'Everyday Selves' Are Focus of the 2nd Indonesian Studies Conference

From left, presenters Karen Strassler (Queens College-CUNY), Byron Good (Harvard), and Dadi Darmadi (Harvard)

The second annual conference of the UCLA Indonesian Studies Program draws scholars together to think about "Indonesian Subjectivities."

By Dahlia Gratia Setiyawan

ISLAMIC CLERICS, boundary-testing artists, migrant workers, women's rights activists and soap opera stars have something in common in today's Indonesia.

All are players in the political, social, technological and cultural changes prompted by the end of the Suharto "New Order" regime just over a decade ago.
On Friday, May 21 and Saturday, May 22, 2010, scholars of Indonesia met on the UCLA campus for a workshop on such transformations, which have accompanied the Southeast Asian nation's transition to democracy. In presentations addressing the theme "Indonesian Subjectivities in the Post-Suharto Era," participants contemplated how individuals throughout the archipelago have formed diverse, "everyday" senses of self following more than 30 years of autocratic rule.

Co-chaired by UCLA professors Douglas Hollan of the Department of Anthropology and Geoffrey Robinson of the Department of History, the workshop marked the second academic conference made possible by the generous funding of the University's Indonesian Studies Program founder, Dr. Robert Lemelson.

Workshop organizers Kenneth George (Wisconsin), Douglas Hollan (UCLA), and Geoffrey Robinson (UCLA)

From left, workshop organizers Kenneth George (Wisconsin), Douglas Hollan (UCLA), and Geoffrey Robinson (UCLA)

Participant Kenneth George, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and editor of the Journal of Asian Studies, was another of the instrumental figures behind the workshop's development. Interviewed at the event, he recalled how the idea emerged from a January 2009 visit to the campus for a speaking engagement with the Department of Anthropology's Culture, Power and Social Change Interest Group. During his visit, Professor George and his UCLA colleagues devised the topic of "Indonesian subjectivities" as a way to connect faculty and graduate students working on related topics. Each of the invited participants "has an ethnographic approach that enables them to think about how selves are created and how people think of themselves in relation to others in the Indonesian context," he said. "Such ethnographic work inclines the researchers to watch for how the self and others are cultivated; this also implies questions about power and history."

Accordingly, during both days of the workshop, a number of issues encompassing aspects of power dynamics and historical meaning were raised. Participants debated whether the social transformations of the past decade primarily originated with the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis or whether many of these changes were caused by catalysts rooted in earlier moments of the New Order regime, and asked how bureaucratic and religious organizations have shaped individual subjectivities. They also considered the growth of anxieties over newly created uncertainties emerging in the realms of art, religion and sexuality in the Post-Suharto Era.

Friday's program at the UCLA Faculty Center offered participants a full day of presentations by invited scholars engaging in research on religious practices, gender roles, psychology, and forms of artistic and media expression. Beginning with Harvard University medical anthropologist Byron Good on "Theorizing the 'Subject' of Medical and Psychiatric Anthropology: Reflections on Subjectivity in Java and Aceh," speakers discussed the relation of subjectivity to themes of New Political Imaginaries, Moral Reform, Work and Consumption, and Cultural Production. During a question and answer session, Carla Jones of the University of Colorado, Boulder ("Objects of Subjectivity: Femininity and Consumption in Contemporary Indonesia") captured one of the main points under consideration during the day:

"How does social difference get talked about in Indonesia and what are the ways that we [researchers] talk about it [here]?"

As a partial answer to this question, several speakers analyzed diversity within Indonesian Islam, a prominent topic throughout the workshop. Two scholars, cultural anthropologist James Hoesterey of Stanford University and social anthropologist Dadi Darmadi of Harvard, approached the changing face of the faith from two very different perspectives.

Dr. Hoesterey, in "'Malu itu Mulia': Pornography, Islamic Psychology, and Moral Citizenship in Indonesia," focused on the emergence of Indonesian pop psychology and the Islamic self-help industry during the past decade. His presentation linked their rise to the nation's intense and continuing anti-pornography debate. Conversely, in "Islam, Memories and Desires: Piety and Shifting Identities in an Indonesian Diasporic Subjectivity," Mr. Darmadi, a doctoral candidate, focused on how Indonesian migration to the Middle East has resulted in changing roles of Indonesian Islam abroad as traditional flows of male religious pilgrims and scholars give way to predominantly female migrant workers. Indonesian lives in the post-Suharto era can be researched from outside as well as inside Indonesia, as Mr. Darmadi explained.

Presenter Kamala Chandrakirana (Indonesia)

Presenter Kamala Chandrakirana (Indonesia)

Shifting the focus from religious practice to artistic expression in Friday's final session, in his presentation, "Painting and Cover-Up: Indonesian Artistic Subjectivity in Peril, 1998–99," Dr. George offered an intriguing look into exhibit installation and how it became a favored modality of political commentary by artists during the social unrest and violence that characterized the end of the New Order. Karen Strassler of Queens College–CUNY ("After Authority: Media, Communication, and Emergent Political Imaginaries in Post-Suharto Indonesia") then revisited the topic of the anti-pornography debate, this time from an artistic perspective. Her presentation recounted how a contemporary artist and his television star muses were accused by a hard-line Islamic fundamentalist group of provoking indecency via the 2005 exhibit, Pink Swing Park.

Saturday's sessions, held in the UCLA Department of History Conference Room in Bunche Hall, featured a presentation by the 2010 Indonesian Studies Program Distinguished Visitor, Kamala Chandrakirana, former Director of KOMNAS Perempuan, the Indonesian National Commission on Violence Against Women. In her talk, "Finding Our Way through Violence: Indonesian Women's Struggle to Fight Impunity," Ms. Chandrakirana discussed developments during her tenure as head of the prominent and pioneering Indonesian women's rights organization based in Jakarta. Her presentation, offered as a "Perspectives from the Field," demonstrated in practical terms the meaning of what Professor George had characterized as the workshop's focus on subjectivities within "the context of the everyday." In words and photos, she chronicled the past decade's grass-roots efforts to combat violence against women from Aceh to Papua and beyond. Detailing the phases in advocates' attempts to gather and discuss findings on violence against women in the hope of creating policy changes and an awareness of Indonesian women's roles in past struggles, Ms. Chandrakirana's objective of revealing broader issues of Indonesian social development since the late-1990s was enthusiastically received by those in attendance.

The two days of workshop presentations ended with reflections by Harvard Divinity School graduate student Sukidi Mulyadi on "Islam in post-Suharto Indonesia." In a theoretical discussion of how Indonesian Muslims critically engage with Islam in a broader discourse beyond their homeland, Mr. Mulyadi argued that the subjective act of self-understanding of Islam is critical to gaining an understanding of the religion itself as well as its texts.

UCLA Indonesian Studies Program benefactor and Professor Robert Lemelson with presenter Sukidi Mulyadi (Harvard)

UCLA Indonesian Studies Program benefactor and Professor Robert Lemelson (left) with presenter Sukidi Mulyadi (Harvard)

A special screening of Dr. Lemelson's film, The Family Victim (Korban Keluarga), officially closed the workshop and proved to be among the highlights of the two-day event. The documentary, filmed from 2002 to 2006, analyzed a Javanese man's self-described battle with the paranormal and mental illness and the impact of these struggles upon his family. The film provided the basis for a lively closing discussion during which participants debated the applicability of subjectivity beyond the natural world. 

Hailed by participants and organizers as the first of its kind convened on such a theme, the workshop presented scholars with the valuable opportunity of sharing and receiving feedback on their research. Despite the various approaches, and at-times contrasting points of view, one consensus reached in the workshop wrap-up session was that Indonesia's Post-Suharto Era has been uniquely dynamic; as stated by participant Daromir Rudnyckyj of the University of Victoria ("Spirits and Citizens: The Politics of Religious Difference in Indonesia"):

"The years around 1998 created a set of conditions that allowed the emergence of new subjectivities… ways of life that were not previously possible suddenly became possible; ways of being in the world that were not imaginable suddenly became imaginable."

The participants have now been tasked with the decision of how to expand upon the accumulated understanding of these new subjectivities achieved over the course of their two days together. An announcement will be made at a future date as to whether this will be in the form of a second meeting, the circulation of workshop proceedings, or a special journal issue.

Whatever the direction they take, all are aware that they have but skimmed the analytical surface concerning how Indonesians presently conceive of and construct identities for themselves and others within their developing nation.

As summed up by Douglas Hollan during the workshop's closing session, "the conversation on Indonesian subjectivities has just begun."

Dahlia Gratia Setiyawan is a UCLA graduate student in history.

Published: Wednesday, June 30, 2010