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Identity and Pleasure: The Politics of Indonesian Screen Culture.

Identity and Pleasure: The Politics of Indonesian Screen Culture. By Ariel Heryanto. Singapore: National University of Singapore (NUS) Press, 2014. xiv+246 pp.

In 2008, Ariel Heryanto edited an important volume that launched a broad inquiry into the politics of popular culture in post-authoritarian Indonesia. With this new book, Heryanto makes another compelling case--for why the arena of popular culture, especially visual culture, matters for how we understand the cultural and religious politics of civic virtue and public piety. Heryanto deftly weaves together private lives and public spheres in search of a better understanding of what popular culture can tell us about the personal anxieties and political predicaments of post-authoritarian Indonesia.

Staking his claim for the study of popular culture, Heryanto passionately argues, "There is a long history of essentialist orientalism in the study of Indonesia.... For too long, Western educated scholars of Indonesia have viewed popular culture in Indonesia, and Asia more generally, primarily as a poor and distasteful imitation of Western popular culture" (p. 17). In contrast, Heryanto contends that not only the political sentiment but also the sensibility of post-authoritarian Indonesia "finds expression not just in public ceremonies of officialdom, or top-down strategies of state propaganda, but is also manifest casually in everyday life ... right down to the private moments of leisure and entertainment" (p. 5). This book makes an important contribution and is likely to become required reading in undergraduate courses and graduate seminars in Indonesian studies, Asian studies, media studies and cultural theory.

Over the course of eight chapters, Heryanto examines multiple screen cultures and national publics in which ideas of citizenship, piety and politics are constituted and contested. The chapters explore film, television, song and dance as a way to map out competing visions of self, citizen and society. Chapter One sets the scene by laying out a coherent social and cultural history of post-independence Indonesia, summarizing the current landscape of digital and social media and outlining an understanding of popular culture as something produced "for the people as consumers", and also "created and distributed by the people" as citizens (p. 15; emphasis in the original).

Chapter Two lays out the author's theoretical paradigm, which draws heavily from Asef Bayat's concept of "post-Islamism" (1996 and 2007). Heryanto seeks to explain the ways in which aspiring middle-class Indonesians engage and deploy screen cultures in their search for faith, fun and fortune. Of particular interest is an emerging religious upper class for whom "the pursuit and enjoyment of pleasure is never separated from more serious social and moral concerns" (p. 20). As Heryanto cautions, however, "the underside of the politics of identity and pleasure are plight, predicament, and pain" (p. 22).

Chapter Three explores Indonesia's new genre of Islamic cinema. Moving beyond mere semiotic analysis of films themselves, Heryanto attends to the cultural work of media production and distribution: debates between director and screenwriter, the "sweeping" of queer film festivals by Islamic hardliners and state strategies to claim a particular version of "national cinema". In an excellent examination of the blockbuster film "Verses of Love" (AyatAyat Cinta), Heryanto chronicles the divergent aspirations, public conflict and eventual parting of ways between novelist-screenwriter Habiburrahman El-Shirazy and film director Hanung Bramantyo.

Chapters Four and Five describe state authorities' deployment of screen culture to promote state propaganda and nationalist historiography. Heryanto discusses the ways in which NGO-driven documentaries, as well as Joshua Oppenheimer's acclaimed film The Act of Killing, challenge the state's filmic propaganda concerning the mass violence of 1965-66. In an especially illuminating section, Heryanto juxtaposes Oppenheimer's filmic account of events in Medan with Loren Ryter's ethnographic description of Medan's cinemas, scalpers and gangsters (2002).

Chapter Six directs attention to a different sort of historical erasure, the obscuring of the important roles played by Indonesians of Chinese descent in the forging of a national cinema. Through a careful analysis of the colonial roots of modern concepts of ethnicity--such as pribumi and Chinese--Heryanto argues that the emergence of "national film" in Indonesia is actually a nostalgic privileging of the revolutionary era, especially as captured in Usmar Ismail's independence-era war films. This way of remembering national cinema, the author argues, erases the role of Chinese Indonesians, who were considered both "indispensible and unwanted" in the earliest years of film production (p. 144). This chapter also describes the authoritarian state's promotion of its agenda in part through the Board of Film Censors, a major player in the erasure of ethnic Chinese from the historical memory of national cinema.

Chapter Seven offers a wonderful introduction into K-Pop fashion trends. Heryanto discusses a range of imported Korean soap operas and pop singers whose images have been plastered on the walls of female Islamic boarding schools. This chapter offers incisive insights into how intra-Asian flows of culture and style contribute to hybrid (and gendered) formations of Muslim subjectivity among Indonesia's aspiring middle class.

Chapter Eight, "From the Screen to the Street", offers a somewhat ominous conclusion about the "darker side of the Janus-faced effects of media technology" (p. 189). The author argues compellingly that social media and popular culture played an important role in the 2009 elections. Regrettably, Heryanto has structured the chapter around a seemingly tangential theoretical discussion of "orality-oriented" (p. 190) cultures. At least for this reader, that analytical framework seemed to preclude more forceful conclusions about pop culture, national publics and the post-Islamist politics of the street.

This is undoubtedly an important and timely book. My praise notwithstanding, at times I found myself wanting more ethnographic minutiae concerning pop culture in the making. Although the author does incorporate ethnographic research, much of the data derives from an analysis, albeit a meticulous analysis, of accounts in the media and interviews with important players in and producers of popular culture. Heryanto's insightful discussions of cleavages within Islamist and post-Islamist circles might have been more powerful, if the reader could hear off-the-cuff remarks backstage at an Islamic fashion show, observe an Islamic television production meeting or witness the El-Shirazy-Bramantyo conflict as it unfolded on the film set. To be fair, no ethnographer can be everywhere, and Heryanto was more interested in breadth across screen cultures than ethnographic depth in a single context. This methodological quibble aside, this book provides a marvellous glimpse into popular culture and the politics of everyday life in Indonesia.

DOI: 10.1355/sj31-1k


Bayat, Asef. "The Coming of a Post-Islamist Society". Critique: Critical Middle East Studies 5, no. 9 (1996): 43-52.

--. Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007.

Heryanto, Ariel, ed. Popular Culture in Indonesia: Fluid Identities in Post-Authoritarian Politics. London: Routledge, 2008.

Ryter, Loren. "Youth, Gangs, and the State in Indonesia". Doctoral dissertation, University of Washington, 2002.

James B. Hoesterey

Department of Religion, Emory University, S214 Callaway Center, 537 Kilgo Circle, Atlanta, Georgia 30322, USA; email:
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Author:Hoesterey, James B.
Publication:SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2016
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