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Reading Indonesia: A Profile of Professor Susan Rodgers

By Donald N.S. Unger

Susan Rodgers“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 texts—colonial era novels, childhood autobiographies, and this past year at the Institute for Advanced Studies, at locally authored literary epics—as 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, I’m 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 amount—as 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 language novel.

Telling Lives consists in large part of two autobiographies—Me and Toba, by P. Pospos and Village Childhood, by Muhamad Radjab—edited, translated, and introduced by Rodgers. In her introduction, she writes in part:

“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 Indonesia’s 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 world’s 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 colonizers—even by the British during a brief interregnum during the Napoleonic Wars.

There is an additional twist to Indonesia’s current circumstance in that the world’s largest Muslim country recently elected a woman as president: the moderate Muslim, nationalist Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Sukarno, the country’s first president. Given current struggles, both within Islam and between Islam and the West, Megawati faces a tough road ahead.

In contemporary context, Indonesia’s viability as a unitary state is in contention. Debates abound as to whether the process of calving off sections of the country—such as the recently independent East Timor or perhaps the restive province of Aceh—might 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 Indonesia’s 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, that’s the way to go—as opposed to letting different parts of the country kind of splinter off. Because some of these parts are so small they’re 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 that’s 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 the union.”

Drawn to the Intellectual Excitement of the Work
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 Yalman—who later moved to Harvard—suggested 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 master’s 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 there.”

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 to make.

“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 Minangkabau—as well as the French that she utilized for her master’s work in Martinique.

A Range of Other Interests
While political 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
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 Institute’s 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 studies—30 years after Rodgers first read Geertz—she got to watch Geertz read Rodgers.

“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 O’Kane 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 UCLA’s Fowler Museum, for the exhibition.

The Summerfield’s 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 Geneva’s 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 ritual metalwork.


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