Speaking through the silence: Narratives, social conventions and power in Java
There has been much acknowledgement of the 'levels' of language in Javanese society. Many observers - usually half informed - have noted the 'polite' and 'refined' aspects of the language. However, with Speaking through the silence, Laine Berman not only offers one of the most detailed accounts of Javanese culture, she identifies the quite pronounced power relations inherent in the Javanese language.
Berman's understanding of Javanese language and culture is based on her years of living and working in Yogyakarta, with ordinary families as well as within the confines of the palace. The focus of her study identifies the hierarchical power relations between different social levels in Javanese society, as well as between men and women.
Several characters in Berman's book are well brought to life, but she saves the most attention for a young woman who works in a local garment factory. Conditions are slave-like, but she has difficulty in even talking about them, or having them listened to. The 'silence' here is that which speaks most, though the gaps in communication are noticeable throughout. 'Politeness' is maintained through a use of non-language. One cannot offend or challenge if utterances are devoid of meaning.
When the protagonist does finally break loose of her restrictive 'cultural' bonds she is sacked. The lesson is that while what is defined as Javanese culture and its so-called refinement remains intact, there is little hope for the social or political emancipation of ordinary Javanese (and hence Indonesian) people.
From a scholarly perspective, Berman's work is thorough and detailed and it rewards close reading. Indonesianist academics and more general anthropologists and linguists should all find this book essential reading. It is a strong work and will undoubtedly find its well deserved place within the canon of texts on Indonesia. Only those with a vested interest in the Javanese status quo, or who have a misplaced sense of appreciation for what passes for Javanese 'politeness' and 'refinement', will come away from this book disappointed.
Laine Berman, Speaking through the silence: Narratives, social conventions and power in Java, New York, Oxford University Press, 1998.
Dr Damien Kingsbury is Executive Officer at the Monash Asia Institute, Melbourne, Australia.