Local Places; Non-Local Imaginings: Culture, Politics, and Imagination in the “Mentawais”

Local Places; Non-Local Imaginings: Culture, Politics, and Imagination in the “Mentawais”.
Glenn Reeves

The first sight, or the first empirical connection, that I had with the island of Siberut was of a darkish smudge on the horizon, slowly becoming more distinct as the boat drew closer.

Mentawai traditional culture
The faint smudge of Siberut can be seen on the horizon as dawn breaks.

My method of approach was incongruous, engendering a feeling of unease, since it did not conform to the way that I thought would have been appropriate for such an “out-of-the-way”1 place, one that ought to involve laboring through languid tropical seas on the standard inter-island vessel as is typical of most journeys within the Indonesian archipelago. The twin diesel engines of the Kuda Laut (“Sea Horse”) propelled its passengers from the Sumatran mainland to the islands several times a week in a quarter of the time of the standard vessels, in four times the (air conditioned) comfort.

My unease was indicative, on my part, of a yet unrealized intellectual stance towards the area: although this was my first visit, it was merely a further stage in an engagement with the region that had begun several years earlier. I may not have physically visited the islands, but their reality had begun to be formed for me, and impact upon me, as it had for every visitor in whose steps I was treading, from the very moment of that initial dawning of awareness of the existence of islands to the west of Sumatra. Or in other words an image of the region had begun to take shape in my imagination; the feeling of incongruity was a consequence of this stance. In what follows, then, I argue that the Mentawai Islands are as much a place of the imagination, or more exactly the “social imaginary”, as they are a geographical (id)entity. And geography is probably the least important dimension of their identity as a “place” both in Indonesia and Southeast Asia more broadly. It is my contention that their reality exists as an ongoing construction of the various social imaginaries which appropriate and represent aspects and elements of the islands and their inhabitants in the various media at their disposal.

This paper moves beyond a critique of anthropological representations that have previously occupied my attention (Reeves 1999)2 to a consideration of one, powerful, way in which the world at large is contributing to the ongoing construction of “Mentawai” and its inhabitants, the “Mentawaians”. The focus in this case is on popular representations, rather than anthropological or colonial discourse, as these are constructed and propagated within one medium of representation which is exerting increasing power, the internet. I will be looking at the functioning of one particular social imaginary, that is some of the ways in which processes of popular global culture, largely emanating from western sources, contribute to the shaping of the way in which culture and identity are interpreted and acted upon by the, largely western consumers of the products of those processes, the origin of which the consumer, however, is either unaware or indifferent to, in the context of Siberut.

The interest and concern with the issue of identity over the last decade in anthropology as well as cognate disciplines has highlighted the ways in which the concepts and activities of powerful “others” have impacted upon indigenous groups across the globe. The concept of “space/s”, in particular dominant and subordinate spaces has been the focus of recent research and theorizing, and connects with issues of identity in various ways. For instance Gupta and Ferguson (1992) draw our attention to the hierarchical ordering of spaces across the globe and thus the “power” that is embedded in “topography” which come to be subordinated to regimes of power through the power of the social imaginary, or in other words the various images, meanings, and understandings of places or events that circulate within particular sectors of society or cultural domains. This operates through investing particular spaces with identity through “conceptual processes of place making” in which spaces are “imagined at a distance” (Gupta and Ferguson 1992:11). Moving in a similar direction, Said (1993) argues that the age of (European) imperialism lingers in the post-colonial era, in what he terms , drawing upon the work of Raymond Williams, the “set of cultural forms and structures of feeling” produced by western imperialism (Said 1993:8).

To a very great degree the era of high nineteenth-century imperialism is over … Yet … although that era clearly had an identity all its own, the meaning of the imperial past is not totally contained within it, but has entered the reality of hundreds of millions of people, where its existence as shared memory and as a highly conflictual texture of culture, ideology, and policy still exercizes tremendous force. (Said 1993:11)

Whilst the imperial era has gone, Said argues, it nonetheless exercizes continued power within various contemporary social, political and cultural processes, thus inscribing itself within the social imaginary. Hence political and economic forces are central to these processes and “structures of feeling” which manifest themselves in the present3.

Gupta and Ferguson go on to propose that in focusing upon the way space is imagined and the ways in which “places” are invested with identity, thus becoming creations of the processes of imagining, it is therefore necessary to also frame them against the ways in which these processes intersect with “the changing global economic and political conditions of lived spaces” which entails a consideration of the “the relation … between place and space.” Particularly important for our purposes here is an exploration of the way in which “places that have been imagined at a distance must become lived spaces. For places are always imagined in the context of political-economic determinations that have a logic of their own. Territoriality is thus reinscribed at just the point it threatens to be erased” (Gupta and Ferguson 1992:11). These processes, then, are more than just about the creation of texts, of literary or pictorial representations by a representing subject of a remote object, “other” places. They concern the ways in which representations connect and intersect with lived spaces in real life. Sociopolitical, cultural, and economic processes intersect with the imperium (Said 1993:7) embedded within structures of feeling which generate the social imaginary.

This is effected through the medium of various literary and pictorial representations which are consumed prior to contact between a distant Self and a local Other. Consumed, processed and assimilated to general cultural imaginings of the “native”, these representations provide the context in which subsequent actual contact and real experiences occur, which are in turn assimilated into a perspective upon the nature of the “native”. In a dialectical relationship, each feeds off, and creates the other; prior understandings provide the means to interpret experience, which feed back into a developing, overarching, framework of understanding4. And also within this process we find that the space or territory in question comes to be reconstituted or “reinscribed” just at the moment that it threatens to vanish, subsumed beneath the layers of meaning in which it is becoming enveloped. It is a territory imagined prior to being experienced, which has lost its definition as a territory, having lost its shape within the processes of de-construction5, but which comes to be reconstituted as a “place”, a “real” fiction; and thus a dominated space. Importantly, the power to represent falls on the side of that of the representer, not those who are the subject of the representations so produced. This dominated space, the space in which the means of the production of these representations are located, can be, particularly, viewed as a “power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging …” (Said 1993:xii). It is in this sense that imperialism is resurrected and actively practiced in the context of a specific range of western cultural practices, in which only certain stories from a particular discursive position get told. It is the specifics of these processes in relation to the Mentawai Islands that we now turn.6

Mentawai and The Interwebs

In examining representations as they intersect with the processes of cultural imagining, I will focus on internet sources, the rationale being that the themes encapsulated within these documents are representative of the kinds of representations found in other non-anthropological media. The focus is also due to the accessibility of the internet to anyone who has an internet-connected terminal and rudimentary knowledge on how to operate it. It is an increasingly accessible medium for the construction and dissemination of textual and visual representations.

In mid-1996 I carried out a series of searches for material dealing with the Mentawai Islands, through the search engines Alta Vista, Magellan, and Yahoo, along with one or two others. There was very little available. There was certainly little or no commercial interest. There were mostly snippets of information posted on various sites providing general descriptions of the authors’ trekking adventures on Siberut. Conducting similar surveys in both the first half of 2000 and later in the year, the result was very different, with hundreds of pages of, generally brief, superficial information.

What comes through in this material, in what could be described as an emerging tradition of imagining “Mentawai”, is an image of the traveler engaging with the “Mentawaians”, the imagined others who inhabit the imagined place/s that constitute the various ways in which the islands (“Mentawai”) and their inhabitants (the “Mentawaians”) are imagined in the distant, absent social imaginary. This is effected through the production of textual and photographic representations from within a non-indigenous public increasingly engaged with the Mentawai Islands in various ways, a structure of cultural precepts (and a “structure of feeling”), which act to sharply constrict the range of meanings or “readings” that cultural forms take on the islands. These categories function to embrace the disparate experiences of those who have either direct, or indirect experience of the islands, making these experiences, and therefore the Archipelago as a whole, intelligible.

Structure and Function of the Social Imaginary

It needs to be recognized that the world which confronts us consists of physical and socio-cultural phenomena which at the most fundamental level consists of flows, movements, particles (bodies, institutions), and forces. In order for this universe of processes to be made comprehensible it comes to be translated into a system of signs. Or in other words it is “overcoded” by language (Deleuze & Guattari 1987:62)7. The processes of the natural and social world are ‘contracted’ into and contained within the various symbolic/semiotic (linguistic, mathematical, and socio-cultural) traditions applied by those who wish to gain an understanding of how those processes work.

A fuller appreciation of this means acquiring several concepts. The first two are those of “content” and “expression”. Expression refers to the application of force by one body or bodies in respect of another, be that semiotic body or any other. Content is the body or bodies that are subject to this force (Deleuze & Guattari 1987:85-86), which can be thought of as “formed substance considered as a dominated force-field” (Massumi 1992:12). To put it another way, expression is that which dominates, content that which is dominated. Since semiotics is the area of immediate concern here, we are specifically concerned with the form that expression takes in relation to signifying/semiotic processes, that is the “collective assembly of enunciation” or “regime of signs”.

An assemblage consists of variable proportions of content and expression, that is in the “interminglings of aggregations of bodies” and the degree to which they act as content or expression in respect of each other (Deleuze & Guattari 1987:88). Importantly it is a “power relation”, however, that determines the way in which bodies act in respect of each other: whether they act as a form of content or of expression in relation to each other (Massumi 1992:12). The collective assemblage of enunciation then is the expression dimension of a content-expression encounter.

In the current context our goal is to gain some understanding of a particular assemblage of enunciation at work within the processes of imagining the Mentawai Islands. My argument is that there exists a specific, pervasive assemblage of enunciation that overcodes the various flows, particles, and movements that constitute the phenomenal reality of the islands. A power relation is at work positioning foreign observer/writer as expressive, enunciative force with the islands as its content. This can be conceived in the form of binarisms, or binary oppositions, which consitute the conceptual schema through which the remote visitor, and subsequently the traveler gains an understanding of the Mentawai Islands as the “content” upon which these forms of expression inscribe themselves. The categories are as follows:

Tradition: Modernity:: Stasis: Change
Past: Present:: Primitive:Nature::Advanced:Civilized
Unsullied: Corrupted::Sacred:Spiritual:: Profane:Secular
Original: Derived::Mystical:Mundane/Rational
Non-Materialistic: Materialistic:: Non-Technological: Technologically dependent
Passive: Active::Paradise: Paradise lost
Feminine: Masculine::Wisdom:Ignorance
Harmonious: Discordant::Isolated: “Incorporated”
Peaceful:Violent::Victim: Victimizer

Each term is defined in relation with, and in contrast to, its opposite upon which it is dependent. Neither term can exist without the other. They embody a hierarchy in which the first term is the privileged destination, both geographical and intellectual, of the modern traveler8, and has accordingly been highlighted. The Mentawai Islands, then, as viewed and constructed through these precepts represent an idyllic Past, in which the people live according to Tradition, a tradition which has endured over eons, unchanged, in Stasis. They are, hence, Primitive, Unsullied by the corrupt ways of so-called Civilization, uninterested in Material things and the tyranny of Technology. They therefore live in Harmony, both with each other and the environment, a Sacred way of life in a Paradise on earth.

“Paddling into the past with an eye on the future — A Kayak and Jungle Odyssey”(9)9

I will illustrate the operation of this assemblage in relation to one of the more comprehensive and authoritative sources of online ethnographic information currently available10, authoritative insofar as it offers the direct experience of its author, Jean-Philippe Soule, who lived with “the Mentawai people” for several months. The actual location is not specified, although by the nature of the material it would appear that this contact took place somewhere in South Siberut. This source represents a particular example of what I argue to be the broad processes of imagining that are at work in the variety of representations that are being produced in the present. The information presented by Soule describes, in often intimate detail, a variety of practices that he witnessed. The the thematic coherence of what amounts to a disparate collection of observations, however, derives from the perceptual enunciative assembly outlined above.

The author’s experiences and observations are contained in a series of files all of which are introduced, along with the context for their interpretation, on the first page where access to them is gained through hyperlinks. Firstly the author describes how as “one of the first outsiders accepted among the Mentawai (Siberut, Sumatra)” he discovered a new way of life. Inspired by their lifestyle, society and great knowledge of the rainforest, I realized that western societies have much to learn from indigenous peoples and their habitats.

Following this is a more comprehensive statement. The reader is alerted to a central element in the value of the Mentawai islanders (the “Mentawais”) to the west, namely that they are “geographically isolated on small islands”, which are “covered by impenetrable jungles”, which has had the effect of leaving them “protected … against invasion and our modern influence”. The author, furthermore, laments the lack of effort to preserve “the culture and knowledge of indigenous peoples in Indonesia” generally, declaring that as with “many others, the Mentawais [for example] will not benefit from modernization” becoming “victims of a system they do not understand”. Another aspect of modernization is the tourist traffic to the island, one problem with this being that they leave their garbage behind in “areas that used to be pristine”. A further related problem is that the “Mentawais” are “now turning into tobacco beggars in all villages reachable in a day”, referring no doubt to the mode in which the local people interact with strangers, particularly orag turi (tourists), in which following an initial greeting, “alowita” (a transformation of the standard greeting “anaileuita”), a local suggests that a visitor supply himlher with tobacco or a cigarette if the former is not forthcoming.

The structure of imagining at work in this passage is informed selectively by the structural precepts outlined above. The author’s intial contact with the islanders firstly replicates a narrative of discovery characteristic of 19th century and early 20th century accounts of voyages and journeys into the unknown. The author ‘discovers’ what for him is a new world, a world vastly different from the one he assumes he, and his readers, is used to, a world that they are longing for, an object and destination of desire. The power of this discourse also stems from the assumption that the reader is also anticipating experiencing this world vicariously through the experience of the author. It also works by drawing upon the structural elements of imagining in which the point of origin of the author is defined in opposition to the world of the islanders which appears as “isolated” and, initially, beyond the reach of the influence of the (modern) world beyond. And, indeed, due to their Isolation the islanders have been spared the traumas that Modernity/Modernization brings upon indigenous peoples in similar circumstances the world over. However in Soule’s view what we are witnessing in the present is the commencement of the, inevitable, impact of the invasive forces of modernization against which the local, traditional, culture must be preserved: Passive Female Victim needs saving from Active Male Victimizer. But most importantly it is incumbent upon we in the west ,who live in Ignorance of the right way to live, to take heed of the lessons that this culture can teach us (in spirit if not in substance) which forms the subject of the subsequent articles.

The first article of interest here focusses on the Sikerei (Soule renders this “Sikeireis”) or the “mentawai medicine man” as they have been most often represented in the literature, specifically the “spiritual danse [sic]”. “Always in tune with mother nature, they communicate daily with the spirits through sung and chanted incantations.” This dancing is “their vehicle to enter the spiritual world”. The author then describes some aspects of the dancing so witnessed, which leads into the description of the trance into which participants in such dancing often fall, which can be understood as a spiritual communication transporting them to a different world. Carried away by this local magic, I too entered another world where nothing made any sense. The life I knew, the village, the jungle surrounding us, all this didn’t exist anymore. The combined energy of the dancers in my presence was absorbing all my thoughts and feelings. This continued until a village elder brought me back to reality by taking my hand and leading me to the center of the room to initiate me with more of their well guarded traditions.

In another article (“Augurs & Mentawais)” describing aspects of the Sikereis’ craft such as divination through the examination of pig and chicken entrails, the author notes that the old medicine men are never wrong in their predictions. My skeptical western mind prevented me from understanding their secret.. .the Sikeireis amazed me with their knowledge of nature and natural medicine. The energy and communion they have with the spiritual world is awe inspiring. Mentawais have a knowledge and understanding of the tropical habitat and the spirits that course through it fare [sic] beyond anything westerners have ever considered.

Unlike we in the west, the Sikerei have inherited a Tradition, which they are loathe to share indiscriminately, which is responsible for them being at one, or “in tune” with Nature. We in the west have lost our connection with such traditions, and the accompanying sprituality which ensures our continual connection with who and what gives us our existence, Nature, here inscribed and gendered, as it is so often in western discourse, as the feminine source11. This is a world which, furthermore, offers a way in which we can regain the ability to not only communicate with this realm, but become one with it, lose ourselves in it, a movement in this case which takes the author beyond what was able to be achieved by those at whose hands he was learning the way to do so. This contrasts somewhat with the central theme in these passages which is the inadequacy of western knowledge in light of the natural wisdom of the Mentawais. The failure of this body of knowledge is further emphasized in another article, “Medicines” in which the author describes the inadequacy of merchurochome “the magic ‘red medicine’ used by people believing in modernization” to be effective in treating a “deep cut” which refused to close over: “I didn’t know what to do. The western approach seemed to have failed…”. Following the application of cassava leaves (originally a New World cultigen), several days later, “I totally recovered without any additional infections”. In a further encounter with a machete the author once again affirms the value of local medicines offering the reader a (rhetorical) choice between pain and disfigurement and “the power of nature”.

It is in the article entitled “Children”, that the spiritual superiority of the Mentwais, expressed through the metaphor of the innocent child, is fully mobilized in terms of the categories Unsullied, Harmonius, Sacred/Spiritual, Paradise. The author writes:

What child has never dreamt of living like Robinson Crusoe. The perfect life in nature, a peaceful paradise where nature offers everything needed. The pleasure of making wood cabins, canoeing rivers, rolling in the mud and making your own bows and arrows for imaginary hunts. The Mentawai kids have it all.

From an articulation of a vision of paradise, the author then turns to a criticism of western childhood in which “Too many western children grow up in front of the TV, computer games, or playing war games.” In contrast to this the “Mentawai children grow up learning about life” quickly gaining “a great knowledge and respect for nature”, unlike the west. “[U]niversally happy” in their paradise where “[l]ife is a game … [t]hey spend their lives taking enjoyment from what we’ve all forgotten [in the west], merely living.” The spiritual connection through which the author articulates his experiences is expressed in his relationship to the father of a child whose activities formed the focus of commentary. The image of the union with, and a surrendering of the Ignorant Westerner’s self into Unsullied Paradise is conveyed in his declaration that Laba’s father is the author’s “soul-mate”, an image in which is embedded the exhortation that the Mentawais have “knowledge that westerners don’t even know they need. Unless we leave their habitat intact and learn from them, this knowledge will be lost to all.”

To summarize, the world inhabited by the Mentawais is the product of a foundational viewpoint from which the totalizing gaze of the observer reaches out to encapsulate and contract into his cultural categories and therefore his reality, the reality of his hosts. It should be noted that this is not essentially about being “right” or “wrong”, although arguments can be put forward that refute, in particular, the idea that the islands’ isolation is just beginning to break down. What we see in these passages is one manifestation of the ongoing construction and conversation in which the islands and their inhabitants are being imagined. This represents a powerful, even dominant, “mode” of imagining operating in the present that shapes the reality of the islanders and their circumstances for the observing and experiencing others that are increasingly seeking to experience the islands, or at least consume the experiences that they believe await them there.

Culture as Politics

In all of this we can arguably see at work the power of the concept of/culture, or a politicized conception of culture which essentially concerns an issue of cultural difference, functioning as an assembly of enunciation. To put it another way the concept of culture is a synonym for difference12. Cultural beliefs and practices encountered by the traveler are assimilated to a preexisting set of categories, which contextualise the visited world and contrast it with that of the visitor. Gupta and Ferguson argue that this process amounts to the enforcement of “difference” onto places, and thereby, I would furthermore argue, of particular identities, which represents a “global system of domination” (Gupta & Ferguson 1992:17). However in this we need to be taking into account the “ability of people to confound the established spatial orders, either through physical movement or through their own conceptual and political acts of re-imagination …”, meaning that the places so imagined are never “given. They continually engender a surplus value of meaning that eludes the efforts of any one apparatus of representation to completely contain them.

Chow (1996) comments generally upon this representational practice in a dense discussion focusing on the allied issue of the production of the “native” which I would argue is exemplified in the material from Jean-Phillippe’s journals. In response to this sort of representational practice—which although the fruit of an encounter between an non-anthropologist and a number of indigenous people is nonetheless reminiscent of the sort of representational practice that characterized much intellectual output in ethnography for much of its history until very recently—Chow characterizes the task in which many anthropologists have been engaged for the last decade or so as the investigation of the” ‘subjectivity’ of the other-as-oppressed-victim” as a means to move beyond this mode of representation. In other words, research is directed away from objectifying the “native” as bearer or exemplary practitioner of a culture or cultural tradition. Efforts are made to give back to the “objects” of ethnography their active agency, their subjectivity which has been wrested from them by the objectivist ethnographic method, or in the above case, vignettes from a field journal (Chow 1996:123). The project is aimed, then, at recovering the truth of an indigenous reality that has been falsely represented as a result of being caught up in a regime of representation that is oblivious to the act of violence, of power that it is perpetrating on its object, which places Soule in a position that contradicts the position of solidarity that is central to the material on his site.

This is also largely the political position of <www.mentawai.org> , which aims at effecting an intervention in this cultural politics that Chow describes as informed by an “Oedipal” structure of thinking in which an object is formed as a “compensation for a presumed lack” (Chow 125)13: “it is our own limit that we encounter when we encounter another”. That is, the point at which we conceive our group or individual identity to end is the place where the reality of the other/native/cultural difference begins. From this point the ‘native’ is rendered as the negative what they are and what they do: “the ‘native’ is turned into an absolute entity in the form of an image (the ‘empty’ Japanese ritual or ‘China loam’)14 whose silence becomes the occasion for our speech” (Chow 1996:127). The immediate task, then, is the recovering of the suppressed reality of the native through attempting a return to her origin, a recovery of her authenticity, her uniqueness that has been violated. However, embedded in this project is the assumption of “cultural/ethnic/local ‘difference’ ” as a given fact. It is an assumption of primordial cultural difference, an exemplary instance of pure indigenous, “native” culture, which relies on the notion of difference as a lack.

An additional complicating factor is that in the age of mechanical reproduction15 the ‘native’ as pure indigene is being reinvented over and over again in the various media of representation that take her as their subject. Every second of every day we are taken further and further away from any originary point16 in the multiple imaginings that are being issued in vast quantities, particularly via the internet. This is also complicated by the fact of the “muddyness” of contemporary cultural practices which are only ‘purely’ hybrid, cosmopolitan, with the original, once again, receding rapidly beyond reach, only to be reclaimed again (“reterritorialized”) by the desire to reinstitute the original in a desire for purity and innocence in an impure and defiled world. We need, then, to become aware of the powerful forces that speak through us when we speak of other cultures, and of our role in speaking on behalf of the native, of articulating her subjectivity in the ways that we imagine she would, if she had the opportunity (or even the desire) to do so herself17.

To put it another way we need to be aware of the political dimension that informs our involvement with areas of the globe which we turn into our privileged sites of ‘enunciation’. We who go out across the world to encounter “strange”, “different” or “exotic” cultures are already participating in a complex process of imagining in which our entanglement with our destination is already a, usually unrecognized, feit accompli. In a sense this is a space of the purely hybrid—no such thing as the native in actuality. The argument is not that it is “wrong” to pursue justice, to carry the banner of the anti-colonial crusade, questing to purify the “defiled image” of the native produced by the various “symbolic orders” or regimes of representation responsible for the defiling at the hands of populist (cf. Soule) and standard ethnographic accounts. It is simply important to be aware of the power and mode of operation of the (discursive) forces behind them, to recognize that “Our fascination with the native, the oppressed, the savage, and all such figures [represents] a desire to hold onto an unchanging uncertainty somewhere outside our own ‘fake’ experience. It is a desire for being ‘non- duped’, which is a not-too-innocent desire to seize control” (Chow 1996:141).

The anthropologist Anna Tsing (1993) has had something to say along these lines in relation to the area of South Kalimantan in which she worked. Providing context for her study Tsing discusses the cases of the Tasaday (Philippines) and the Penan of Malaysian Borneo, indigenous groups which were respectively the focus of world attention and western imaginings in the 1970s and 1980s. Tsing describes this interest as the “poverty of an urban imagination which systematically has denied the possibilities of difference within the modern world and thus looked to relatively isolated people to represent its only adversary, its dying Other” or the “primitive” who becomes the “dream space of possibility against the numbing monotony of regulated life and the advancing terrors of ecological destruction, corporate insatiability, and military anhiliation.” (Tsing:x, xi). It is, she then goes on to comment, possibly “hard-hearted” to go about the anthropological business, which has as one consequence the unsettling of these “fragile dreams”, fragile due to the flimsy grounding in reality which supports them I would add. But there would have been no point in situating the Dyak people inhabiting the Meratus mountains, who were the subjects of her ethnographic endeavours, in terms of the urban imagination’s “dream space of possibility”, since this would have ignored the reality of their circumstances, which in common with any who might pick up the book, inhabit a “world of expanding capitalisms, ever-militarizing nation-states, and contested cultural politics.” Ditto for the indigenous inhabitants of the Mentawai Islands.

However engaging with that reality does not necessarily entail the disenchantment that it implies. Tsing also remarks that there lies in this the promise of great richness in what is a cosmopolitan world. It cosmopolitan in many senses not least of which is the possibility that exists for a dialogue between the Meratus and those from distant locales to take place. Tsing relates that her understanding issued from “particularly situated dialogues” with the local people (true of any ethnographic endeavour), forming a shared “conceptual space”, at once social and political, which she labels the “Realm of the Diamond Queen”. A more cosmopolitan act would be hard to identify. This provides a direction in which to move, in which there is a greater awareness and hence appreciation of the shared spaces that we create in which we become attuned to the myriad ways in which we overcode the realities of those with whom we are in dialogue. The world has been cosmopolitan, or a place of “impurity” for a lot longer that we are want to recognize, perhaps a result of out embeddedness in the urban dreamscape. To build a recognition of this into our cultural political practice as we create the various cosmopolitan spaces that constitute our dealings with the region of the globe that bears the label the “Mentawai Islands”, which would include explicit awareness of our positioning within that space, would represent a realistic advance towards a more rewarding participation within it. That would not displace the processes of cultural politics which continue alongside of, and in spite of, particular elements in the conversation proceeding within that space, but give us a better chance of understanding, especially, the indigenous threads of the conversation.


I have argued in this article that the reality of the Mentawai Islands, or simply “Mentawai” as they are most commonly referred to by the world-community, apart from the indigenous inhabitants themselves, is a complex creation of power-laden (discursive) processes functioning within the social imaginary. I should take pains to point out that it has not been my purpose to denigrate or malign the views of J-P Soule, for example, which have formed the main focus of critical appraisal in this article. I see myself as merely having bourne witness to a particular act of witnessing and imagination by powerful interests, perhaps unaware of their power, as these interests intersect with one portion of the world community, at the turn of the millenium. Or in other words, I find myself positioned as an interested, and occasionally bewildered, and complicit, participant in the ongoing processes of cosmopolitanisation—and the concomitant dissolution of Self and Other—as they work themselves out in this particular “out-of-the-way place”, which I find minimally begs the question of who it is that is truly out-of-the-way, who it is that is truly marginal.

1. Tsing (1993).
2. In this paper I traced the formation of the category “Mentawai” which has for more than a century been used to identify the archipelago to the west of West Sumatra. It is accordingly also used as a means to identify those who are indigenous to the area, hence the creation of the category the “Mentawaians”. This usage was one selected out of a range of possible indigenous representations of identity, and is the one universally applied by scholars, administrators, travelers, and those who consume the representations that they produce as a result of their, direct, or indirect (purely discursive) contact with the region. However, even a short period of fieldwork in this area reveals a number of identifications which are employed by local people to articulate and negotiate their way through the social warp and woof (Wolf 1988) which constitutes the complex substance of sociality in the locale where I conducted my research.
3. For his own purposes, Said disconnects culture, which he defines as “all those practices, like the arts of description, communication, and representation” from things social, economic and political, a connection which needs to be maintained for the purposes of the current discussion.
4. This general process is described in Geertz (1973).
5. This is not to be understood in the specialized sense of Derridean deconstruction. It simply refers to the process in which the phenomenal world is refracted through the destructuring and constructive processes of cultural categorization.
6. I would draw the interested reader’s attention to the work of Anna Tsing whose brilliant ethnography, In the Realm of the Diamond Queen, makes the processes of “intersecting global imaginings” central to the specific task of exploring the “imaginative features of nation-building, ethnic formation, and state rule as experienced from the margin” and the ways in which “[r]egional, national, and international imaginings form frameworks for cultural negotiations … in which power relations and religious, ethnic, and gender identities are formulated” in a region of South Kalimantan in Indonesia (Tsing 1993:288).
7. The following material draws upon Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia along with some augmentation and embellishment from Massumi (1992). For readers familiar with the work of these thinkers, this will appear as a perhaps unforgivable simplification. However I have other fish to fry here, and, perhaps in the spirit that their work was intended to be taken, I appropriate their concepts in order to make use of them and see what sort of culinary creation results..
8. It should be noted that several of these terms can be applied to the views of colonial authorities to the various cultures that the Netherlands East Indies regime brought under its influence, and even to many anthropological accounts, some fairly recent, exemplifying the pervasiveness of the enunciative power of these concepts.
9. http://www.caske2000.org index page.
10. As of March 2001. See http://www.caske2000.org/mentawai
11. cf. Torgovnick (1997)
12. cf. Kraniauskas (2000:241); Appadurai (1996:13)
13. And see Deleuze and Guattari (1983).
14. Chow cites a particular depiction of Japanese culture and Chinese culture. In the case of the latter Michel Serres articulates the reality of China as “China Loam”: “Farming has covered everything like a tidal wave. It is the totality. This positiveness is so complete, so compact, that it can only be expressed negatively. There is no margin, no gap, no passed, no omission, no waste, no vestiges. The fringe, the fuzzy area, the refuse, the wasteland, the open-space have all disappeared: no surplus, no vacuum, no history, no time.”(Serres in Chow 1996:127).
15. Here Chow is drawing upon the work of Walter Benjamin.
16. Such a point is, of course, as much a product of these same processes as an actually existing point of origin located in the past.
17. Chow’s purpose in this paper is, in fact, to critique this perspective, pointing out that the duplicity at work in the assumption that we would have ourselves believe that we are actually the ‘native’s’ subjectivity, and delivering her from the status of an object to which she has been reduced by the operation of a regime of representation, itself the manifestation of the operation of power.

References Cited

Appadurai, A. (1996) Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Chow, R (1996) “Where Have All the Natives Gone?”. In P.Mongia (ed) Contemporary Postcolonial Theory: A Reader . New York: Arnold.

Deleuze. G & Guattari, F. (1983) Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze. G & Guattari, F. (1987) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Geertz, C. (1973) “Religion as a Cultural System.” In C.Geertz The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Kraniauskas, J. (2000) “Hybridity in a transnational frame: Latin-Americanist and post-colonial perspectives on cultural studies.” In A.Brah and A.E.Coombs (eds) Hybridity and its Discontents: Politics, Science, and Culture. Routledge: London and New York.

Massumi, B. (1992) A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Reeves, G. (1999) “History and ‘Mentawai’: Colonialism, Scholarship and Identity in the Rereiket, West Indonesia.” The Australian Journal of Anthropology 1O(1):34-55.

Torgovnick, M. (1997) Primitive passions : men, women, and the quest for ecstasy. New York: Alfred. A. Knopf.

Tsing, A. (1993) In the Realm of the Diamond Queen: Marginality in an Out-of-the-Way Place. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Wolf, E. (1988) “Inventing Society”. American Ethnologist 15: 752-761.

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