Accepted Paper:

Normative Aesthetics and the Staging of State Power During the Sultan's Public Birthday Celebrations in Brunei Darussalam  

Author:

Dominik Müller (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores how during the Sultan of Brunei's public birthday celebrations, state-power is performed by multiple actors and means. These festivities serve as an aesthetically productive site where asymmetrical power relations, symbolic exchanges, and reciprocal dependencies are staged.

Paper long abstract:

In Brunei, the Sultan's colorful three week-long birthday celebrations are the most spectacular public event. They provide an institutionalized "anti-structure", in which the public sphere is temporarily transformed and exceptional activities take place, some of which would normally contradict Brunei's restrictive normativities of public entertainment. These celebrations, and numerous events "held on the occasion", annually serve as an aesthetically productive site where asymmetrical power relations, symbolic exchanges, and reciprocal dependencies are staged between the absolute monarch and "his subjects". These "subjects" comprise various groups who play their role in accordance with state-defined categories. They also include commercial actors staging "good citizenship" vis-à-vis the ruling order's normative requirements through visual and performative means, resulting in a situation where a political personality cult and commercial advertising fuse, distinctions between individual and corporate "subjects" crumble, and the Gupta'ian notion of "blurring boundaries" between state and society acquires Brunei-specific meanings. Aesthetics, here, are inextricably linked with state power, but this symbiosis generates unique cultural forms. Participants also include graffiti sprayers honoring the Sultan, and singers/dancers who otherwise rarely participate in public culture. The event's anti-structure integrates them on the condition of playing their assigned role: co-producing state power. They also appropriate this power, however, and affect its contents.

I will ethnographically illustrate how this Brunei-specific cultural realization of the state is annually performed. Brunei's "national ideology" (MIB) and "Islamization" policies increasingly inform this spectacle, although its multidimensional ingredients-a symbolic firework of all sorts-are much more hybrid than official narratives of orthodoxy suggest.

Panel P065
The state of the art: the anthropology of art and the anthropology of the state