This project, which is still in an early stage of its development, is concerned with an urban Southeast Asian phenomenon that one can describe as the production of empty spaces: warehouses, apartment towers, hotels, housing estates etc. have been built on an increasing scale, but at least some and sometimes many of them remain empty due to speculation, legal issues, economic crises etc. These empty or partly empty buildings bear witness to the uneven distribution of living space in Southeast Asian cities in light of the fact that in the lower-class kampung space is extremely limited and has to be shared by a large part of the population. The project asks how this empty (but for most people unachievable) space is charged with meaning by Southeast Asians of different class backgrounds, which leads the project to consider religious phenomena such as rituals that are held to cleanse living space from evil spirits that are said to haunt the buildings. In insular Southeast Asia, Islamic and other, less orthodox spiritual authorities usually deal with such phenomena that fuel the religious economies in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. The project is thus interested in how the real-estate economy generates a particular religious economy that is informed by ideological struggles in the religious field at large. Furthermore, the project engages with the notion of emptiness (kekosongan in Indonesian/Malay) and with a rich research tradition on certain Southeast Asian values and sensibilities that are, for example, expressed in the binary opposition of positively valued business/crowdedness/noisiness (ramai) and negatively valued non-business/quietness/loneliness (sepi). Theoretically, the project connects with anthropological re-readings of Weberian and Marxian approaches that link religious and economic phenomena. Locating religious phenomena in one of the most booming sectors of the economy, it aims to go beyond the often recycled and criticized “disenchantment” and “false consciousness” theses by exploring this research tradition from new, unexpected angles.

Martin Slama