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Kago, Kastom and Kalja: The Study of Indigenous Movements in Melanesia Today

Marcellin Abong
Marc Tabani

Chapter 2. Between “Cargo” and “Cult”

Doug Dalton

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Cargoist Returns

When I returned in 1999 to visit the village where I had resided fifteen years earlier, I had lost contact with the people with whom I had lived and the rumour was that I had died. The local provincial member whom I met in the capital Madang was able to radio ahead notice of my impending arrival a couple of days before I hiked up to the village from his house at the mission station along the road below the mountains. When I arrived I found my closest friend Borum casually cutting grass at the end of the path where it entered the otherwise empty village. I later learned that the village elders had thought someone might be trying to assume my identity for some potentially nefarious purpose. After embracing Borum I received an overwhelming welcome from the village residents and many old friends who came back to the village from their gardens and bush houses, and I was given space to sleep in the house of the son of an early native Lutheran missionary from outside the area who had married and spent his life there, no doubt because he was so familiar with and sympathetic towards Western ways. He was unusual among the villagers in being utterly sceptical of the many magical supernatural notions that exist in an uneasy syncretism with the Lutheranism which outwardly dominates the village.

1The following day Borum took me to visit one of his relatives and another close associate of mine in his bush house but, as it turned out, he was away that morning and we instead sat with his first-born son. His son, I was told, was doing something utterly unheard of in the culture, that is, forgoing marriage. In my understanding and from what I know of his family, this could mean only one thing: he was undertaking the most profoundly disciplined practice of magic and sorcery possible. We visited him for a short while, sitting outside the house eating the sugar cane he brought out for us. Imbibing sugar cane requires, of course, spitting out the masticated rind after swallowing the sweet juice, which supplies the perfect material for the work of a sorcerer. Considering the context of my return visit it seems clear that he employed his magician’s prowess to divine my identity and especially my intentions on behalf of the village elders, although I suspect that he did a great deal more than that.

2While we were conversing he put a question to me which he said he had always wanted to ask a “whiteman”, namely, “Is it true that whitemen get their money from the graveyard?” I recognized this as a contemporary “cargo cult” idea known elsewhere in New Guinea. Borum, a pretty good Lutheran, proceeded to make fun of the proposition, pointing out the illogicality of it: “if that were true, ‘whitemen’ would make their houses midway between the graveyard and the store and do nothing but travel the well-worn paths that connect them”, he said. I professed my ignorance. We took our leave and Borum took me on an unusual route, bushwhacking through a swampy jungle area to the hamlet of another good friend of mine from long ago, the former village evangelist. One of his long-lost brothers had returned after a long exile working on the coast and set up a trade store there. The store was equipped with something I had not seen previously in the village environs: it had a refrigerator powered by a gas generator. In what seemed like an unusual conjunction of cultures, I was given a cold Coca Cola in a remote, mountainous Papua New Guinea jungle, some hours’walk from the nearest road, immediately following my encounter with the local sorcerer.

3After that my visit proceeded without further incident of that kind. I hiked to a number of hamlets outside the village, went to church and explained myself to the congregation, played volleyball in front of my host’s house, made gifts and contributed to a feast for the Lutheran confirmation ceremony which took place during my stay. While I was there, the missionary’s son asked me to send him a pair of binoculars: he wanted to use them to disabuse the other village residents of the notion expressed by the Neo-Melanesian word glassim that, when “whitemen” use such technology to view the jungle, they are able to see the hidden “inside” (newendemo) of the outward appearances of the plants and soil and view the animating living forces which inhabit them. I haven’t heard back from him regarding the success of his endeavour.

4The ideas which the local sorcerer related to me and which the missionary’s son hoped to dispel are what has been called “cargoism” or “cargo cult thinking” in the literature, something like Robbins’ “everyday millennialism” except that it is not necessarily millennialist (Harding 1967; Lawrence 1966-67; Robbins 2004; Young 1971). These ideas were vaguely shared by another man I knew from my earlier fieldwork who came to observe me during my most recent visit. He and a handful of residents from nearby villages were sometimes known to try and continue practising versions of the widespread failed “cargo cult” movement which took place around 1980 wherein they attempt to make money magically multiply in a cult house. This man used to question me about the “secret” which “whitemen” were not sharing with them, often in very allusive and obscure language.

5These amorphous “cargoism” ideas lead me to engage with the enormous literature on “cargo cult” in order to delineate the nature of the phenomenon in question, which I claim does not entail a kind of reductionist sociology yet does involve its own social theory, and to discuss the utility of the term “cargo cult” and to examine the immensity of writings on, and the endless recurrence of, the phenomena of “cargo cult”. I argue that “cargo cult” is a phenomenon which exists in and through the interaction between different cultures and I compare and contrast the metaphysical assumptions of people like the Rawa speakers I came to know and the Western (American) culture I inhabit. This impels me to redistribute the predicates associated with “religion” and “science” in Western thinking and then to discuss the diversity of experiences and views within Rawa culture which such broad comparisons seem to overlook. Finally, I suggest that a way to comprehend an indigenous understanding of “cargo cult” might follow the model of encounter in Javanese wayang theatre and consider the question of whether or not the missionary’s son is likely to succeed in his endeavour.

“Cargoism” and the Trouble with “Cargo Cult”

6The first point to make in the context of these examples of “cargoism” is that, whatever it is, “cargo cult” does not necessarily have to take the form of a “social movement”, although it certainly may do so (e.g. Scott 2012). In addition, these examples are extraordinarily difficult for a Western observer to understand and explain. Each of these instances of “cargoism” is much more a matter of thinking than of social doing, and makes no immediate sense within a Western metaphysic. I therefore find Biersack’s (2009) exploration of Paiela cosmology in relation to the question of materiality more to the point than attempting to explain “cargo cult” as a peculiar kind of “social movement” and find great value in Bell’s (2010) pursuit of aesthetic experience in relation to objects as a way into fathoming the ontology they embody. Scott (2012) likewise finds that “cargo talk” in the Solomons produces material which is a vehicle for aesthetic experience. I could produce a remarkably similar cosmology to that which Biersack provides for the Paiela which I learned from a group of Rawa elders, albeit without much of the fine detail that Biersack was able to obtain, but I find I have to put Rawa ideas in a much broader context to fathom the extent of the difference between them and Western ideas.

7My understanding of “cargo cult” is consequently most at odds with that of Hermann (Ch. 6), who argues for abandoning the term “cargo cult” in favour of “social movement”. Hermann constructs as strong an argument as one possibly can, supporting her contention with statements from members of the clan of Papua New Guinea’s most famous “cargo cult” leader Yali, as well as numerous scholarly references, and is easily able to show, as others have, that “cargo cult” is a derogatory term. However, as Macintyre (Ch. 5) also points out, not all New Guinea natives view the term that way. Indeed, the outsiders blamed for fomenting “cargo cults” in their settlement by the villagers whom Hermann interviewed may well have been from among the Rawa-speaking people I knew, for they have long-standing trade relations with the villagers on the other side of the Finisterre Mountains inhabiting the north coast where Yali worked and resided. However the Rawa people I knew rarely used the term kago kalt in the early 1980s after participating in a large-scale movement that failed, something that they were understandably reluctant to discuss. Even the “cargo cultists” who continued some of the movement’s practices referred to their activities in broader, less certain terms as “working” or “making” “something”. But I also heard a group of men excitedly sharing the news of a kago kalt movement then taking place on New Britain, which they heard reported on the provincial radio, in tones which made it clear that they thought it might be real and effective. During my most recent visit I never once heard the term, even from the sorcerer who conveyed to me current “cargo cult thinking”.

8Macintyre (Ch. 5) and Tabani (Ch. 1) posit from their field experiences that the defining features of “cargo cults” include the possession of charismatic local leaders, ritual activities to effect transformations in power and status and millenarian ideas which, however, the “cargo cult thinking” I encountered does not substantiate. Biersack (Ch. 4) and Macintyre (Ch. 5) both propose that millennial expectations and hopes for imagined futures are the essential features of “cargo cult”, although Macintyre finds desired access to wealth to be the perduring element of “movements” on Lihir while Biersack finds millennialism itself and not “cargo” to be definitive of these “movements”. However the “cargoism” which I encountered was actually anything but hopeful or millennial. The “cargo cultists” I knew were in fact generally quite dour, particularly about the state of relations with “whitemen”. So I cannot endorse the idea that the phenomenon in question is millenarian which, while a worthy subject of study, is not the same as “cargo cult” and is not a study to which “cargo cult” can be reduced. As Biersack (Ch. 4) shows, one can have millennialism without “cargo” concerns. However one cannot have millennialism without the “cult” or religious ontology which is widely found in Inner Oceania and this ontology continues independently of millennial movements and hopes after they wane. What, after all, happens to “cargo cult” “movements” after they fail to bring the millennium? For the Rawa “cargo cultists” I knew, it did not go away but instead continues to exist in a less sociological, more intellectual, and not very hopeful form (see also Jebens 2010; Scott 2012; cf. Festinger et al. 1964).

9A critical problem with explaining “cargo cult” from within Western discourse is that it is “impervious to the kind of argument through dependency that our rationalistic outlook fosters” (Wagner 1979: 164). The Western apprehension of “cargo cult” generally reduces it to sociological “movements” which have a certain functional teleology, even if an illusory fantastic one. Most sympathetic accounts point out that they function as innovative collective political or economic activities which sometimes succeed in achieving their purposes; even where they fail to significantly change political or economic circumstances, they always succeed at organizing people socially, thus serving their own tautological self-fulfilment as “social movements”. While accounting for the functional rationality of “cargo cult” “movements”, explanations also typically account for and discount their apparent irrationality as due to psychological stress and the unpredictability of a Western economic system although one can always suppose, as Macintyre (Ch. 5) does, that their unrealistic aspects represent a pan-human proclivity to engage in wishful fantasy. Lindstrom’s (1993, this volume Ch. 7) study of the Western fascination with an ever-increasing variety and extent of uses of “cargo cult” as refractions of modern desire lends support to this premise.

10Biersack (Ch. 4) is, of course, correct in saying that, from an indigenous perspective, the apparent “irrationality” of “cargo cult” simply does not exist. But I believe that she greatly understates the problem of comprehending the perspective of people in other cultures. Anthropologists were once subject to the critique of “ethnocentrism” – of misunderstanding other cultures by imposing foreign concepts – but from the early 1980s they also became subject to criticism for “othering” or, worse, “orientalism”, that is treating other cultures as different and thus excluding them from colonial history and desired development. Although the critique of “othering” makes sense in a post-independence era where government and villager concerns alike are for “development”, “othering” and “ethnocentrism” are logical opposites: if there are significant cultural differences, taken together these create a double bind which makes doing anthropology impossible since if a culture is not described in indigenous terms one is “ethnocentric”, but if it is described as very different one is “othering”.

11These two opposite critiques are nonetheless consistent with the first proposition of the American Anthropological Association Code of Ethics that researchers’ primary ethical obligations are to the people whom they study (American Anthropological Association 1998). The rhetorical strategy to navigate politically between them would seem to be to describe other cultures in indigenous terms as not so different that they cannot engage in Western development and participate in the modern world. However, this strategy does nothing to move “cargo cult” discourse beyond the classical functionalist evolutionary arguments that these “movements” are incipient forms of nationalism or modern economic enterprise, which might even appear to be like the two “stage” process of Ipili purposive activity of first conceiving and then enacting (Biersack Ch. 4). The reason I do not employ this strategy is that, in my understanding, human history is not a linear phenomenon but, rather, complex and nonlinear and therefore, by its very nature, unpredictable. I also think that anyone who wants development should get it; if I could I would bring it myself. I would just warn them to be wary of the kinds of characters they will likely encounter in the modern world. However the Rawa people I know are already quite aware of such dangers.

12The approaches which account for “cargo cult” as a kind of “social movement” do so by associating it, in a dependency relationship, with something that it is not, that is politics, economics, society, millennialism, fantasy, hope, and so forth. Furthermore, these are generally things which exist on the Western side of the cultural divide between Western Europeans and the peoples of Inner Oceania. This form of argument also often logically assumes an evolutionary teleology whereby Melanesians will inevitably become like Westerners, since these “movements” are frequently thought of as incipient forms of the essentially Western things which they are not or, at least, not quite yet. Part of the frustration of explaining “cargo cults” is that, despite all of their successes and failures, they have never gone away. If “cargo cults” are anything they are “total” phenomena, simultaneously economic, religious, historical, social, aesthetic, moral, political, et cetera, and not reducible to any one of them (Mauss 1967 [1925]). I will argue that “cargo cult” involves a particular mode of social relation, but it is not predicated on the Western sociological logic of a type of ritual “social movement.” Rather it is assumed by the ontology implicit in the “cargoism” which certain villagers expressed to me.

13I have elsewhere argued that the imperviousness to rationalistic argument of “cargo cults” accounts for the apparently endless Western treatment attempting to explain them in rational terms (Dalton 2000). I found Worsley’s (1968) comprehensive account a particularly good example which well reflects the broader literature. As with “cargo cult” discourse in general, Worsley’s discussion adds explanation upon explanation, moving from one to another in a very uncertain and unsettled manner until he ends up with a tautological formulation like the functionally self-fulfilling “social movement”: assuming “cargo cult” to be a form of political resistance, he “finds ‘cargo’ madness to be the simultaneous result of oppression, consumer desires, European vagaries, and native ignorance that inspire bizarre behaviours which [he] describes as simultaneously vain, unreal, irrational, ‘fantastic’ failures, on the one hand, and ‘ quite practical’, ‘not ineffective’ and ‘rational’, on the other, finally explaining them as an ‘ emotional outlet’ found in ‘ imaginary projection’ – i. e. as ends in themselves whose own self-fulfilling purpose is to ‘express social and moral solidarity’ and ‘ethical values’”(Dalton 2000: 355; Worsley 1968: 247-248).

14A related problem which I have also addressed concerns what to call “cargo cult” (Dalton 2004). Originally coined in a colonial news magazine by an Australian expatriate planter residing in Papua New Guinea, the term “cargo cult” was intended to denote the chaotic irrationality of what would undoubtedly proliferate if the system of inequality which the planters enjoyed were diminished (Lindstrom 1993: 19). The irony is that his prediction was apparently correct and the more sympathetic observers who saw in “cargo cult” incipient nationalism were apparently wrong, for these activities have continued to occur since independence, if not actually increased (Scott 2012).

  • 1 Turner found that in modern Western industrial societies “liminal” states and persona were often n (...)

15My argument was that we keep the troublesome term “cargo cult” because to do otherwise endeavours to substitute a normalizing, neutralizing supposedly objective term for what is an inherently troublesome phenomenon. The value of the term “cargo cult” is in the uneasy relationship between the two terms “cargo” and “cult”. Born of colonial anxiety, “cargo cult” captures and preserves the peculiar clash of cultures that gives rise to a variety of remarkable ways of thinking and acting in relation to the “whitemen” long occurring in Inner Oceania. I argue that “cargo cult” is most fundamentally a liminoid, betwixt and between phenomenon which exists in the space between strikingly different cultures and, as such, resists the kinds of understandings and explanations which Westerners employ, from their side of the divide, to try to make sense of them (Turner 1967, 1982)1. Therefore “cargo cult” defies attempts to apprehend the phenomenon in question in an objective manner by finding the correct name for it – “millennialism”, “social movement”, “fantasy” or what have you – as the ancient Greeks presumed themselves to do with the logos.

  • 2 As Derrida (1968) pointed out, the attempt to critically remove oneself from a discursive process (...)

16The most basic problem with naming “cargo cult” may be that it fundamentally involves islanders interpreting Western culture as kago (Wagner 1981); establishing a supposedly objective neutral term for it has the effect of removing ourselves as interpreters from the picture. Besides being unable to settle on a single rational explanation, “cargo cult” discourse therefore expends a seemingly endless amount of intellectual energy maintaining its frame of reference, sustaining its exclusions, and managing the boundaries of its own discussion. If “cargo cult” is indeed us looking at others looking at us, being objective by keeping ourselves out of the picture is an interminable intellectual task, which accounts for why “cargo cult” never goes away and the discourse about it has such an unsettled, inconclusive quality. While Biersack (Ch. 4) dismisses the “postmodern” reflexivity which accompanied the critique of “othering”, assuming instead the perspective o f a transcendental ego, I find that, although it runs the risk of becoming self-indulgent, it is necessary that I understand my position as a participant-observer in order to comprehend the “cargo cult” I encountered2. So I would suggest that, regardless of its capacity for derogatory use, the term “cargo cult” not be abandoned because it preserves the uneasy relation between Western culture and Inner Oceania islander cultures, prevents the objectification of native cultures and precludes us from removing ourselves as subjects from the phenomenon. However, as Hermann (Ch. 6) rightly suggests, we should also keep the term “under erasure” to obviate the pretence that it is an objective category. In addition, since “cargo cult” is a resolutely indigenous interpretation of Western kago, Tabani (Ch. 1) is correct in advocating that the local term kastom be employed for the indigenous perspective it embodies in relation to “cargo cult” (see also Scott 2012; Abong Ch. 3). Indeed in order to comprehend the phenomenon in question, it is not sufficient to employ only one term: it is necessary to have several.

The Sociology of Knowledge and Knowledge of Sociology between “Cargo” and “Cult”

17The most fundamental problem for Western explanations and interpretations of “cargo cult” is doubtless that Westerners simply do not and cannot believe local villagers when they suppose that, when “whitemen” glassim the earth, they are able to see the “inside”, otherwise invisible, life energies and forms of consciousness that comprise it. The villagers, on the other hand, do not believe that the universe is not an animated, consciously aware one. They simply take it for granted. Villagers assume that anything which has a physical form, and perhaps many an entity without one, is likely to have some sort of living conscious awareness. The “outside” appearances of things in nature possess an unseen interior living subjectivity which is continuous with human intelligence. Rawa people I know participate in their environment and seek to align themselves with it by dreaming of, and befriending, the bush spirits which inhabit the jungle where they make gardens and go hunting, much as they do with one another when men and women practise certain kinds of love magic.

18When Europeans view the landscape through binoculars, they see waves of light reflected off the surfaces of solid matter made up of atoms and molecules, themselves composed of matter and energy. When the villagers I knew looked though my optical distance finder or SLR camera they reportedly saw the incomprehensible fuzz of something many of them supposed they otherwise knew better through dreaming and other mystical techniques. Since people of Inner Oceania mystically participate in nature, it is not something from which they separate themselves but is instead something to which they relate socially and culturally, so when “cargo cults” become “social movements”, they would more accurately be thought of as “nature movements” or “nature-culture movements” or, better, all three at once.

19Westerners, on the other hand, have, to use the expression Weber (1946) adopted, “disenchanted the world”. Over a very long period of time Europeans developed a thoroughly materialist view of the universe (Tarnas 1991, 2006). By the time of Newton they had placed themselves as knowing subjects outside an objective universe which was considered to be completely impersonal and unaware. Stunned by the mathematical discoveries of Newton and others, Europeans came to consider themselves, in relation to a transcendental, monotheistic God, as semi-divine beings endowed with the special capacity to reason and thus understand a purely material, unconscious “nature”. The objective of man became to control, dominate and subdue an earth that itself lacked any intrinsic meaning and purpose, for her and his own divinely sanctioned and guided benefit. Because of this, Westerners place themselves outside and above “nature”, understood as an object for them to have power over, for themselves. Their relation to a separate “nature” is consequently one of agonistic control: when it proves recalcitrant or to have an intention other than that of humans, Westerners experience a frustration of purpose and become ever more active and forceful in their attempts to subdue their environment.

20People such as the islanders of Inner Oceania who assumed otherwise are thought by Europeans to be seriously intellectually challenged and deluded and they have viewed their task from their position in a divine social hierarchy between God and such native peoples as one of tutelage in relation to their larger objective, with themselves in the vanguard of history. With the idea that man is the animal endowed with reason, islanders appeared less rational and, by implication, less human and more like natural objects, subject to manipulation, control and paternalistic guardianship, if not exploitation. And when “cargo cultists” kept obstinately refusing to go along with the Western disenchantment of “nature”, Europeans invented all sort of derogatory evolutionary notions such as “cargo cult” which insult and belittle them, and they redoubled their efforts to refashion islanders in their own image, if not deriding them then at least sympathetically explaining them in terms comprehensible to the Western mind.

21When Rawa people interact with their environment in the assumption of a consciously aware universe, they endeavour to create symbiotic, synergistic relationships wherever they can and to protect themselves when they cannot. The relations they forge with the lands they inhabit and domesticate are more profound and serious than most Westerners can possibly fathom. When they travel outside their inhabited space, particularly into another group’s domesticated landscape, villagers are vigilant about detecting dissonance with other forms of consciousness and potential sorcery threats. As inevitable as such conflicts may be, Rawa people also recognize that a symbiotic relationship is a far more useful and productive one. In the heyday of Rawa prehistoric culture, successful hamlets sought to ally themselves with one another through a series of feasting rituals which inevitably led to intermarriages. Though hardly free from hostilities, Rawa villagers had thus created a network of alliances across their collective territories along the southern slopes of the Finisterre Mountains and acts of aggression between hamlets, while often serious, were relatively easy to bring into balance if not resolve.

22Villagers told me that if a completely unrecognizable stranger appeared from out of nowhere on someone’s territory, the immediate impulse used to be to kill them, but when the missionaries arrived holding Bibles and crucifixes instead of bows and arrows, they were given more latitude and eventually embraced. Alternatively Rawa people also told stories of how, when encountering strangers on their territory who were assumed to be manifestations of bush spirits, they were especially careful to interact with them in a friendly manner. The early native missionaries whom the Rawa people I knew had invited to establish a village and preach the gospel married into, and thus joined, the community. However the colonial government and businessmen endeavoured to set up a tutelary exploitative hierarchy. The general reaction, explained to me in plain terms by the village headman, has therefore been to embrace Christianity and resist the colonial government and capitalist inequality and exploitation. It took them some time to sort this all out.

23If Europeans are stymied by the epistemological ideas of native peoples, the “cargo cultists” I knew were baffled by the Westerners’ sociology. The only thing these “cargo cultists” could not figure out is why “whitemen” would not share their secret – the knowledge they obviously must have but for some reason will not share. “Some of us don’t believe that whitemen are telling us everything” is how they explained themselves to me. Like Yali, but unlike most other villagers I knew, they were sceptical of Western Christianity along with other European motives. In Rawa understanding and practice, since two peoples joining together are more powerful and successful than they are existing separately, to most Rawa villagers the missionaries seemed to be offering a mutually beneficial relationship, but the government and businessmen just ended up creating a hierarchy which failed to produce many benefits for the local people despite promises to the contrary. Sometimes Rawa people can get government help to build a school or road, but while I lived there in the early 1980s they staged a tax revolt and are generally quite wary of government and almost any business enterprise other than their own.

24It was only after Yali learned that not all Europeans believe in Christianity but instead more commonly believe in social evolution that he returned to the north coast, refused to cooperate further with Europeans and orchestrated a revival of native kastom in opposition to Western ways (Lawrence 1964, Wagner 1981). At that point he was apparently able to fathom the duplicity of European tutelage and thus the sociology which accompanies a materialist, disenchanted “nature”. When Yali asked Diamond (1997) why it was that “whitemen” got all the “cargo”, it was therefore likely to have been a rhetorical question which, mistakenly, Diamond took literally: what Yali actually meant was something more like “if you whitemen are really as supernaturally gifted and superior as you think you are, why is it that you can’t share your cargo knowledge with us?” What Diamond missed but Yali comprehended was the selfish, materialist pursuit of power, rather than technological mastery, which is actually at the root of much European privilege (see Errington and Gewertz 2004). After a series of run-ins with colonial authorities, Yali was never heard from again and his fate is uncertain. I think he probably died of a broken heart (cf. Lindstrom 1993).

25While islanders are thwarted by the sociological presumptions of Europeans, Westerners are baffled by the epistemological presuppositions of native peoples. The encounter between Western civilization and cultures of Inner Oceania can be characterized as a meeting between “materialist” and “religious” views of reality. One only need go back to Tylor (1889 [1871]) to find this understanding of the conflict between Western and native cultures. But one must change his commonly held view of “religion” as essentially a belief in supernatural spirits. As Ruel (1982) has shown, the notion of “belief” has come to have extraordinary and unusual significance through European history. At first it implied a sense of trust and of belonging to a community, and then conformity to an authoritative orthodoxy, later it became an inner organizing experience, and finally the modern Western “belief in belief”, that is a supposedly universal human religious quality of acknowledging something beyond oneself which different groups of people imagine in different ways. In the process “belief” was separated from its original meaning as something “trustworthy” and “reliable” and became a distinctly European Christian idea, now conceived as malleable and subject to doubt across communities, and therefore set apart from the knowledge and the authority of “science” (Pouillon 1982). For peoples without this history, “religion” is instead understood as local knowledge which they gain from experience and share within their communities.

  • 3 A community of shamans would therefore be analogous to a community of scientists in the Western wo (...)
  • 4 This is apparently the situation with the current political controversy over global warming. It is (...)

26The problem with this kind of knowledge for Europeans is that it falls within the realm of religious “belief” rather than “science”. To Western social scientists, who operate in a multicultural world in relation to a single, unified, material “nature”, such “beliefs” appear as symbolic “tropes” and “motifs” in “semantic fields”. For the general scientific community, this sort of knowledge is simply not reliable: not everyone is capable of having the sorts of mystical experiences Rawa people rely upon for such knowledge. In addition, these experiences are largely random and unpredictable and generally not subject to human control: they often happen to the people who experience them rather than being things they have control over, although talented practising magicians are supposed to have more deliberate access to this knowledge and can often convey it to others. Of course in the Western world the general populace also has limited access to the empirical experiences and lack the mathematical aptitudes which scientists rely upon to build and verify their models of the world, and generally take it on faith that what the scientists say is true3. Yet even then the public often judges scientific knowledge against the social hierarchy which Western materialism implies and, if it threatens to undermine the status and control which they otherwise enjoy over “nature” and people supposedly more “natural” than themselves, it becomes the subject of protracted political scepticism and public debate4.

27In addition, modern physics is largely silent on the question of conscious awareness in “nature”. Consciousness is generally assumed to be something to do with the human brain and a matter for psychology; physicists are limited to measuring things such as the chemical action potentials of brain transmitters acting across synapses. Yet what is considered to be “consciousness awareness” is largely a matter of definition involving an “awareness” of “self” and attributing it to physical or biological systems beyond our own brains has always been problematic. While researchers demonstrate some such mental capacities in chimpanzees and gorillas, the ability of humans to comprehend the awarenesses of other kinds of system much beyond themselves, if they exist, is necessarily strictly limited: it would seem impossible for humans to intuit a natural definition of the concept of “awareness” for systems on very different scales or of a makeup that is very different from their own. And, beyond that, any operational definition and its measurement would be arbitrary and tautological.

28However, modern physics apparently substantiates the assumption of an invisible or unseen side of reality which vastly exceeds human comprehension: the best cosmological theories to date suppose that about ninety-five percent of reality is completely imperceptible to us, comprised of “dark matter”, which physicists posited to explain the gravitational coherence of galaxies of stars, which cannot be accounted for with observable visible matter, and “dark energy”, which they posit to explain the observed acceleration of the expansion of the universe (Seife 2003).

29One need only stop thinking of “nature” as opposed to “man” in terms of merely matter and energy and instead think of the cosmos in terms of information in order to start constructing a workable theory of a consciously aware universe. Any system which overcomes entropy and maintains itself for any length of time must organize itself according to mathematical principles beyond mere material and energy and atoms and molecules. Such a system must be self-organizing and adaptive to maintain itself in some degree of equilibrium in relation to the other systems with which it interacts; such a system must be nonlinear and thus entail a variety of recursive negative and positive feedback processes in order to be adaptive and self-organizing. To maintain themselves and adjust to changes, complex adaptive systems must exchange not merely matter and energy with the systems around them but also what is essentially information: the pattern of organization beyond matter and energy is a kind of code for the matter it organizes, and complex systems generally consist of patterns within patterns at different scales of encoding. It is through these that self-organizing systems maintain themselves and interact with one another (Campbell 1982, Gell-Mann 1994, Taylor 2001, Waldrop 1992).

30The clearest examples of information systems outside of human consciousness are probably DNA and the immune system. The natural biological world is full of such systems, yet complex environmental, geological and cosmological systems must also encode information about the chemical physical states of themselves and one another. Whether or not or at what point such systems acquire “conscious awareness” is impossible to say with any certainty, but it certainly does not make much sense to discount out of hand the working thesis that systems beyond the human brain and sensory apparatuses have this property unless, perhaps, one chooses to continue to enjoy the sociological implications of a materialist philosophy, and/or one is completely insensible to reality.

31The Western materialist notion of “nature” is the figure which appears out of the ground of a sociology of dominance and dependency, tutelage and exploitation, while the Rawa sociology of creating synergy and symbiotic relations, that is of a complex adaptive cultural system, is the figure which appears out of the ground of an epistemology which assumes a consciously aware universe. These contrasting world views are much more than simply ways of viewing the world. They make up the fabric of neural patterns within the human brain and configure the somatic experiences and ways of sensing, knowing and interacting with the world of their bearers. They also comprise the outer universe and guide their behaviour in constructing and creating their world. A great many peoples of Inner Oceania simply do not want to inhabit the world which is fabricated by the “whiteman”. This is the view of “cargo cult”. But it is also the view of many non “cargo cultists” I knew who have embraced a more or less syncretic Christian religious perspective while being wary of government and business.

Diversity, Uncertainty and Culture

32Macintyre (Ch. 5) is right to bring up the issue of the diversity of opinions and ideas and variations in confidence within the local cultures where “cargo cult” occurs, something which the broad comparison I have drawn apparently ignores and obfuscates. Such diversity has, of course, been familiar to ethnographers of “cargo cult” for many years. Harding (1967: 22), for example, writes “To maintain that cargoism is a pervasive system of thought and belief, however, is not to suggest that all natives hold to cargoist tenets with firm intellectual conviction”. I have touched upon individual differences within Rawa culture and New Guinea in my descriptions and endeavoured to keep my broad comparison true to the local variety I encountered. Ethnographers face a real dilemma in attempting to describe a shared culture amidst what is often an overwhelming amount of diversity. Besides recounting life histories and telling stories about individuals, classic solutions to this dilemma include providing an appreciation of the polysemy of collective symbolic representations and ignoring or omitting from the culture, or cultural element they embody, the people who fail to participate in them.

33There are problems, moreover, with limiting descriptions and interpretations to the local ethnographic context: besides the academic division of labour it implies, I would argue that it also limits the ability to interpret and fully understand the cultural phenomena being described. Of course any theoretical construction employed in an interpretation implies the broad cross-cultural comparisons employed to build it. But removing the local culture from its broad ethnographic context and separating description from comparison produces a kind of ethnographic present that, in particular, eliminates the broad prehistoric context which can be critical for understanding the phenomenon in question, even where history and contemporary change are central to the study. It is akin to trying to put together a puzzle without all of the pieces.

34In addition, different cultural traditions include within them different realms of uncertainty which inform their own dynamic and produce much local diversity. In a somewhat removed context, Lévi-Strauss (1987) described the Polynesian notion mana in semiological terms as a “transcendental signified”: there is an endless variety of ways of attempting to signify mana and make it present, none of which are entirely equal to the task. Many Polynesian people therefore try to obtain mana in a great many innovative ways as fortunes wax and wane. Rawa people, who have prehistoric ties with ancient Polynesian seafaring cultures, judge the magical activities in which many engage, as well as social relations they attempt to extend, in terms of the “root” (tamoni) and the “fruit” or “food” (owardi) it bears. The “root” is the secret magical knowledge of the hidden “inside” (newendemo) mystical forces which enable the result. People generally employ one kind a magic until it stops working and then set about looking for another. This is the uncertainty and scepticism which is part of the system of magical knowledge and makes for a variety of opinions and beliefs regarding many claims to knowledge or relationship.

35Besides the enormous variation in magical knowledge, there is a great diversity of practitioners: virtually every Rawa villager participates in magic to some degree but the variety is enormous. Any headman has to have very powerful magic, including sorcery, to look after his community, most men seem to have magic to make gardens, pigs and children grow, and many young men and women have experimented with different sorts of love magic. Some men have magic to make it rain or stop raining. Others practise magic to make their musical performances affect their audience, to win at card games and other competitions, to win court cases and, perhaps, to make money multiply. Many have magic to cure different kinds of illness and to protect against illness and sorcery.

36There are apparently as many kinds of magic as there are human purposes. Some kinds of magic are relatively easy to obtain and work while others require a great deal more ascetic discipline. More ambitious or motivated women and men endeavour to practise more demanding sorts of magic, while others seem satisfied to depend on others to accomplish the goals they have that might be amenable to magical manipulation. Very few seem entirely to doubt the efficacy of all kinds of magic, although the very strong version of Christianity has provided that possibility and some people evidently follow it. One practising magician who was also a Christian simply explained to me that “God created everything on earth and we just use it”. Some church preachings claim that magic employs false gods which are akin to demons. This makes them credible and creates a space for the uneasy syncretism of magic and Christianity which generally exists in the village.

37The doubt which is part of magic is based on an even more fundamental uncertainty regarding the knowledge, extent and nature of conscious awareness found in the jungle environment. A number of different Rawa people used to tell me stories of villagers who had been covered up by landslides as the result of vengeance by supposedly “wild” pigs which they had killed. The narratives all agree that all and only those who had eaten the pig they had hunted were killed by the landslides, and it was said that some people would not eat the pork because, regardless of how much it was cooked, the blood remained fresh. This blood was an indication of the nature of the conscious awareness of these “wild” pig-bush spirits which some people noticed and acknowledged while others did not, for without such awareness they are hard to distinguish from mere wild pigs.

38Viveiros de Castro (2004) describes how, in the consciously aware universe of Amerindians, in contrast to the intellectual problem of materialism, the conundrum is how to differentiate inert material from conscious awareness rather than how to distinguish awareness out of a materialist “nature”:

“If in the [Western] naturalist view a subject is an insufficiently analyzed object, in the Amerindian animist cosmology the converse holds: an object is an incompletely interpreted subject. The object must either be ‘expanded’ to a full-fledged subject – a spirit; an animal in its human, reflexive form – or else understood as related to a subject (as existing, in Gell’s terms, ‘in the neighbourhood’ of an agent). But an important qualification must now be made: Amerindian cosmologies do not as a rule attribute personhood (or the same degree of personhood) to each type of entity in the world. In the case of animals, for instance, the emphasis seems to be on those species that perform key symbolic and practical roles, such as the great predators and the principal species of prey for humans. Personhood and “perspectivity” – the capacity to occupy a point of view – is a question of degree and context rather than an absolute, diacritical property of particular species”. (Viveiros de Castro 2004: 470, his emphasis)

39Viveiros de Castro goes on to say that the key determinant of conscious awareness is position in a social network: entities which exist in apparent isolation appear as mere material objects, but everything else has a degree of conscious awareness. The complexity and nature of the material system does not decide if an entity is endowed with awareness. Rather the relation with other systems does: it is quite possible to be a complex system capable of awareness and still be socially isolated from humans and thus apparently merely material. So for Rawa people the status of a “wild” pig which has been hunted may be the issue of some discussion, disagreement, uncertainty and debate, yet nevertheless subject to experimental test: it might be a feral, domesticated or similar pig whose awareness is capable of being in a symbiotic relation with themselves, or perhaps a “wild” pig-bush spirit whose synergistic ties to the land make that impossible and instead render it essentially, for them, immortal.

40The doubt and uncertainty which are inherent parts of magical practice and of a consciously aware universe exist within individuals as well as amidst the variety of opinions, experiences and views in the community. These are the arenas where the dramatic struggle between materialist and religious world views takes place. In the following section I offer a model of this struggle, from the perspective of a non-materialist view of reality, within and between Western cultures and the cultures of people such as my Rawa friends and other indigenous peoples of Inner Oceania.

Living, Killing and Dying in the Multi-verse

  • 5 This duplicity – supposedly doing good while actually doing well economically – is the subject of (...)

41The great historical debates about indigenous peoples among Europeans were between the monogenists, who viewed indigenous peoples as human like themselves, having souls and conscious awareness, and the polygenists, who saw native peoples as mere animals or natural material beings lacking human attributes and available to have their labour and other resources exploited (Stocking 1968). These debates, in other terms, were between more sympathetic and callous views of indigenous peoples. With the general acceptance of indigenous peoples as human in the latter half of the nineteenth century, these two positions were redistributed between Europeans who viewed indigenous people and their resources as available for exploitation and those who saw them instead as deserving of their uplifting tutelage. Many if not most Europeans hold both views more or less simultaneously5.

42For animists the question was not how far to extend conscious human awareness beyond themselves, as it is for Europeans, but where to limit it (cf. Connolly and Anderson 1987; Schieffelin and Crittenden 1991). Therefore Biersack’s question regarding the relevance of materiality in Paiela cosmology (2009) and Bell’s exploration of the aesthetics of materiality in the Purari Delta somatic experience (2010) are highly pertinent. Viveiros de Castro’s reinterpretation of Lévi-Strauss’illustration of supposedly universal ethnocentrism (1998) is a vivid example of the historic clash between European materialist and indigenous “religious” views of reality.

“In the Greater Antilles, some years after the discovery of America, whilst the Spanish were dispatching inquisitional commissions to investigate whether the natives had a soul or not, these very natives were busy drowning the white people they had captured in order to find out, after lengthy observation, whether or not the corpses were subject to putrefaction”. (Viveiros de Castro 1998: 475, trans. Viveiros de Castro; Lévi-Strauss 1973: 384; 1976: 329)

  • 6 Papua New Guineans who join the middle classes, very few of whom I ever got to know well at all, a (...)

43Much as with “wild” pig-bush spirits in the Rawa jungle, the indigenous question was whether “whitemen” were beings with a conscious awareness able to engage in a synergistic, mutually beneficial exchange relationship with themselves, or were those with another form of consciousness beyond their comprehension – “insufficiently analyzed subjects” and, in this sense, more like material objects – giving “whitemen” a kind of immortality in relation to themselves and making them, quite possibly, extraordinarily dangerous. For the “cargo cultists” I knew and others whose aim was to assert kastom over and against the dominance of “whitemen”, the answer to this question was clearly that “whitemen” are beings of the dangerous and immortal kind. But for larger numbers of Rawa people who have adopted a Christian religious perspective over that of materialist business and government, the answer is more qualified6.

44It is interesting, in this regard, to consider that the Enga and Ipili Cult of Ain and mata kamo movements which resulted from the European contact experience turned out to be more concerned with obtaining the immortality of “whitemen” than their “cargo” (Biersack Ch. 4). More recently Jebens finds that even Nakanai who reject the term “cargo cult” as derisive view it as fundamentally a relation to the dead and continue to assume it implicitly: “The expectation of goods sent by one’s own ancestors is a central aspect of a ‘kago kalt’ or ‘ cargo cult’, and thus people reject it decisively along with the term itself: ‘ Money and cargo do not derive from the ancestors, money derives solely from sweat’. Yet some of my hosts and informants were still convinced that the dead were indeed able to help them in achieving economic success” (2010: 97). Among other interpreters of Inner Oceania “cargo cults”, Lanternari is unusual in seeing them as intrinsic combinations of the traditional “cult of the dead” and the modern “cult of cargo”. However he nonetheless views them in fairly standard terms as a “reaction to an alien culture, which appears among them in the form of religious evangelism and of hitherto unknown material goods” (1963: 185). I would add, along with Biersack, that it is not so much material goods as a materialist philosophy that cultists encounter.

45For Rawa people the choice is not so much how sympathetic or callous to be within a materialist hierarchy but how much to hate, or align themselves with, an ambivalent, duplicitous, materialist hierarchy imposed from without within a consciously aware universe. “Cargo cultists” who assert kastom insist on a real synergy against a false or half-hearted one, while Christian villagers continue to build communities and forge bonds from which they may derive some benefit where they can and to be wary of the Western world where they cannot. Either way, while the vibrancy of their communities is very satisfying, the experience of a Western materialist world is not a happy one. I can only imagine the cataclysmic and emotionally devastating impact of living in a religiously alive universe that is overwhelmed by a dead materialist one, which, moreover, one is hardly able to influence.

46If Western ambivalence lies along a sympathy-insensibility continuum in a materialist universe, then Rawa ambivalence would seem to move between hateful defiance of, and resigned accommodation to, an imposed materialist hierarchy, from within a religious perspective that is nevertheless satisfying. I suggest that a model of the struggle this ambivalence entails, understood from an indigenous perspective, can be found in the multiple times and ontologies of Javanese wayang theatre plots described by Becker (1979).

  • 7 It should be noted, in this regard, that the “many worlds” theory of particle physics is a perfect (...)

47McDowell (1985, 1988) has pointed to a nonlinear, “episodic” view of time, change and history which is widespread in Inner Oceania: instead of viewing history as a linear evolutionary progression, the people of Bun see it as a series of disconnected episodes involving radical ontological breaks7. Therefore many “social movements” appear to take the form of millenarian transformations and “cargo cult” seems to make more sense. Instead of describing the indigenous world view as a “cosmos” or “universe”, it would hence be more accurate to call it a “multiverse”. Becker (1979) describes a similar temporality which produces the coherence of Javanese wayang plot structure: wayang theatre depends on coincidental encounters between opposed cosmic forces to motivate actions rather than a Western-style, logical linear progression of events which sequentially and causally build on one another. The acts in wayang plots always involve scenes in a court or hermitage, a journey away from there and a return, and a chance encounter during the journey entailing a battle between contrary beings and epistemologies. Each type of being dwells within a different epistemology and concept of time and all of them exist simultaneously. Any scene may be transposed or omitted except for the movement away from, and the return to, the court, and almost anything else can be left out or brought in. The coincidental clash of conceptual universes remains the centre of the performance and is what makes it coherent. Unlike Western linear narratives, in wayang theatre time has no constraint except that it must be multiple.

  • 8 As Biersack (2009) describes for the Paiela, intelligence is considered to be superior but materia (...)

48 Wayang theatre draws upon the mythology of the two great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and the coincidental encounter takes place between the hero Arjuna or his counterpart and a demon in the forest. When they meet, two worlds collide: the demon is purely corporeal whereas Arjuna is a religious devotee whose awareness disturbs the demon’s physical comfort. After the demon attacks and a struggle ensues, Arjuna kills the demon, which he recognizes as evil, out of religious duty, but the demon is never dead forever: the balance is merely restored, for the battle between gross materialism and religiosity is an eternal struggle8. In the most famous book of the Mahabharata, Arjuna finds himself on the field of battle facing an army of his cousins. His cousins are irreligious, materialistic people who are aching to usurp the kingdom of their religiously-minded adversaries. Being a pious and kind-hearted soul, Arjuna considers becoming a world renouncer or forest monk rather than fight his cousins, but the religious avatar Lord Krishna counsels him that this course of action would actually be utterly self-indulgent and that he must instead devote himself to a higher purpose, do his duty and risk himself in the endeavour to kill and defeat his cousins, which he successfully does.

  • 9 From the viewpoint of information theory, “hungry ghosts” become trapped in a runaway positive fee (...)

49There is a stock character in mythologies across South and East Asia, particularly well expressed in Chinese Buddhism (e. g. see Ahern 1973), which is used to personify the sort of demonic beings encountered by Arjuna in wayang theatre, namely the “hungry ghost”. These beings are “ghosts” because they do not exist in the real living world. Instead, they are so caught up in their own self-delusions that, for them, the rest of the world appears to be lifeless: it exists only to be used for the enhancement of their own magnified selves. This is why, as one of Becker’s translators explained to him, demons move in straight lines, for they are always engaged in the linear calculation of their own immediate gains. Because they are so disconnected from, and therefore unable to communicate meaningfully with, a living reality, suffering a kind of autism, these “ghosts” are profoundly unhappy, insatiably “hungry” and greedy, and willing to sacrifice almost anyone and anything – they imagine others to operate much like themselves – in order to gratify their senses and aggrandize their exaggerated egos9. Some Chinese routinely use this character to describe Westerners whom they encounter (e. g. Kingston 1989).

50Jimmy Stevens, President of the Nagriamel movement on Santo, depicts the internal struggle between materialist and religious views in a universe full of hungry ghosts very well when he asserts that, rather than living the life of a consumer in quiet desperation, one must do one’s duty and assume the risk of being a determined political actor in order to remake a sensible world against an overwhelmingly materialist one (Abong Ch. 3). The internal religious struggle, in other words, involves thinking, feeling and acting in a way that transcends one’s own calculated, material self-interest and egoistic self-enhancement in a world full of hungry ghosts. This inner conflict is fundamentally with one’s own ego. In the drama of “cargo cult” movements, like that of wayang theatre, the actors often risk everything to remake a living reality in the face of a dead and dying one. Most fundamentally, this struggle involves establishing a relationship with otherness and one’s own death.

51Europeans who live in a materialist universe, unless they think they are going to heaven (as Derrida (1992) would say, “economically”), generally suppose that when one dies one simply returns to the state of matter. For Rawa people I knew, at least in the old way of thinking, if they have been initiated in a traditional way to be leaders, or are extraordinarily successful and magnanimous, they believe that when they die they will become stars or souls in heaven, looking down on everyone and continuing to provide animating life energy. Otherwise it is generally assumed that someone who dies continues to exist as, or merges with, some form of conscious awareness belonging to the jungle landscape around the place where they are buried. Even though Christian missionaries endeavoured to separate the dead from the living by establishing a village graveyard some distance from village residences, people have continued to visit the graveyard, beseeching their deceased relatives for various purposes, and have recently started to bury and enshrine ancestors near their houses again.

52From this perspective, it makes sense to suppose that “whitemen” get their money from the graveyard, for it is by interacting with what is to them an essentially dead universe that Western people are able to produce the wealth which they enjoy. Like most “cargo cultists”, for the man who asked me this question, becoming a sorcerer involved an enormous sacrifice of, and risk to, self. And like Yali’s questioning of Diamond, asking this of a “whiteman” was probably a rhetorical strategy: it is more like pointing out what sort of universe “whitemen” inhabit and indeed create, putting a thought in his head and thus, in a way, trying to harm him and thus awaken him from his dogmatic slumber. Many people who engage in “cargo cult” in Inner Oceania would rather die in an enchanted universe than live in a dead materialist one. This was the gist of the statement of Jean-Marie Tjibaou, the leader of the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front in New Caledonia, whom Abong (Ch. 3) quotes at the end of his paper: “Dying is not hard, it is more difficult to stay alive and to feel like a stranger in your own country, to feel that your country is dying and being powerless”.

Seeing and Being in the Worlds of Rawa Culture

I have to wonder how successful my friend the missionary’s son will be in using binoculars to disabuse his fellow villagers of the idea that “whitemen” glassim the hidden “inside” life forces which inhabit the jungle landscape. It is difficult to tell because he seems to be anticipating a trend which is already apparent in the village. When I was there in the early 1980s, the people I knew were not only unable to operate my SLR camera, but many of them had some unusual ideas about being photographed as well. Candid photographs or pictures of relaxed, smiling subjects were nearly impossible to get. Only a few relatively young men who had some education or had some familiarity with Western ways were able to interact with a camera in an informal way. Everyone else looked very serious and stiffened up to pose for photographs.

  • 10 Paradoxically, for Western Europeans, in “killing” a being as a consciously aware subject and thus (...)

53One young man I encountered at a funeral wake showed me a very small and worn photograph of his mother and earnestly told me that it was the reason that she had died. His photo illustrated an understanding which people generally assumed: a photograph has the capacity to entirely envelop the perspectival viewpoint of its subject. The image provides a kind of feedback to the self of its subject which has such psychic power that it can completely captivate it. In doing so, a photo can reformulate a subject so dramatically as to remove it from the cultural network of relations which define it, effectively “killing” it. This is why I had “died” when I had lost contact with the people I had known back in New Guinea. And this is what the sorcerer I met was attempting to counter in asking me, the “whiteman”, about getting money from the graveyard10.

54When I visited in the late 1990s there were a large number of young men and women who had no trouble using my camera. In fact, some had cameras of their own. And they were very familiar with posing for photographs with smiling, friendly faces which simulated those they had seen in National Geographic. Indeed many young school children regularly brushed their teeth, wore nice clean clothes and cared for themselves in such a way as to render them quite photogenic, as though they were anticipating the opportunity. In one house I visited I also found that one of the residents had decorated a portion of wall with full-page, glossy colour photographs from a magazine of the white faces of fashion models. Typically the people I asked had little to say about the pictures except that one young member of the family liked them. One could adopt Fanon’s thesis (1967) that such images invoke a sense of racial inferiority, as Lattas has done (1998), and they doubtless provide a measure of the self that most people are unable to equal, particularly people of colour in a globe dominated by white people. But being photographed also shifts the position of the subject in relation to the self in a manner which is consistent with the comfort young people now feel in relation to photography.

55The village where I resided has acquired a two-room primary school from the government which teaches grades one through six. Families used to have to select a son to send to school on the coast or, later, in other areas somewhat closer to the village. Now a much larger number of students, both boys and girls, are able to attend primary school. The school is full of students who have a much greater familiarity with Western culture than their elders. They know about cameras and magazines. I never got to know any of them very well but I did get to know a few Rawa people who were permanent residents of urban areas and similarly conversant with Western ways. They used to try to help me understand traditional Rawa culture by explaining to me that “our elders used to say X, now we think Y”. Although their own understanding of reality had changed dramatically, they never actually said that their elders had been wrong, only that they now know differently. Their elders, after all, had been quite successful in domesticating the landscape and growing their families. But they had lived in a different world and experienced a different reality.

56Even when people were critical of an older generation for the fighting, vengeance raids and sorcery in which they had engaged, and about particular magical spirit beliefs, there was general agreement and recognition that the elders had accomplished monumental things. As is common elsewhere in New Guinea, the ancestors were sometimes said to be giant women and men who were capable of enormous feats surpassing the abilities of their descendants. People also shared with me the missionary narrative that the ancestors had lived in an evil time of darkness but now people had come to see the light. Some of these apparently competing narratives were told to me by the same people, usually at different times although I have also known people to consider them simultaneously, using the achievements of the ancestors to juxtapose and correct the idea that they were all just “crazy”.

57These kinds of stories are often analyzed as indicating a sense of inferiority in the modern world, both to the ancestors and to Westerners. It does not diminish the alienation and suffering experienced by indigenous islanders of Inner Oceania to observe that what these interpretations have in common is a linear view of time and, by implication, an evolutionary historical trajectory. Although opposing views of history appear to be involved here, these stories are all compatible with an episodic view of time. McDowell (1985) illustrates this understanding of time in Bun with the example of a woman who insisted that her grandmother had not been a cannibal because she is still, in essence, alive and, since cannibalism was a practice of the ancestors in a completely different time, she therefore could not have been one. With such a nonlinear notion of history, Rawa ancestors sometimes appear to be crazy, at other times extraordinary and divine, or both, but always dramatically different. This is because they are different kinds of subject in a consciously aware universe and therefore inhabit a different world.

58Of course different types of subjects inhabiting different worlds also exist simultaneously, as with indigenous islanders and Westerners. In educating their children in Western ways of thinking and being, the villagers hazard losing them to the community or risk them, in a sense, “dying” in much the same way that I did. So what village residents have done is to embrace and nurture these children in extraordinary fashion. While I was there in 1999, for example, I was able to help with a Lutheran confirmation ceremony for these very same children in which forty young men and women were brought into the church fellowship with an overwhelming outpouring of community support. As is the tradition in these sorts of ceremonies these days, the children were “pulled” into the village by elders who sang and danced while wearing decorations in the manner of the ancestors. The confirmation candidates were then passed on to a modern singing group who led them into the church. The children were thus brought into a new world by their elders who simultaneously gave over their world to a younger generation and took credit for making that possible.

59Rawa people have decades of experience with Western culture beginning with men who travelled to find work on German plantations in Rabaul a hundred or more years ago. They have a fairly good understanding of how different and separated is the world which many “whitemen” inhabit and have also lost many of their members to it, who, when they found employment, never or rarely returned home. What they have done with their young school children is remarkable: refashioning them as subjects while holding them tightly within their communities, keeping their affection and attention for themselves. If these children are to become more like ghosts, one might say, at least they won’t go hungry.

60In the larger picture, however, it is not clear that my friend’s project to change villagers’ understandings of glassim will be particularly successful. Not all children of school age attend the community school and there are many Rawa villages without one. A great many Rawa people continue to inhabit a world in which they dream of the bush spirits who dwell in their land and maintain other mystical connections with the living universe in which they participate. In addition, it is perhaps even more remarkable to find a very serious practising magician and sorcerer of the sort I met among the young men of the village. When I was there in the early 1980s, the villagers bragged about having successfully eliminated the practice of sorcery from their communities. They had sought to do so in an effort to bring to an end a period of great conflict and violence which followed upon the German colonization of the north coast. In a world full of hungry ghosts, however, having a dedicated sorcerer in the community now seems like a good idea: his statements were certainly disconcerting to me. He seems equal to the task of keeping alive a universe which is otherwise threatened with dying.

61Between the missionary’s son and the sorcerer, the young school children, their elders and the many villagers who spend most days in their bush houses near their gardens and pigs, between cargo and cult, the Rawa villagers I know seem well poised to negotiate their existence successfully in the living worlds they inhabit.


62I gratefully acknowledge the monetary support which a National Science Foundation grant was able to afford me. I also very much appreciate the support which Roy Wagner gave to me and for pointing me in the direction of an anthropology of the subject. I am extraordinarily grateful for the opportunity they provided me. My sincere thanks go to the organizers of this collection, Marc Tabani and Marcellin Abong, for their direction and leadership, and to the other contributors for their many excellent papers and inspiration. I am especially thankful to my colleague Jim Jordan for his careful reading and comments and for suggesting and providing resources. I also thank Lamont Lindstrom for suggesting resources and for his editorial comments. I am most appreciative of the support and discussion of Dr Brian Bates and the members of the Delta of Virginia Chapter of Lambda Alpha, particularly Meghan Banton, Lauren Hilt, Alyssa Foley, Stephanie Neeley, Alexis Yorcsyk and Samantha Zerio. My undying gratitude goes to the many Rawa-speaking people I know for their generosity of spirit, honesty and strength, and for their insight into the human condition.



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1 Turner found that in modern Western industrial societies “liminal” states and persona were often not so much transitional moments or episodes in ritual processes but, rather, permanent yet extraordinary and uncommon statuses; he coined the term “liminoid” to identify them (Turner 1982). In using “liminoid” here I mean to indicate that the modern clash of cultures that “cargo cult” embodies is apparently a permanent state.

2 As Derrida (1968) pointed out, the attempt to critically remove oneself from a discursive process in which one is involved yields two possible “false exits”. One is the attempt suddenly and dramatically to step outside of the discourse, as in adopting the supposedly neutral, objective perspective of a transcendental ego in relationship to the discourse. However this strategy ensconces one within the discourse one pretends to escape from more firmly than ever, for it fails to consider one’s own position in relation to the system one supposedly thereby escapes. The other strategy is to critique the system from a position within its own discursive formation. This false exit is both strictly impossible and absolutely unavoidable; it has the virtue of acknowledging its position in a discursive formation and, paradoxically, yields more accurate results.

3 A community of shamans would therefore be analogous to a community of scientists in the Western world, for they are both groups of specialists in the production of knowledge to which not everyone has direct access but upon whom their larger communities nevertheless rely.

4 This is apparently the situation with the current political controversy over global warming. It is interesting to consider the different trajectories of recent debates about climate change and somewhat older ones about the teaching of evolution. In the latter case the scientific view has apparently held sway whereas, in the former, that has hardly proven to be the case.

5 This duplicity – supposedly doing good while actually doing well economically – is the subject of Derrida’s critique of Western bourgeois mentality: while it is always good to do good, it is pure hubris to suppose that history is going to go the way that we imagine or will it to go, or that the European Enlightenment project is either inevitable or was ever bound to be successful; it is all too easy to delude oneself in a self-justifying manner into the pretence of making better a situation we can neither fully comprehend nor control, and supposedly to do good for the world while actually doing well for oneself. Therefore Derrida thematizes Baudelaire’s assertion that, while it is never good to do evil, there is some merit in knowing that one is doing soss: the worse vice is to do evil out of stupidity (Derrida 1996).

6 Papua New Guineans who join the middle classes, very few of whom I ever got to know well at all, apparently accept the Western European hierarchy they join while nonetheless feeling the obligations they have to local kin communities (Gewertz and Errington 1999).

7 It should be noted, in this regard, that the “many worlds” theory of particle physics is a perfectly coherent and accepted physical theory, some versions of which suppose that different universes exist with different physical laws (Davies 1988).

8 As Biersack (2009) describes for the Paiela, intelligence is considered to be superior but materiality is nevertheless irreducible, hence, one could suppose, the eternal struggle between these two principles.

9 From the viewpoint of information theory, “hungry ghosts” become trapped in a runaway positive feedback cycle with their own selves rather than being subject to the equilibrating negative feedback they would otherwise experience in relationship to other beings in their environment with which they could have a symbiotic relationship.

10 Paradoxically, for Western Europeans, in “killing” a being as a consciously aware subject and thus rendering it a mere material object, the subject is, like truly “wild” Rawa pig-bush spirits, rendered immortal to those for whom he or she is psychically “dead”: it is by sharing perspectives and thus participating in a common world that life energies can be exchanged and passed on and that people, or at least their physical persons, eventually die.


Teaches cultural anthropology at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia. His research and scholarship is concerned with indigenous concepts and historical change employing ideas from symbolic anthropology, phenomenology, critical cultural studies, and chaos and complexity theory. Dalton has published several articles which consider the notion from several perspectives and edited one volume of Oceania on the idea of “cargo cult.” He has also published articles on shell valuables and their meanings, money, economic spheres and card games in relation to “cargo cult,” on concepts of self, memory, and “development,” mythology, mortuary rites, and intellectual history in Melanesian anthropology. His teaching focuses on cultural research methods, the history of anthropological theory, religion, language and culture, and ethnographically focused courses in the Pacific region.

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