Acts of Integration, Expressions of Faith: Madness, Death and Ritual in Melanau Ontology.
By Ann L. Appleton.
Phillips, Maine: Borneo research
Council Monograph No. 9. 2006.
Pp. xxiii + 361.
Price: US $45.
This monograph derives from the author's PhD thesis based on two years of research (2000-01) in the Melanau region of Sarawak, Malaysia, principally in the township of Mukah. In terms of religious identifications, the population is differentiated into Muslims, Christians, and a Likou ('people of the river'), i.e., the pagans. There are also some adherents of the Ba'hai faith. Appleton's work offers original ethnographic material but it also draws and extends on the primary Melanau corpus created by the late H. Stephen Morris whose research began in the late forties and was followed by additional fieldtrips in the sixties, seventies and the eighties. Coming from the early 21st century, Appleton's monograph is a valuable ethnographic account of the Melanau with the focus on the following themes: anthropological problematisation of the Melanau experiences and predicaments which in the Western scientific biomedical and psychiatric understanding would be apprehended as psychopathological; Melanau personhood, healers and healing practices, experience of death, mourning and mortuary practices.
I find the Chapter Five on the Melanau healers by far the most substantial ethnographic contribution. Concerning Appleton's theoretical endeavours, which range from the conceptualisation of a 'Melanau ontology', dynamics and efficiency of ritual activity (inspired by Turner's conception of 'liminality'), to 'a cultural theory of psychopathology', it is the last theme (detailed in Ch 8) which I find most interesting. Here, Appleton draws on Jung's archetypal psychology (his concepts of image and the shadow) and his post-Jungian commentators. The discussion in this chapter, by contrast to her surmises on Western biomedicine, psychiatry and existential phenomenology (Chapters One and Two), contains conceptually most productive formulations worthy of further critical examinations.
This brings me to Appleton's overall epistemic strategy that marks off this book as a piece of ethnography and anthropological understanding at the onset of the 21 st century. She states that 'the best the ethnographer can achieve is to make "the other" imaginable and leave the reader to do the rest' (p. 58). For the present reviewer 'the rest' means trying to read as much accurate ethnographic data on the Melanau as possible to develop a critical understanding in order not to remain at the mercy of an epistemic position which maintains that '(e)thnography, in this construct, occupies the space between; it becomes another way of "pointing at the moon'" (ibid). Reading Morris' (not readily available) works will enable one to advance from this academic style of lunar ostentation towards a critical appreciation of the Melanau life-world within a comprehensive historical horizon which reveals at once the strengths and weakness of the past and present ethnographic praxis and anthropological understanding. More importantly, Morris' ethnography will aid a critical reader in assessing the adequacy of Appleton's formulations purportedly representative of a 'Melanau ontology'. For this she appeals to the existentialist lineage of phenomenology exemplified by Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty although the dominant tenor of her formulations derives from Michael Jackson's filtering of this tradition through William James' pragmatism. Although the concept of 'being-in-the-world' figures prominently its significance is primarily emblematic rather than hermeneutically productive. With or without Morris' auxiliary and independent data, it is clear enough from Appleton's basic stock of categories (eg., 'sacred', 'supernatural', 'liminality', etc) that her imaginings of the Melanau remain on the outside of their 'ontology'. Indeed, the reader will have to do a great deal of work to construe an adequate cognitive perspective within which authentic configurations of Melanau existence can begin to surface.
Such a notion as 'ontology' does not exist for them as ready-made, reflective, and conceptually prepackaged representations. Such concepts themselves are the products of the ethnographer's interpretation of a given cultural existence. The ethnographer develops a set of concepts for which s/he argues to have the culturally-specific saliency and validity which can be characterized as ontological, and uses them as such in his/her analyses. Nothing of the sort is in evidence in Appleton's book. On the other hand the author is fond of the term 'negotiation' (countless invocations), very popular in current academic 'discourses of social sciences'. It is a cover-all term with a low conceptual, nay, zero coefficient. Symptomatically, here and there, for good measure, she also couples it with 'contestation', another popular catch-phrase in the post-modern epoch of academic style of 'discoursing' about human condition and action.
Indeed, I find this style entirely concordant with middle class academic sense of the self and acting in the world. Moreover, these pseudo-descriptors really sanitise the existential reality and senses of engagement in the world, especially as it was and is for the Melanau as well as any other human beings on this planet. I am confident that with a deeper regard for phenomenology and existential thought the author could come up with some more apposite phrases and circumlocutions that would be more accurate indicators of the historical and the present-day Melanau situations she writes about. In its present academic orchestration, I find Appleton's phenomenological existential armature to be more of an ornamental stucco work rather than a thinking instrument of and for productive hermeneutics of the Melenau life-world at the inception of the twenty-first century. Still, in conjunction with Morris' work Appleton's research can provide a useful ethnographic corpus for cross-cultural explorations of the structures of
human life-worlds and the historical dynamics of their transformations (including their pulverisation). Finally, as a plea for making Morris' work more accessible and better known to non-Borneo specialists the reviewer would like to suggest that the editors of the Borneo Research Monograph Series might consider bringing out a volume of his writings.
The University of Sydney
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2008|
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