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The Contemporary Pacific 13.1 (2001) 286-287

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Book Review

From Primitive to Postcolonial in Melanesia and Anthropology

From Primitive to Postcolonial in Melanesia and Anthropology, by Bruce M Knauft. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999 . ISBN cloth, 0 -472 -09687 -7 ; paper, 0 -472 -06687 -0 ; x + 320 pages, maps, tables, figures, photographs, notes, bibliography, index. Cloth, US$59.50 ; paper, US$19.95.

For almost a quarter of a century, the writings of Bruce Knauft have been characterized by a willingness to honor the complexities of Melanesian ethnography, coupled with a sobriety of judgment. This book exemplifies these qualities. As its title underlines, if the anthropological imagination of Melanesia began with a view of primitive and self-determining indigenous communities, it is now recognizing that the age of encompassment is in full swing--postmodern capitalism, the politics of the nation-state, and the infiltration of western culture increasingly define Melanesian modernity. Against the grain of much of what passes as transcultural anthropology, Knauft aims to appreciate and affirm the cultural diversity and areal distinctiveness of Melanesia against such theoretically and globally reductive approaches. He self-consciously situates his study in the interstitial zone between a globalism that seems to bracket what is distinctive locally and a localism that fails to grasp how the west's encompassment of others inflects the trajectory of local communities. Analyzing a variety of topics, from images of the body to the changing character of conflict, he argues that culture practices are seldom stable over an extended time period and that, contrary to a founding premise of Melanesian ethnography, culture is not shared in a relatively uniform manner by a population of same-speaking people. Throughout the text, Knauft raises the critical issue of the ways in which ethnography in the colonial context inflected the description of local practices. In particular, he argues that ethnographers underplayed the violence of Melanesian headhunting and warfare as a counterweight to a colonial administration that was all too ready to pacify local societies by however brutal means were necessary. The specific point illustrates the broader reality that anthropologists have only begun to appreciate how their liminal position within the political structure of encompassment informed their theory and ethnography. Each chapter in its own way also illustrates two other critical points. First, the advance of the west cannot be grasped simply as some machine of domination that subsumes and subordinates Melanesian societies, such thinking tending to elide both the power of local forms of agency and the ways in which indigenous societies always contained the terms and possibility of their own seduction. Second, an understanding of the relationship between the west and the indigenous world depends on an understanding of the mediating structures, including and especially the assortment of western agents and institutions that have imposed themselves on Melanesian lifeways. From Primitive to Postcolonial [End Page 284] not only represents an important turn in Melanesian anthropology, but does so in an exemplary way.

University of Miami, Florida