The Contemporary Pacific 12.2 (2000) 549-551
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Across the Great Divide: Journeys in History and Anthropology
Across the Great Divide: Journeys in History and Anthropology, by Bronwen Douglas. Studies in History and Anthropology, 24. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1998. ISBN 90-5702-306-7; xviii + 358 pages, maps, illustrations, tables, notes, bibliography, index. US$52; A$94.
Specialists in Pacific studies should make room on their shelves for this book; I would place it in the same section as holds Marshall Sahlins, Gayannath Obeysekere, and Greg Dening.
Douglas hails from the Melbourne school of island-centered history. During the past thirty years she has written numerous authoritative essays on the Melanesian Islanders of French New Caledonia. These have ranged in focus from Kanak interaction with the early (1840s) Catholic missionaries to reflections on current politicking for independence (or at least increased Kanak rule in the islands).
I greeted Across the Great Divide with great enthusiasm, as will other followers of Douglas's work. I was happy at the prospect of Douglas presenting a bigger picture of New Caledonian history and relieved that this picture would be easily available in a book--no more tracking down numerous articles in a wide variety of journals. My anticipation was richly rewarded, yet not quite in the manner I'd anticipated. Across the Great Divide is a retrospective presentation of Douglas's career as a historian. Most of the chapters have appeared previously as essays in journals. Theoretical reflections and developments provide the unifying framework for the book. Those who anticipate a coherent historical narrative--a type of Islander-centered, anticolonial history of nineteenth and twentieth century New Caledonia--will be disappointed. On the other hand, this book will appeal to the theoretically inclined among historians and anthropologists; Douglas delves deep into the epistemological problems of recuperating an authentically Kanak perspective on nineteenth (and some twentieth) century events. She strives to "denaturalize conventional categorical boundaries, anchor abstractions and mediate oppositions; to explore ways of knowing indigenous pasts and identifying indigenous agency through critical readings of colonial texts" (1).
A historian by training, Douglas nonetheless presents this book in terms of her own engagement with anthropology. Her intellectual travels began in the 1960s, when Aboriginal struggles for rights inspired her scholarship, continued through the 1970s with engagement in Geertzian ethnography, then proceeded through the discovery of how to "read" documents for hegemonic narratives (of racism and conquest) and conquered voices (of the Kanak), until finally reaching the climax, in the late 1990s, of a deeply nonrealist, anti-objectivist, multivocal postmodernism. This testimony of intellectual voyaging is its own form of history that will prove valuable for those interested in the history of Pacific studies. The most [End Page 549] trenchant theoretical claim Douglas makes, in my estimation, is her rejection of "realist" history--by which she means history that strives to present a coherent narrative of how the past looked and felt, of the passions that stirred men and women and the fights they undertook, and how these events led to the present. Douglas rejects such "realist" history based on her claim that the debris of any "present" takes on "historical" meaning only retrospectively, and hence that historical narrative inherently falsifies "the present" by imposing a retrospective closure (entailing order, meaning, and wholeness). In a sense, Douglas as historian proclaims a commitment to the ethnographic present--however, not in order to recuperate a whole cultural system, but in order to attend to the smothered voices of a conquered people.
The most sweeping example of such distorting closures is the presentation of nineteenth-century Kanak history in terms of the triumph of French colonization. Such narratives unfairly privilege French activities as meaningful while ignoring Kanak actions; moreover, according to Douglas, the possibility that many or even most of the Kanak might have had little or no real interest in the French colonial presence escapes most scholars altogether. For example, Douglas argues that the French historian Alain Saussol, in his book on the French expropriations of Kanak land, "subsumes a wide range of...