Patricia Spyer on her book, Orphaned Landscapes

Interview by Karen Strassler

Karen Strassler: You are writing about a moment of profound destabilization and disorientation: a religious war that has torn apart the city, and in the national context, the end of a thirty-two year dictatorship. Perhaps we could start with some of that context by way of an explanation of the title of the book. Why Orphaned Landscapes?

Patricia Spyer: The title Orphaned Landscapes operates across different registers in the book, both ethnographically and theoretically. At the same time, it is meant to highlight the general predicament of uncertainty, crisis, and rupture that animates all of them, if differently. Nationally, it designates the ‘orphaned landscapes’ and sense of “looseness at the center” left in the wake of the Suharto regime’s collapse and the withdrawal of the longstanding authoritarian leader who styled himself the father of the nation and Indonesia, by extension, as one big family (Kusno 2010: 36). As the regime unraveled, the figure of the lone child, standing apart from violence, witnessing brutality and national destruction yet safeguarding the nation’s integrity and future, proliferated. Crucial here was the oscillating position of this figure–at times literally orphaned–between belonging to the nation, on the one hand, and a detachment from authority and position beyond it, on the other.

To be sure, the broader circumstances of the regime’s end provided a significant if distant backdrop to the events I describe in Ambon. But the book also homes in closely on the Christian men and women who identified with the city’s old Dutch colonial-derived Calvinist church and their sense of waning privilege and abandonment by authority within the violence that inflected the national situation at this eastern end of the archipelago and the country’s islamicization since the 1990s or another sense of orphaned landscape. A central focus of the book is how these Protestant Ambonese responded to and attempted to shape these circumstances discursively, performatively, and especially through the street pictures. In yet another register of the book title, I argue that the Christian pictures may themselves be understood as a kind of orphaned landscape since, in many respects, they were at odds with—indeed a form of graphic protest within—the environment in which they emerged.

Karen Strassler: Can you talk about how this moment of abandonment and collapse gave rise to an intense “turn to the visual” and, in particular, to the emergence of monumental images of Christ around the city?

Patricia Spyer: While the situation in Ambon and the “turn to the visual” within the Muslim-Christian conflict of the early 2000s had its own dynamics, the uptake locally of the prevalent political discourse of transparency and the demand to bring hidden things into public view associated with the Reformasi movement that brought Suharto down was certainly an important dimension. But there were others as well, including some that were probably more salient in the context of the war carried out in Ambon in religion’s name. These include the longue durée history of the unequal recognition and visibility of Christians versus Muslims in the region. A more immediate factor was what I characterize as the “extreme perception” that emerged during the conflict as the fog of war—a formulation indebted to the nineteenth-century Prussian military general, Carl von Clausewitz—cloaked the city, presenting new challenges to seeing, knowing, and understanding what was seen, the erosion of trust in what could be apprehended, and the emergence of “anticipatory practices” that aimed at piercing wartime’s lack of clarity and heading off its myriad dangers. The sense of a pervasive blindness accompanying war’s uncertainty and murk stood out in conversations I had with Ambonese about the war, whether Christians or Muslims. Among Protestants, specifically—not the least the young male motorbike taxi-drivers who threw up the huge painted images of Jesus Christ and Christian scenes around the city—there was an overwhelming sense of not being seen and of having been abandoned to their plight, including imagined genocide at Muslim hands, by the authorities, from the national government in Jakarta to the United Nations, European Union, former Dutch colonizer, and IMF. Some even speculated—or, more often, claimed that other Christians speculated—that even God appeared oblivious and unaware of their dire predicament.

At the same time, some of the motor bikers also told me that they were driven to paint Christianity in Ambon’s streets because they knew he was here, insisting on God’s presence among them in wartime. This, I argue, was a case of protesting too much. Moreover, by bringing the Christian god into vision through monumental images at major urban crossroads, along highways, and at the entrance to Christian neighborhoods, they visualized and materialized his presence in their midst while simultaneously bringing themselves into view as Christian subjects. Given the identification of the young men with the aniconic tradition of the city’s Calvinist church, bringing the Christian god into vision was daring and experimental. And it had numerous ramifications that I describe in the book.

Equally relevant in considering Ambon’s “turn to” and valorization of the visual was the impetus given by the conflict to the spread of visual and audio-visual technologies from the national center to the beleaguered Malukan province. These enabled the production of incendiary Video Compact Disks (VCDs) and Public Service Announcements (Patricia SpyerAs) against violence aired on radio and television but also, crucially, new experiences like seeing one’s own street broadcast on national or even international television.

Karen Strassler: I’m wondering if you can comment on your book’s intervention into how we theorize images and violence. So often, the focus has been on photographs that expose violence and the conversation is about the political efficacy or failure of such images, their uncertain status as evidence, their affective potency, and whether they have the desired effect of moving people to action, desensitize the viewer, or turn violence into entertainment and spectacle. It seems to me you are working towards a very different way of approaching the relationship between violence and images. Some of the images are clearly poetic, that is, world-making responses to violence—efforts to repair and restore a Christian presence in the city, efforts to reclaim a sense of place. But the images are also very much part of the violence itself, rather than belated reflections on or reactions to it. Can you say more about how your book might help us think about violence and images in new ways?

Patricia Spyer: Indeed, part of my argument is that the immense public images put in place by the city’s Protestants were recuperative, a form of “representational redress” aimed at reinstalling the former Christian ‘look’ of the city and the hitherto taken for granted hegemony of Christians in Ambon and the neighboring islands of Central Maluku (Makhubu and Simbao 2013). When Christians described the street paintings as ‘comforting’ it is this particular efficacy that they singled out. But in many respects, beginning with the sheer monumentality and adamant presence of the images in urban space, they were violent. Towering over passers-by and traffic moving below, they forced themselves into public view making it, at least initially, impossible not to see them. So, one key dimension of the violence of these images was their scale and strident presence in the city. The large majority of the images also stood on public land, along highways and on sidewalks, that, in principle, is accessible to all. Rising up in these locations, the street art laid exclusive claim to these places for Christians while Christianizing the space around them through the Christian scenes and monumental Christ faces they portrayed. Standing, in many cases, at the gateways to Christian neighborhoods, the pictures branded and territorialized community in a city that became a zoned patchwork of Christian ‘red’ versus Muslim ‘white’ areas in wartime. These gateways, moreover, were commonly the location of neighborhood guardhouses where men gathered and rallied themselves during the conflict before heading into battle in city streets. Not surprisingly, given the defensive function of such sites, young men occasionally had themselves photographed brandishing weapons with the Christ images as backdrop.

Emergent in violence, the street art participated in and helped to produce the heightened energies and affective intensities of wartime as exemplified by the assertiveness and speed with which they rose up and spread across the city. Representationally, they installed a wholly Christian world either because they faithfully reproduced the images of the canonical Protestant calendar on which the majority of the street art was based or through their depictions of Christ overlooking an embattled city in unabashed portrayals that publicized a highly partisan view of the conflict. In short, the Christian pictures and violence were entangled and mutually constitutive in myriad ways—politically, affectively, socio-spatially, historically, and temporally since their role and how they were apprehended also evolved as the conflict went on and after the city’s official peace.

Karen Strassler: You use the language of atmospherics and ambiance quite a bit in the book, and although you give rich analytic attention to particular material images, you are also thinking in broader terms about visuality or what we might call the visual dimensions of the sensed and imagined world.  What is the relationship between concrete images and a broader visual terrain of seeing and unseeing?

Patricia Spyer: My thinking about atmospherics and ambiance and the impact such elusive yet potentially powerful forces have on social life, on setting the scene in which events unfold, on inflecting and patterning action over time, emerged at the very early stages of this project. It came out of the realization that in descriptions of Ambon’s conflict, scholars, journalists, and other commentators would often resort to words like climate, atmospherics, or milieu to designate a key dimension of the violence or deploy such terms as explanatory backdrops without further specifying what was meant by them, or how what they allegedly conjured impacted events in the war-torn city. In my first writing about the violence in Ambon I tried to determine analytically what these atmospherics might be, how they came about, of what they were made, and what effects they had in the conflict and emerging violence in the city. Analytically, I specified what I called an infrastructure of the imagination comprising truths, half-truths, rumors, and hearsay, but also graffiti and slanderous language sprayed on city walls, as well as popular circulatory media forms rampant during the war like incendiary pamphlets and Video Compact Disks (VCDs) that portrayed atrocities committed by the enemy other and the victimization of the self, produced by both parties to the conflict.

In the mid-2000s when I encountered the monumental Christian street art I was not only taken by their striking demonstrative presence in a city where such public displays of piety had previously been largely absent but also by the figuring impulse behind them within the larger disfiguring momentum of the war. Over time, I came to understand Ambon’s striking street pictures as potent stakes in a world that was not only spiraling into chaos and violence but for many Protestants losing the very image that they had hitherto taken for granted. In a somewhat perverse take on poetic world-making, Christian Ambonese aimed to seize hold of a disappearing world, one that upheld their historically accumulated privileges, not the least the Christian domination of the city and provincial civil bureaucracy including prize positions like that of Maluku’s governor. Via the pictures, they recalled a world that reflected back to them its reassuring Christian contours in socio-spatial and political terms and, through these, the image the Protestants had long held of themselves. This is an embattled vision, one that looks to the past and relies on and recasts old iconographies, albeit necessarily in experimental and innovative ways.

As such, the paintings were at the very center of a concerted `’work on appearances” through which the Protestants, wittingly or unwittingly, intervened in what the French political philosopher, Jacques Rancière calls “the distribution of the sensible,” or the systematic arrangement of the self-evident facts of sense perception, comprising a delimitation of spaces and times, speech and noise, and thereby, too, of the particular place and stakes within which politics unfold (Rancière 2004). In the book, however, I am especially interested in the visual dimension of the sensible’s distribution as well as how the inherently political determination of the experiential conditions that enable and privilege particular forms of sensory perception, thought, and action while foreclosing others, can become undone and transformed.

Karen Strassler: You are looking at a variety of media in this book: paintings, posters, calendar images, video cassette discs, children’s drawings.  How do you think about the relationship between these different media forms—with their material, historical, and ideological specificities—and what you call the “work of appearances”? Maybe this would also be a moment to ask you to talk a bit about your methodology.

Patricia Spyer: My work on this project began as part of a Dutch-Indonesian research program, “Indonesia in Transition,” launched in the immediate aftermath of Suharto’s fall. My own research was part of a subproject in the program, “Indonesian Mediations,” in which I planned to explore broader questions of the mediation of violence and, subsequently, postviolence through close examination of a range of media and circulatory forms over time in Ambon City. My startled serendipitous encounter with the Christian pictures caused me to recenter the project, at least to some extent, around these novel productions. At the same time, the original focus of the project remained insofar as I analyze the street art within a larger evolving ecosystem of mediations of violence and postviolence centered on Ambon.

My methodology consisted primarily of fieldwork carried out among predominantly Christian refugees in Manado and Bitung on North Sulawesi Island in 2000 and 2001, and subsequently Ambon City and the neighboring islands for periods of up to three months between 2003 and 2011.  Besides motorbike taxi drivers, I worked with ordinary women and men, Christian as well as Muslim, media practitioners, representatives of religious institutions, humanitarian organizations, NGOs, government officials, and others in the city and beyond, including Jakarta and Yogyakarta. The book also draws on my extensive experience in the region, beginning with doctoral research in Aru, Southeast Maluku in the mid-1980s, and on an ethnographic archive of ephemera that I have built up since the late 1990s comprising photographed graffiti, posters, street banners, poetry, pro-peace Christian music CDs, my own documentation of the street art, and children’s drawings, among others.

Within the larger ecosystem of violence and postviolence related to Ambon’s conflict there are a host of media forms of diverse scale, duration, affordance, materiality, mode of address and circulatory form, ideological and historical genealogies. Some of these were closely connected or even in dialogue, most obviously, the wartime call and response of Christian and Muslim graffiti, but also less explicitly, the belligerent Christian graffiti and the street art as different modalities of articulating conquest and territorial claims. Others like the incendiary Video CDs, produced by Christians and Muslims alike, were almost identical in style and content, even if they reversed the respective identities of victim and enemy. But they circulated in very different ways—the Muslim VCDs echoing those from, say, Bosnia and Palestine, were sold openly under traffic lights on Java and on boats heading from there to Ambon. By contrast, those of the Christians bore labels with warnings to not circulate them beyond “one’s own group.” As a result, the latter spread covertly in Ambon and to Christian villages on the island as well as among Dutch Malukans if and when the VCDs made it to the Netherlands.

As for the book’s main example, the monumental Christian street art, this was directly inspired by, and often literally copied from, the globalized Christian print media of calendars, posters, and embroidered Last Supper scenes long available in Ambon. I argue that, with important implications for their efficacy and uptake, the street art remained affectively tethered to the interiors of Christian homes and stores where such print artifacts were conventional props. This is how I understand the supposedly comforting presence that Ambon’s Protestants often attributed to the huge public pictures that, to some extent, remained beholden to the their print models and their longstanding association with the intimacy and interiority of Christian homes and stores.

Another example are the children’s drawings with their paired smiling mosques and churches and peace handshakes conjoining Muslim and Christian leaders prevalent in reconciliation programs in refugee camps and countless post-peace initiatives. These drew affective and ideological potency from diverse sources of inspiration and histories ranging from the longstanding popular genre of children’s Letters to the President and the lone child-in-violence figure dating to the fraught period of Reformasi to an infamous PSA featuring a Muslim Ambonese boy, Acang, and his bosom Christian friend, Obet, that went both viral and awry in Ambon, and ended up providing the most popular names for the mutual enemies in the conflict. Equally importantly, the efficacy of the children’s drawings relied on their embodied connection to the hands and eyes of their young creators.

These are only a few examples that foreground the relevance and efficacy of medium specificity with respect to different circulatory forms characteristic of Ambon’s war and peace but also that of intermediality, of different media operating and circulating not only in tandem but often in interconnected, iterative ways. All of these material, ephemeral mediations of Ambon’s violence and postviolence, although some clearly more than others, formed part of the diffuse “work of appearances” that fed into and inflected the larger ambiance, unfolding, and shape of the violence and its longstanding repercussions in the city.

Karen Strassler: There has been a great deal of anthropological writing in recent decades on the ways religion always depends on mediation and on how particular media forms shape and transform religious practice and imagination. Can you talk about how this book draws on those conversations and what it contributes to conversations about religion and media?

Patricia Spyer: In the early 2000s I was involved in a series of provocative conferences focused on questions of religion and media, and religion and violence, organized by Hent de Vries and Samuel Weber. Subsequently, I spent a good deal of time, over the course of five years, first as fellow and then as Global Distinguished Professor, at NYU’s Center for Religion and Media, co-directed by Faye Ginsburg and Angela Zito, and Department of Anthropology, then chaired by Fred Myers. These different venues put me at the very center of discussions and evolving work on questions of religion and media, broadly conceived, and have been fundamental to my thinking about these issues and to the book’s conceptualization.

If Orphaned Landscapes is centrally about what I call the work on appearances (as well as the work of appearances), then it is also about how appearances do not work. Exemplary of the latter were the constant adjustments made by Ambon’s street artists to the Christian print canon that most claimed to be faithfully copying in the street.  The first adjustment was their own pictorial turn involving not only an embrace of pictures but, with it, a significant departure from the aniconic tradition of the Calvinist Protestant church. To be sure, as noted above, elements of décor like calendars, along with Sunday school manuals, are a familiar component of the global Christian print repertoire found already for decades in Ambon. And despite the long history of Dutch-derived Calvinism in the area, Ambon’s Protestantism was never as adamantly aniconic as that of the former colonizers. Yet if the Christian sacred was never invisible or faceless in the city, prior to the war it was—visually at least—not a privileged focus of attention, public or otherwise.

Of course, notwithstanding Calvinism’s anti-materialist ideology, in Ambon as elsewhere, transcendence unavoidably relies on mediation which has an intrinsic, enabling role. Indeed, as Hent de Vries puts it, “without and outside of [it] . . . no religion would be able to manifest itself in the first place (de Vries 2001:28). Seen in this light, the white ‘empty’ interiors of Ambon’s Calvinist churches mediated the ideal of an allegedly transparent, direct connection to the divine. By bringing the Christian god into vision through the new medium of painting—a move driven by the desire to ensure his presence here in Ambon and to draw him close via his image–the Protestant motorbike taxi drivers helped to materialize and bring about a new relation to the Christian god.

One reason I became aware of how efficacious this move had been was because the appearance of the street pictures coincided with—and may even have prefigured—momentous shifts in religiosity and religious affiliation occurring in the city during the war and in the immediate years thereafter. At the same time that pictures of Jesus and Christian scenes began to be thrown up around the city, increasing numbers of Protestants were abandoning Ambon’s old Calvinist church in favor of newer charismatic ones, places where, as many put it, they found a closer, less hierarchical relation to God, a liturgy deemed “less stiff,’ and where emotional expression was allowed. Remarkably, as the majority of the Christian street pictures faded on city walls, a hitherto unseen image began to appear in and around Ambon. Depicting Christ as King or Christ of the Second Coming, the image publicized and emblematized the significant move on the part of many Protestants away from the distant, formalistic relation to God characteristic of Calvinism toward a more intimate, close bond that became realized in new forms of religiosity, numerous baptisms, and novel affiliations to Pentecostal churches. I argue that, at least in part, this shift and the Christ as King image exemplifying it was enabled by the diffuse urban gallery of Christian street art that laid the material ground for these profound transformations in urban religion. In sum, through a close consideration of the street art and its wartime and postwar trajectory, and the manner and specificities of the art’s mediation of the Christian divine, the book demonstrates the unavoidable, mutual constitution and codependency of religion and media.

Karen Strassler: I would love to hear you reflect a little bit about your trajectory as a scholar and the kinds of questions that have animated your work over the long term?

Patricia Spyer: I have always been interested in uncertainty, mobility, and questions of emergence and transformation where the grounds for asserting agency and authority are in question, where complicated issues of entanglement and positionality, vulnerability and exposure to circumstances prevail. Another related, longstanding focus has been on questions of mediation and circulatory media forms. This cluster of evolving interests is evident already in my first edited book, Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces (Routledge 1998), in the focus on trade in luxury artifacts like bird of paradise plumes and pearlshells and the transactional, transformative space of the undersea in The Memory of Trade: Entanglements on an Eastern Indonesian Island (Duke 2000), and in Images That Move (SAR Press 2013), co-edited with the late Mary Margaret Steedly, where the title comprises both the intransitive sense of images in motion and the transitive, affective meaning of images that move us, highlighting, in either case, issues of efficacy, affective power, and the capacity for disruption and change.

References cited

Kusno, Abidin (2010). The Appearances of Memory: Mnemonic Practices of Ahitecture and Urban Form in Indonesia. Durham: Duke University Press.

Rancière, Jacques (2004). The Politics of Aesthetics. Translated by G. Rockhill. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Spyer, Patricia (2000). The Memory of Trade: Entanglements of Modernity on an Eastern Indonesian Island. Durham: Duke University Press.

___________. (1998). Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces. London and New York: Routledge.

Spyer, Patricia and Mary Margaret Steedly, eds. (2013). Images That Move.  Santa Fe: School of Advanced Research Press.

Vries, Hent de. (2001). “In Media Res: Global Religions, Public Spheres and the Task of Contemporary Religious Studies.” In Hent de Vries and Samuel Weber, eds. Religion and Media.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 3-42.

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.

Aurora Donzelli on her book, Methods of Desire

Methods of Desire: Language

interview by Setrag Manoukian

Setrag Manoukian: It is reductive to assign a narrow thematic focus to an expansive ethnography such as your wonderful Methods of Desire, but could one synthesize your book by suggesting that it addresses the relationship between language and political economy through an account of social interaction in Toraja?

Aurora Donzelli: This book has been long in the making and its implication with political economy is in part a function of the temporality embedded therein. Twenty years ago I was in Indonesia for a shorter period of fieldwork preluding to the yearlong sojourn I undertook sometimes later. It was late July. I was walking through the streets of Rantepao (the major town in the Toraja highlands where I would go to stock up on blank tapes and other industrial supplies) when I bumped into an acquaintance of mine. He looked quite agitated and eager to brief me about the events that were unfolding in Genoa (he knew I was Italian). The G8 summit was taking place at the Ducal Palace and the city had become the theatre of demonstrations against speculative capitalism and neoliberal globalization. A multifarious array of political subjects had gathered in Genoa to participate in what promised to be the peak of the anti-capitalist movement begun in Seattle in 1999: environmentalists, pacifists, independent media activists, antifascist militants from Italian squats and social centers (abandoned buildings turned into cultural and political hubs), grassroots Catholic organizations, social activists, Zapatistas, trade unionists, members of socialist and communist parties from all over Europe, NGO workers, British pressure groups for debt relief, German anarchists, the Trotskyist international network, via Campesina food activists, libertarians, knowledge workers self-identifying as cognitarians, direct-action groups dressed in white overalls to symbolize the new post-Fordist productive subject… My Toraja acquaintance insisted I joined him to watch the news at his neighbor’s where a parabolic antenna was broadcasting dramatic scenes of repressive violence. The counter-summit mobilization had been fiercely disbanded by unprecedented police brutality, a demonstrator was shot dead, radical groups mixed with undercover agents and neo-Nazi infiltrators vandalized banks and set cars and store fronts on fire, undisturbed, while thousands of pacifist demonstrators raising their white-painted hands were ferociously beaten up by police officers decked out in full anti-riot gear. Following a night blitz at the Diaz public school—which had been made available by the municipal authorities as dormitory for demonstrators—300 police officers brutalized and illegally detained the unarmed occupants, including several Italian and foreign journalists. The European Court of Human Rights later established that the police conduct violated human rights and was to be formally regarded as torture.  Less than two months later, the attack on the WTC and Pentagon would make these events look negligible, but clearly those days were decisive in furthering global capitalism and propelling the consolidation of neoliberal rationalities.

Methods of Desire is primarily a reflection on these transformations, which crisscross political economy, ways of speaking, and structures of feeling. Unlike the display of sheer repressive force that tinted the G8 events twenty years ago, what I describe in the book are more elusive and subtle forms of violence. Political economy is an inevitable dimension of any project that spans over several years and my ethnography’s main goal is to show how fine-grained linguistic analysis is essential for furthering our understanding of capitalism, because thinking about political economy always entails taking language into account (and vice-versa). In a narrower sense, the book explores the cultural and linguistic impact of contemporary neoliberal reforms on longstanding moral-political economy of agrarian clientelist relations in a relatively remote region of the Indonesian uplands. In a broader sense, the book analyzes how late capitalism operates by transforming our relationship to the world and to each other. I argue that specific communicative practices play a key role in this process. Think about the new metrics of desire produced through customer satisfaction surveys and the regimes of scalability created through audit protocols and quality certification standards that can be applied across different contexts to ever-greater scales. These communicative practices and textual artefacts are both the primary technology for the production of a reflexive desiring subject to be subsumed by the machine of capitalist valorization and infrastructures of resource management aimed at increasing productivity. Unlike the processes of linguistic standardization that produced national languages and enabled industrial capitalism, I argue that contemporary financial capitalism operates through a different form of discursive regimentation. The former was driven by the linguistic standardization of specific national codes, while the latter entails the production of universal templates for the pragmatic regulation of how language is to be used. The aim is no longer to streamline or enhance the production of material commodities, but the engendering of a global metalanguage for the re-articulation of desire in ways compatible with capitalism’s ever-changing needs. Industrial capitalism required technologies of linguistic standardization based on the centripetal regulation of the linguistic code (and of the production process)—a twofold endeavor clearly intertwined with nation-building processes and nation-based economies. Conversely, neoliberalism relies on the pragmatic standardization of how the code should be used: this entails the production and dissemination of highly standardized and replicable discursive protocols, meant to travel across a wide range of geographic contexts and pragmatics domains in order to optimize production and regiment people’s conduct and modes of intersubjective engagement. In this light, what makes neoliberalism so powerful and at the same time so elusive is its portability and scalability, as Aihwa Ong and Anna Tsing suggest.

Setrag Manoukian: The book describes an epochal shift taking place in Indonesia—a complete reconfiguration of the architecture of the self in conjunction with the emergence of neoliberal policies. What’s striking in this process is the rapidity with which a “method” is abandoned and a new one picked up. But the book also seems to suggest that something “endures” in this shift. Taking the long-term view how do you see Toraja’s sociality?

Aurora Donzelli: What I find most striking and intriguing about the specific locale (the Toraja highlands of Sulawesi) where I conducted my fieldwork since the late 1990s is that there haven’t been many changes in the local infrastructures or in the material lives of my interlocutors. During my most recent periods of fieldwork, I would often catch myself daydreaming that I was standing in front of a giant aquarium from where I could see myself in my early 20s in a time warp of sorts—a younger me on the other side of the glass inhabiting the exact same physical spaces, but in a parallel affective universe.  In spite of the largely unchanged material environment, I have noticed significant shifts in the linguistic structures, moral practices, and affective quality of life in the highlands. In many ways, Methods of Desire seeks to understand and give analytical shape to the profound (and yet elusive) transformations occurred in how my interlocutors of twenty plus years interact and imagine their future. The focus of my ethnographic account is the growing influence of transnational lending agencies and international non-governmental organizations in a region that has otherwise remained peripheral to capitalist production and distribution. Since the millennium, the IMF-driven implementation of governance reform in Indonesia has prompted the circulation of new ways of speaking and textual artefacts (for example, electoral and institutional mission statements, debriefing meetings, training workshops, checklists, flowcharts, and so on) that, I argue, are transforming how people desire and voice their expectations, intentions, and entitlements. The local appeal of these new discursive genres is undeniable: not only they are associated with prestigious metropolitan centers, but they also pivot on values that—as Marilyn Strathern pointed out in her seminal edited volume on audit cultures—are almost impossible to criticize in principle: a novel emphasis on self-cultivation and proactive entrepreneurialism, an emancipatory narrative of personal aspirations and individual desires, a new morality of accountability, transparency, and responsibility, and so on. Their dissemination in the highlands has been spearheaded by their promise to replace local structures of exploitative agrarian power with a narrative of individual freedom, a political regime of entrenched corruption with justice and transparency, an economy prone to food scarcity and subsistence crises with material prosperity and emotional fulfillment. I don’t find the success of these new scripts and protocols all that surprising and consider way more extraordinary the enthusiasm displayed by many academics (trained in epistemological reflexivity and critical thinking) for the bureaucratic auditing and competitive star-ratings procedures that are transforming universities into corporate enterprises.

I recently moved back to Italy—a country where the so-called “quality revolution” was late in taking root. The University where I now work—allegedly one of the oldest higher learning institutions in the world—seems pervaded by a frenzy of benchmarking practices and managerial methods aimed at measuring research and teaching outputs and enhancing performance. I find quite disconcerting how centuries-old ideologies and classical ideals of the University as a community of scholars devoted to the disinterested pursuit of knowledge are being replaced by competitive business models—in spite of the excellent scholarship published on the matter some two decades ago by Don Brenneis, Chris Shore, Marilyn Strathern, Susan Wright (among the others). In many ways, my Toraja interlocutors are far less compliant than many academics that fell for the protocols of accountability and quality assurance whereby complex social activities are measured, monitored, and competitively ranked.

If, as Aihwa Ong proposes, the complex assemblages of practices that compose neoliberalism migrate across the globe and across different sectors (from private to public, from management to politics, from the financial to the intimate), I am interested in describing what happens when these portable bundles of practices and values land in a new geographic or pragmatic environment. How tightly are they packaged? How faithfully are they replicated? Linguistic anthropological tools help understand how such bundles are assembled and how they operate; how desire is reconstructed in the wake of their implementation and, at the same time, how their implementation can be sabotaged through (often subtle and inconspicuous) micro-linguistic gestures. Methods of Desire explores how discursive genres originating from neoliberal global capitalism are both embraced and resisted in Toraja. My analysis reveals a complex dialectics of compliance and defiance. Each chapter of the book focuses on a specific pragmatic domain (from political speechmaking to household interaction, from mortuary rituals to workplace and learning environments) and discusses the ambivalent uptake of novel protocols such as electoral mission statements, fundraising auctions, service encounter scripts, customer satisfaction surveys, training workshops, flowcharts, and workflow diagrams. I highlight how Toraja highlanders articulate their skepticism at times through reflexive and explicit metapragmatic comments; other times in more subtle and indirect ways, such as through specific intonation and prosodic patterns or via unexpected variations in the participation framework associated with a specific genre.

Setrag Manoukian: Methods of desire. The title of your book sounds like an oxymoron. One associates method with planning, self-awareness, and intention, while desire relates to spontaneity, passion, the unconscious. But you convincingly show that in many ways methods structure desire. And yet, I am left wondering if this does not reproduce a certain binary misunderstanding of desire as a material that can be molded via linguistic forms. Doesn’t desire escape the methodologies that certain intentions prescribe to it? This is how I read Spinoza, in the sense that there is an immanence to the conatus that has its own economy of passions, not reducible to the stoic mandate to transform oneself.

Aurora Donzelli: You are making very good points. The title is indeed designed to oxymoronically evoke the classical opposition between Eros and Logos that the book, however, aims to problematize. Spinoza’s rejection of transcendent principles and his ontology of immanence are essential to my understanding of methods and desire. The relationship between the two could be thought in dialectical materialist terms as forming a totality of practice and theory; creativity and order; substance and form; potentiality and actuality. In elaborating (in the mid-1970s) his innovative form of semiotic materialism, Marxist scholar Ferruccio Rossi-Landi highlighted the dialectics existing between code and messages; models and tokens; communicative programs and their execution. He claimed that they exist together in reality and entertain a constant dialectical relationship, even though academic theory or common sense tend to consider them as separate, with the former treating the code in its structural abstraction and the latter approaching its products as natural and spontaneous facts. Spinoza’s immanentism and Rossi-Landi’s materialism resonate with Paul Hopper’s view of Emergent Grammar, which can be seen as an application of French post-structuralist thought to linguistic theory—a theoretical constellation that inspires my own work.

That of method is a powerful notion that has been relatively neglected by anthropologists. Its great beauty, I think, lies in its capacity to refer to a plane of immanence—something ethnomethodologists (with their idea that structures do not exist outside of social practices and with their interest in studying the methods that social actors use in interpreting their own everyday practices) have known all along. In like fashion, desire is an immanent process for the production of relations, as Deleuze pointed out. Rather than a flow to be disciplined through cultural norms and symbolic orders or a force that can be organized through language, I see desire as method, that is, as a mode of intersubjective relationality, a modality of human sociality, in which language functions as technology and infrastructure. The book describes how neoliberal discursive technologies are redesigning Toraja sociality: the entrenched forms of collective yearning (kamamaliran) that used to sustain social bonds of hierarchical reciprocity and mutual obligation are being replaced by new forms of (bourgeois) desire (aspirasi),imagined as originating in the interiority of the individual’s consciousness and congenial to the capitalist machine.

Setrag Manoukian: Finally, I would like to come back to the relationship between language and social life from a methodological point of view. Often to non-linguists the world of linguistic analysis appears as quite self-contained. How is your book engaging this situation?

Aurora Donzelli: I think that in-depth linguistic analysis is fundamental for the understanding of capitalism. The book is an invitation to linguistic anthropologists to establish a stronger dialogue with their sociocultural colleagues around the ethnographic exploration (and critique) of neoliberalism. It is only through an integrated approach that we can understand the role of language in the production of the complex forms of alienation and resistance that characterize our present moment. A close-textured analysis of linguistic interactions is also fundamental to capture the role of semiotic practices both in shaping political change and preserving the status quo. The great advantage of fine-grained linguistic analysis is that it may disclose processes that happen at levels that are not detectable at the semantic and lexical plane generally considered in cultural ethnographies. In the book, I explore the ambivalent uptake of new discursive genres as a way to shed light on how linguistic practices function both as capitalist technologies and infrastructures and as forms of resistance to the capitalist apparatus. Further, I try to show how attending to linguistic levels of analysis may provide a new way to reflect on traditional topics of anthropological theory (such as gifts and exchange theory, social change, subsistence farming and moral economy) and may contribute to refine the discussion of ethnographic tropes of Southeast Asia and Oceania (for example, debates over galactic polities and theatre states, notions of emotional restrain, opacity of mind doctrines, and so on).

During the last four decades, linguistic anthropology has become a highly specialized subfield. I often look back with nostalgia at the times before my time, when the disciplinary borders seemed more porous and less defined. My greatest hope for the future of linguistic anthropology rests on the possibility of developing fervid interconnections with scholars from other subfields in anthropology, as well as in the social sciences and humanities. Unfortunately, at times linguistic details and formalisms prevent or discourage such dialogues. In writing the book, I had to make difficult choices in how to present my transcriptions, sometimes reducing them or eliminating interlinear glosses and morpho-syntactic details. I hope that these choices helped produce a text accessible to a diverse readership and capable of evoking the spirit of irreverent curiosity of the multifarious multitude that gathered in Genoa twenty years ago.

Karen Strassler on her new book, Demanding Images

Demanding Images

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: Your book is about the image-event, and I am wondering if you could explain what an image-event is, and how you decided which moments in Indonesia to focus on as ethnographic examples of image-events.  You are quite imaginative in how you choose objects of study, and I was hoping you could discuss the process by which you decide what to explore under the rubric of the image-event.

Karen Strassler: An image-event is a political process set in motion when an image (or set of images) becomes a focal point of affective response and discursive engagement across diverse publics. Foregrounding the centrality of visuality in contemporary public spheres, in Demanding Images I trace a series of image-events in which particular images become the material ground of struggles over competing visions of the nation in a turbulent time of political transition. I argue that in Indonesia, and elsewhere, today all politics has become image politics.

Underlying the term “image-event” is the premise that all images are events in the sense that they unfold in time and across space. Against the habit of thinking of images as fixed appearances at a remove from the flow of events, tuning into the eventfulness of images is a way to think about historical contingency and the dynamic, emergent quality of images as they move, mutate, and proliferate. Rather than conceptualizing an event as a clearly bounded temporal unit, I am interested in how images resonate and reverberate, in their ripple effects. This approach recognizes the volatility of images, their tendency to spawn new iterations, their unruly mutability.

Public images are elusive objects for the ethnographer. Traditional anthropological methods teach us to try to determine the “meaning” of an image through a deep engagement with its “context.” This “thick description” of the image usually entails tying images to specific actors and institutions that produce or consume them. But public images don’t play by these rules. They circulate in viral forms without authors and unanchored to particular sites and institutions. In a Bakhtinian sense, they are always alien and overpopulated with the intentions of others, they never belong to anyone except in the most provisional and temporary of ways. By following the image-event, we can see how images are taken up, how they are reworked, how they elicit speech and action, and how they coalesce a set of anxieties, aspirations, tensions, and dreams that otherwise remain inchoate. We can watch how they happen and track their effects.

My process for selecting image-events to analyze was really no different, I think, from what anthropologists typically do as we select from among the many occurrences that we encounter during research, homing in on those that provide analytic purchase, those that promise an opening to a set of questions or problems, relations or dynamics, that we’ve identified as important. Image-events don’t only reveal what’s already there but—like any event we observe ethnographically—allow us to see the process by which tensions, imaginings, and alignments, take form in real time. My choices of which image-events to focus on were of course shaped by my own (necessarily partial) sense of what was happening in Indonesia in the first decade and a half after the end of an authoritarian regime. Inevitably—and again, as with all ethnography—there’s an element of happenstance. For example, I happened to be in Yogyakarta during the months around the extra judicial killings I describe in chapter 5, and watching that image-event allowed me to think about the street as a medium. I chose image-events that, it seemed to me, crystallized and helped bring into view certain key tensions constituting the post-authoritarian public sphere, both shaping and unsettling democratic imaginaries in Indonesia.

Ilana Gershon: How have Indonesians’ relationships to photographs, and images in general, changed since your first round of research on photographs in Indonesia in 1998-1999?   What has been the effect of having such widespread access to technology that lets people not only to take photographs but also alter them? Continue reading

Goebel interviews Lauren Zentz on her new book

Interview by Zane Goebel

Briefly, what is this book about?

In this book I explore the history of power and human movement throughout the Indonesian archipelago in order to understand the scaling of language forms that has taken place over centuries, during colonialism and the development of the post-colonial state, and now in an Indonesia coping with the processes of ‘globalization’. I collected my data during a 2 month stay in Central Java in 2008, a 10 month stay in the 2009-10 school year, and another 2 month stay in the summer of 2013. My participants were English majors at a Christian university; I spent the 2009-10 school year teaching courses in their department ranging from Sociolinguistics to introductory speaking for first year majors. I recruited my focal participants in my Fall 2009 Sociolinguistics course. Over the course of our year together I interviewed the participants in individual and group settings, and spent time with them and other students outside of classes over dinner, coffee, church, or at their family homes.

In this book I first discuss the theoretical concepts I used to interpret my data, then I explore the history of power and migration throughout the archipelago. I relate this history then to the development of Indonesian as a national language, and to contemporary use and ‘loss’ of Javanese, the primary local language of Central Java. Finally I discuss the overwhelming presence of English in Indonesia, and how the ‘state project’ generally relies on and resists English and its presence in the country. In all, this is an examination of how these three languages fit within the national project, and how the state continues to try to influence the ways in which they are used and the ways in which they are tied to the national, local, and global identities of their citizens.

Which field(s) do you think your book engages with the most?

This book engages with the fields of Sociolinguistics, Linguistic Anthropology, and Applied Linguistics. I’ve been a lifelong ‘jack of all trades, master of none’, and so I prefer to reach across disciplinary boundaries as much as possible in trying to gain a holistic picture of my research context. It is in this sense that I find it useful to rely on the label of Applied Linguist, as through this title I feel less beholden to any one field, and I feel like I can drive my work toward my long-term end goal of improving societies through education, language learning, and intercultural exchange. I am also not a fully ‘pedigreed’ Linguistic Anthropologist, and so it is possible that a reader from the field of Linguistic Anthropology will find my work ‘not anthropological enough.’ And so again, the application of the Applied Linguist label, I feel, allows me more freedom to take my work in whatever directions I feel interested in for the purposes of the project at hand and for my own long-term goals.

Who have been the main scholars that have inspired you as you have written this book?

I have most strongly latched onto in my work the writings of Jan Blommaert, Alastair Pennycook, and Monica Heller for theory, and onto Anthropologists of Education for my methods, namely through foundational coursework with Perry Gilmore for Discourse Analysis, with Norma González for general field methods, and with Richard Ruíz for Language Policy studies.

Besides the normal suspects of Linguistic Anthropologists, Applied Linguistics folk and Indonesianists, who do you see as your main readership?

This is clearly a book for graduate students and professionals in the field. I hope that readers will take away from this book the importance of situating our work within deeper historical contexts. Part of this importance for me comes from the desire to explain that Indonesia’s current historical context is not the way it is simply because of the development of the nation-state in reaction to European colonialism. Many of Indonesia’s current sociolinguistic facts are due to human currents and power dynamics that have been going on for far longer. Those deeper historical dynamics are possibly much more evident on islands farther away from Indonesia’s political and cultural ‘centers’ like the islands of Java and Sumatra. It is probable that in Java we in fact see some of the consequences of colonialism and statification as much more influential in contemporary life, or at least that we see them quite differently across contexts within this one expansive country.

What do you think were your best strategies to help you get this book completed?

For me the answer was keeping a schedule. I’m no proponent of one size fits all solutions, but for me, having a life outside of my work is a serious key to maintaining sanity. During summer writing periods I would keep a regular 8-5ish work schedule with exercise before or after (or in the middle if I was getting antsy) work time, and I would take regular work breaks consisting of a walk outside (100 degree Fahrenheit heat be damned!). During semesters, I would limit teaching work to teaching days, and I would keep the other days of the week as research-only days. Tasks like grading were reserved for times when I was too tired to do much thought-intensive work.

As you wrote the book and reflected on your research methodologies, did anything strike you as something in need of change?

For me the biggest thing was adding the historical component. As I began writing my book I just felt that this was an empty story without that. So I spent a lot of time during the writing process digging into historical accounts of how Indonesia has come to be. Another important thing to me was taking time to problematize terms that earlier I did not have the time nor the experience to problematize; words such as ‘globalization’ and ‘translanguaging’/’polylanguaging’/etc. For the former I reached across disciplinary boundaries to see how other fields approach this term, and for the latter I took more time to delve into writings on these topics, from across linguistic fields.

Has this book motivated you to start the next book/project? If so, then can you tell us a little about your new work.

I’m not sure if writing a book inspires anyone to write another one! But I will admit that having written a first book makes me feel more confident in having a go at another one. That being said, I am currently reminded daily that having this experience under my belt does not make a second project go any faster or smoother. I have moved on to two new projects – neither in Indonesia – and starting from scratch is simply starting from scratch, no matter whether it’s your first, third, or fifth research project. It all just takes lots of time, reading, data collection (and revision and revision and revision), note taking, and patience.