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Inventing the wheel!

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“I am glad that I am no longer the clumsily prolix, over-eager, wide-eyed, and theory-crazed person who cobbled together these words” – Neil Garcia


In appreciation of Garcia’s self-insight, I hopefully agree with the last sentences of Gottowik’s ‘Introduction’, in which he comments on the possibility that we may never have been modern, and observes that the contributions to Dynamics may provide an answer to the question of whether modernity is still ahead or already behind us (29). 

The thirteen contributions of junior German scholars who did their fieldwork in contemporary Southeast Asia—mainly in Indonesia—are the result of a complex, four-year ‘scientific networking’ on ‘Religious Dynamics in Southeast Asia’. Because of their apparent struggle with university exposure to the already then dated ’modernization theory’ and their subsequent field observations, the, in my eyes deplorable, subtitle Magic and Modernity became part of their mental baggage. 

At the time I did my dissertation research on Mysticism in Contemporary Java, I was confronted with the vitality of ‘religion’ among often highly educated ‘modern’ people. As a result, I realized that the presumed contradiction between contemporary life and religiosity was untenable. That was in 1969-70, when most contributors were not part of this world yet, and so I was, and am, taken aback that this non-contradiction needed to be elaborated upon ad nauseum in virtually all the volume’s chapters. 

According to the ‘Introduction’, this would not really have been necessary if said contributors would have closely stuck to ‘a line of argument that conceives secularization and modernization as processes that comprise the rationalization of religion’ (16). In this way, the volume tries to contribute to a discursive field that gives ample leeway to the variety of field situations described. Even so, in good German fashion, exploratory anthropological research should not escape from being ’theory-guided’, and true theory is grand theory. It is Religion, History, Economy, Modernity, and so on, that guides the reasoning of most contributors, which leads to frequent repetition of the truisms, the most popular among these being to assure the reader that modernization theory does not/no longer applies to the case they are arguing. 

Apart from this, as Mark Hobart has pointed out in his discussion of the history of critical reflection on our scientific enterprise —“Questioning ingrained practices and the pursuit of novelty”— all ‘theory-guided-ness’ and other presuppositions —mostly hidden in ‘common sense’, Euro-centrism, unconscious and change-is-progress presuppositions— are prejudicial to anthropological research. The best that can be hoped for is that such research is conducted through open-minded, reflexive and self-critical participant observation. 

Be this as it may, the subject matter in focus is “the impact of modernity on ethnic and religious plurality in Southeast Asia, with special reference to these interactive processes” (9). Modernity, however, comes in multiple guises that allow for creatively adopting and subversively rejecting features of modernity and religion (16). This characteristic contingency, in which everything is possible, even seems to be accelerating in pace with the contingencies of everyday life, so giving rise to a ‘new obscurity’ as sign and symbol of modernity. At the level of the individual, this means being subjected to precarious situations and social dislocations with increased frequency (21). 

Said contingencies and experiences greatly stimulate the vitality and versatility of Religion, inclusive of magic, spirit cults, mediums and trance, and so on, and dominate the various chapters. Even as the separate chapters depart from grounded, observable situations, the ensuing discussions remain rather Olympian—seeing grand theory in a grain of sand—at the same time that the individual experience remains out of sight and is rarely alluded to. 

With Grand Theory as their guide, it is a missed chance that the way individuals live with the ‘new obscurity’ receives scant attention. The experience, however, of an anonymous world driven by  remote capitalist production, inexorable technological innovation, science, and factory-made culture results in a world beyond individual grasp. At the same time, it has driven out the satisfaction of home-made and experience-near products and performances. Concretely, videoke drove out the guitar, mechanical noise the choir, television the home-made performances. In this way, the individual quest for personal, syncretistic, new, identity and moral worth-confirming ‘religion’—with minuscule—is fuelling the quest for ’salvation’, security, and the life-giving poetics of fantasy, the dream, wonder and creation. This is ‘what people have religion for’; we simply need it. Adapted to our contemporary circumstances, it becomes a ‘modern tradition’ that functions as the ‘antipode’ to life set in the contingencies of Economy, Technology, ‘Modernity’, etc. And so, in different environments, we not only find ‘multiple modernities’, but also a supermarket supply of means to respond to the contingencies of experience, from religiously driven terrorism to new spirit cults, and from trance, possession and magic to scripturalism, fundamentalism, and holier-than-thou sects. Whereas these latter provide ample substance to the contributions, individual psychological needs remain out-of-range and are not considered as a/the major driving force of the world-wide vitality of Religion. 

Normally, a collection of conference papers and the like do not make for a nice, continuous read, even as the individual chapters provide us with an avalanche of in itself interesting data. In order to draw lines through the diversity, the editor grouped the contributions in three sections. The first, ‘Modern Spirits’ brings together an ‘Overview’ and observations on the lively comeback of religion and spirituality of moi doi Vietnam, on spirits and the market in upland Laos, and on the modernization of the Javanese horse dance. The second section, ‘Modern Muslims’, is set in Indonesia (mainly on Java). The final section, ‘Modern Traditions’, brings together materials from Indonesia, too, that range from interreligious coexistence in the Moluccas, violence in Bali, modernization of its Hinduism, Christianity in North Sumatra, and ecumenism in the Minahasa. 

In order to find my way through said avalanche, I dearly missed a subject Index. Such indices are more than a formality; they give the reader a foothold in identifying subjects of his/her interest through the various chapters, such as, for instance, my interest in the relationship of ‘personal identity’ and ‘religion’. On the other hand, however, the 23-page Bibliography will prove to be a rewarding research tool.

Niels Mulder has devoted most of his professional life to research on the mental world of members of the urban middle classes on Java, in Thailand and the Philippines. His latest work is Life in the Philippines: Contextual Essays on Filipino Being (forthcoming).




Garcia, J. Neil C. 2nd ed. 2009. 'Note to the Second Edition', Philippine Gay Culture: Binabae to Bakla, Silahis to MSM. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Hobart, Mark. 2013. “What’s new? An exercise in hyporeality. Novelty/Theory; Research without theory: Questioning ingrained practices and the pursuit of novelty”. Address to APRSS 3rd Postgraduate Students Conference at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

Mulder, Niels. 1978. Mysticism and Everyday Life in Contemporary Java; Cultural Persistence and Change. Singapore: Singapore University Press.



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