Becoming - An Anthropological Approach to Understandings of the Person in Java

Becoming - An Anthropological Approach to Understandings of the Person in Java

by Konstantinos Retsikas


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783083107
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 10/01/2014
Series: Anthem Southeast Asian Studies Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 252
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Konstantinos Retsikas is a lecturer at the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the School of Oriental and African Studies. His work focuses on Javanese ideas of the person, and he has written extensively on issues of embodiment, place making, violence and religion. He is currently working on a new research project on Islamic economics, charity and development practices.

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An Anthropological Approach to Understandings of the Person in Java

By Konstantinos Retsikas

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2012 Konstantinos Retsikas
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85728-531-7



The unity of the beginning

Rather than being one definite sort of thing, ... a given place takes on the qualities of its occupants, reflecting these qualities in its own constitution and description and expressing them in its occurrence as an event:

places not only are, they happen. (Casey 1996, 27; italics in the original)

First time I visited Alas Niser was well into the fasting month of Ramadan of 1998. Accompanied by my research assistant, I hopped on one of the many yellow minibuses packed with an assortment of people, produce, and commodities that connect downtown Probolinggo with its southern periphery. It was a hot mid-afternoon right after the call for prayer, and our co-passengers, tired from work and the fast, were returning home for a quick rest. The minibus was travelling fast, overtaking schoolchildren in their bicycles and uniformed civil servants in their Honda motorcycles, over a bumpy road that had only been laid with asphalt in the early 1980s. The ticket collector, a young man over-hanging from the side door, was shouting the name of our destination while gesticulating wildly as we passed through the densely populated neighbourhoods of the city centre. The latter soon gave way to a kilometre-long stretch of irrigated rice fields planted with bright green seedlings, interspersed here and there with a few white-washed brick houses and a newly built mosque featuring a shiny, light blue dome.

Some ten minutes or so later, going past a Chinese cemetery and a vineyard, we came across a village and the van pulled up in the central market, where it offloaded its human cargo and readied itself for the return trip. We had reached our destination. Much to my surprise, the market was lethargic. Most of the stalls and indoor shops were now closed, while the few remaining open were devoid of any customers, while their owners dozed off behind the counters. There was no sign at all of the vibrant intensity and vitality that one usually encounters in Southeast Asian marketplaces. The only trace of human presence came from an unidentified mix of male voices chanting away in Arabic coming from the adjacent mosque and other directions some distance away. For this most holy month at least, the excitements and hazards of trade had been largely substituted with the vigour of reciting sacred words, infusing the area's soundscape with tokens of devotion for the benefit of both reciters and listeners.

Following the sounds, we made our way southeast towards a rather small compound that featured a small prayer house and the residence of a kyai (Ind.), a much venerated figure of Islamic scholarship in this part of Java. The purpose of our visit was to inquire about the possibility of taking up residence in the vicinity after the approval of the headman and at least several of local kyai had been secured. Alas, a young man and a disciple of his informed us, the kyai had been away on business in Surabaya, the provincial capital, and he was not expected to return until after dark. Resigned to the necessity of having to come back the following day, we were engaged in conversation by Mas Bukhari – that was the young man's name – who asked us warily but politely about our reasons for being there. With the help of my research assistant, I managed to convey something about my interest in migration and local culture, saying that I was a student from Greece. When Mas Bukhari heard this, he hurried to introduce us to an elderly neighbour of his who was considered an authority of sorts on these issues. This would be the first time I heard the story of the coming into being of the area by a set of siblings.

Pak Mattasan, the elderly man in question, was said to be over one hundred years old; as Mas Bukhari put it, he had 'his skin changed like a snake seven times over'. Despite his old age and frail health, he went on to offer a narration of the area's founding that I came across several times in subsequent conversations with other locals. These stories commonly start with the arrival of a set of siblings who, some time in the past, crossed the Madura Strait, separating the island of Madura from East Java by means of a boat, made it to the port of Probolinggo and then headed further inland in an attempt to find or actually 'make' land. In Pak Mattasan's own words the story begins in the remote past.

In the jhaman krajaen [Mad., the period of the kingdoms; i.e. before the arrival of the Dutch] my ancestor came over here from Madura. His name was great-grandfather Renten. He came here not alone but together with his five other satretan [full siblings, Mad.] from Omben [a village in the hinterland of Sampang district in central Madura]. If all of them were to gather here today, together with their descendants, my compound's space would not be enough. Their names were great-grandfather Renten, great-grandfather Siang, great-grandfather Banjir, great-grandfather Sayanten, great-grandfather Sermatija and great-grandmother Sumi, who was the only woman. These were the first to settle in the area, for before their arrival it was not populated. ... It was covered by thick forest and only animals and evil spirits lived here. ... The whole area was covered by forest. ... That was in the past. These siblings were the first people to make [aghabay, Mad.] the village, the houses, the land. Although they came here as a set of siblings [setretanan], they later spread out and each chose a spot of the forest to clear. They made the village by clearing the forest [bhabhad alas, Mad.]. By doing so, they created rain-dependent fields, built the first huts and small prayer houses. Except for great-grandmother Sumi, there was no other women accompanying them. After they made land and huts, their wives followed them here from Madura ... and they all gave birth to a lot of children ... all of them were born here. Children and clearing the forest. ... It took four generations to reach my generation. ... Here, it is big Omben. Starting from the area further away from the bridge, to the west and to the south, we are all descendants of these first people [oreng situng, Mad.].

In other versions of this topostory, the set of siblings numbered five instead of six; in others the set consisted of four. There were also some inconsistencies of the names of the ancestors involved. In some narratives the first settlers were said to have arrived together with their wives from the outset; in others they already had children. However, all the versions converged on a common theme, insisting that the siblingship ties connected the village founders, their place of origin was Omben and that they had cleared the forest, referred to as bhabhad alas (Mad.). The narratives were arranged similarly too, along generational lines proceeding lineally towards the present. Unlike in other parts of Southeast Asia where genealogical memories are commonly rather shallow, reaching back only three or four generations, the cultural memory of that initial encounter with the forest and its subsequent appropriation by these 'first people' extended six or seven generations.

According to all versions of the sibling topostory, genealogy and ancestral acts of clearing the forest are intimately linked. The term bhabhad is particularly significant. As Giambelli notes (1999), the Old Javanese term babad, cognates of which are found in both the Balinese and Madurese languages, carries two different meanings. Within the context of the indigenous literary tradition, it refers to a genre of historico-genealogical chronicles narrating the founding of new royal dynasties and/or significant events. Within the context of agriculture, it designates the creation of cultivable fields through the chopping down of trees, the levelling of the ground, and the preparing of the soil for planting. What is common to both is the activity of cutting, as in the cutting down of trees and the cuts that pre-modern scribes were required to insert on palmyra palm-leaf kropak 'books' before the introduction of paper as a means of writing, a practice common throughout Southeast Asia. Pushing the issue a bit further, I would suggest that what this common stress may seek to establish is, firstly, the idea of a beginning, a point in history from where the current situation originates, and, secondly, the idea of becoming: 'the emergence of a new situation from a given existing situation' (Giambelli 1999, 498). In the case of Alas Niser, bhabhad stories emphasize the transformation of the landscape by the force of ancestral agency, and highlight the anteriority of siblingship and its centrality for precipitating such a transformation.

The narrative evocation of siblingship is a potent one. Siblingship establishes sociality as primordial, existing from the very beginning, both beyond history and at the root of it. In a sense, the sociality of siblingship is without a cause and origin, being simply and profoundly foundational. The same can be said about other narrative instances of place making in the Austronesian world that Fox (1997) calls topogenies (literally, the genesis of topoi, places). In broad terms, topogenies recount the journey of an ancestor, or the migration of a group from its point of departure, through its movement across spaces and encounters with other men and groups to the instantiation of habitable places and the erection of houses (8–9). Quite commonly, topogenic stories merge the idea of the 'path' with the idea of 'origin' and emphasize 'the botanic image of the growing and spreading "tree" that extends from its base' (1997, 9). Images of extension and growth are images of dispersal and multiplication. This applies in our case too. The sibling topostory portrays the present population of Alas Niser as partaking in such an extension in the sense of having sprung up from a set of closely related people who, by virtue of being siblings, shared the same substance. In this regard, the present inhabitants are constructed as consanguineous in various, however distant, degrees. The precise nature of such ties remains unelaborated in everyday practice and genealogical knowledge is not utilized to accomplish greater clarity. Nevertheless, the multiplicity of the intimate links implied posits the possibility of tracing a common point of origin for all inhabitants as a real one. The point of common origin is the point of the path of migration of the 'first people'.

The accomplishment of unity through the tracing of a common origin is only partial as it gives rise to certain problems. These have to do with the narration of the area as empty of humans, and an extension of Madura. Seen from a certain perspective, the claim that Alas Niser is a Madurese 'colony' sits rather uneasily with the general emphasis on mixing through affinal exchanges that is pronounced in other contexts (see below). Moreover, the emphasis on the emptiness of the area is equally problematic and, as such, of particular importance. This is best exemplified when certain aspects of pre-modern Probolinggo are taken into account.

From an analytical perspective, it is essential that the sibling topostory is interrogated for the aspects of the regional history it selectively seeks to highlight and those it seeks if not to deny then to push to the margins of relevance. According to the historical record, coastal Probolinggo was a thriving maritime and rice-growing area that was well-integrated within the administrative structures of Majapahit, Java's last Hindu-Buddhist kingdom which ruled in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the capital of which was actually situated a short distance away (Pigeaud 1960, 63). The southern highlands of Probolinggo were, during the same period, the centre of a most important Sivaite cult whose clergy were members of religious networks stretching the whole of East Java and Bali. Today the descendants of this Hindu-Buddhist population still live in the Tengger Highlands (see Hefner 1985, 271–6; Smith-Hefner 1989, 260). It is clear, therefore, that the wider area was not depopulated in pre-modern times, and that, as Hefner (1990) has argued for the neighbouring Pasuruan, the arrival of Muslim Madurese and Central Javanese migrants in the nineteenth century pushed this Hindu-Buddhist population further upland, away from the more fertile plains, and changed the religious outlook of the area.

As several historians have argued, the depopulation of Java's eastern salient was primarily the outcome of two and half centuries of political violence, starting with Majapahit's fall to Muslim forces in the 1520s, Mataram's campaigns in East Java and Madura in the early to mid-seventeenth century, Trunajaya's and Surapati's rebellions of the late seventeenth and the early to mid-eighteenth century, respectively, and the Dutch campaigns against Balambangan in the late eighteenth century (Boomgaard 1989; Ricklefs 1981; Van Niel 2005). Kumar (1976, 1979, 1997) attributes the economic devastation and virtual depopulation of the area in particular to the atrocities and scorched-earth policies of the Dutch and their Mataram's allies against the rebels and the court of Balambangan that wiped out the local population and the Madurese, Balinese, Chinese, Buginese and English migrants who were also making a living there. Conversely, the subsequent repopulation of the eastern salient through the immigration of vast numbers of Madurese and Central Javanese was the outcome of the 'pacification' of the area and the establishment of effective administrative rule by the Dutch, as well as in the case of Probolinggo and the adjacent areas of Besuki and Panarukan to the east, a significant but brief period of Chinese overlordship. Both Chinese and Dutch sought to realize the economic potential of the territories under their control through a dual process of expansion of the land under cultivation and of the necessary manpower through encouraging immigration.

According to the genealogies and other scanty information that I have collected from descendants of the 'first people', I can hypothesize that their demographic movement out of Central Madura and into East Java took place sometime between 1830 and 1850. Historians and anthropologists of Madura have repeatedly pointed out that around that time the island experienced an unprecedented rural exodus, precipitated by the combined effects of rapid population growth and the excessive tax demands of the local aristocracy, which imposed a huge burden on the population (de Jonge 1989; Husson 1995; Kuntowijoyo 1981; Tjiptoatmodjo 1983). Madurese peasants responded principally to these pressures by migrating en masse to sparsely populated areas of East Java.

As Adas's (1981) work has shown for both pre-colonial and colonial Southeast Asia, issues of taxation were directly related to demographic movement as peasants would flee heavily taxed areas in protest of excessive demands from above to sparsely populated ones which were relatively removed from effective administration. The Madurese case adds further support to his hypothesis. In the course of the eighteenth century, the principalities that were to be found on the island of Madura transformed themselves from vassals of kingdom of Mataram of Central Java to vassals of the Verenidge Oostindische Campagnie (VOC), the Dutch East India Company (de Jonge 1982). From this period up to the late nineteenth century, the Madurese princes were granted the right to govern their polities without the supervision or direct control of the Dutch. Starting from the early to mid-nineteenth century, according to colonial officials cited by Husson, 'the status of being an independent self-ruled province had bitter consequences for the local population which was crushed under exactions, abuses, taxes and corvées' (1997, 84). Taxation increases were partly the result of the payments in money, kind and troops the princes had to make to the VOC in return for its military 'protection', and partly due to the adoption of a lavish life-style by the aristocracy in a vain attempt to compensate for its colonial domestication through displays of conspicuous consumption. A third contributing factor was the widespread practice of tax-farming (i.e. the practice of renting out the right to levy taxes to third parties for a lump sum of money usually paid in advance) through which the aristocracy was trying to raise cash. It is highly probable that tax-farming had an inflationary effect as several layers of tax-farmers sought to increase their profit margins (see de Jonge 1986; Kuntowijoyo 1981, 1986).

Taxation increases imposed a further burden on the population and on the scarce resources of the island economy. Geographically, Madura is an offshoot of the north and east Javanese limestone hills. It is characterized by aridity, scarcity of good soil, and extended period of droughts (Husson 1995, 61–75; de Jonge 1989, 5–10). With the exception of the alluvial soils where irrigation is possible and which are concentrated around the major urban centres of Pamekasan, Bangkalan, Sampang and Sumenep, the rest of the island consists of rocky low hills. The barrenness of the soil is further exacerbated by the absence of volcanic elements, the low level of rainfall, and the absence of big river systems. The dominant mode of agriculture practised both today and the preceding centuries was that of talon (Mad.), rain dependent fields which produce only one yield per year and are extremely sensitive to droughts. Colonial commentators viewed Madura as an economically poor society that could barely grow enough crops to feed its mushrooming population (see Van Dijk et al. 1995, 2). In the period between 1815 and 1867, Madura experienced an almost tripling of its population which went up from 218,659 in 1815 to 254,123 in 1845 to 595,841 in 1867 (de Jonge 1989, 21). This increase was very much a consequence of political stability, and the lower incidence of disease. This increase led both to a rapid deforestation of the island's hinterland as peasants tried to expand their holdings, and to an exodus which saw thousands of Madurese leaving the island for the frontier areas of coastal East Java.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations; Acknowledgements; Prolegomenon; Chapter 1: The Becoming of Place: Moving, Clearing, Inhabiting; Chapter 2: The Perception of Difference: Embodying, Reversing, Encompassing; Chapter 3: The Blood of Affinity: Marrying, Procreating, Housing; Chapter 4: Matters of Scale: Feeding, Praying, Sharing; Chapter 5: A Pulsating Universe: Annihilating, Enhancing, Magnifying; Chapter 6: The Marital and the Martial: Gendering, Killing, Oscillating; Epilogue; Bibliography; Index

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‘“Becoming – An Anthropological Approach to Understandings of the Person in Java” is a virtuoso and literally ground-breaking adaption of the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari for anthropological fieldwork. Kostas Retsikas demonstrates that there is a highly flexible and extremely useful methodological apparatus at the heart of Deleuze and Guattari’s schizoanalysis and doing so it opens a new theoretical door for the field of anthropology.’ —Ian Buchanan, editor of ‘Deleuze Studies’

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