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  • On Analogies:Rethinking the Pacific in a Global Context
  • Teresia K Teaiwa (bio)

This paper began its life as a keynote address at the July 2002 meeting of the European Society of Oceanists in Vienna, Austria.

Let us imagine a small but significant number of European—that is, Europe-based—scholars earnestly at work on Pacific topics in scattered, isolated locations on that turbulent continent. There is a certain exoticness to that image, and a pathos with which I, at least, can identify, having myself spent many years studying the Pacific away from the Pacific. In a funny way, the very existence of a "European Society for Oceanists" mirrors the enduring image of the Pacific region as being constituted by small, scattered, isolated islands—despite Epeli Hau'ofa's best efforts (Hau'ofa 1993).

In my imagination these Europe-based scholars are surrounded by colleagues examining national and domestic issues, European Union developments, NATO politics, events in the transition states of the former Soviet Union, peacekeeping and reconstruction in the Balkans, the resurgence of right-wing political parties, or, as the occasion may call for, the legacy of philosophers like Karl Popper and the challenges of housing in the twenty-first century. Some of their colleagues probably work on European aid policy in Africa or European trade with Asia and North America. It would make sense, since those are all pressing and relevant concerns in their national and regional contexts. But I wonder how Europeans studying the Pacific stay motivated? How they feel justified in studying distant islands, when so many things are happening at home and closer to home that demand their attention and command research funds? I wonder how their colleagues view their research and whether they accord it an equality of knowledge? [End Page 71]

I teach Pacific studies at a university located in the South Pacific, yet many times I feel I am surrounded by academics who believe the Pacific offers them little more than some color and entertainment, and that all they need to know to truly be in the world is in Europe/Africa/Latin America/Asia/Anglo-Austronesia (white Australia and New Zealand)—that is, not in the island Pacific. If I have difficulty convincing my colleagues that Pacific studies has cachet on the global knowledge market, I wonder how members of the European Society for Oceanists fare. At least for me, when the university gets me down and I'm feeling homesick for Fiji, I have Wellington, a city with a vibrant contemporary Pacific arts scene—from hip-hop to theatre, filmmaking, comedy, visual arts, taro at the corner dairy, corned beef at the grocery store, and green coconuts at Woolworth's. I wonder how Europeans studying the Pacific stay inspired when their return visits for fieldwork and research in the Pacific are expensive and thus less frequent than they might prefer? Perhaps their fieldwork souvenirs keep their memories warm: a piece of tapa or a mat gifted to them and kept in a place of honor in their homes or offices; a collection of Te Vaka or Fenua CDs or recordings from the late Ad Linkels collection playing in their car stereos; biennial meetings with people who, if not exactly like-minded or kindred in spirit, at least know where they've been, know where they're "at," and could be interested in going somewhere with them . . . if only conceptually.

There will always be hierarchies of knowledge, and whether the Pacific as an area of study barely registers on the scale of scholarly importance in Europe or America, or whether our collective word counts in refereed journals would approximate the worth of stone money/shell money/ feather money/fine mats/whales' teeth/greenstone or even a 10kg bag of rice in the most isolated village on the remotest motu . . . whether our work matters to the people we work on or work with, at the end of the day, whether we are studying/writing about/reflecting on the Pacific in the Pacific or far, far away, our work must matter to us. What links all students of the Pacific, is the belief that our enquiries matter.

Once upon a time...