Reviews — In the Realm of the Diamond Queen by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing

Reviews — In the Realm of the Diamond Queen by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing

Robinson, Kathryn

In the Realm of the Diamond Queen. By Anna Lowenhsupt Tsing, Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. Pp xvi + 350. Price US$49.95 (hard) $14.95 (soft).

The people of the Meratus mountains in South Kalimantan occupy marginal terrain and are politically marginal to the Indonesian state. This account of their lives breaks significantly with older traditions of ethnographic writing and engages head on with the issues of representing ‘otherness’ which have been significant in anthropology about the ‘new ethnography’. For those who have expressed disappointment at the failure of those critiques to give rise to recognisably different ethnographic accounts, this work will be welcome.

Tsing employs the concept of marginality as the key construct through which to develop her interpretive account of the lives of these people: they are marginal to the Indonesian state (the objects of state policies intended to inculcate universalising notions of citizenship) and marginal to the world economy in their occupation of the mountainous rainforests of Kalimantan (fast disappearing under the ravenous hunger of the metropoles for rainforest timbers). By embracing what she sees as their imaginative and often ironic play on their marginal situation, she hopes to expose their way of life as a form of difference within the modern world. In this way, she unseats the tendency to primitivise such peoples, as ossified relics of our common past. She describes their engagement with the modern world we all share as one which allows us to explore ‘the possibilities of living with curiosity amidst ongoing violence’

In her account we come to understand something of their own struggles over power and meaning in the context of ‘state rule, the formation of regional and ethnic identities, and gender differentiation’ (p.5). We meet individuals amongst the Meratus people who lead her on her journey of understanding. Uma Adang, with her historical commentary, provides understanding of the significance of border crossings in her rendering of her own place history, which in turn provides an explanatory force for Tsing’s narrative. Uma Adan’s apocalyptic vision also furnishes the title for the book, and for Tsing provides an identification of the ‘conceptual space we created in our ethnographic interaction’ (p.22). The Bear’s shamanic chants lead us to an understanding of the ‘imagination of power’ (p.72) and the engagement of the people in regional and national politics.

The book engages with the fluid and shifting character of identities, their contingent character in world of violence and domination. It achieves this in no insignificant way through its structure; rather than the didactic and totalising mode of conventional ethnography, the book is written in fragments, through which our understanding develops. For example, the chapter entitled ‘family planning’ incorporates an account of an encounter with the bureaucratic imperatives of the modem state, which men can subvert for their own agendas, as well as an account of the death of a premature baby which is both moving and unsettling.

Tsing’s writing is eminently ‘readable’ (in Marilyn Strathern’s terms). And while her approach to writing the ethnographic account is innovative, the mode of writing the fragments is also evocative of older conventions, in particular the ‘extended case study’ of the Manchester anthropologists.

This book celebrates the power of human imagination and its engagement with forces of change. It gives a new perspective on the lives of peoples in the II interiors of Indonesian islands and the manner in which their lives are caught up in the development project of the New Order, and its self-serving national ideology. In addition to scholars of contemporary Indonesia, it should also find a wide audience amongst those anthropologists concerned with issues of writing and representation, and the role for ethnographic accounts of the contemporary world.

Copyright University of Sydney, Oceania Publications Sep 1995

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