An Interview with Anthropologist Webb Keane: On Language, Ritual and Social ChangeSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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J: When did you first go to Sumba and what attracted you there?
Keane: As a graduate student I was interested primarily in the power of language. I wanted to go to a place where people thought of language as powerful, magical and efficacious. I spent two years there doing dissertation research, from 1985 to 1987. What attracted me to Sumba was that there was a highly elaborated tradition of poetic speaking that was vital and that everyone seemed to take seriously. It wasn't just a specialized thing and it wasn't an esoteric dying tradition. It was something that was at the heart of people's interests in their lives. It was so alive that people would constantly be quoting passages in the way people used to quote from Shakespeare or Cicero or the Bible in the 19th century.
This poetic speech is used to bring about anything of significance or power. For example, it's used in talking to the spirits of ancestors. It's also used to make peace if people have been feuding with one another, and it's used to negotiate marriages. This is a society in which marriage is a crucial political alliance between clans, and success or failure hinges on one's ability to command this speech style.
J: How does this form of speech relate to the broader phenomenon of poetic ways of speaking throughout Asia?
Keane: This is a highly elaborated form of something that is very common in Southeast Asia, which is an interest in the materiality of language-an interest in the sounds, for example, and a playfulness, often involving local ideas about power. But in Sumba it's basically in the form of couplets composed of what we call semantic and syntactic parallelism, which can then be manipulated in order to say all sorts of different things. It's semi-esoteric-most of the vocabulary is familiar to ordinary people, but the rules of how to use it are complicated and difficult. To use it well you really have to be a specialist. And there were cases of people who had made mistakes in using this speech style, bringing about terrible consequences, it was thought, including the case of a ritual speaker whose daughter died of a sudden illness.
These words don't have power in and of themselves. They must be accompanied by the transaction of material goods. If you're speaking to spirits, you have to make an offering. If you're negotiating with someone, you must present a gift. People say that words that are not placed on the offering dish will blow away because they do not have weight.
J: How well known was this speech form?
Keane: I'm not the first person to have studied this speech, but one of the things that I did that was different was focus on the relationship between words and things. What is the power of words and what is the power of material transactions and how are they different from one another and complementary to one another? And how do they also threaten to undermine one another? This got me interested in political economy and material culture and a whole set of questions that shifted my interest from language alone to the way in which language use is situated in the material world.
J: In the book I noticed you said that some of the most valuable material things in the ritual transactions come from the outside. Keane: That's right, they come from farthest away from one's own productivity. They're made by people you don't know. You don't even know how they're made. It's the opposite of a labor theory of value. They seem to have no labor in them in part because they seem to transcend the physical labor of the body in the here-and-now, and therefore they invoke a transcendental source of value.
J: I wonder how this theory of value would be affected by the greatly increased availability of consumer products from the West. Have you had a chance to look into this?
Keane: I've made some preliminary studies of this, but there's still much to do. One of the general points to bear in mind is that the simple availability of certain kinds of goods doesn't necessarily make them desirable or even useful. As in other parts of the world, where money and commodities are relatively new, we find that Sumbanese incorporate, reject or create enclaves for new goods in very specific and meaningful ways. And one of the issues raised by consumer goods is the way in which they seem to place individual desires-rather than, say, moral obligations-in the foreground. That is, they appear to make those desires more legitimate. Another issue is the linkage between the effects of new commodities and Protestant teachings. Interestingly enough, both, in different ways, pose a serious challenge to the underpinnings of Sumbanese gift exchange. Commodities do so by making it easier to see goods as freely circulating. Protestantism does so by portraying exchange as "materialistic." Protestants often try to recast the circulation of goods as a form of "merely symbolic" communication, shifting the focus away from the special powers of certain kinds of objects and the practical ways in which they provoke social groups to act, and towards the innermost intentions of individuals.
J: You returned to Sumba in 1993. What sorts of changes had taken place?
Keane: When I returned there were several things I noticed. More and more people were speaking Indonesian. Although the dozen-some odd local languages were still thriving, it was clear that the national language was becoming increasingly prestigious and widely available. In addition, people were increasingly identifying themselves as Christian, and money was becoming increasingly important. These three things have been at the center of my work since then.
I've been working on the emergence of Indonesian as a national language and its implications as viewed from outside the elite centers. I'm particularly interested in how people's ways of speaking Indonesian and ways of thinking about the fact of speaking Indonesian become part of their ideas about being modern-and how Indonesian seems to shape possibilities of modernity for them. You can be modern in some ways rather than others depending on how you think of what the national language offers you. In addition, as you can see in Sumba, certain national ways of speaking, such as bureaucratic declamation, sermons and other sorts of speech-making, are taking an important place among the existing public speaking styles. And these national styles, among other things, create very different sorts of relations between audiences and speakers. For instance, audiences for official speeches are supposed to be passive, acquiescent and mute-a far cry from the more complex dynamics of more local forms of oratory.
The second issue concerns implications of religious conversion. For the people of Sumba, 'modernity' looks Christian and therefore like something they can really participate in. I'm interested in the common (if not universally shared) Protestant idea that you can be the agent of your own radical self-transformation. I'm also interested in the ways in which Protestantism expresses the language of modernity. For people in many parts of the world, ideas about progress, individual autonomy, freedom and equality are expressed in Protestant forms and sometimes through specifically Protestant institutions.
One of the things that Protestants do in places like Sumba is attack existing ways of speaking in the name of truth, sincerity and social equality. That does not mean that these people are necessarily radically democratic. The language of sincerity is in part an attack on the language of respect for others, which is seen to be insincere.
The third thing I'm interested in is the role of money and the increasing commodification of life in Sumba. I've argued that some of the changes in the way people use language have immediate and direct implications for how they interpret and use material goods. So if words and things are articulated in particular ways under the old pre-modern and pre-Christian ritual systems, they are articulated in very different ways when language changes, and so does people's relationship to material goods. And vice versa. It's a complicated argument, but one that I think has wide application beyond Sumba.
J: When you talk about "truth, sincerity and social equality," displacing the intricacies of traditional ways of speaking, I wonder whether we in the West have missed out on this richness in our languages.
Keane: Well, I think it's not so much that we missed something but that we responded differently to the features of language that can, for instance, make it seem powerful and magical. And it's a complicated history, with not just a single story line. But one thing that happened is that during the Reformation and after, Western Protestantism self-consciously and vigorously attacked those aspects of language that carried certain kinds of social and religious meanings. One side of this attack concerned the liturgy, in efforts, for instance, both to rationalize religious language and remove it from the control of clerical elites. Another side concerned etiquette and hierarchy. Both European and many Southeast Asian languages had developed highly elaborate ways of expressing and inducing social hierarchy. But, for example, in Western Europe, people like the 17th century Quakers attacked the more obvious of these, the distinction between the formal "you" and the informal "thou," in the name of radical egalitarianism. We are now at the outcome of a long historical trajectory of language reform-which has had many unintended consequences.
In Sumba the language of sincerity is in part an attack on the language of respect for others which is seen to be insincere. I have argued that there may be other results. These may include changes in how people understand language-focussing more on how words refer to things and less on their poetic form or pragmatic effects. Linked to these may be changes in social relations-such as a greater stress on highly personal understandings of intentionality and less on social bonds. So in studying language change, a lot of what I'm looking at are these issues of sincerity and truth and what sort of ideological role they play, and their practical consequences, like how they change the way people speak to one another and understand their relations to one another.
J: What are your immediate research plans?
Keane: While at the Institute for the Humanities next year, I hope to make progress on a book about the implications of missionization and conversion. Although I am taking Sumba and the Dutch as a case in point, I intend to draw out more general implications, for instance, about the impact of language change on understandings of what a person is, and the effects of commodification on ideas of value and materiality. Beyond this project is another on the emergence of Indonesian as a national language and its role in the ongoing, and deeply troubled, effort to create a modern public.
Webb Keane, an associate professor in the U-M Anthropology Department, is known for his meticulous ethnography of the people of Sumba in eastern Indonesia, as well as for his theoretical writings on topics ranging from semiotics and the concept of "voice," to exchange and objectification. The author of the widely acclaimed Signs of Recognition: Powers and Hazards of Representation in an Indonesian Society , this year he was awarded both a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship and a fellowship at the University's Institute for the Humanities. Last year he received the Henry Russel Award for excellence in teaching and promise of distinction in scholarship, the highest honor given by the University to an assistant or associate professor, Journal editor Bonnie Brereton interviewed him in his office.