The piece for discussion this week (actually, it should have been last week, but I got caught behind a couple of different eight balls) is Vincente Diaz’s “Voyaging for Anti-Colonial Recovery“. It’s a short piece with a few flaws — it lacks the informality and wit of Diaz’s other work, and feels at times one revision away from being really polished. But overall it is accessible, short, and a great window into a wider scholarly project that is happening in a lot of places, and in many ways similar to HAU’s. So perhaps a bit of background is in order.
Since the rise of the movement for indigenous rights a half-century ago, many indigenous activists and scholars have worked within a paradigm defined in large part by nationalism and primordialism. Indigenous claims to justice are rooted to primordial autocthony for several reasons: an interest in revitalizing indigenous lifeways; the political efficacy of primordiality in public debate; and legal frameworks which require proof of primordiality.
It’s a wide and broad field, but its fair to say that there is a lot of disenchantment setting in: it makes cultural innovation (which is healthy and necessary) look like deculturation, it overlooks the role of legal regimes in eliciting the ‘ancient’ land tenure and kinship systems they use to make native title claims, and some indigenous scholars find the western national form a limiting and constrictive way of organizing their communities.
Nowhere is this more a problem than the Pacific, where long-standing tropes of isolated islands, missionized natives, and dying cultures have made finding positive self-understanding elusive.
Voyaging and Recovery
I think it’s in this light that Diaz takes us the task of thinking through voyaging. Pacific navigation has had a renaissance — people have sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti, and practically everywhere else (google it if you’re not familiar with this stuff, since it’s totally incredible). Instead of rolling this activity into a politics of patrimony and primordiality, Diaz seems to be saying, what if we used it as the raw material for a project of modernist, indigenous self-forging?
The key here is Diaz’s absolutely lovely inversion of traditional tropes about Pacific culture: for him, the heart and soul of Pacific culture is not the island, it’s the canoe: the expansive impulse of travel and innovation. It’s a wonderfully playful reversal.
By putting the canoe rather than the island front and center, Diaz is doing more than invoking, dude-like, the truism that culture is “about the journey, not the destination”. Once you catch the wave of this metaphorical reversal you can ride it for quite some time.
I think this is what he is trying to do in his discussion of etak. What sort of analytic horizons open up if we feel free to play with the concepts we’ve inherited? Maybe islands ‘move’ in the sense that their populations live in diaspora – so what happens if we make that circulation central to our understanding of island cultures rather than peripheral to authentic ‘life in the village’? And if this riffing on the concept insists that we find examples of islands literally moving then suddenly climate change (descending beneath the waves), mining (disassembling islands) and volcanoes and lava (volcanic growth). It’s not like people haven’t thought about these things before, but it puts the spotlight on them in a new way, enables novel configurations, and justifies scholarly focus in new moral terms.
Wisdom and Postmodernism
One of the things I like most about Diaz’s project is the way that it connects with something that anthropologists have often felt but rarely expressed — that fieldwork changes one in a way, leading not just to data, but to a fuller self and even a sort of wisdom about the contours that life can take. In the context of indigenous anthropology, I see scholars like Diaz actively using this insight and yoking it to an explicit project of — as they put it — (re)membering.
I do have one gripe with this approach, however, which is the debt that it owe to postmodernism. Much of the work done by scholars like Diaz emerges out of Santa Cruz’s History of Consciousness program and James Clifford. This upsets me a great deal because I wish that my brand of anthropology had been responsible for authors of this calibre. In the 80s authors like Marshall Sahlins and Greg Dening did a great job encouraging major Pacific scholars like Epeli Hau’ofa (Dening kept on encouraging right until the end, in fact). But somehow their message of the vitality of indigenous culture, the importance of innovation, the empowering nature of mixing orthodox Western and Pacific modes of knowing somehow burned itself, perhaps in the culture wars of the 90s? At any rate, we are left in a situation where there isn’t a base of collegiality and friendship to reconnect mainstream anthropology and Native cultural studies.
Even worse, Clifford’s work on indigenous articulation, so influential to Diaz, reads to me as a derivative, less well-written version of Sahlins’s article “Good Bye To Tristes Tropes”, which was published eight years earlier. How is it that Clifford gets credit for coming up with the ideas that have influenced Diaz? I want to blame postmodernism for denouncing a straw man version of anthropology while quietly poaching our insights. But on reflection I think we have not done enough to welcome the scholarly projects of Native scholars into our intellectual conversations.
This is one reason why I wanted to read the Diaz right after the introduction to HAU — I see strong overlap between the two projects. Both seek to mine concepts for new meaning, using them to stretch existing understandings. Both seek these concepts in what the layperson would consider ‘exotic’ cultures. Both are focused on ethnography, but also veer off wildly in inventive new directions. Both Diaz and Wagner see their scholarship to be about remaking the subjectivity of the scholar — in Wagner’s case this is almost a sort of gnostic mysticism.
But Diaz’s project is also so clearly one which is totally uninterested in ‘exoticism’ — it is about cultural heritage and finding the way in which one’s own personality has been shaped by tradition, and the using that understanding to shape the future of tradition. It would be like the editorial board of HAU immersing themselves deeply in Catholic theology in order to make a New Anthropological Humanism featuring reworked Patristic philosophy and huge, postmodern mitres ostentatiously worn in the lobbies of academic conferences as signs of connection with one’s cultural past. In this respect HAU, which claims not to be but I suspect paradigmatically rooted in the exotic, and Diaz, who is self-consciously decolonizing himself of unsavory foreign powers, differ.
My dream AAA panel is a huge, star-studded affair of in which we get Native Cultural Studies and Ethnographic Theory together to forge anthropology’s future. But sadly, I think the personal differences between the people involved would prevent the intellectual commonalities from emerging.
One thing is for sure: Pacific studies has done a killer job making their work available open access — mostly because the editors of The Contemporary Pacific have made sure their journal is the home of so much energy surrounding these issues, and that it is free to download. This includes Hau’ofa’s seminal essay Our Sea of Islands and Diaz and Kauanui’s programmatic introduction to a special number of that journal entitled Native Pacific Cultural Studies On The Edge. There is a lot more as well if you just google around.
I am a bit late getting this out, but I will try to follow the usual schedule of letting it run until Wednesday, when I’ll post a new reading. As always, try to be polite and collegial to the authors featured in the reading circle.
I want to say more but I’ve been putting off posting this long enough, so I’ll hit ‘publish’ and see what happens — I hope we have a good discussion, everyone!