Recycling values

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © André Iteanu. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.1.007


Recycling values

Perspectives from Melanesia


This article evolved from an ethnographic contradiction. Many monographs on Melanesia and Polynesia mention the idea that after the arrival of the “Whites,” the deities or the ancestors abandoned their descendants to emigrate far away to foreign countries, often those of the Whites. This is all the more puzzling in that the same ethnographies attest that the societies concerned accord very high value to these deities and ancestors. I propose a solution to this puzzle here by using Louis Dumont’s views on the relation between encompassing and encompassed values. From this perspective, these travels, made under the influence of contemporary changes, appear to result from the recycling of an old subordinated value manifested by the ancestors’ senseless wandering, which is omnipresent in the oral literature of these same societies.

Keywords: values, hierarchy, change, Christianity, Melanesia

In every period, a certain view of the world, a collective mentality, dominates the whole mass of society. Dictating a society’s attitudes, guiding its choices, confirming its prejudices and directing its actions, this is very much a fact of civilization. Far more than the accidents or the historical and social circumstances of a period, it derives from the distant past, from ancient beliefs, fears and anxieties which are almost unconscious—an immense contamination whose germs are lost to memory but transmitted from generation to generation. A society’s reactions to the events of the day, to the pressure upon it, to the decisions it must face, are less a matter of logic or even self-interest than the response to an unexpressed and often inexpressible compulsion arising from the collective unconscious.

(Braudel 1994: 22)

[138]In The savage mind, Claude Lévi-Strauss compares mythical thought production to the activity of the “bricoleur”:

His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with “whatever is at hand,” that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions. The set of the “bricoleur’s” means cannot therefore be defined in terms of a project (which would presuppose besides, that, as in the case of the engineer, there were, at least in theory, as many sets of too1s and materials or “instrumental sets,” as there are different kinds of projects). (Lévi-Strauss 1962: 17)

According to him, in the realm of mythical activity, only second-hand materials are available to those willing to construct new elements or new narratives. This assertion is hardly controversial because the idea that new is built from old is a commonplace. However, when one leaves aside mythical activity to consider the process through which values transform, the allegation becomes more problematic. This is so because everywhere values are, by definition, hierarchically ordered. As such they contrast with the categories used in mythical thought. For example, that Spanish people call mesa a table does not conflict with what we think: it is just different. However, that people in certain societies may eat other people is not only different, but also shatters the hierarchy of values we have set for ourselves. When confronted with such a divergence, the question that comes to mind is: Can any hierarchy of values be replaced by another opposed to it, or is this impossible because new values, as mythical categories, are only constructed from old disaffected materials?

This is an overwhelming question that I cannot fully answer here. However, my ambition is to engage in this attempt by dealing with a very restricted transformation pattern, the recycling of old values,1 from a limited point of view, that developed by Louis Dumont. By “recycling of values,” I refer to the usage made by a society of ideas, qualities, and objects formerly associated with some secondary value, in order to understand and appropriate a new value that would otherwise be difficult to grasp because of its very novelty.

The author that anthropologists associate most commonly with the notions of value and hierarchy is Louis Dumont. Contrary to Lévi-Strauss, who concentrated on what he called structural categories, Dumont’s most important research projects focused on what one may term “emerging values.” Homo hierarchicus: The caste system and its implications (1980) attempted to understand the connection between what Vedic texts reveal about ancient India and contemporary castes. From Mandeville to Marx: The genesis and triumph of economic ideology (1977) examined the emergence and development of economic ideology. German ideology: From France to Germany and back (1994) analyzed German ideology from 1770 to 1830. Finally, in Essays on individualism: Modern ideology in anthropological perspective (1986), the period under consideration is even wider, as it ranges from the first Christians [139]to Hitler. It is as if to understand what captured his interest—a society’s values— Dumont had to contemplate, not a synchrony, but a period of transition.

In the books I have just mentioned, the social contexts Dumont studies are caught in movements to assimilate or to cope with values that come from another culture, another religion, or another social configuration, from Buddhism to economic ideology to revolutionary individualism. These values might have originated in an encounter with another society or be sui generis. In all cases, the process of assimilation results in the establishment of a specific hierarchy of values.

Thus, for Dumont, a hierarchy of values characterizes each society, but it is simultaneously always open to the values of those around it, or of those who come in contact with it, or of those individuals from within who promote new values. In that respect, Dumont’s main claim is that societies do not generally reject innovative values, but take ownership of them, enriching or complicating with them their former ideas and practices.

A question then arises which Dumont has not directly answered. Is there a systematic framework in these value transformations? To answer this question a number of characteristics of hierarchical systems should be taken into account. Firstly, as explained in the introduction to this section, in any hierarchy of values, the lower values contradict that which is superior. Secondly, the inferior values are not suppressed by the higher one, but only assigned an inferior position. A society can thus assign a lesser status to the new values that it captures. In such a case, at a later time, an inversion may also occur when the new values succeed to subordinate the formerly superior one.

I will propose here that in such cases, under the pressure of an event, or of contact with another culture, or of internal invention, meanings associated with an old and subordinate value, which once seemed obsolete, hidden, or dormant, reappear, now linked to the new value, reinvigorated and attempting to gain prominence over formerly dominant values. That recycling of values is an integral process of hierarchical systems, thus it contributes, in many cases, to how values appear, persist, and fade away.

To found this proposition, my argument unfolds here from the trivial idea that deities and ancestors stand for important values in the societies of the Pacific. I then attempt to understand the widespread (almost universal) but apparently paradoxical idea, in Melanesia and Polynesia, that following the arrival of the “Whites,” the ancestors and the deities deserted the abodes where they earlier dwelt (a move often described as a form of emigration). In short, the ancestors and the deities that earlier stood for important values were never really disavowed by the people, but faded away when they moved abroad. It is important to note that this discourse did not emerge immediately after the arrival of the colonizers, but became prominent as an interpretation of the past in the wake of the contemporary social changes that some call globalization. I will use this insight to show how the values that emerge in Melanesia, alongside Christianity, are not primarily borrowed “modern” values, nor are they newly invented ones, but established themselves by cannibalizing formerly subordinate values. The main such value I deal with here is associated with the ancestors’ and deities’ capacity to move about fast and constantly.

To expand these ideas, I mainly use my Orokaiva material. However, most of the notions I invoke exist, under different guises, in many Melanesian cultures.[140]

Prolific versus pathetic activities

In Melanesia, activity is a central feature of life. This is visible, for example, in the fact that many Melanesian languages use an unusually high proportion of action verbs in relation to nouns and adjectives. To hierarchize the actions that these verbs describe, Melanesians often resort to a normative opposition between two types of action: prolific versus pathetic. Among other things, this contrast is used to instruct children in good behavior and to pronounce judgments on how successful a gift-giving ceremony has been.

On the one hand, prolific activities, like working in a garden, or ceremonially giving taro and pig, yield actual results or indeed growth of different kinds. The Orokaiva call them be, “real,” “good.” On the other, certain activities are pathetic, “without aim” or “unproductive.” The Orokaiva call them sio, “meaningless.” This last term is applied, for example, to male teenagers roaming from village to village all night long, looking for girls or distractions. It is also applied to the expensive visits mature men make to Popondetta, the small local capital. Not only, people say, do they waste the fare traveling there, but they also drink many beers and spend the rest of their money on prostitutes. And all this to no benefit.

Surprisingly, the term also applies to the travels of long-departed ancestors. According to the stories that their descendants told me, these ancestors lived, each alone with his wife only, as nomadic individual warriors. Always on the move, instead of enjoying the comfort of a village, they camped in the forest, existing by hunting and gathering. Instead of building relationships, they fought everyone they met.

They were warriors, so they never sat down anywhere, and rarely slept, but always stood upright. When the husband wanted to rest, the wife would keep guard so he could sleep a little. Then, the husband would in turn be on watch, so his wife could doze for a while. They did not have proper gardens. If they got hold of a few taros, they killed a man and cooked them up together. (Vevehupa 2013: 2)

And all this still produced nothing (sio).

However, one day, one of the ancestors made “friends” (namei) with one of the others, and they decided to settle together in a village. Because, unlike previously, they were no longer alone, the two men now had reasons (be) to perform rituals, after which they exchanged pigs and taro. Relations finally made sense (be) because objects (be) were circulating through them.

When an Orokaiva person makes a gift to a friend it is not mindless, but each gift is and must be remembered. Gifts are made to friends with whom one has a good time. Between friends lots of things are regularly given, so that the friends can continue to enjoy each other. (Vevehupa 2013: 43)

As opposed to wandering ancestors, those who live in a civilized way build relationships. Melanesian life is thus largely devoted to planning, organizing, and entering exchanges of goods, to nurturing relationships, and to creating socialized space.

The inextricable links between relations and exchanges have been widely studied. Mauss and many others subsequently showed that what differentiates Melanesian gifts from economic exchanges, as they are practiced throughout the world, is [141]the emphasis they carry (Gregory 1982). While economic exchanges concentrate mainly on the things exchanged, in Melanesia, relationships between traders are central. Therefore, relations are established, maintained, and transformed by the transfers of objects during rituals. According to many authors (e.g., M. Strathern 1988; Iteanu 1990), this interdependence has comparative corollaries: the need for an object to circulate before a relationship can be created, the partial lack of distinction between the subjects and objects of trade, and the fact that the transfer of objects creates a partial identity between the traders.

A further condition should be appended. Melanesian relational systems are so complex that they always lead to losses. So to endure without being depleted, they must be partly complemented by outside sources. Therefore, objects, the living, the dead, and rituals do not circulate only between those who already know each other, but must also pass to or come from unknown partners. Donations then convert who or what is not known into familiar persons and objects. The main consequence of this conversion is to slow down the absurd wandering of ancestors, people, and things, and to create meaning: people stay with their gardens and their pigs, goods are hoarded for ceremonies, repetition momentarily fixes rituals, and ancestors are temporarily prevented from disappearing because they are invited to attend ceremonies. A conversion is thus achieved. Uncontrolled meaningless movements coming from afar are transformed into relations creating exchanges. Or, better, these movements when transformed into exchanges fasten people to the ground, thus producing meaning.

One could consider the canonical Trobriand Kula as an example of this. A man who gives or covets a Kula valuable travels to neighboring islands to attract the object he wishes to capture (Malinowski 1922; Weiner 1976; Damon 1990). As if throwing a boomerang, his own movement encourages the as yet uncontrolled Kula valuable to travel to him. This procedure is repeated each time such a valuable changes hands. The movements of valuables have therefore been considered the extension of human movements, and vice versa (Munn 1986). However, the extension of men’s movements is always smaller than that of valuables that cross many distant islands. It is as if the exchanges with the outer islands, the Kula, tie down the partners within a limited perimeter of the transaction network. The discrepancy in size of the two movements—that of people and that of valuables—is described by the Trobrianders, as by many other Melanesians, by the idea that the name of the giver, his family, or his island is “big.” Its magnitude covers the size of the entire exchange network, though its bearer only accomplishes limited travels. In the Kula case, therefore, meaning is produced by the slowing down of human movement in relation to that of valuables.

In Orokaiva, a different version of this phenomenon exists. Even after the ancestors’ time, Orokaiva say that, for fear of cannibalism, they continued to live enclosed in their village. Only exceptional warriors dared brave the unknown. According to their degree of courage, they crossed miles of forest, off the beaten path. When they were lucky, they killed a man in battle, stole his shell jewels and feather ornaments, and brought his body back to the village to share his flesh with kin. However, the goal was to build friendships with the residents of a remote village by offering jewelry in exchange for pork. The relationship thus established was sealed in time when these new friends came to visit the warrior’s village to receive [142]the return of their pork gift. Here, the distance traveled by the warrior between the two communities is reduced by the creation of an exchange relation and the peace that ensues. Simultaneously, the names of the two units grow.

In both cases, as in many others in Melanesia, without exchange relations, the world in which objects and people move is potentially meaningless, without form and borders. Only individual initiative is then operative: the distance Kula valuables travel is only limited by their reputation and that of the man who put them in motion, and the distance that the Orokaiva warrior crosses depends only on his own temerity. However, these movements can also create meaning when they establish relations. This stabilizes the space and its boundaries for a while.

The items change hands, and the men move, come, and go at the pace of the gifts that are ritually offered. One might think that everything moves except the ritual, which here would be what we loosely call culture. However, this is not the case. In Melanesia, every society, every region, and every village borrows rituals from its neighbors and provides others with those it used formerly. This movement is constant and in turn generates movement reduction and space stabilization. Below, I present two cases that offer different modalities of the relation between senseless movement and exchange.

Anthropologists have long described circulating cults in the highlands of Papua New Guinea (A. Strathern 2009). However, a recent dissertation by Almut Schneider (2011) goes further. According to the author, circulating rituals are the most important ceremonies known by the Gawigl, with whom she worked. They are implemented when the community faces a decrease in producing life in all its different forms: reduced horticultural and breeding efficiency, repetitive diseases, epidemics, and human infertility. These rituals are then intended to revitalize the multiplication of life. What distinguishes them is that one never practices the same ritual twice. When the need arises, villagers seek a specialist in a neighboring community. The latter performs a ritual that he simultaneously teaches the men of the group. He pronounces invocations in a foreign language, which he probably does not himself understand, and uses spirits and ancestral names unknown by the concerned community. When one asks this specialist where he obtained this practice, he replies that he learned it from a foreign specialist who came to help him and his community in analogous circumstances. Therefore, the ritual is deemed to come from afar, always beyond any borders. One may even speculate that it is its “foreign” origin that preserves its ability to restore life in a local context of general corruption. Because these rituals are extraneous, and in many ways senseless for those who undergo them, they can in time stabilize their community.

The second example concerns the so-called cargo cults. The anthropologists who originally described them considered that they were invented in response to the advent of the white settlers. More recently, it has been shown that they were, in fact, the form that circulating cults, which regularly crossed entire regions of Melanesia since time immemorial, had taken under the impact of colonization (Burridge 1960; Worsley 1968; Tromph 1977; Waiko 1984). At roughly regular intervals, these cults ignited whole regions around miraculous themes (Williams 1923, 1928). Then they gradually disappeared. It is difficult to determine how often such events occurred. In the words of old informants, it seems that a man saw more than one during his lifetime. In the stories, these cults, albeit identified as being of [143]foreign origin, regularly become confused with practices considered indigenous rites of passage. Here, again, borrowed cults transform into local rituals and exchanges that identify and stabilize local society.

Objects, people, rituals—everything moves. Supernatural beings move as well. This may seem paradoxical since our societies are haunted by the idea that ancestral graves are places of memory (Detienne 2010). However, in Orokaiva, for example, this is not the case. The dead are buried under their own home, which is then left to rot. Thereafter, only the coconut palm trees that stood nearby still recall their grave. Finally, some decades later, the disappearance of these palm trees erases all traces of their life and burial place.

Simultaneously, as in many other Melanesian societies, Orokaiva claim that recent ancestors reside in the forest near the villages and lands occupied by their descendants. However, their presence is not eternal. Over time, they become estranged, as they do not know the children born after their death, and the latter do not “recognize” them either. Thus, familiarity between ancestors and the living lasts no more than a generation. Beyond that, the ancestors become dangerous, analogous to faraway foreigners whom one does not “recognize” because no earlier relationship had ever been established. The ancestors therefore move, according to the loss of memory and the passage of time, from near to aloof in terms of relationship, and accordingly their behavior to their offspring changes.

Conversely, when rituals are performed, the ancestors are asked to return to the village in order to revive their memory and create familiarity between them and those young people they do not know. This is a delicate moment because some of these ancestors are no longer fully controlled by a relationship they remember, and they can, thus, be dangerous. This is why many precautions are taken when they are present: food is offered to them, young children are locked in the homes, people refrain from talking and laughing, and so on. However, most of all, the villagers hope that the ritual, which they have learned from their predecessors, provided it is faithfully repeated, will trigger the ancestors’ memory so they will remember the relationships between them and their descendants, thus neutralizing the danger they represent.

Ancestors, like exchanged goods, people, and rituals, “naturally” suffer loss over time that runs counter to relationship preservation. Inexorably, the links between them and the living disappear. Thereafter, the ancestors populate an anonymous world that lies beyond relationships and any identifiable location on the ground. This world is limitless, in terms of objects, space, ritual, and people. It does not make sense (sio). By regularly performing rituals, the Melanesians attempt to slow down the inexorable removal of the dead.

Social relationships that can be described as a generalized movement of objects, people, supernatural beings, and rituals thus create the space in which they exist. To do this, they momentarily tie to the ground villages, kinship groups, and individuals who are partners in these relationships. Similar to what Annette Weiner (1992) has shown in the case of wealth, but in a broader sense, this amounts to holding in place things, people, supernatural beings, and rituals so that everything can freely circulate (keeping-while-giving). However, this stabilization is only temporary and can never totally counteract the loss of relations, which is integral to time and [144]memory. So instead of talking about a halting in place, I prefer to maintain the dynamic nature of each situation by considering this a movement slowdown.

One can contrast this Melanesian feature with what happens in Polynesia. In a now rather old article, Marshall Sahlins (1963) argues that in contrast to Melanesia, Polynesian chieftainship can manage larger social groups, more sustainable politics, and a more hierarchical structure. Polynesian chiefs represent the gods on earth and are taboo, sacred. They are bounded in prohibitions, the most radical of which is often that they cannot touch the ground or move about. According to my analysis, these prohibitions reflect the ability of Polynesian systems to stop the gods’ or their representatives’ motion more completely than in Melanesia. Chiefs are thus brought to a standstill. Similarly, the fatal adventure of Captain Cook (Sahlins 1985) reminds us that Polynesians need to tie down their gods, here Lono. Since Cook comes and goes freely outside the liturgical calendar, and the rituals cannot stop him, more drastic measures have to be implemented; he was killed to stop his movement once and for all.

To sum up, this section has attempted to show that the hierarchical contrast between productive and meaningless movements was not only rhetorical. On the contrary, as I have argued, this hierarchy of values applies to a large number of social activities. Typically, valued movements, like exchange, are more restricted in scope but more significant than those, wider in scope, of the apical ancestors or gods that lack a reference point in space and in time. The latter, however, are not valueless because, for example, it is thanks to the ancestors or the gods that women and men have land to farm and rituals to perform to slow down all movements and enable a civilized life. These two ways of judging movement are therefore based on two values that partially contradict each other. The movement that makes sense, albeit restricted in space, is more important than the larger, senseless one. However, the former cannot exist without the latter, but encompasses it (Dumont 1986: 239).

The departure of the ancestors and the gods

So the Melanesians have managed to encompass momentarily the ancestors’ wild movement and to confine the value it was based on to a secondary role while they have promoted relation as a constitutive virtue. However, the arrival of the Whites has undermined this construction. Indeed, Melanesians immediately interpreted the successive irruptions of the colonists, evangelists, and international traders as an extension of the space in which goods, people, rituals, and supernatural beings could move (Coppet 1973). It would take a whole volume to describe in detail how, thereafter, the intensity and the range of motion of things and beings seemed to multiply in all directions. In Melanesian eyes, new relations became possible with neighbors by using the newly built roads and thanks to the “colonial peace,” with the Whites, who had different bodies and many goods and new ideas, with the capital city and other citizens of the country after independence, and finally with the all-powerful Christian God.

Note that my point is not to oppose two states of society—the “original” and that following the advent of white colonizers—because every society is always in motion. However, since the colonizers started settling in, an event that occurred at [145]different times in different areas of Melanesia, the value of the earlier sterile movement has steadily multiplied. So, the Melanesians have focused their efforts on this movement, gradually abandoning the ritual practices and exchanges that earlier carried meaning for them.

The expansion resulting from colonization has taken on many directions. I will focus here on only one of its typical and widespread forms, which we can call “the departure of the ancestors or the gods.”

In Orokaiva, for example, the ancestors abandoned the living on the arrival of the colonizers. Among the various reasons that my informants gave to me for this, one is particularly evocative for a Western audience: white settlers were so determined to force the Orokaiva to work on their plantations that the ancestors began to fear that they would find a way to force them to do so as well. So, unwilling to work so hard, they took off. In the view of their descendants, they have then traveled either to Paradise or to distant countries—Australia, Canada, the United States, and even France. These destinations are also often conflated into one mythical place. According to Prophetess Genakuiya, the ancestors undergo considerable changes along the way:

They [the dead] travel to a particular place called Ivata Ari Yei and their bodies are senisi (changed). They leave their original earthly bodies and are all white by the time they press through this stage. They immediately adopt the Inglis (English) language: those who were not educated were put immediately into school…. After this, they are all given books and they proceed into an office where each one is allocated to a profession. (Jojoga Opeba 1977: 138–39)

Thus now the ancestors live in Paradise-in-the-country-of-white, where they are what we might call immigrants. However, for Melanesians, they are rather discoverers and conquerors of New Worlds. Like their forefathers before them, they are the first Orokaiva to reach new territories. Consequently, just as the Orokaiva invoke their ancestors’ military conquests to establish the legitimacy of their land claims, they today consider that they have potential rights over the white realm because of their ancestors’ travels.

Note that in Polynesia as well the gods have wanderlust. For Fiji, Sahlins (1985: 37) talks about the departure of the gods after the arrival of the whites. He calls this movement “emigration” (ibid.: 60).

However, the journeys of these ancestors, like those of the warriors who once crossed the forest, would only gain meaning if they could bring back goods to distribute to their kin, or, better, if they managed to establish friendship and trade relations with distant people. Unfortunately, so far, nothing of the kind has happened. This lack of results (be) has convinced the Orokaiva that they have lost contact with their ancestors. Initially, this situation did not worry them much, as they expected assets pledged by the white settlers and benefits secured by the adherence to Christianity to offset this spiritual and material loss. However, this has, so far, not been the case.

What I know is that this new religion [Christianity] belongs to a different land, is spelled in a different language, and deals with a different type of person, so the answer does not come through to us quickly. I do not [146]mean that this other people’s tradition is false, but that it belongs to them exclusively. So if I demand something from it, I will not get an answer quickly. But, when these other people ask, the answer comes immediately to them. In the same way, if we ask something through our own tradition, we get it right away, but if they did so, they would never get anything. (Vevehupa 2013: 41)

The relational split with the ancestors was, in fact, duplicated by a break between Whites and Melanesians and thus between Melanesians and God. After the initial excitement generated by the Europeans’ arrival, Melanesians had to face the fact that, though their possible moves were now wider and more intense, they no longer created meaningful relationships marked by the movement of goods (be). Between neighbors, individualism reigns and youths become rascals, “bandits,” who threaten everyone’s safety. Since independence, there has been hardly any contact with Whites, as those who lived there have returned home, and no contact at all with the “Chinese” who took their place in businesses and industries. In politics, all Orokaiva feel that their representatives never listen to them. Finally, they complain that despite their incessant prayers, God does not accord them what they ask for. Travel possibilities have surely widened, but this does not create any sense. “All we do now,” they say, “is come and go for nothing.”

Reverting to older views, Orokaiva then set up various strategies to fill the gap created between them and their ancestors. Considering that in their conception of history, since the past informs the present, the latter should also illuminate the past, they reconfigured their original myths to account for the contemporary emergence of Whites. These now state that long ago Whites and Blacks were brothers, but they separated after a quarrel (Iteanu and Schwimmer 1996). Over time, this original kinship link was forgotten. The return of the Whites happily recalled it. Yet this historical work remained without concrete relational effect (be).

The Orokaiva then tried other ways to restore relationships with their lost ancestors. Those who thought that they were now living in the land of the Whites asked me to forward letters to those living in my country (Iteanu and Kapon 2002). Those who conjectured that they had gone more prosaically to Paradise joined charismatic churches that promised the imminent return of the dead. Most have combined the two options. But again, their hopes were dashed.

The contemporary context has therefore given birth to a new situation in which Orokaiva have increased difficulty building relationships with their ancestors. Between them now lies a break instead of continuity. Formerly, circulating objects, ancestors, and rituals bound the partners. Individuals, family groups, and villages were fastened to the ground and thus prolonged in time. Now the Orokaiva, like their ancestors, are unable to create relationships. This inefficiency is expressed from one end of Melanesia to the other: for example, by the continual complaints about the ineffectiveness of Christian religion. It has resulted in the proliferation of charismatic microchurches, the rapid movement of people from one allegiance to another, and, generally, the pervasiveness of what Peter Worsley (1968) has called “millenarianism.”

Whereas formerly the relational sterility of ancestors was associated with a form of nomadism, today it is coupled with the inability to “develop,” that is to say, to live [147]like the Whites in the “modern” world, as envisaged by Melanesians. Since sterile motion and ritual exchanges have become incompatible alternatives, any “progress” is halted. Melanesians do not have enough money to buy consumer goods and have no clients to sell local products to. The many “guest houses” that they built remain desperately empty, and they cannot elicit the presence of God or of their ancestors. They describe this immobility by saying that “nothing changes here; there is no progress.” This situation is best illustrated by the fact that relatively few Papua New Guineans emigrate abroad, except among the new political and economic elites. This is remarkably different from the emigration patterns in Polynesia. For example, in 2001, there were 48,000 Samoans in New Zealand, equivalent to just over one-quarter of the population of Samoa itself (183,000).


In this article I have dealt with the way in which a large number of people who live in Melanesia conceive of the consequences of some of the contemporary transformations of their region. My argument is that Melanesians believe that to a large extent they have abandoned, or will soon abandon, traditional forms of activities, formerly considered as prolific, and reevaluated other practices, which “older” people considered as pathetic because they yield no growth, in the hope of living like the Whites. This shift appeared appropriate, because globalization had brought with it the idea that what was once aloof, unattainable, or even unknown is now within reach. At first, in Melanesia, this idea raised many hopes dramatically expressed in cargo cults and in rapid and unanimous conversion to Christianity (Robbins 2004b). Melanesians then gradually abandoned their rituals to accord priority to some “modern” projects that reminded them of the senseless primordial wanderings of their ancestors. This reversal of the relative preeminence accorded to the two modes of sociality earlier distinguished is, among others, expressed in the many forms of discourses which affirm that ancestors or gods have departed following the advent of the Whites.

The rise in value of the subordinate “meaningless move” theme is not, however, a simple hierarchical inversion whereby a subordinated idea becomes superior, and vice versa, but it creates a new situation. Although during the ancestors’ ancient times, rapid and repeated displacements were meaningless, they nonetheless established the estates of their descendants. Today, however, combined with the increasing immobility of villages established along roads, the meaningless travels of their inhabitants cannot explore the new areas opened by colonization. At best, one is entitled, occasionally, to an exhausting and expensive trip to town.

Melanesians, at least most of them, were then struck by the impression of not having access to areas of relationships that those who offered to modernize their society had promised to render accessible. The disappointment of these aspirations to openness obliged them, as I think I have shown, to confront the fact that, now, one had to choose between “modernity,” which was analogous to the ancestors’ nomadic life, and “tradition” (in Pidgin, costom), a model of relationship management through ritual and exchange (Robbins 2004a). While the old value of relatedness offered space for all kinds of meaningless actions, after the inversion of values this [148]was no longer true. The emphasis on “individualism” (in Pidgin, independence) was systematically destructive of relationships, even those that occurred on a subordinate level. Many Melanesian now think that this intolerance is the cause of the relentless conflicts that regularly emerge today between generations, families, husband and wife, in villages, towns, and communities, and at the national political level. This drastic split, in which a superior mode of life excludes the possibility of subordinated modes, seem to have been instrumental in the emanation of new local religious organizations in which Christianity is reinterpreted to accommodate at once “modernity” and “tradition” (Vevehupa 2013).

Finally, coming back to the more abstract question with which I started this investigation, I hope I have shown that the departure of the ancestors and of the deities manifests in Melanesia in the resurrection, in modified form, of an earlier subordinated value held in abeyance. Once revivified, this value enters into conflict with earlier dominant conceptions. In such a situation one can debate endlessly whether the new value thus disguised in old rags is indeed new or old. I think, however, that this misses the point

What is really new and modifies the life of the people is, as I have shown, that what appears at first as a simple reversal of priorities is in fact more complex. While the former encompassment of one value by another left room for all kinds of contextual contradictions, the new situation proposes no other choice but radical exclusive opposition between values. This shift has generated deep social discomfort that, like other people in the world, Melanesian express by lamenting the loss of values in their life. In fact, if my analysis is correct, they are mistaken. What bothers them, instead, is that there are too many values that conflict with each other at the very same level and thus are incompatible with each other. What they have lost, in fact, is the possibility to order them in a hierarchy.


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Recycler les valuers: Perspectives mélanésiennes

Résumé : Cet article part d’une contradiction ethnographique. De nombreuses monographies portant sur la Mélanésie et la Polynésie mentionnent l’idée qu’après l’arrivée des « Blancs » les divinités ou les ancêtres ont abandonné leurs descendants pour émigrer au loin dans des pays étrangers, souvent ceux des Blancs. Ce récit est d’autant plus curieux que les mêmes monographies attestent de la grande valeur accordée à ces divinités et ces ancêtres dans les sociétés concernées. Je propose ici une solution à ce casse-tête à partir des vues de Louis Dumont sur la relation entre valeurs englobantes et englobées. Analysés à partir de ces notions, ces voyages migratoires, entrepris sous l’influence des changements contemporains, apparaissent comme la forme recyclée d’une vieille valeur subordonnée, manifestée par insensée errance des ancêtres, omniprésente dans la littérature orale de ces sociétés.

André ITEANU is Directeur de Recherche at the CNRS and Directeur d’Études at the EPHE in Paris, France. He has worked for many years with the Orokaiva of Papua New Guinea and with troubled youth in Cergy-Pontoise, a suburb of Paris. He recently edited a volume, La cohérence des sociétiés (2010), and translated an Orokaiva autobiography written by Lucien Vevehupa, The man who would not die (2013).

André Iteanu
190 Avenue de France 75013 Paris


1. In Robbins’ terms, this would be, I believe, the second form of social change, that in which the relations between different categories are transformed (Robbins 2004a: 11).