Using Indonesian Culture To Say Important Things

Today I (TP) attended a conference for postgraduate students working on all topics Indonesian. The highlights were many (there are some very good Indonesianists in the pipelines here) but two stand out. The first was a plenary presentation by Robert Cribb on the future of Indonesian studies, which made the very interesting observation that in the 1950s and 1960s, the main intellectual innovation was the use of “Indonesian culture” to explain why Indonesia is the way that it is. (He also noted that my predecessor pioneered this analytical move, and implicitly [but not purposefully or maliciously] highlighted the fact that I have done nothing nearly as important myself.) The second highlight, to me, was the very peculiarly Indonesian nature of the way that this workshop was run. I don’t think much about culture–today, as Cribb noted, culture has been taken back out of Indonesian studies–but it’s worth thinking about some links between these two highlights.

Several years ago we blogged about the Javanese concept of power and whether or not there is anything particularly Javanese about it. At the time I was working out a bigger intellectual issue: was I going to be the type of Southeast Asianist who focuses on what makes Indonesian culture so unique, or the type who is more interested in how much various kinds of people have in common with one another? I’ve come down squarely on the latter. I do not think that culture is a useful analytical category for explaining anything profound or non-obvious about way people live the way that they do. Like many people (I suspect) who have traveled to many types of places, I am struck not so much by how different we all are but by how similar we all are. Of course cultures differ. But I don’t think that that observation tells us anything important about how the world works. Basically, I think that anything that David Brooks writes about the “exciting new science of cultural geography” is hogwash. A good shortcut to “what does TP believe” is “the opposed of what David Brooks believes.”

To flesh out why this is, let me explain it this way. In the 1960s, many Indonesianists asked “why did democracy fail in Indonesia?” One answer was that it was some political mistake or constitutional failure, but a more seductive answer at the time was “something about Indonesian culture made it tough for democracy to survive.” It was actually a politically valuable thing to try to take culture seriously at that time, after several centuries of the Dutch basically ignoring it. But people had a very tough time pinning down what exactly it is about Indonesian culture that affected politics. It became easy to do sloppy work on culture that was simply tautological. Why did democracy fail? Culture. Why were about a million Indonesians killed in 1965-66? Culture. Why did Indonesia grow so rapidly under Soeharto? Culture. Why did it all come apart in 1998? Culture. And so on. In essence, culture became an explanation for everything, and therefore lost all meaningful content. Reactions against that essentializing approach to culture and politics eventually led to culture being taken back out of most serious discussions about why Indonesia is the way that it is. I am one among many who feel this way.

So put that in the context of today’s conference. What readers who are not academics need to know about academic conferences in the Anglosphere is that there is a very ritualized kind of proper “conference behavior.” A lot of it has to do with how you carry yourself during questions and answers–the unscripted and potentially confrontational moments in which tempers can flare, careers can (really) be made and destroyed, and quite frankly, you get to see how clever people are. In the US especially, a widely shared cultural norm is that a “good” question is short, sweet, and relevant. Not everyone asks such questions, but when people ask irrelevant or rambling questions the audience gets uncomfortable and people start looking at each other knowingly. A “good” answer is likewise short, sweet, and relevant.

Indonesian academic conferences aren’t like that. At all. The modal question in an Indonesian academic conference starts off with a personal introduction, then follows with at least a two minute monologue on something which may or may not be related to the topic at hand. It is almost always not even a question. The “response” is normally even longer. I saw a 10 minute response today to a 3 minute question. This is not considered wrong or improper, but normal and expected. In fact, it is interpreted as a kind of intellectual presence to be able to engage in such exchanges.

Here’s the point: I have just described what I think is a clearly observable difference between academic conferences in Indonesia and the Anglosphere. That difference is clearly the consequence of some kind of hard-to-describe, yet basic, cultural difference between Indonesians and Americans/Australians. The challenge for a scholar is not to observe such differences (easy), but to put them to work to learn something that we didn’t already know about something important (hard). And try as I might, I have a tough time making any sort of profound conclusion about Indonesia versus the rest of the world based on this sort of observation. Cultures differ, and this matters for day-to-day stuff, but I can’t conclude that culture matters. And for culture to be analytically important, I want it to matter. The most profound observation I have is how mundane most cultural differences really are.