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
Conflict Film Club Indonesia

Confucianism Gets the Short End of the Joss Stick in Hanung Bramantyo’s “?”

In one of the opening scenes in Hanung Bramantyo’s new film “?” (“Tanda Tanya,” or “Question Mark”) we meet one of the main characters, Rika, who is busy cleaning up and organizing the shelves in her bookstore. I don’t remember her exact words, but she says with exasperation to her friend Suryo who stops by at closing time, something to the effect of: “The novels are in the self-help section, the school books are in the business section, and worst of all… these pulp romance novels [Rika holds up a paperback with a sexy scene on the cover] are in the children’s section!”

With these few lines Rika has summed up the whole movie for us with a cute metaphor. The multi-faith, multi-ethnic characters in “?” live in an old tempo doeloe nostalgia-inducing downtown neighborhood of Semarang called “Pasar Baru” (“New Market”). Pasar Baru is like Rika’s disorganized bookstore, and the characters are the books, who try relentlessly to classify and organize each other onto their respective book shelves (by religion, ethnicity, gender and family roles), but always come up against the messy realities of everyday life that refuse simple classification. Ironic that Rika complains about her disorganized books because her story poses the most confounding and stigmatizing situation of all (like pulp romance in the children’s section) for her neighbors and family: Rika is a recently divorced single mother who is unapologetically yet haltingly in the process of converting from Islam to Catholicism. Janda murtad! Apostasy!

The characters’ melodramatic stories of faith and family, love and death, take place in present-day Indonesia, specifically throughout the year 2010, which is to say their mixed-up lives are set against the backdrop of increasingly intolerant black-or-white religious discourses. The film begins, climaxes, and ends with scenes of headline-grabbing religious violence—all in Pasar Baru no less—that sadly and too easily overshadow the small acts of tolerance, consideration and accommodation that nearly all of the characters make, with plenty of personal struggle, for one another. Here is the promotional preview clip:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L1rBl4KJc4U&w=560&h=349&rel=0]

Hanung Bramantyo has produced this film as a statement in favor of tolerance in a diverse society, and the film is sparking a lot of debate on social media that generally embraces the film’s message, at least on the surface. A quick search for #TandaTanya on Twitter yields a lot more favorable than negative comments. But of course, a small number of religious purists are able to hijack the debate and denounce the film making absurd statements and fatwas peppered generously with shallow understandings of words like haram, sesat, murtad, pluralism, and kafir to describe it. They say it’s a hate piece against Islam, as if there were no crass depictions of intolerance among the Catholics and Confucians, as if there were no positive images of Islamic faith and practice, as if we can safely assume that the depictions of violence were committed by Islamic extremists. Hanung addresses these silly one-track diatribes point by point here, so I’m not interested in addressing further the strange and disruptive influence of just a few adherents to Indonesia’s majority religion so dangerously insecure and uncomfortable with everyone else around them.

Although I should probably question my methods, I tried to do a little score-keeping throughout the film to see who gets the short end of the metaphorical joss stick. The main groups depicted are Javanese Muslims, Javanese Catholics, and Chinese Confucians. One character from each group dies violently in the film. We witness one conversion from Islam to Catholicism, and another from Confucianism to Islam. If we want to zealously police the boundaries of organized faith—keeping our bookshelves in order so to speak—then we might consider conversion into a faith as a net gain, and conversion out of a faith as a net loss, or a metaphorical death, for each faith community. By my count, the Confucians in the film lose two characters, the Muslims lose one, and the Catholics come out even.

Ironically, it’s the Chinese-Indonesian family in the film that makes the extra effort to accommodate the Muslim majority in Pasar Baru. They keep a separate set of dishware and cooking utensils at their restaurant for the customers who don’t eat pork; they gently remind their Muslim staff that it’s time for prayers; they cover the windows and do not serve any pork during Ramadan and then stay closed for the major feasting holiday at Ramadan’s end. It is the elderly Chinese couple who own this restaurant that stand out as compelling moral anchors of accumulated day-to-day wisdom and tolerance in the film, no doubt born from necessity living as a persecuted minority for generations in Java. They remind me of the wise old black women and men that show up in so many Hollywood films. (to be fair, there is also a wonderful young ustad and an elderly priest who each give wise counsel to their congregations throughout the film) For all that wisdom, in service of some greater communal good in Pasar Baru, the Chinese characters are rewarded with an unequal share (per capita, let’s say, for emphasis) of death and departure from faith. The film ends with a secular celebration of the New Year (2011) for everyone in Pasar Baru—its community reconstituted and at peace once again—plus an affirmation of the human capacity for change, to continuously struggle for what’s right for oneself and one’s community based on heart and faith… but there is little evidence to suggest that any deeper change has occurred. The categories that organize the people in Pasar Baru remain in tact, and the religious and ethnic minorities have made disproportionate and requisite sacrifices in order to keep it that way. Rika’s book store? Still in business!

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.