Aurora Donzelli on her book, One or Two Words

One or Two Words

Interview by Nicco La Mattina

Nicco La Mattina: A principle theme running throughout One or Two Words is that of “collective belonging” and how forms of collective belonging are crafted, achieved, maintained, and transformed discursively in the Toraja highlands of Sulawesi, Indonesia. What is “collective belonging” and how is this concept developed in One or Two Words?

Aurora Donzelli: You really hit the nail on the head: that collective belonging is indeed a key and perhaps under-theorized theme in my book. One or Two Words draws on almost two decades of intermittent fieldwork in a relatively peripheral region of the Indonesian archipelago to describe how, after the collapse of Suharto’s military regime (a.k.a. New Order), individuals make use of words and things to re-imagine their position within a fast-changing multilingual nation and manufacture new forms of participation in the immediate community of consociates. Since the turn of the millennium, Indonesia has undergone a major transition from a highly centralized autocratic state to a network mode of neoliberal governance. After three plus decades under General Suharto’s authoritarian rule, the Reform Era (or Era Reformasi) has prompted substantial changes, ranging from a gradual but drastic administrative devolution to the privatization of large sectors of the country’s economy. My main goal in this book is to explore how these structural and institutional transformations are at once enabled by and reflected in the open-ended recalibration of the power relations between the national language (Bahasa Indonesia) and a multifarious variety of vernacular idioms and registers. I use the concept of collective belonging as a lens to chart out how my interlocutors in the Toraja highlands of Sulawesi craft emergent forms of membership in their daily interactions in both the local community and the post-Suharto nation-state.

But to fully answer your question, I have to make a confession. My use of “collective belonging” is an implicit attempt to suggest an alternative to “identity”—a term I generally try to avoid. My focus on collective belonging is an invitation to look at how individuals use language to variously give shape to their experience of being part of a group, which, far from being a matter of solipsistic self-representations, always entails stance-staking processes and forms of metapragmatic participation in different scales of collective membership. My reservations about “identity” are both theoretical and political. Nowadays, whenever the term is invoked, be it in scholarly debates or quotidian conversations, it has become almost cliché to add that identities are positional, fluid, and intersectional. And, yet, perhaps due to the fact that it originates from the Latin demonstrative pronoun/adjective idem (“the same”), the term seems to inherently aspire to fixity and to imply an entity that remains the same under changing circumstances and situations. Since the mid-1990s, linguistic anthropologists and ethnographers of language have shown how identities are unstable and interaction-specific configurations discursively produced through complex assemblages of multimodal semiotic practices (think, for example, of the work done by Mary Bucholtz, Kira Hall, Penny Eckert, Norma Mendoza-Denton, but also Ben Rampton, Charles Antaki, and Peter Auer, among the others). Such scholarship has enabled us to think in more sophisticated terms about “identity” and represents one of the most significant (and probably under-acknowledged) contributions offered by scholars of linguistic interaction to social theory. And yet, as the term “identity” travels outside the realm of fine-grained analyses of communicative exchange to enter into other domains and debates, some of this sophistication is flattened or even lost.

The contemporary resurge of identity politics displays what to me appears as a problematic proprietary twist and is part of a broader ideological and semiotic shift towards a possessive notion of meaning and an individualist view of the hermeneutic processes of social life. As the Italian hip hop artist Marracash has eloquently put it in his recent song cosplayer: Perché tutto è inclusivo a parte i posti esclusivi, no?/Oggi che tutti lottiamo così tanto per difendere le nostre identità/Abbiamo perso di vista quella collettiva (Because everything is inclusive except from exclusive places, right?/Now that we strive so hard to defend our identities/we have lost sight of the collective). I too have strong reservations against this cultural drift, for it seems to pivot on the model of the contractarian individual and self-contained rational subject underlying most of contemporary public discourse. As a result of these trends, the complexity of a nuanced and positional notion of identity is often reduced to a perfunctory acknowledgment. My emphasis on “collective belonging” is a product of these concerns.

Nicco La Mattina: In your book, you discuss the contestation of “tradition” or “custom” [adat] as a category in colonial, national, and local discourses of differentiation. What is the relevance of discourses about “local traditional culture” and the usage of the regional language (Toraja) in the formation and transformation of forms of sociality?

Aurora Donzelli: I appreciate your question as it underscores the historical dimension of the ethnographic account I sought to provide in my monograph. Archival work has always been a fundamental component of my approach to the study of the interface between language and social relations and speaking as a cultural practice. One or Two Words aims to explore the process whereby my Toraja interlocutors have gradually developed a sense of themselves as an indigenous community. To this end, it is essential to pay attention to historical documents and analyze the cultural politics developed during the one hundred plus years that stretch from the late Dutch colonial period (from early 1900s till the Japanese invasion of 1942), to the post-independence phase (1945-1965), to Suharto’s New Order regime (1966-1998), through the advent of the Era Reformasi. This historical perspective reveals how the production of an earlier discourse of cultural distinctiveness framed through the colonial category of customary traditions (adat) has gradually morphed (during the last two decades) into a self-reflexive cosmopolitan idiom of indigeneity. My account is thus driven by the attempt to combine the longitudinal analysis of these larger discursive formations with the fine-grained analysis of how individuals, during the course of their daily interactions, positions themselves with respect to these different and somewhat coexisting versions of ethno-linguistic distinctiveness.

As Arjun Appadurai suggested, locality should not be equated or reduced to the mere demographic and geographical dimension of a spatially bounded territory, but rather has to be understood as a form of social experience produced through the work of imagination and interaction. One or Two Words explores how people, within the highly multilingual environment of the Toraja highlands (and the Indonesian archipelago at large), enact locality (and broader forms of subjectively experienced groupness) through situated acts of discourse. By attending to concrete instances of communicative exchange, I aim to problematize simplistic sociolinguistic models based on a direct correspondence between language choice and social affiliation. Indeed, participation in a socially shared sense of belonging to a group is hardly an all-or-nothing business. The transcribed excerpts presented throughout the book show how performances of locality may at times result in proud invocations of ethno-linguistic distinctiveness, while, other times, the local language may be presented as an index of provincial backwardness. In a similar fashion, the use of Indonesian is not always and not necessarily an appeal to the higher authority of a supra-local national code. Speakers may switch to Indonesian to assert a peripheral position of metapragmatic criticism against established linguistic hierarchies and thus highlight, in a parodic key, the paradoxes of the rhetoric of development typical of the New Order.

Nicco La Mattina: You mention that the post-Suharto era is often represented as a radical rupture with the past, and yet the discursive and aesthetic forms associated with the New Order proved to be of continuing relevance to your work. How does the idea of “aesthetic crossovers” contribute to understanding the articulation of global processes in a neoliberalizing Indonesia?

Aurora Donzelli: Like my first monograph (Methods of Desire, 2019), One or Two Words revolves around the core questions that have driven my research and my thinking for several years now: To what extent structural changes may reconfigure entrenched linguistic political economies? What happens when the implicit routines informing what Harvey Sacks called “doing being ordinary” are somewhat disrupted by novel political practices and ideologies? How shall we approach from a theoretical and methodological standpoint the relationship between the given (that is, tacit procedures) and the categorical (that is, explicit paradigm shifts)? What units of analysis should we use to describe and understand the linguistic implications of events locally perceived as “reform” of the sociopolitical order? Unlike my previous book, however, the focus here is not so much on the language-mediated shifts in structures of feelings and moral reasoning, but rather on the re-articulation of the relationship between national and local languages in a country renowned for its great linguistic diversity; and on the parallel transformation of forms of political imagination in the aftermath of the collapse of an authoritarian regime.

I use the musicological concept of crossover (understood as the blending of different genres targeted at a new audience) as an allegorical framework to describe the interplay of continuity and change that characterizes present-day Indonesia. Indeed, contrary to the representation of the post-Suharto transformation as radical rupture with the past, the contemporary moment in Indonesia appears as a complex transitional phase, in which different genres and registers overlap, producing unexpected constellations of speech forms and political practices. The Toraja Highlands (and Indonesia at large) have been exposed to apparently contradictory strands of discourse: the promotion of local customs and the diffusion of transnational ideologies of democracy; the celebration of pre-capitalistic communal values and the neoliberal extension of market principles into every aspect of cultural and socio-political life; the push toward political renovation and the revival of indigenous political and linguistic practices. By focusing on the blending of continuity and change, my analysis tries to show how contemporary appeals to transnational discourses of indigeneity should be understood in relationship with (and as a challenge to) pre-existing constructions of the ‘local’ modeled on the cultural politics of colonial and developmentalist regimes. This analytical perspective reveals novel forms of empowering positionality based on a new aesthetics of “the vintage”—mediated by references to early post-colonial discourse and images—and “the peripheral,” expressed through the valorization of regional codes. While, during the New Order, the use of vernacular languages within institutional settings was stigmatized as a marker of backwardness and illiteracy, now the switch to local languages may project a trendy (at once cosmopolitan and indigenous) speaking subject.

Nicco La Mattina: You attend to the distribution and exchange of meat, meals, and cash between landowners and sharecroppers and between islanders and the diasporic community. How does the circulation of material language, cattle, and cash contribute to the production of indigeneity and the cultivation of collective belonging?

Aurora Donzelli: One or Two Words is in strict conversation with the emerging interest in linguistic materialities and the material components of signification, but also with previous studies on the intersection of speech and things (e.g., Malinowski’s Coral Gardens, Nancy Munn’s The Fame of Gawa, Webb Keane’s Signs of Recognition). The different chapters describe how—in the remote and primarily rural region of eastern Indonesia where I conducted my fieldwork—people use spoken words, digitally transmitted messages, cash, and other material things to produce novel ways of imagining the local community and the nation-state. In spite of their apparent geographic isolation, the Toraja have a long history of encounters with exogenous cultural and socio-economic forces, which can be properly understood only if we consider both the circulation of words and the exchange of things. In this perspective, the Toraja highlands should not be seen not a remote region inhabited by an ethno-linguistic and religious minority, but rather as a site of cosmopolitan intersections. By bringing together within the same analytical field linguistic and material activity, the book aims to offer an interaction-centered approach to indigeneity—a semantically and politically complex term whose minimal definition entails material and symbolic forms of attachment to a specific land, collectively imagined as homeland.

As I am further learning through my new project on the relation between language and indigenous foodways among Italian neo-rural entrepreneurs and hobby farmers, objects (e.g., regional food-items, indigenous horticultural varieties, organically produced seeds, etc.) mediate forms of symbolic and material attachment and enable culturally distinctive forms of sociality. In a similar way, in Toraja, material items are key in producing forms of collective belonging and indigenous imaginings. Of special relevance is the local system of ritual gifts and counter-gifts based on the purchase, slaughtering, and exchange of pigs and buffaloes. Regulated through complex social norms, active participation in these exchanges is a sine qua non condition of belonging in the Toraja community. In this light, the Toraja gift system is a core semiotic technology for establishing the individual’s membership within a transnationally imagined local community. To be Toraja means to owe and be owed, and to be implicated in a web of interpersonal expectations that only become visible through funerals, weddings, and house-ceremonies. This powerful social logic constitutes the bedrock of the strict relationship between the Toraja dwelling in the highlands and the large diaspora who live in other Indonesian and overseas locales. Therefore if we want to fully understand the ongoing recalibration of power relations between rural peripheries and global metropoles we need to attend to the semiotic practices of exchange and translation of both words and material objects: how are vernacular idioms converted into national and transnational codes? Which types of (in-person or digitally-mediated) speech acts are needed to exchange the meat of ritually slaughtered animals?  How are ritual offerings of pigs and buffaloes translated into monetary equivalents? How is the affective labor of hospitality and social solidarity traded for payments in kind and translated into sharecropping arrangements? To understand the diasporic social connections that structure the Toraja imagined community my ethnographic account seeks to provide snapshots of the actual semiotic labor that people perform in their daily lives as they deal with a complex social grammar of reciprocal exchange.

Nicco La Mattina: In One or Two Words, as in much of your work generally, you attend to translation practices and ideologies about translation, in particular between the national Indonesian language and Toraja, a regional language. What is the role of translation in your work and in the discursive enactment of collective belonging?

Aurora Donzelli: Translation is indeed central to this book and to my work in general, which is, of course, hardly surprising for a linguistic anthropologist working in a highly multilingual environment like Indonesia. This is a very good and extensive question: let me begin by noting that the very title of the book “one or two words” is a somewhat clunky English literal translation of the Toraja expression “sang buku duang kada,” which, in turn, is an imperfect rendering of the Indonesian term “pidato” (“oration,” “public address”). So, in a way, the entire book can be read as an attempt to reflect on the cultural and ethnopramgmatic implications of this lack of direct correspondence. One of the main points that I try to make as I attend to this task is to show how translation cannot be understood as a naturalistic operation undertaken in a political vacuum. As Elinor Ochs noted in her seminal article about the practice of transcription, translation is never a neutral and straightforward endeavor. Not only any actual exercise of translation is always inflected with theoretical goals and assumptions, but translations (even when only potential and imagined) are always embedded within power-laden relations between codes and registers, which inform language ideologies and are affected by larger semiotic ideologies—a term Webb Keane coined to refer to the often implicit but always meaningful and effectual assumptions about what signs are, how they function, and how they are linked to their objects.

Translation is one of the fundamental tropes in the history of anthropology as a discipline. However, I find that, somewhat paradoxically, the linguocentric and philological bend that at times characterizes linguistic anthropological work may occlude our ability to appreciate more inclusive and extensive notions of translation, which encompass not simply translation between idioms, but also between audiences, discursive genres, semiotic modalities, cultural frameworks, pragmatic contexts, and, perhaps even more importantly, between different ideologies and practices of (in)-translatability.From a methodological standpoint, there is a common and often unspoken preference among linguistic anthropologists to prioritize monolingual work in the target language. This, of course, goes all the way back to old debates (such as the one that took place in 1939-1940 between Margaret Mead and Robert Lowie) on “native languages as fieldwork tools” and on the degree of linguistic fluency required by ethnographers. In the highly multilingual environment where I undertook my fieldwork I was often confronted with translanguaging practices whereby my interlocutors would draw upon different codes within their repertoire (Indonesian, English, Bugis, etc.), both during the course of transcription sessions and in casual conversations. Although it meant departing from the imperative of monolingual fieldwork, switching across different languages and metalanguages provided me with valuable insights into the local ideologies of translation, linguistic competence, grammaticalness, and collective belonging. One or Two Words is thus an attempt to explore notions and practices of (in)-translatability as a way to understand the political economies of language and their ongoing recalibration in an Indonesian periphery.