Dec 18, 2018 Last Updated 10:44 PM, Dec 17, 2018

Silent resistance - review

Published: Sep 22, 2007

Laine Berman, Speaking through the silence: Narratives, social conventions and power in Java, New York, Oxford University Press, 1998, Hbk ISBN 019-510-8884, AU$140.

Reviewed by 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.

Dr Damien Kingsbury Damien.Kingsbury@arts.monash.edu.au is Executive Officer at the Monash Asia Institute, Melbourne, Australia.

Inside Indonesia 58: Apr-Jun 1999

Latest Articles

Radical theatre of the difabled

Nov 27, 2018 - IRFAN KORTSCHAK

The group during a rehearsal / Irfan Kortschak

Drawing upon the Theatre of the Oppressed, villagers with disabilities have an opportunity to express themselves

Essay: Contesting urban beauty in Jakarta

Nov 15, 2018 - JORGEN DOYLE & HANNAH EKIN

Source/ Doyle & Ekin  Wish images

Walking Jakarta’s northern coastline reveals communities experiencing disruptive and rapid change

Photo essay: Hope in the face of disaster

Nov 02, 2018 - MELANIE FILLER & TIM BARRETTO

Source/ Melanie Filler & Tim Barretto

Palu after the tsunami

Surviving while seeking asylum

Oct 26, 2018 - GEMIMA HARVEY

Hazara asylum seeker Shiringul first fled Afghanistan to Pakistan and then when the danger spread to Pakistan, she was forced to flee again, this time to Indonesia. She said the streets outside of Kalideres immigration detention centre were her best option. Source/ Gemima Harvey

A change in Australia’s asylum policy has denied refugees in Indonesia vital support

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