Anthropological Quarterly 75.1 (2002) 225-227
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The Python's Back is an intriguing exercise in comparative analysis, an enterprise that recently has fallen into some disrepute. But this book proves there is still much to be learned from such an enterprise, especially when geographic proximity establishes certain shared cultural features (a focus on relations of exchange, debt and the animal world) but historical and political differences have placed societies in distinct "regional systems" where their features are rarely juxtaposed.
The comparison is restricted to the highlands of Papua New Guinea (where both Strathern and Stewart have conducted research), the Bird's Head area of Irian Jaya, and the cluster of Eastern Indonesian islands which extend westwards to Sumba, but no further. It therefore excludes the better known parts of Indonesia (Java, Bali, Sumatra, etc.) which have been heavily penetrated by a Hindu-Buddhist legacy and an Islamic present, but it provides many thought provoking insights into the "Melanesian" aspects of the eastern islands. The approach is "thematic", focusing on topics such as slavery, personhood, kinship and commoditization, the spirit world, witchcraft, and the representation of particular animal motifs (cassowaries, pythons, etc.).
The first exploration is among the most interesting. In this section, the authors struggle with the ethnographic fact that although debt is an important [End Page 225] concept in both Eastern Indonesia and Melanesia, slavery is virtually absent from the Melanesian scene, but an important component of many Eastern Indonesian societies. They argue that "slavery represents a gradation of relationships of bondage tied to the commoditization, but also the decommoditization, of the person, and feeding into the categories of gift and sacrifice" (p. 128). The shift from prescribed forms of marriage to more open ones has, they argue, led to the potential for "a marriage market that is analytically comparable to the flow of commoditized persons under the rubric of slavery" (p.128). The "analytical analogy" they establish between the circuits of marriage and of slavery is established through an examination of data from the Bird's Head of Irian Jaya where adoption was used as rubric under which to commoditize persons. This area does indeed seem to "mediate" in many fascinating ways between the more hierarchical eastern Indonesia societies of Sumba and Tanimbar and the more egalitarian New Guinea highlands.
Strathern and Stewart suggest a model of fixity and flow for examining the relationship between slavery and kinship: slaves may be either fixed into kinship positions or detached from these and circulated as commoditized entities, and "adoption mediates between fixture and flow and may facilitate either" (p.26). This argument also addresses the long standing debates within the anthropology of slavery about whether kinship and slavery exist on a continuum (as in the work of Suzanne Miers and Igor Kopytoff) or are strictly antinomic (as in the work of Claude Meillassoux). The authors support the continuum argument, seeing various "rights in persons" defined through exchange, and realized in different ways in the context of marriage, adoption and slavery.
The discussion of cosmology focuses on important natural symbols such as the cassowary, which represents generation and autochthony in both New Guinea and Eastern Indonesia. Oppositions between sky beings and the earth that are highly developed in Indonesia are present in the New Guinea highlands as well, as "fragments and background echoes that come more clearly into relief" (p. 129) when set alongside the comparative material. Both regions stress the sacrifice of a Female Spirit whose body is divided to provide nourishment, and both have countervailing fears of cannibalistic witches who are jealous and resentful. There is also a strong theme of spirit marriage throughout the region which is linked to illegitimate access to wealth, but the dynamics of its expression vary in different cultural contexts.
The authors argue that working out the "cultural logics" of a phenomenon like spirit marriage involves the dichotomies of similarity and difference, understanding and...