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The Forest of Taboos: Morality, Hunting and Identity among the Huaulu of the Moluccas. (Reviews).

By Valerlo Valeri.

Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press. 2000.

Pp. xxiii +509

The Forest of Taboos is an ethnography of monumental proportions which not only provides a detailed account of taboo among the Huaulu people of the Moluccas but also takes the reader on an informed and entertaining journey through some of the key debates in anthropology over the past one hundred years. Valeri's eloquent book takes us beyond the realm of taboo as narrowly-defined by anthropologists to the shadowy world of the Huaulu forest hunters of Eastern Indonesia where the notion of maquwoli ('taboo') invades all facets of everyday life. Valeri guides the reader through this dense forest of prohibition and transgression towards a new understanding of taboo which, in a illuminating synergy, brings together a number of old anthropological ideas and arguments about the subject.

Valeri begins his compelling essay on taboo with an introduction to the Huaulu which not only establishes some of the key divisions and principles in Huaulu society but is also at pains to historically situate Huaulu. At times disarmingly frank about the nature of Huaulu relations with others--see Valeri's comments on the snorkeling American missionaries--chapter one also introduces us in subtle ways to Valeri the ethnographer and the various personal and intellectual challenges that fieldwork poses.

Chapter two takes us from the Huaulu to the anthropologist's 'other people'--the community of fellow scholars, whom Valeri identifies as the often uninvited and unacknowledged 'guests' in the field. Valeri's 'diaiectical review' of the literature in this section is not just a critical appraisal and dismissal of the principal theoretical positions on taboo, though at times it appears that way, particularly his comments on Mary Douglas' work on pollution and anomaly. As Valeri points out, this 'reasoned history' of taboo is an attempt to draw the reader towards what he regards as a 'set of solutions' to the many questions and problems posed by the subject of taboo. In the process Valeri revisits a number of anthropological stalwarts, including the taboos on incest and cannibalism. Pivotal to Valeri's stocktaking of the literature is what is often missing in anthropological discussion of taboo--an emphasis upon the constitution and development of the subject, principally in terms of its corporeality. This is re ally the heart of Valeri's analysis of Huaulu notions of taboo. For Valeri, taboo is not only constitutive of Huaulu identity in the most fundamental sense as humans, and not animals, but that this identity is located on the body as the 'battlefield' of the social and the natural. As Valeri contends, it is the corporeality inherent in taboo which is often overlooked in anthropological theories about the subject.

In chapter three, Valeri explores the many meanings of the Huaulu concept of maquwoli and identifies three general classes of taboo: taboos of digestion, reproduction and death. The focus of each of these classes of taboo is what is animal in humans, two categories of being which should ideally be kept distinct. In this sense, maquwoli points to a strong and dangerous incompatibility between subject and object for Huaulu people. As Valeri points out, maquwoli stands for a relationship between subject and object that in some way contradicts their identity as determined by their categorical associations. Invoking the Huaulu idea that "I am what I eat", Valeri explains that for a person to eat something which is different from them but somehow implicated in what or who they are, for instance to eat a dog, they run the risk of undermining their embodied identity. Here taboo functions to accentuate difference and diminish similarity between subject (human) and object (dog). Simply stated then, the logic of taboo is to separate the subject from objects that are conceptually or experientially incompatible with a person's identifications. Identity is thus "established and disestablished by relationships of contrast with comparable others" (p.332). Valeri explores the tensions that exist between identity, embodiment, similarity and difference in Huaulu taboo practices in more detail in chapter four where he focuses upon meat and animal taboos to reveal certain general principles of maquwoli.

Critical of anthropological views which propound an ultimate principle of taboo, Valeri identifies four coordinated principles that are expressed in the Huaulu notion of maquwoli. These are the principles of: (1) excessive closeness; (2) excessive distance; (3) excluded anomaly, and; (4) excluded mixing. According to Valeri, to better understand the reasoning for taboos these four principles can be further encompassed under two opposing meta-principles: the principles of excessive distance and excessive proximity between subject and object. While space does not allow a fuller discussion of these principles, a brief consideration of one of them, namely the principle relating to excessive distance, succinctly illustrates Valeri's arguments about identity and raises a number of important issues about the nature of ethnographic research.

The principle of 'excessive distance' from the Huaulu world includes those taboos that Valeri identifies as 'misoneistic' ones. Distance in this situation not only refers to categorical difference but also to spatial disassociation. This principle informs the taboo on eating fish and fowl together, two classes of animals which are not only categorically different but also occupy different spatial habitats in the Huaulu five-tiered view of the world. This principle also applies to various artefacts and substances which are associated with coastal people and the so-called 'outside world'. Included in this category of taboo things are radios, cameras, electricity and even literacy. As Valeri explains, contact with these foreign things has the power to undermine the distinctiveness of Huaulu as inland people, making them similar to the social world of the coast-dwelling communities who they regard as inferior. In this regard, Huaulu misoneistic taboos pose a fundamental challenge to ethnography. As Valeri furthe r reveals, the reproduction of Huaulu life by means of cameras, tape-recorders, pens and other foreign objects, and the revelation of this life to strangers is fundamentally taboo. The world of the Huaulu and the overseas world should be kept separate as the mixing of these two worlds would diminish the distinctive identity of Huaulu people and culture and ultimately challenge their very existence. Entwined in the moral forest of Huaulu taboos, Valeri reveals the very paradox of ethnography that Claude Levi-Strauss alludes to in Tristes Tropiques. Valeri's response -- violation of the taboo in a reduced and mediated manner -- is, it seems, doubly diminishing. For as Valeri points out in the conclusion to the book, a person cannot violate a taboo without violating themselves.

Ironically, Valeri's predicament as an ethnographer reveals the very essence of Huaulu taboo. Namely, that self-definition by contrast with other people or other things hinges upon the negation of what that other is or what they do. Valeri concludes his discussion of taboo by considering the positive and constitutive role of negation in the emergence of identity. Ultimately for Valeri, Huaulu notions of identity based upon negation or the subtraction of material consumption are made clearer by way of contrast with (and negation by) its extreme opposite--the consumer society of Los Angeles, USA.

At over five hundred pages, and packed with a wealth of ethnographic description and theoretical insights, The Forest of Taboos is not for the anthropologically faint-hearted. And certainly no book review can adequately capture the literary nuances, erudite analysis and refreshingly readable prose that are such a notable feature of the book. Notwithstanding its somewhat intimidating length and, in places, an unwarranted repetition of detail, this scholarly treatise on one of the cornerstone concepts of anthropology will richly reward the reader with its thoughtful and extraordinary exploration of what it is to be human for the Huaulu of central Seram. Completed just before Valerio's death in 1998, The Forest of Taboos is a fitting memorial to an innovative and inspiring anthropologist and, from my memories of him, a delightfully impulsive person.
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Author:Pannell, Sandra
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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