The Combative 'I': State Domination and Indonesian Self-Writing

The Journal of Life Writing, Vol 4, No. 2, pp. 197-214, October 2007

23 Pages Posted: 21 Feb 2009

Date Written: October 1, 2007


Biography as a genre in Indonesia has emerged from small beginnings in the colonial period to rival the production of novels since independence in 1945. But, contrary to earlier expectations, the (auto)biography has not become an exploration of inwardness under the tender influence of western education. Rather it is an essential weapon of self-promotion in a competitive world where power is fragile and personalised. Revealing nothing of their inner selves or the contingency of human relationships, their subjects engage in constant, aggressive action in the template of the ubiquitous national hero. Using the sociology of Bourdieu, this trait is explained by a combination of cultural and structural constraints. On the one hand the Javanese cultural notion of 'potency' explains the refusal to expose the inner self. On the other, the dominance of government in the book publishing industry explains how national elites can readily impose self-aggrandising books on the reading public. Since 1990, as a growing consumptive middle class has begun to create a more democratic book market, Indonesian biographies have begun to show greater variety and are less obsessive about the national template. But they still do not confront the demons within.

Keywords: identity, narrative, biography, life history, bourdieu, social capital, publishing

Suggested Citation

van Klinken, Gerry, The Combative 'I': State Domination and Indonesian Self-Writing (October 1, 2007). The Journal of Life Writing, Vol 4, No. 2, pp. 197-214, October 2007. Available at SSRN:

Gerry Van Klinken (Contact Author)

KITLV ( email )

Reuvensplaats 2
Leiden, 2311BE
+31-71-5272635 (Phone)
+31-71-5272638 (Fax)


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