On the Generification of Culture: From Blow Fish to Melanesian

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Abstract

We extend Wilk’s discussion of how more powerful people can set the dimensions of common understanding through which socio-cultural groups communicate and contest. Focusing on one group in pluralistic Papua New Guinea, we demonstrate that, in setting these dimensions, representatives of the state and emissaries of global capitalism have been gaining control over culturally specific forms of knowledge. Through analysis of three events, we show that the Chambri have been losing control over their local knowledge as it has been rendered understandable to others. In effect, becoming understandable –‘legible’, in Scott’s apt phrase – has entailed ‘cultural generification’ such that the cultural particular either has become translated into the cultural general or into a general example of the cultural particular. In either case, through such generification, local knowledge and knowledge-makers have become not only comprehensible to, but also controllable by, outsiders.

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