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  • Auratic Indexicality and the Spiritual Unconscious
  • Karen Strassler
  • [2] Sensing the Unseen
  • 10/2012
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A beautiful young woman with a voluptuous body, long flowing hair, and an Indic costume reminiscent of Hindu-Javanese stone reliefs and Javanese court dancers, rises out of the sea. This is Ratu Kidul, queen of an invisible spirit realm under the South Sea, leader of an avenging spirit army, lover of Javanese kings and guarantor of fertility in the realm, protector of fishermen and coastal dwellers, sexual predator and icon of Indonesian erotic-horror films. A potent figure in Javanese mythology, Ratu Kidul also has an active life in Indonesia’s modern media and popular culture. In recent years, she has become something of a lightening rod in public debates about the stubborn persistence of spirit beliefs within Indonesian modernity. Across Java, Ratu Kidul’s image proliferates on the covers of folklore books, in paintings and posters sold in roadside stalls, in crude paintings on trucks and pedicabs, and on the walls of shops, restaurants, and people’s homes. Increasingly, one can also encounter her by surfing the Internet, where she appears via the online presence of newspapers and tabloids, personal image sites like flickr, and blogs devoted to Javanese folklore, mysticism, tourism.

Ratu Kidul’s visible accessibility is a recent phenomenon. Before her emergence as an icon of Javanese tradition and female sexuality within a postcolonial national public culture, Ratu Kidul was as unseen as the spirit world she rules. Traditionally, her presence could only be apprehended by ephemeral signs: the eerie clanging sound of her spirit army on the move, a sudden fragrant breeze, or a devastatimg earthquake or wave. Only her lovers, the Javanese kings, might gaze upon her and then only after having concentrated their considerable spiritual powers through intense meditation.

The visual democratization of Ratu Kidul by means of her reproduction and circulation as national icon has not led to a diminishment of her spiritual charisma. On the contrary, popular images of Ratu Kidul are often perceived as not merely representations of the spirit queen, but as mediums conveying her presence.[1] Lore about the dangers of encountering Ratu Kidul via her image includes stories of painters and painters’ models who died tragic and untimely deaths after portraying Ratu Kidul, film actresses who preceded their performances with ritual offerings to avoid inciting the spirit queen’s anger, and movie-goers who avoided wearing her favorite color green for fear of attracting her attention at the cinema and being apprehended as soldiers in her spirit army.[2] In a more benign vein, many paintings and reproductions of paintings of Ratu Kidul are said to lend their possessors power and even to give off a beautiful fragrance.

One subgenre of Ratu Kidul images, referred to as foto asli or “authentic photographs,” best exemplifies the “semiotic ideology” at work in spiritually charged popular images of Ratu Kidul.[3] Usually sold in roadside stalls or circulated hand to hand, foto asli are snapshot or wallet-size images that appear to my eyes to be poor quality, blurry photo-reproductions of paintings of Ratu Kidul. Usually foto asli are said to have been taken with a camera by someone with special spiritual powers, an orang pintar (a person with mystical skills) or an orang dalam (someone with close ties to a Javanese palace), someone, that is, with the spiritual power to both elicit and withstand her visual appearance.

The foto asli’s narrative of photographic origins insists upon an indexical relationship between image and referent that enhances the image’s powers of spiritual potency and contagion. It registers a modern hierarchy of image-technologies in which the photograph is privileged as an indexical sign. But clearly in this context we cannot draw a firm line between the indexicality of the photographic image and the putative non-indexicality of the painted image or illustration, a line that is often rigidly etched within Euro-American philosophies of photography that treat indexicality as the mark of photography’s distinction as a representational technology. If paintings of Ratu Kidul may also make indexical claims of contact, this is because they are a species of photograph. Basuki Abdullah, the modern Indonesian painter who did most to popularize her image in the first decades of independence, claimed to be one of the few people to whom Ratu Kidul appeared directly, thus allowing him to make paintings of her apparition. The same is said of another famous Indonesian painter, Affandi, who also painted the spirit queen.[4] Here the painter becomes a kind of camera, a sensitive medium that directly receives and faithfully reproduces the impression of the spirit.[5]

Yet Tom Gunning has argued that it is a mistake to treat the photograph’s compelling sense of presence as an effect of indexicality, as most thinkers from Bazin to Barthes have done.[6]  The photograph, he argues, is experienced phenomenologically, not semiotically, that is, not as “a sign for something but as the presence of something, or perhaps we should say a means for putting us into the presence of something” (46). Gunning proposes thinking about the photograph’s ability to conjure presence not in the tradition of the index (the fingerprint, the death mask, etc.) but rather in the tradition of optical devices that play on a delight in visual illusion through “visual acuity and excess” (47).[7] Certainly, in gauging the photograph’s efficacy we should attend to the importance of its mimetic likeness (iconicity). But if the analogy with a death mask fails to adequately account for the presence-conjuring powers of the photograph, this is not a reason to dismiss indexicality altogether. Rather, we should acknowledge that indexicality itself is not outside of cultural mediation; what an indexical sign is and how it works may be understood differently within different semiotic ideologies.

The semiotic ideology governing popular images of Ratu Kidul does not construe them as records, traces, or residues of a past presence.[8] As Barthes and others have noted, there is always a tinge of “magic” to the photograph’s ability to conjure presence.[9] For Barthes, the photograph’s uncanny power rests in the impossible way that it carnally conjoins, as if by an “umbilical cord” (83), bodies separated by space, time, and the rupture of death: “From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here” (80). The magic of this contact gives the photograph its supernatural power; “the photograph,” he writes, “has something to do with resurrection” (82). In the indexicality at work in spiritually-charged images of Ratu Kidul, it is not a temporal but an ontological gap that the image bridges, acting as a conduit across the line of the unseen and the seen, the supernatural and the worldly, the spirit and the human. Here, the photograph is not a trace of a past presence, but a medium for transmitting an ongoing but otherwise invisible presence.

This understanding of the photograph calls for a rethinking of the “aura,” which Benjamin famously argued would “wither” in the age of mechanical reproduction.[10] Benjamin’s notion of aura arguably relies on a semiotic ideology in which the original is distinguished from its copy as a living visage to its death mask. In their work on images of an Islamic saint among a Sufi sect in Senegal, Allen and Mary Roberts offer a reading of aura that traces back to its Greek meaning as “breath.” Following David Freedberg, they describe aura as “the inherence or presence of power and presence within a work of art.” [11] Whereas for Benjamin, the aura resulted from an object’s unique location in time and place, an understanding of aura as an inherence of power or presence within the work of art does not depend upon the authenticity that derives from originality or singularity.  It thus helps explain why photographic reproduction may extend auratic power rather than abolishing it. An auratic image, then, is one in which “representation is subsumed by presence.”[12]

John Harvey has called photography’s status as both an instrument for examining the visible world and an uncanny means for conjuring supernatural presences the “paradox of photography’s double identity.”[13] Yet the affinity of the camera with the supernatural does not sit comfortably with its deployment as a quintessential technology of modern rationalism. The idea that the photographic image might allow contact across the membrane separating the unseen and the seen is profoundly unsettling for national elites committed to the project of promoting Indonesian modernity in either secular or Islamic guise. This modernizing project is closely tied to a realist visuality that relies on the camera as a positivist producer of documentary traces and fetishizes its claims to transparency. Voicing elite discomfort with an alternative semiotic ideology, one government official admonished makers of supernatural-themed television and films, “Do not teach people to see what doesn’t exist.”[14] It was Benjamin’s insight that the camera shattered the givenness of the world through its revelation of an “optical unconscious.” Far from solidifying faith in the powers of vision, the camera generated a disturbing consciousness, as Marianne Hirsch puts it, of the “vast invisible dimensions behind and inside the transparently visible.”[15]  In transmitting the ongoing presence of an unseen being, auratically indexical images of Ratu Kidul bring to awareness a kind of “spiritual unconscious,” making visible that which is ideally repressed within a dominant brand of Indonesian modernity.


[1] See Karen Strassler, Refracted Visions: Popular Photography and Indonesian National Modernity, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010, pp. 283-4.

[2] See Ardus M. Sawega, “Ratu Kidul di Mata Perupa,” Kompas, May 17 2010. http://oase.kompas.com/read/2010/05/17/09094232/Ratu.Kidul.di.Mata.Perupa-3, Accessed  August 17, 2010; Robert Wessing, “Dislodged Tales: Javanese Goddesses and Spirits on the Silver Screen,” Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 163-4, 2007: 529-555.

[3] Webb Keane, “Semiotics and the Social Analysis of Material Things,” Language and Communication 23(3-4), 2003: 409-25.

[4] Salman Rusydie Anwar. 2010. Misteri Nyi Roro Kidul dan Laut Selatan. Yogyakarta, Flash Books, p. 35.

[5] Similar discourses can be found in late 19th century and 20th century American and European spiritualist photography. See for example Andreas Fischer. 2005. “’A Photographer of Marvels’: Frederick Hudson and the Beginnings of Spirit Photography in Europe,” The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult. Cheroux, Fischer, Apraxine, et al. eds. pp. 29-36. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press

[6] Tom Gunning. 2004. “What’s the Point of an Index? Or, Faking Photographs,” NORDICOM Review 5(1/2): 46.

[7] Ibid, 48.

[8] On the “aesthetics of presence” in Indian icons see Richard Davis, Lives of Indian Images, Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997; Kajri Jain’s discussion in Gods in the Bazaar: The Economies of Indian Calendar Art Durham NC: Duke UP, 2007, pp. 292-293; Christopher Pinney, Photos of the Gods: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India. London: Reaktion Books, 2004.

[9] Barthes, Camera Lucida, 88.

[10] Walter Benjamin. 1968. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, 217-51. New York: Schocken Books.

[11] Allen F. Roberts and Mary Nooter Roberts, A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 2003, p. 26.

[12] David Freedberg, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989, p. 28. On the “thrall of presence” of apparently secular images, see Morris, “Photography and the Power of Images,” 133-4. See also Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art, Edmund Jephcott, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

[13] John Harvey, Photography and Spirit. London: Reaktion Books, 2007. See also Christopher Pinney, Photography and Anthropology. London: Reaktion Books, 2011.

[14] Quoted in Katinka Van Heeren, “Return of the Kyai: Representations of Horror, Commerce, and Censorship in Post-Suharto Indonesian Film and Television,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 8(2), 2007: 211-226, here page xx.

[15] Marianne Hirsch, “You Don’t See Me: The Subject of Class Photos,” paper presented at “Sensing the Unseen,” Sawyer Seminar, MIT, April 15, 2011.