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The Other World of the Researcher (Review)

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Kees Buijs. 2017.
Personal Religion and Magic in Mamasa, West Sulawesi: The Search for Powers of Blessing from the Other World of the Gods
Leiden and Boston: Brill
ISBN 9789004326569

Kees Buijs starts his book by asking whether the Toraja’s experiences of religion can illustrate a new theoretical perspective on the broad concept of religion as a personal linkage to dewata, a vernacular category encompassing gods and spirits (p. 7) and personally (but not individually) conceptualised and experienced (p. 5). His many questions about vernacular exchanges between Toraja practising aluk (defined by Buijs as a traditional religion practised by most Toraja until the middle of the 20th century (p. 16)) and their gods seem to suggest that a new approach that looks beyond linear relations and incorporates circulation of agency and power is needed when studying contemporary religion and religious practices in Sulawesi, Indonesia.

The researcher and his family had resided in the area of Mamasa from 1978 until 1983, working for the Protestant church, in Mamasa, to train religious leaders in the area. He, then, returned to Mamasa for two months each year, from 2001 to 2003, to carry out anthropological research. Throughout the book, Buijs often references his earlier work: Powers of Blessing from the Wilderness and from Heaven: Structure and Transformations of the Religion of the Toraja in the Mamasa Area of South Sulawesi (Leiden: KITLV Press, 2006) as a source to consult for further discussions on Toraja rituals and offerings in the Mamasa area. It seems that this new manuscript, however, includes new reflections made during later trips to villages in Mamasa in 2008 and later on, where he revised some of his previous theories and started focusing on personal religion. His familiarity with Toraja’s language(s) and concrete practices, such as offerings, transpires through the book. This book’s strength resides in the amount of detail provided, which helps readers develop their own reflections. However, despite including a wealth of detail, especially regarding Toraja terminology, Buijs shows a tendency to position Toraja terms and conceptualisations within binary oppositions by means of translating Toraja terms into Dutch, then into French as the language of his theoretical background, then into English for the purpose of this publication. Much is lost in translation despite acknowledging his position as mediator and including an essential mention of the dangers of ethnocentric bias in research. His rushed-through review of Marcel Mauss’s take on representation (p. 9) and Reimar Schefold’s mediating forces (p. 12), as examples of ‘cultural openness’, leaves the reader rather confused, as to what is the relevance of these two theoretical perspectives for the context that is presented. Buijs, himself, occasionally enters the ethnocentric pool by using terms such as ‘invention’, ‘collective illusion’ and expressions of surprise when mentioning contemporary beliefs in magic stones and inactions in the last two chapters of the book. This, together with forcing Toraja (Mamasan) concepts and terms into analytical binaries such as ‘body vs soul’, ‘signifier vs signified’ (e.g. when referring to objects and their animation through received incantations) he seems to contradict an earlier attention paid to the influence and prevalence of Kantian dichotomies in contemporary Eurocentric research.

Perhaps, a chapter section that underlines his methodological choices and the conflict of different representation schemes in his research context, e.g. along the lines of contemporary debates on the epistemological space of translating other cultures in anthropology[i] and/or tendencies and counter-tendencies to tradition and belonging in highland Sulawesi,[ii] would have provided basis for a deeper and more holistic understanding of the impact of Dutch administration and missionary-researchers in formulating ‘religion’ as separated from ‘magic’, with the latter being relegated to the sphere of secrecy. Instead, Buijs suggests that secrecy is a defining feature of magic that differentiates it from religion (page 140). In order to understand the sources and accounts Buijs has prioritised, Bapak Nicodemus (a Toraja Christian teacher who translates and mediates for him) stands as main influence in his work but he is only briefly mentioned at the end of the book.  Without a more contextualised reflection of positionality and a more exhaustive portrait of the socio-political systems of contemporary villages in Mamasa, his examples, imagery and statement feel arbitrary and repetitive at times. The book easily feels as a curated collection of anecdotes that are set to fit within pre-design theoretical templates. This ethnography’s processes of becoming and being seem to have been neglected in favour of a more bullet-pointed review of historical events, some of which the author did not experience first-hand.

Similarly, when attempting to show the relational aspects of religious practice and how these definite and redefine contemporary religious practices in Mamasa, Buijs presents the components of such relations as pre-existing in a disparate manner, and reformulated rather than originated through relations that grant blessings from the gods (pairan). The reader often wonders about what lies under the surface of Buijs’s perceptions and reflections and whether vernacular senses of religion and religious practices in Mamasa can perhaps challenge the divide between religion and magic, belief and practice, in ways this book has unfortunately overlooked. But since openness to others peoples’ beliefs and cultural bias can also coexist, we still benefit from Buijs’s openness to Toraja thought and posterior chapters reconcile the reader with Buijs’s research focus: the concept of pairan as personal religion (chapter 3). Nevertheless, his use terms personal and individual interchangeably strikes as arbitrary. This can be problematic since personal experiences of religion can also be experienced in public and defined collectively and through participation in ‘big rituals’, which (on p. 5) is assumed as the opposite of daily life’s personal relations with the gods.

Notwithstanding the author’s expertise, and the clarity of earlier work in the Mamasa area of South Sulawesi, this book needs a more detailed review of contemporary socio-political systems and alliances in the area. As mentioned earlier, a deeper approach to the concepts of religion and magic as they are formulated through new socioecological relations and alliances would help the reader understand the contemporary backdrops, against which he places Toraja narratives of collective engagement through systematic involvement and undertaking of daily religious responsibility. The importance of meticulously following adat regulations as part of fulfilling family’s pairan and the disturbances of these socioecological orders by contemporary conversions to Christianity (page 92) and changes in the cultivation of rice (p. 90) are coherently unpacked in chapter 4. More specifically, Buijs’s account of the impact of religious and developmental hegemony in Mamasa area suggests that pairan has been neglected and only elders continue to practice aluk on behalf of their families. But, does pairan transcend the (not so) clear-cut conjunctures of religious conversion in Mamasa?

This book sits comfortably within the literature on the anthropology of religion in Indonesia. It also provides a detailed and complex account of the impact of colonial and post-colonial ‘conversion’ in Eastern Indonesia. The author uses previous literature from missionary-scholars, linguists, and British, American and French anthropologists. Although, this book’s theoretical background exclusively adapts classic manuscripts (i.e. 1920s to 1980s), it also connects well to recent work that explores the role of ‘belief’ in contemporary Eastern Indonesia, such as Nils Bubandt’s The Empty Seashell (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014), and non-regional literature such as Istvan Praet’s Animism and the Question of Life (London and New York: Routledge, 2014), which discusses the complexity of the formulation and reformulation of animism (as religion) as it is experienced personally and collectively in post-colonial religious conjunctures.

[i] William F. Hanks and Carlo Severi, Translating worlds: The epistemological space of translation, Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4(2), 2014: 1–16.
[ii] Tania Murray Li, Articulating indigenous identity in Indonesia: Resource politics and the tribal slot, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 42(1), 2000: 149-179.

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