My main work, says Professor Susan
Rodgers, former chair of the department of sociology and
anthropology, is on textuality, on issues of the politics
and aesthetics of a minority literature in Sumatra, that
of the Angkola Batak. I look at Angkola Batak textscolonial
era novels, childhood autobiographies, and this past year
at the Institute for Advanced Studies, at locally authored
literary epicsas resistance literature written in reaction
to state control.
That control was initially exercised by the
Dutch East Indies colonial authorities, and then, more recently,
by the New Order dictatorship of former President Soeharto,
which lasted from 1965 until Soeharto was deposed in 1998.
So, Im really a political anthropologist, Rodgers
continues, focused on print literature, while drawing
on a base of my first work in North Sumatra, from1974 to
1977, on Angkola Batak ritual oratory, of which that society
has a huge amountas in staying up all night saying
versified speeches to each other.
Rodgers work includes her 1995 book Telling
Lives, Telling History: Autobiography and the Historical
Imagination in Modern Indonesia and her 1997 monograph Sitti
Djaoerah, a translation and analysis of a 1927 Angkola Batak
Telling Lives consists in large part of two
autobiographiesMe and Toba, by P. Pospos and Village
Childhood, by Muhamad Radjabedited, translated, and
introduced by Rodgers. In her introduction, she writes in
Most of the action in these two memoirs
is concerned with the minor emotional dramas of the two village
boys lives as they navigate successively larger and
larger realms of familial, religious, and schoolroom experience.
Nevertheless, by describing such minor journeys, the books
are about the very heart of Indonesias effort to create
itself as a modern nation. That is, these memoirs are records
of individual passages toward states of consciousness in
which people can question the ideological givens of village
life, the received truths of organized religion, and village
notions of time and society, and then go on to migrate
toward (a major image for Sumatran writers) the new
imagined community of Indonesia, a multiethnic nation created
by the conscious cooperative work of patriots drawn from
these two authors own exact generation.
That act of imagination and creation was a
gargantuan undertaking, in many ways still ongoing.
Indonesia is a vast country, an archipelago
of more than 17,000 islands, with a total land mass of 1.91
million square kilometers. It is the fourth most populous
country in the world, with some 228 million inhabitants,
and the worlds largest Muslim country. Its ethnic mix
and its history, moreover, have hugely complicated the process
of forming a modern unitary state, from the main islands
of Sumatra, Java, Bali, and Kalimantan, from a population
whose majority are of Javanese, Malay, Sundanese, and Madurese
extraction, along with ethnic minorities from China, India,
and the Arab Middle East. The island chain, or parts of it,
have variously been ruled, over the last thousand years,
by Hindu and Muslim kingdoms, by Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese
colonizerseven by the British during a brief interregnum
during the Napoleonic Wars.
There is an additional twist to Indonesias
current circumstance in that the worlds largest Muslim
country recently elected a woman as president: the moderate
Muslim, nationalist Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of
Sukarno, the countrys first president. Given current
struggles, both within Islam and between Islam and the West,
Megawati faces a tough road ahead.
In contemporary context, Indonesias viability
as a unitary state is in contention. Debates abound as to
whether the process of calving off sections of the countrysuch
as the recently independent East Timor or perhaps the restive
province of Acehmight not be the better way to go.
On the other hand, the breakup of Indonesia might be the
South Seas equivalent of the 1990s dissolution of Yugoslavia
into an ethnic bloodbath.
Rodgers is guardedly optimistic about the progress
that has been made since the fall of the Soeharto dictatorship
in 1998, and about Indonesias prospects for reform.
If Indonesia can move slowly, incrementally,
toward reform, she says, meaning a less corrupt
judicial system and a cleaner electoral system and so on,
thats the way to goas opposed to letting different
parts of the country kind of splinter off. Because some of
these parts are so small theyre not going to make it
anyway. And most of us, both Indonesians and students of
Indonesia, realize that East Timor was really a very separate
situation. Having been colonized by the Portuguese it was
culturally quite distinct, and it had really been invaded
in 1975. And thats really quite different from a group
of Batak who themselves are patriotic Indonesians. They do
this kind of moderate form of resistance, wanting to have
ethnic self-sufficiency but certainly not to pull out of
Drawn to the Intellectual Excitement of
As an undergraduate at Brown University, in
the late 1960s, Rodgers briefly considered majoring in
biochemistry but quickly shifted to a double major in anthropology
and religious studies.
The first class that I took as an anthro
major, she recalls, I was a first-year student,
and I argued my way into a third-level anthro course. And
a good deal of the writing there was by Clifford Geertz.
And, you know the excitement of his work, the intellectual
excitement, just really sort of grabbed me, as it did a lot
of young anthropologists when I was in college.
She attended graduate school at the University
of Chicago, which has a reputation for giving students a
good deal of scholarly autonomy. Her initial thoughts on
fieldwork were in the direction of Africa, but the Turkish
anthropologist and Sri Lankan expert Nur Yalmanwho
later moved to Harvardsuggested that Asia would be
a more fertile ground for research. During her second quarter
there, she created an independent study for herself, focused
on Indonesia, essentially so that she could read everything
that Geertz had ever written.
So I did that, she says, and
it just turned my head around. Even though I did my masters
degree fieldwork in Martinique, on the construction of Black
and East Indian identity in racially mixed families. But
even so, I knew that for my Ph.D. I was headed toward Indonesia.
Every topic that an anthropologist might
want to pursue can be done in Indonesia, she continues. And
it had very strong, very important theorists who were already
Working in a culture so different from our
own requires a series of adaptations, but these are adjustments
that Rodgers feels anthropologists are fairly well prepared
First of all, she says, what
you need to do is become as modest as you can be, realizing
that our interpretive frameworks are not the be-all and end-all.
But because of the field work-base of anthropology, because
we work in the local languages and because we stay there
for two years, we might have special access to some of these
rather subtle political issues, I think.
For Indonesia, in particular, the emphasis
is on local languages. The history of the archipelago, both
early nationalist efforts to promote a single language, Indonesian,
over a broad and linguistically variegated area, but also
the complicated intermixture and overlapping of various competing
local languages, as well, further complicates the work of
social scientists, insiders or outsiders. Rodgers herself
has studied Dutch, Indonesian, Angkola Batak, and Minangkabauas
well as the French that she utilized for her masters
work in Martinique.
A Range of Other Interests
anthropology makes up the bulk of her work, Rodgers is still
involved in a range of other areas, including ongoing engagement
with a variety of kinds of Indonesian art. Her courses
include Introductory Cultural Anthropology, Anthropology of
Art, Anthropology of Religion,
Psychological Anthropology, The Imagined Body, Gender, and
a fieldwork course on identity construction in Worcester.
Issues of religious identity and construction
are also an area of ongoing interest. This fall, from Oct.
18-21, 2002, in the new Center for Religion, Ethics, and
Culture, Rodgers, art history Professor Joanna Ziegler, and
Boston College theologian Bruce Morrill, S.J., 81 (now
at Holy Cross as a Jesuit Fellow in the Center for Religion,
Ethics, and Culture) will be co-directors of a conference
on Practicing Catholic: Ritual, Body, and Contestation
in Catholic Faith, combining scholarly papers by art
historians, medievalists, theologians and anthropologists,
with an array of actual performances, including liturgical
dance and a special musical performance done for hospice
care. The conference Web site is accessible via the Web site
for the Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture. One of Rodgers earlier
books was Indonesian Religions in Transition, co-edited
with Kenyon College anthropologist Rita S. Kipp.
Closing the Circle: Geertz Reads Rodgers
spent the 2001/2002 academic year at the Institute for Advanced
Studies in Princeton, N.J., the first member of the social
science faculty at Holy Cross to do so. It was an experience
she describes as having a major impact on her work. One of
the Institutes mainstays is anthropologist Clifford
Geertz, now in his mid-70s.
Having Cliff Geertz critique some article
or book chapter draft of mine or even talk about Indonesian
politics over lunch, was awesome, as certain Holy Cross students
of mine might say, she remembers.
Some 30 years after his work first inspired
her to explore the field and then fed her interest in Indonesia
as a specific focal point of her studies30 years after
Rodgers first read Geertzshe got to watch Geertz read
A humbling experience, she notes.
Winter 2003 Exhibit at Holy Cross
From Jan. 22-March 1, 2003, in the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor
Art Gallery in OKane Hall, there will be an exhibit,
titled Keris/Cloth: Metal and Textile Arts of Indonesia, curated
by Professor Susan Rodgers of the department of sociology
and anthropology. The exhibit will highlight Indonesian textiles
as they work aesthetically and politically with metalwork
pieces, with a focus on objects such as gold thread textiles
from West Sumatra. These stunning songket cloths combine
metal and textile in a power-charged pair.
In late spring 2002, Rodgers and gallery director Roger
Hankins were in Los Angeles, where they stayed with the art
collectors Anne and John Summerfield to select pieces from
their collection and also from UCLAs Fowler Museum,
for the exhibition.
The Summerfields book, Walk in Splendor, provides
a good introduction to Minangkabau art, including some of
the pieces which will be included in the show. Rodgers Power
and Gold exhibition, curated for Genevas Musée
Barbier-Mueller, The Asia Society, and The Smithsonian, in
1985, has recently been on display at the Mona Bismarck Foundation
in Paris. Rodgers book of that name documents Indonesian