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  • People and Things: Social Mediations in Oceania
  • Rena Lederman
People and Things: Social Mediations in Oceania, edited by Monique Jeudy-Ballini and Bernard Juillerat. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2002. ISBN 0-89089-616-X, xi + 363 pages, tables, figures, maps, photographs, summaries, notes, bibliography, indexes. Cloth, US$60.00.

This collection offers eleven chapters together with chapter summaries, brief contributor biographies, thoughtful indexes, and both photographs and drawings (quite helpful, given the focus on objects). Noting that English- and French-speaking anthropologists working in Oceania "are somewhat cut off from each other" (xi), this book aims to promote engagement by providing English translations (mostly by Nora Scott and Helen Arnold) of works originally appearing in French from 1994 to the present. All the contributions (Barbara Glowczewski's excepted) are previously or soon-to-be published book chapters or journal articles; only a couple of these have been revised for this volume.

Jeudy-Ballini and Juillerat's introduction, "The Social Life of Objects," begins by distinguishing nonhuman "behavioral" exchange from "organized, intentional" exchange among humans, who "use . . . objects as identifying or communicational signs" (3 ). Asserting that the social/symbolic functions of objects are actualized when objects play "mediating" roles, the editors propose that object-mediated exchanges "put what cannot be entirely expressed by body language and speech alone into more tangible form" (4 ). But because this provocative point is unelaborated, their concepts of "mediation" and "objects" (and their opposites: "direct relations between people," including sexual intercourse, fighting, talking) remain unclear.

Throughout the introduction a sharp distinction between "traditional" exchange (or "gift economies") and "commodity economies" (or a "capitalist logic") is asserted, again without explication. However, while the editors' implied notion of commodity exchange is unitary and oddly undynamic, their discussion of gift or traditional exchange emphasizes diversity and complexity. They draw readers' attention to several striking variations evident in the chapters to come: exchange valuables may reinforce conventional significations or else enable people to escape them; the efficacy of objects may be reinforced by their reusable or their perishable materiality; one community may value deferred reciprocation and another may fear it.

Jeudy-Ballini and Juillerat associate "accumulation in itself" (9 ) with "capitalist" logics of prestige and power. In contrast, in many Pacific societies, "an object stored once and for all is of little value": its circulation is key. But this emphasis is only apparently familiar. The editors warn [End Page 452] that the collection's case studies question Marcel Mauss's ideas about gift exchange: "[the intention of] giving does not necessarily entail the obligation of receiving or reciprocating" (11 ). Objects sometimes circulate by violent repossession, and an array of "paradoxical forms of exchange" are evident: receiving without having given, giving without receiving, an absence of obligation altogether, the incorporation (consumption) of objects in acts of identification, and diverse dialectics of displaying/hiding valuables to meaningful effect. These variations are intriguing, however much a reader might object to the editors' reading of Mauss, their approach to commodity relations, and (in contrast to a few of the chapters) their readiness to discuss "traditional" exchange as if it were not entangled with, implicated in, and insinuated around regional and global market relations and meanings.

For better or worse, the expressed purpose of the collection—to introduce Anglophone readers to French work on the social life of objects in Oceania—directed my attention to the citation practices of the editors and contributors. Indeed, my difficulty understanding the rationales for what was or was not referenced just reinforces the editors' point about the need for a denser engagement among French- and English-language scholars. For example, works by C A Gregory, Marilyn Strathern, and Annette Weiner are discussed, while equally relevant collections edited by Arjun Appadurai, and by Jonathan Parry and Maurice Bloch, are not even mentioned; the recent Pacific collection edited by David Akin and Joel Robbins, Money and Modernity, is cited once without discussion. While Freud is engaged extensively, the literature on "consumption" (eg, works by Daniel Miller) is not, despite its centrality to the volume's key focus. Even within Francophone literatures, the editors' and contributors' citation rationales are obscure. Durkheim, Mauss, Levi-Strauss, and Godelier are addressed but...


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