- Becoming: An Anthropological Approach to Understandings of the Person in Java by Konstantinos Retsikas
How readers respond to this book will depend on the preferences they bring to their reading: how they feel about the work of Deleuze and Guattari, and what they look for in anthropological writing. Retsikas presents what he learned about ethnicity, self, space, kinship, healing, and sorcery in East Java, among people of mixed Javanese and Madurese origins, as a demonstration of how fertile Deleuze and Guattari's work can be when applied to ethnographic material.1 Apart from a certain number of passages at the beginning and end of the book, that ethnographic material appears only in the background, as the foundation upon which Retsikas elaborates his analyses.
The gist of Deleuze and Guattari's work might be summarized as a critique of the long-standing penchant in the Western intellectual tradition of looking "beneath" phenomena to find underlying patterns, regularities, and principles. In place of such "levels" of analysis, some identified as more "superficial" and others as more "profound," Deleuze and Guattari propose an approach that singles out no privileged or generative or explanatory element but, rather, insists on the endless elaboration of connections, relationships, transformations, and, for that matter, divergences. Their famous allusion to "rhizomes" derives from this approach—think of the knobs and sections of ginger root creeping through the dirt in an apparently indefinite and unsystematic growth in all directions at once.
Retsikas finds that this understanding of phenomena helps him make sense of much of the material he gathered in the city of Probolinggo, in East Java, where he did research. He emphasizes particularly people's easy assumption that rather than embodying a static "identity," each individual enacts a labile, multi-faceted, and context-dependent self. That so many of his research subjects have both Madurese and Javanese ancestors—migration from the island of Madura, just across the water from this area of East Java, has gone on for generations—makes them especially ready to acknowledge the congeries of unlike traits every person is expected to exhibit. After all, it is conventional wisdom in Indonesia that Javanese are refined and indirect, whereas Madurese are nervy, brash, and forthright. With reference to the self, Retsikas labels this conception of the individual—now alus, now kasar (to use the terms Clifford Geertz made famous long ago, and which are still very much a part of everyday discourse in Indonesia), now inclining toward one element of a binary pair (e.g., masculine), now toward the other (thus, feminine)—the "diaphoron person." Such a self should not, in Retsikas's rendering, be thought of as being, but rather to be caught up in a ceaseless becoming, with no point of origin or fixity. This concept gives his book its simple title.
The various chapters ring changes on this theme of a play of contrasting and even contradictory elements inherent in individuals and groups, whether with reference to ethnicity, kinship, healing, or sorcery. I find some of Retsikas's analyses quite arresting. [End Page 185] His discussion of the relations between affinity and descent, focusing on the logic whereby the marital relationship is pulled toward the idealized relations between siblings, is illuminating. Sorcery, always conducive to a bit of excitement, gets fascinating treatment as Retsikas shows that its supposed practices hinge on shifting a victim's gender from masculine—closed and resistant—to feminine—open and vulnerable. (Retsikas could, though, have done his readers a favor by linking his account of sorcery more explicitly to the work of others, particularly James T. Siegel, who has written on sorcery in East Java.2) Other discussions strike me as labored. In repeating conventional remarks about the contrast between Javanese refinement and Madurese frankness, he neglects the fact that such generalizing comments come into play in some circumstances, yet fall away as people recognize how refined some Javanese are relative to others, and how any individual, whether Madurese or Javanese, is obliged in some contexts to show greater refinement and...