Melanesian vengeance, Western vengeance, and natural vengeance

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…


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

24 thoughts on “Melanesian vengeance, Western vengeance, and natural vengeance

  1. First off, up front, I haven’t read the Diamond New Yorker article. Does everyone but me subscribe to that magazine?

    Leaving aside the ethics and the actual factuality of certain events, since those issues seemed to be at the dead horse stage…

    Reading the abstract, and from what I’ve gleaned through the posts here, I’m a bit uncomfortable with what Rex above says makes Diamond’s piece “unanthropological”–from what I understand, basically that he suggests vengeance might be a natural emotion. Rex then basically gives a very culturalist (_American_) explanation about mediation/formulation/so on. I’m not really convinced by Sullivan’s article that indeed emotions about vengeance as such are different in Papua New Guinea, and I’m not really convinced that the “concept of culture” is what was either missing from Diamond or added by SUllivan. In fact, I’m not convinced that vengeance isn’t a “natural” emotion. Guess I’m out of the club.

    Of course, Rex also first made the point that indeed Papua New Guinea is a State. And this is what struck me just from the article, the idea that now we are repressed by The State and Justice and don’t live in Nature, but this guy, Daniel Wemp, lives in the pre-social contract (I’ve gleaned this through Sullivan’s article and the abstract, but like I said, since I didn’t read the article, I can’t say how accurately this represent’s Diamond’s argument). So what I appreciated about Sullivan’s article is it shows this caricature of PNG (or anywhere) to be falacious. Revenge, justice, etc. are mediated not so much through “the concept of culture”, from what I’ve seen of her examples, but through something more like social institutions and relationships, different groups and communities, family and kinship, etc. Maybe that is my “British School” training (rumoured to be dead around these parts, as I recall) but I personally think that is more “anthropological” than all the talk about non-commensurability, different “worldviews”, and so on (though that talk does seem very popular for anthropologists of Melanesia).

    Also, since someone questioned whether personal/”I” narrative is “really anthropology”, the last part about her personal experience seemed to me very good, very “anthropological”, because it placed the abstract theoretical claims (some of which made me really uneasy—“Revenge in the Western sense simply does not exist in the highlands of New Guinea”) into actual everyday experience. Again, maybe the British and Malinowski tendencies mixed with the new touchy-feely strain of the discipline in the last 20 years.

    Anyway, this also relates to the issues of branding, because some of what I’ve read in the posts and comments about what anthropology “is” seems to me to be diluting MY brand!

  2. First, I love the cake-eggs-icing-twinky metaphor. You mention that Americans tend to see culture as icing (and I’ll not disagree) which implies that we see human nature as relatively uniform underneath the icing as soon as ‘visceral’ emotions and violence come into play.

    However, I immediately thought of of one glaring example where the argument is automatically “it must be in the culture” where violence is concerned, and that is the Holocaust. A cornerstone of arguments concerning the Holocaust always somehow returns to whether or not there is something unique in German culture that allowed so many to be so complicit.

    No one ever suggests that biological factors are to blame (which would be crass and ironic to the highest degree) and even historical explanations must be held at a distance lest the same conditions prevail here, an idea which is anathema to Americans, vast majorities of whom are of German heritage. All that is left is then a weak cultural explanation about essential differences.

    So which is it? Do American’s believe in essential differences or essential similarities? Maybe we want to have our cake, and eat it too;-)

  3. I recognize that there are many important issues to be discussed that are not, in fact, being discussed. I, also, recognize there are many undercurrents to many of these postings which are unclear to me. However, this blog is in many respects the “grandfather” of all anthropology blogs and possibly (?) the most read and I believe there needs to be a clearer statement as to the ethics we anthropologists are prepared to accept and uphold.

    I am sorry but it is a serious ethical violation to represent yourself as possessing a Ph.D. when you, in fact, do not. ABD is not a Ph.D–not even close. Let us not dismiss that violation into a specious offhand remark about “being a good person or bad person”, let us not try to categorize the discussion as pro or con this “Johnso” person. Let us instead ask the essential question: how are we to be taken seriously as an academic discipline when our own ethical debates are being conducted unethically?

    Seriously, people. Seriously.

  4. This is off-topic, but to one of the authors of this blog, how may I contact one of you personally? You don’t have contact info up yet, and I just wanted to ask a few questions.

  5. I am reluctant to post on a blog which, although raising central issues, so often then distorts and obscures them. But, I must say this: The difference between Nancy Sullivan and Jared Diamond is that she is an anthropologist and knows a hell of a lot about PNG social practices and he is not and does not.

  6. I wanted to thank everyone who has made good faith efforts to move this discussion forward, as well as to say a few words about editorial policy. Different people have different levels of tolerance when it comes to internet comments. I recently received several personal communications about how thoughtful and restrained discussion is on Savage Minds, and yet some commentators seem to feel things are out of hand. I suppose it depends on which online forums one is used to participating in. I highly recommend this video which I think captures the level of discourse elsewhere on the net. We certainly don’t want Savage Minds to end up there. At the same time, we want to create a space where dissenting views and non-academic voices can be aired. How best to do this?

    First, don’t feed the trolls. This is the first rule of online forums. Some people are very good at provoking and irritating. The best response is to laugh at them or ignore them. Blocking them is not very effective because they can easily log in again under another name. Getting upset and exacerbated is exactly what they want.

    And second, we do have a comments policy, and name calling is definitely over the limit. Unfortunately, I’m on Taiwan time and by the time I wake up the thread has often moved on and adopted a more civil tone. In such cases I am generally inclined to leave well enough alone. Like I said, people differ in terms of their tolerance levels for this kind of thing. If someone is truly offended they are best served by contacting the site admins rather than responding in the forums. Once you respond it makes it hard to go back and selectively edit the conversation to suit one party.

    Finally, regarding the credentials issue. I have nothing against Nancy Sullivan representing herself as Ph.D. (ABD), although a classmate of mine in graduate school received a severe reprimand from the department for doing the same thing. Regardless, none of these appellations appeared on this blog, but only on her own website. Nor does this issue in any way affect the substance of her comments. As is abundantly clear she is held in the highest regard by her academic peers and scholars of PNG. As such, any further discussion of this topic will considered off topic and deleted by the admins. You have been warned.

  7. Maniaku points out that I am pushing a particularly American version of anthropology, and MTBradley points out that vengeance is not an emotion. I think they are both right to point out my short-comings in both areas. As someone whose undergraduate education was very strongly in the British tradition and who still focuses on things political and sociological, I would actually be hard-pressed to provide you an account of the newest, latest work in psychological anthropology which described how, exactly, culture is the eggs when it comes to emotion — if there is someone who specializes in that topic who wants to post about it here, I’d appreciate them doing so.

    Although Maniaku’s comments seem to indicate that I invoke the notion of “different worldviews” or “incommensurability” or the idea that “Revenge in the Western sense simply does not exist in the highlands of New Guinea” I think if you reread my piece I say nothing of the sort. Perhaps if one is expecting a dust-up between American and British impulses then it would be easy to read these into my comments.

    I can go into why I think social institutions are also cultural institutions if you like.

  8. Fair enough, my tone was a bit acidic. My points were not solely directed at your post but also some of the other things I read. I don’t specifically remember who/where the different worldviews/incommensurability bits come from (stuffed between comments on ABD and sock puppets, somewhere). But the idea that “Revenge in the Western sense simply does not exist in the highlands of New Guinea” I quoted from the original Sullivan article. In my reading, a sentence like that is wrapped up in a theoretical position that emphasizes worldviews and incommensurability, at the very least.

    Anyway, I’ve now read the New Yorker article and not quite sure that my original points were right. Perhaps the thing that startled me the most was that he claims anthropology has found that interpersonal violence was much greater in non-states than it is in states. It seems pretty important since the entire piece rests on this assertion. My impulse is that this is not true, but then I guess it’s an empirical question of which I am not completely up-to-date on the research. But even more, its just stated as if its a given, when in fact I doubt its the kind of thing that people who actually researched such a thing could settle beyond any doubt. If I was going to say why this article isn’t “anthropological” it would be because it seems to have a sort of cavalier attitude towards actual social/historical facts and data, and what controversies might surround them. For me, it reads like the frustrating conversations you have with non-anthropologist relatives over the holidays, a sort of “Well, it seems to me like states are a pretty good idea, otherwise everyone would go around just killing each other… I had this uncle…” Some might call this a colonialist approach; to me, it seems just unscientific (I wish for a better word so as not to turn this into a discussion about capital-S Science, but alas, a better alternative is not coming to me right now).

    Further, it seems, not incidentally, to be the same sort of cavalier attitude he has towards Daniel Wemp, at least in the article.

  9. Oh, and on the last bit about how social institutions are cultural institutions. Maybe we could go on about how cultural institutions are also social institutions?

    Sorry for the cheek.

  10. Incommensurability was me, and probably not the right word. Difference, maybe. I’m sure we could commensurabilize “Western” vengeance with the PNG version(s). I was just reinforcing Sullivan’s argument that reading PNG revenge killings as expressions of universal natural urges is inappropriate.

  11. I claim no expertise, but there seem to me to be at least three different avenues for the cross-cultural study of emotions. One is linguistic – I have a passing knowledge of the study of the semantics of emotion à la “Anna Wierzbicka”: which dialogues with linguistic and cultural anthropology, linguistics, and cognitive science. I find her work interesting, YMMV. Another is ethnography . I remember enjoying Catherine Lutz’s _Unnatural emotions_ when I read it years ago. A third would be neuro-endochrynology. I don’t know that stuff at all.

    All sorts of emotions swirl around the notion ‘vengeance,’ of course. I suppose a thorough study of them would presuppose an inventory of local emotions. Has any such studies been done in PNG?

  12. Rex writes,

    bq. As someone whose undergraduate education was very strongly in the British tradition and who still focuses on things political and sociological, I would actually be hard-pressed to provide you an account of the newest, latest work in psychological anthropology which described how, exactly, culture is the eggs when it comes to emotion—if there is someone who specializes in that topic who wants to post about it here, I’d appreciate them doing so.

    I would also appreciate an update from anyone in touch with what is going on in psychological anthropology these days.

    Even without it, though, it seems to me that there is plenty of ethnography demonstrating that vendetta and feud are common around the world. There are places where a man would be called a coward for failing to take appropriate vengeance and others where private vengeance is outlawed or considered a sin. There are even places where it has been both at once. Doesn’t anyone read Mark Twain anymore or remember the Hatfields and McCoys? Or remember Hamilton and Burr or U.S. President Andrew Jackson, whose mother taught him that a man unwilling to kill in defense of his honor was no man at all?

    I have no desire whatsoever to defend Jared Diamond. But why, oh why, I wonder do so many anthropologists these days sound like the social scientists lampooned in _West Side Story_. Remember “Officer Krupsky…”?

  13. I’m with John. The conversation Diamond and Sullivan have opened has great stuff in it, including Wemp’s wonderful second-order offense about being misused in an article about offense and Rhonda Shearer’s even more wonderful third-order offense about being misused in a discussion of the first two offenses. (I’m hoping someone will take me on here so I can add another level to this teetering jenga-tower of disgrunt.)

    But like Maniaku too I’m really uneasy about big, categorical statements like “Revenge in the Western sense simply does not exist in the highlands of New Guinea” – both because it would take a lot to show that one or another type of revenge does not exist at all in a complex, living culture like PNG’s and because, reciprocally, as far as I know there’s no single, coherent entity we can call ‘revenge in the Western sense’.

    I mean, I get it that the stereotypes that need the most scrutiny are the colonialist ones, but I don’t see much illumination in flipping the telescope and looking out the narrow end in the other direction. Just off the top of my head, ‘Western’ responses to revengeable situations range from Germanic restitutive Weregild to the general practice of gift, land and bride exchange in the conclusion of peace treaties at the family and state levels, to really elaborate multi-generational clan and client-network blood-feuds in Sicily, Calabria, Sardinia, etc.. Formally, most instances of Western law include both a punitive criminal law and a restitutive civil law, not to mention more or less formal arbitration and mediation systems, and the situations that engage one, the other or a combination vary quite widely.

    In private practice there are/were also a wide range of accepted strategies for dealing with offense, directly or by proxy, more or less ritualized, from personal duels (with weapons and rules varying quite a bit by class, gender, region, scale of offense, etc.) to gang wars, to carnivals, cockfights and horse races.

  14. I am not going to comment on the Diamond’s case as such here, but will instead focus on the response to it by anthropologists, which is itself interesting (yes, my hobby, the anthropology of anthropologists).

    It is striking how much importance is attached in this and other posts on this blog to whether Diamond is or is not an anthropologist, and whether an article in New Yorker from an Annals of Anthropology section is or is not giving anthropology a bad name.

    It gives an impression that anthropology is not a very confident discipline if its practicioners are so easily thrown off balance by an article in New Yorker. I am a biologist active in ecology and you would not believe what is being published as “ecology” all the time in all kinds of places, but we ecologists have just learned not even notice. I cannot imagine any article published in Annals of Ecology in New Yorker (if there is indeed such a thing) upsetting professional ecologists.

    Interesting fields, such as anthropology or ecology, attract a diversity of practicioners. This is ultimately to their benefit, even if it means that the purity of the brand is hard to control. Consider for instance the Indiana Jones phenomenon – many archeologists are upset about this somewhat imprecise portrayal of archeological research protocols, others love the contribution to the popularity of archeology (to the point of making Harrison Ford a member of the American Archaeological Society), attracting enthusiastic students to the field. If you want to control the purity of your field, work in otholaryngology or other boring specialty and it will not be a problem.

    I would say Diamond made huge service to anthropology by his books (leaving the present case aside) as he popularized it probably more than any professional anthropologist alive. This is not to say he is a star anthropologist – in fact, he is a star biologist who expanded his interest into anthropology. This is the secret of his writing – human societies are a product of both biology and culture so a good synthesis needs to take into account both. Diamond is certainly a better biologist than anthropologist, but the point is that he is probably better at anthropology than most anthropologists are at biology, and that is why they have hard time competing with Diamond for public attention when it comes to the analysis of human societies.

  15. Intrigued but unconvinced by VN, I did some googling. For some fun:

    Results 1 – 10 of about 331,000 for “is not a doctor”. (0.23 seconds)
    Results 1 – 10 of about 71,200 for “is not a scientist”. (0.09 seconds)
    Results 1 – 10 of about 21,600 for “is not an economist”. (0.32 seconds)
    Results 1 – 10 of about 19,000 for “is not a biologist”. (0.08 seconds)
    Results 1 – 10 of about 13,200 for “is not a physicist”. (0.20 seconds)
    Results 1 – 10 of about 12,900 for “is not a psychologist”. (0.25 seconds)
    Results 1 – 10 of about 9,030 for “is not a chemist”. (0.22 seconds)
    Results 1 – 10 of about 4,670 for “is not an archaeologist”. (0.22 seconds)
    Results 1 – 10 of about 4,420 for “is not an anthropologist”. (0.08 seconds)
    Results 1 – 10 of about 2,000 for “is not a sociologist”. (0.30 seconds)
    Results 1 – 10 of about 1,480 for “is not an ecologist”. (0.12 seconds)
    Results 1 – 8 of 8 for “is not an otolaryngologist”. (0.23 seconds)

  16. RE: VN

    I will concede that some anthropologists may be experiencing sour grapes about Diamond’s popularity, but there is a serious and legitimate difference between ecology and anthropology. Anthropology for decades now has moved far away from positivist analyses of human societies, although the journals are peer-reviewed, there is no ideal of experimental method that allows for the evaluation of what is “good” anthropology and what is “bad” anthropology. Instead we have a rough, heterogeneous set of methodologies, generalized as “participant observation,” a collection of operating procedures (such as redacting the names of informants, as under discussion here) and a standard of ethics. Anthropologists respond so vociferously when the discipline’s stamp of authenticity is abused because the standards are maintained with the hermeneutic and discursive, instead of the quantifiable and experimental.

    Besides, lest we forget, anthropology is the study of people. While I have my own non-anthropocentric tendencies, there are (arguably) more severe consequences when bad anthropology is published (or faux-anthropology in this case) than there ever could be with bad ecology. Wemp and Isum are real people.

  17. Actually I think ecology is not really so different and there are some serious problems with the sour grapes argument, at least if this is assumed to be specific to anthropologists.

    First, as I obliquely was suggesting in my random stats above, it seems to me clear that “hard” scientists are just as concerned about who is or is not a scientist as anthropologists are—perhaps more so. Global warming, teaching of evolution, pharmaceuticals: these issues spark constant discussions in civil society and bear heavily on the rhetoric of who and who is not a qualified scientist. The issue, I think, has not much to do with experiments or quantification at all, because often the audience is neither competent nor willing to deeply investigate the methodology used. That’s kind of the point of having public scientists/intellectuals to explain, discuss, and debate these things. So boundary making is not necessarily bad (though it can be). There is a Wayne Booth article online somewhere which, while not about this exactly, is sort of related.

    Second, to really push this analogy with ecology, it has to be in some sense comparable. The debate is not only about “bad” anthropology but about “unethical” anthropology. Therefore an adequate comparison would be more than just “bad” ecology, it would be “unethical” ecology. I don’t exactly know what ethical guidelines ecologists work by, but I imagine they must exist. For example, if someone needlessly burned a large tract of old growth forest just so they could write an interesting “ecology” article on forest fires in the New Yorker, ecologists might not much like that either (at least among the ecologists I know). Especially if it gave the impression that this is standard practice among ecologists. Every field has some kind of ethics and most take them seriously, as far as I know. I’m not sure that the results of bad anthropology are more serious than in other field, but rather that those outside of anthropology usually fail to realize that they are important at all (doesn’t help that anthropologists sometimes muddy the water on this front…)

  18. RE: maniaku

    I wasn’t trying to say that there aren’t struggles over epistemological authority in other fields, but rather that anthropology occupies a somewhat tenuous position between science (hard or soft) and the humanities and that this position makes questions of authenticity a little more difficult to work out. Beyond official academic credentials the question quickly moves from “who is an anthropologist?” to “what is anthropology?”

    In the case of Diamond’s piece, it is both “bad” anthropology and “unethical” anthropology. Even if Diamond had changed the names of Wemp and others, and collected the information under informed consent, his article would still be vulgar and reductionist. At least Levi-Strauss disguised his Rousseauian tendencies with interesting analyses.

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