Arts Address Takes Philosophical Turn

By Grace Susetyo on 08:35 pm Nov 15, 2013

On Monday at Teater Jakarta at the Taman Ismail Marzuki cultural center, the Jakarta Arts Council, or DKJ, hosted its annual cultural address.

Titled “Culture and Our Stuttering,” the address featured philosopher and cosmologist Karlina Supelli.

In her hour-and-a-half-long multimedia-supported talk, Supelli addressed the impacts of consumerism and globalization on peoples’ livelihoods.

The speech covered themes questioning the places of love, appreciation and curiosity in today’s information and consumer age.

Supelli began by illustrating the Dayak creation myth that inspired the Dayak women of Kalimantan to weave their traditional ulap doyo textile. Doyo is the local name of the plant from which Dayak weavers make their threads. But these days the endemic plant is becoming endangered due to deforestation by agricultural, logging and mining industries.

“For many indigenous communities in Indonesia, the forest is not merely a source of livelihood. The forest is especially a compass for the community’s sense of cosmos, their history of origin, their laws, and teaching [the young] how to behave. The people’s laughter, tears and customs are woven within those mats and textiles,” Supelli said.

In 32 years’ time, continued Supelli, Indonesia would celebrate its 100th independence anniversary. If Kalimantan continues to be exploited at its current rate, the rainforests of Kalimantan will be gone by then. Natural resources such as minerals and oil will also be depleted, and memories of the once biodiversity-rich and culturally thriving Kalimantan will be forgotten, she said.

While commercial industries that extract natural resources are paraded as the driving force of Indonesia’s economic development, they often pose a threat to the livelihood of communities that don’t always benefit from the industry.

The past 15 years have been known as the reformation era, characterized by improvements in freedom of expression and the liberalization of the economy. Supelli called this process “the democratization of culture [which is] more accurately seen as a freedom whose boundaries are determined by the market’s interests.”

She added that the market in and of itself was not the problem — rather, contending that it lies in the failure of the reason of economy to work for the culture’s greater good beyond the consumerist agenda.

According to Nielsen’s 2013 studies on consumer confidence, Indonesia has the highest consumer confidence index (124) among 58 countries — well beyond affluent countries such as Switzerland and Norway (both 98).

Supelli described consumerism as an insatiable new culture driven by luxurious lifestyles and “the principles of pleasure” championed by globalization.

Consumerist Indonesia is among the world’s top 10 Internet-using countries, but 95 percent of Indonesia’s Internet usage is accounted for by commenting and sharing on social media networks.

Sadly, while Indonesia’s Internet usage grows exponentially, the human development index has remained linear over the past 13 years. Some 55.1 percent of the Indonesian labor force graduated from elementary school, or not at all. About seven million Indonesians remain illiterate, and two Indonesian mothers die in childbirth every hour.

“I do not mean to simplify the problem of digital technology as a matter of good or bad,” Supelli said. “It is the basic dualism in the design of technology that coerces us to conform to its mechanics through the pleasure of the lifestyle it produces. It’s an anesthetizing coercion.

“In traditional culture, technology was humankind’s endeavor to attain an equilibrium with nature,” Supelli continued. “Contemporary technology is deliberately designed to never attain that equilibrium. New technology will create and force new previously unimaginable goals, just because technology can carry them out and because there is an economic-political system to support them.”

This imbalance, said Supelli, has caused Indonesians to confuse wants with needs, and to lose touch with the tangible world. The arts lose their function to convey good values that discipline the mind and the desires that subject it.

Meanwhile, too much emphasis on the value system creates a tendency to prescribe religion as the cure-all solution for “poverty, ignorance, and backwardness of civilization.”

Supelli proposed several solutions to Indonesia’s current “cultural stuttering,” including the transformation of the money-oriented market into one that is more directly concerned with the livelihoods and food security of the people, and a shift from political leadership into an ethos of responsibility instead of power.

“In the end, the large-scale transformation of a culture happens tacitly without the applause that comes from being on stage, without a celebration,” Supelli concluded.