Intimacy and Alienation: Money and the Foreign in Biak
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Public Culture 13.2 (2001) 299-324



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Intimacy and Alienation:
Money and the Foreign in Biak

Danilyn Rutherford


It is space not time that hides consequences from us.

John Berger, The Look of Things

Fire in the Market

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 [End Page 299] 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, [End Page 300] 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...



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