28 September 2012

Book Review: And the Sun Pursued the Moon

Thomas P. Gibson is an American Professor of Anthropology at the University of Rochester. He wrote this book after extensive field research in South Sulawesi, Indonesia.

I was somewhat hesitant to write a review about this book because ostensibly, any book written about symbolic knowledge and traditional authority on any ethnic group can be characterized as dealing with gender and sexuality issues.

Nevertheless, I think there are a number of things LGBT and gender studies related that can be said about this book especially in the contest of the Philippines and thinking about Philippine sexualities and genders.

As we all known, the various Austronesian language speaking peoples of Indonesia are our close linguistic and cultural relatives. Austronesian peoples across the Pacific and Indian Oceans share strong similarities in a variety of cultural practices because we all descended from the same group of sea-faring people who left the Southern Chinese coast several thousand years ago, several groups colonized Taiwan and one other group then moved South and split into a few closely related (linguistically and culturally) branches going in different directs (Madagascar to the West, Hawai'i to the East and Papua New Guinea to the South). If that interests you more, there are plenty of books to read and websites to surf on this subject.

It's use in our context and the entire purpose for this review is to suggest how we can use discussions of indigenous Makassar mythology and symbolic knowledge to both triangulate our own historical context and also to suggest alternatives to the dominant paradigm in contemporary Philippine culture. As is commonly recognized and also noted in Neil Garcia's Philippine Gay Culture, there was a class of individuals within communities who were spiritual mediums/practitioners who were hermaphroditic/gender variants in indigenous pre-contact times. This is also true of Makassar culture even to the present day.

While Gibson does not focus on the intricacies of a modern day hermaphrodite's personal life, he does focus on a modern day hermaphrodite's social life in the context of his spiritual and other roles within the Makassar community. At once, the transgender medium has the markings of a Eliade shaman and at the same time a Catholic priest!

This all links back into Gibson's grand narrative of symbolic gender structures that bring order to the chaos of life and death. The hermaphrodite in Makassar society plays a significant "medium" or medial role between the order and chaos, bringing order to disorder, that world with this world. One such transgender medium, Demma Daeng Puga, of course, also seemed to be something of a clever businesswoman and was routinely accused of charlatanism by her main transgendered rival and had been arrested for fraud on occasion by barely tolerant authorities. This did not stop her from having a major following among various communities in South Sulawesi.

I have to admit that with some of the mythological analysis, my eyes glazed over. I have read and/or heard many mythologies of the universe, cosmos, etc., etc., but there is something about comparing a dozen versions of the same story, collected over a three hundred year period, that gets to be so tedious, you feel your brain is going to implode. Mine didn't, but that chapter was difficult to get through. It was a necessary chapter and done well so I can't fault the author.

I found Gibson's approach to the engenderation of political and social life among the Makassar with the use of folklore, mythology, ethnography, genealogy and cultural studies to be just the kind of methodological inquiry gender and sexuality studies needs the most to create culturally specific understandings of gender and sexuality through history.

I read the 262 page hardbound version in English, 978-0824828653, from the University of Hawai'i Press (March 23, 2005). The lowest available price seems to be used from amazon.com.

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