Divine text, national language, and their publics: arguing an Indonesian Qur’an

Abstract: The entry of a universal revelation into the mundane world of language threatens to be paradoxical: it must take a specific and local form.  As such, it becomes implicated in nationalist, ethnic, linguistic, and other sources of community.  This talk centers on a small melodrama in late twentieth century Indonesia, home to the largest number of Muslims of any country in the world.  After undergoing a mid-life spiritual awakening, H. B. Jassin, a modernist literary critic, editor, and ardent defender of freedom of expression, undertook two projects intended to convey the aesthetic power of the Qur’an to a non-Arabic speaking public.  But if Qur’anic Arabic summons a transnational community of the faithful, standardized Indonesian was developed to address a nation of citizens.  If scripture speaks in a divine, uncreated idiom, the national language is shaped by human efforts.  Jassin’s career had served a vision of literature and its public whose values and semiotic ideologies were dramatically at odds with Qur’anic traditions.  Although this is apparently a familiar story of progress and its opponents, this article asks whether Jassin’s critics grasped something about signs and communities that his defenders did not.  Examining the furore that resulted from Jassin’s Qur’ans, it explores an array of conflicting assumptions about language, freedom, truth, and people’s lives together in the late twentieth century.

Webb Keane is the George Herbert Mead Collegiate Professor of Anthropology. At the University of Michigan he is affiliated with the Social-Cultural and the Linguistic subfields in the Anthropology Department, as well as the Interdisciplinary Program in Anthropology and History and the Center for Southeast Asian Studies. His writings cover a range of topics in social and cultural theory, the philosophical foundations of social thought and the human sciences, and the ethnography and history of Southeast Asia. In particular, he is interested in religion and ethics; semiotics and language; material culture; gifts, commodities, and money; and media. At present he is involved in three major projects. The first concerns the relations between ethical and political conflict, the second religious and economic value, and the third centers on piety, language, and media in Indonesian Islam and Euro-American secularism, with a special interest in semiotic transgressions such as blasphemy, obscenity, and defamation.

Departmental Seminar Hilary Term 2018

Fridays, 3.15pm, Lecture Theatre, Pitt Rivers Museum (off Robinson Close)

Convened by Marcus Banks and Leslie Fesenmyer.