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Reviewed by:
  • Approches autour de culture et nature dans le Pacifique Sud
  • Elise Huffer
Approches autour de culture et nature dans le Pacifique Sud, edited by Hamid Mokaddem. Actes du XIIIe colloque CORAIL. Nouméa: Expressions; CORAIL in partnership with the Northern Province, Secretariat of the Pacific Community, and the University of New Caledonia, 2003. ISBN 2-9519371-0-5; 406 pages, tables, figures, map, abbreviations, notes, written in French, bibliographies, index. 3500 CFP francs.

The book is a compilation of papers presented at the thirteenth meeting of CORAIL (Coordination pour l'Océanie des Recherches sur les Arts, les Idées et les Littératures), which was held in 2001 in Nouméa at the Secretariat of the Pacific Community and in two sites in northern New Caledonia: the Provincial headquarters and the Goa ma Bwarhat cultural center established by Jean-Marie Tjibaou in Hienghène. As stated by Hamid Mokaddem in his preface, the organizers of the meeting (which Mokaddem qualifies as "an exceptional intellectual adventure" [13]) deliberately sought to practice decentralization and rebalancing by holding sessions outside of Nouméa. Their objective was to open channels of communication so as to break down the legacy of the Western "binary models of the world based onthe nature-culture dichotomy" which, according to Mokaddem, have in New Caledonia led to a vision and discourse of "us versus them" and "South versus North" (15). In addition, the organizers deliberately invited a wide range of academic and nonacademic participants with specialized knowledge ranging from traditional medicine, epidemiology, anthropology, geology, history, dance, archeology, law, literature, and cultural geography, including members of various nongovernmental organizations and cultural centers.

While the broad range of participants would have been invaluable for the actual meeting, the attempt to put together such a large number of papers into a single volume has proven difficult. Although the book is divided into five distinct parts—(1) anthropological approaches; (2) scientific and technical approaches; (3) legal approaches; (4) literary approaches; and (5) field approaches —the volume lacks coherence and continuity. The chapters are unequal in nature, quality, and depth of analysis, and the range of topics covered is extensive.

This drawback is compounded bythe fact that while most chapters focus on New Caledonia, the book also contains a few chapters dealing with other parts of the Pacific (Papua New Guinea, Sämoa, Australia, and Oceania in general). These chapters don't really seem to fit, and the book may have benefited by focusing solely on providing an up-to-date snapshot of how the nature and culture dichotomy is viewed by various actors and thinkers grounded in contemporary [End Page 188] New Caledonia. As it is, the book spreads itself somewhat thin.

Another difficulty is in the posing of the question of nature and culture. The nature/culture question is a central concern of anthropology, as Paul de Deckker illustrates in his opening discussion on the etymology and gradual transformation of these terms in Western thought. As such it is a binary or "antagonistic" paradigm, precisely the kind that Mokaddem views as divisive in the New Caledonia context. One then could ask why this was chosen as the theme of the conference. Would it not have been more useful to frame a new problematic, or find innovative ways to discuss place, space, environment, being, aesthetics, art, and other topics that are not necessarily in opposition but rather encompass both land and people (ie, nature and culture)? As Leah Horowitz states in her chapter, there is no exact translation of the word "nature" in Melanesian languages, and "nature, as an object of contemplation, is a fundamentally Occidental concept" (139). Why then require discussion of the nature/culture question in contemporary New Caledonia and the Pacific? In a world that has changed considerably since Claude Lévi-Strauss's seminal work, it may betime to go beyond inherited paradigms.

Out of the twenty-seven chapters of the book (too many to discuss in one review), three are particularly interesting: Alban Bensa's on what purpose is served by the notion of culture; Leah Horowitz's examination of nature and contemporary Kanak cultural identity; and the chapter by Christophe Sand, Jacques Bolé, and...