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Property, Substance and Effect: Anthropological Essays on Persons and Things.

By Marilyn Strathern.

London: The Athione Press 1999.

Few anthropologists over the past few decades can claim to have made the impact, both within and Outside the discipline, that Marilyn Strathern has. Her writings have spanned an exceptionally wide range of issues: beyond her ethnographic and comparative analysis of Melanesian sociality with which readers of this journal are most likely to be familiar, there are highly influential discourses on feminist theory, the nature/culture dichotomy; patterns of Euro-American kinship, new reproductive birth technologies, audit culture in Euro-American universities, and intellectual property rights, just to name the more salient. While it has been possible for those who have followed these various trajectories to identify certain kindred themes--personhood, exchange, the contrasts of Melanesian/Euro-American sociality--and while one suspects that there is a single-mindedness beneath it all, Strathern has never been altogether explicit herself on quite how the diverse parts of her scholarship connect up. Like her paradigm atic Melanesian person, perhaps, each new revelation, dazzling in itself, has made visible only part of the larger body of ideas contained within. This volume is thus of considerable value, for the compounded effect of the various chapters renders more clearly than their separate publication elsewhere a semblance of the full corpus of Strathern's thought.

Pp. xii+336

Containment of this order is suggested in the book's structure, as the various internal chapter components are wrapped within a single integument, Chapter 1 The Ethnographic Moment' divided so as to both open and close the volume. For Strathern, the 'ethnographic moment' consists in the complex epistemological connections between the collection of field observations and subsequent analysis. Like Highlanders' display practices, she suggests, ethnography is revelatory, inviting the reader to consider what is not revealed on the evidence of what is. But also, data collected at one time and place can yield new insights when viewed from other places and times, as when the perspective of the early 1970s in Mt Hagen is deployed to analyse events observed in the mid 1990s, or when Melanesian understandings of personhood and exchange are deployed for comprehending Euro-American practices associated with new birth technologies or the development of intellectual property rights legislation. In other regards, this initi al/final chapter addresses several of the other key tropes of her previous writing, which are further elaborated in the internal chapters: revelation and concealment, the elicitation of effects, fractal self-similarity, parts to wholes, and so on.

Thus, for example, Chapter 2 contrasts the capturing of Asmat and Marind-Amin heads with the painting of Euro-American portraits as a commentary on the individuality of Melanesian persons and the dividuality of Euro-Americans. Chapter 3 similarly juxtaposes Melanesian and Euro-American personhood focussing upon the consequences among the former when it is money rather than life-force which is circulated in relations. Chapter 4 reveals how EuroAmerican knowledge of procreation has embedded children's development in the acts of parents; for Euro-Americans as for Hageners, knowledge is based in relations, and additional knowledge, such as the discoveries of DNA, can have different effects upon relationships. Chapter 5 reports on Strathern's longdelayed return visit to Mt Hagen in 1995 and the episodic historical transformations from mid-1960s moka exchange, to expansion of coffee production and cash-cropping, to 1990s consumerism. Chapter 6 explores Strathern's notion of personal partibility with respect to hyb ridity models of Clifford and Latour. Chapter 7 juxtaposes Melanesian and Western understandings of how they can each inform one another about otherwise hidden aspects of property, ownership, persons and objects. Chapter 8 critically examines current candidates for 'ownership' (cultural property, intellectual property, the body, and university academic achievement). Chapter 9 discusses the dilemmas and inappropriateness of Intellectual Property Rights legislation to third world polities. Chapter 10 surveys the implications of bodily scale in numerous ethnographic contexts, from growing yams and shell exchange to compensation claims and social change.

Like Hageners' body decorations, however, these reflections and revelations engender their own calculated effects, namely inviting the reader to consider some of what the author has not revealed. I have in mind partly the subtle ways in which the book responds to many of the previous criticisms of Strathern's work, from Women In Between to The Gender of the Gift and her more recent treatments of new birth technologies. But also, it is this aspect of Strathern's approach which appears to have frustrated some readers and provoked those very criticisms in others. Yet even in this capacity Strathern remains faithful to her wider perspective on 'perspective': a function of the realisation of her reflection on others' perceptions of herself from another perspective. It is not just that her ideas are difficult or that her writing tends to be non-linear, but that she is consistently calling to the readers attention through the ideas she reveals, connections to ideas that are must needs concealed, eclipsed. The book thereby instantiates the very same dynamics as constitutes her prototypical Melanesian agent. The intellectual tension which she has frequently discussed in her writings between Melanesian, Euro-American and ethnographic perspectives--how Melanesian understandings can be used ethnographically to reveal unrecognised aspects of Euro-American practices, and vice-versa--applies to the relation between the revealed and concealed components of her own thought.

As with other transactions, readers can expect to receive from this book as much as they are willing to devote. Encompassing so much of her recent thought on so many issues, the book is easily Strathem's most important token of intellectual exchange since The Gender of the Gift, revealing for prepared readers significant elements of which her work has all alone been composed.
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Author:Mosko, Mark
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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