Posted by: Fadjar Thufail | November 24, 2006

Book: “Truth-telling after Authoritarian Rule”

Truth-telling after authoritarian rule

Ksenija Bilbija, Jo Ellen Fair, Cynthia Milton, and Leigh Payne, eds. 2005. The Art of Truth-Telling about Authoritarian Rule. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

The most difficult challenge a country faces after the authoritarian regime collapses is in dealing with the legacy of violent pasts. The process is far from a smooth one, especially when the legacy of the violence remains to haunt the desire for coming to terms with the pasts. Some countries have instituted judicial and political mechanisms to deal with unresolved violent events, but other countries still face difficult challenge. However, it does not mean that the countries or societies with no judicial system in place to resolve the case have failed to confront the legacy of violence. In other words, working out the legacy of violence also takes place outside of the judicial process. This book documents how people resort to non-judicial processes to confront the legacy of violence in several countries that have just left authoritarian rules.

In this book, I contribute a short essay on Seno Gumira Adjidarma, an Indonesian writer who has written against the systematic attempt of the New Order political regime to silence any stories of state violence. Seno has used the medium of short story to talk about violence and oppression in East Timor, Papua, or in other parts of Indonesia.

Posted by: Fadjar Thufail | November 20, 2006

Geertz and Indonesian Anthropology

In my previous blog, I wrote a short note on Clifford Geertz’s influential contribution to anthropology. Geertz was no doubt a leading anthropologist and cultural theorist whose interests spanned over a wide range of issues. His work has influenced not only anthropology, but also other social science disciplines. Several books written by his colleagues in anthropology and other scholars attest to how Geertzian hermeneutics and interpretive method have shaped how social sciences perceive culture.

In the blog I wrote as a short obituary to Geertz, I touched a little bit upon the role he has played in shaping Indonesian studies as a field of study. Amid the various works on Geertz, however, only a few, if any, which devotes attention on the relationship between Geertz and the Indonesian studies. I argue there are two reasons for this lack of attention. Firstly, Geertz never referred to himself as an “area studies scholar.” His strong and long-time interest on Indonesia did not lead him to call himself a country specialist. Geertz’s early work on Islam shows that his interest lies more on a comparative angle, although most people will argue that he advocates a more relativistic approach. It is interesting to see that Geertz could have fitted perfectly among those whom Benedict Anderson categorizes as people haunted by the specter of comparison. Secondly, Geertz sought little to establish an institutional and collegial relationship with Indonesians and Indonesian institutions. He had no students from Indonesia, never worked with an Indonesian institution, and never became an avid commentator in the Indonesian public discourse. He located himself more as a “participant observer” whose task is to make a sense of what the “natives” are doing through the ways the natives tell about themselves.

I think it is now the time to shed more light on examining the relations between Geertz and the genealogy of Indonesian anthropology. The significance of this endeavor contributes not only to a more critical view on Geertz, but also to a critical perspective on the state-of-the-arts of the Indonesian anthropology. More work needs to be done on this matter, but suffice it to say at this moment that Geertz’s seminal work and his theoretical tour-de-force have minimally affected the development of Indonesian anthropology, which has produced more work on cultural typology than on interpretive ethnography.

Posted by: Fadjar Thufail | November 3, 2006

Clifford Geertz

Clifford Geertz Clifford Geertz passed away on October 31, 2006 in Philadelphia. No doubt Indonesia owes much to this respected anthropologist. His book, “The Religion of Java,” is a pathbreaking ethnographic study of Islam in Indonesia, calling for observers to devote more attention on the reality of everyday Islam which is replete with categorical mixture of the ideal Islam and the practiced Islam. When Indonesian scholars were fascinated by structuralist and functionalist perspectives, Geertz introduced interpretive social science. His dictum of “looking over the native’s shoulder” has become a hallmark of ethnographic research that attempts to endow interpretive privilege on the local people. However, it is ironic that Indonesian anthropology has learned little from the Geertzian interpretive perspective, and hermeneutics, the key tool in interpretation, remains less favored in anthropological research in Indonesia. This perhaps owes to the fact that Geertz never took students from Indonesia, a reason that he never explained and that remained mysterious.

Geertz’s influential role in anthropology has been a subject of numerous studies. Sherry Ortner’s and Byron Good and Richard Schweder’s edited books discuss how various disciplines taught in US universities have borrowed from Geertz. In Indonesia, Ignas Kleden’s Ph.D. dissertation is the only comprehensive study on Geertz’s thoughts on economic and culture. Despite the abundant resources on Geertz, assessing how he helps shape the field of Indonesian studies and Indonesian anthropology remains an unfulfilled endeavor. Geertz’s life, which stayed aloft, detached from the passionate dynamics of Indonesian academic world and Indonesian scholars, unlike other Indonesianists, itself invites interpretive understanding. This, I think, is the task we must begin.

Posted by: Fadjar Thufail | October 10, 2006

Book: “Beginning to Remember”


Mary S. Zurbuchen (ed.) 2005. Beginning to Remember: The Past in the Indonesian Present. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

In this book, I contribute an essay, “Ninjas in Narratives of Local and National Violence in Post-Suharto Indonesia.”

Click here for review of the book by Rommel Curaming on Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia

Posted by: Fadjar Thufail | September 30, 2006

Is “Pelurusan Sejarah” Necessary?

Over the last few years, after the New Order political regime crumbled in 1998, Indonesians have been debating whether we need to rewrite our national history. The major event driving the public debate is the history of the 1965 tragedy when seven army generals were assasinated and when the killing was soon followed by a military operation that resulted in more than 500,000 people massacred. The official history, written and endorsed by the New Order regime, claims that the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was behind the killing and the military merely conducted a legitimate step to curb the communist threat. This official history lasted for a few decades, was taught in schools, and was the source of propaganda films commisioned by the New Order regime with the help from nationalist historians. The collapse of the New Order autocratic regime (1967-1998) has opened up the long-awaited opportunity to challenge the New Order version of the 1965 history. Pioneered by several historians, the term “pelurusan sejarah” was coined, referring to the attempt to correct “the mistakes” that the New Order had relied on writing its own version of the 1965 history. Historians supporting the pelurusan sejarah argue that the New Order’s claim that the PKI executes the killing of the general run against the available historical data, which the regime had covered and had just been made public recently. Pelurusan sejarah seemed to gain necessary political support when they managed to convince the post-New Order government to take the word PKI from the history textbooks for high-school students. The New Order’s version of the killing tragedy on the night of September 30, 1965, was “G30S/PKI.” Despite the major revision, the debate over pelurusan sejarah has remained and some nationalist historians have expressed their concern that eliminating the word PKI would mean disregarding the threat of communism, then and now.

I am less interested in commenting on the historical accuracy of the allegation of a PKI-backed scenario of the killing. Neither am I interested in providing new evidence to support either argument. Over the last few years, books, written by Indonesian historians or translated from American, European, and Australian publications, have mushroomed. These are good sources to assess the historical facts and arguments. I am more interested in commenting on the pragmatic consequences of pelurusan sejarah, which I think has become a major political project in any country that is coping with the legacy of authoritarian past.

Pelurusan sejarah holds an assumption that sejarah (history) has been manipulated and a political and a scholarly step should be carried out to straighten (diluruskan) it out. I do believe that history can always be manipulated but the fact that history is prone to political manipulation does not necessarily mean that there is only one “correct” version of history. Pelurusan sejarah risks of strengthening the politics of historical writing which overlooks agency and produces the same historical version that the pelurusan historians have in fact criticized. The attempt to “correct the mistake” would produce new authority vested on historians who have the capability to identify the “mistakes” and offer different “legitimate” versions. This will launch a chain of pelurusan efforts as other historians will seek other mistakes and other legitimate versions. At the same time, any product of a pelurusan would claim to be the most validated and responsible historical version, and in so doing it simply reenacts the same process practiced by the New Order regime in claiming that its version was the most accurate one. What differentiates the New Order version and the “corrected” version is the legitimacy they evoke. The New Order version constructs its legitimacy through discursive politics of propaganda and education, and the pelurusan version relies on the discourse of scientific objectivity.

I am not suggesting that one should do away with pelurusan sejarah, because it will contradict the pragmatic view I am introducing here. I would like to propose, instead, to open a critical space of dialogue without necessarily assuming that one version contains the most accurate depiction of historical events. The New Order history and the pelurusan effort share the same historical burden. They strive to craft a national history that is politically and morally acceptable. Perhaps the most feasible step to open up the critical space is simply to forget the national history and brush the history against the (political and scientific) grains.

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »