Discussion Forum: Foucault in Melanesia
On Mimicaian-dramaturgy and Anti-Modernity in Melanesianist Anthropology
Article first published online: 5 MAR 2014
© 2014 Oceania Publications
Volume 84, Issue 1, pages 86–87, March 2014
How to Cite
Knauft, B. M. (2014), On Mimicaian-dramaturgy and Anti-Modernity in Melanesianist Anthropology. Oceania, 84: 86–87. doi: 10.1002/ocea.5039
- Issue published online: 5 MAR 2014
- Article first published online: 5 MAR 2014
I welcome Jadran Mimica's sizzling essay for the provocation that it stirs up, if not for the larger substance or deeper significance of his argument – at least as he represents it.
Intellectually promiscuous as if by nature, Anthropology – and Melanesianist Anthropology within it – has frequently if not typically borrowed widely from theoretical progenitors-cum-ancestors from outside the discipline. Strictly speaking, few of our many theoretical foundationalists – be they Kant, Herder, Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Freud, Peirce, Saussure, Wittgenstein, Adorno, Heidegger – or Foucault (even Bourdieu is marginal) were anthropologists. This does not, by itself, mean they are, or are not, anthropologically good to think with. It all depends on how it is done.
Within the field as well as outside of it, in actual usage, the monikers of anthropological higher-theory often filter into scholarly discourse. This is true across the spectrum, be it terms-of-use reference to social facts à la Durkheim; praxis, alienation, or commodity fetishism à la Marx, cultural history à la Boas or Lowie, function à la Malinowski, structure à la Radcliffe-Brown, binary opposition à la Lévi-Strauss, cultural systems à la Geertz, habitus à la Bourdieu – or terms such as surveillance à la Foucault. It is highly important, it seems, to distinguish the passing or casual use of such terms from their elevation as a centerpiece of analytical focus and theoretical argumentation by a given author.
Even when a term is used with an accompanying citation of an iconic author – e.g., acknowledging the work of Lowie concerning the intricate streams and diverse rivulets of cultural history – this does not mean that the concept at issue is the keystone for the contemporary author's larger argument. It is important to see the forest beyond the trees. And it is just this that Mimica does not do in his provocation. The case is particularly self-admitted in his treatment of Eve's work, which is acknowledged by Mimica to be strong in so many respects but yet damned due to passing Foucauldian-termed references here or there. His treatment is more askance – and more tedious if not tortuous – in the raking-over-the-coals of selected passages from Jerry Jacka's newly emerging work. This hardly deserves heavy-handed criticism and tweezering myopia, particularly against the larger and much more interesting thrust of Jacka's own analytic and ethnographic emphasis.
If the argument were that passing references to one or another theorist – such as Foucault – itself motivates a thinning of the ethnography, a subversion of our understanding of local meaning, significance, and action, then Mimica's point would be stronger. But such a larger point is made only in passing, at points almost by innuendo, in the latter part of his presentation. If one really wants to pursue a broadside against the use of Foucault in Anthropology, I would recommend Marshall Sahlins' Waiting for Foucault (2002), which is hilarious as well as telling even for those, including me, who have explored the use of Foucault – along with a wide range of other theorists – in the analysis of cultural experience, including in Melanesia. It is indeed a bit surprising that Mimica doesn't tee off more fully against works that do purport to centrally engage Foucault with Melanesian ethnography. Perhaps it is an easier target to critique more junior scholars who have only dabbled around the edge of such engagements.
What, more generally, about Melanesian Anthropology in relation to Mimica's critique? Amid the various inflections of contemporary cultural anthropological writing these days, it seems to me, at least, that the problem of ethnographic thinness or ethnographic refusal (which Sherry Ortner, among several others, pointed out some years ago ) is nowhere near as severe in Melanesianist ethnography as it is in the ethnography of many other world areas. On the whole, I think it is fair to say (or at least to launch as a counter-provocation) that Melanesianist anthropology tends on the whole to be quite sophisticated and nuanced in its understanding of locally constructed and constituted realities. Nor, I think, is this only a damming by faint praise of relatively good work in an age of generally degenerate ethnography.
If Mimica's argument is that our terms of occasional conceptual attribution, like the lives of the people we study with, are unduly tainted by the specter of modernity, then I can agree – and only underscore as well that the effects of modernity, which are undeniably real and important across Melanesia as they are elsewhere – need to be considered and understood through local eyes, ears, and minds rather than just through those of experience-distant theory. (For just one example among many, see Patterson and MacIntyre's scintillating collection, Managing Modernity in the Western Pacific ).
As mentioned above, I don't think the problem of neglecting nuanced ethnography has been particularly great in contemporary Melanesianist work, though this remains a potential risk in probably all of anthropology. This is one of the costs of a discipline that mediates between the presentation and appreciation of diverse life-worlds on the one hand, and, on the other, attempts to make these workings more widely comprehensible, comparable, or generalizable through theoretical examination. In this sense, I agree with the deeper thrust of Mimica's presentation. But I find the larger context of this situation to be salutary, structurally important, and with key positive dimensions – rather than being uniformly and lugubriously lamentable.