The Face of Money: Currency, Crisis, and Remediation in Post-Suharto Indonesia

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Karen Strassler, "Barack Obama Poster." November 1, 2012 via .

In the February 2009 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Karen Strassler examines the creative appropriation of money in post-Suharto Indonesia. In a period of political, economic, and social crisis, state currency ceased to be the unremarkable measure and medium of exchange. Instead, money circulated along unfamiliar circuits--appearing in street protests and art galleries, political cartoons and campaign paraphernalia--and allowed for novel communicative possibilities.

In "The Face of Money: Currency, Crisis, and Remediation in Post-Suharto Indonesia," Strassler describes the fall of the Suharto regime in Indonesia as "precipitated by the rupiah's fall."  In the resulting protests and their aftermath, many artists and activists seized upon the image of Indonesia's fallen currency as a symbol for transformation. She argues that the creative adaptation and circulation of currency made visible the constitutive relationship between monetary value and state power. In this sense, it is the materiality of currency that is meaningful rather than its "abstract value" as a neutral medium of exchange. This materiality can serve as propaganda for the state, but the same materiality can be appropriated through a process of remediation - being "absorbed into other media forms" - to undermine the state during times of protest.  In this instance, the materiality of monetary forms came to serve as a particularly malleable symbolic resource, with which Indonesians could critique, scrutinize, and reimagine the nature of economic relations, political representation, and national belonging. Ultimately, she suggests, this process instantiated a new era of Indonesian politics, marked by the decentralization and proliferation of mediated regimes of value.

Jason Paris, "50,000 Rupiah Notes." November 1, 2012 via .

Editorial Footnotes

A number of essays on money and currency have appeared over the years in Cultural Anthropology. See, for example, Oren Kosansky's "Tourism, Charity, and Profit: The Movement of Money in Moroccan Jewish Pilgrimage" (2002); Paul K. Eiss' "Hunting for the Virgin: Meat, Money, and Memory in Tetiz, Yucatán" (2002); and Virginia R. Dominguez' "Representing Value and the Value of Representation: A Different Look at Money" (1990).

Cultural Anthropology has published numerous essays on Indonesia. See, for example, Leslie Butt's "'Lipstick Girls' and 'Fallen Women': AIDS and Conspiratorial Thinking in Indonesia" (2005); Celia Lowe's "Making the Monkey: How the Togean Macaque Went from 'New Form' to 'Endemic Species' in Indonesians' Conservation Biology" (2004); Tom Boellstorff's "Playing Back the Nation: Waria, Indonesian Transvestites" (2004); Tania Murray Li's "Compromosing Power: Development, Culture, and Rule in Indonesia" (1999); Webb Keane's "Knowing One's Place: National Language and the Ideas of the Local in Eastern Indonesia" (1997); Danilyn Rutherford's "Of Birds and Gifts: Reviving Tradition on an Indonesian Frontier" (1996); Patricia Spyer's "Diversity with a Difference: Adat and the New Order in Aru" (1996); and Margaret J. Wiener's "Doors of Perception: Power and Representation in Bali" (1995).

About the Author

Karen Strassler is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Queens College--CUNY.

Related Links

Yuswantoro Adi's webpage

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1.  How was money "remediated" by protesters during the anti-Suharto uprisings in Indonesia?  What role did these remediations play in the uprisings?

2.  Can you think of any examples from your experience of the remediation of currency?  What was the purpose of these remediations?  How did they affect you, and how do you think others understood them?

3.  We live in an age of increasingly digital currency, where many transactions are performed without the physical medium of exchange but rather through credit cards, online transactions, bank transfers etc.  How might this affect the way that currency is remediated?  What role might such digitally remediated currency play in future activist endeavors?

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