This powerful book by Aihwa Ong focuses on fourteen months of ethnographic work in Kuala Langat (pseudonym), Malaysia from 1979 to 1980. Ong’s central theme is on the transformation of rural Malaysian women amidst the introduction of a wage labour market into kampung (village) society. It is a study of “the deconstructions and reconstructions of gender in the shifting webs of agency and domination within the family, the labour system, Islam, and the wider society" (Ong 1987, 220-221).
Ong’s book became so powerful because it “marked a critical shift in global anthropology and in feminist scholarship" (Freeman xv cited in Ong 1987), as ethnography on contemporary globalisation was a rarity at the time. Carla Freeman expresses how Ong inspired many ethnographers to explore broader themes of power, resistance, gender, religious expectation and social change through her revelation of discourses on gendered narratives and realities in the face of patriarchal capitalism.
"Ong is interested not so much in questions of identity per se, but rather in emerging social identifications and points of friction as people encounter changing institutional technologies and disciplinary techniques such as those encountered by Malay peasants as they navigate the gendered minefield of new global production lines and urban spaces" (Freeman 1987, xx).
Ong’s central argument regards a deep cultural change as a result of wage labour experienced predominantly by a new female proletariat. The complex relationship between ‘spirits of resistance’ and ‘capitalist discipline’ undergirds the entire book to reveal this experience. The consumption of commodities as an ever-increasing phenomenon is aided by contemporary capitalist technologies such as factories involving an exchange of labour. However, in the case of Malaysian factory workers an exchange not only of labour but also of humanity. Capitalist ‘discipline’ refers to the exercise of power with an expectation of forced compliance towards all capitalist objectives. ‘Spirits’ therefore become a key symbol taking form in ‘hantu’ attacks because they form "an image which mediates the conflict between [non]capitalist and capitalist modes of objectifying the human condition" (Taussig 1980, xii cited in Ong 1987, 1). Spirits act as a revelation for how much Malaysian humanity has been exploited by capitalist discipline. “Management’s strategies of surveillance and discipline are juxtaposed alongside tactics of resistance and subversion by factory women… Islamic fundamentalism intensified the surveillance and control of female workers as they explored opportunities for pleasure and autonomy in an urban secular environment" (Ong 1987, xvi), affirming spirits as a response to exploitation.
This relationship of ‘spirits’ and ‘capitalist discipline’ is emphasised in sections II and III of the book. Section II discusses Malaysia post-independence, reconstructions of social life and changing agrarian relations amidst the emergence of a new Malay proletariat. Domestic relations in a traditionally kampung society had to rebuild around rapid proletarianisation in a sudden introduction of mass education and wage labour markets. Education as a major social change held different expectations depending on gender. Girls were expected to drop out of school to help with domestic activities as they “are socialised to be obedient and to comport themselves demurely” (Ong 1987, 91). This was accompanied by their expectation to also become wage earners in factories, supporting their families domestically and financially. This however proved to be more of a challenging shift in cultural dynamics than was initially realised. Young girls who are now wage earners are depended on which “for their families, and village men, these young women displayed an uncomfortable degree of poise in negotiating their own future; their sexuality came to be perceived as a threat to social norms at home and within kampung society." (Ong 1987, 219).
The ramifications of the potential capitalism had to increase female agency was threatening to traditional kampungsociety, village men and male authority in the factory, forming the basis of section III. Though Malaysian factory workers transformed Malaysia into a tiger economy, and were depended on by their families, their attainment of “some measure of autonomy in their personal lives, [still] came under nonkinship forms of patriarchal power enforced by the factory management, Islamic institutions and state authorities" (1987, xviii). Ong describes how the variance of power relations tried to navigate women’s social shift as sparked by the tension between capitalism and kampunglifestyle. Disciplinary techniques are present in both corporate and kampung locations, making women “biological objects, docile bodies, and sexualised subjects in transnational companies.” (Ong 1987, 177-178). Essentially, the sexuality of factory working girls became an area of contestation, existing as both a site of domination by patriarchal figures and Muslim tradition, as well as existing as a challenge to these formations of power. This comes to light in Ong’s final description of ‘hantu’ (spirit) attacks experienced by girls in the factories. These attacks “speak out against male oppression as well as a deep sense of moral decentering, insisting on an ancient equality rooted in common (ungendered) humanity” (Ong 1987, 213) arguing that spirits of resistance reveal a blend of social dislocation, essence draining and violations of humanity. Spirit attacks became a symbol of the paradox in the female experience; attaining more agency through wage income, but being unable to act upon it through suppression by patriarchal capitalism and Muslim-moral traditions. This gendered experience, however reveals much more about attacks on humanity than it does on gender, which is Ong’s fundamental conclusion.
Ong’s work also connects to broader themes of consumption and value. Foster’s work on ‘commodities, brands, love and Kula’ demonstrates how value is assigned in processes of capitalism and commodity exchanges using ‘value chain’ theory (2008). Foster describes that on one end of the value chain lives “a social relationship of exploitation approaching dehumanisation” (2008, 20) and the other “a relationship imagined as nothing less than love, a deep emotional attachment between a consumer’s singular personality and a distinctively branded commodity" (2008, 20). Foster argues that key elements along value chains include brands marketing commodities as ‘incomparable' enhancing desirability and therefore exchangeability as well as the value consumers attach to ‘their’ commodities (2008). Despite these forms of value creation what the value chain actually reveals is that the fundamental aspect of value is ignorance. Cook and Crang describe this phenomenon as ‘segmented knowledge’, regarding how consumers are ignorant to the reality of production (cited in Foster 2008). The role of knowledge is crucial as it impacts value creation through eradication and blurring of factory situations. Malaysian factory workers have a sense of value taken away and blurred from their reality in this desire to alienate producers from the products of their labour. Though commodities would have no value without production, it is still removed in brand and consumer images of value. Malaysian exploitation of humanity as well as male hegemonic dominance over a new female proletariat - essentially the lived reality of production - is removed in the story of value to sustain it on the consumer end.
Another link to Ong’s work is Miller’s, ‘making love in Supermarkets’, highlighting a connection between exchange and work (1998). Ong and Miller bring the value chain to life by revealing exploitation versus emotional attachment to commodity. Female Malaysian factory workers face exploitation of humanity and on the other end, female grocery shoppers in Miller’s ethnography embody the ‘loving consumer’ by attaching value to food commodities they buy for their homes. However even at an opposite ends of the value chain, female shoppers and Malaysian factory workers are both forced into facing gendered realities of capitalism. At both ends of the value chain, female labour is unrecognised and viewed as unimportant within a male system. This is evident in the "the basic asymmetry of housework and the exploitation of female labour" (Miller 1998, 22) essentially the un-valorised nature of female labour viewed as less valuable than men’s, which is acknowledged through wages. Similarly, female Malaysian factory workers are subject to challenges of the value of their labour in the face of male control both in the factory and at home. Female work however is crucial to the maintenance of both homes - the female shopper provides love and provisioning and the factory worker provides monetary income and Muslim-familial domestic work. Work, exchange of labour and capitalism reveal the gendered realities and challenges that women on either end of a value chain are forced to face.
In conclusion, Ong highlights the tension of experience in traditional Malaysian society sparked by capitalist introduction and a wage labour market. Ong uses the relationship between ‘spirits of resistance’ and ‘capitalist discipline’ to discuss this experience concluding that “spirit possession is a condensed symbol for the women's affirmation less of class or gender consciousness than of their humanity in historically and culturally specific, personal terms." (1987, 947). Women’s domination by patriarchal capitalism, familial-Muslim expectations as well as the Islam state all contribute towards spirit attacks and resistance, which become symbolic for capitalist exploitation of humanity. Ong’s book is both a piece of gendered reality amidst spaces of controlled female agency and the power of capitalist labour in taking advantage of humanity and value.
Foster, R. 2008. Commodities, Brands, Love and Kula: Comparative Notes on Value Creation. Anthropological Theory 8(1): 9-25.
Miller, D. 1998. A Theory of Shopping. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. P. 15-72 (‘Making Love in Supermarkets’)
Ong, A.1987. Spirits of resistance and capitalist discipline: factory women in Malaysia. Albany: State University of New York Press.