Reading Circle: Voyaging for Anti-Colonial Recovery

Thanks to everyone to read and contributed to last week’s reinauguration of our ‘reading circle’ feature. This week I’d like to showcase some more great open access work by asking people to read an article from the open access serial Pacific Asia InquiryVoyaging for Anti-Colonial Recovery: Austronesian Seafaring, Archipelagic Rethinking and the Re-Mapping of Indigeneity by Vincente Diaz. Diaz is the author of Repositioning the Missionary published by the Pacific Island Monograph Series at the University of Hawaii Press. It’s a short piece but it does a good job of conveying where Diaz is coming from.

I think people will see interesting parallels with the ‘ethnographic theory’ I discussed last time, but the piece is coming from a very different subject position and intellectual heritage position. And best of all, it’s only seven pages long. Seven pages — surely you can manage to read seven pages and then drop by the site to talk about it. So download Voyaging for Anti-Colonial Recovery: Austronesian Seafaring, Archipelagic Rethinking and the Re-Mapping of Indigeneity

As usual, I’m posting this on Wednesday. I’ll write up my thoughts on Friday and open it up for comments after that. We can run through the weekend and then by next Wednesday we’ll be ready to move on to the next piece to discuss.


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

18 thoughts on “Reading Circle: Voyaging for Anti-Colonial Recovery

  1. Rex, I’m sorry. It is hard for me to imagine how you could have picked a worse example of derivative, mentally colonized writing. The obsequious imitation of James Clifford’s style is grating. The ethnographic bits about the shrinking and expanding islands, the scents and the distinctive fauna that are used by indigenous navigators to position themselves are intriguing; the critique of Gladwin seems on point. But the treatment of the two indigenous sensei/gurus/teachers is appalling. Far from conveying respectfully what they have to say, the interpretation transforms them into puppets mouthing currently trendy theory. Do we really want indigenous scholars turned into whiteface minstrel shows?

  2. John,

    I agree with you that the style is difficult, but I never got the sense that Diaz was trying to put words in the mouths of his teachers, just bringing them in conversation with some particular theories (popularized by white people, yes) that challenge other white people’s theories.

    “In the face of this rigorous test of nature, all that a navigator could rely upon is “faith in the words” of one’s father or grandfather or teacher.” is what the teacher says. Next sentence:

    “It is in this sense that land and sea, and mobility, and all staked in it, are fundamentally discursive and narratological.” what this means for Diaz’s academic conversation.

    (Next sentence “Thus, indigeneity=time/space/self/narrative (or story)” = going off the deep end)

    Isn’t that what ET is supposed to do? Is the problem that Diaz is not using navigator’s theories to challenge Western theory in a novel way? Or just that he’s using the indigenous theories to support a particular theory?

  3. Jim Clifford’s poststructuralist cultural analyses only helped me to recognize etak and
    pookof as a home grown theory of the mutually-generative relationship between cultural roots
    and historical routes.

    That’s a particularly egregious example of what John McCreery has expressed. The entire conclusion was also slightly ridiculous. As someone with a very deep interest in Oceanic navigation, from the perspective of an Indonesia-based student of Austronesia, I found this paper disappointing in many ways.

  4. Dave,

    My problem is not that the style is difficult. I am, for my sins, the sort of person who enjoys reading Pierre Bourdieu. My problem is that the style is derivative and a weak imitation of the model it is trying to emulate. This is, what shall we call it? Yes, cargo-cult writing. See, me too can do what white man does.

    My position is that a genuine respect for indigenous scholarship involves the same thoughtful, critical stance that we should, in principle, bring to any writer. If we don’t leap to the conclusion that what is being said must be primitive superstition, we also shouldn’t leap to the conclusion that what we are hearing is the occult wisdom of the Kung-fu master. 

    In this case,I happen to have read Thomas Gladwin’s work on Puluwat navigation when I was new to anthropology. In my memory it remains a classic. Like Fraser’s Priest of Nemi in The Golden Bough, it could probably use updating, and I am open to that. But here is an author whose teachers are said to be real experts in what Gladwin was writing about. I am eager to hear what they have to say and to see if it enriches or challenges what I thought I learned from Gladwin. Instead, I get a thin gruel in which what they have to say is submerged in white man theory in, it appears, a misguided attempt to show me how cool and with it the author is. Bleh!

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed the piece. It is intended, I presume, for an academic audience, but entertaining nonetheless. There is not much to say regarding Diaz’ remark about the prevalence of the metaphor “I see” as opposed to “I smell”, but what came to mind I will share in hopes of receiving possible insight. I infer from his article the former metaphor is also typical of the variant(s) of English spoken in the pacific. Although Diaz’ asserts that Modernity prioritizes sight over smell as a fundamental means of ascertaining truth, I’d would like to have read, if only a brief explanation of, his construction of the notion of modernity, and if such a view of it is compatible with that of other people in the Pacific. Also, given that there are other ways of arriving at Diaz’ assertion, who is to say that the metaphor is just that, one out of many possibilities that for one reason or another is replicated without much analysis into the implications of its meaning?

    In any event, the piece brought to my awareness my personal use of smell–in a sense, It too is used to distinguish localities. I have noted slight odor differences between Northern California (NC) and central Michoacan (M) state in Mexico. Down in M, the smell of wood (either burnt wood or damp wood) is quite common; whereas, I have yet to encounter such odor in the areas I have visited in N.

  6. sorry folks a quick note — I’m travelling this weekend, and didn’t manage to get my reaction to Vince’s piece done before I got on the plane. When I find a quiet moment I’ll try to write it up and post it.

  7. Thank you for the book recommendation Mr. McCreery.

    I’m currently reading the book “From Anthropometry to Genomics: Reflections of a Pacific Fieldworker” by Jonathan Friedlaender, as told to Joanna Radin. I was wondering if anyone else has read it? If so any thoughts?

  8. i’d agree that i found the article both overwritten and at times platitudinous. yet to be honest, i would have to say the same of much of what gets published in _cultural anthropology_. if not entirely successful, the article does show a line of possibility for indigenous scholars to engage with the anthropological mainstream. by working through local theoretical languages for describing place, diaz attempts to create some place of articulation with networks of anthropological knowledge. the attempt is awkward, but the failure of this attempt does not rule out the possibility diaz’s work indicates. i suspect that some more successful work of this sort is already being written.

    @john calls diaz’s piece a “minstrel show.” i’d first remind @john that minstrel shows were a white invention. but no matter. the real question is how indigenous scholars are to attempt to engage the discipline if not by employing the topics and terminology of mainstream anthropology? in other words, given the postcolonial situation, isn’t it a bit much to ask that indigenous scholars’ work not be derivative, particularly in our discipline, which was embedded in the colonial project? scholars of south india have already, i think, dealt with this issue head on.

    i would have liked to have seen a better written article, but the line of critique here reminds me of homi bhaba’s discussion of colonial mimicry: is what grates @john the “not white / not quite” quality? if not, why call the piece “cargo cult writing”? and by the way, cargo cults are themselves interesting conceptual interventions on colonial religion. it’s in that light that my own problem with the piece is that it was a not particularly challenging intervention. that it is derivative is to be expected–much as our own work is derivative from the discipline of anthropology. what is the real minstrel show, that indigenous scholars use terms from western theory or when they remain consigned to an authenticity which westerners desire from them?

    as for the contrast with HAU, perhaps i’m jaded. the graeber article was as always well constructed, but led to conclusions that were entirely predictable knowing graeber’s previous work and politics. the other articles were truth be told rather boring. again, this does not make HAU any better or worse than print journals. i wish it well. however, i did not see the journal following through on its promise. and i wonder whether the definition of relevance is relevance to arguments in academe

  9. @john calls diaz’s piece a “minstrel show.” i’d first remind @john that minstrel shows were a white invention.

    Indeed . And so is the sort of “overwritten and at times platitudinous” article that Diaz is imitating. The point is the imitation and that “not white/not quite” quality to which Bhaba refers.

    My animus here is not directed at Diaz, who is, in the overwriting and platitudes not particularly more at fault than many contributors to cultural anthropology journals these days. My target is rather the proposition that this article exemplifies what indigenous scholars can contribute to the field.

    I would suggest, instead, someone like Nakane Chie, whose Japanese Society is a classic. Nakane studied with Raymond Firth in London, did fieldwork in India, and drawing on both experiences created a profound portrait of what she called a “vertical society” in which the local frame (household, corporation, university, government agency) and how it is ranked is more important than horizontal classifications in terms of caste or class. In the half century since it was published, her book has been frequently criticized for paying insufficient attention to race, gender, local variation, etc. it remains, however, a genuine classic with which every student of Japan must come to grips. That is the model at which, to me at least, indigenous scholarship should emulate.

  10. @john

    sorry to say, however, the model is hardly apt. when nakane studied with firth, anthropology was well established in japan–japan’s anthropological association is the oldest in asia and currently has been in existence for more than 100 years. as was the case in europe and in north america, japanese anthropology developed as a colonial discipline. so nakane’s work is not a viable model at all, unless one ignores the history of the discipline in japan

  11. Not a viable model for what? I was pointing to Nakane only as an anthropologist who didn’t get stuck in “not white/not quite” cargo cult writing imitation of the white man’s anthropology. She used what she learned to say something powerful and original about her own society by seriously thinking through and improving the theory she was taught.

    What precisely is your point here? Is it respectful to indigenous anthropologists to make excuses for them—or to engage with them as colleagues to whom you can say “Groan…” or “Bullshit” or “Wow!” depending on the thinking and evidence in question?

    Are you advocating a compensatory preference in recruitment, hiring, funding, publication? What is your aim here?

  12. My point is that considering a product of japanese anthropology indigenous scholarship is akin to arguing that the greater east asian coprosperity sphere was an indigenous response to colonialism. Touchy about affirmative action, are we?

  13. Not at all touchy about affirmative action. As a comfortably off grandad not dependent on academia for my livelihood, I don’t have a dog in that fight. Still curious though about what you are actually proposing.

  14. i’m not proposing anything except a clear definition of indigenous scholarship. as someone who works with indigenous people on taiwan, i’m aware that the work of japanese scholars does not fit that bill

  15. DJ, I now understand the local context from which you are writing. My dissertation fieldwork was in Taiwan and I am aware of the curious relationship between indigenous peoples, Hokkien and Hakka speaking Taiwanese, mainlanders, Japanese, Americans, Europeans, etc., all of which, if I am not mistaken, include anthropologists. I can understand how, as a Japanese anthropologist, Nakane Chie reminds you of the Japanese colonial period and the research conducted under the auspices of the Japanese colonial government (I actually own a full set of Minzoku Taiwan). When, however, Nakane wrote about Japan and the Japanese, wasn’t she every bit as much a native anthropologist as a member of any of the groups listed above writing about their own people?

    We could, of course, note that she was an extraordinarily privileged native anthropologist, whose connections and support got her to London to study with Firth, enabled her to do fieldwork India, and return to a successful career at the University of Tokyo and becoming a cultural icon in her own right.

    One could argue that indigenous anthropologists in Taiwan, restricting “indigenous” to aboriginal peoples are not so fortunate. They may, at the end of the day, find themselves able to pursue careers that lead to Academia Sinica, but those posts are rare, and the competition from members of other groups is stiff; but, except perhaps for a few recently created departments (here my ignorance leaves me thinking of the Hakka studies program in Xinju-which I know doesn’t fit the case), they have little in the way of indigenous institutions in which they can pursue careers on their own terms. These are real problems for them.

    That said, it is hard to see how their situation differs in any essential way from young Taiwanese anthropologists (my natives, when I think of Taiwan), only a handful of whom will be able to study abroad and do research off island (though if they do make it to places like Academia Sinica they may wind up doing research in mainland China) and fewer still will achieve international recognition beyond a small circle of researchers with similar, to the rest of the world utterly esoteric, interests.

    But come to think of it, doesn’t this also describe the situation of most anthropologists these days? A few get to study in big-name places, find support for fieldwork, and establish connections that enable them to end their careers at the kind of big-name place they took their degree. But these are rare exceptions in a field where as Clifford Geertz wrote decades ago the typical career path is from the center to the periphery instead of vice-versa.

  16. John et al, Vince Diaz, the mimic man here, the one whose work doesn’t pass muster for your retrograde expectations for Native Anthropologists (and I suspect, for Natives, and for scholars in general): I’m not an anthropologist, nor do I write primarily for them. But I do have Native friends who have strong stakes in the discipline. And I have lots of sympathy for them when I read comments like yours, and I wonder why they feel they have to endure such things, especially in the 21st century. As we say in the culture of ancient native speak: chill out, dude. But know this, that we are watching you, And we are reading you. And you ain’t making the grade, holmes.

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