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Reinventing the wheel?

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Hoodwinked by the enigmatic title, I expected to review a book on my preoccupation with anthropological field work.1 Yes, even after spending most of my professional life among strangers, I cannot escape from my Holland-Dutch roots and bourgeois birth. To an important extent, these decide what I first note and think, and how I'll distort the image of the people among whom I dwell. It always takes considerable effort to then ‘bracket' myself and to open up to ways of life and thinking that I may or not at all may appreciate. In brief, my profession is about cross-cultural encounters, about boundary crossing, about being open to new things, and about being rooted at the same time. In that sense, I am a cosmopatriot engaging distant belonging and close encounters.


Most of the subjects described in the present volume-Hong Kong and Singapore queers, Indonesian gay and lesbi, skinheads of Korea, Indonesian pop-music imagings (sic), those exposed to media, South Korean youths-are not literally border-crossing, but stay in their places of origin. There, they are exposed to the messages of world-wide media that they distort without any attempt of opening themselves up to their original meaning; they merely invest the messages and examples they receive with the characteristics of their particular milieu. This demonstrates that they are rooted in a place-and like it that way-at the same time that they are exposed to cosmopolitan or global media. Contrary to the expectations of some researchers, the exposure to the wide-wide world does not deracinate.. On the contrary, it strengthens roots and identity, resulting in the "passionate sense of belonging to a certain locale" (12) that the editors have dubbed ‘patriotism'. Hence, the subjects described are of two worlds and can so be called ‘cosmo-patriots'.

Modernization theory?

It brings to mind the modernization thesis of the 1950s and 60s. Exposure to the modern world would westernize, secularize, rationalize. Tradition, religion, disorganization were on the way out. Then, lo and behold, ‘religion' was coming back with a vengeance, identity celebrated (and often powerfully pushed by the nation-state), and westernization merely expressed in symbols, from skyscrapers to the fashion dictates of Paris, even as it was not impressed on the mind. From the late 1960s on, it therefore was concluded that exposure to world-wide modernity reinforces the local; that it prompts the religious impulse; that identity is rooted in the life-world; that life-styling is a mere fashionable fad animated by the deep-seated drive for distinction. In brief, inputs coming from the outside are localized, are adapted to the own way of life. Now, by substituting globalization for modernization, the whole sequence is largely restated.

Of course, this is not what editors and contributors have in mind. They aim "to unpack the dialectics between the local, the national, the regional and the global" (11), which doubtlessly is a legitimate endeavour. The principal vehicle of the extra-local messages is the media, and who, these days, has the privilege of not being assailed by its coverage? So, why concentrate on marginal, often fleeting groups and artistic expression, classified under Sex, Space, Body, Race, when discussing a virtually universal phenomenon? Any peasant come to town crosses more borders than those who have their lifestyles inspired by pop stars, soccer hooliganism, gay festivals, CNN, or Holly- and Bollywood. Or, for that matter, what about the ambiguity of identity of tribal groups who have to maintain identity while accommodating with dominant regional populations and languages, with the penetration of the ‘nation-state', and with the national and international media to boot?2


The window is dressed by an ominous quote from Jacques Derrida on which the book opens, and in places the reader will be in for a rough ride, since many contributors eagerly theorize their descriptions of the obvious and expectable. However this may be, the best working hypothesis that emerges is that the localization or adaptation of extraneous inputs hybridizes, pollutes, betrays, bastardizes, and demonstrates the dangers of essentialism or the quest for pristine purity. This implies that identities, however deeply rooted, are ambiguous and negotiable, too..

Even so, certain authors want to emphasize essences and stress the often expressed nativism of the adapters. Did the ligne sac and hula-hoop crazes I witnessed in 1958 make the Japanese any less self-secure?3 Most probably not. Did the soccer hooliganism of the fans of FC Surabaya-regularly drawing a trail of destruction through Java in the 1990s-make these fans any less Madurese, Javanese, Indonesian? It probably did, yet it may have strengthened their urban proletarian belonging. There is an element of the all-possible in the outcome of culture contact, and so I remain reticent to efforts of over-theorization of intercultural translation or the over-interpretation of cultural essentials of which the volume offers many instances.

Overwhelming diversity

Concretely, the collection offers readings on being gay in Chinese and Indonesian localities; on maintaining an evolving local identity in the face of extraneous modernization and state-sponsored essentialism that tells the citizens what it is to be Chinese, Korean, Indonesian; on Indonesian and Korean pop and youth culture; on deterritorializing aesthetics in international Indonesian and diasporic Chinese art.

The rationale for this overwhelming diversity is that we may gain theoretically relevant insight through focusing on the marginal. In exploratory studies, this often is the case indeed, also because absurd outcomes have the merit of showing what things are not. This approach through serendipity would have tremendously gained in credibility if any or some of the tentative conclusions on translation, root-searching, or cultural pollution would have been applied to mainstream situations that are, wherever in the world, subject to the same processes. Thus far, however, these marginal cases, diversity, eclectic theorizing, etc., make me fear that the editors bit off more than they could chew. Granted, the question of how scholars should engage the contradictions in everyday practices and the concomitant uncertainties of identity remains as valid as ever, yet the present miscellany of divergent interpretations leaves the reader-me, at least-bewildered. Maybe I am growing old.

Niels Mulder is a retired independent researcher of Filipino, Javanese and Thai culture, currently working on his field biography, such as Doing Java; an anthropological detective story. Yogyakarta: Kanisius, 2006.



1 E.g., Niels Mulder. 2008. Doing Thailand; the anthropologist as a young dog in Bangkok in the 1960s and 2009. Professional Stranger; doing Thailand during its most violent decade. A field diary. Bangkok: White Lotus.

2 E.g., Nguyen Van Thang. 2007. Ambiguity of Identity. The Mieu in North Vietnam. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.

3 In, Niels Mulder. 2008. Rondje Wereld in het jaar van de hoelahoep. Rijswijk: Elmar.

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