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The Contemporary Pacific 13.2 (2001) 580-582

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Book Review

Money and Modernity: State and Local Currencies in Melanesia

Money and Modernity: State and Local Currencies in Melanesia, edited by David Akin and Joel Robbins. asao Monograph 17. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999. ISBN 0-8229-4087-6; x + 284 pages, tables, figures, photographs, notes, bibliography, index. US$45.

Perhaps one of the hallmarks of a good collection is its capacity to dismay readers who are forced to realize how much more mileage, theoretically speaking, others have been able to get out of the topic in question. This has certainly been my own experience in reading this accomplished volume. Here, for example, are some of the scattered entries on "money" from my own field notes from the Wahgi people in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. I record that older Wahgi men tell me how, when they first began to receive Australian coins and notes at the end of the 1940s, they speculated that the designs and watermarks were images of the money's owner or creator who, they feared, might appear at any moment to reclaim it. Hence they spent their money very fast. I observe Papua New Guinea currency notes being displayed on bridewealth banners in very much the same way that the pearl shells they displaced once were. I log long conversations with people who wished to know exactly how money is made. I record lots of children named Moni (Money); sometimes they have siblings named Beng (Bank).

The papers in this volume offer a rich and tantalizing set of theoretical observations, insights, and comparisons through which my own miscellaneous observations might have been pursued, developed, and contextualized. The editors' meaty introduction starts from the now-accepted point that the arrival of western money did not have the anticipated effect of overwhelming local currencies. Rather, introduced and indigenous currencies remain in restless dialogue: and here the editors insist that there is a virtue to focusing on currency itself (whether local or state) despite arguments that to do so is to essentialize. The fact that money must necessarily be passed on if it is to be "enjoyed" also lends it a special interest in a region like Melanesia, in which exchange is so prominent. Melanesians have often embraced western money, at least to some extent, but they also experience it as threatening. Money is found threatening, Akin and Robbins argue, because much of Melanesian social life consists of separating relationships according to the kind of exchanges appropriate to each, while the use of money potentially renders all relationships the same.

This suggests that Bohannon's early [End Page 580] African work on spheres of exchange might be applicable, but the editors find his analysis lacking, in omitting what they refer to as the "modality" of exchange: the difference between "sharing," "buying," "delayed return," and "exact equivalence" exchanges. To overcome this deficiency, Akin and Robbins mate Bohannon's work with aspects of Sahlins' to produce an enlarged concept of spheres of exchange, in which each sphere features a relationship, a modality of exchange, and the objects exchanged. When each aspect of the sphere is as it should be, the exchange in question is categorized as morally positive, or at least neutral; if the exchange fails the test on any one account, it is culturally censured. Drawing on this initial framework, the editors review the chapters that follow, looking successively at issues of reproduction and responses to money, at agency, and at currencies and changing identities. This is the best kind of introduction: an iterative movement between analytical framework and constituent papers, in which the former is enriched as the latter are illuminated.

In a short review it is only possible to point to miscellaneous highlights among the papers. Mosko provides an exhilarating whistlestop tour of Mekeo history and cosmology, showing--in part--how money has been drawn into a powerful and durable set of Mekeo classifications of "hot" (efficacious) and "cold" (ineffective) things (money is "hot," capable of swaying minds). Robbins investigates the paradox whereby the...


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