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Living in a saucepan

What makes a house house-like? What makes a good ethnography? Reading Catherine Allerton’s beautifully written and evocative account of life in a ‘two-placed village’ of the southern Manggarai people of West Flores in Indonesia, it turns out that the answers to these two questions are closely connected – if not the same. One could sum it up in the quality of ‘liveliness’, which is ‘central’, she writes, ‘to the everyday significance of the house’ (2013: 54). This quality is, first of all, given by the people who inhabit houses, making them feel lived in, and by the hearth fire and the smoke from it that permeates houses, and

seeps gradually out of the roofs of houses and kitchens, giving the impression early in the morning that the house is quietly smouldering. (2013: 54)

Liveliness is what Manggarai people value most in their houses; the capacity to convey it in a written text is a special gift, one with which not all ethnographers are equally endowed. ‘Sharing a room and a hearth is a source of much pleasure in Manggarai life’ (2013: 20) we are told. Liveliness is what makes people feel at ease in their houses, but it goes beyond this:

Though liveliness is said to make life “feel delicious,” it also has important protective qualities. The sounds of talk, the crying of children, the noise of machete sharpening or a weaving sword banging on a loom – these are all part of what makes a house alive, “lively,” and therefore protective. (2013: 54)

All of us know – partly from how we feel when our houses cease to give this sense of protection or when we stay in unfamiliar abodes – how important feeling at ease, or comfy, in our own homes is to our well-being.

Just how this sense of being-at-home is constituted, what it consists of, is different of course in different cultures.  And it is largely made up of quite small things, everyday actions, sounds, smells, and objects that together create the feeling of what the Manggarai call ‘liveliness’. It is a rare ethnographer who not only attends to these small and often unmarked things, but who can write about them without piling up an accumulation of seemingly random stuff thereby boring her reader to tears. Allerton has a wonderful skill for evoking the telling details of life in Manggarai houses – the small objects tucked into the gaps in woven bamboo wall panels, the everyday sounds and smells that permeate houses and filter between them. It is the sensory aspects of life in these houses that she particularly seeks to convey, how it feels to live there. This priority shapes the ethnography and has several consequences. As other anthropologists have found, it places the lives and actions of women at the centre of the story she relates. Not unconnectedly, it also displaces ritual from the pride of place it occupies in many anthropological accounts. This is not to say that ritual is not given due attention here – it is – but we come to understand ritual through and by means of the everyday rather than the other way round.

As an ethnography of eastern Indonesia, or the ‘Exchange Archipelago’ to use Shelly Errington’s (1990) term, the decision to convey southern Manggarai life through its everyday activities and qualities rather than through its formal rules and categories is an important part of the distinctiveness of this work. We are here in the classic terrain of the ‘Leiden School’, fundamental to the work of Lévi-Strauss on kinship, which laid out how the logic of exchange given by prescriptive marriage rules underlay a much wider system of categories that permeated all aspects of life. While we now have a distinctive body of ethnographic work that builds on these earlier insights and takes them in new directions – including that of James Fox, Elizabeth Traube, Gregory Forth, R.H Barnes, Susan McKinnon, and Webb Keane – much of this concentrates on ritual and on the centrality of marital systems to wider categories and forms of exchange. Allerton’s contribution complements this scholarship, but in sidelining formal rules and categories, it also departs somewhat from its core premises. This turns out to be a rewarding strategy. Not only are we given a vivid account of women and children’s lives as well as those of men – a ‘lively ethnography’ – but it is one that brings out forcefully the similarities between eastern Indonesian societies with their prescriptive marriage rules, and the cognatic Austronesian societies without such prescriptions – types which are often described by anthropologists of the region in contrastive terms. Reading this account, I was vividly transported back to the Malay houses I got to know well in the 1980s.

The idea that these two kinds of society can be understood as transformations of each other is not a new one, but that we might grasp this underlying similarity more immediately and fully by highlighting everyday experience has important implications. It makes clear how ritual forms expand on and encompass the everyday. Although ritual may seem to be more powerful than the everyday, the former producing the latter, this is a kind of theatrical effect – the dependence operates the other way.

My account so far has done Allerton a disservice in implying that she concentrates exclusively on the house and processes of domesticity. Her title indicates otherwise. The villagers whose lives she documents move between two sites, one in the highlands, the original village and ritual centre, and a lowland village where the Indonesian government have attempted to resettle them from the 1960s onwards. Their economies operate in symbiosis: in the highlands villagers grow vegetables, fruit and coffee; in the lowlands they grow wet rice. The lowland community is situated on a road along which cash crops from both sites travel to market. Movement between these two sites, and other forms of mobility, is at the heart of what Allerton describes. What makes this unusual among the stories of resettlement of highland people in Southeast Asia, who are always vulnerable to the encroachments of lowland states, is that the original village has remained inhabited and viable despite government attempts to relocate it.

The highland village, Wae Rebo, is reached by climbing a steep and often precarious pathway from the lowland one. The description of navigating this path is one of many ‘somatic highlights’ of Potent Landscapes. Wae Rebo is situated in a dell encircled by mountains. For this reason, villagers refer to it as ‘living in a saucepan’ – though given the importance of domestic processes and of food to Allerton’s account, one might take this as an apt metaphor for life in Wae Rebo. But the saucepan refers to a striking feature of the landscape, and Allerton’s argument lays out how it is through their movement that southern Manggarai people render the landscape potent. Mobility comes in many forms. Most obviously, by treading the repeated, or sometimes new, marital pathways along which women leave their natal villages to embark on marriage in their husbands’ village. This is both a literal and a metaphorical pathway, and it is amplified in a journey that forms part of the marriage rituals when brides are taken, accompanied by their husband and his kin and their own kin to their husband’s village where they are greeted and re-dressed by their husband’s relatives. Patterns of repeated marriage ensure that these pathways are kept clear and well-trodden in affinal visits, and in other rituals involving affines including mortuary rites. Further forms of mobility, including schooling for young people in the lowland village, Kombo, and economic migration within Indonesia and further afield, combine to create a sense that moving through a landscape is central to the sense of place that Allerton so vividly conveys. The argument is that stillness or being emplaced is created through mobility – or put the other way, that rooting in an origin centre (a familiar eastern Indonesian trope) makes mobility possible.

The analytic emphasis on mobility thus draws together many different kinds of activity – economic and ritual, as well as those of kinship and sociability. It encompasses modes of orientation and greeting, which rely on a series of directional terms (upstream/downstream; sunset/sunrise; above/below; inside/outside) that are used to describe journeys and provide responses to the customary local (but also pan-southeast Asian) greeting, ‘where are you going?’ Allerton’s skills as ethnographer and writer make light work of what might be cumbersome to describe. Running through Potent Landscapes are constant switches in perspective that recall the adeptness with which her interlocutors navigate directional terms. Houses may be described from the outside or the inside, as ritual entities or as everyday places. The lowland village is a government-sponsored site of resettlement; it may also be on the way to establishing itself as a ritual point of origin in its own right. Wae Rebo is a vibrant ritual centre and point of origin, but it is also under threat from a government keen to exploit its potential for cultural tourism. Such switches not only serve to build a rounded picture of Manggarai experience. They also help us to understand how experience accrues over a lifetime and is sedimented in memories so that houses, for example, come to have a myriad of dense associations with everyday close domesticity and with powerful moments of life-crisis rituals. These may then be encompassed in more occasional larger-scale rituals such as the inauguration of a new ritual drum house, which carry associations of ancestral practices but also have newer political import. Mainly, such associations appear as echoes, which are often unspoken though occasionally they may be articulated – as when people remark that carrying the central ridgepole and main house post into the village for a new ritual drum house is just like the greeting of a new bride.

It is the subtle interweaving of the everyday and of ritual that I find productive here. Of course, as Allerton remarks, this is a permeable boundary – like the houses she describes, from which and into which sounds, smoke, and smells permeate. The capacity to absorb and reconfigure the everyday is crucial to what renders ritual efficacious. And we might draw a parallel here with the way certain kinds of object or substance can occur as material presence or as metaphor (or ‘metaphysical presence’ as Allerton puts it), and sometimes move between these forms. Houses have this capacity in southern Manggarai and elsewhere in the Indonesian world, and this could be considered a feature of what Lévi-Strauss delineated as ‘House-based societies’. Interestingly, blood also has this aptitude. For the southern Manggarai, blood is a way of speaking about luck or destiny, especially in the notion of ‘green /unripe’ blood, connoting a bad destiny and untimely death. The bad fate or unripe blood of previous occupants may infect the rooms of a house and be dangerous to its present inhabitants. The valued quality of liveliness that makes a proper house is opposed to one of sadness and spiritual vulnerability associated with ‘lack of blood’. In the final part of the marriage rites, known as ‘blood on feet’, blood has a literal presence. The ritual takes place outside the groom’s family room where, after a ritual speech, which is in fact addressed specifically to the room, the blood of a sacrificed chicken is used to mark the feet of the bride and groom. This ‘signifies that the couple is a new social unit and, in particular, is thought to introduce them as such to the household room’ (2013: 21). Rooms, as Allerton notes, are personified in these practices.

Houses and human bodies can thus apparently absorb qualities of blood whether it is literally or more metaphysically present, and this seems to imply that houses and blood, like people, are permeable both in the physical and in a more metaphysical sense: they carry traces of memory. Houses and blood are thus vulnerable to the effects of such traces in the present or the future. These suggestive ideas about permeability, memory, and temporality, which run through this ethnography, might be pursued further. Why is it that houses and blood, in particular, share this quality with people? What does this commonality imply about how they are understood, about their nature, about ideas of containment and propinquity, and what are the implications for the temporality of persons, houses, and blood? If houses and blood have a past and a future, in a similar way to people, what are the limits of this similarity, and of the transmission and continuity of the qualities and residues that houses and blood convey and transfer?

Perhaps for these Manggarai villagers, however, there may be more pressing concerns than these somewhat abstract reflections. Part of the attractiveness of Potent Landscapes lies in the positive light in which Allerton presents her interlocutors’ lives. This reader at least feels that she might enjoy a visit to Wae Rebo, its houses and inhabitants. But this carries the corollary that the tensions of kinship or those set in train by government agencies and policies are less present or more ‘smoothed over’ in this rendition than they might be. So, we learn little about what happens in family disputes, or of the difficulties in making a living from shifting agriculture or cash crops, or of the inequalities set in train by new forms of agriculture. Elsewhere in Indonesia, the resettlement of mountain people, the introduction of cash crops, and the encroachments of the state have had far more deleterious consequences. Readers and students might compare Allerton’s work with Tania Murray Li’s recent account of cash cropping among highlanders in Sulawesi, Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier. For the immediate future, the balance between the sites of this ‘two-placed village’ may be more precarious than is implied. One wonders how long the villagers of Wae Rebo will manage to continue living in their saucepan.

Of course it is not possible to encompass everything in what is an admirably trim book. Returning to my starting point of the connections between a proper house and a good ethnography, it strikes me that to ‘liveliness’ one might add the familiarity that comes of accumulated time. Catherine Allerton’s work shows the rewards to be reaped from long and repeated fieldwork, but also from a proper length of time to allow the elements that have been collected to ripen and cook slowly until they meld into a particularly pleasurable and satisfying dish.

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