Spaces of Life, Spaces of Death: Towards a Phenomenology of the Austronesian House

Spaces of Life, Spaces of Death: Towards a Phenomenology of the Austronesian House

This paper basically summarizes my Ph.D thesis which was based on fieldwork carried out in 1992-1993. The thesis was very broadly aimed at augmenting and extend existing approaches to the House in the Austronesian “culture area” by looking at it in terms of means of producing space. This meant focusing on the House as an extension of human agency, viewing it as a crucible of engagement with a meaningful world, by looking at the ways in which the House is implicated in human projects.

To begin I will firstly briefly indicate why the House should be worthy of such extended theoretical and empirical attention. Levi-Strauss in his 1983 publication The Way of the Masks first detects that the House is of theoretical significance in a great range of societies, particularly those that resist explanation through recourse to classic kinship concepts such as lineage, filiation and so on. The House concept is particularly helpful in Southeast Asia, characterised as it is by cognatic systems which by definition were never satisfactorily explained by the classic concepts. Hence theoretical approaches to the House in this region in particular have become quite sophisticated in the last decade, with the empahsis moving away from the notion of the House as an architectural wonder or a kinship institution to a phenomenological recognition of its central importance as a dwelling-place, a place that Bachelard in his Poetics of Space referred to as a “topography of … intimate being”. A growing area of exploration, then, has looked at the House in terms of its topography, its spatiality.

A notable example is Roxanne Waterson’s (1990) encyclopaedic The Living House , in which among other things charts the various uses to which space in the House throughout insular Southeast Asia can be put, recognising—drawing upon Bourdieu’s (1973;1977) analysis of the Berber house—that the way in which space is arranged within the House “helps to mould and reproduce a particular pattern of social relationships”. The general insight here is that what amounts to a “production of meaning” is effected “through the positioning and manipulation of objects in space, and … through the human body itself—its placement in, movement through, or exclusion from a particular space, or in people’s spatial interactions with each other”(Waterson 1990:167). Nevertheless, what I find problematic with this—and it is an aspect of many if not most approaches to the House—is that space in Waterson’s conception is absolute, geometric space, space that is “used” and “inhabited” rather than produced or experienced.

My approach to the House is similar in so far as it is anchored in practice theory, or specifically Anthony Giddens’ structuration theory and his notion of the “binding” of space-time in “bundles” of practices which he terms “regions”. A region, is not just a point or place in space but constitutes the creation or production of a specific time-space ‘zone’ through “routinized social practices” which bind time-space systemically on a specific scale.Agents produce these time-space zones through engaging in ‘bundles’ of practices, or “definite time-space locations…”.

So rather than being confronted with the raw materiality of the House or the dwelling as consisting of one or more spaces contained within physical boundaries such as walls, doors, partitions and the like, we are confronted with the active construction of particular spaces by agents within social process. However, again, the problem with Giddens’ approach, is his notion of space still tends toward the geometric. It still reads as a void to be filled with human content, which seems to be the way in which space is generally treated within social science. Or put it another way, space is a transcendental signifier to which an investigator can attach particular significations in particular ethnographic contexts.

However coming at this from a more phenomenological perspective, the case can be put that space is not a “thing” “in-itself”which is to be filled with other “things”, but rather is an extension of human agency, and importantly, human intentionality. It’s an idea central to Henri Lefebvre’s definition of what he terms “social/spatial practice” in his seminal The Production of Space, where analysis shifts from “things in space to the actual production of space” (Lefebvre 1991:37). In Lefebvre’s words, this space is

constituted neither by a collection of things or an aggregate of (sensory) data, nor by a void packed like a parcel with various contents … [I]t is irreducible to a ‘form’ imposed upon phenomena, upon things, upon physical materiality…
Or, in other words, space is “neither subject nor object”. It is

simultaneously, both a field of action (offering its extension to the deployment of projects and practical intentions) and a basis of action (a set of places whence energies derive and whither energies are directed)”—it is “at once actual (given) and potential (locus of possibility)” (Lefebvre 1991:191).

The whole scheme works through the concept, not of the ‘individual’ who interacts with others or with things, nor even the agent, but the “intelligent body” (Lefebvre 1991:174), to be understood not as a passive participant or object within a space but a ‘becoming’ which actively produces that space, deploys its projects and intentions which are part of the production of that space and which are in turn made possible through the horizon of possibilities objectified as objective social reality in that space. Such space or spaces are objective, as long as we understand this “objectivity” as social in its being and existing “only for activity” (Lefebvre 1991:191).
Let me illustrate the argument with reference to a small community, one of several dozen on the island of Siberut located off the central west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, a somewhat neglected area of study in the ethnographic record. The communities themselves consist of a number of descent groups, or ancestral groups, each of which is focused upon a House, or uma. What defines a dwelling as a House is that it is the repository of a number of ancestral heirlooms which are stored within its inner recesses. In this particular community there are some 60 odd dwellings. But only a dozen or so qualify as Houses i.e. uma. since they contain the ancestral heirlooms belonging to a particular group. Apart from the caretaker (Rimata) of the heirlooms and his wife, all the other members reside in smaller residential huts located in close proximity to the group’s House.

The interior of the House consists minimally of two primary spaces, although the larger Houses consist of several. There is a wide variation of design, but all are based upon a fundamental division between the inner sanctum where the ancestral heirlooms are stored (batnuma), and the space immediately in front of this, lets call this the “veranda” for ease of translation, whilst noting in passing that its meaning and function go a good deal beyond what we would normally understand as a veranda.

The cosmological and sociological import of these dwellings becomes poignantly clear after even a short time in any of these communities. Like many societies throughout insular SE Asia, and indeed throughout the greater Austronesian area, the House is a central institution, a cornerstone of the social fabric. People live their lives mainly in and through the House and its residential houses. At any one time during the day it is rare that any dwelling will not have at least two occupants. Dwellings that are unoccupied for any length of time are defined as spiritually dangerous places, occupied by ghosts (sanitu) the source of sickness and death for the living. When people are not in their dwellings, then they are “in-transit” from one dwelling to another. And when one is away from one’s dwelling, one is vulnerable to attack from these beings, the sanitu, who claim these non-socialised places as their own. So the primary locus of existence for living subjects, then, is the House, which a place of personal, emotional, spiritual, and cosmological importance, an importance directly contingent on its spatiality.

Now the House’s character as a sanctuary in a hostile cosmos is intimately connected to the relationships, or perhaps it would be better to say, the lack of relationships amongst the several groups making up the community. Before the Indonesian state embarked upon its grand vision for “development” (a word I use advisedly), these groups were located at various intervals across the landscape, usually concentrated in the numerous river valleys which criss-cross the island. There would be the one House with the residential huts located at varying degrees of distance from it.

In the decade following independence from the Dutch these groups were persuaded to relocate in the communities that you now find right across the island. Previously, spatial distance amongst groups appears to have expressed and constructed, sociological distance amongst them. Now space has become a highly charged issue in which you could say that personal topogaphy has been politicised, since these groups have now got to get along with each other without this socio-spatial buffer between them. A key means by which people negotiate group identity in these changed circumstances is through the medium of the House.

Group identity is closely linked to the store of ancestral heirlooms within the House that forms the focus for each of them. Each item can be traced back to a particular ancestor who is credited with bequeathing the object to the group. Only members of the group or invited guests are able to have anything to do with the heirlooms, since the ancestors would not be impressed should the Other violate the group’s integrity. And indeed the cosmos is conceived of as a series of spaces within which the ancestors—or the now deceased forebears of one’s group—clash with the deceased forebears of other groups within the community and beyond. One’s own ancestors, or the saukkui, can be called upon to protect onself and one’s kin from the malevolent powers of the ancestors of other groups, the sanitu.

Now, to return to the main theme,my argument is that House here is not simply a space or a series of spaces into which its inhabitants insert themselves, spaces that they merely enter, move through or occupy. It is brought into being through the practical activity of those whose lives brought it into being originally. It was constructed by them, it continues to be modified by them, since partitions are changed, replaced, moved about. Pieces are added, others removed. It is a malleable entity.

But what is most important is that it is this dynamic aspect that ensures a habitable place for humans in a hostile cosmos. It is acheived in the context of the production or enactment of the major ritual form the PULIAIJAT. Reasons for holding this event are many and varied. But on the most fundamental level the event is aimed at the production of this space in the cosmos, safe from the ravages of the entities of death, the sanitu. It is through the agency of those ritually empowered to call upon the powers inhering in the ancestral heirlooms that the House becomes a vehicle or agent of intervention in the cosmos, a means of creating a space safe from the ravages of these spiritual forces that bring illness, death and misfortune upon the community.

The House as a space is mobilised, or rather produced AS A SPACE in order to, in turn produce this habitable space within the cosmos, or what I have termed the “socio-spatial” cosmos since this is not a purely conceptual world that we are confronted with, but one which has a concrete existence within space-time, within the concrete practices forming the life-world. I’ll finsh up by briefly sketching out the way in which this is achieved.

What you find, then, in the puliaijat, whether it is held over the one day, or several, is the production of specific spaces within the House—and it is through this continual production that this safe haven in the cosmos is created. The most important space is that of the inner sanctum, where the caretaker of the heirlooms, along with select others at particular intervals, converses with the heirlooms and the ancestors, imploring them to intervene in the lives of their descendants. A series of rituals, which in totality consitute the puliaijat, are enacted in which meals of sago, pork, and taro are respectively shared with the heirlooms—which in standard SE Asian animist fashion are conceived to have souls—as well as the ancestors. And this also defines the boundaries of normal sociality: those with whom you interact minimally, or hardly at all, are potential enemies, guilty until proven innocent. The ancestors and the heirlooms are the go-betweens in this indirect communication that is occurring between the living of a particular group, and the dead of another.

The main purpose and import of the House, then, is the (re)production of a space of ‘life’ by humans for themselves, which results in and is effected through, confining of the vehicles of death, the sanitu, to their own space, the unsocialised spaces lying beyond the boundaries of the community, or literally in the “hills” (leleu). It’s achieved through the mobilisation of the House as an ‘agent’ towards this end within the context of executing the puliaijat, in which there is the creation of a ‘space of life’, where the living members of one decent group are separated from the dead of another. Sickness and death are held to be the work of these malevolent spirits who can be understood as reflections of the rivalry and suspicion that is reproduced on a day-to-day level amongst the groups that consititute the community. In negotiating this separation there is also the simultaneous a reproduction of the identity, or cosmological integrity of the House as a social entity, as the irreducible ground for the existence of the group.

So, to return to my main theme, it seems to me that our understanding of the House societies of SE Asia, Melanesia, and Polynesia may well be enhanced by viewing the House as a produced space, not merely a prop within which the activities of living simply occur. Based on this—and depending on the ethnographic context of course—it maybe furthermore fruitful to, see whether, and if so, how, the house is connected with other domains of practice within a particular community. I feel confident that, rather than looking at the House as a collection of boards, beams, and nails, or a reified social fact—the way in which most approaches deal with the House—there is much to be gained by viewing it as a contextually produced complex of spaces brought into being through the being-in-the-world of the people who call it home as they go about the all-important business of living. In short there is much to be gained by attempting to realise the central strategy of the phenomenological persective, which is, in my reading of it, the attempt to negotiate a way around the Subject/Object divide that obfuscates as much as it enables understanding of particular ethnographic contexts.


1 “The house and the body are intimately linked. The house is an extension of the person; like an extra skin, carapace or second layer of clothes, it serves as much to reveal and display as it does to hide and protect. House, body and mind are in continuous interaction, the physical structure, furnishing, social conventions and mental images of the house at once enabling, moulding, informing and constraining the activities and ideas which unfold within its bounds. A ready-made environment fashioned by a previous generation and lived in long before it becomes an object of thought…” (Carsten & Hughes 1995:2).

2 There is an analogous thread in Carsten and Hugh-Jones (1995) (see fn. #12) who, whilst cogently demonstrating the entanglement of body and house, see the house as something that is appended to the body, rather than seeing body and house as two dimensions of the one phenomenon, which is the way body and house is lived by the latter’s “inhabitants”.

3 Normally an established, married couple, usually elderly, though not exclusively.

4 When referring to them both, I will use “dwelling”.

5 Carsten & Hugh-Jones (1995) draw attention to the physical transience of the House right across the world.p.37

6 For example there are a series of puliaijat carried out in order to bring a new wife into the group through “introducing” (isegeakek: lit. “to inform”) her to the bakkat katsaila, the most important of the items consituting the heirlooms (the bakkat katsaila is “informed” that she is now one of “us”, and no longer one of “them”), effectively making her into a new member of the group. Two separate puliaijat are held, sometimes many months apart, in this case.


Bachelard, G. (1964) Poetics of Space. New York: Orion Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1973) “The Berber House”. In M.Douglas (ed) Rules and Meanings. Harmondsworth:Penguin.
(1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge University Press.

Carsten, J. & S.Hugh-Jones (1995) About the House: Lévi-Srauss and Beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Giddens, A. (1979) Central Problems in Social Theory: action, structure, and contradiction in social analysis. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lefebvre, H. (1991) The Production of Space. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Levi-Strauss, C. 1983. The Way of the Masks. Washington: The University of Washington Press.

Waterson, R. (1990) The Living House: an anthropology of architecture in South-East Asia. Singapore: Oxford University Press.

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