From Banal Aesthetics & Critical Spiritualism: A Dialog of Photography and Literature in 13 Fragments, a presentation by Erik Prasetya and Ayu Utami, Galeri Salihara, Jakarta, 31 January 2015
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth; earth was formless and empty; darkness was over the surface of the seas and the Spirit of God hovered over the waters…
mists came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the earth; it was then that the Lord God formed man from the dust and breathed life into his nostrils; and the man became a living being.
1:1 & 2:6-7, NIV)
Every writer will quietly ask: what makes a literary work immortal?
There are two tales that haunts me so, stored within ancient tomes, Genesis and Ramayana. Both tell the tale of a man and a woman: Adam-Eve, Rama-Sita.
Like ghosts, they inspire strange feelings. Feelings at odds with one another. Beauty and terror; awe and anger; truth, but also a feeling of injustice. And the most exhilarating of all: something about sex and violence enshrouded in dim divine light. They
are tales whose simplest forms I have internalized since a very young age. They manifest themselves into ghosts, because they present something arousing and merciless at the same time. Like ghosts, they are deviant and disturbing.
At the start, a child
who reads Ramayana will accept it as an adventure story of a pair of lovers journeying through a dangerous forest. Rama and Sita endure their exile in the forest of Dandaka; Laksmana, Rama’s younger brother, accompanies them. It fulfills all the requirements
to make an amazing story: a handsome man and a beautiful woman, a third person, forest, golden deer, an army of monkeys, an adversary, and the giants. Tension rises and heightens: temptation, traps, kidnapping, war, and freedom—a structure that follows
the Hollywood playbook… until, that is, the immolation of Sita. There, horror is weaved into the climax. Her own husband demands her to prove her purity by jumping into a roaring fire. Are there crueler demands from one’s own lover than that?
It's strange that Ramayana can always inspire ideals about love.
The story of Adam and Eve does not offer something as cruel as Ramayana, but it proffers a difficult dilemma in the forbidden fruit. Genesis 2 also fulfills the requirements for riveting
visuals: virgin streams and forests, fauna, a garden, the tree of life, the tree of knowledge, two naked human beings, a man and a woman, and lurking danger. It is never a love story. It will be more appropriate to call it a story that summarizes motifs of
power, sex, and betrayal. We know: Eve—created from Adam’s rib—listens to the treacherous snake, plucks the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. She gives it to Adam, and they eat the fruit together. Then, they realize what it means
to be naked. And God curses them then throws them out of Eden, into a world full of suffering.
Both stories, Adam-Eve and Rama-Sita, go against morality and the sense of justice after the discovery of human rights and rationalism. However, there is
one undeniable thing: both stories are intriguing. They have successfully cast a spell over humankind for at least three thousand years, and they continue to enchant even today. They are memorialized and reread. They are disassembled and reassembled, they
never fade away. They never fail to inspire. There are moments when I would feel anger and hatred toward both stories. Especially as a woman. Yet, I continue to read them and continue to feel enamored. And I realize that I have come face to face with two ancient
stories that have proved their reputation as immortal literary works. The question is: what is beauty that it compels us to forget injustice?
Best we postpone our question about beauty. I would like to return
to a complicated story, that is, about humanity’s original “sin” : the eating of the forbidden fruit.
Indonesians tend to forget, or perhaps they don’t realize, that the forbidden fruit is that of the Tree of Knowledge. If I have
never read the Bible for myself, relying instead on my religious teacher, then I would never realize:
You are free to eat from any tree in this garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge
of good and evil…
(Genesis 2: 16-17, NIV)
Although in the beginning many religious scholars would usually define ‘knowledge of good and evil’ as something to
do with morals, some biblical scholars consider the expression “of the good and evil” as an idiom to represent all sorts of things. Not only in the moral sense. I am taking this wider interpretation. And it is precisely this part of Adam and Eve’s
story that haunts me, not just as a woman but as a human being. Why can’t humans eat from the tree of knowledge? Why is knowledge considered to be human’s first “sin”? How can we account for such a text using rational thought that espouses
Yet, like a spectre, this strangeness is also its appeal. The untouchable is its enchantment. Ah, truly the tale of creation appeals to our subconscious because it tells the story of a man and a woman, naked in the middle of a
forest (and we will inadvertently imagine them to be comely, and from here, are things that happen as we imagine them to be). It is also an appealing story because it contains the answer to our origins, a mysterious reality even today. After the text succeeds
in drawing in our erotic desires and our deepest curiosity, it presents us with a problem. Even non-feminists, as long as they have common sense, will wonder: how strange, why can’t we eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge?
Even then, it is
not the only complicated mystery within the Bible. Honest reason will also struggle to understand this next tale: The Tower of Babel, also found in the Book of Genesis. It is said that, the world used to have one language and one accent. One day, this society
with one language decided to build a tower that would reach up to the heavens, so that they might find their own name so as not to be scattered across the world. But, God descended and laid waste to such a plan. Yet, what’s so bad about such a plan—especially
when we look at it in reference to Sumpah Pemuda (Indonesia's Youth Oath) and the struggles of NKRI (The Unity State of Republic of Indonesia)? And, dear God, this was what God said:
us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
(Genesis 11: 7, NIV)
The first part of the Book of Genesis perhaps contains the most number of confusing tales. These
tales are so strange that, if we read them with a modern mind, we will discover an absurd, jealous, and insecure God. Well, there are times when He is gracious, but His graciousness does not take away from his insecurity. It seems that God does not want
human beings to be like Him, to know things and to be united in one language. How odd, what kind of a God is that?
And yet, I cannot just throw away these stories. Part of my reasoning is that these stories have become interweaved with other texts,
not only within the Bible but also outside of it. What we can call: intertextuality. Even today, they still inspire literature, philosophy, theology, art, photography. Bible scholars point out how these stories are related to myths of that period—only
that the myths of Ancient Egypt, Sumeria, Babylonia, etc. have been abandoned, whereas the Book of Genesis continues to exist.
This is the most remarkable thing about immortalized literary works, like the Book of Genesis, despite offering morals that
seem irrational: 1) Their supporters will maintain these stories even without fully comprehending their meaning; 2) Their supporters will continue to try and understand their meaning by making personal interpretations; 3) these stories address larger and more
fundamental questions that agitate us as humans: How was the world created? Why is there suffering? Why are childbirths painful for human females (compared to animals)? What is so deviant about sex and nakedness? Why don’t humans share one language?
These questions cannot be conclusively answered by science or philosophy, to this day. 4) These stories can be understood differently, and can be read within an internal or external relationship, synchronously or diachronically. And, 5) there is a power that
allows all of these to happen.
I do not mean supernatural powers, but instead “art's enchantment”. We can try to understand an artwork’s aesthetic powers that allow it to persist for thousands of years.
Here, I would like
to underscore two great issues within these two complicated puzzles: knowledge and language. Genesis 2, the story of Adam and Eve, talks about the problem of knowledge. Genesis 11, on the Tower of Babel, talks about the problem of language. Let’s say
they're from 1000 BC. In their future, three thousand years later, we will realize that the problem of knowledge is also the problem of language.
Photography uses camera. Literature uses language. With these
tools, both try to know.
We consider the camera and its tools as technology. But language is also technology. I would also like to say that the problem that plagues photography also occurs in literature, although they are not exactly the same. Photography
helps us to look concretely at the mechanisms that exist abstractly and internally within language. Language is technology in that it provides human beings with techniques and abilities to transfer individual-subjective memories and experiences into a collective
deposit, allowing them to become something to be exchanged, developed, and utilized collectively. More impressively, these mechanisms are nothing but symbols. By breaking down streams of experience into semiotic units that can relatively be stabilized—what
we later know as phonemes, morphemes or words, sentences, verses, with all their prosodies and rhythms to aid with memory—and by constructing them into a complex system of signs, people can, not only express their impulses, but also store these shared
data in the “virtual world”. Before the discovery of scripts or alphabets, “the virtual world” was merely a collective memory sustained through poetry and stories, recited continuously. (Ramayana and tales from the Book of Genesis began
as oral traditions). With alphabets, these deposits are physically stored onto epigraphs, palm leaves, papyrus, parchment, scrolls, codex, books, and finally—today—digitally, as well.
Both literature and photography break down the flow of
reality into storable units. In this way, units can be controlled, used, reconstructed, developed. It is true that literature does not have the same ethical problems as photography. Because language will never truly copy reality. Yet, this is precisely language’s
main problem. It can never truly discover reality. It remains firmly within the systems of signs, never to come into direct contact with reality. Photography steals, copies, and transcribes reality. Language builds its own model of reality, without being in
direct contact with it. Modern linguists have long mapped the fact that there has never been any direct contact between a word and its reference. The things we know from language are merely fakes. Counterfeits of unattainable originals.
At the same
time, language is the only technique and mode available to our reason. Language is the only way for our mind to know communicable things. Twentieh century philosophers, then, in their critique of modernity, stated how reason works precisely by separating the
knowing subject from the known object.
The separation of subject from object, by our reason, is perhaps something that can bring us to the problem faced by a photographer who is aware of photography’s ethical problems. Photography works by making
the world into its object. The way reason and language break down reality into units that can be stored, constructed and utilized reminds us of photography that freezes moments into units of images that can be stored for a long period of time, if not for life.
In all of these mechanisms, there exists a kind of violence. Language, reason, and even photography retain violence. But there is a kind of sadness: it is inevitable. There is no way back to Eden. The cherubim stands guard over the only gate into the Garden
of Eden, swinging his fiery sword.
Allow me to express my amazement of, and attempt to understand, the ancient narrative model. In ancient narratives, subject and object are often not so easily distinguished, if not impossible. For instance: it is difficult
to differentiate between description and prescription, it is difficult to differentiate between cause and effect. An example of the second instance: doubt and ambiguity in the use of causal conjunctions sebab, sehingga, maka, agar, etc. (cause, until, then,
so that, etc.) In this short opportunity, please pay attention to the words “sehingga” (so, until), and “agar” (in order to). The word “sehingga” does not contain intention of a deed (or not specifically
imbued with intention), but the word “agar” (in order to) shows a causality that contains meaning intention. Compare the following two constructed sentences:
An angel stands guard over the gate with
a fiery sword until humans cannot return to the Garden of Eden.
An angel stands guard over the gate with fiery sword so that humans cannot return to the Garden of Even.
This sort of ambiguity can assume a higher form than words. It can develop on a level of discourse, fantasy, and personification. We can take, for instance, the personification of the character of God within the tale of Creation or of the Tower of Babel
as a case study. I am interested in the hidden subject within a text, either in an old text or in current-day conversations and texts.
Actually, the story can be made quite long here, but I would like to shorten it to save time. Genesis 2 tells the
story of the problem of knowledge, within a narrative model that is mythological and very ancient. Knowledge has taken human beings away from a pure and innocent unity. After eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, human beings could no longer remain
in the Garden of Eden. The story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) is a story of the problem of language. Certainly, the personification of the God character in this story is vexing, but this is a story of how impossible it is to avoid misunderstandings.
Human beings continue to fail in their attempts to unify language (Thankfully, the third pledge of Sumpah Pemuda Indonesia reads “to uphold the Language of Unity”, not “to speak one language”.) Historically, any time
one language grows in stature, or expands to become global, that language will break down into dialects.
In this period, I read the Bible as a literary book. It is the most interesting literary book. Whoever wrote it—and there were hundreds if
not thousands of people, if we consider those who worked to copy the Bible down through a thousand or two thousand years—they prefaced the Bible with a warning. You know that the whole book uses language—just like the whole of our scientific knowledge.
Now, remember. The first warning: there is a problem of knowledge. The second warning: there is a problem of language. So whatever we can know from this book, there are latent problems lurking behind it. If we extend this outside of the book, the same formulation
applies generally: whatever we can know through reason and language, there will be problems lurking behind it.
From the Bible, I have discovered the basis of my literary identity. Not a bad model, especially considering that the very first book of the
Bible already contains a reminder of these problems of knowledge and language, something I wish to underline here. My struggles with reading, writing, and using language have taken me to understand the fragility and instability of language, as the basis of
If in Banal Aesthetics, the photographer seeks an approach that will allow him to remember the problems of photography, then I have adopted the name “Spiritualisme Kritis”, Critical Spiritualism, for a model of authorship—as
well as a model for my creative/writing process, even a model for a more general attitude—a model that is aware of language’s fragility, but also one that continues to work to achieve meaning. Why is there a correlation between language and spirituality?
Language correlates with spirituality and religiosity in such a way, because language depends on “faith”, belief and acceptance, of its own concepts to allow it to function. We can only talk if we believe that the word “human” does
mean human and not other things; even though there isn’t any substantial or essential relationship between the word “human” and the concept it describes. We can only speak/converse with one another if we all believe that “yes”
means yes, and “no” means no. Without faith in words, without faithfulness to grammar, we cannot use language. A true skeptic is a mute one because he or she cannot trust a word. Therefore, the basis of our knowledge is actually a kind of faith
as well. (And how fragile it actually is.) We see the same structure at work in religion and language. And in facing these structures, we need critical spirituality, that may become more apparent in the next section of this text.
In observing and using language, I have become aware that the next fundamental problem is the struggle for meaning. The way the story of creation in the Book of Genesis is interpreted, rejected, reinterpreted shows this struggle. As per Saussure, language
is arbitrary and dependent upon convention. Therefore, whether we like it or not, we are entering the realm of politics. People can practice politics with awareness or otherwise.
Every user of language plays a role in sustaining or dulling a convention.
This convention can be about sound, word, structure, or even discourse. Every time we choose to use a particular word, expression, method, or story, we are—consciously or otherwise—engaging in politics. We can see how linguistic politics work,
for instance, on the level of words, in the use of a word or its substitutes, for instance: wanita-perempuan (woman-female), WTS-PSK (prostitute-sex worker), cina-china (somewhat similar to niggers-blacks), jilbab-hijab, teroris-mujahid (terrorist-faith
warriors), etc. Linguistic politics on the level of vocabulary is usually directly connected to the contents of ideology.
The struggle for truth can also occur on a grammatical level. On this level, choices are usually not influenced by ideology, but
an attitude toward rules. Here, there is a sort of apathy on one extreme, and a dogmatic attitude on the other extreme. We can find a model of debate in mempunyai-memunyai, mempesona-memesona, emosi-emosional, merubah-mengubah, pemerkosaan-perkosaan,
Sumatra-Sumatera. Linguists and language users continue to argue over the most correct rule.
Once again, we can recognize the analogy between linguistic attitudes and religious attitudes. People can maintain prejudice when they use language, as
when they practice religion. People can act dogmatically when they practice their religion, as when they use language. Actually, an explanation on this regard can be further expanded, but I will keep it short, and hurry to a conclusion.
There are characteristics
of a dogmatic attitude that are applicable in both religion and language. Dogma prefers rules and laws to inspiration or research. Research takes time, but time does not exist for dogma because dogma resides out of time. When dogma is formulated as law, then
people need only to follow it. This is applicable in religion and language.
An example in language: People often believe that we just need to follow the rules. In language, there are rules for sentences and even words. With words there are divisions
of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, etc. We only need to follow the rules laid out in front of us. Yet, this is an ironic attitude to have. If we learn linguistic history, then we will find that these rules actually came later, they were realized
and formulated gradually (over hundreds of years!), and even during those times, people could still communicate without knowing anything about grammar. Odysseus was composed before Aristotle was born, or before he wrote about logic and rhetoric. Poems and
prose did not wait for a grammar system to arrive. A grammar system actually emerged as an expression of natural practice. If the rule is good, then it will help people achieve higher or more complex understandings. However, nowadays, the opposite occurs among
editors and keepers of language: the complex are reduced into simplistic laws. (And yet, here, interestingly, we are once again trapped in the close relationship between description and prescription—something unique to ancient narrative models).
Within dogmatism, meaning already exists within the realm of idea, we only need to apply it. In dogmatism, meaning is not sought and fought for in the realm of human experience and reality.
In a conversation
as we drive past the front of the Vice President’s official residence on Jalan Diponegoro, I formulated Erik’s photographs as: capturing meaning before convention. Like what is being done by poetry. Or contemporary music. Their meanings actually
exist before convention or standardization. Or in a less speculative formulation: meanings may exist outside of convention or standardization. Art can provide it. Certainly “meaning before convention” is not always so easily understandable. It
is not too clear, often unstable or ambiguous, never providing any rules for life.
Let me make a quick jump once again, as there is not enough time to explain everything.
A person’s failure to communicate with poetry is oftentimes a person’s
failure to communicate with “spirit”. What I mean by “spirit” is not what children would often imagine when reading the Bible about the Holy Spirit and evil spirit, or what we imagine when listening to ghost stories. I am referring
to something whose boundaries we cannot sufficiently recognize, either objectively or intersubjectively. Things that don't have clearly recognizable boundaries cannot be treated with a logical process. It cannot be used to draw syllogism, inferences, inductions,
deductions, etc., because it does not fulfill the requirements for a proper term.
We know, that for logic to work, terms are needed. The requirements for these terms have clear boundaries. Logical mechanisms or processes cannot work on terms that are
not closed, or that have double meaning, or are ambiguous. Here, the first violence occurs. (As referred to in the beginning, in Section 6, that language and reason contains a kind of violence.) To allow itself to work, reason forces boundaries, which is enforced
by convention. Boundaries mean getting rid of “the other”, “the not”, and “those not of this”, making them into things that exist out of convention. These mechanisms of violence are so very naturally occurring that we no
longer consider them as violence. We demand the clarity of truth. Rationalists demand that everything must be explained. Religious groups declare that all things have been explained by their holy book. Both groups essentially share the same view on fundamental
Art reminds (or, art can remind) us to return to “meaning before convention”. Here, I wish to call it “spirit”. The term “Spiritualisme Kritis”, Critical Spiritualism, can begin here too.
In the end, for the sake of communication and storytelling, I have adopted the name Critical Spiritualism. This term was first introduced in the novel Bilangan Fu, through the character Parang Jati. In that story,
he confronts the dogmatic attitudes of two groups. The religious group and the modernist-secular group (capital-owners). He prescribes critical spiritualism as a way out of both groups’ dogmatism.
However, this term, as a name, received its inspiration
and structure from “critical romanticism”—that I read in Fabianus Heatubun’s article in Journal on philosophy Melintas, vol. 23 no.1, April 2007. In my subsequent texts, Critical Spiritualism will appear a few more times.
Starting in 2014, I have even begun a special series on Critical Spiritualism. The books which I write will keep the discussion of this concept stays in the practical level, because, fiction or non fiction, they have to be narrative and even entertaining.
For instance, Critical Spiritualism is formulated as “an openness to the spiritual without betraying critical rational thought”. Simple Miracles, the first book of the series, particularized spirit as soul. However, in actuality,
the theme in question is wider than just about ghosts or the supernatural. My previous books actually contain the embryos of this idea—especially Saman, prior to Bilangan Fu series and Pengakuan Eks Parasit Lajang that
explicitly state the term.
Here, I would like to highlight a more fundamental problem than superficial dogmatism, or merely the acceptance or rejection of spirits. I am talking about the structure of languages, that acts as the basis of (if
not created from the same structure as) reason, that contains a natural sort of violence, and is political in nature. The problem of knowledge and language is shown through the ancient texts of Adam-Eve and the Tower of Babel with their mysterious narrative
model. For me, the dogmatism of religion or rationalism is only a repetition of a linguistic structure oblivious to its own violence. We cannot run away from this natural violence of knowledge, much like Adam and Eve’s inability to return to the Garden
of Eden. Adam and Eve are trapped in a world filled with violence—Adam toiled the land, and Eve gave birth with much pain. The political act that can be derived from this story is to admit it and then be critically-reflective of it. We can make linguistic
structures realize their own violence.
Erik works with photography. I work with narration. Both of us conduct violence. We break down the flow of the world into fragments or units that can be controlled,
reconstructed, utilized. Photographs, words. These mechanisms are the natural consequence of our chosen medium. We are not running away from them, but we also recognize their problems. Photographs are like poetry, in their attempt to capture meaning before
convention. Meanwhile, my books are not. Prose, unlike poetry, must integrate linearity and rationality. However hard a prose writer tries to evoke experience, through the inclusion of either poetry or poetic language, the writer still uses explanations. But
an explanation, however fragile and however hard it tries to cover up its fragility through dogma, can still lead us to a certain awareness. In the same way, Erik doesn’t feel that his work ends with a photograph. He makes notes at the back of each photo—like
in the Jakarta postcard series. He also creates explanations. Each medium creates its own limitations. It requires other medium(media) to present what escapes its limit.
Poetry needs prose. Prose needs poetry. Aesthetics needs banality and vice versa.
In the same way, spirituality requires a critical ability, and critical ability requires a person to be prepared to open up. I am taking a risk to say this: a critical ability resembles the masculine, and spirituality resembles the feminine, and both must
complete each other.
Translated by Henny Roland