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Joel Robbins - Dancing Through Time: A Sepik Cosmology (review) - The Contemporary Pacific 15:1 The Contemporary Pacific 15.1 (2003) 215-216

Dancing Through Time: A Sepik Cosmology, by Borut Telban. Oxford Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998. ISBN0-19-823376-0; xii + 270 pages, maps, figures, tables, photographs, appendixes, glossary, notes, bibliography, index. US$88.

Melanesian cultures are famously diverse. Yet there are some concepts that while not universally distributed throughout the cultures of the region at least appear to be important in a great many of them. Consider, for example, the complex notion of "base, root, cause, reason" that Tok Pisin speakers in Papua New Guinea regularly gloss as as. Or, to take an example of more recent origin, think about the widespread importance of ideas about culture and tradition captured in the Tok Pisin kastam and its cognates in other Melanesian linguae francae. Because versions of such concepts are important in many cultures, careful ethnographic discussions of them can be very valuable in the development of the anthropology of the region. It is one of the great merits of Telban's work that he has identified one of these generally important concepts that has received relatively little attention in the literature and has put his discussion of it at the center of an ethnographically rich account of the culture of the Karawari-speaking Ambonwari of the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea.

The concept in question is the one the Ambonwari refer to with the Karawari term kay. Telban glosses this term in English as "way, habit, manner; ritual; custom; law; being; canoe" (262). Kay's range of meanings should make it recognizable to many who have worked in Papua New Guinea as a term that denotes something similar to what Tok Pisin speakers in many other cultures refer to as pasin. In examining the central role kay plays in articulating many different aspects of Ambonwari culture, Telban offers us the most careful examination of this concept to appear to date.

Telban's account of kay is strikingly original in two respects. First, he situates the understanding of kay as personal way, habit, and manner, in relation to other Ambonwari psychological ideas. Key among these is the notion of heart (wambung), which is the seat of people's social understanding and understanding of themselves. Inasmuch as it is through the heart that people take in Ambonwari custom, the heart is part of kay. It is also part of kay because it provides individuals with their own personal way of doing things. But precisely because one's heart is part of one's unique manner of being, each heart also impresses custom with an individual stamp. This produces a model of tradition that is capable of recognizing change. As Telban puts it, for the Ambonwari, "[h]eart is the means of kay's [custom's] self-transformation" (66).

The second novel aspect of Telban's examination of the operations of kay in Ambonwari culture is his analysis of the way kay relates domains of life that are in other ways distinct. In Ambonwari, the notion of kay, like that of pasin elsewhere, can refer to the way of the ancestors, the way of the village, and to the idiosyncratic ways of particular individuals. This allows kay to articulate relations between these levels, giving them scope to inform each other, much as [End Page 215] custom and heart inform each other in Ambonwari psychological conceptualization. Furthermore, it allows kay to bind different kinds of time (ancestral, historical, personal) into a workable whole that provides the context of Ambonwari lives.

Telban lays out this careful analysis of kay primarily in the early parts of the book (though he returns to his analysis and enriches it in almost every chapter). He then links kay to two other concepts: that of path or marriage (konggong) and that of speech, story, or myth (mariawk). With these three concepts as a base, he offers accounts of clanship, naming systems, kinship, marriage, mythology, and religion. All of these discussions are marked both by their attention to detail and by their clarity, and they will prove valuable to regional specialists.

At various points throughout the book, Telban discusses the intersection of kay and Ambonwari conceptions of time, and these discussions make temporality a key theme of the book as a whole. Yet even as Telban's considerations of temporality are stimulating and deserve the attention of those interested in temporality and historicity, I have focused this review on his analysis of kay because it is this that provides the book's most sustained focus. By laying out the complexity of the concept of kay and showing why it is so central to Ambonwari culture, Telban has written a book that should stimulate many others who work among people who employ similar concepts to rethink their own understandings of the nature of such notions and of the way they tie together individual action, custom, and history, to create the life-worlds of the people they study.

 



Joel Robbins
University of California, San Diego

Additional Information

ISSN
1527-9464
Print ISSN
1043-898X
Launched on MUSE
2003-02-10
Open Access
No
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