Secrecy and Cultural Reality: Utopian Ideologies of the New Guinea Men's House.
Lewis Henry Morgan's will of 1881 left his fortune and his library to the University of Rochester, and that university, in 1963, came around to establishing a lecture series in his name. Gilbert Herdt delivered the Morgan Lectures in 1991, his topic 'Secrecy and Society.' These talks comprise the corps of this book. Anyone invited to speak under the name of the famous probably casts about for some connection between the celebrated and what he or she might be able to say. Herdt was fortunate here. He was able to meld his own interests in secret male ritual in Melanesia with Morgan's penchant for intimate men's clubs. Alongside his scholarly works on kinship, Ancient Society, and The American Beaver, the young Morgan founded a couple of quasi-secret societies: the Order of the Gordian Knot and the Order of the Iroquois.
After an interesting opening chapter on Morgan and his engagement with 19th century men's societies, Herdt turns to general issues of secret organization in Melanesia and beyond. He then takes us back to his mid-1970's research among the Sambia of Papua New Guinea whose once secret, homosexual ritual practices (fellatio, mostly) are now well-known thanks mostly to the work of Herdt himself. The book's final two chapters present Herdt's critique of anthropological accounts of secret men's ritual elsewhere in Papua New Guinea, and an overview of the near-universal collapse of such practices in the face of modernity, Christianity, colonialism, and so forth. Herdt focuses his criticism on what Kenneth Read, Fredrik Barth, and Maurice Godelier had to say about secrecy and ritual organization among, respectively, the Gahuku-Gama, Baktaman, and Baruya but his comments also touch on Michael Allen, Margaret Mead, Marilyn Strathern, Simon Harrison, Lewis Langness, Jan van Baal, F. E. Williams, and Donald Tuzin, among others.
Although by no means a well-fleshed typology, the book does offer comparative remarks on ritual versus contractual secrecy--the former the sort of secrecy founded in Melanesian men's houses, the latter those familiar modern forms of privileged personal or business information, shading into the parallel notion of personal privacy. Herdt is concerned to defend ritual secrecy. He suggests that many previous accounts of such secrecy took a 'romantic-cynical' perspective that assumed ritual secrets to be fraudulent, dangerous to social functioning (notably to democratic government), or simple tricks by which the strong hoodwink the oppressed. Herdt, instead, takes secret worlds to be alternative cultural realities. His analysis, thus, furthers the deconstruction of once solid anthropological notions of shared culture. Humans operate not so much with cultural shreds and patches, but within multiple, unshared, overlapping, often ambiguous and partial cultural systems. Sambia men's ritual life may be fractional and secret but it is, nonetheless, life.
Why would Melanesian men want to create secret lives? Herdt argues they did so not to oppress women or young men and boys (although this certainly was one result of their secrets); they did so to escape the nastier aspects of their non-secret life. Here, the book's subtitle (Utopian Ideologies ...) comes into view. The non-secret aspects of life were so chancy and nasty, and social relations so dodgy, that men were driven to fashion a better, secret, alternate reality. Herdt's argument relies on familiar observations about the impact of endemic warfare throughout traditional Papua New Guinea. War and violence-induced social chaos ignited 'secret ritual initiation practices and the founding of an institutional complex called the men's house as the cultural and psychological solution to an otherwise intolerable and perhaps ultimately unsuccessful sociality' (p. 34). The secret world inside men's houses was an oasis of conviviality and assurance.
Furthermore, Melanesian men suffered a second problem beyond an inability to trust their neighbors. Masculinity, throughout the region, was 'conditional' and difficult to separate from the feminine (though is not it everywhere?). Ritual work within the men's house took on the second task of creating masculinity--of teaching boys how to feel like men, and reminding men how to be men through tricking and tormenting boys and women. Homosexual relations, where these existed within secret male practice, worked both to shore up trustful male sociability and ritually to grow the boys up into men. Morgan and his anxious peers, so Herdt implies, chasing after their Greeks, their Indians, and their beavers in homosocial men's club settings, probably had the same problem.
Herdt borrows another theme from Morgan: social evolutionism. He suggests, 'social formations of contractual secrecy do not emerge as historically salient until such time as the concept of a "jural individual" is established in a historical culture' (p. 181). I wonder if 'modalities' of ritual and contractual secrecy tend to be as 'mutually exclusive' (p. 179) as Herdt argues. Melanesian societies once were as full of contractual-like secrets as they were ritual. Men secretly hired sorcerers to hex their enemies; they traded secret patents and copyrights to various medicines and magical practices; they jealously guarded the details of genealogy. And, beyond Melanesia, in the land of the jural individual, there still exist--as Herdt notes--all sorts of 'closets' which seem as powerfully real as any Melanesian secret lives. Children inhabit worlds beyond the ken of parents; employee sociability may escape their bosses; students occupy universes parallel to their teachers; desperate housewives dodge around clueless husbands; prison society excludes jailors; dozens of married men, in my Oklahoma town, are annually arrested for having sex with other men in park toilets; presidents and central intelligence agencies still rule men's houses into which most of us may not go. Still, given these diverse and enduring realms of secrecy, Herdt's probes into the territory are very welcome.
University of Tulsa
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2005|
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