On Morality and the City: a Response to Abdoumaliq Simone

# A Talk at Serambi Salihara, November 11, 2010

I have to confess that in this conservative time, I am not completely comfortable sitting here to speak of “morality.” The question Abdoumaliq Simone poses in his summary may become a good start for our discussion (“Does morality in the city now mean people leaving each other alone, even as globalization and Facebook brings us all together?”). Yet, morality, to me, is a politically loaded word. My problem is that I see it as a normative order, normally reinforced by the discourse of faith and social cohesion, while I am aware of the incommensurability of such an order with its very claim of universality. I am of the opinion that society, especially in its urban setting, is shaped by a partially settled and historically contingent system of regularities.

Hence there is a perpetual contention. No Hegelian Sittligkeit, or norms of morality operating inside a community generating a natural sense of coherence, is without conflict or exclusion. I am in full agreement with Simone when he quotes James Tully suggesting that today “cultures are continuously contested, imagined, and reimagined, transformed and negotiated, both by their members and through their interaction with others”.

It is interesting that Tully, as Simone quotes him, speaks of the other way of looking at cultures (or other identities like cities, for that matter) which is “a panopticon of fixed, independent and incommensurable worldviews in which we are either prisoners or cosmopolitan spectators in the central tower.” Tully speaks of it negatively. This brings me to what I believe to be an antithesis of the “panoptical” perspective. Being a writer, I find it in works of literature touching upon urban lives and landscapes. These are the kind of modality that articulates, to borrow Michel de Certeau’s description, a “poetic geography on top of the geography of the literal, forbidden or permitted meaning.”

Let me begin with a story by Pramoedya Ananta Toer in his collection, Cerita dari Jakarta, written in the early 1950s. In the story, Aminah, a prostitute, lies down, near death, on a Fromberg Park bench. Suddenly, the past and the present, things distant and near, appear to her simultaneously.

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Kesusastraan Indonesia dan Kebimbangan [2]

Larangan tersebut muncul sebagai sejenis pembebasan, malgre soi. Para sastrawan Manifes menemukan kemerdekaan mereka yang sejati justru dalam membisu: diam dalam kepompong pengasingan yang ganjil itu, mereka terus menulis, tidak ditulari oleh kesusastraan resmi yang mewabah di luar, yang sarat dengan slogan yang diulang-ulangi tentang perjuangan dan revolusi.

Nyoto, teoritikus partai dan tokoh penting kedua setelah D.N. Aidit, adalah seorang penulis prosa yang cemerlang. Sebagian besar karena daya tarik pribadi dan usahanyalah LEKRA berangsur-angsur merebut simpati para seniman dan sastrawan terkemuka Indonesia, seperti Pramoedya Ananta Toer, novelis Angkatan ’45.

Tetapi yang tetap lebih penting adalah pengaruh LEKRA terhadap persaingan di antara partai-partai yang ada: LEKRA mendorong mereka untuk mendirikan lembaga kebudayaan masing-masing. PNI mendirikan LKN (Lembaga Kebudayaan Nasional) dengan tokoh utama Sitor Situmorang. NU mendirikan LESBUMI (Lembaga Seniman dan Budayawan Muslimin) dengan tokoh Asrul Sani, salah satu dari tiga penyair Tiga Menguak Takdir (bersama Chairil Anwar almarhum dan Rivai Apin, yang bergabung dengan LEKRA).

Demikianlah slogan orang komunis, “Politik Sebagai Panglima” mendapat kemenangan. Tahun 60-an menyaksikan suatu bentuk patronase baru ditanamkan dalam kehidupan kebudayaan Indonesia: partai-partai politik bertindak sebagai pelindung, yang memberi proteksi atau pengayoman kepada para seniman dan sastrawan dari kekurangan materi dan juga kritik secara publik.

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Remembering The Left

“I am no Nelson Mandela… and Indonesia is not South Africa”, Pramoedya Ananta Toer says in an interview, in reply to a criticism of his position on Gus Dur’s idea of reconciliation.

No doubt Pramoedya is right. In today’s Indonesia, no one, including him, is a Nelson Mandela. And true enough there are major differences between the Indonesian and South African experiences.

The evening of 22 June 1996 began with a spectacle of red bandannas. About 70 people, mostly in their twenties, packed the neon-lighted conference room of the Jakarta Legal Aid Bureau’s office. Almost everyone had a red scarf tied around the neck, almost everyone was skinny and emaciated, and the room had an air of excitement and of brazenness.

Obviously, it was an unusual evening. The young people were celebrating the birth of a new political party, the PRD (Partai Rakyat Demokratik, or the Democratic People’s Party). In one bold stroke, they produced two acts of defiance against the Soeharto regime. The regime had declared it illegal to set up a political movement or party without the government’s permission, and the PRD people challenged this openly. The Soeharto regime created a widespread fear of anything “leftist”, and threatened anyone fostering an opinion tainted with Marxist ideas. Against this, the young people with red bandannas stood up. Under the watchful eyes of government spies, they openly hoisted the banner of the Left.

The evening was also marked by an award-giving ceremony, honouring people and institutions regarded by some as the enemies of the regime, including among others novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Tempo news weekly.

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