5.   Noising Authority


I have previously analyzed the semiotics of similar events in East Java, especially from the viewpoint of the attendant politicians, but in this case I want to foreground what is usually in the background: how the figure changes when listened to on top of the material ground or, more accurately, how the figure moves when the ground gets shifted by the “defective” recording (Wagner 1986: 33; cf. Keisalo 2016: 108). In this section, I will describe how Arief navigated his oratory within the complex constellation of authorizations at play in the family gathering and how the materiality of the recording, which serves as a starting point of my analysis, indexes the dynamics of (ritually) ignoring the (ritualistic) oratories in the event.


After the politician had spoken, Arief was invited to the stage by a young woman who acted as the master of ceremony of the gathering. She introduced him as “the regent of Malang, or his representative,” somewhat inflating his status of a government official from the regent’s office. When Arief started speaking, he spoke so softly that, for the first time since I had started recording, there was no distortion, which suggests the halus (refined) quality of his oratory. Historically, refined manners – such as soft-spokenness, condescension (as a hierarchical virtue, not the egalitarian vice), and a strict adherence to etiquette – have been considered a central virtue for civil servants in Java. Ideally, these are the products of a proper mental or spiritual orientation to life, in other words, a “dual emphasis on the inner life of refined feeling and the external life of polite form” (Geertz 1976: 231).


Arief started his speech by making a couple of good-natured jokes about bahasa Madura, the mother tongue for most of the participants. Saying a few words in the bahasa daerah (regional language) to break the ice is a common rhetorical strategy in East Java (and elsewhere in Indonesia) that helps with creating a connection with the crowd. However, it quickly became apparent that Arief was losing his grasp on the audience. In the recording, this is apparent by the increase in the volume of conversation from both the audience and the VIP section. The background chatter gradually increased, as the audience turned their attention elsewhere, suggesting a possible upending of the figure–ground relationship in the situation (cf. Keisalo-Galvan 2017: 66). In the VIP section, somebody parroted Arief’s convoluted way of speaking to the amusement of the people around him. In a matter of seconds, the noise from the audience increased so much that Arief’s voice, even though it was amplified, was no longer intelligible.


In order to rescue his oratory, at this moment Arief decided to ask me to join him on the stage. As I already mentioned, this was a common strategy in public events, and I was accustomed to being asked to speak a few words in public. But instead of asking me to orate, Arief, quite innovatively, used me as a sounding board in order to index an external authority into the speech event. Let me extrapolate.


He invited me to the stage while mentioning that “we often meet at the Regional Assembly” – alluding to my position as a researcher of political culture – and then resumed his oratory, discussing the politics of Malang and new policies that were being implemented by the regional government. Although he was well aware of my fluency in Bahasa Indonesia, he also translated key points of his speech in English to me so as to emphasize his status as somebody who is able to mediate relations between hierarchical inferiors and superiors, a requirement for a person with political aspirations in Java (cf. Antlöv 1995).


Despite these moves to prop up his importance, at this point, he was again starting to lose the audience, so he began speaking in a more forceful manner, causing the speakers of the PA system to rumble and pop a little, which sometimes resulted in a distorted recording on my smartphone. He went on to describe the new electronic consultation system in the healthcare centers, where the customers can use SMS messages for consultation. He then asked me if there is a similar system in Finland, and I confessed that there is not. Arief quoted my reply back to the audience “Di Finlandia belum ada” (There’s no such thing in Finland yet).[4] This elicited a small round of applause from the audience.


Finally Arief asked for questions from the audience, and in response to a question that is not audible in the recording, he replied that “Saya Dokter Bu” (I’m a [medical] doctor, madam). After this question, Arief launched into a series of non sequiturs on medical topics: treating scabies, removing ear wax, and dietary prevention of diabetes – after all, he was a doctor! – which allowed him to keep the audience’s attention. Then, the speech was over.


All in all, Arief wrapped the core of his message – descriptions of the achievements of the regional government – within different oratorical devices: pleasantries in the regional language; showcasing his expertise in dealing with hierarchical superiors or at least outsiders such as I, both a source of prestige; and finally, a Q&A session that emphasized his medical authority. Only intermittently, when he was about to lose the audience, did he resort to the most straightforward way of gaining the attention of the crowd: speaking louder so that the PA started to rumble, i.e., noising authority.


How to unpack all of this? I want to situate Arief’s oratory in the kind of sonic ideology that is analyzed by anthropologist John Pemberton in his article “Musical Politics in Central Java” (1987). There is a tension between sound that is supposed to be reacted to, because of its volume, for example, such as the “royal noise” produced from various sound sources in the Central Javanese courts, and sound that one is supposed to ignore, such as the halus (refined) gamelan music played in formal domestic rituals such as weddings. Or, in other words, according to a semiotic ideology of authority in Java, loudness implies power (cf. Schafer 1993: 76), and that is why rituals and, most of all, royal rituals need to be loud.[5] But, as Pemberton states, the “volume [of royal events] seems to have grown in inverse proportion to the king’s power – power that was, of course, rapidly decreasing under Dutch colonial rule” (Pemberton 1987: 23). Furthermore, the halus style of gamelan came to represent royal bureaucracy itself (Pemberton 1987: 23). This is the style of gamelan that one is supposed to ignore in rituals.


One could go even further here in tracing the history of noise and authority and look for parallels in the areas influenced by South Asian cosmological ideals (Wolters 1999; cf. Tambiah 2013). Anthropologist and sound artist Ernst Karel, along with anthropologist Diane Mines, have studied the sonic practices related to religious institutions in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and made similar arguments regarding the importance of amplified sound (Mines 1995; Karel 2003). According to Mines, loudness is an icon of perumai (relative greatness) in religious contexts (Mines 1995: 2995). Karel argues that this semiotic relation applies to other cultural contexts as well, such as dance and classical music performances (Karel 2003: 33). Additionally, artist and filmmaker Sindhu Thirumalaisamy has explored similar connections of loudness and power in Karnataka in her sound work, contending that noise affords multiple perspectives (Thirumalaisamy 2018).

In an analogous manner, while Pemberton talks about ritual and music, I contend that much of his argument applies to oratory and sound in general as well.[6] In a Javanese ritual, loudness implies power, but it comes with the risk of being revealed as merely hot air (cf. Wilenius 2020: 209–213). Also, refinement, the defining quality of halus, is a double-edged sword. In a ritualistic context, refined sounds – gamelan, oratory, lack of noisiness – while mandated, tend to be ignored. A “classic” oratorical strategy to solve the dilemma of appearing both authoritative and refined at the same time – used across the Indonesian archipelago (see, e.g., Anderson 1990: 225–6; Kaartinen 2000: 16; Keane 2003: 522–3; Lounela 2009: 126–7, 153–4; Donzelli 2016: 13; Wilenius 2020: 33–37) – has been to index external sources of authority, much like what Arief did with his translations into English and dispensation of medical knowledge.


Coming back to Pemberton’s argument, a central quality of halus music – and by extension, halus sound – is that it feels agreeable. Indeed, the Javanese verb ngegongi (with the root word gong from the gamelan instrument) means both to play the gong to a beat and to agree with something (Pemberton 1987: 29). On the face of it, noising one’s audience into submission with a huge public address system invites a rather different response than nodding in agreement, which is the premise of sounds that are halus. However, I contend that sounds that are keras (harsh, the opposite of halus), whether simply exceedingly loud or noisy, manage to be compelling, without being discursively interpreted as being keras.[7]


How can something so coarse as distorted sound be perceived as not-keras? One way to approach this dilemma is via Deleuze’s reading of Foucault (1988). Deleuze asserts that Foucault, in his analysis of historical strata, makes a distinction between fields of sayability and places of visibility. These, in turn, imply ways of saying (discursive practices) and ways of seeing (forms of self-evidence). The ways of seeing imply practices that are non-discursive (Deleuze 1988: 47–52). I argue that, mutatis mutandis, the ways of seeing also imply ways of hearing.[8] So, loudness compensates for a lack of discursive or “sayable” authority. Here is the fruitful contradiction between authority and loudness and why it makes sense to “noise authority.”[9] This is why – as anthropologist Freek Colombijn describes taking place during a high-society wedding in Yogyakarta – one can (and must!) blast the wedding gamelan orchestra’s music throughout the whole neighborhood with a public-access system (2007: 268). Sounds that are halus can be amplified – in the longue dureé tradition of royal and religious noise – in order to signify the authoritativeness of the event.

To appreciate this contradiction that noise brings to the equation, one needs to make an epistemic-ontological leap of faith when listening to a recording that is full of noise and authority. In the following section, I will ground this strategy by examining some arguments made in favor of approaching objects of research without a priori analytical structures.


Excerpt from Arief's oratory

The dais for the guests of honour