Printer Friendly

Foucault, phenomenology and modernity in Melanesia.

I welcome Mimica's critique of some recent Melanesian research as part of a necessary debate that should occur in anthropology between phenomenological and Foucauldian positions. Mimica criticises some recent uses of Foucault's analytic vocabulary for lacking substance; and indeed for being an academic fashion that has now installed a new orthodoxy that short-circuits alternative and more accurate ways of understanding the alterity of Melanesian life-worlds. Yet, ironically, the phenomenological approaches that Mimica advocates are very established in mainstream Melanesian research. Far from marginalised, phenomenology informs the work of such important scholars as Aletta Biersack, Steven Feld, Robert Foster, Alfred Gell, Gillian Gillison, Nancy Munn, Michael Scott, Marilyn Strathern, Roy Wagner and James Weiner. However, I would never devalue or dismiss phenomenological approaches as just fashion, for I regard them as important. I would here add that, like Foucauldian and other theoretical approaches, they too can sometimes be clumsily applied. It is important not to see phenomenological and Foucauldian approaches as incompatible, but as casting a different light on human sociality.

Foucault is famous for his studies of the emergence and transformation of particular western institutions, notably the mental asylum, hospital and prison. He studies their changing social purposes, effects, functions, cultural assumptions and the practical bodies of knowledge they created and that sustained them. In his later work, Foucault expressed a concern with how subjects form themselves via dominant institutions, discourses and practices that seek to define and mould the identities and subjectivities of individuals. It is here that ethnography has much to offer a Foucauldian approach, which can too often focus on dominant hegemonic forms. For ethnography can draw close attention to how people respond, resist, adapt and live out the hegemonic institutions, discourses and practices that encompass them.

Mimica rightly argues that Foucault developed his analytical vocabulary to characterise and dramatise epochal changes in European history, and that his categories have frequently been decontextualised when making sense of Melanesian life-worlds. Mimica believes Foucault has been applied in a rigid and stereotypical manner to understand the customary aspects of Melanesian life-worlds, but also their transformations through contact with modernity. For Mimica, the 'academic foucaultization of Melanesian life-worlds' is now an industry employing mechanical cliche analyses that: 'are deficient as conceptual frameworks for ethnographic and theoretical explorations of the dynamics of selfhood, inter/subjectivity, knowledge and power in human relations in different cultural life-worlds.' I agree that the use of Foucault by some Melanesian scholars does at times contradict Foucault's own sensitivity to the historically specific nature of the institutions, bodies of knowledge, practices and technologies that he analysed. Foucault focused on the historical emergence and transformation of specific western regimes of knowledge and power dealing with: madness and the social construction of reason; patients and the management of hygiene, illness and public space; prisoners and the social management of bodies, habits and subjective dispositions; and sexuality and the creation of pastoral regimes of truth. A Foucauldian approach should emphasise conditions of possibility and their historical transformation as part of why certain institutions, ideas and practices emerge, become dominant and then undergo decline or are used in new ways. The emphasis is on distinguishing different historical periods or epochs in terms their specific practices and bodies of knowledge and how these can all undergo transformations, which sometimes take the form of radical breaks where what existed beforehand and what follows cannot be equated. Mimica is disturbed when the highly specific concepts that Foucault developed to characterise and dramatise these discontinuities in western regimes of power/ knowledge are applied too quickly to Melanesia and more especially to traditional Melanesian ritual-cosmological practices. The latter cannot automatically be equated with the western regimes of knowledge and power that Foucault typified as 'disciplinarian;, 'seclusionary; and 'panoptic surveillance;. Practices of social control involving the body, segregation and moral watchfulness are very different phenomena in Melanesia, and especially in customary rituals such as those dealing with initiation.

The particular historical experiments in western societies that Foucault characterised as 'disciplinarian', 'seclusionary' and 'panoptic' involved the emergence of modern pedagogic institutions that often had a total institution quality. These institutions and their innovative technologies, practices and forms of knowledge emerged in relationship to certain kinds of economic changes, class relations, state structures, population pressures and new professional groups whose discourses advocated the scientific rational management of society and its problems. These modern innovations involved the transformation of religious discourses and practices for working upon the self. The pastoral, individualising technologies of the church, which had partly been developed and perfected in monasteries, were increasingly integrated from the eighteen century into state institutions and into secular bodies of knowledge bound up with the emergence of medicine and the social sciences. The disciplinary and seclusionary practices of the religious monastic tradition are not the same as the new rationalised practices in the eighteenth and nineteenth century penal system, and are certainly not the same as practices in Melanesian initiation rituals. This is despite superficial resemblances grounded in the fact that Melanesian culture has its own practices for punishing and moulding the body, for segregating groups, and for instilling pedagogic lessons and moral watchfulness in the young and in transgressors.

Foucault emphasised that practices, discourses and institutions are defined not by their internal character but by relations of exteriority, by how they participate in a larger system of interconnections that determines their existence and use. Thus though penal panopticism as an all-seeing moral policing gaze has resonances with the all-seeing gaze of Christianity from which it was partly derived, it also became a very different phenomenon as it became part of penology. Omniscient moral watchfulness became part of the science of punishment, which involved calculated attempts to transform prisoners through architecture, time tables, routines, and professional guards. What's more, this surveillance-disciplinary technology was also being simultaneously introduced into other western institutions such as factories, asylums, hospitals, schools, police and army. Benthemism and prison reform in general, was an instance of a larger process of transforming, scientising and reinstrumentalising Christian pedagogic regimes of abstinence, self-discipline and moral watchfulness such that they became technologies that could be applied throughout society, helping to create modernity and its subjects. This was, as Mimica notes, part of a new cultural understanding of society and individuals as machine-like, as containing mechanisms to be rearranged, manipulated and perfected. Foucault's analysis of the Panopticon is of a machine, a technology of power involving an assemblage that organises architecture, light and supervision so a central observer in a tower can see individuals quickly, effortlessly and above all often without himself being seen. Here, it is not the act of being actually seen but the possibility of being seen that does the work of omniscient supervision and creates a machine of total surveillance.

Whilst I agree with many of Mimica's thoughtful points, I believe Mimica's critique also needs to acknowledge that some of the concepts and analyses that Foucault developed are original ideas about power and knowledge in general and can be applied with care outside a western context. This is so for Foucault's analyses of how the specific training and punishment of bodies creates specific kinds of subjects, subjectivities and social order. Technologies for working upon the self and the body do not just belong to the West; they can be found in other religious traditions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism and indigenous societies in Africa, Australia and Melanesia. Indeed, techniques of surveillance, discipline and ethical self-reflection can be found in all societies even though the rationalisation of these technologies has yet to detach these techniques from other social and cultural practices within which they are embedded. Indeed, Mimica does acknowledge that Marcel Mauss (1934) explored such a comparative approach in Techniques of the Body. What needs more acknowledgement by those who borrow Foucault's language is that customary Melanesian practices of bodily training and instruction, moral watchfulness, ethical policing and hierarchical forms of separation and ranking are not rationalised but still part of local mytho-poetic life-worlds, and so they are very different practices that should not be too quickly equated with western practices that have their own ontologies and social relations. Traditional Melanesian regimes of pollution that imposed abstinence, self-discipline and watchfulness on boys, young men and reproductive women should not be Benthemised or panopticised no matter how much they may involve structures of power and social control grounded in segregation, corporeal regulations and all-seeing gazes. The segregation of prisoners in the modern penal system is not the same as segregation of Melanesian initiates into age grades and from women. What's more, different forms of omniscience cannot be equated with each other. Mimica is right to argue that the punishing gaze of the life-giving sun in local Melanesian cosmologies is the not the same as the central panoptic tower in the penitentiary prison, which in turn is not the same as the Christian God's omniscient gaze. Given its historical identification with the emerging new prisons of the eighteenth century, the term 'panopticon' might not be the best term for capturing the specific nature of moral surveillance and policing operating in indigenous contexts. Sometimes there is no omniscient subject or central tower principle and this was noted by Mary Douglas (1966). She developed a comparative perspective on how beliefs about purity and pollution could provide a diffuse form of social control that used the cosmos--that is, indigenous understanding of causality, illness and misfortune--so as to reinforce and police moral norms. Drawing largely on ethnography from Africa but also from elsewhere, Douglas shows how beliefs about purity, pollution and ancestors served to assign punishment to individuals and groups for their social infighting, neglect of custom and transgressions. Here social order and control are created through regimes for cleaning, nurturing and ordering the body. Thus, regulations about what enters and leaves the body can work to articulate relations between groups and organise social boundaries. For Douglas, the hierarchical ordering of the body in terms of cleanliness, health and regard can become part of the hierarchical ordering of society and its groups. This point was also made powerfully by Dumont (1972) in his analysis of how purity and pollution beliefs underpinned the caste system in India. Foucault was not the first or only profound thinker to explore how power, social control and moral order are inscribed into the body of subjects and the ontologies through which their corporeality is lived. In his philosophical work, Nietzsche (1887) argued that punishment is part of the social creation of memory and calculative subjects. Likewise, anthropologists working in Africa, Melanesia, Australia and elsewhere have noted how punishments are mnemonic techniques that implant moral lessons into the body, with initiates eating knowledge at the same time as they eat pain (Lattas 1989; Turner 1969).

It is this mediation of social order through the body that has been too quickly assimilated or equated with Foucault's analysis of modern western projects for generating social order through the body as though Foucault created the only paradigm for corporeal forms of knowledge and power. Benthemism and panopticism need to be situated within their western historical context as part of the emergence of reform movements whose utopian projects sought to perfect society through inventing and assembling new efficient techniques for observing, supervising, judging, rewarding, punishing and training subjects (school children, patients, prisoners and workers). The development and deployment of new disciplinary and pastoral corrective techniques in prisons, schools, hospitals and factories occurred within a calculative logic of costs and benefits that was partly mediated by Protestantism, Utilitarianism and the rise of psychology and the social sciences (see also Halevy 1934; Thompson 1963; Weber 1904). Western techniques for breaking and remaking the self assumed new non-violent rationalised forms residing in strict timetables, obedience, discipline, moral watchfulness and asceticism and these cannot be equated with customary Melanesian corporeal practices for forming subjects and subjectivities using local regimes composed of pollution avoidance, purification rituals, fasting, diet, punishment and warnings from dreams and spirits.

Many anthropologists were inspired by Foucault's detailed analysis of how modern regimes of power and knowledge produce social order through the supervision, discipline and production of bodies, habits and subjectivities and they sought to find analogues in Melanesia. For Jacka, other cultures have their own cosmological schemes for monitoring and instilling in people a supervisory conscience. He treats the sun among the Ipilian as a figure of omniscient knowledge that creates an omniscient moral gaze. Mimica criticises Jacka for misrepresenting the power of the sun by making it 'an oppressively watchful disciplinarian keeping his "subjects" under surveillance'. The Ipilian sun becomes like the all-seeing eye and all-knowing gaze of a Christian God and of Bentham's panoptic prison tower. Drawing on Biersack's ethnography, Mimica argues that the sun's vision is experienced as creating light; it gives knowledge or drops it onto humans so as to enlighten them (ibid. 188; also p. 199; also Biersack, 1991, 1996). Using his own ethnography from the Yagwoia-Angan, Mimica (1981; 1988) describes how the sun in Melanesia can be an eye 'whose ray-arrows can cause painful bodily conditions; such as scabies and similar skin inflammations. Mimica is right to argue that such punishments are not equivalent to living in a totalitarian panoptic prison-machine. But Mimica dismisses even very general points that draw on Foucault such as Jeffrey Clark's (1997) interpretation of Huli (neighbors of the Ipili) sexuality and life-world as involving knowledge/power relations and the control of bodies. Clark goes too far in seeing pollution beliefs as an alternative to punishment and incarceration but he is right to regard them as forms of social control over young men, children and women. But the latter point can be made without a Foucauldian approach. What rightly disturbs Mimica is how Foucault's analysis of the Panopticon has become an anthropological template for all forms of social control, with Foucault operating as symbolic capital for academic arguments. Thus Clark equates the bachelor cult ibagiya to the panopticon because it 'ideally' produced subjectivity via the control of discourse and nondiscursive space (ibid. 314, ft.5). For Mimica, Clark uncritically uses 'Foucault's own dramatization of Bentham's totalitarian phantasy; in a way that has 'very little to say about the past and present Huli society as a concrete field of inter-human (as mediated by ghosts, spirits, deities, and the Christian God) and, to be sure, authentically bodily and gendered Huli power relations and dynamics' I agree that the 'all-seeing' gaze of Datagaliwabe who punishes Huli moral transgressions has to be understood within a cultural ontology where light and knowledge are formulated both as nourishment and punishment. However, I disagree with the way Mimica often gives a pyschonalytic formulation to this solar gaze, rendering it an externalisation of the superego.

Whilst I agree with many of Mimica's points, he also overstates his argument and ties policing to western state totalitarian projects of social control. This ignores Foucault's historical arguments about how western disciplinary surveillance practices became increasingly dispersed throughout the social body. They became part of a carceral system whose various judges (teachers, doctors, social workers, parole officers, psychiatrists etc) and their norms watched, measured and evaluated so as to individuate and create subjects. The diffuse form this social control takes in contemporary western societies needs to be differentiated from the diffuse omnipresent punishments in other societies that tie illness, pollution and accidents to transgressions. I especially disagree with Mimica's refusal to acknowledge how western pastoral, disciplinary and individualising practices were an intimate part of colonial policing regimes in Melanesia. What's more, Mimica also ignores how western institutions, practices and discourses were localised. Indeed, western techniques of social control were transformed and incorporated by Melanesians into their own local responses to modernity. This appropriation is what many scholars mean by multiple modernities, a concept too quickly rejected by Mimica.

Mimica dismisses too readily the relevance of a Foucauldian approach for making sense of people's responses to colonialism, missions, and capitalism, even though Foucault's work focused on modern utopian projects for breaking and remaking subjects, for creating improved forms of social order through creating new disciplined, self-monitoring subjects and subjectivities. Though he never produced dedicated publications on racism or colonialism, Foucault's work on modernity--as a set of pedagogic techniques and practices for producing a more rational and humanitarian social order has informed the valuable work of academics working on colonial history. For example, Mitchell (1988) documents how in Egypt in the late nineteenth century the project of modernisation was incorporated into local state institutions and became part of both elite and popular forms of nationalism. In Melanesia, though modernity as a social and cultural ideal was originally articulated by colonial intermediaries (such as government officers, missionaries and planters), it was also appropriated as it quickly became part of local Melanesian churches, cult movements, and popular stories and dreams. The latter sometimes involved accounts of hidden underground cities and white masalai (spirits) in the bush who appeared as a wild masta or wild misis (Lattas 2010). The cults studied the ideology, practices and transformative techniques of Europeans, which the cults displaced and remediated via the local spiritual landscape. There, followers found their own hidden native version of government, church, corporations, cities, and even white people. Through the mythological content and power of their local landscape, rituals and dreams, villagers found other local versions of modernity. Indeed, they appropriated modernity's utopian authorising language, projects and practices that sought to transform Melanesians into better subjects, living a more peaceful ordered life with a higher material living standard. Cult and local church followers appropriated the western civilisation process by merging it with local cosmological schemes and practices. They did not deny modernity but sought to improve and augment it, so as to create a more powerful, efficient Melanesian version of modernity. Local churches and cults often criticised western institutions for not being effective enough in their moral supervision, policing and transformation of villagers who were often characterised as stuck in the pigheaded (bikhet) violent custom of tumbuna (their grandparents). The use of local mythic heroes, dead relatives and the surrounding landscape to localise western institutions, practices and discourses was meant to re-empower those customary domains but also modernity by creating civilising governmental structures outside the control of Europeans and also outside the control of a local national elite. The cults often whitened local ancestors, spirits and the dead so they could offer an alternative, more authentic modernity. It would come from better kinds of white men who were more knowledgeable, honest and powerful than the educated national elite drawn often from powerful and feared external groups.

Many anthropologists working in the third world have sought to analyse how processes of racial hegemony, marginalisation, poverty and social disintegration come to be internalised and lived in an embodied way and they have used Foucault's understanding of social-moral orders as inscribed in the body (Jackson 1983; Scheper-Hughes 1994.). Thus, writing about the contemporary collapse of pollution beliefs and practices among the Ipili, Jacka (2007) argues interestingly that 'the demise of disciplinary relationships among bodies, land and ancestors has resulted in contemporary discourses about bodies that are no longer under control' (p. 59). Mimica objects to Jacka's use of the word disciplinary to characterise local customary forms of moral order and Jacka's reference to bodies rather than subjects as being out of control in a modern world. For Mimica, this is part of a contemporary academic fetishisation of bodies that has displaced talking about real human subjects and their experiences. However, it is possible through Mary Douglas to rescue Jacka's main point, namely, that the relaxation of customary regimes around the body is experienced as a slackening of forms of social and cultural control over individuals that produces them as morally disordered subjects.

Mimica dismisses too quickly good ethnographers and subtle thinkers, such as Richard Eves (2011) who worked among the Lelet Mandak of New Ireland, for their use of Foucault. Eves argues that dreams in Pentecostal sects operate as part of social policing and as a 'technology of the self' that produces a 'subjectivization' of the Lelet. Eves does not argue that the Lelet previously had no customary structures of subjectivity as Mimica implies. Instead, he analyses the inward focus of pastoral Christian technologies that generate new forms of self-scrutiny, which serve to interiorise the soul and indeed help generate the 'superego' that Mimica too often takes as an essential given. In customary Melanesian ontologies, the soul often exists in the external world as a separate entity. It can take the form of a shadow, a mirror reflection, a wandering dream soul and a totemic plant, animal or object. Today, this soul is being reinvented and spiritualised in a different way. It becomes equated with subjective dispositions scrutinised and reconstituted from the moral reflective standpoint of God and Christianity. What's more the latter are not passive givens but are also empowered and localised by being merged with local divinatory practices such as the customary power of dreams to disclose truths. This synthesis of divinatory practices creates new Melanesian practices for interiorising subjects and subjectivities, for bringing people back to themselves and their truths. Mimica unfairly treats any presence of Foucault's influence as undercutting true ethnography and any appreciation of Melanesian alterity or socio-cultural distinctiveness. He criticises Eves' subtle analysis of how western confessional pastoral technology has become merged with local dreams so as to introduce new regimes of 'self-policing', with Mimica arguing that the self-relations of Lelet Pentecostals do not involve a 'police exercise'. This is an astonishing claim by Mimica given that charismatic churches pride themselves as more able to solve the problems of social order by producing more ethical self-disciplined subjects. Using a narrow state definition of policing, Mimica criticises Eves for reducing Pentecostals to 'a spiritual progeny of the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary, the national government agency with the jurisdiction throughout Papua New Guinea'. This does not do justice to how people think about law and order as intimately tied to their own invention of new forms of lawfulness and moral watchfulness. It does not do justice to the creative local practices that are producing and disseminating modernity. Indeed, Mimica uses a strict literal definition of modernity to claim that no Melanesian that he has personally known has ever cast their life in terms of 'modernity'. Yet, modernity is constantly figured by Melanesians as senis (change), divelopmen (development), taim bilong senis (the time of change) and taim bilong masta (the time of Whites) with the latter contrasted to taim bilong tumbuna (the time of our grandparents, ancestors).

Ironically, Mimica uses a discursive approach when he accuses academics who write on 'modernity' of creating 'a projection determined by the Western epochal self-characterisation in terms of "post-modernity." ' Ignoring the actual changes happening on the ground, Mimca dismisses the concept of modernity as academic fashion that emerged after Lyotard's book The Post-Modern Condition (1979). I am not sure what Mimica means when he argues that indigenous people deal with colonisation rather than living 'modernity' given that colonisation is all about modernising 'natives': ethically, economically, culturally, materially, spiritually and psychologically. Lampooning the concept of 'multiple modernities', Mimica argues that 'the world-historical trajectory is one and the same' with local refractions. Yes, and the concept of multiple modernities was meant to take account of these local appropriations and transformations of modernity. This is precisely Eves's project when he analyses how the confessional-disclosing technology of Christianity merges with indigenous divinatory forms of disclosure organised around dreams so as to create new forms of omniscience, with Christian pastoral forms of confession, ethical self-scrutiny and moral policing being rearticulated through Melanesian divinatory practices. Here it is also the disclosing revelatory power of dreams in Christianity that is merged with the customary disclosing power of dreams so as to create new local ways of modernising Melanesians through their own civilising pastoral forms of policing. Such a process is an ambiguous mixture of resistance and hegemony. Foucault's analysis of western pastoral powers and confessional procedures, which control and form people through the self-relations they are made to form with themselves, offers a valuable vocabulary for handling the new moral orders and the modern structures of power that are being reinvented in Melanesian churches and cult movements, which appropriate and re-use western pastoral technologies of power. Here, outside of the state, Melanesians create their own carceral society with its own diffuse forms of self-policing, surveillance, discipline and moral watchfulness. They appropriate and remake western practices of individualisation that rely on getting people to reflect and struggle with their interior truths as the basis for generating social order. So as not to be governed by others and in their search for autonomy, Melanesians experiment in developing even more intensive regimes of self-policing and communal control.

DOI: 10.1002/ocea.5040


BIERSACK, A. (ed.) 1991. Prisoners of time: Millenarian Praxis in a Melanesian Valley. In Clio in Oceania: Toward a Historical Anthropology. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, pp. 231-296.

CLARK, J. 1997. State of desire: transformations in Huli sexuality. In Manderson, L. and Jolly, M., (eds.), Sites of Desire Economies of Pleasure: Sexualities in Asia and the Pacific. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

DOUGLAS. M. 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

DUMONT, L. 1972. Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications. London: Paladin.

EVES, R. 2011. Pentecostal Dreaming and Technologies of Governamentality in a Melanesian Society. American Ethnologist 38(4): 758-773.

HALEVY. E. 1934. The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism. London: Faber and Faber.

JACKA, J. 2007. Our skins are weak: Ipili modernity and the demise of discipline. In S. Bamford (ed.). Embodying Modernity and Post-Modernity: Ritual, Praxis, and Social Change in Melanesia. Durham. NC: Carolina Academic Press.

JACKSON, M. 1983. Knowledge of the Body. Man (NS) 18(2): 327-345.

LATTAS, A. 1989. Trickery and Sacrifice: Tambarans and the Appropriation of Female Reproductive Powers in Male Initiation Ceremonies in West New Britain. Man (NS) 24(3): 451-169.

2010. Dreams, madness, and fairy tales in New Britain. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, c2010.

MAUSS. M. 1973 [1934], 'Techniques of the Body', Economy and Society 2: 70-88.

MIMICA. J. 1981. Omalyce: An Ethnography of the Iqwaye View of the Cosmos. PhD Dissertation. Australian National University.

1988. Intimations of Infinity: The Mythopoeia of the Iqwaye Counting System Number. Oxford: Berg Publishers.

MITCHELL. T. 1988. Colonising Egypt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

NIETZSCHE, F. 1967 [1887], On the Genealogy of Morals. Trans. W. Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Penguin.

LYOTARD. J.-F. 1979. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

SCHEPER-HUGHES, N. 1994. Embodied knowledge: Thinking with the body in critical medical anthropology. In R. Borofsky (ed.), Assessing Cultural Anthropology. McGraw-Hill, Inc., pp. 229-242.

THOMPSON, E.P. 1963. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Pantheon Book.

TURNER, V. 1969. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co.

WEBER. M. 1930 [1904], The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parson. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

Andrew Lattas

University of Bergen
COPYRIGHT 2014 Blackwell Publishing Limited, a company of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2014 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Michel Foucault
Author:Lattas, Andrew
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:80OCE
Date:Mar 1, 2014
Previous Article:On Mimicaian-dramaturgy and Anti-modernity in Melanesianist Anthropology.
Next Article:Reply.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters