- Tahiti Beyond the Postcard: Power, Place, and Everyday Life by Miriam Kahn
Anthropologist Miriam Kahn brings her long history of researching issues of power, place, and identity in the Pacific to bear in this fascinating analysis of tourism in French Polynesia. In Tahiti Beyond the Postcard, she traces the roots of the industry back to European dreams of empire and romance, analyzes the transformation of natural-cultural sites into tourist sights, and studies the reconfiguration of these capital-infused places via Polynesian resistance. Drawing on archival research and long periods of fieldwork (1994–2010) in Raiatea, Huahine, Tahiti, and France, Kahn offers a dialogically structured examination of how peoples develop a sense of place and identity through everyday [End Page 430] engagements within contexts shaped by global contacts.
For theoretical ballast, she borrows Henri Lefebvre’s triangular framework of l’espace conçu, l’espace perçu, et l’espace vécu (space conceived, perceived, and lived). For Lefebvre in France and Kahn in the Society Islands, space must be made, unmade, and remade through living practice. Lived space is thus formulated as opening a site of inquiry into the ways in which local places and senses of selves and others are reformulated over time, sometimes subject to what Pierre Bourdieu has called “symbolic violence.” In juxtaposition to the French social theorists, and to give voice to the violation sensed by those living within these dominated spaces, Kahn also draws on the political poetics of Henri Hiro, Tahitian independence activist and poet of the 1950s–1980s, and Chantal Spitz, Tahitian poet and novelist of the next generation.
Starting with early contacts in the late eighteenth century, Kahn moves through the colonial period before focusing more concretely on the last fifty years of nuclear testing and tourist development. Relying on texts (poems, letters, and newspaper articles) and visual material (photos, drawings, postcards, tourist publicity, and craftwork) as well as her own ethnographic interactions at tourist locales and local festivals, she examines each period via the conceptions, perceptions, and “livings” of both Polynesians and Westerners: poet activists and political administrators, travel agents and everyday tourists, Tahitian youth and elders.
Focusing on how specific places are mutually constructed and deconstructed, she first analyzes the Jean-Jacques Rousseau-inspired fantasies of Nouvelle Cythère, which resulted from Louis-Antoine de Bougainville’s publication of Voyage autour du monde in 1771 and the portraits and landscape paintings of Tahiti and its women produced by the artists who traveled with Captain Cook. These images carried through into the twentieth century via art (Paul Gauguin); novels (The Marriage of Loti, by Pierre Loti ); and mass-produced postcards. However, the latter emphasized not only the physical beauty of the new colony but also the empire’s success at constructing urban order and industry out of primitive chaos, thus rationalizing the European ideal of imposing civilization on their exotic subjects.
Subsequent chapters explore how the conceptualized spaces rarely matched the realities perceived by foreign visitors or local residents. Tahitians conceived of their fenua—their islands’ topography (mountains and lagoons) and the ceremonial structures called marae—in mythological terms, tracing the movements of their ancestors and planting the hopes of their progeny, for instance through the ritual burial of placentas and young trees. However, not long after the Second World War, the French began to violate this traditional space, planting poison in the fenua (73) by appropriating land for tourist hotels, killing coral and spreading cancer with nuclear testing, and solidifying the territory’s incorporation into and dependence on a France-subsidized cash economy. Tahitians found a variety of ways to protest this remaking of their space, from potholes in [End Page 431] hotel roads to strikes and riots in the capital. Spaces created by the French to expedite colonial control—such as the international airport built to facilitate the nuclear test complex and the tourist...