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Freedom in Entangled Worlds: West Papua and the Architecture of Global Power

by Eben Kirksey
Duke University Press, Durham, London, 2012
328 pp., illus. 52 b/w. Trade, $89.95; paper, $24.95
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5122-1; 978-0-8223-5134-4.

Reviewed by C.F. Black


Eben Kirksey, a young anthropologist, sets out to cut his teeth on the outer edges of the known world, believing he was entering the world of the bow and arrow shaped by a pristine mythology in equatorial West Papua but instead found an articulate people with a fully formed vision for their nation’s future, as an international player. This political vision is articulated in the concept of merdeka (freedom) and the methodological tool stems from the intimate understanding of the growth of a banyan tree.

Kirksey develops his argument by engaging the reader in the magic realism of the merdeka the equivalent in some ways to the power behind the ‘I have a dream’ of Martin Luther King. Into that dream comes the quantum flux of opposition but at other times collaboration. The beauty of the book is that Kirksey articulates the power of the merdeka to carry seemingly vulnerable peoples on against enormous odds and brutality by the Indonesian military and the double dealing of the multinationals.

It also brings forth the methodological beauty of the Indigenous intellect and their ability to formulate their own theoretical tools based on the powerful banyan tree, a massive structure that gives off an amazing protective ambiance. Kirksey is influenced by this new political theory and moves from the methodological teachings of Deleuze and Guattari and the abstraction of the rhizome to explain the entanglement of political movements and supplants it with the localized concept of the banyan tree.

Kirksey tells us his goal is to show how freedom in entangled worlds means negotiating complex interdependencies, rather than promoting fictions about absolute independence. He provides us with a kind of dreaming of various actors in the battle over West Papua sovereignty. All players, including the multinational Freeport McMoRan, appear to have their own dreams that construct a reality that at differing points pits them against other realities and at other times allows for convergence and compromise with these oppositional dreams. The battle for the rich resources these unfortunate people find themselves living on comes at a high price and always the innocent suffer. In the West Papua case 47 infant mortalities occurred while Freeport McMoRan was testing for gas under their village.  Such statistics were ignored just as much as the rights and interests of the people.

As Kirksey becomes more engaged in the West Papuans fight for their rights, he makes account of their side of the story for perpetuity, but also finds he is assigned a power he sees as illogical. The West Papuan idea of the world of international politics appears to be naive and misinformed, but still has an appeal and power that draws him in. A dream in which overtime shape-shifts Kirksey from anthropologist to a pseudo messiah able to go to the United Nations and the US Congress and tell the true story of West Papua and the desires for sovereignty of the people, people who wish to share the resources of their country with the world for free. It is a mind-bogglingly generous act, but one that is based on the ancient tradition of exchange as a way of forming political alliances, and a misplaced trust that Kirksey, however, tries to honour through his attempts to influence Congress with the help of the powerful human rights lobby group, The Robert Kennedy Centre for Justice and Human Rights. He is able to, at least, get a hearing with Congress to acknowledge their concerns.

Kirksey’s political awakening and journey from the highlands to the hearing before a Congressional hearing is, perhaps, what makes the book a most useful text for students of political science, for there is this arrogance that somehow the elite political world is above the machinations of the poor native in some remote village on the edge of the known world. But, in fact, the native world, perhaps, gives us a clearer view of the bending of the rules. Also it becomes apparent that many would say this encounter is occurring on the edges of the known world, but in fact in resource terms it is at the center of the world of a billion dollar industry. It is an industry that brings this resource from the cloud-covered highlands down and out across the vast oceans to the door of the urban centers of America and so no longer hidden and on the peripheral, but central to supply.

It is a supply that costs in human lives! As Kirksey gives account before the Congress of the murdered activists and the ambush of a group of teachers, including two Americans near the mine and also to the media, we begin to realize he is fulfilling his messianic mission deemed by the merdeka.  His book also features a many photos, including that of the dead as well as an aerial photograph of the giant tailing swamp that abuts the city of Timika. Readers cannot help ask themselves at what point does the consumer of these resources also take responsibility for their first world lifestyle? Eben Kirksey answers that questioning by finishing the book with a call for an ethical and political transformation through the imaging of open-ended possibilities, a powerful lesson he learnt from imbuing the spirit of the merdeka and so the spirit of the land of West Papua.

Last Updated 2 August 2012

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