Kava is a supersaturating sign in indigenous Fijian public life. Called yaqona in Fijian, kava is both a shrub (Piper methysticum) and the drink made from it. The plant is not especially impressive to look at: it has none of the slender grace of a tall coconut palm, none of the rude heft of yams or taro. It is a medium-sized shrub with knobby stems and stringy, dusty brown roots. What makes it impressive is the semiotic range of its social embeddings. Put simply, kava means radically different things in different contexts. It is a means of competition and also of settling for peace, the cause of social unity and also its dissolution. It is a cherished emblem of old traditions that invites dreamy speculation of affluent futures. Finally, it is a Christian symbol that is believed to summon demons.1
Kava's dynamic polysemy, I argue, emerges from its irresolvably problematic place in Fijian Christian life. More than ninety-nine percent of indigenous Fijians are Christians (Walsh 2006:201), and many describe Christianity as "traditional"—as something that was embraced by chiefs a century and a half ago. Despite the continued visibility of many traditional practices, including kava drinking, many Fijians are convinced that tradition is disappearing or already gone. They struggle to reassert its relevance, and thus, as Nicholas Thomas has noted wryly, "contemporary rural Fijian life…is much more traditional [End Page 1065] [now] than it could have been before" (1997:182–183). Kava mediates tensions between ideologies of tradition and desires for progress, but in its mediation kava does not resolve the tensions—it intensifies them.
It does so partly because of its material properties, especially its soporific and inebriating qualities. Made into a beverage, kava's consumption dominates men's social lives in rural Fiji. In Tavuki village on Kadavu Island, the locus of my research, men drink it for several hours every day, usually beginning in the late afternoon. Women drink too, generally in mixed-sex groups, but they do not drink as much or as often as men do. Fijians appreciate kava's numbing, soporific properties which induce relaxed, harmonious socializing. They also appreciate its value as a commodity with a high (though fluctuating) market price, something they can cultivate and sell to develop their households and communities materially. For these tangible reasons, kava stands metaphorically at the center of Fijian public life. But it also opens a conduit to the world of non-Christian spirits, a world that shadows and haunts Fijian villages. In an essay on Christianity, subjectivity and transcendence, Webb Keane writes that "the very materiality of objects is inseparable from their capacity to signify.… But objects are also mute. Their possible interpretations are underdetermined. As they travel across space and time, they elude hermeneutic control. The latter is one reason objects may be seen as problematic for true doctrine" (Keane 2006:311; see also Keane 2007). Kava exemplifies this mute and slippery journey through social life, offering both hope and despair to drinkers who cannot reconcile its conflicting material and semiotic aspects, to which I now turn.
The more fieldwork I conducted, the more I noticed kava's extensive semiotic range—a starburst of meanings and uses in which both the plant and the drink become a symbol for everything and its opposite. This is not a matter of articulating paradoxes in an attempt to resolve them through myth or ritual, per Lévi-Strauss or Victor Turner, but rather a matter of contextual versatility. For example, Fijians often claim that kava makes drinkers feel calm and peaceful whereas alcohol makes people want to fight. Physiologically this is true, as kava relaxes people's muscles, makes them sleepy, and generally "evokes an atmosphere of relaxation and easy sociability among drinkers" (Lebot, Merlin, and Lindstrom 1992:3). Fijians exploit kava's numbing and soothing effects for a ritual called ibulubulu ("burial") in which an offending person...