Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture and Colonialism in the Pacific.
I agree with Thomas that cultural relativism can partly be blamed for anthropology's tendency to establish the Orientalist and primitivist dichotomies of East versus West. However, Thomas' critique of cultural relativism is overdone and becomes an excuse for not focusing on the alternative cultural logics of the Pacific societies he discusses. Though Thomas acknowledges the importance of culture, his rejection of cultural relativism leads him to reject the exploration of alternative indigenous realms of meaning for organising human activity.
In dealing with indigenous exchange regimes, transactions, and the uses of material culture, this work resists the notion that indigenous responses or practices are to be explained through some clarification of an alternate cultural order.
Thomas sees a romantic Orientalism at work when anthropologists assert the otherness of the Other in the realm of exchange. He criticises the gift-commodity distinction developed by Chris Gregory and Marilyn Strathern as having homogenised our understanding of possible exchange regimes for constituting power and meaning. Thomas does not want to get rid of the gift-commodity distinction, he simply wants to stop it being equated with the indigenous-European society distinction. He believes that Mauss' notion of the gift, in having become the totalising model for all exchange in indigenous societies, has prevented anthropologists from recognising forms of alienation bound up with commodity-like exchanges in places like New Guinea. The examples of indigenous commodification that Thomas gives (like 'prostitution' in a ritual context) are often far from convincing and seem to be simply making the point well made by Sahlins that exchange can take the non-altruistic forms of 'balanced' or 'negative' reciprocity.
For Thomas, the theoretical emphasis on cultural differences is seen to be part of a process where the West preserves its autonomy and distance from the Other in order to maintain its own identity. Thomas seeks to overcome these idealisations of difference, by analysing how cultures creatively engage and recontextualise each other's products. He accuses anthropology's relativism of leading to a focus on the local at the expense of 'international relations of production and appropriation which stretch across the spaces separating us'. For Thomas, the historical network of global relations means that 'tribal' people do not inhabit a domain completely separate from our own and that the study of exchange should be a combination of local and global perspectives.
I agree with Thomas that cultural relativism can often be a form of romantic primitivism. I do not agree that the use of ethnography to destabilise western assumptions of economics, gender and the state has gone too far (even though Thomas is right to say it sometimes operates as a rhetorical game). Though criticising the Gregory-Strathern paradigm for having become a cliche, Thomas falls to dislodge the assumptions of their paradigm, namely that objects (re-)construct and extend people's identities in the act of circulating aspects of their personhood. Indeed, Strathern's phenomenological analysis of the gender of gifts in Melanesia has similarities to the phenomenological analysis of commodities in the West undertaken by Irigaray who looks at how the female body becomes an ideological way of creating consumption and circulating desire. Unlike Thomas and Strathern, I see the projection of personhood into objects as not confined to gift economies but as realised differently in different social orders. Thomas argues that:
Though a useful departure point, the focus on the projection of identity is, I suggest, ultimately restrictive. . . . The potential uses of artifacts . . . cannot be reduced to a unitary model or process such as the chain of objectification and sublation. My curiosity avoids any constrictive typology of object-meanings in an abstracted domain of man, subject and object, and is instead aroused by the variety of liaisons men and women can have with things in the conflicted, transcultural history of colonialism.
This statement ignores the fact that many of those concerned with subject and object relations in Melanesia have been concerned not with abstract man but with concrete ideological renderings of gender relations. Indeed there can be no concrete analysis of gender without a focus on 'the chain of objectification and sublation' through which identities are projected and realised. To deny this is to deny not only how gifts work in Melanesia but it is also to deny the constitutive power of commodities in social relationships and identities in the West.
Thomas accuses those who distinguish naively between traditional and modern economic forms of being influenced by a discredited evolutionism and a reformulated primitivism which has 'taken the by-products of colonialism to be the core structures or hallmarks of tribal or Asiatic authority (as in Dumont's sociology of caste)'. I do not think it is satisfactory to argue that because economic dichotomies were part of evolutionism that those who now use economic dichotomies are politically tainted with primitivism and evolutionism. Those interested in these dichotomies have often used them to fight primitivism and Orientalism by calling for an analysis of the Other in terms of the concrete materiality of other imaginative worlds. Indeed, Thomas cannot do a good analysis of the biography of objects until he can do the sort of fine grained symbolic work on commodities which Nancy Munn and Marilyn Strathern have done for indigenous artefacts. To say that you are focusing on possible kinds of circulation involving the alienation of labour does not really solve the problem of the need for a better, more precise account of alienation and what is being alienated into objects: namely identities, sexuality, desires, and even labour. Even the alienation of labour is not the same in different societies. In Melanesia it has to be explored in its cultural form as masculinity, femininity, semen conservation, warfare and magic; that is in terms of what Thomas rejects -- the projection, objectification and sublation of identities.
Thomas wants to focus on the poetics of appropriation, yet he is reluctant to enter the poetic structures of indigenous systems. He mentions briefly the appropriation of European goods and mannerisms in cargo cults and tells us this cannot be seen as parody, for it is an appropriation of European power. Thomas does nothing to reveal or explore the poetic logics of these appropriations. If he had done so he might have found that the projection of personhood and gender into commodities and indigenous objects is often an important part of cargo cults. The rationale for rejecting analyses of particular cultural logics is that such approaches work to distance other societies from our form of sociality. Yet there is an asymmetry, if not an element of ethnocentrism, in the fact that Thomas does focus on cultural logics when he discusses how Europeans appropriated indigenous things so as to fit into their preconceptions and fascination with savages and cannibals. Primitive artefact collections fitted into a fascination with the early innings of humanity and with evolutionary theory. Material artefacts were transformed into ascribed differences in time but also into ascribed emotional and psychic temperaments.
Thomas relates such collections to the logic of a system of indirect rule which he sees as a general process of the encompassing and ordering of things native. The collection and classification of artefacts was another way of expressing and codifying the European administrative elite's ordering task. The gathering of ethnographic artefacts into one space articulated the desires of an omniscient gaze to survey in detail and in its entirety what it had captured. In these collections, the local culture-bound things could be set out next to each other and transcended by that colonial gaze which collected and arranged them. Thomas is at his best here, when he uses Clifford and Foucault to analyse the poetics of power and personhood inscribed in colonial cultural practices. I part company with Thomas when he uses the moral justification of avoiding Orientalism to avoid doing the same analysis of ontologies of personhood and power for the alternative conceptual schemes and practices of other societies. This refusal to acknowledge difference ought not to be celebrated as good politics.
ANDREW LATTAS Macquarie University
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 1993|
|Previous Article:||From the Centre to the City: Aboriginal Education, Culture and Power.|
|Next Article:||The systematisation of tradition: Maori culture as a strategic resource.|