Friday, July 23, 2010

A revolutionary act (for an academician)

At the beginning of my journey, Rithaony Hutajulu said that she thought that my book could be important to Suarasama, the music group that she and her husband have started. I knew that she wanted to have a copy and I wanted to give her one, but I was hesitant. The books were earmarked for weavers and those depicted on Legacy’s pages. By the end of the journey, I knew that I wanted Suarasama to have a copy (and not just because there were fewer weavers out there). I handed it over to Ritha’s husband, Irwansyah Harahap, also an ethnomusicologist, performer and professor at the University of North Sumatra, on 26 June. 

Much had changed in my thinking in the interim and I had begun to see these people as key figures in Batak cultural promotion and revival. They were connected to all the right people who would be able to contextualize the importance of my work. They would use my book in their own work. They figured, now, among my most important recipients!

I had been away from the region for a long time. During my trip, I began to discern and increasingly understand a new set of ideas. Like an undercurrent, concern for the loss of indigenous culture is growing. The proportions of this loss are vastly more disturbing than most of us know. The Canadian anthropologist, Wade Davis, said it well in the first of his CBC Massey Lectures entitled The Wayfarers (2009):

“... just as the biosphere, the biological matrix of life, is being severely eroded by the destruction of habitat and the resultant loss of plant and animal species, so too is the ethnosphere, only at a far greater rate. No biologist, for example, would suggest that 50 percent of all species are moribund. Yet this, the most apocalyptic scenario in the realm of biological diversity, scarcely aproaches what we know to be the most optimistic scenario in the realm of cultural diversity.” (Davis, 2009, pp 2-3)

The loss of Batak textiles is not just the loss of a few techniques and patterns, it is the loss of cultural knowledge in which a thought system, cultural history, and a way of life are inscribed. It can be written down and recorded, as I have made an attempt to do in Legacy, but words can only point to non-verbal knowledge, capture it the way formaldehyde can preserve biological species. The only true preservation is life itself, or when it comes to weaving, practice. By practice I do not mean the execution of techniques but rather the performance of culture in a holistic sense. While manipulating a backstrap loom, Batak weavers enact and perpetuate a way of seeing and thinking, they operate within a paradigm and if they are skilled, they add to it, making it grow, allowing it to adapt, ensuring its vitality. This is what apprenticeship is about for the youth, and teaching on the part of the elderly: the intergenerational links that ensure cultural survival.

It was satisfying to learn that my Indonesian ethnomusicologist colleagues were practitioners as well as recorders of ancient knowledge. They understand it and they are Batak. When I think about this, I long to go and sit in a backstrap loom to truly learn what I have written about. During my 30-year labour over the book, I neglected to weave!

How misguided our institutions of higher learning have been to so strongly privilege the word (logocentrism) above practice! I perceive the legions of anthropologists at great and costly international conferences, in painful contrast to the loss of cultural practice by indigenous peoples due to lack of support, in these terms. Documentation is perhaps a symptom of doomsday thinking, a pathetic way to hang onto a shadow of what is fated to disappear. It is a style and product of Western ego and Western culture that earned its predominance through our technical prowess (Industrial Revolution). Our consequent blindness has yielded our greatest proceeds, but they are now proving to be our greatest weakness. Western academics “play the game” while that which we study dies out.

Perhaps the distribution of Legacy this past month has been my greatest revolutionary act in the history of my involvement with the book and with academe. Breaking the tacit boundary between the researcher and the researched, allowing Legacy to potentially have a legacy for practitioners!

Biodiversity is not saved in a bottle; it is allowed to run free in viable habitats. So, too, cultural diversity. I find myself reiterating what I have also heard others say: the Batak weaving arts, while specific to the Batak, are a Universal Human Legacy, a well-explored product of a facet of human thought and culture. They are irreplaceable. Loss of this rich vein of culture is a loss for all of humanity.

Ritha! Irwansyah! I am so happy to have been able to present you with one of my books! It was given to you courtesy the largess and insightfulness of the very admirable Volkenkunde Museum in Leiden, The Netherlands. Please do use it!

See Back to the Villages - the map!

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