Creating Indonesian Cultures

Paul Alexander (editor)

Oceania Publications 1989
A book review by Danny Yee © 1993
The stereotypical subjects for ethnographic study are "traditional" cultures, usually "primitive", isolated and rural. Like much of modern anthropology, Creating Indonesian Cultures breaks completely with that stereotype. Of the ten essays it contains, all except one deal either with the Indonesian core (Java and Bali) or with aspects of Indonesian national culture. Urban communities, religion, the role of the state and the position of women feature prominently. All the essays are based on recent fieldwork and, with a couple of exceptions, are light on abstract theory.

The first four essays address general aspects of Indonesian national culture. "Power and Poverty in New Order Cinema: Conflicts on Screen" analyses in depth several popular Indonesian films which appear to engage in social criticism and argues that they in fact stress middle class issues such as equality before the law and corruption rather than protesting against social and economic inequality. "Choosing Contraception: Cultural Change and the Indonesian Family Planning Programme" looks at the effect of economic factors (and in particular the presence of a large mining operation) on the success of the national family planning programme in an area of South Sulawesi; it is suggested that a side effect of the programme is an increasing acceptance of state intervention in everyday life. "Balinese Political Culture and the Rhetoric of National Development" describes how the Pancasila, the national ideology, while a pillar of centralised government, can also be used by local interests against the government. "'Social Harmony' as Ideology and Practice in a Javanese City" looks at how traditional Javanese beliefs about the importance of social harmony have influenced modern community and local government organisations in urban Yogyakarta.

"Slametan in South Kalimantan" looks at the creation of new traditions of slametan (ritual meals) in a Javanese transmigration community in South Kalimantan. There are two different slametan styles but the division is not along ethnic lines (between the Javanese and the indigenous Banjar) but rather on occupational lines. Elements of the slametan tradition are also being incorporated into the procedures of local political organisations.

There are two essays on the role of women. "The Hidden Economy and Kampung Women" investigates the nature of the "hidden economy" in an urban kampung in Yogyakarta, and in particular the role played by women in informal and largely invisible exchange networks. "Pollution in Paradise: Hinduism and the Subordination of Women in Bali" is the most overtly feminist of the essays, but the authors avoid the excessive theorising and generalisation that plague some of their fellow-travellers. The basic idea is that the economic freedom of Balinese women is "compensated" for by their negative portrayal in ritual and cosmological symbolism, as well as by the time they have to spend in the performance of rituals. The effect of tourism and integration into Indonesian national culture has been both to decrease their economic importance and to increase their ritual obligations.

Of the two essays on religion the first, "Interpreting Javanist Millenial Imagery", is a study of the continuing relevance of certain indigenous Javanist religious beliefs to the present day political process. The second, "States of Consciousness and Javanese Ecstatics", is perhaps the most theoretical of all the essays, with more than half of it devoted to the construction of a completely general typology of mystical experiences.

The odd essay out is the last in the volume. "Why Did Sina Dance? Stochasm, Choice and Intentionality in the Ritual Life of the Ata Tana `Ai of Eastern Flores" is a study of a single event that occurred on the 4th of November 1980 during the course of a major ritual performance. An analysis of its significance for the development of the ritual system is embedded in a theoretical argument for the importance of "random" happenings and personal choice in cultural change.

All the essays are clearly written and presented, and deal with topics of fairly general interest. Some of their conclusions are extremely thought provoking. The main faults I have to find with the book are relatively trivial. The formatting and font choice give the volume a very dreary appearance (although it is perfectly readable). There are also a very large number of orthographical and grammatical mistakes, and the bibliography is not complete.

Because of its subject material and approach this volume should have a broader audience than most ethnographic collections. Tourists to Java or Bali who want an understanding of the cultures they are visiting will find this collection, while hardly systematic, an informative supplement to the often shallow "cultural outlines" found in travel guidebooks.

June 1993

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