Jul 02, 2022 Last Updated 4:52 AM, Jun 27, 2022

Review: Silent resistance

Published: Sep 22, 2007
Speaking through the silence: Narratives, social conventions and power in Java

DAMIEN KINGSBURY

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.

Inside Indonesia 58: Apr-Jun 1999



Latest Articles

When the bond of love and the thread of debt flow like water

May 27, 2022 - SARI D. RATRI

For transnational families like those in Manggarai in East Nusa Tenggara, financial stability comes at great emotional cost

Book review: Beyond the pale

Apr 27, 2022 - JOOST COTE

A major research project on Dutch extreme violence in the Indonesian war of Independence, 1945–1949

Obit: Hugh O’Neill AO, 1933-2022

Apr 13, 2022 - TIM LINDSEY

Contesting the religious soundscape

Mar 23, 2022 - ANDY FULLER

A controversial regulation governing the call to prayer sparks a campaign aimed at taking down the Religious Affairs Minister

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.

 


Lontar Modern Indonesia

Lontar-Logo-Ok

 

A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar