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  • Making the Modern Primitive: Cultural Tourism in the Trobriand Islands by Michelle MacCarthy
  • David Lipset
Making the Modern Primitive: Cultural Tourism in the Trobriand Islands, by Michelle MacCarthy. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2016. isbn 978-0-8248-5560-4, x+ 270 pages, map, figures, notes, glossary, references, index. Cloth, us$68.00.

Can we ever leave Kiriwina? Making the Modern Primitive: Cultural Tourism in the Trobriand Islands returns us there once again. Not for a new study of intertribal exchange, or to return to the ambiguities of the father in matriliny, or to research chiefs, or to develop a new concept of reciprocity, or to reanalyze Trobriand magic, or to appreciate the island as the birthplace of anthropological methods, or to come to grips with how the place took on a special significance among Bronislaw Malinowski's descendants. No. Michelle MacCarthy's new ethnography, based on fieldwork in 2009–2010, returns us to Kiriwina for another purpose, which is to probe the discrepant meanings of "cultural tourism" from three points of view: hosts, guests, and anthropologists.

Foreigners visit the island in steady but hardly overwhelming numbers, arriving in thrice-weekly planes from Port Moresby or, less often, by yacht or cruise ship. They come, MacCarthy avers, in search of a glimpse of "the primitive" living their true and real life. They come in search of "authentic" experience, which they more or less conceive in static, precapitalist, pre-Christian terms as well as in National Geographic clichés—eg, the "islands of love." As such, they take photos carefully framed so as to avoid including evidence of culture change, and they complain when they are asked to pay their subjects for the right to do so. Tourists make their way off the beaten track for a chance to see a moral way of life, or lifestyle, which they fear is disappearing in the face of global capitalism and missionary Christianity. They desperately want to see "the real thing," so much so that they even disparage each other in a kind of touristic hierarchy of value. Independent travelers view themselves as superior to those in groups, and both see themselves as superior to tourists on the big cruise ships. What is more, they feel angst about how they themselves subvert Trobriand culture by commodifying it.

For their part, MacCarthy suggests, the Kiriwinians see the dimdim (foreigners) as a more or less homogenous kin group from abroad who bear material resources, and, in that sense, they treat them like intertribal trading partners with whom they want to initiate and sustain long-term reciprocal exchange relations. In short, they would like to see tourists as kula men and women. But, of course, this is a wish that cannot be fulfilled. Villagers [End Page 234] try to please and give their guests what they think they want. They stage dance performances in which they dress in "traditional" finery—grass skirts and shell ornaments. Men sell carvings, walking sticks, and bowls. Women sell baskets and mats.

Central among the many disconnections between Kiriwinians and tourists to which MacCarthy returns over and over again are the frustrations that the marketing of goods and performances arouses between the gift-based economy of the sellers and the commodity-based one of the buyers. The tourists make purchases but, other than their photography, have little or no communication or interaction with villagers. The tourists are estranged from the sellers. Meanwhile, the Kiriwinians are frustrated by a perceived moral distance, insurmountable as it is, from their guests. Despite many useful and thought-provoking passages, however, it is surprising how very little ethnography makes its way into the book. We do overhear a lot of voices on the scene, to be sure, expressing concerns and desires. There are extended discussions of tourist photography and of the handful of movies made there. But there is an odd shortage of case studies detailing instances of individuals involved in specific events and transactions.

There is another inadequacy in this otherwise enthralling account. I hesitate to call it a failing, but it is a jarring omission, at least to me. I should have thought that MacCarthy's analysis would benefit from a...