At this point, the main lines of debate regarding the Daniel Wemp affair are becoming clear, and while the ratio of heat to light is not exactly what I would hoped it would be, some interesting arguments have come up. First, and not so interesting, are questions about whether or not Rhonda Shearer, Jared Diamond, and Nancy Sullivan are good people or bad people, and whether they have the credentials that they (and others claim for them). This issue does not seem to actually touch on any of the substantive points in the case, but people love to keep on talking about it. Whatever. The second issue, and one worth discussing more, is whether Diamond’s decision not to anonymize Wemp was actually a violation of journalistic ethics, even if it was a violation of anthropological ethics (an interesting third issue is whether it was a violation of anthropological ethics, but let’s set that to the side for now). What I want to bring up now, on the other hand, is the wider issue which Nancy’s post was actually about.
As a political anthropologist, my reading of the Diamond piece was focused mainly on criticizing the way that Diamond described the southern highlands as being ‘stateless’, when in fact the fight he described took place in and was conditioned by the modern nation state of Papua New Guinea. Nancy’s piece, on the other hand, makes a point that might come from psychological anthropology — that our emotions are always culturally mediated. Diamond’s piece seems to be arguing that vengeance is a ‘natural’ emotion that all people at all times and in all places feel everywhere, but that the way it is satisfied or repressed varies depending on the cultural and social structures people find themselves in (which are in turn, I imagine he’d say, a result of their geography and a few other factors).
This is yet another example of the way in which Jared Diamond is ‘unanthropological’ — anthropologists would argue that human emotions are always shaped by culture, and that in different times and places you will get different patternings of emotions. Nancy (and other anthropologists) would insist that there is something culturally distinct about the way that needs for vengeance, reparation, satisafaction, or what have you, are met and formulated. Wemp and Diamond’s father-in-law had different experiences, understood them differently, and wanted different sorts of satisfaction. This does not mean that that cases are incommensurable, but rather that the concept of culture must be used in order to understand and compare them.
An insistence on the cultural mediation of emotion is a different thing from saying that Papua New Guineans are peaceful, do not fight, or so forth. It is perfectly possible to argue that warfare in Papua New Guinea was in the past (and might still be today) extremely gruesome, angry, violent, nasty, and also culturally mediated. In the United States we imagine human nature to be a cake, and ‘culture’ to be the thin layer of icing on top — the surface decoration which obscures a more fundamental similarity all human being share. I think this reflects as certain complex historical genealogy of protestant issues of human nature, as well as a consumerist culture in which no one bakes and there is very little connoisseurship of pastries and sweets. It is a theory of human nature from the people who invented the twinky. In their own image. Anyway. To quote Jonathan Marks, for anthropologists culture is not the icing, it is the eggs. People do not stop having culture when their experiences become visceral, or when their actions become violent.
One particularly astute commentor on Nancy’s post then asked how we might understand Daniel Wemp’s lawsuit as following a certain Melanesian logic. I haven’t talked to Wemp, but I must say that I was struck by the way that Kuwimb’s letter to the New Yorker read much like the letters and memos from landowners that fill my own research — written very specifically to Western standards of high bureaucratic formality but informed by a distinctive non-Western cultural logic. In Papua New Guinea, sometimes you take people to court as part of the process of dispute resolution, and I suspect that Kuwimb’s statment that “Mr Mandingo and Mr Wemp were hoping for an apology and a cash settlement” indicates not opprtunism on their part, but a different sense of what counts as closure (or at least the next step in the ongoing relationship) than we in the states might have. Of course in the states, as on Ipili man once told me, “law is how whitemen fight” and the court case now means that neither Diamond nor Wemp are likely to speak publically about a matter under litigation, at least if they take their lawyers’ advice. Its unfortunate, and it has a chilling effect on debate about the debate.
Uh, I have something to say about ‘restorative justice’ as well but I’ll leave it out for now because my head is now spinning with the idea of writing a piece about culinary structures underlying layer cake metaphors…