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Gossip and the Everyday Production of Politics.

Gossip and the Everyday Production of Politics.

By Niko Besnier.

Honolulu: University of Hawai'i

Press, 2009.

243 pp.

In this insightful book, Niko Besnier characterizes gossip as a multi-pronged instrument of social and political action. Based on a close ethnographic investigation of Nukulaelae islander's discourses about and practices of gossiping, this work highlights gossip's ability to serve as a means of negotiating the ethical conflicts and ideological contradictions that present themselves as part of everyday life, suggesting that gossip, an oft maligned and ostensibly marginal practice, can serve a means for people to engage in small scale (but potentially far reaching) political acts.

Much to the chagrin of its 350 residents, Nukulaelae has a reputation as the 'island of gossip' in Tuvalu. Fatufatu (lit. 'to make up stories', but glossed throughout as 'gossip'), is a marked category of talk, with several negative connotations. It typically occurs in the off-stage setting of the smoky cooking hut--a marginal space that is marked physically and ideologically as separate from the clean, respectable public spaces. It is typified as disorderly, feminine, morally unwholesome, of suspect veracity, and, quite tellingly, as something that other people do (not something that oneself does). It is also paradigmatically opposed to the public, beautiful and orderly discourse associated with the oratory of the Council of Elders, and likewise counterposed to the morally neutral conversations (sauttala) that men engage for leisure. Despite these negative connotations and marginal nature, nonetheless fatufatu is something that everyone on the atoll participates in, and a linguistic practice from which, the moral perils it implies not withstanding, they derive a great deal of pleasure.

Despite, or perhaps because of, its remoteness and small size, gossip on Nukulaelae has far reaching effects. Besnier follows the common methodological principle in linguistic anthropology of linking microsocial processes (i.e. gossip sessions) to macrosocial issues, and throughout the book he provides the reader with rich ethnographic descriptions to ensure that she will understand the consequences that this form of talk has on life in the atoll. This perspective allows him to convincingly claim that politics at various levels (the interpersonal, village, national, even international) are grounded in quotidian speaking practices. As Besnier shows, because Nukulaelae islanders (and indeed all Tuvaluans) depend on extralocal links for economic support, gossip is rarely confined to the atoll itself.

Gossip, Besnier tells us, always implicates more people than the gossiper and his or her target, and the four central chapters of the book move progressively from microinteractions in the cooking hut to larger social spheres in which that talk has been consequential. By examining transcripts of fatufatu Besnier shows us how it is typically structured to involve all co-present actors in its production. In fatufatu crucial pieces of information are only hinted at or left unsaid (notably the name of the target is never directly stated) so that co-participants are induced to become complicit in the telling by supplying their knowledge of local people and events to complete the narrative. Likewise, direct quotes are often used as a means of distributing responsibility for the talk and giving the gossipers a way to not be held culpable for its content should the target confront him or her. And yet, the alternative prestige that some members of the community acquire through being skilled gossipers depends on their own personal control of a juicy story. Thus, fatufatu sessions are at once collaborative narratives and a means for individuals to assert their own status at the expense of others.

In Nukulaelae gossip's power stems from the way that it can be used to manage the interstices of two overarching social discourses nostalgia and egalitarianism--that, though formally contradictory, set up the parameters of public morality on the atoll (Complicating this moral framework is the presence of Christianity on the island). Nostalgia, with an attendant emphasis on the traditional hierarchical authority of chiefs, is the guarantor of social harmony and stability. In contrast, egalitarianism serves as a powerful critique of anyone who claims a higher social or moral standing than her fellow villagers, and can thus be a powerful tool for establishing personal autonomy. Politics in Nukulaelae simultaneously draw from the two discourses, establishing both the primacy of social harmony as well as the individual's right to unfettered action. Gossip's power comes from its ability to pointedly critique violations of either one of these discourses without having to do so within the strictures of orderly public discourse. An analysis of three extended cases of gossip targeting people who due to their religious, marital and economic status stood somewhat removed from the community draw our attention to the public consequences of being gossiped about. In each of these cases the victims end up ostracized from the community and with little recourse for denying the allegations or confronting those responsible for the gossip, precisely because of fatufatu's status as marginal talk. To publicly challenge what has been said about oneself in the course of notoriously trivial and unreliable talk, is already to implicate oneself in a morally suspect activity and, worse yet, drags respectable contexts (such as Council of Elder meetings) into the soot of the cooking hut. Indeed in the most dramatic case examined, which involves sorcery accusations leveled at a man with a prestigious job overseas, a public attempt at denying the gossip and confronting the gossipers, ends in further social sanctions for the accused, which are justified by the fact that he angrily denied the initial accusations of his misdeeds. While ostensibly shunned, gossip in practice carries a lot of weight, constituting a means for exercising social power either from the top down or the bottom up. The picture that emerges of fatufatu's place in everyday politics invites us to rethink how ostensibly alternative spheres of power and influence can as often be used for hegemonic as counter-hegemonic purposes.

There is a tension between Besnier's careful attempts to map out the practices, ideology, and valences of fatufatu as local practice, on the one hand, and his attempts to provide a more generalized theory of gossip, on the other. Several of the features of fatufatu are recognizable in our (or at least my) own folk model of gossip, but there are some that are not (most strikingly that a predilection for gossip is biologically inheritable), and this should lead us to raise the question about just how close a relationship exists between this and other kinds of off-stage, morally suspect, political talk.

With its wide-ranging theoretical inspirations, close attention to actual speaking practices, and a rich ethnography with which to contextualize them, Gossip and the Everyday Production of Politics offers scholars interested in language, politics and morality much to think about. The questions and issues it raises about the role of talk in the social workings of this small island community precariously perched at the margins of, but whose fate is nonetheless implicated in, the global flows of capital and power, is a timely reminder that personal is political and vice versa.

Eric Hoenes del Pinal

University of North Carolina, Charlotte
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Author:del Pinal, Eric Hoenes
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2012
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