Diversity with a Difference: Adat and the New Order in Aru (Eastern Indonesia)

Essay Excerpt

My ethnographic focus is a ritual performance staged in the early 1970s by the people of Bemun, a small village numbering approximately 300 inhabitants in 1987 in the pearl-diving region of Barakai Island in southeastern Aru. Specifically, I consider here a particular account of this performance as told to me in 1987 by one man who claimed that because of a critical intervention on the part of Bemun's village chief, the ritual"never reached its end" (B. nang awan kenjurun). Ostensibly, the conflict between this man, who continues to play a constitutive role in the performance today, and the village chief revolved around the issue of timing, of whether the performance should have been set to last four or five days. Yet to restrict our understanding of the conflict to this matter of a day, more or less, would be to fundamentally misconstrue it. Among other things, such an interpretation would give an impression of orthodoxy that is unwarranted in this context. Instead, I will argue that the conflict had much more to do with the relation between a dat,or"custom," and authority under Suharto's New Order:3 how authority should be articulated, by whom, and in relation to what.4

This article is meant to contribute to current discussions concerning the status of native agency within the context of the nation-state and larger processes of globalization. Of particular relevance here is the work of authors who reassess the dynamics of the relation of society and state (Clastres 1977;Sahlins 1985), especially "the ability of each to make or mar the other" (Metcalf 1992:141); who question the possibility of absolute autonomy or authorship on the part of peripheral peoples (or anyone else for that matter)(Asad 1993:4); and who, instead, assume an entangled, enmeshed, and thoroughly hybrid colonial or postcolonial setting as the significant context for their explorations (Cohn 1987; Thomas 1991; Turner 1988). The attempt therefore will be to avoid the pitfalls of both the positing of a pure beyond-an essentialized native identity celebrated for its heroic resistance to the incursions of externalized powers-or of the complete loss of self in which cultural alterity would be thoroughly sub- sumed, dominated, and erased within the power grid of the state, late-20th- century capitalism, or any other such colonizing force. What I hope to show instead is a third possibility, one in which the inescapable insertion within a wider world is infused and, at times, unsettled by the sense of coming from a "different" place (compare de Certeau 1986). (Spyer, 26-27)

About the Author

Prof. Patricia Spyer holds the chair of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology of Contemporary Indonesia at Leiden University and was Global Distinguished Visiting Professor (2009-2012) at New York University’s Center for Religion & Media and Department of Anthropology.

She is the author of The Memory of Trade: Modernity’s Entanglements on an Eastern Indonesian Island (Duke 2000), editor of Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces (Routledge 1998), and co-editor of the Handbook of Material Culture(Sage 2006). 

In January 2014 she will be joining the editorial committee of the Annual Review of Anthropology for a five-year term.

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