Mana: A History of a Western Category.
Malta, the Oceanic term associated with extraordinary efficacy, has been invoked by so many scholars in so many ways that Levi-Strauss memorably characterized it as a 'floating signifier', a sign that could mean anything. To be sure. Levi-Strauss was making a typically Levi-Straussian point about structure and its possibilities, but his label is a sticky one. It continues to remind scholars that scholarly fascination with mana says as much about the scholars as the people from whom they learned the term.
Nicolas Meylan"s Mana: A History of a Western Category is an insightful analysis of mana's appeal for Western analysts. Meylan deliberately does not avoid the problem of turning mana into a mirror, but rather describes it first and foremost as something Westerners have used as a mirror. He does not pursue original Oceanic meanings, but instead traces the complicated histories in which Westerners encountered the term and concept, how they took it up. the reasons they did so. and how they changed its meanings and expanded its circulation.
The first half of the main text (chapters two through four) is a detailed, at times mesmerizing, history of the way different authors drew upon (and sometimes opposed) each other to gradually decontextualize mana from Pacific contexts. Meylan makes several keen observations. One is that early reports about mana from Western observers did not tend to classify it as 'religious' (although some Christian missionaries, notably Lorrin Andrews in Hawai'i. pulled it into translation projects to articulate Christian religious understandings--and then read their own translations back into local cultural philosophies). Another is that mana was of special interest to Europeans in New Zealand who sought to dispossess Maori of their land. Much of the first half of the book is a close reading of the major theorists who used mana to ground universalist and evolutionary analyses of religion, the familiar names including Codringlon, Muller. Tylor, Marett. Durkheim. and Mauss. Meylan's erudition is impressive and he effectively explains intellectual connections and rivalries. He also observes how, once mana had become a standard category in the study of religion, it was free for appropriation by other disciplines. In Jungian psychology, for example, 'the shift undergone by mana from local to universal category begun in the late 19th century was utterly complete: the colonized Oceanians had been deprived of yet another possession' (p. 100).
The second half of the book (chapters live through seven) presents three striking examples of mana's uptake as a 'second-order category' entirely removed from Oceanic contexts. The first is scholarship on medieval Scandinavia. Meylan. a scholar of medieval Scandinavia himself, shows how numerous authors have drawn upon mana to explain the dynamics of kings' authority and magic's efficacy. He argues that such authors exemplify an unfortunate tendency present from the foundational work of Codrington in Melanesia: the dissociation of political and religious power, with attention to the latter obscuring recognition of the former. The second is fantasy games, in some of which 'mana' is a term for a unit of magical energy. Meylan observes how 19th century physics gave social theorists natural examples to which mana could be compared, and. in doing so, also suggested the idea that mana could be measured not just relatively but absolutely--an innovation which fantasy authors and game designers have found useful. (In describing the key role of Larry Niven. a science fiction author. in adapting mana for new uses, Meylan writes: 'In Niven's fantasy world, it is perfectly reasonable, not to mention linguistically correct, to speak of the twenty-five mana necessary for the accomplishment of a task such as casting a fire ball'; p. 139.) The third is modern Paganism, magic-focused religious movements that attempt to manipulate a vital power pervading the universe; Neo-Pagans occasionally draw on 'mana' to theorize their ritual practices. In a brief epilogue, Meylan states his argument most clearly and directly: using 'mana' theoretically is not unwarranted, but is fraught with perils of ethnocentrism if one treats mana as a generic 'religious' term detachable from context rather than an interactively generated discourse with a pragmatic political aspect.
This book is a significant contribution to anthropology. history, and religious studies, and it deserves a wide readership. Even though the book's focus is not Oceania, readers interested in the Pacific will find it a splendid resource. Unfortunately, the publisher. Brill. has priced the book at the equivalent of around AU $170. and the electronic version is not much less. Thus a book about intellectual circulation might have its own circulation limited by its unaffordability. which is deeply regrettable.
University of Oslo