Friday, 8 November 2019

Book review: Freedom in Entangled Worlds: West Papua and the Architecture of Global Power, Eben Kirksey (2012)

An amazing book by an activist ethnologist is a place to learn more about West Papua and how it has struggled to achieve its goal of independence from Indonesia. Kirksey is clear about where his sympathies lie, so a certain degree of scepticism should be employed when reading it, but on the whole I was convinced that the author performs reliable corroboration of the facts he uses to substantiate his claims.

The title is ambiguous but Kirksey explains the meaning of the words he has chosen to act as a front for his work, work that has taken up many years of his life. As a US citizen, Kirksey is aware of the power of public opinion and as an academic he is careful to substantiate his findings.

The future looks harsh for occupied West Papua but the use of fracking to mine for shale gas in the US has, in the years since this book appeared, possibly weakened one of the links tying the US administration to the aspirations of commercial interests involved in West Papua (which Indonesia calls its provinces of Papua and West Papua). At the time of writing this review there had been no official call for West Papuan independence that had gone very far, although frail sprouts pop up from time to time.

Kirksey’s primary metaphor is the rhizome, a term he borrows from a French intellectual. Kirksey also deploys the metaphor of the banyan, a parasitic tree that tends, when fully grown, to prevent any other plant from growing nearby. The rhizome seems to stand in for the freedom fighters and the banyan tree for the TNI (the military).

The banyan had been used as a symbol by one of Indonesia’s political parties and its meaning in the book is subtly deployed, in the light of the way that the military in the country has involved itself in not only the political process but also in business. In fact, you wonder at the chances of West Papuan freedom fighters and political activists when you think of all the forces arrayed against them: the TNI, the police, the Indonesian government, mining companies, and the US government. What chance have they got in the face of such obstacles?

Perhaps as a rhizome at least the spirit of struggle never dies. Kirksey’s use of the word “entanglement” in the title and his deployment of the metaphors of the rhizome and the banyan are elegant contrivances that point to the ways that the global community operates today. You can learn things, by reading this book, that are of broad applicability, not just being relevant to West Papua and Indonesia.

The figure of the zombie, implicit in the undying struggle the rhizome emblematises, is also fitting. Mystical elements of the West Papuan narrative that combined in people’s minds to form stories about their country are, of all the things that Kirksey chronicles, possibly the most fascinating discovery available in this book. The complexities of the arrangements that exist between people and between communities are, anyway, so intricate that the injection of articles of faith into the mix seems like a form of understatement.

It’s charming but it is a potent rhetorical device: given the complexity of contemporary life and the existence of forces outside of the individual’s control perhaps, nowadays, a form of belief – not just in a God, but even in something else entirely – is the only thing that works for people. We live in an age of tribes.

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