We appreciate that Timothy Burke in his blog, “Easily Distracted,”:http://weblogs.swarthmore.edu/burke/ has taken seriously our posts about Yali and Diamond on “Savageminds.” He does not give us the opportunity of responding to him directly, and so we will do so here. We’re afraid that those of you who have not read his blog may have to do so to make full sense of what we are saying. But, we also think that most will be able to make some sense of it all.
The “we” in the “West” mentioned in our posts (and mentioned again by Burke in his response to us on this blog) refers primarily to the sort of audience that many of us – at least as teachers of anthropology – encounter in our students, in their parents, and in many non-academic readers who ask us our opinion of the book. (We make this clear, we think.) Our speculation (and it is such) that Diamond’s book resonates with this audience because they are socio-economically the “haves” is designed to encourage readers who did like Diamond to think more about what appealed to them about his argument – and, in so doing, perhaps become interested in thinking about our more general critique. We don’t know how inclusive this “we” is, but certainly Diamond’s views of human nature and the inevitability of conquest are widely held. (We will say more about these views in our next post on Savageminds.)
We try not to depict Yali or other Papua New Guineans in an essentialized fashion. We do make clear in the book from which our posts are excerpted (especially in our discussion of Ramu Sugar Limited, a sugar plantation which is our primary ethnographic focus) that PNGuineans are thoroughly caught up in history and are not all alike – but differ considerably according to cultural group as well as social class. In addition, we discuss the fact that they engage with each other and with Europeans in a range of ways, including both gift exchange and commodity transactions. That being said, what we find in Yali — as well as in cargo-cult practitioners with whom we have worked, in the PNGuineans we have lived with in urban squatter settlements as well as those in affluent suburbs — is an abiding concern with establishing worth relative to others, including with Europeans. Indeed, one of the real problems for those of the PNG middle class is figuring out how to accumulate wealth without alienating – certainly without humiliating – kinsmen and other PNGuineans. They know that (unatoned for) slights will never be forgotten.
As anthropologists, we do work hard to understand the perspectives of others – as well as trying to get clear about our own. Our desire to comprehend Yali’s understanding of the world (and we do recognize that Yali’s experiences were complex) is itself historically rooted as is anthropology more generally. And, we do try to present our political perspective as explicitly as possible, in full recognition that it too is historically rooted. But we don’t see this as, in itself, precluding a serious effort to get Yali’s question right.
And this leads us to issues in representation. Who represents whom, with what right, and with what accuracy? Yali’s question may, as Timothy Burke says, be his – but what is Yali asking? How do we understand it? Does it need interpretation, contextualization, translation? How should we listen to Yali and to other PNGuineans – as well as to a much larger number of historically located others? And this returns us to the first point of Burke’s critique – that Yali is just Diamond’s literary device. We agree that he is, but find it a telling device. That Diamond got Yali’s question wrong is consistent with Diamond’s lack of concern with listening to what differently located people say – with trying to find out what they think is going on, what they think the point of life is. And this is because Diamond thinks he already knows what human nature and history are all about.