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Meaning and Power in a Southeast Asian Realm

Meaning and Power in a Southeast Asian Realm

Copyright Date: 1989
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    Meaning and Power in a Southeast Asian Realm
    Book Description:

    The ruler in the Indic States of Southeast Asia was seen not as the "head of state" but as the center or navel of the world. Like polities, persons and houses were and are viewed as centered spaces (locations) where spiritual potency can gather. Shelly Errington explores the politics of constituting and maintaining such centered socio-political spaces in a former Indic State called Luwu, which lies in South Sulawesi (Celebes), Indonesia. The meaning of political life and the ways its cultural forms were and are sustained depend on locally construed ideas of "power" or spiritual potency and "the person," which the author explores in detail. She views the polity neither as a frame in which political actors pursue advantage nor as a structure for extracting wealth but as a hierarchical system of signs ultimately backed by force--but force which was not fully centralized and whose import must be understood within ideas about spiritual potency widespread in the region. Although focused on Luwu, the book's theoretical scope is wide, and it ranges comparatively over a broad geographical area, making a contribution to ethnographic, historical, and regional studies as well as to the study of politics in nonsecular societies.

    Part One traces how the person, the house, and the polity are constituted symbolically in everyday practices as centered spaces. Part Two examines how centers can be de-centered, while Part Three explores the structure that tended to hold centers together in Luwu and other Indic States. The introduction and the three conclusions (each of the three being broader than the last in comparative scope) locate the author's views with respect to other current theoretical approaches to power and culture.

    Originally published in 1989.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6008-1
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Notes on Orthography, Pronunciation, and Language
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. [Maps]
    (pp. xv-2)
  6. Introduction: The Problem of Meaning in the Study of Politics
    (pp. 3-30)

    From Hobbes’s Leviathan to “the student body,” the body has provided, in Western political thought, an image of the polity. A “corporation” is a legal body with “members” and a “head.” A nation’s “head of state,” appropriately enough, lives in a “capital” city. It would seem natural enough that the head should be the part of the body used to image superiority and leadership. Yet throughout hierarchical Southeast Asia, the ruler of the polity was said to be not the head of state but its navel.

    The difference between a ruler called “the navel of the world” and one called...

  7. Part I A Geography of Signs

    • [Part I Introduction]
      (pp. 31-34)

      In discussions of political life and of health practices in Luwu, certain words kept recurring. One of the most reiterated was the termpusatin Indonesian (Bug.posik), a word that refers not only to the human navel but to all sorts of vital centers.

      “But whypusat,” I asked in the middle of a discussion in which the word was prominent. “Why not justtengah[middle]? What’s the difference?” Clearly, I needed a language lesson, and to that end my “sibling” Andi Anthon put three objects in a row on the table. Pointing to the one in the middle,...

    • Chapter One The Person
      (pp. 35-63)

      In an illuminating and now classic explication of traditional Javanese political thought, Benedict Anderson has argued that the “idea of power in Javanese culture” contrasts at almost every point with the ideas about secular political power that have been prominent in Occidental political thought since the seventeenth century. In Java, he points out,

      Power exists, independent of its possible users. It is not a theoretical postulate but an existential reality. Power is that intangible, mysterious, and divine energy which animates the universe. . . . In Javanese traditional thinking there is no sharp division between organic and inorganic matter, for...

    • Chapter Two Microcosm/Macrocosm
      (pp. 64-95)

      The human body is the talle’ (tangible) aspect of sumange’ (intangible potency) gathered or centered at its navel. The body is talle’, but then, so is everything else in this world that is encountered through the senses. Everything tangible has the ontological status of being a sign, visible evidence that can be read by those who are alert to its meaning. A shorthand and abstract way to put this is to say that virtually everything perceptible stands, to use Peirce’s well-known term, as an indexical sign; e.g., smoke is an indexical sign of fire, dark clouds are indexical signs of...

    • Chapter Three The Polity
      (pp. 96-129)

      A division of the polity into three ranked categories was common in hierarchical Southeast Asian Indic States, a visible demarcation of gross differences in the degrees of potency embodied in the people of each category. In Luwu, the three gross divisions were theToMalebbi’ (literally the “big” or “better” people, including the ruler and the nobles of the center); theToSama(the level or same people, who included the regional nobles with posts outside the center as well as the non-noble “freemen,” as they are often called in commentary on other Southeast Asian polities); and the ata (the so-called “slaves”)....

    • Comment on Part I: Reading Movement
      (pp. 130-136)

      In the socio-political geography sketched so far, everything apprehensible by the senses—everything that can be seen, or heard, or touched, or smelled, or tasted—is, to a greater or lesser degree, a physical support or location for sumange’. In this ontology, the basic distinction is not constituted by a set of animate and inanimate items, hierarchized by degrees of consciousness and movement into human, animal, vegetable, and mineral, like the scheme articulated by Aristotle and modified and promulgated by Linnaeus and Darwin. The fundamental distinction in Luwu, as in many parts of Southeast Asia, is constituted by the contrast...

  8. Part II Centrifugal Tendencies

    • [Part II Introduction]
      (pp. 137-141)

      The intent of Part I was to show that the center of whatever political level is in question—the individual’s own spiritual center at the navel, the protecting spirit of the house, the leader of the kapolo, the Datu and arajang whose presence defines the center of the largest realm—has a spiritual and metaphysicalraison d’etre. In the view of ToLuwu, striving to attain centeredness is ultimately moral as well as practical and beneficial, for to be close to the center is to be close to the ancestral potency that brings peace, fertility, safety, and effectiveness to the world....

    • Chapter Four Vulnerable Places
      (pp. 142-168)

      When I first arrived in South Sulawesi, I stayed in Ujung Pandang, in the household of very high nobles from a Bugis former kingdom to the south of Luwu. The following excerpt from my fieldnotes describes my initial puzzlement:

      I thought I should practice doing fieldwork as well as doing language so I decided to find out who lives around us. To get the lay of the land, I asked one of the noble cousins of the household to come with me. We got to the first house and I said, “Who lives there?” “Kapolo,” she said, pleased. At the...

    • Chapter Five The Contest for Place
      (pp. 169-186)

      Although it is conducted at the level of etiquette and implicates the processes we might want to call “psychological,” the competition between peers in Luwu is not a private matter but a public activity. It gives form to social life, and the politics of the former states were shaped by it. In this chapter I want to explore some of the consequences for the meaning and conduct of the pre-Independence polities of South Sulawesi by comparing the stance of siri’ among several other insular Southeast Asian societies.

      “Commoners” in Luwu and in other hierarchical polities of South Sulawesi are all...

  9. Part III Centripetal Structures

    • [Part III Introduction]
      (pp. 187-190)

      In Part III discussed the meaning and implications of siri’, the stance of demonstrating social place that informs Luwu’s ethos and its local psychology. In Part III I turn to white blood, the great differentiator, the element that makes vertical relations both possible and (in theory) stable in Luwu. White blood was institutionalized in such a way as to allow those who had it to exhibit and perpetuate it. The exhibition and perpetuation were by no means automatic; they required effort, and Part III is about those efforts.

      For a fight to be over before it has begun, the difference...

    • Chapter Six The Potency of Names
      (pp. 191-202)

      Lévi-Strauss has observed that “some societies jealously watch over their names and make them last practically forever, others squander them and destroy them at the end of every individual existence” (1962: 199). The example of Luwu gives us not two societies but two parts of a single society with radically different policies regarding the names of their respective members: the one erases and forgets what the other cherishes and preserves. Teknonymy, the naming system of commoners, has the effect of erasing and forgetting; the naming system of nobles has the effect of recollecting and storing names in genealogies, using them...

    • Chapter Seven Forgetting Genealogies
      (pp. 203-231)

      Most humans do not use timepieces or have a notion of cumulative, linear chronological time. But it is probably sufficiently un prejudicial to say that all humans do have ways of thinking about “the past,” about the people and the events that occurred before them. I use the terms “the past” and “duration” in preference to “history” and “time” in order to denote, vaguely and neutrally, that which happened prior to the present and the medium in which events occur, without prejudging their structure or their relation to the present.

      In any given society, “the past” is given a culturally...

    • Chapter Eight Centripetal Marriage
      (pp. 232-272)

      In “A Study of Customs Pertaining to Twins in Bali,” Jane Belo addresses a puzzling question. When Balinese commoners gave birth to opposite-sex twins (in the 1930s), the parents and twins were banished from the village for a period, their house was dismantled, and a ritual of purification of the village was performed after the untoward event. (Unless noted, by “twins” I mean opposite-sex ones in this chapter.) The birth of twins to high nobles, by contrast, was greeted with joy. The difference between high-and lower-status people in reception of twins rested on the belief “that the twins had had...

  10. Conclusions

    • Local Conclusion Transcending Politics
      (pp. 275-283)

      The Ancestor is immobile, static, potent, without disturbance. The aim of political life, an aim always defeated—by the incest tabu, by human turpitude, by the stance of siri’, which all guarantee movement—is to reach perfect stasis, perfect unity. The aim of politics is to transcend politics. The paradox, as I have outlined in many ways already, is that all politics, life, events, are disturbance. Here I want to summarize and recapitulate some insights concerning the shape of “space” in Luwu and other Southeast Asian realms, its centering and de-centering, in order to take political processes one step further,...

    • Comparative Conclusion The Political Geographies of Potency
      (pp. 284-294)

      “Navel of the world or “head of state”? These phrases can be regarded as mere figures of speech, mere cultural idioms whose apparent contrast conceals an underlying uniformity in human motivations and political processes. Or they can be regarded, as I have viewed them in this book, as significant points of entrance into vastly different worlds.

      As it is conceptualized, pursued, and accumulated in Luwu and the other former Indic States of insular Southeast Asia, potency invents a world in which peripheral matter is oriented around a common central point. The importance of location and placement generally in these areas,...

    • General Conclusion Empowered Signs
      (pp. 295-302)

      Potency is real for the people who have constructed their social worlds around it. It exists; it is neither good nor bad. It stands, in their lives, more like the law of gravity than like the Ten Commandments in Euro-American cosmology. A Euro-American who wants to survive and prosper treats gravity with respect. In a world that operates within the law of gravity, common sense, more than ethics, suggests that stepping off high buildings would be foolish. In the same way, in many parts of Southeast Asia, common sense suggests that it is foolhardy to treat an extremely potent place,...

  11. Epilogue
    (pp. 303-306)

    Wealth . . . status . . . power. What counts as wealth, the perquisites of status, the pleasures and responsibilities of power, are as locally construed as the most arcane and poetic religious text. And they are, as well, locally pursued: what prompts the sensibilities fostered in a particular society to find them desirable, how their attainment is interpreted and is evaluated by people at large, are as culturally invented and socially maintained as the items we label "myths." The forms of aggression and ambition are cultural artifacts, not raw emotions; they are prompted, are channelled, and retreat, on...

  12. Glossary
    (pp. 307-310)
  13. References
    (pp. 311-318)
  14. Index
    (pp. 319-322)
  15. Illustrations
    (pp. None)