The Polynesian Iconoclasm: Religious Revolution and the Seasonality of Power.
New York: Berghahn Books. 2014
Today, one is asked to contemplate the end of the world on a regular basis. This seems to be an era of iconoclasm and iconoclasts in both the senses of image-breakers and radicals. It brings latter-day moderns in touch with a moment in Polynesian history when sacred chiefs encountered Christian missionaries. In this book, Jeffrey Sissons returns to this moment of radical change. He focuses on a series of events at the turn of the 19th century that he terms the Polynesian Iconoclasm. In this period, several chiefly societies in eastern Oceania, including Hawai'i, Tahiti, and Raratonga, destroyed their temples and god-figures, and then just as suddenly invited ministers of the London Missionary Society in, and built chapels and churches throughout their lands, practically on the very same sacred sites they had just destroyed. Through careful reading of missionaries' reports and chronicles of Polynesian elites after the fact, Sissons reconstructs the sequence of this iconoclasm and finds that it follows a seasonal pattern that regulates the relationships between commoners, priests, and chiefs in all these places. In other words, rejection of the old religion came in the traditional time for anti-structure, taboo-breaking, and sacrifice. The season of makahiki, as it is called in Hawai'i, or matari'i-i-nia in Tahiti, comes between November and January, when Pleiades rises. When it sets in May, the hierarchy of sacredness among chiefs, priests, and commoners is reasserted, and new temples are opened. The Polynesian Iconoclasm was then part of a cycle of destruction and renewal, and more importantly, an expression of a particular kind of Polynesian hierarchical dualism of sacred and profane, which binds all people, in different ways, in a single whole.
Iconoclasm is often associated with religious conflict and change. Yet the term mostly evokes a charismatic social movement from the margins, or the deicide of a conquered people's gods. The Polynesian iconoclasm was largely sponsored by indigenous elites. This book then, often in a very understated way, raises some unsettling questions about social change, structure, and event. Anthropologists and historians of this region will note that Sissons is in dialogue with Sahlins's concept of the structure of the conjuncture. Like Sahlins, Sissons develops a version of habitus from Bourdieu's theory of practice and applies this to chiefly iconoclasm. Sissons is most interested in the relationship of habitus to structure, and his analysis relies heavily on the structuralist model of Polynesian chiefdoms developed by Valeri and Sahlins. He affirms a crucial point about a chief s power. Chiefly authority is defined in relation to sacredness, and so is refracted by the dualism of the year, a cycle between a social hierarchy expressed through tabu and its dissolution into communitas expressed in feasting and destruction. Chiefs embody a heroic personhood, as Sahlins says, but chiefly action has different kinds of consequentiality, either as rupture or as establishment, depending on their progress in an annual liturgy. The Polynesian iconoclasm is Polynesian in a double sense: as an event in Polynesian cultural history, and as a quintessentially chiefly mode of action. Chiefs' ambitions for conquest or dynasty are, for Sissons, ultimately shaped by their embodiment of this temporal cycle.
In arguing for a cultural as well as regional iconoclasm, then, Sissons declares his allegiances to structuralist history. His empirical research will delight many people working in this region and on this question, but a few criticisms are inevitable. In the chiefly perspective, the world is a harmonious balance of complementary opposites. Opportunities to hear the voices of commoners and women in the missionary and colonial archive are unfortunately limited. There is however one telling moment in the final acts of the pageant. A few years after Pomare, paramount chief of Tahiti, converted to Christianity, his followers began to protest. Young men started to tattoo themselves and demand for the old ways to come back (148). In his conclusion, Sissons addresses this kind of contradiction between traditionalists and Christians as a kind of inertia of the habitus. Christianity was aligned with chiefly hierarchy, yet it was no longer complemented with communitas. Many people continued to embody dualism and hierarchy, like a collective muscle memory. I can think of at least two other ways to think about this revival of tradition. First, it is interesting to observe that when the young men stood in defence of tradition as opposed to modernity, they also effectively confirmed that society had irreversibly changed. By protesting the loss of traditions, they implicitly accepted that their leaders actually had killed their gods for once. Their traditionalism was necessarily defined by the encompassment of the new Christianised chiefdom. As Sissons points out, as Christianity took hold across Polynesian societies, people realised that it required them to define their social worth on one dimension of sacred mana, all tabu, and no feast. Christianity is a sun that shines so bright that it brings a drought, said the Aitu people of Cook Islands as explanation for why they lapsed from their conversion (112). So one can read the revivalists as ascetics (their revival of licentious sexuality notwithstanding) who renounce Christian morality as social order. Second, in another way, these revivalists were committed to their own iconoclasm. By defiantly asserting their connection to the past, they also violated Christian tabu too.
This second iconoclasm is not necessarily part of a particular kind of habitus, traditional or otherwise, nor does their revival necessarily indicate an orientation towards a traditional cosmological hierarchy. Instead, as Badiou would say, the iconoclast is a kind of subject who constitutes itself through the pure event and the possibility for imagining a wholesale change. The revivalists' iconoclasm in that sense resembles so-called cargo movements throughout Oceania, both in how they anticipate rupture as an all-encompassing horizon of the self, but also how they self-consciously appropriate the terms of modernity and tradition of imperial history to realise this.
The elite action of iconoclasm, as Sissons shows, is ultimately an embodiment of the seasonality of power and the paramount value of mana. Ultimately, it is not a change, but a means for reproduction of a total system. Are the two kinds of events simply different, then, and each associated with different modes of subjectivity? Perhaps so. As Sissons shows, the central question in the development of structuralism by Foucault as well as Bourdieu and Sahlins has been what kinds of conditions are necessary for events to have consequences. Nonetheless the makahiki of the early 19th century did create an opening for a social and theological revolution. Charismatic iconoclasm arguably depends on elite, heroic iconoclasm. The revivalists could not have declared their opposition to Christianity had their chiefs not first commensurated indigenous and European economies of sacred power. This book has the potential to start a fire, and to revive some longstanding issues in the theory of social change that have never been resolved.
University of Sydney