I propose to write a book entitled When Hierarchy Ceases to Enchant that analyzes developments in the performing arts in three Southeast Asian societies where I have done fieldwork, namely, Java and Bali (in Indonesia), and Burma (Myanmar). My project brings together two realms of intellectual inquiry—the performing arts and contemporary politics—not to look for political content in the arts but rather to demonstrate how the arts give form to unstated but highly consequential assumptions about hierarchy. In all three societies, the classical arts have suffered serious declines in patronage and spectatorship. New genres, including soap operas and sporting events on television, have become much more popular. Religious performances (public sermons, textual readings, etc.) have also grown newly frequent and well-attended. The classical arts themselves have been radically modified, with the aim of attracting wider, younger audiences. I link these developments to recent social change that has diminished people’s confidence in the benefits of the hierarchical arrangements that used to organize people’s relations with power, and which the classical arts both illustrated and sustained.
Ward Keeler is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. He specializes in Southeast Asia, having conducted long-term fieldwork in Java and Bali (Indonesia) and Burma (Myanmar). He analyzes the performing arts, language, gender, and hierarchy. In addition to publishing books and articles on these topics, he has also sought to grant outsiders access to Indonesian and Burmese literature and music. He translated and published a recent Indonesian novel and co-produced CDs of Burmese classical music.