I tend to think of culture as collated qualia, the systematic structuring of sensory perception(s) into ‘meaningful’ relations. While obviously cultures consist in diverse narrative, symbolic, textual, institutional, and interactional modes and media, I am rather more attracted to analyses of “form” over and above those of “norm.” This is probably true for a lot of us. We gravitate to the ritualized, the ceremonial, the dressed-up. The beautiful (or the monstrously ugly).
It’s unsurprising then that one of my very favorite books in the history of anthropology is Andrew and Marilyn Strathern’s amazing Self-Decoration in Mount Hagen (1971). I have had to purchase my own copy because too often, library-held editions have been brutalized by people cutting out the full-color plates in the back. To my mind, if one wanted to get a feel for social life in highland New Guinea — for the vibe which animates it — this volume is a stellar guide. It is one of the most serious and comprehensive studies of adornment that I know of. It carefully records ways in which social form is encoded in structured relations between, for example, colors or bush materials. I recall myself seeing a koi wal (feather plaque from Hagen) for sale once in Goroka market and knowing something about it (for example, its name) precisely because of this text.
The color plates of throngs of greased and shining bodies, or spectacularly feathered warriors and wig-wearers, are simply dazzling.
I allude to Marilyn Strathern’s later reflections on ‘the ethnographic moment,’ that encounter that lives on as an image in your mind, guiding your analysis because it is so phenomonally real or present long-after the fact. She writes: “It is worth remarking… that special knowledge which inheres, say, in theological or scientific expertise has never held quite the place in anthropological accounts as materials which appear esoteric *because* they require revealing (beg immediate interpretation). An initial surprise becomes a suspension, a dazzle, and some kinds of ‘special knowledge’ are more likely to dazzle than others” (Property, Substance, and Effect, pp. 10-11).
One can see, reflecting on a text like Self-Decoration, how Hageners might indeed have that effect. The language feels appropriate, and Strathern narrates an interruption: of her pursuit of rudimentary research in gardens and on genealogies by her first sight of mounted pearl shells. Star-struck: the glimmering white center of the ruddy mounting board dazzles also Hageners.
For me, what begged interpreting was the emotional quality of a ceremonial exchange I witnessed. The occasion was a gift of cash in the name of an elderly man to his mother’s kin, and in particular to her brother. The gift giver clutched the recipient to him in a submissive gesture and cried sorrowfully, wailing the word ‘mother’ over and over. It is one image I cannot remove from memory, and I return to it again and again when I think about highlands sociality.
Dazzled and mesmerized. Thought it was a tremendously demanding experience, I am frequently grateful that my research in New Guinea yielded the sort of encounter that animates and moves one’s thought, even years later.