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Sumatran Politics and Poetics: Gayo History, 1900-1989.

The Gayo are one of the principal ethnic groups of the isolated lacustrine plains and riverine valleys of Central Acer district in north Sumatra, in the vicinity of Lake Tawar. Sundered by topography from contact with Europeans until the first decade of the century, theirs is an alpine land bounded to the west by the Acehnese and to the south by the Batak highlanders. These proto-Malay agriculturalists, late converts to Islam and espousing patrilineage, engage in wet-rice and swidden cultivation, growing in the main tobacco, maize, and tuber crops. They are known, where indeed they are known at all, within Indonesia and without, for their didong choral groups, through whose performances local governments raise funds to subsidize community projects.

John Bowen's new book, an attempt "to elucidate the contribution of a poetic history to historical anthropology," is the first serious investigation of their ways since the great Dutch Islamicist Snouck Hurgronje's classic study of one hundred years ago, and, as an inquiry into the complex cultural experience of this remote and costive Southeast Asian people, is its honorable successor. Copious notes and a quantity of judiciously selected verse, carefully transcribed and sensitively translated (and further vivified in the excellent cassette helpfully accompanying this volume) are the book's distinguishing features. Its tone of deeply felt and unpossessive affection for its human subjects attests to the author's friendship of many years with Gayo folk and his unusual inwardness with their mentalite. That he speaks their language very well indeed goes without saying. Needless to say, too, the author is in complete command of the relevant scholarly literature. His survey, in short, is at once penetrating and cadastral.

An introductory chapter, well supplied with maps and photographs, affords a magisterial view of Gayo history and customs, clan and kinship systems. Successive chapters consider the phases of that history, marked as they were by inspissated political power in the colonial Beamtenstaat and by the effort, on the part of those in charge in a newly independent Indonesia, progressively to mobilize, direct, and co-opt popular consciousness. The cynosure of Bowen's contribution to contemporary anthropology and to Indonesia as a field of study in its own right are the forms of governance and of official rhetoric operating to hegemonic ends, and from the top down, after the terrible upheavals of 1965.

The author's encyclopedic knowledge of the subject is no less impressive than his elective affinity for his subject. He possesses a gift for distilling shrewd judgments from fieldwork, the execution of which clearly called for extraordinary reserves of good humor and patience and perseverance in the teeth of initial rebuff. If for no other reasons, the book can be warmly recommended to a diversity of academic readers. But the latter will find in it more to whet their appetite or, at the very least, much at which to demur. A great deal of its interest lies in its wholly unmeretricious exploitation of contemporary literary-critical theory, the presiding aim being to demonstrate the striking uses to which textual and stylistic analysis may be put by ethnography. Overall, the approach is Geertzian, but Bowen has a mind of his own and the thinking that animates his book is in important ways at odds with received views.

Sedulously eschewing orientalist exoticism, he understands Gayo aesthetics to be an expression of a monsoon Asian people's world-view, their art a vehicle for, and mirror of, their "historical thought" (to borrow James Siegel's term), in all its complexity. The manifold evolution of both the art and the thought is seen to be inextricably bound up, objectively, with structures of the Gayo Heimat and subjectively, with the people's conceit of themselves. The search for origins, Bowen maintains, must needs revert to the late colonial era in the Netherlands East Indies before it moves forward into the turbulences of the young Republic. Ranging far and wide in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Indonesian history, his discussion, audacious in its resort to evidence from unconventional sources, is both diachronic and synchronic.

The focus is unremittingly on the Gayo universe and life-world, the latter seen as a fissured unity, in which agency has latterly been at a discount. Dissension internal to this society, Bowen observes, made itself felt in the form of a stratification of caste and class, in turn exacerbated by pressure of external events. Colonial rule, imposed after the Dutch invasion of Aceh in 1904, precipitated far-reaching transformations in Gayo political culture, disturbing cultural norms hitherto uncontested. Abetted by the leveling tendencies of Indonesian nationalism and by Islamic modernism, these disturbances have left a profound imprint, and nowhere more profound than in the realm of imaginative expression.

So it is that where song and poetry had traditionally been deployed to the end, inter alia, of resolving any number of social differences, now the ritual speech, the proverbs, the communal chant in which quotidian Gayo life so richly abounds and which, in turn, serve as its repository of story - now all these came to be used, manipulated even, by Dutch administrators. That the powers that be in Suharto's New Order continue to do so, for similarly supervisory purposes, is (given the continuities) only to be expected. Where formerly religious songs "carried a political bite," were "Islamic-minded" and therefore "critical of laxity in social mores," now, Bowen unsentimentally laments, Gayo oral compositions are reduced to "songs to be appreciated for their beauty and perduring religious truth," yet another tableau vivant in an ethnographic museum dedicated to celebrating, and in celebrating to containing - nay, to invigilating - the nation's "plurality." These explorations establish the author in the van of innovative work in Asian studies on the public construction of meaning. He is of the company of those freed by post-structuralist theorizing about the relative independence of cultural superstructure from its economic base; his explications thus shed new light on social practices that might otherwise have remained obscure.

Two fascinating chapters ("The Poetic Mediation of Political Change, 1945-1989," and "Narrative Strategies in the History of Linge") furnish concrete illustration of the elliptical, formalized exchange of words for which the Gayo are deservedly famous. Once prized for its figurative and evocative powers, it is a transaction since neutralized - relative, that is to say, to the exuberances associated with its past practice. Customarily engaged in to mark the liminal moments of death and marriage, arrival and departure, or invoked as a device to settle disputes, such exchanges came to be blunted, commuted, now, to mere verbal joust, their sting drawn - serving merely the regulative purposes of Indonesia's national narrative.

At every point in his argument Bowen is at pains to draw his reader's notice to a process of ever-increasing centralization, a process he sees, with some justice, as necessarily occlusive, willy-nilly exclusionary. Tendentious though it must seem, the sophistication of his approach has been able to grasp what state power, wielded from the national core after 1950 and, most especially, after the regime change of 1965, has done to a people on the periphery of the new Indonesian nation. An idiosyncratic and innately egalitarian historical consciousness has ceded to bureaucratically sponsored history and history-making. A coercive, centripetal rationality now ordains uniformity of outlook and implies, though it denies, erasure of regional identity, construing it as picturesque, by a circuitous route (which the author is adept at tracing) giving rise to circumstances in which its import is tamed. Not the least important virtue of this book is the thoughtfulness with which it reports its subjects' dismay when made an offer they dare not refuse to be edited out of their own account of themselves.

An absorbingly detailed exegesis of Gayo verbal genres - ritual speech, sung duel, imaginary chronicle - constitutes the second part of the book. The fate of these forms is inspected in a setting of often violent social change. Bowen may be forgiven for suggesting that "the role of the events of the first years of independence in Indonesian historiography may someday resemble that of the French Revolution for French people of all political opinions: as a remaking of society whose desirability remains endlessly debatable." In post-independence Indonesia, as in revolutionary France, violent social transformation throws up new discursive forms, old forms falling into desuetude where they are not jettisoned outright. That such comparative judgments are not enlarged upon is to be regretted, but in no way detracts from the book's value and significance.

These, to my mind, lie in its tacit, and tactful, disdain for the balkanization of academic disciplines, their enclosure within sealed-off enclaves, in which, as often as not, specialists self-protectively cower. Bowen's discussion of authorship and authority gains immeasurably from its intellectual delinquency, drawing as it does promiscuously upon the Prague School and Bakhtinian poetics, on Raymond Williams' cultural materialism, and on Stephen Greenblatt's explanatory purchase on the systems of representation deployed on the Renaissance stage. Foucault bestrides the work, of course, but there is no genuflection to his in many respects questionable dogmas. Taking his rise from Nicholas Dirks' studies of eighteenth-century India and from Hayden White's provocative disquisitions on historiographical practice, Bowen, as a soi-disant "text-oriented anthropologist," is for a resourcefully provisional, tenaciously "open-ended" grasp of social phenomena, seen as being very much at the mercy of, but also, and paradoxically, at the same time deeply resistant to, the pressures of ideology. Bowen's style of writing, to be sure, inclines to infelicity and its prolixity can be taxing. Such shortcomings seem nonetheless a small price to pay for the plenitude of insights on offer here. This splendid and beautifully printed book takes its rightful place alongside the distinguished studies of Siegel on Aceh, Mark Woodward on Islam in Central Java, and Vicente Rafael on the Philippines. Like them, it will be seen to have broken new ethnographic and methodological ground in the study of island Southeast Asia.

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Author:Roskies, D.M.E.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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