Intimacy and Alienation: Money and the Foreign in Biak
It is space not time that hides consequences from us.
John Berger, The Look of Things
I awoke to the sound of excited voices in the wee hours of the morning on 21 November 1992 in Biak City. Semuel Bidwam and his family were standing amid a pile of blankets and satchels on his sister’s back porch, a few feet from my bed. A fire had broken out in the market, and, like others residing close to it, the Bidwams had headed for higher ground. Semuel’s sister, Sally Bidwam, lived in a small brick house, built by the Dutch navy, in a hilltop neighborhood still known as the Ridge—the name given to the complex of barracks and civil service residences by American commanders during World War II. Biak Island had been the site of massive destruction during the war, and it might well be again if Semuel’s fears were to bear out and the fire spread three blocks to the petroleum installation at the harbor. The gas tanks were connected by underground piping to the airport at the other end of town. If the fuel ignited, Biak City, the multiethnic capital of Biak-Numfor, an island regency in the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya, would explode.
The market, the harbor, then, finally, the airport: the imagined disaster would have consumed locations that were viewed as promoting national integration in Indonesia under the now-deposed New Order regime.1 By way of planes, ships, and, above all, commodities and national currency, these sites connected ethnic Biaks to a national economy and, through it, to other citizens of this large postcolonial state. Besides this fantasy, the fire also gave rise to rumors that associated the disaster with a reversal in the relationship between this periphery and distant cores. The rumors spread from the market to encompass dreams of disruption in what, following Edward Soja, we might call a geography: a historically constituted, spatial and social distribution of wealth, power, and point of view.2 This essay follows a similar route, taking off from the fire on a path that bypasses conventional conclusions about the geographies created by translocal passages of money, migrants, and goods. Undertaken in a society with a long history of interaction with outsiders, my analysis is an exercise in not taking for granted the ways that national currencies integrate nation-states and thus create new forms of intimacy and alienation, along with interdependencies born of trade.
I approach money in this essay as neither a solvent of social differences nor a target of resistance, but as a medium that traverses an uneven sociocultural terrain: an interconnected series of spaces that are logically simultaneous, yet distinct in their temporalities. Using the fire stories as a focal point, I examine different functions of national currency as it appears in quotidian, ceremonial, and mythical scenes. The market figures in these scenes not only as a node in national and global flows of capital but also as a site for the pursuit of intimacies and potencies conceived in local terms. Although they are expressed in capital, the values people transact do not find their measure in a crystallization of abstract human labor or in the outcome of an interplay between supply and demand. Still, by making money into a vehicle of social identity, the practices described here contribute to the reproduction of economically based inequalities among Biaks and between Biaks and outsiders. As such, this essay illustrates how the local and the global are mutually constituted, if always in historically specific ways.
This essay’s findings fly in the face of classical accounts of the social effects of monetization, which tend to portray market exchange as a force that erodes intimacies by homogenizing values. But this essay also encourages us to read theory in novel ways. Take Georg Simmel, who describes the use of money as the culmination in an evolution of the relationship between subjects and objects. In the most primitive situations, the subject is overtaken in the presence of a desired object by a “feeling of anxiety, as if a part of the self had been detached.”3 Robbery and gift exchange stand at an intermediate position: objects pass between subjects, but they remain in a relation to their transactors characterized by passion and surprise. Exchange proper begins with the distance that allows for “objective desire”: the rational comparison of alternative options that facilitates the formation of values.4 Cultivated through the use of money, this capacity for abstraction transforms the texture of sociality. Individuals become members of what one might call an imagined community of currency: a collective of anonymous, “indifferent” others bound to “the group as an abstract whole.”5 At first associated with marginal and alien groups, money depersonalizes relations between those indigenous to a society: “The contrast that existed between the native and the stranger has been eliminated, because the money form of transactions has now been taken up by the whole economic community. The significance of the stranger for the nature of money seems to me to be epitomized in miniature by the advice I once overheard: never have any financial dealings with two kinds of people—friends and enemies.”6 This essay follows Simmel in relating how people conceptualize the distance between subjects and objects with their experience of social intimacy and alienation. But the dynamics Simmel tracks historically this essay traces geographically, across a series of coeval sites. In the following pages, one finds a staging both of the immediacy associated with robbery and gift exchange and of the abstraction Simmel associates with the money form. Crucial to the production of valued persons (in this case, foreigners) through practices that entail the capture of foreign power, the intimacy posited in Biak encounters with money and ethnic others is no less a historical product of social action than is the alienation that Simmel describes. This case should lead us to wonder whether the hegemony of any imagined community of currency can be exhaustive. Although money appears in Biak as an integrating force, this function is associated with potentially subversive conceptions of the nature of personal and political power.
On that morning in 1992, I was not the only person impressed by Semuel’s story about the impending catastrophe. My household immediately concluded that the obvious thing to do was to watch. I quickly dressed and followed Sally and her nieces down the road to the edge of the hill, where we joined a growing crowd. Biak City did not blow up that night, but the brush with annihilation left an impression on the island’s inhabitants. The next day, no pop music blared in the minivans that ran between the market and the Ridge, and passengers speaking in hushed tones about the disaster filled the vacuum. The rubble was still smoldering. It was the freestanding larger stores at the back of the market—a roofed city block of stalls and open pavement, bordered by several dozen shops —that burned. A mosque and eleven shops owned by migrants to the province had been gutted; among the dead were the children of the Sino-Indonesian owners of a store called Sumber Mulia (Glorious Source) and their Biak maid. But remarkably, the front and middle sections of the market, where rural women sell their produce, had remained unscathed.
While it took months for the government to repair the damaged edifice, it took only a few days for rumors to crystallize into full-fledged explanations for the fire. I collected four stories from urban and rural friends—stories similar enough to represent variations on a theme. In each case, the protagonist was someone whose name, clan, and village were left unspecified. A retired Biak civil servant told me the first, which was about an old Biak man who went to buy something at one of the stores. The proprietor—a Chinese man who had, unusually, converted to Islam—had given him his package wrapped in a page from the Bible. The old man, who, like most Biaks, was a devout Protestant, complained. But the proprietor and his assistants ridiculed the shopper and his “useless” book. When the old man stood his ground and refused to accept the package, they sent for the market guard, who promptly beat him up. The old man kept the page from the Bible but gave back what he had purchased. When the shopkeeper tried to return his money, the old man turned away. The former civil servant who narrated the story to me repeated his words: “I don’t want my money back. I’ve already been beaten. Save it so you can build up your store and get even richer.” For my informant, the moral of the story was clear: “That night, the fire broke out very quickly, extraordinarily so. That was the work of God.”
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This essay is based on research undertaken with the support of a U.S. Department of Education Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowship, a Predoctoral Grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, and by a grant from the Joint Committee on Southeast Asia of the Social Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies with funds provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Earlier versions were presented on 25 November 1997 in “Interrogating Individuals: Crossing Discourses of Subjectivity in the Pacific,” a session at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Washington, D.C., and on 28 March 1995 in “Discourses among the Local, Regional and National in Indonesia,” a session at the annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies, Washington, D.C. I would like to thank Andy Apter, Debbora Battaglia, Lauren Derby, Dan Lev, Nancy Munn, Beth Povinelli, and Jim Siegel for their insightful suggestions.
- 1. See, e.g., Christine Drake, National Integration in Indonesia: Patterns and Policies (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989). The New Order, which fell in May 1998, was among the world’s longest surviving authoritarian regimes. Its leader, President Suharto, came into power in 1966 following violence that cost hundreds of thousands of Indonesians their lives.
- Edward W. Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (New York: Verso, 1989).
- Georg Simmel, The Philosophy of Money, 2d ed., trans. Tom Bottomore and David Frisby (London: Routledge, 1978), 97.
- See Simmel, Philosophy of Money, 66.
- Simmel, Philosophy of Money, 301. See also Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 1991).
- Simmel, Philosophy of Money, 227. Compare Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, ed. Frederick Engels, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (New York: International Publishers, 1967), 87. See also Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 2d ed. (San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovitch, 1958); Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986), 36–37; Mary W. Helms, Craft and the Kingly Ideal: Art, Trade, and Power (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993).