Wednesday, March 7, 2012

James Clifford, Person and Myth: Maurice Leenhardt in the Melanesian World

"The person, in opposition to the individual, is capable of enriching itself through a more or less indefinite assimilation of exterior elements. It takes its life from the elements it absorbs, in a wealth of communion. The person is capable of superabundance."

Atai, warchief of Bourail, was principal leader of the New Caledonian rebellion of 1878. He never accepted French occupation of his land, protesting against repeated devastation of his people's crops by colonialists' cattle. When the governor of the colony answered his complaints by advising him to erect fences, Atai is said to have retorted: "When my taro plants go eating the cattle, then I'll build fences." After a dispute with the authorities over land appropriated for a penitentiary, Atai became a highly effective insurrectionist. The rebel chief was finally tracked down by the army of repression. He stood his ground, along with his son and four warriors. . . .

[The] severed heads were taken back to La Foa stuck on bayonets. [Atai’s] very expressive head… [along with his hand] was sealed in a tin container full of alcohol. It was sent by M. Navarre, a naval doctor, to the Paris Anthropological Society, where it was presented by Dr. Broca in 1879.

From the Journal of the Anthropological Society:

These pieces have arrived in a perfect state of conservation. They give off no odor, and we hope that even the brains, although left in their skulls, will still be good for study.

The magnificent head of Chief Atai attracts special attention. It is very expressive; the forehead particularly is very handsome, very high and broad. The hair is completely black. The nose is very platyrrhinian, as wide as it is long. The hand, wide and powerful, is very well shaped, except for one short finger, the result of an old wound. The palm lines are similar to our own.

It is only in recent decades—largely as a result of national liberation movements—that Western scholars have been forced to confront the moral problems posed by colonial dominance. Anthropology, a science and an esthetic that functioned rather comfortably within the imperial context, can no longer ignore that its “data”—the human objects of its study an affection—have often been exploited, sometimes dying, individuals and cultures. As a response to this unhappy circumstance, a tone of elegiac regret is no longer sufficient. Neither is it enough to invoke—as in the sources above—the “expressive” power of artifacts. Atai was seen by the anthropologists not as a complex individual caught in specific historical circumstances, but rather as a choice specimen. Power relations were also beside the point. The scholarly journal did not need to mention that a standing price had been offered by the colonial government for rebel heads.

Atai’s death, in an act of war, is in many ways less disturbing than his appropriation in an act of science. And if anthropological research no longer proceeds as it did in 1878, the general political, moral, and epistemological issues starkly raised by Atai’s fate remain. Is it possible to study other people without asserting a power over them? How may one transmit the “expressive” power of others without immobilizing or preserving this power—in tin containers, in museums, in authoritative texts? If, on the other hand, cross-cultural research wishes to learn from an Atai, as well as about him, it is at least necessary to stop thinking of social science as a process of collecting and analyzing data. Anthropological “specimens”—texts and artifacts—brought back from the field should not be seen primarily as evidence of a distinct other reality or even as signs, traces to be interpreted, of the “native point of view.” Rather, anthropological data must be seen as referring to the research process itself, reflecting its specific dialectics of power, of translation, of interpersonal exchange.

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The ongoing process of gift and countergift falls into measured rhythms, a tempo that does not always synchronize with the academic calendar or with the span of research grants. A reply to a query may come decades later. Naturally it is not quite appropriate to compare an experience like Leenhardt'sspanning more than three generations and involving active political and spiritual alliance with his informants—to a characteristic academic sojourn or even series of sojourns. But the comparison may encourage us to rethink the social processes by which ethnographic texts are created, returning to the word "data" its etymological root in "things given."

Fieldwork may best be seen not as a process of description or interpretation of a bounded other world, but as an interpersonal, cross-cultural encounter that produces the descriptive-interpretive texts. The "authorship" of its initial written data is plural and not easily specified. Eventually these data are transformed into descriptions and explanations that are conventionally identified as the work of an individual writer. This interpretive process may run its course smoothly, resulting in an ethnography that serves as a full stop to the field experience. Or it may assume the form of a lifelong encounter, an amorous struggle with an otherness that assumes the role of an alter ego. The latter was Leenhardt's ethnological fate. 

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