The Contemporary Pacific 14.2 (2002) 480-482
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The Magic of Modernity in Melanesia
Encompassing Others: The Magic of Modernity in Melanesia, by Edward LiPuma. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. ISBN0-472-11068-3; xi + 342 pages, maps, bibliography, index. Cloth, US$26.95.
This book argues that Melanesian societieshave been greatly transformed through a process of encompassment: through incorporation within a state and through saturation with "Western capitalism, Christianity, and commercially driven mass culture" (5). Primarily employing data collected in 1974 and in 1979-1980 among the Maring of Papua New Guinea's Western Highlands, Edward LiPuma proposes that to understand this encompassment we must recognize the importance, not only of generational differences among Melanesians, but also of fundamental similarities between Melanesians and others.
First, we must recognize that the critical agents in the modernist transformations of Melanesian societies have been those "who are coming of age, those who are in the throes of forging their identity, those who grasp history intuitively as the difference between the world they encounter and that portrayed by their parents" (63). It is those of the junior generation who have sought to "amplify their personal freedom, to listen first and foremost to their own voice and that of their generation" (66); it is those who have sought to escape the authority of their seniors who "did not understand the logic of business, the individual rights of persons, and other wisdoms of the West" (66). It is those who have sought, most generally, to relax the obligations of kin and community.
Second, we must recognize that such modernist transformations have been possible because Melanesians—whether juniors or seniors—are not in any absolute way different from persons elsewhere. LiPuma (challenging the dichotomizing of the "new Melanesian ethnography") strongly argues that everywhere "there exist both individual and dividual modalities or aspects of personhood. . . . From this view, it is a misunderstanding to assume either that the social emerges out of individual actions (a powerful strain in Western ideology that has seeped into much of its scientific epistemology) or that the individual ever completely disappears by virtue of indigenous forms of relational totalization (such as those posited for certain New Guinea societies). It would seem rather that persons emerge precisely from that tension between dividual and individual aspects/relations" (131-132, emphasis as given). Thus, encompassment in Melanesia has involved the promotion, the elaboration, of that already present—the individual aspect of this tension.
These fascinating preliminaries completed, LiPuma documents the processes of encompassment in various social, economic, and epistemological domains. He moves the reader through twisted histories of generationally contested engagements: between the logic of sorcery and the justice of modernity, between the meaning of traditional valuables and the uses of contemporary money, between a belief in magic and a faith [End Page 480] in Christianity, between the construction of the body ethnomedically and the treatment of illness biomedically, between the instruction of youth indigenously and the schooling of them contemporarily.
Along the way, LiPuma provides useful syntheses of the work of others as well as splendid insights of his own. Importantly, these insights do not only elucidate Melanesian societies. They also frequently elucidate western ones (for he finds that the West "wants to misrecognize itself" ). Thus, as only one example of many, he considers why Melanesians often, though importantly not always, abandoned indigenous valuables for western money. In addressing this question, he rejects both the universalist "steel-for-stone" position and the relativist "economy of difference" one.
The universalist position posits that just as steel axes were (apparently) recognized as more efficient than stone ones, so too money was seen as better —more durable, easier to manage. However, this view of money as self-evidently superior cannot adequately account for the fact that some societies did, in actuality, continue to use shells. Moreover, this view of money frequently carries a cognate view, that of capitalism as self-evidently superior —as an obviously more efficient way to organize socioeconomic life. But this view of capitalism cannot adequately account for...