- The Making of Global and LocalModernities in Melanesia: Humiliation,Transformation and the Natureof Culture Change
Great scholars sometimes pen an ancillary gem that runs importantly across the normal grain of their work—think of Lévi-Strauss on the psychic work of symbolism, Foucault on race, or Marx on precapitalist formations. In 1992, Marshall Sahlins published a provocative little piece, "The Economics of Develop-man in the Pacific" (Res 21:13–25), which considered not only the cultural appropriation of so-called modern development, but also the humiliation—and Christian humiliation in particular—that could lead people to devalue their culture and embark on a futile quest—across a cultural "desert"—to pursue external standards of success and "development." In the present edited volume—itself a little gem of insight, provocation, and across-the-grain focus—Joel Robbins and Holly Wardlow configure a finely honed collection of chapters by major Melanesianists that critically engage Sahlins's original assertions.
The watchword throughout is critical application. Whereas Sahlins's original comments (appropriately reprinted in this book) are as generic as they are brief, the book's chapters are rich reassessments of his notion using ethnographic cases that stretch from the Solomons to the Sepik. Abstaining from both idolizing appreciation and critical harping in favor of fine scholarship, the book's contributors illustrate the simultaneous rightness and wrongness—and wider significance—of his initial provocative essay.
In substance, the body of the book provides tight and telling assessments of Sahlins's characterization, reflected against reassertions of traditional custom (kastom) among Kwaio of eastern Malaita, Solomon Islands (David Akin), and numerous cases in Papua New Guinea, including Christianity among Urapmin, Mt Ok, West Sepik (Joel Robbins); fierce resentment and violent jealousy among Huli, Southern Highlands (Holly Wardlow); ethnopsychology and the cultural construction of dysphoria (eg, unhappiness or disenchantment) among Bumbita Arapesh, Eastern Sepik (Stephen Leavitt); psychodynamics of contemporary shame among Eastern Iatmul, Sepik River (Eric Silverman); modern sorrow and lassitude (les) among Rawa men of Madang Province (Douglas Dalton); modern self-construction among Kewa, Southern Highlands (Lisette Josephides); the politics of shame and the death of moka exchanges among Melpa, Mt Hagen, Western Highlands (Andrew Strathern and Pamela Stewart); bodily constructions of conjuncture and difference among Ipili, Enga (Aletta Biersack); humiliation, class, and the difficulty of crossing traditional-modern development divides in East Sepik (Frederick Errington and Deborah Gewertz); and violent regional successionism among Lelet in central New Ireland (Karen Sykes).
Given the topical range of the book's chapters, one might expect them to be variable in quality and [End Page 618] focus. However, the contributors' topics refract effectively through the shared optic of Sahlins's original provocation, which is explicitly considered in each case. The editors deserve credit for this coherence as well as for the tight effectiveness of its published presentation—fourteen contributions in 216 pages. The best of the book's ethnographic chapters, including those by Robbins, Wardlow, Leavitt, Dalton, and a brief contribution by Errington and Gewertz—create fresh implications not only for Sahlins's original article but also for the critical assessment of his theories of cultural continuity and historical change. Contemporary dimensions of shame, envy, self-criticism, and violent self-assertion come to the fore in important new ways in these chapters—as do the dynamics of Christianity, gender, class, and exchange.
As Robbins effectively suggests in his introduction, Sahlins's stimulating essay opened up his own work to a challenging reassessment by raising the issue of exactly how and under what conditions cultural constructions of self-disenchantment take place. In this respect, the present volume is a landmark both in the assessment of Sahlins's notions of cultural change and, equally, in delineating a vibrant forward edge of the contemporary anthropology of Melanesia.
Two features that the volume toys with and that could be expanded in future work deserve mention. The first is how cultural constructions of dysphoria—including shame...