Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The Javanese Slametan Celebration: Agreeing to Differ

Filled under: , , ,

 The concept of the `total social phenomenon', in Mauss's odd but compelling phrase, has served anthropology well, not only as a frame for thinking about the complexity of cultural forms but as a narrative device, a way of handling the transition from the exuberant and bewildering world encountered in the field to the orderly microcosm of the ethno-graphy itself. Malinowski, it could be said, found his ethnography in the kula, as Bateson found his in the naven ceremony. If we are now lesscon dent about the notion of totality, this is as much a matter of practical contingency as of theoretical objection: our field locations tend, increasingly, to be characterized by ideological diversity and plurality. Yet, in ritual, we still encounter powerful evocations of the whole, a semblance of totality.

It seems appropriate to begin a study of religious diversity with an event which both expresses and contains cultural difference: to begin with a sense of the whole, however insubstantial this may prove to be. In observing the various elements of Javanese tradition in combination, we can form a better idea of their individual shapes and their in¯uences upon each other. The slametan is, moreover, the pattern of cultural compromise: the attitudes and rhetorical styles it exemplies are, in varying degrees, carried over into the different spheres of religious life examined in the following chapters.

But as well as providing a point of entry, the slametan throws light on aspects of Javanese religion which might otherwise remain obscure and contradictory: the nature of syncretism as a social process, the relation between Islam and local tradition, and, more abstractly, the multivocality of ritual symbols.

These separate theoretical issues ± fascinating and problematic in themselves ± are found to have an inner relation, well illustrated in the slametan. I begin, however, with a brief theoretical comment, followed by a consideration of the place of the slametan in Javanese religion, and then turn to an analysis of the rite itself.
What are we to make of this discrepancy? Consider  the Javanese case. The slametan, a ceremonial meal consisting of offerings, symbolic foods, a formal speech, and a prayer, is a very modest event by the standards of a potlatch or kula; but it has a comparable primacy within its setting and a corresponding symbolic density. Partici- pants see it as integral to their lives as social beings and to their sense of themselves as Javanese; they regard it as the epitome of local tradition. But its `totality' is deceptive. The slametan is a communal affair, but it defines no distinct community; it proceeds via a lengthy verbal exegesis to which all express their assent, but participants privately disagree about its meaning; and, while purporting to embody a shared perspective on mankind, God, and the world, it represents nobody's views in particular. Instead of consensus and symbolic concordance we find compromise and provisional synthesis: a temporary truce among people of radically different orientation.

0 comments:

Post a Comment