Webb Keane "Divine Text, National Language, and Their Publics: Arguing an Indonesian Qur’an"

Departmental Seminar Series features Webb Keane, George Herbert Mead Collegiate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Michigan.

The seminar is followed by informal gathering, at which refreshments are served. All are welcome!

Copyright: University of Michigan


The entry of a universal revelation into the mundane world of language threatens to be paradoxical: it must take a specific and local form.  As such, it becomes implicated in nationalist, ethnic, linguistic, and other sources of community.  This talk centers on a small melodrama in late twentieth century Indonesia, home to the largest number of Muslims of any country in the world.  After undergoing a mid-life spiritual awakening, H. B. Jassin, a modernist literary critic, editor, and ardent defender of freedom of expression, undertook two projects intended to convey the aesthetic power of the Qur’an to a non-Arabic speaking public.  But if Qur’anic Arabic summons a transnational community of the faithful, standardized Indonesian was developed to address a nation of citizens.  If scripture speaks in a divine, uncreated idiom, the national language is shaped by human efforts.  Jassin’s career had served a vision of literature and its public whose values and semiotic ideologies were dramatically at odds with Qur’anic traditions.  Although this is apparently a familiar story of progress and its opponents, this article asks whether Jassin’s critics grasped something about signs and communities that his defenders did not.  Examining the furor that resulted from Jassin’s Qur’ans, it explores an array of conflicting assumptions about language, freedom, truth, and people’s lives together in the late twentieth century.

Research profile

After studying studio art and philosophy at Yale College, Webb Keane ended up in Peru as an archaeological draftsman. Having discovered cultural and linguistic anthropology along the way, Keane went on to receive the PhD from the University of Chicago.

Keane has carried out extensive ethnographic fieldwork in Indonesia and research in Dutch colonial and missionary archives. In addition to two years on the eastern Indonesian island of Sumba, he has lived in east Java and Jakarta. At present Professor Keane is involved in three major projects. The first concerns the relations between ethical and political conflict, the second religious and economic value, and the third centers on piety, language, and media in Indonesian Islam and Euro-American secularism, with a special interest in semiotic transgressions such as blasphemy, obscenity, and defamation.

His writings cover a range of topics. Book review: "With Ethical Life, Webb Keane confirms his place as one of anthropology's most gifted thinkers. The scope of this book is phenomenal, ranging over a host of disciplines and debates with erudition. Ethical Life provides a new model for what bold anthropology can achieve, bringing us back to the difficult question of how to understand the natural and social histories of humankind - a question that many of us have simply been too timid to ask." --Matthew Engelke, London School of Economics. Publications

Published Dec. 15, 2017 11:39 AM - Last modified Jan. 8, 2018 3:23 PM