Domestication of Desire : Women, Wealth and Modernity in Java
Brenner, Suzanne April
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998
Written by an anthropologist who conducted field research for two years in central Java during the mid-eighties, this book provides a fascinating view of the social and economic structures prevailing in Laweyan, a neighborhood of Solo once known for its vibrant batik (kain batik) production. “Laweyan had developed around the turn of the century into one of the preeminent centers of the batik industry in Solo (batik solo) and, in fact, in the whole of the Netherlands East Indies.” (34) She presents a good history of batik production and tries to understand how “a fundamentally modern community in the first half of the twentieth
2 century” was to become in later years “a stronghold of tradition that continually erected barriers…to further modernization.”
She examines gender relationships and the importance of women in batik production and trade. “It is no exaggeration to say that women were the heart and soul of the community, as they were of the family firm, and that women’s centrality here defined in critical ways the community’s internal social relations as well as its connections with the outside world. “The domestic sphere in Laweyan….revolves around the woman who stands at its core. As the main agents of domestication in the household, women often take on the burden of producing and accumulating not only material wealth but also social status and cultural capital for their families – the latter of which have been inadequately recognized in most studies of Javanese society.” (204)
Details on social interactions (such as the combined arisan-slametan (the first term referring to a social gathering of a women’s rotating credit association combined with a formal religious ritual to commemorate a significant life event such as a death or marriage) provide interesting insights into Javanese culture at the time - how women could be kasar (unrefined or crude) in contrast to men’s interactions having to be more alus (refined or cultured). However, as a female participant observer, with greater access to women’s activities, I wonder how this may have affected some of her observations, especially the stark contrasts between female and male behaviors.
“We will also see how gender itself came to figure prominently in the transformation of Laweyan from a locus of modernity to a site of nostalgia…. It is the belief in the batik industry both as a channel of ancestral value and as a way of asserting their own (tenuous) claims to cultural legitimacy, I would argue, that has led Javanese batik entrepreneurs to cling so tenaciously to this field of business even as they see their own once-substantial profits dwindle to a fraction of what they were in the heyday of the industry.” While I would agree with some of her conclusions, I think there were a number of factors probably responsible for the decline of the batik industry in this area, including changing labor markets (the availability of higher paying jobs for batik workers), inability to access sufficient credit (which she alludes to in other parts of the book), and the rise of crony capitalism (which affected access to credit, among other things). It would have been helpful if she would have incorporated some analysis on the size of batik industry (numbers of firms and workers) that is sustainable in the Indonesian economy at various times, because some consolidation was inevitable in the textile industry, as has occurred in other countries. What is interesting is the continuing role of a range of batik industrial types – from cottage industries of less than 10 workers to factories employing thousands (see descriptions of batik factories in Fraser-Lu).
In examining the modern family and the New Order regime’s gender ideologies and policies, she sees the independence of the female merchant class eroded, but does not see the broader picture of female society as a whole, in particular the female kampong residents whom she earlier had described in rather bleak terms as the batik workers for the female juragan. She described these workers as having an impoverished existence. 3 Did their condition improve with the New Order, particularly as the number of poor
declined so dramatically during the eighties and pre-crisis nineties?
The author sees the modern capitalist state evolving in Indonesia with the separation of home and work place, in contrast to batik industries, which were mostly home-based. As many in the West establish home offices with modern technologies and communications, and there is a better understanding of how innovation occurs - that large industries often rely on smaller firms for innovation, the continuum is not as unidirectional as the author implies. Why cannot this be applied to the batik industry and art form; indeed there are examples of periodic efforts to encourage the batik industry from the time of the Dutch colonialists, during the period of Sukarno and today. A whole range of batik industries continue today, and it would be interesting to analyze in more depth their evolution according to structure and other characteristics, including female participation