Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 14, November 2006

Tom Boellstorff

The Gay Archipelago:
Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia

Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005, 282 pp.
ISBN: 0-691-12334-9 (paper) US$24.95
ISBN: 0-691-12333-0 (cloth) US$59.50

reviewed by Philip Kitley

  1. Tom Boellstorff's ethnography of gay and lesbi sexualities in Indonesia is a gift to Indonesianists and students of the intricate and often confusing effects of globalisation. For Indonesianists the ethnography works through and with other important ethnographies written about Indonesian cultures over the last forty years and takes us to a new place in a confident, richly researched national ethnography. If that is a challenging idea, then that is what Boellstorff delivers: a whole suite of thoughtful insights into the way ethnography may be practised and how globalisation and media effects may be re-thought. He works with a practice of dispersed ethnography (Surabaya, Makassar, Bali), and challenges commonly understood ideas of globalisation and sexual subjectivity to discuss how since the 1970s and 1980s Indonesian homosexual men and women have come to new understandings of themselves as sexual and Indonesian national subjects.
  2. The Gay Archipelago might appear to be an atlas of gay and lesbi (the italics signify the 'authentically Indonesian' understanding of gay and lesbian subjectivities) places and lifestyles, but 'archipelago' is used in multiple senses here to signify ways of being same and different across the national body politic of Indonesia. Tom Boellstorff has a knack of using language in this way to elegantly and provocatively destabilise our commonly held notions of sexual subjectivities and national culture.
  3. Part One of the book walks the reader through poststructuralist understandings of the 'Indonesian subject,' a history of local, indigenous transgender and homosexual subjectivities and ritual professions, and concludes with a chapter on the author's central theoretical metaphor of 'dubbing culture.' Part Two presents the 'ethnographic corpus' which informs the whole work, and Part Three revisits the historical and contemporary data, drawing together in a powerful conclusion—Boellstorff's convincing reading of gay and lesbi subjectivities as emergent cultural positions and practices. He reads these subjectivities against the more usual explanatory ideas of tradition and local or indigenous culture. I found the introductory discussion of subjectivity unnecessarily procedural and feel that this material could have been integrated into relevant chapters where it would have had a more immediate application. The historical chapter and the ethnographic chapters on 'islands of desire,' the spatial worlds of gay and lesbi Indonesians and practices or performance of gay and lesbi sexualities are richly informative and empathetic, however.
  4. The key theoretical metaphor of 'dubbing culture' is taken from an ideologically revealing flip flop in media regulation that happened in late New Order Indonesia. The 1996 requirement that all foreign films on TV were to be dubbed into Indonesian was overturned in 1997 with a remarkably convoluted revision that stipulated that all imported, non-English language films had to be dubbed into English, and that all foreign films had to be screened with Indonesian subtitles. Boellstorff reads the anxiety over language on the small screen as signalling a sudden appreciation that dubbed foreign films were Trojan in their ability to insinuate into the national imaginary ideas, practices and ways of being that disturbed hegemonic understanding of what it was to 'be Indonesian' and 'belong' to Indonesia. Unlike the Trojan's trick, however, dubbing was a far more subtle intrusion. Dubbed culture seamlessly occupied the intimate family sphere without announcing itself, and threatened the carefully constructed national cultural hegemony in its ability to simply replace national cultural constructs. In an earlier, parallel case, regulatory authorities became concerned about the insinuation of supposedly racially marked fictional narratives onto TV through the globalised, capitalist practices of TV station Indosiar working with Shaw brothers in Hong Kong.[1]
  5. This anxiety over the representation of the Other in the national media offers Boellstorff a way of theorising how homosexual Indonesian men and women took intermittent, fragmentary and largely superficial extracts from Western sources reproduced in Indonesian print and electronic media and came to their own gay and lesbi subjectivities. He describes this process as 'dubbing culture,' an always partial incorporation of the self into to another discourse in a way that produces not a failed translation as postcolonial theories of dominance might have it, but a new similitude, a new 'original' if you will, that provides space for authentically national, Indonesian gay and lesbi subjectivities.
  6. The metaphor is used throughout the text and is compelling even if overstated in places, something that is perhaps almost inevitable given the logic of metaphor. My difficulty is with the shift between understanding dubbing as a producer's practice in the media where there is little tolerance for the lack of fit that Boellstorff argues is culturally productive. Film makers try as hard as possible to get the sync right, and try to erase differences between the authentic original and the dub. That this is doomed to failure should not detract from the very different positions and motivations of producers and audiences. As audiences, gay and lesbi Indonesians mobilise what they want from the descriptions of gay and lesbian lives in the West and move on from there. It is only in the slippage from the industry producer's desire for a perfect sync, and the gay or lesbi man or woman as self-producer that I find that the metaphor strains. In television it is not true that 'the [dubbing] attempt is intended to fail' (p. 84), or that 'dubbing rejoices in the good-enough and the forever incomplete' (p. 82). We need another step here to move away from understanding the productivity of dubbing not as located in technical difficulties in the slip of the lip to the productivity of choosing an Indonesian way of being gay and lesbi. These comments should not be read, however, as disabling the conceptual utility of 'dubbing culture.' The metaphor is compelling and overall convincing, even if here and there its media associations intrude.
  7. The second central metaphor of 'archipelago' is very productive and securely linked to Indonesian political and cultural imaginaries. Acknowledging that the metaphor is an ethnographer's artefact, Boellstorff argues that gay and lesbi Indonesians come to an understanding of their sexual subjectivity by drawing on complex ideas of similitude and difference that inform an understanding of themselves as islands (of non-normal) selfhood in an archipelagic unity of differences. The concept of the archipelagic self provides a way into understanding ideas of selfhood not predicated on the integrated 'confessional' self of Western culture, and invites us into a gay and lesbi world where the majority of gay and lesbi Indonesians marry, create normative nuclear families and are comfortable with these arrangements as in their view, they offer them the best way of 'being same but different.' This is an insightful, elegantly written ethnography that is likely to be a significant study for many years to come.


    [1] See Philip Kitley, Television, Nation and Culture in Indonesia, Athens, Ohio University Press, 2000, p. 288ff.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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