and focus instead on just the “mobile,” the blasé sense of just “passing through,” where perceptions are blunted to the point where we no longer see the “meaning and differing values of things…in the constantly moving stream of money.” In order to be noticed (Mrázek quoting Georg Simmel), “people have to exaggerate their personal element in order to remain audible, even to themselves.” We may be touched by our informants in unexpected ways, but the filters that mediate those encounters inevitably leave us “touched away” from them, and more than likely leave them misunderstood.

More than likely... a misunderstanding.
More than likely... a misunderstanding.

And so as I try to collate and make sense of my overwhelming piles of data, I have to figure out who and what remains audible through all that noise. I have to identify the tangential meeting points of productive engagement and misunderstanding. Upon retrieving a memorable voice, or recalling a tangential meeting point, I need to acknowledge the mediating distortions (exaggerations or otherwise) in my data that made retrieval and recall possible at all.  To bring this all to life and render it sensible, I have to describe ethnographically the “non-places” in Aceh where I spent the majority of my time that prevented me in specific ways from ever really getting to know Aceh as a memorable place.

Categories
Aceh Indonesia Reflexive Status Updates

Impressions From Our First Week Living in Aceh’s College Town

Jantong Hatee Rakyat Aceh
Jantong Hatee Rakyat Aceh

During our first week living in Darussalam (mid-March 2010), I tried to take a bunch of pictures to capture my first impressions.  I’ve collected them as a set titled “Jantong Hatee Rakyat Aceh” on my Flickr page.  I have been working full time in Darussalam since early September 2009, so moving there has now brought all my daily routines within walking distance, and despite several shortcomings in the area, on balance the change, so far, has been totally worth it.

Darussalam is home to Aceh’s two largest institutions of higher education: Syiah Kuala University (UNSYIAH) and the Ar-Raniry State Institute for Islamic Studies (IAIN). These schools border each other closely and the resulting mega-campus really sprawls. UNSYIAH is affectionately known as the “jantong hatee rakyat Aceh” (roughly translated as “the heart and soul of the Aceh people”) because it was the first nationally accredited institution of higher learning in Aceh, and for generations has reliably produced citizen bureaucrats for the provincial government.  I prefer to generously extend the term of endearment to all of Darussalam, not because I’ve developed some sentimental fondness for the town (hardly!), but rather because IAIN also deserves credit for producing equally competent (if not more so) intellectuals for Aceh, and also because I think UNSYIAH needs to get over itself.

Gedung Pusat Latihan Penelitian Ilmu Sosial dan Budaya - UNSYIAH
Training Center for Social and Cultural Sciences - UNSYIAH

I work at the Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies (CPCRS) at UNSYIAH’s Training Center for Social and Cultural Sciences, which is conveniently located right at the front and center of campus.  It’s a lovely old building, recently renovated and restored by the Australian government.  The building has an identical twin, the Wisma UNSYIAH, right next door:

Wisma UNSYIAH
Wisma UNSYIAH

Unfortunately not all buildings in the greater campus area of Darussalam have fared as well as the building where I am lucky enough to work.  I suspect the combined legacy of conflict and tsunami has left much of the campus buildings unattended, especially over at IAIN (though I hear the Saudi government is financing a total reconstruction of their campus in the near future…a mixed blessing at best).  If I take the long way home to my new house, usually in the late afternoon, I pass by these sad lonely buildings.  I confess to some biased editing on these pictures, but I am also trying to capture the spookiness and slight discomfort that I feel when I walk through this area:

That's me at Rise Up Cafe, probably play Fishville
That's me at Rise Up Coffeehouse, probably playing Fishville!

But to be fair, the gloomy parts of campus are at the outskirts of IAIN and UNSYIAH.  The center of campus and the town are quite lively. The quality of life in Darussalam increased exponentially when the Rise Up Coffeehouse opened two months ago. Free and fast wifi, a space for art on sunny-bright walls, magazines for reading, guitars for playing, and a friendly student-oriented staff that includes women servers, a rarity in Aceh cafes!

Rise Up Cafe in the Early Morning
Rise Up Coffeehouse in the Early Morning

There’s a tension between Darussalam’s dynamic student life on the one hand and Aceh’s new legal framework for moral policing on the other. One might expect a higher level of tolerance and nuanced critique among Aceh’s educated elite, but I have not found this to be the case, at least not in Darussalam, which most people consider more conservative than the rest of Banda Aceh across the river. One of my research associates at CPCRS once told me that when she was still in college (at IAIN), she thought Darussalam would be an ideal environment to raise a family, but she doesn’t feel that way anymore. The formal implementation of Islamic law in Aceh has empowered religious student groups to patrol the campus for immoral behavior. In her critique of media representations of Islamic law violations, Sarah Newman begins with a description of how the laws have changed the atmosphere in Darussalam. Mob vigilantism, while technically illegal, is the normative mode of “justice” meted out to unmarried couples caught in the act of romance. I agree with my colleague; as a parent I would not want to raise children under this kind of surveillance with the implicit threat of gender-based violence.

"Dilarang Keras Khalwat Disini!"
"Dilarang Keras Khalwat Disini!"

This is the setting into which we have moved, not just for work, but now to live. Our new neighbors don’t quite know what to make of the foreigner (and that guy from Jakarta who stays part time) now living in their community, and the feeling is mutual. When we were moving in, the first thing one of our neighbors told Dez was that I should buy him a motorbike because all foreigners are rich and so I must surely be able to afford one for him. The day after that, another neighbor took it upon himself to tell us that we don’t need a daytime housekeeper–who comes to cook and clean three times a week–because she is a woman coming to work in a single man’s house, and that presents an unacceptable risk. He told us we don’t need her to cook because there are plenty of rice stalls to choose from less than a block away. Never mind that I prefer vegetarian food, and that the food for sale is mostly disgusting (and that the management of my household is none of his damned business…yes I was furious!). The misplaced assumptions in these first encounters speak volumes about what they must think of us. Welcome to the neighborhood…WTF!

Lest I finish this post on a sour note, I should end my first impressions of living in Darussalam by mentioning one more thing that I love about this town and noticed right away. Most homes really enjoy having greenery, and in particular I like that there is not a lot of focus on highly manicured landscaping… the greenery just surrounds and grows in all kinds of ways. I will try to take more pictures of household greenery in the future because there are so many kinds of creatively chaotic arrangements, but for now this is all I could get:

Note: An earlier version of this post appears at http://fotofoto.livejournal.com/209225.html

Categories
Anthropology Book Club Indonesia Reflexive

Book Club: A Shadow Falls in the Heart of Java

Less than a few chapters into Andrew Beatty’s ethnographic travel memoir A Shadow Falls in the Heart of Java the two Big Bads in the book emerge:  The State & Reformist Islam. Through efficient descriptive vignettes about the people in a mountainside village just outside of Banyuwangi in East Java where Beatty and his family lived for several years, these twin threats to village harmony are quickly boiled down to singular referents. To evoke state violence, Beatty needs only to mention the haunting specter of “1965,” while the ultimate symbol of intrusive Islamic orthodoxy is the blaring “megaphone” on village mosques and prayer houses.  It’s a tidy and effective narrative strategy, but troubling in its over-simplification.

In the mid-1990s when Beatty did his fieldwork, the memories of 1965 have sedimented, leaving its mark on village social organization, and ensuring at least a superficial stability. State violence has receded to an implicit threat, but remains no less effective as the primary instrument of governance at the height of Soeharto’s “benevolent” military dictatorship. All political ideologies were banned beneath the state ideology of Pancasila, and that included political Islam. Some historians and political scientists argue that the Soeharto regime’s increasing accommodation of Islam within the state apparatus signaled one of the first stages of its disintegration. Beatty doesn’t get into the national level macro-politics that preceded Soeharto’s fall, but that may partially explain the (authorized) emergence of a more strident and pious brand of Islam in “Bayu,” the pseudonymously named village where he did his research.

Book Cover for "A Shadow Falls in the Heart of Java" by Andrew Beatty
Book Cover for "A Shadow Falls in the Heart of Java" by Andrew Beatty

I’ve been living and working in Indonesia since 1989, so I know how this story ends, and it’s ugly. I cringed and winced as insults and threats accumulate against well-intentioned leaders and ordinary villagers in Bayu because I know that the climax here is the horrific so-called “ninja killings” of hundreds of suspected “sorcerers” throughout East Java in the late 1990s. In many ways, the twin figures of State Violence and Islamic Orthodoxy richly deserve Beatty’s partisan critique. (A fair criticism of Beatty’s bias against religious orthodoxy in this book can be found in Nicholas Herriman’s review, so I won’t dwell on this any further.) He unabashedly favors Bayu’s intensely local and tolerant continuum of religious practices so richly and warmly described in the book. Quite frankly, so do I. The stories from Bayu echo the experiences I had during my first year in Yogyakarta in 1989-1990, which have brought me back to Indonesia again and again.

I pursue anthropology and stand by its methods because the practice and writing of ethnography and the social theories that come out of it are capable of helping us better understand how and why these things happen. After reading Beatty’s book, I was reminded of two excellent examples. The first is Clifford Geertz’s A Social History of an Indonesian Town, which takes the more abstract and encyclopedic descriptions from his Religion of Java and shows how they play out socially and politically in an actual time and place: a small Javanese market town during Indonesia’s first experiment in representative party politics during the 1950s. Geertz identified internal rifts within loosely delineated social groups (the now overly-reified abangan, santri, and priyayi categories) driven by the post-colonial forces of nationalism, political organization, bureaucratization, and so on. Modernizing factions within each of these communities appeared increasingly organized along ideological platforms rather than the more traditional geographic and social bonds that typically served to smooth over political and religious differences. Formerly “simple indexes of received practice” became “emblems of consciously adopted and vigorously defended ideological positions.” Custom became doctrine, the concrete became abstract, the specific became general, and the unquestioned grew apologetic. The experiment was short-lived; Soekarno’s “Guided Democracy” and then Soeharto’s “New Order” governments justified their dictatorships on the premise that the masses couldn’t handle democracy and politics. Post-1965 Java submitted to the New Order’s version of Pancasila Democracy, and for 32 years that was the end of openly expressed political differences based on ideology.

The second example from anthropology comes from John Pemberton’s On the Subject of “Java.” If Geertz argued that an understanding of local culture is necessary to make sense of the seemingly chaotic events (such as a local election) unfolding in Java, then Pemberton’s book, in careful historiographic and ethnographic detail, reverses this assumption and instead discerns a “culture effect” wrought by history upon the Javanese people that goes back to Dutch colonialism but remains alive and well in Soeharto’s New Order Indonesia. European concepts such as “ritual,” “culture” and “tradition” have a discursive effect that royalty, bureaucrats, and villagers in Java internalize and reproduce eagerly to an extent that everyday practice assumes a customary reality. But New Order cultural discourse, in its relentless effort to recuperate and preserve traditional “Java,” is always and necessarily left with a residual trace or a fleeting sense of absence. Part of Pemberton’s description of the “culture effect” entails the abstraction of specific religious practices into an overarching set of Javanese traditions and rituals. When a village guardian spirit named Tangled Whiskers may once have been satisfied with an offering of gin and cigars, the cultural discourse on “Java” effaces intensely local idiosyncrasies. Villagers make general offerings in the name of “tradition” but remain uncertain of any outcome. It’s never enough, never quite satisfies.

Fast-forward now to mid-late 1990s when Beatty is doing his fieldwork. He laments the rise of Islamic orthodoxy and the majority of moderate villagers in Bayu who don’t like it but do nothing to stop it. Bayu’s own idiosyncratic guardian spirit is a were-tiger named Buyut that resides in the wild forests to the south. But as Beatty documents in the chapter titled “The Sanctuary,” a consultation with Buyut leaves one of the villagers with doubt, more questions than answers. At the moment when political Islam was authorized in the late New Order regime, suddenly there was an ideological alternative to the ossified Pancasila and its empty generic discourse on culture. Say what you like about political Islam, but if modern Islamic orthodoxy offers anything at all it’s certainty in an uncertain world. Relativistic and tolerant varieties of Javanese religion, drained of the local and idiosyncratic details that gave its practice meaning and its own kind of certainty, surrender in the face of such unwavering faith, firstly in the name of compromise and local harmony, and then perhaps secondly due to lack of any convincing alternatives. But make no mistake: when dogma trumps custom, the effects are disruptive… and deadly.

The book ends with a brief description of the ninja killings in East Java, and a mere suggestion of how state actors and radical Islamists may have come together to perpetrate riots, church burnings, and the massacre of hundreds of supposed “sorcerers” (many of whom were known to be mentally disabled village idiots). We learn that the religious fanatics in Bayu steal away at night to a distant location and study magic-inflected martial arts with a mysterious trainer. The village head has survived an attempted administrative coup against his leadership perpetrated by these same fanatics, but the once affable secular nationalist ends up a depressed and broken man after bearing witness to the changes in Bayu. It’s thoroughly depressing.

The other day I had a chat with another American friend of mine based here in Aceh (so far from Java!). He was feeling down about Indonesia and asked me why we keep coming back. What did we fall in love with in this country that brings us back to work here again and again? Bearing this book in mind, I recalled all those special things about my first few years coming to Indonesia. Most of that is gone; Indonesia has changed irrevocably (and to be fair, so have I). I think this book was so painful for me to read because it reminds me of all that is lost, yang sudah hilang. But that doesn’t mean I think Indonesia is worse off now than it was twenty years ago. Far from it. The undeniably horrific spasms of violence that wracked Indonesia in the years immediately after the fall of the New Order have subsided, and the Indonesia that emerged from the wreckage is now a semi-competent democracy with a resurgent economy. In retrospect, all those magical days and enchanting nights of my late teens and early twenties in places like Yogyakarta, Klaten, and Parangtritis now seem like rich mystifications, seductive “culture effects” encouraged and reinforced in broad strokes by an insufferably repressive regime.

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Anthropology Book Club Conflict Indonesia Reflexive

Book Club: Conflict, Violence, and Displacement in Indonesia

Any book might have been a compelling jolt out of the academic ambivalence that precedes (and prevents) my dissertation, but it happened to be Conflict, Violence, and Displacement in Indonesia, published last year by the Cornell Southeast Asia Program, and edited by Eva-Lotta E. Hedman. I was surprised to find it at Aksara on my last trip to Jakarta so I picked it up, not least because I had dinner once with Eva-Lotta here in Banda Aceh a few years ago and should familiarize myself with her work. The cover has a terrific photograph that for me perfectly captures the inherent tension between structure and agency that animates so much anthropological debate. This woman IDP returning home to Halmahera from her displacement in Ternate in 2002 is decidedly *not* interested in the policeman’s direction, but she probably doesn’t have much choice or where else to go.

The back cover states the book’s mission: “This volume foregrounds the dynamics of displacement and the experiences of internal refugees uprooted by conflict and violence in Indonesia.” In doing so, Hedman hopes to achieve a threefold intervention, described in the last paragraph of the Introduction (p.27):

  1. Instead of a focus on explaining violence and conflict in Indonesia, which has the unfortunate–some might say unavoidable–byproduct of displacement, this book highlights displacement itself as an actual mode of governmentality. She invokes Agamben’s “state of exception” theory here.
  2. Instead of reducing Indonesia to one case study in a global comparative analysis of sectarian or communal violence, terrorism, or failed states, this book allows for a deeper and multi-layered analysis within Indonesia’s borders, which has more diverse comparative material on “conflict, violence, and displacement” than most other nation-states could claim.
  3. Instead of situating this book within discourses of the emergent and well-funded transnational humanitarian industry, concerned with describing the distribution of conflict and violence and prescribing solutions for it, an industry that arguably reflects and reproduces “a more pervasive/violence discourse, … this volume serves as a reminder that the very processes involved in the production of knowledge about displacement cannot, by definition, remain somehow outside or above politics.” (p.27)

Each “intervention” grips and excites me, but each in their own particular way. I’ll start with the second one, because that poses no disagreement. I’ve accepted that in some elite institutions regional studies may be unfashionable second tier academia, but I think of myself as an Indonesianist, so I enthusiastically support Hedman’s claim that a more fine-grained analysis of Indonesia at the nation-state and regional levels precedes, and supersedes, global comparison. Anthropologists, at least in a Boasian tradition, have the least problem with getting “intensely local,” multi-sited theoretical developments aside, so at least in my discipline I don’t have to apologize for putting regional and thematic issues on an equal footing. I love this book already because it’s all about Indonesia! It even has two chapters about Aceh!

The first “intervention” drags me back, kicking and screaming, to my anthropological training. I think I was assigned Agamben in at least two courses, and the “state of exception” (also a highlight in Walter Benjamin’s work) is a powerful analytic deployed frequently in contemporary ethnography. It’s not that I think it’s wrong; rather, my day-to-day work in Aceh over the years has not encouraged, broadly speaking, a discursive analytical framework. Foucault & friends do not come easy to begin with, and I have to flex the brain a few times to “get it.” When I first read Hedman’s Introduction, I thought her writing was strange, excessive, and strident… even as I found myself agreeing with her. Writing about late Soekarno-era military adventures along the nation’s borders, here is an excerpt that stands out:

The West New Guinea and Konfrontasi campaigns served, in distinct ways, to shape the social (re)production of state borders and national space in Indonesia through militarized conflict, violence, and displacement. In the case of the West New Guinea campaign… it prompted a creeping militarization of the long border with Papua New Guinea and the emergence of a growing and, eventual, so-called ‘protracted refugee situation’ across this border, thus anchoring Jakarta’s claims to the last remnants of the (former) Dutch East Indies colonial territory in new lived experiences of political boundaries and violent geographies on Indonesia’s easternmost frontier. … The undeclared border war known as Konfrontasi prompted a new consciousness of the border between Indonesia and Malaysia and the wider social and economic effects thereof, as ‘people from across the border came to be viewed as outsiders rather than relatives.’ (p.12)

Violence and displacement not only consolidate national boundaries but are also productive of national consciousness among displaced populations at Indonesia’s most distant frontiers. I get it. I’ve even written papers like this. It’s just been awhile. Like I said, any decent ethnography may have (re)oriented me (natch!) back to my discipline’s theoretical for-granteds, but I am grateful that this one did the job.

I take issue with the third “intervention,” and only partly because it kicks me where it counts. She writes: “The mobilization of a massive transnational ‘humanitarian’ machinery, with its own considerable complex of national and international, governmental and non-governmental, resources, networks, and discourses, has propelled an entire industry focused on ‘conflict and violence in Indonesia,’ including the so-called mapping of conflict and violence, the search for conflict intervention mechanisms, and the design of peace and conflict resolution programs.” Such efforts, she says, arguably reflect and reproduce “a more pervasive conflict/violence discourse ‘grounded in a set of institutions that promotes its persistence.'” (p.27) At the end of the line there she is quoting from a book I haven’t heard of before, by Paul Brass, titled Theft of an Idol: Text and Context in the Representation of Collective Violence, published in 1997 by Princeton University Press. After a quick browse online, here is how the publisher describes the book, which is an ethnography of communal violence in northern India:  

Brass shows how, out of many possible interpretations applicable to these incidents, government and the media select those that support existing relations of power in state and society…some incidents remain localized while others are fit into broader frameworks of meaning, thereby becoming useful for upholders of dominant ideologies. Incessant talk about violence and its implications in these circumstances contributes to its persistence rather than its reduction. Such treatment serves in fact to mask the causes of violence, displace the victims from the center of attention, and divert society’s gaze from those responsible for its endemic character.

OK now let’s compare Hedman’s words and her reference point with my current job. I work for World Bank Indonesia’s Conflict and Development team (read: massive transnational ‘humanitarian’ machinery…focused on ‘conflict and violence in Indonesia,’). My job is to support The Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies at Syiah Kuala University, which receives much of its funding from the World Bank (read: the search for conflict intervention mechanisms, and the design of peace and conflict resolution programs). Our signature product is the Aceh Peace Monitoring Update, which relies on a newspaper monitoring methodology to map conflict and violence in Aceh since early 2005 (read: including the so-called mapping of conflict and violence). In Hedman’s own chapter, “Back to the Barracks: Relokasi Pengungsi in Post-Tsunami Aceh,” she cites one of these monitoring updates (when it was still called the Aceh Conflict Monitoring Update, and still produced directly by the World Bank). It’s not unlikely that the critique in her Introduction is directed squarely at my employer and its publications. In a word: Ouch!

It’s not like she is the only one to make this critique. There is a blooming critical literature in the social sciences about humanitarianism, Mariella Pandolfi’s “mobile sovereign” and all that, wherein the state of exception figures heavily as well. The problem with this critique though is that it sets up a straw man figure of the (faceless) Humanitarian, and if that is your image, then The Bank is such an easy and obvious target. In that conversation, structure beats agency every time, with a knockout punch, except it’s rigged! I prefer the more productive tension illustrated on the book cover.

So in an effort to balance Hedman’s third intervention, I just want to say two things. The first is that these conversations and critiques also take place within the humanitarian industry itself. Humanitarians might possibly be the most reflexive professionals around, after anthropologists of course. The second is that humanitarians are not (only) cylon machinery. One could argue perhaps that some are more “interpellated by structures of power and domination” than, say, some critical anthropologists think that they’re not, but they’ve got agency in there somewhere (In Jakarta, for example, I choose Starbucks over Oh-La-La). Humanitarians also have lives, and frustrations, and lovers, and even moral commitments, and well, experience, that are ethnographically rich, and that is something still missing from this critical literature.

I should add, now that I’ve got that off my chest, that Hedman is partially right. My office does not have total neutrality and autonomy when it writes a peace monitoring update, but I think most of us are aware of that. There are subtle and blunt forces that shape the content, style, and language of those reports. The details of such forces are indeed ethnographically rich; I savor them actually (because the process is so fascinating), even as they frustrate and compel me/us to self-censor. The net effect favors, though hardly explicitly and certainly not intentionally, an assemblage of powerful interests. This is what draws me to the Paul Brass book, in due time; I don’t think I’ll find that one at Aksara.

There is so much more to write, to fill in the details of the previous two paragraphs just for example, but that’s beyond the scope of this post. Regarding this wonderful new book that got my head ticking again, I’ve only really addressed the Introduction, but there is a great collection of chapters, and so far I’ve read the two excellent Aceh chapters (Hedman wrote one about the early and decisive days for managing the tsunami IDPs, Ed Aspinall wrote the other one about three major waves of conflict IDPs between 1998 and 2005). I am really looking forward to the last chapter which is about ghosts with trauma and a haunting drakula in post-conflict North Maluku. But for now, I’ve got my own chapter to write, for another book, and I’m hoping this conversation here serves as an inspiration.