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Secrecy and Cultural Reality

Utopian Ideologies of the New Guinea Men's House

Gilbert Herdt

Publication Year: 2003

Gilbert Herdt is Director of the Program in Human Sexuality Studies at San Francisco State University, where he is also Professor of Human Sexuality Studies and Anthropology.

Published by: University of Michigan Press


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Preface & Acknowledgments

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pp. xi-xviii

A book is a chapter from one’s life, at least it is for me, and like all liminal markers, it foreshadows endings as well as beginnings. The invitation to give the Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures in 1991 was no different in this way, though it took far longer, a decade longer, than I imagined to sort the...

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1. Lewis Henry Morgan & Victorian Secret Societies

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pp. 1-31

...gan enjoyed the intimacy of male secrecy at a time when the groundbetween public and private cultural spaces was unstable and secret societiesproduced trust and mistrust between the men who occupied their reality.Morgan—the nineteenth-century lawyer whose investigation of Iroquoissocial organization in upstate New York is critical to the development of...

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2. Why Secrecy?

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pp. 33-64

That cultural systems of secrecy occur unevenly across societies ancient and modern, large and small, is certain; they are surely not universal in the social life of human groups. Nor must we confound the existence of secrets in the lives of individual actors—whether via the concept of Freud’s unconscious wishes, or the phenomenological social self of Lewis...

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3. Secrecy among the Sambia, 1974–1976

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pp. 65-113

The central problem of the anthropological study of secrecy is to understand not only what a people believe in, but also what they fear and doubt; not what they celebrate in public ceremonies but how their mistrust is transferred into hidden acts and whispered stories behind the stage of society. It is hard to fathom how the secret masculinity vaunted in this...

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4. Paradox of the Men’s House

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pp. 115-172

The daily life of ritual secrecy in the precolonial societies of New Guinea depended upon the shifting political economy of local peoples— especially their sense of how the world was forged in war, and what trust and loyalty meant for survival in a volatile world. The institution of the men’s house was vital to communal security in many of these...

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5. Colonialism & the Dissolution of Secret Reality

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pp. 173-211

Since secrecy has long been suspect—a source of subversion, abuse of power by brokers and nefarious agents of the state, and social ill—we should not be surprised to discover that precolonial male agents of ritual secrecy and colonial agents from Western powers competed for hegemony in Melanesia. With endemic war, troubled relations between the...

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Afterword: Secrecy & Cultural Relativism

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pp. 213-240

Between the premodern absolutism of ritual secrecy, coded in utopian and millennial worldviews, and the neoliberal democracy that invented cultural relativism, there is the voice of anthropology. In the modern period, this voice was reflective of the intellectual promotion of relativism—the cherishing of cultures as contextual systems of beliefs and...


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pp. 241-243


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pp. 245-261


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pp. 263-269

E-ISBN-13: 9780472026258
E-ISBN-10: 0472026259
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472067619
Print-ISBN-10: 0472067613

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2003

OCLC Number: 615633527
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Secrecy and Cultural Reality

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Secret societies -- Papua New Guinea.
  • Sambia (Papua New Guinean people) -- Sexual behavior.
  • Initiation rites -- Papua New Guinea.
  • Sex customs -- Papua New Guinea.
  • Male homosexuality -- Papua New Guinea.
  • Sambia (Papua New Guinean people) -- Rites and ceremonies.
  • Papua New Guinea -- Social life and customs.
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