Academic journal article Ethnology

Genesis in Buli: Christianity, Blood, and Vernacular Modernity on an Indonesian Island

Academic journal article Ethnology

Genesis in Buli: Christianity, Blood, and Vernacular Modernity on an Indonesian Island

Article excerpt

Christianity and local ontology in the North Malukan village of Buff intersect in surprising ways that upset conventional ideas about tradition and modernity. The poetics and cultural politics of blood, as these emerge in an idiosyncratic telling of Genesis, attest to a paradoxical modernity. In this ambivalent modern imaginary, traditional ontology frequently structures pretensions to being modern, while modern sensibilities form the basis of ostensibly traditional assertions. Attending to the discursive and ontological aspects of blood in Buff therefore provides a way of analyzing the entangled imaginaries of modernity and tradition in a marginalized Indonesian community, and by extension a way of bringing the debates about invented traditions and alternative modernities into constructive conversation. (Symbolism and politics of blood, alternative modernities, objectified tradition)

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Tradition and modernity long ago lost analytical credibility as antithetical concepts or as simple descriptive labels appropriate for two radically different types of society. In the wake of the invention-of-tradition debate initiated in the 1980s, which called attention to the modern politics involved in making and remaking tradition (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983; Keesing and Tonkinson 1982; Hanson 1989), a new set of questions and research problems emerged as it became evident that while the political economy of modernity is inescapable, the cultural space opened up by this political economy contains multiple imaginaries about what it means to be modern. Just as tradition is inscribed within modern politics and imaginary, modernity itself is continuously vernacularized from specific cultural vantage points. One of the concepts to materialize as a heuristic device for talking about the dual processes of objectification and vernacularization has been that of "alternative modernity" (Appadurai 1996; Gaonkar 2001a; Knauft 2002a; Lichtblau 1999; Mitchell 2000a; Rofel 1999). The alternatively modern is, as Knauft (2002b:25) suggests, "the social and discursive space in which the relationship between modernity and tradition is configured." Within this space, the large-scale realities of political economy are reconstituted locally on many levels at the same time. What it means to be modern is vernacularized, yet the vernacular itself is objectified according to new types of imaginaries and sensibilities made available by the new political economy and ideoscapes of modernity.

This article seeks to chart a course between seeing tradition merely as a modern invention and seeing modernity merely as a tradition among others. The aim is to bring the debate about the politics of tradition and the discussion about the multiplicity of modernity (two theoretical discussions separated in both time and outlook) into closer mutual orbit. The bone of contention in both discussions, their differences aside, thus seems be to what extent the formative effects of political hegemony may be said to impinge critically on local practices and ideas, and to what extent localizing strategies succeed in remodeling outside structures of domination to create some autonomy. For the invention-of-tradition debate, one of the central issues was whether the focus on the politics of tradition ignored local forms of "world-making" (Ortner 1995; Sahlins 1999; Thomas 1992). Imperialism is not the only game in town, as Sahlins's (1994:380) sarcastic quip had it. Proponents of the alternative- or multiple-modernity hypothesis voice similar kinds of concerns against modernization theory in its more simplistic versions. As Taylor (2001:179) argues, conventional modernization theories fail because they assume the domain of the modern (and by implication the West) to be somehow beyond culture. As a consequence, modernization theory flattens the diverse articulation of modernity around the world, conceptualizing modernization as a wave-like process that floods local forms of world-making: "The belief that modernity comes from a single, universally applicable operation imposes a falsely uniform pattern on the multiple encounters of non-Western cultures with the exigencies of science, technology, and industrialization" (Taylor 2001:180). …

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