- On the Edge of the Global: Modern Anxieties in a Pacific Island Nation by Niko Besnier
Besnier’s artfully woven, nuanced account of life in an age of global transformations and reconfigurations should be recognized as one of the finest ethnographic works on the contemporary Pacific or the everyday experience of globalization available. Based on personal observations and concerted fieldwork over the inspiring period of 1978–2008, this volume from one of the putative margins of the geographical imaginary illuminates contemporary Tongan lives and simultaneously offers a critique of the role of “imagination” in Western studies of non-Western [End Page 495] modernities. With deft control of critical theory, Besnier unwraps and exposes both the instability and purchase of such categories as globalization, modernity, and development. Whatever significance such ponderous terms carry, he notes, rests in their utility in making sense of real, present, grounded, navigated, contested, and ultimately embodied experiences in locally situated lives.
In a work ripe with fruitful insights, the way “social and cultural signs are assigned value in contested ways” (p. 26) emerges as the central focus in eight chapters and a conclusion. By examining seemingly ephemeral sites of social life and personhood—chapters bring the reader vibrantly into the milieu of Tongan pawnshops and secondhand goods shops, car dealerships, gyms, beauty salons, runways, and churches—Besnier offers one of the crispest imaginable reminders of anthropology’s necessary offering to the social sciences. Those who would understand the contemporary human condition must take the minutia of life into account. Analytical purchase on fundamental questions (What is the character of globalization, of modernity? Is it everywhere the same?) must attend to the details, the side paths as well as the main road, the contexts and co-texts of daily life as well as the front-page news and economic data. Because modernity is a set of cross-linked practices, a “contingent, tentative, and complicated category” (p. 102), “diffuse, shifting, ungrounded” (p. 124), daily details offer fine-grained entry into the larger complex issues at question, particularly since these practices are often contested in the very moments of their enactment. The heart of his inquiry thus rests on the understanding that “liminal sites on the geographical and social map,” for instance, often overlooked markets for goods and sites of services, “loom prominently in cultural life” (p. 102).
Chapters pursuing familiar lines of inquiry into the tense relationships between the global and the local—for instance, Tongan persons’ inhabitable desires for the latest consumer goods and the role of secondhand vendors in satisfying those desires, on the transformation of traditional cultural valuables into marketable products—are very interestingly complemented by uniquely engaging chapters on beauty pageants’ contestants and audiences, embodied practices revolving around hair, gym life and body sculpting, and church membership. Together all of these lines of inquiry carefully establish the lived experience of modernization, development, and negotiated cosmopolitan person-hood. Because Besnier’s field data was gathered over a significant span of time, he is able to offer a sense of the materiality of cultural change, transformation, and flux. Moreover, he presents a sort of recursive pattern across chapters. Visible in his data, largely ethnographic, though [End Page 496] with a significant sensitivity to and investment in the methods and means of linguistic anthropology, the cultural practices that characterize globalization, modernity, and development are simultaneously corrosive and decompositional and restructuring and integrating. Early chapters establish a strong sense of breakdowns, Tonga’s so-called 16/11 riots, dissent, disarray, and other sorts of moments that result in social fractures while later chapters reinforce a sense of how individuals are regularly involved in reestablishing social ties, reembedding bodies and selves in a robust, meaningful, everyday life way. In Tonga such processes seem to be always in conversation with one another, with suggestive applicability to other situations.
Across its chapters and playfully hinted at in its title, On the Edge of the Global is also in close conversation with the recently blooming...