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The Contemporary Pacific 13.1 (2001) 169-177

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Modeling Community: A Response to "The Oceanic Imaginary"

Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard

Subramani's essay makes a noteworthy contribution to literary and cultural studies in Oceania in several important areas. In keeping with its genesis as a keynote address it duly offers an overview, problematizes the subject in a global context, and proposes a research agenda to address present and future challenges. I admire Subramani's commitment and pluck in undertaking such a daunting, but necessary task at this millennial crossroads in Oceania's social history. With the firm establishment of Oceanic writing, film, and performance on the world stage, the time has come for regional writers to articulate conceptual frameworks that offer access to more complex levels of meaning and understanding. This imperative has surfaced at conferences and meetings of regional writers with increasing urgency over the last decade. It's an idea whose time has come. Perhaps Subramani's greatest contribution here is to have made a start at all, to have offered this formal beginning. What I miss in the essay, however, is more recognition of the considerable amount of work, both past and present, already (being) accomplished by regional writers and others at the service of excavating Oceanic archives of knowledge. However, despite my reservations about the clarity and inclusiveness of Subramani's vision as put forth in this keynote-cum-essay, I am grateful to him for taking up the challenge and to The Contemporary Pacific for clearing a space for this discussion.

One important strength I find in "The Oceanic Imaginary" is its intentionality, its insistent sense of purpose. It calls us Oceanians to order and raises questions. Whither Oceanic "literature" in the new millennium? On what basis? Toward what end(s)? Engaging what audience(s)? As defined by whom? I also find great merit in Subramani's proposed application of Foucault's "order of things" by excavating a body of Oceanic knowledge toward the end of articulating a regional epistemology. Such an epistemological archive, "encompassing the kaleidoscope of Oceanic cultures and tracing diverse and complex forms of knowledge--philosophies, cartographies, [End Page 169] languages, genealogies, and repressed knowledges" would surely increase possibilities for more widespread understanding and appreciation of Oceanic arts and cultures.

What I find less winning, however, is Subramani's discussion of linkages between his selected "variables" and the overarching project of epistemological research in Oceania. Where I would part company with his analysis is in privileging the importance of geopolitical issues of nation-state and globalism over cultural and political questions of Pacific displacements. I certainly have no argument with the fact or choice of these particular variables as shaping influences on the "production of the new epistemologies." It's important and helpful to be reminded of the responsibility and power available to writers and intellectuals in their mediating role vis-à-vis nation-states and global forces. The ruptures of national and multinational structures of power are all too evident. They loom, threaten, and daunt; they often seem intractable. As individuals we Islanders may and often do harbor a sense of futility about our chances of effecting any constructive change in such macro-arenas of human life. By contrast, I would suggest that the arena of displacement is another story altogether. Issues of displacement are up close and personal. They tend to be in our faces in more urgent and immediate ways. As ordinary citizens on any given day, we have more direct agency, more immediate possibilities to negotiate the dynamics of displacement than we do those of nation-states and global forces.

It is in Subramani's discussion of displacement, his second informing variable, that I find a blurring of the essay's corrective vision. He begins promisingly enough by establishing the value and desirability of "seeking connections" across the range of diasporic locations in and out of Oceania. He points to significant writing that highlights the dynamics of diaspora: Hau'ofa and Wendt, in addition to the "postmodern...younger generation"--Pule, Figiel, Teaiwa, Mishra. Then his discursive path forks into two distinct directions, and...