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Life on the Edge

In the Realm of the Diamond Queen: Marginality in an Out-of-the-Way Place

by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing
Princeton University Press, 350 pp., $14.95 (paper)

When the third world (as it was called before the second collapsed and the first lost its power to set the globe’s agenda) finally begins to modernize—in China, say, or India, in Mexico, the Middle East, or Southeast Asia—a very old phenomenon, as old as the displacement of the American Indians, the Australian Aborigines, the Bushmen, the Bedouins, the Lapps, or the Gypsies, gets a new lease on life. Those peoples who lack or are denied the means of participating in such modernization, or who simply reject the terms on which it is offered, become marginal, and this leads to the creation of encapsulated societies, societies viewed by the majority populations in the countries in which they live as “backward,” “traditional,” “archaic,” “static,” or “primitive.” Go-ahead states, bent on “take-off,” do not bring all their citizens equally with them when they join the contemporary world of capital flows, technology transfers, trade balances, and growth rates. Some, indeed, they quite ceremoniously push aside.

It is just this sort of “out-of-the-way” peoples—the more out-of-the-way the better—that cultural anthropology in its classic phase dedicated itself to studying, on the presumption that they were natural communities persisting through time, whole, autonomous, and undisturbed: “our primitive contemporaries.” The realization, grudging and belated, that this is not so, not even with the Pygmies, not even with the Eskimos, and that these peoples are in fact products of larger-scale processes of social change which have made them and continue to make them what they are—the same processes which have made and continue to make us what we are—has come as something of a shock and has induced a virtual crisis in the field.

Descriptive reports of “organic” societies governed by “integrated” cultures, settled shapes, and solidified structures “real as a seashell,” grow unpersuasive. Stark “great divide” contrasts between “modern” and “premodern” societies, the one individualistic, rational, and free of tradition, the other collectivistic, intuitive, and mired in it, look increasingly mythical, summary, and simple-minded. The very idea of a bounded, self-contained community, “We, the Tikopia,” “The People of Alor,” becomes suspect; that of a seamless way of life, “The Balinese Temper,” “The Cheyenne Way,” dubious altogether. There are no petrified survivors from the world we have lost; just hapless castaways, neglected and vulnerable, of the one we live in. The anthropological “science,” if it is a science, seems to have lost its object.

Or found a new one. If ethnological crystals, independent societies complete in themselves, are not to be had, and perhaps never were, then we will have to learn how to deal with dependent and incomplete ones. The study of marginal societies, of the process by which they are marginalized, pushed off toward the edges of modernizing states and left to adapt as best they can with whatever is left to them in the way of material resources (usually, very little) and spiritual heritage (often, surprisingly much) can be at least as revelatory, and a good deal more realistic, than the classical approach to one people, one place, and one culture. Instead of isolated pristine communities, shattered and destroyed one after the other by the steamroller advance of modernity, one gets a picture of a very wide variety of societies that live on the periphery but are in no way immobile—hill peoples, desert peoples, jungle peoples, island peoples, in some places inner-city peoples, in some country folk—each trying to keep some sort of balance, integrity, and contact with their past in the midst of large-scale changes which they neither initiate nor very much affect. For the just-so story of timeless primitivism, passively succumbing to the invasion of history, one has instead a just-is story of constructed impoverishment: backwardness produced, imposed, resented, and, so far as possible, and for as long as possible, resisted. Instead of the romance of loss, we have the pragmatics of struggle.

Indonesia, a country whose forceful and autocratic “New Order” government is as single-mindedly committed to development as any in the world, and which most everyone expects to be the next Asian Dragon (its growth rate is already in double figures), is an excellent place to look for this sort of struggle. Its national life is centered on Java and on the Javanese, a half or so of its population, but it is a labyrinth of fault lines. There are hundreds of language groups scattered over thousands of islands. There are Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and adherents of all sorts of local religions. There are Malays and Chinese, Papuans and Melanesians. Just about every imperial power, from the Arabs and the Indians to the Portuguese and the Dutch, has left a mark, at one time or another, of one sort or another, on the country. As this carnival of difference tries to draw itself together around its Javanese core for a big push toward modernity, there is no end of candidates for marginalization.

It is to one of these candidates, a loosely organized group of mountain people in southeastern Kalimantan (that is, “Borneo”), that Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, a young Asian-American anthropologist, has devoted her study, perhaps the most detailed and certainly the most self-conscious examination of marginalization yet to appear. The product of more than two years of exceedingly difficult fieldwork conducted during the 1980s in a “densely forested and rough terrain occasionally dotted with fields and houses and crisscrossed with trails whose paths may change after a night of rain,” it traces the fortunes and misfortunes of a people called, in her own invention, “The Meratus” (to avoid the vernacular and derogatory Bukit, “hillbilly,” by which they are locally known), who have been forced into progressively more mountainous terrain by state-sponsored development activities in the hills and lowlands—industrial timbering, in the first instance (export volume, mostly to Japan, in the region rose 1,000 percent in a decade), plus a wide variety of resettlement, welfare, and civil construction programs, and an increasing penetration of marketplace commerce, modern education, and centralized military control. At once excluded from “the new Indonesia” as backward, immoral, and “not yet ordered” and resistant to that exclusion, “actively engaged” in “protesting, reinterpreting, and embellishing it,” the Meratus are the very image of “the cultural and political construction of marginality,” thirteen thousand “runaways from state discipline,” in a province of nearly two million people, whose “everyday…existence offends official ideals of order and development.”

The Meratus are an elusive and fluid group. They are scattered in small settlements, often only two or three houses, next to their fields, which, since they are shifting cultivators, they move, along with the houses, every two years or so. Tsing attempts to understand them by analyzing the relations between them and their lowland neighbors, by tracing out the ways in which leadership is established among them, and by interpreting, against the background of both of these, some “off beat” and “eccentric” ceremonial formulations of who they are and how they fit into the world. The relations with neighbors involve her with local history, some of it real, some of it fantastical. She found that the leaders were engaged in what she calls “a politics of travelling,” in which men, moving ceaselessly about from place to place and occasion to occasion, “bullying, enticing and impressing a group of constituents,” assemble a modicum of authority, fragile and evanescent.

She has much to say, finally, about the poems, narratives, and ecstatic pronouncements of marginals among the marginals—inspired and prophetic women shamans. Out of these studies, and nervously positioning herself in relation to just about every intellectual current now abroad in the human sciences, from deconstruction, environmentalism, and cultural studies to developmentalism, relativism, and most especially feminism—and drawing on Foucault, Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Gayatri Spivak, James Clifford, Frederic Jameson, bell hooks, and Luce Irigaray—she constructs both a critique of anthropology and a general moral for our time, an indictment of what the powerful are doing to the world.

The relations between the Meratus and those around them are not unfamiliar in their general form. With the lowland Muslim people, called “Banjar,” they are in direct, if wary and sporadic, contact. The hegemonic Javanese they know only distantly and abstractly, and they encounter the New Order state through such programs as the one for The Management of Isolated Populations “to be moved into resettlement villages [so as to make] forested land available for national priorities.” “‘They’re our American Indians,’ cosmopolitan Banjar said to me, situating themselves with white Americans.”

But their relations with other peoples work out in surprising ways. Take, for example, the matter of “government headhunters.”

Urban Indonesians think of [people] such as the Meratus in the imagery of headhunting. Banjar have their own images of savagery. The Meratus, they say, are bandits who pounce on unsuspecting travellers. They even kill their own grandparents as old age sets in. It is the responsibility of the state, Banjar reason, to control and civilize the Meratus. Because these kinds of stereotypes are familiar to English-speaking readers, it may seem surprising that Meratus view the situation in reverse: The headhunters are employees of the state, commissioned to take Meratus heads.

In the spring of 1985, when Tsing was in Meratus country, a rumor spread through the area that the drills of the giant government oil company, Pertamina, working near the coast had broken down and that the company, with the collusion of the police and the army, had ordered the Javanese workers in its fields to obtain heads in order to purge the machinery of whatever strange malignancies were obstructing it. Everyone, Tsing says, was terrified. People, normally confident in their sheltering mountains, moved about with fear and caution, jumping at every rustle in the bush. Strangers were said to be wandering about at night, huddled under trees, or dressed in odd armor. Isolated fields went untended; mysterious camp sites were come upon; there were reports of headless corpses found along the trails:

This wasn’t the first such head-hunting scare. People told me that a few years earlier, a French engineer had begun construction of a hydroelectric dam to the south, and raiders had been sent to find heads to ensure the dam’s stability. On several occasions before that, the great bridge at Martapura [behind the port at Banjarmasin] had needed repairs; on each occasion, a head was needed to sanctify the bridge. Meratus trace their vulnerability as victims of state-sponsored headhunting back to precolonial [Hindu-Javanese] kingdoms, when kings used heads to consecrate public monuments. Now “development” demands new sacrifices for its bridges, dams, and oil wells. Meratus conflate the Indonesian words pembangunan (“development”) and bangungan (“buildings”), and they use them interchangeably; to Meratus, development is public construction work. In terms of ritual and requirements, contemporary development projects logically appear to parallel precolonial royal construction.

For the Meratus, these stories, which fold ethnic stereotypes, contemporary events, and ancient legends into one another, give expression, and perhaps even substance (Tsing, unwilling to assume that it is only the Meratus who are given to curious notions, is not completely convinced that some of the stories may not be true), to their view that their marginality is a longstanding and continuing relationship with state power. It is not a recent feature of contact or acculturation; violence lies at its heart, and what the state is concerned with is not, as it has come recently to pretend, their integration into the core population of the country. Rather it is concerned, as it has always been, with the continuation of their peripheral vulnerability. “Raiders don’t subdue a population as much as scare it…”

At the height of the headhunting scare, I attended a festival at which an assistant village head gave a speech in which he asked everyone to carry government identity cards at all times, as specified by government policy. The main reason he gave was that if someone died on a forest trail, people could identify the body. At the time, this seemed odd to me, because most Meratus are illiterate (and so could not read the cards). Besides, the chances of dying where no one could identify the body seemed slim. In hindsight, the speech makes sense as a response to government headhunters (who can read ID cards, as well as take away other means of identification—i.e., one’s head)…. Whereas the state labels order the antithesis of violence, the Meratus know order as the prerogative of the most violent.

It is this sort of order, external, arbitrary, and seemingly indestructible that the Meratus, unable either to counter it or participate in it, seek to keep at bay, by developing a politics of their own, free of the external order’s threat and interference—a politics of intensely competitive individual leaders moving ceaselessly about the local area, intruding here, advising there connecting, mediating, petitioning, cajoling, bluffing, but never assembling anything very much in the way of official authority or enduring power. What you have in the highlands, Tsing says, is not instruments of coercion or structures of domination—neither police nor bureaucrats, technologists nor planners—but “leadership landscapes”:

Meratus politics are a politics to travelling. Political discussions range widely across the mountains, foray into and out of Banjar village, offices, and markets, and tap even broader spheres of thought and action. Particularly in the central mountains [the most isolated and forbidding region, and the heartland of Meratus resistance], going from one house hold to another involves travelling; there are no clear boundaries between local and foreign spaces. Neighborhood-based communities are shifting and flexible. Those who would be neighborhood leaders continually renegotiate their constituencies as they visit past and present constituents. Effective travelling and visiting become central practices of leadership and community-building. The politics of travelling bring regional authority and male privilege into the heart of local concerns.

Such a politics, resting on tirelesness, blather, and adaptability, entails male privilege because “travelling is a practice in which women…are disadvantaged in comparison to men.” With the main responsibility for child care and more than their share for the cultivation of crops, the women are poorly positioned when it comes to the business of laying out “leadership landscapes” by crossing and recrossing them, forging alliances, establishing reputations, and gaining for themselves a public voice in public places—markets, shamanistic rituals, government offices, social events. The same dispersed and unsettled pattern of life that marginalizes Meratus society as a whole, setting it apart from “progressive,” or “civilized” peoples as a collection of disorderly “primitive nomads,” marginalizes women within it, marking them off as rather the opposite—insufficiently mobile, bound (at least relatively, for no one here is really settled) to where they are and what they do.

Or, at least most of them are. What interests Tsing, indeed absorbs her, coming as she does from Foucault and feminism, are the few women who struggle to counter their marginalization, who, again, “protest,” “reinterpret,” and “embellish” it—the “off-beat,” “eccentric,” “transgressive” women shamans. Shamanism, too, is a male prerogative, virtually a monopoly, among the Meratus, for effectiveness in the role also requires the establishment of far-flung connections, and shamans are in fact usually political figures of some weight. But where no Meratus women are political leaders as such, a handful are at least would-be shamans, recalcitrants who “challenge gender conventions [and] perform the non-conformities…[necessary] to construct their ‘voices.’ ” At the climax of her book, as we encounter the margins within margins toward which it has in its inward spiral steadily been moving, Tsing zeroes in on two of these: an exuberant performance artist who sings, dances, and most surprisingly, for this is not a pictorial culture, sketches stories of spiritual travel aboard flying horses and flying cobras, and a rambling and discursive, “genre-twisting” fabulist—“The Diamond Queen” of the title—who chants a playful and parodic, wildly fragmentary, “graffiti-like” History of the World that “throws together too many kinds of time for most generals to understand.”

Tsing interprets these women (whose torrential productions she relates at length and in detail) not as archaic or traditional figures, falling back on inherited habit and received wisdom, as “tribal” peoples are supposed to do under pressure, but as creative, exploratory, fully contemporary modern ones, “[struggling] within and against conventions of gender, performance, and politics.” She even regards the world historian, an insistent woman named Uma Adang, whose alter ego Diamond Queen hiked over the mountains from classic Java to bring to the Meratus their rites and customs, as in some sense “postmodern”:

It might be useful to think of Uma Adang as crafting a “postmodern” eclecticism. Uma Adang flirts with those powerful “modern” discourses that are available in South Kalimantan—discourses that would have one embrace national, ethnic, or religious identities as badges of commitment to progress and reason—but she stacks together all these discourses…like items at a rummage sale…[she revels] in an identity of mimicking fragments. This “postmodernism” does not rest easily with the work of theorists who think in terms of evolutionary cultural steps. It is not an effect of electronic mass media, urban cosmopolitanism, refugee displacements, or late-capitalist consumption patterns. It does not follow on the heels of a hegemonic modernism; nor is it the signal for a new era of thought in South Kalimantan. If it is a postmodernism, it is one that nips at the pretensions of cultural periodizations and refuses their hegemony…. The postmodernism of marginality does not displace the coherence of modern dominance and exclusion; rather, it refracts modern dominance from other angles.

Uma Adang, the ultimate marginal, is, Tsing says, paradoxically (and deliberately) trans-ethnic. She speaks, or wants to, to Indonesia as a whole and, with the assistance of her anthropological amanuensis, beyond it to the contemporary world in general, or at least to that part of it concerned to resist the reduction of whole peoples to dependency or disappearance. How far she, her colleagues, the Meratus themselves, or their book-writing champion will be heard is, however, another matter. In a sudden, unprepared-for shift from the optimistic and uplifting tone of her book (a tone that, like her unfortunate title, may bring her closer to ethnographical romanticism than she wants) Tsing writes in her final paragraph that “everything I have described seems to be changing dramatically.” Ever greater expansion by the timber companies, swelling migration from the lowlands to the mountains, and intensified government-enforced resettlement “have changed the possible meanings of ‘personal autonomy’ beyond…recognition.” The developmentalist steamroller looks like prevailing in the end.

In the meantime, despite rather too much wandering about in the intricacies of advanced thought, much of it beside the point, Tsing has written a moving, penetrating book, one that, whether or not it will prove to have come too late to do much for the Meratus as “the boardrooms and offices of the world” advance upon their refuge, makes plain a process that is occurring all over the world—in Chiapas or the Amazon, in Sicily or the South Bronx, as powerful and determined central governments move toward what they conceive of as the destined future.

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