HAU
A society divided

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Ryan Schram. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.1.015

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A society divided

Death, personhood, and Christianity in Auhelawa, Papua New Guinea

Ryan SCHRAM, University of Sydney

Christianity invites one to consider it as an antisocial and disembedding force, in particular as hostile to tradition and hostile to collective modes of life. Colonial-era evangelists to Papua New Guinea (PNG) called on people to break traditional rules and, in their words, come out of the darkness. It has thus been productive to examine Christianity and tradition in terms of a confrontation of two incompatible systems, indeed, two incommensurate ontologies of social life. Yet examples of the harmonization of Christianity and traditional sociality abound in PNG and many other societies. In this article, I reconsider the history of the dividual in anthropological thought and argue that it should be seen as a frame for relationships that people instantiate through communicative action. I examine two cases of mourning in Auhelawa, a society on Normanby Island, PNG in which participants do not agree on what kinds of persons—Christian individuals or relationally-defined kin—should be posited as the agents of ritual exchanges. While at times they stage mourning rituals as though these two modes of action were opposites, in practice these two frames not only merge but enter into a dialogue in which a relational being grounds individual Christian selfconsciousness. I conclude then that what anthropology needs is not to discover additional types of personhood. Rather, we need, as Marilyn Strathern and McKim Marriott initially argued, to attend to how actors theorize themselves in the process of doing sociality.

Keywords: ritual, exchange, mourning, death, Christianity

When I conducted fieldwork in Auhelawa, a society on the south coast of Normanby Island (Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea [PNG]), I attended many feasts held to mourn and memorialize the dead. My informants told me, “When someone dies, we go into custom.” In other words, the event of death sets off a series of responses governed by a system of traditional rules and institutions. Within this system, people from many different matrilineages come together to exchange food [318]and thus renew their ties of kinship and affinity. As people explained to me, normal life halts and people act in concert to turn the wheels of social reproduction. Nonetheless, I also attended several feasts in which people shared the food with people of other lineages instead of exchanged, and dispensed quickly with a cycle that supposedly takes several years. At the time, I never knew for certain which approach people would take. My friends and informants provided accounts for why people were doing what they were doing. They deciphered the signs given by people’s actions and statements. They normally talked about these feasts as either bwabwale, a traditional sequence of exchanges between the matrilineage of the deceased and its affines and children of male members, or as masele, a word that means “light” and is often used to express the ancestral conversion to Christianity of the Auhelawa in the early twentieth century. In masele feasts, there were no mourning taboos placed on visitors, and visitors did not bring gifts to the hosts. People often talked about these alternative ways of mourning as if they were choices people could make. As I learned more about Auhelawa, I started to learn that the situation was much more complex, and that participants in a single feast could each have their own interpretation about what other people were doing. Masele and bwabwale are thus only alternatives in an ideal sense. It would be more accurate to say, as Auhelawa do, that a feast is always a “mix” (mixisi) of both.

While the idea of mixing tradition with innovation may offer some explanation of people’s acts of mourning, it ultimately only raises new questions. As frames, bwabwale and masele are two alternative ways for people to account for different acts, and in so doing identify the type of person and the type of relationship mourners perform. By framing their mourning in terms of bwabwale, they posit that they as donors and others as receivers are different and complementary, and thus neither is a complete social actor alone. When people frame their mourning as part of masele, though, they posit that they and others are all alike and thus part of a unity with respect to the idea of Christianity. In this sense, bwabwale and masele are distinct models of and for action, keyed to distinct forms of Auhelawa personhood. Masele models relationships as something autonomous individuals make among themselves by sharing. Bwabwale frames action with respect to a network of ongoing cycles of exchange and posits actors as persons whose agency is enabled by these ties. This kind of contrast has been recently debated in anthropological studies of intercultural encounters, especially ones involving religion. The papers in this collection have been charged with asking whether so-called individual and dividual modes of action are necessarily incommensurate, or if they can co-occur and mix. If bwabwale and masele are mixed, what exactly does that mean? More specifically, given that Auhelawa define bwabwale and masele as alternative choices, why do they combine them in their actual practices?

In order to answer this question, I will argue that we need to step away from thinking about individual and dividual persons as each exclusively associated with a certain type of social system and cultural ethos. Rather, these are two assumptions people can make about themselves and others that guide how they understand the value of acts. Ritual acts of mourning do not by themselves instantiate one or the other social form. Their capacity to instantiate such forms depends on other people who take account of the action in those terms. In the case of Auhelawa, many forms of mourning clearly and unambiguously frame the coparticipants as being either in [319]a relation of complementarity or in one of unity. When one appears in neat clothing with a Bible, one anticipates that others will fall silent and listen, becoming a congregation at prayer. When one appears with tangled hair, wailing My father, I remember you! in the village of one’s father, one anticipates that one’s cross-cousins will likewise wail My mother’s brother, your son is here! I remember you! Often in Auhelawa mourning feasts, people will abruptly shift between these modes of action, moving from a state in which they anticipate the other as a mirror to one where they anticipate the other as complement. Yet in these same feasts, many actions are ambivalent and do not give themselves over to such an unequivocal accounting of what they signify. In these situations, people not only have to work to fix what is being performed but where people seek to create masele, they have to draw upon the logic of bwabwale to do it. As observers, we should not adopt either framework as the real explanation for social formations. We should accept that the accounts people give of their own actions play a determining role in the efficacy of these actions, and seek to build upon those. However, and most importantly, we should not presume that specific modes of reading action are uniquely linked to cultures or institutional systems as types. Instead, when people reflexively shape the course of their social life they draw upon a variety of ways of seeing society.

Dividuals and individuals

Marshall Sahlins writes that the “‘dividual’ is threatening to become a universal form of pre-modern subjectivity—for reasons, it seems, of some confusion between personhood and kinship relations” (Sahlins 2011: 13). Indeed, when one starts to review the many ways scholars have used the concept, one finds that no one agrees on what it means or what it applies to. Is it a cultural construct, and if so, is it a construct of selfhood or personhood? Or, is it an ontological category? Or, is it merely the fact that humans are social beings? It is useful to remember that the concept itself was never meant to be a theory of particular cultural forms. It was always a thought experiment about what social theory would be if it started from an alternative understanding of persons. Rather than being a positive claim, it was supposed to force anthropologists to confront the ontological biases that prevented them from more universal explanations.

The dividual has many parents. I’ll focus on two of the most influential, McKim Marriott and Marilyn Strathern. For Marriott, Hindu society conceptualizes persons as dividuals. By this he means that the society makes no distinction between mind and body, that is, the substance of the person’s being and the codes with which it communicates itself to others. Stated more positively, when dividuals interact, they absorb and transmit parts of themselves, which are “coded substances” (Marriott 1976: 111). In asserting this, Marriott claimed that the concepts of Western social science could never explain the patterns of Hindu society because these concepts were themselves based on a dualism of code and substance, or subject and object. Many different approaches to social analysis assumed a dichotomy of individual and society. Thus Marriott said all Western social science resulted in distorted models of other cultures. A complete model of society can only be based on “the pervasive indigenous assumptions” of that society (Marriott 1976: 109). [320]This was not meant merely to partition Hindu society from the project of social theory but to break new ground. As one commentator noted at the time, there are always two targets Marriott has in mind when he talks about dividuals. One is to create a social science of and for India. The other and more general goal is to rethink social science as a collection of “alternatives” (Marriott 1992), in other words, to divest social science in the West of its own implicit ontological commitment to dualism (Larson 1990). The dividual—in this second and more general sense—is not meant to replace the individual in models of non-Western societies. It is at best a provisional suspension of the individual-society dichotomy in order to create an opening for a new method to emerge.

Like Marriott’s ethnoscience, Strathern’s conception of a dividual person is meant both as a critique and as a step toward a new method. She launches into her inquiry by saying, “Scholars trained in the Western tradition cannot really expect to find others solving the metaphysical problems of Western thought” (Strathern 1988: 3), by which she means principally those that follow from the conceptual opposition between individual and society (Strathern 1988: 12). This metaphysics of society does not exist in Melanesia, and so Melanesia is a privileged place for rethinking social theory. As she says, the Melanesian person is as much a dividual and an individual. Citing Marriott for the term, she says that a dividual person is a social microcosm composed of many parts, capable of taking on new parts and removing others in different situations. In that respect, the flow of social interaction and relation makes persons, rather than do unitary persons make the relationships between them. Like Marriott’s argument, this is meant to reveal the implicit dualism—of subject and object, mind and body, and individual and society—in the axioms of social explanation, by pointing to a negative case (Strathern 1988: 11). Yet like Marriott, Strathern also wishes to move beyond mere negation of Western theory and let a new mode of explanation arise from the abeyance of Western dualism. Western observers obscure the images that people hold of themselves and their social life, so we must suspend the individual-society dichotomy, not to replace it with some specific alternative but instead to let the images present in people’s discourses inform understanding, a method she calls exegesis.

The concept of a dividual rapidly achieved a wide reach in anthropology and other social sciences. At first, no one saw it as being a merely middle-range theory of Hindu or Melanesian society. Instead scholars invoked it in a challenge to the universalism of the individual subject (Miller 1984; Ewing 1990; Weiner 1993; Escobar 1994; Knauft 1994; Turner 1995; Gay Y Blasco 1997; Kulick 1997; Strauss 1997; Boddy 1998; Harvey 1998; Bird-David 1999). The dividual allowed people to imagine an alternative kind of self that was defined not by essential attributes but was produced by its interactions with its social environment and was defined by its relational qualities. What Westerners had taken as givens of the human subject, not simply a unitary self but also an essential gender and integral body, could be argued to be composite, situational, and plural. The antiessentialist interpretation of the dividual, however, has never been the only reading of the concept. Another prevalent interpretation has concluded that Melanesians and Hindus are fundamentally different because of their cultural conceptualization of themselves as selves or as persons. What Marriott and Strathern pose as a provisional negation of individual personhood has for some always been read as a substantive empirical claim about [321]Melanesian societies (Foster 1990; Hirsch 1994; Mosko 1989, 1992). In some ways, this essentialistic reading harkens to a longstanding debate about whether societies define the self as either sociocentric or egocentric (Hollan 1992; Spiro 1993; Strauss 1997; LiPuma 1998; Brison 2001; Miller, Das, and Chakravarthy 2011). In this light, many other scholars have argued that other non-Western societies define persons as dividuals. These scholars tend to associate the dividual person with the Maussian (1985: 4) concept of a premodern personnage, or with the total social fact of reciprocity, and thus they are inclined to see dividuals in every society besides the modern West. Associated with gift economies and kinship in this way, dividual and individual act as proxies for the traditional and the (Western) modern (Piot 1992; Carrier 1994; Busby 1997; Verdery 1998; Rowlands 1993; Englund and Leach 2000; Niehaus 2002; Uzendoski 2004; Rival 2005; Hess 2006; Anderson 2011; Daswani 2011; Werbner 2011; see Coleman 2011). These are not concerned with the goal of moving toward an ethnoscience that derives from the forms taken by actions themselves. Instead, for them alternative conceptions of personhood demonstrate the power of collective representations to shape individual experiences and conceptions of self in profoundly different if not incommensurate ways.

Strathern herself emphasized that her intent was not to analyze Melanesian social forms but to highlight how Melanesians might analyze their own forms. As James Weiner says, building on this point, “What Strathern compares is not Melanesian and Western social relations as such but the contrastive ways of eliciting them or making them visible in each case” (Weiner 1993: 291; see also Kulick 1993; Rumsey 2000). It is not necessary to see dividuals and individuals as incompatible and incommensurate ways of being. Nor should one see them as the essential traits of different kinds of cultures. Indeed, if one seriously entertains the possibility of being a dividual, then culture in the classical sense of a Durkheimian collective consciousness itself becomes suspect. It is too often forgotten that dividual and individual are alternative possible ways for actors to see social life. As models and modes of interacting, each provides alternative ways of eliciting a certain social form from the actions of others. In that respect, the difference between these two modes is grounded in an underlying universality: making relationships depends on a reflexive account of social life. Social process consists both of performing symbolic actions and eliciting meaning from these actions through perception. In order to apply this view in an ethnographic analysis, one needs to return to ethnomethodology as the chief source for Strathern’s and Marriott’s ideas. This principle in turn suggests an approach that focuses on communication in social processes.

Since the symbolic turn, it has been common to think of social action as a form of communication, or as something that is inherently meaningful. Yet a clear concept of the meaning in action has not emerged. There are at least two possible ways of defining meaning: as the intention of the actor or as a perception of an audience. Many theories of meaning presume that language (or any communication) carries the intentions of a speaker in a coded form. This turns on the assumption of a communicating subject who is an autonomous mind and who speaks first in a private inner language and then utters or performs an equivalent statement in symbolic language. Alessandro Duranti (1988) challenges this assumption in J. L. Austin’s (1962) speech-act theory by saying that Samoans, for one, do not hold the same folk theory that a speaker has to intend to perform a certain act in order for its [322]performance to be effective. Thus even unintended utterances can still be binding because how they are received is what makes them effective. From the perspective of Marriott and Strathern, the assumption that meaning is an intention, and that social actions carry individuals’ intentions in symbolic forms, partakes of the dualism of Western metaphysics, splitting meaning into thought and action. It is more useful to assume that meaning is a perception, not because this corresponds to a specific local cultural theory of agency or subjecthood but because it gives room to see how the recipients of actions participate in making it what it is.

To reiterate, it has become an increasingly common assumption that people construct themselves as a culturally specific kind of being. In this reading, the dividual is a kind of social fact reinforced by institutions of reciprocal exchange and kinship. In Strathern and Marriott’s original thought experiment, though, we are asked to imagine that the meaning or force of action is realized when an audience places it in a certain frame that posits specific relationships between subjects and objects in a space and time.1 Through this collaborative process, different kinds of beings are brought into focus, made visible, and given agency. This framing is not simply floating in an ether of collective representations. Neither is it itself a projection of a subjective interpretation by an individual mind. Since both presuppose a particular kind of person who perceives, one needs to adopt a neutral position. One needs to examine meaning as a relational quality that emerges from action and perception equally. Ethnomethodology is one attempt to find this position. Ethnomethodology is based on the premise that actors’ own accounts of their action participate in social processes themselves as a part of fixing their pragmatic effects. For Harold Garfinkel, human social action is inherently reflexive because it is available to be witnessed and taken into account as typifying a form (Garfinkel 1967; Garfinkel and Rawls 2002). When people act, whether they intend it or not, they do so in a conspicuously evident way so that others can observe, take note of, and comment upon what is being done, and thus also who is doing it. Such accounts of action are not detached representations, although they can take that form. Most often, though, people in interaction act in ways that anticipate the presence and response of the other, and display for each other their awareness of what is happening while it is happening. This aspect of social action is where Strathern’s concept of dividual derives. She emphasizes that there are many moments where people display to themselves and others an awareness of what kind of action they are doing and hence what kind of actor they are. As she says, “An agent is one who acts with another in mind” (Strathern 1988: 272) by adopting conventional forms as “recipes for social action” (271) that other people will recognize.2 In her view, no instance of social interaction is inherently premised on dividual or individual persons, but such persons are posited through the anticipation of a form that will come from [323]a sequence of acts. This is the approach I will take in analyzing the relationships between kinship and Christianity in Auhelawa.

Auhelawa as kin and as Christians

Auhelawa is a society on the south coast of Normanby Island, Papua New Guinea (PNG). It is composed of approximately thirty matrilineages called susu, each occupying one or more small villages dispersed evenly in a nearly unbroken chain along the coast of the island. People maintain a variety of horizontal ties with people of other villages mainly through feasts. As such Auhelawa is at best only a relative designation. It is only one of the many terms through which people constitute themselves as a community, though one that is very meaningful to the people who I worked with in 2004 and 2006. In what follows, I describe two of the main images through which Auhelawa express their relationships to others.

Auhelawa frame many of their relationships in terms of difference and complementarity, especially patrilateral and affinal relationships. The father’s susu is classed as magai tama (the father’s grave), who in turn class all the children of their male members as natuleiya. Each should treat the other class with ve’ahihi (respect). Ve’ahihi involves avoidance of contact with the father’s susu’s properties, especially its magai, its cemeteries, and other memorials for its members. When addressing or referring to these relatives, one does not use their names but instead uses a nickname or relationship term. Ve’ahihi also includes deference and quiet politeness to the members of the father’s susu. One also observes the same kind of ve’ahihi toward the members of one’s spouse’s susu, which is magai mwane (my spouse’s grave). The most important component of ve’ahihi is giving a gift called bwabwale when one’s father or any member his susu dies, and receiving the return gift from his susu mates when a member of one’s own susu dies (Schram 2007).

A bwabwale is a gift and a prohibition. It is a gift in which the donor does not share with the recipient, and so it also a gift that creates a “debt” (vaga) that must be repaid in exact amount and kind. By abstaining from sharing in a gift, the donor inscribes a division between the recipient and oneself, and thus initiates a cycle of reciprocal exchange. Their relationship is defined by this division, which in turn figures each member as two halves of a whole. The other typical behaviors of ve’ahihi also impose a division. One shows respect to the father’s susu by avoiding contact with their lineage properties. When someone dies, a feast is hosted by the deceased’s susu, who receive bwabwale from visitors from other susu, including principally the susu’s natuleiya (children of male members). Participants in these feasts also divide themselves into two sides through their acts of mourning, which is another important component of ve’ahihi. While in everyday life people are multiply related and categories of kin are to a certain extent situationally determined, in the rituals of death, this complexity is suspended and a clear division imposed. For instance, once when attending a feast in my adoptive mother’s father’s village, my mother brought a portion of the bwabwale given to the hosts and helped to cook part of it to serve to them, but only in saucepans from the hosts’ village. In turn the hosts borrowed my mother’s saucepans to cook a meal for us while we were working. She explained that they did this because otherwise our family’s [324]saucepans would also become “bwabwale-gu” (my prohibition), or forbidden to her. It is through the taboo, and not any categorical distinction among kin, that the complementing sides in the feast come into being.

Bwabwale is in this sense not simply a type of gift, nor is the respect one pays to one’s father’s susu simply behavior. Each implies the other at once and both together are a way of orienting one’s interactions toward a division between oneself and the recipients. By inscribing this division, bwabwale also entails imposing a certain kind of organization and order as well. If for instance a man came to the village of his father and joined with his father’s matrikin in working in their cemetery, in other words violating the prohibition on the father’s grave, people would comment, “Hava ana oive’aha?” meaning “What is his dividing?” or “Why is he on that side instead of on this side?” The matrikin of the deceased are supposed to watch the behaviors of the visitors for signs of proper respect. The spirit of the deceased, too, is supposed to hover over the scene of mourning, monitoring the proceedings. Everything people do in a mourning feast indexes the deceased person as the implicit ground for the interactions between these two sides. By mourning the loss of a relationship to a deceased person, people from different susu elicit from each other a recognition of their complementary relationship.

However, it is not enough to say that bwabwale is a discourse, although it does have a discursive as well as practical aspect to it, as I discuss below. Bwabwale does not symbolize an underlying complementarity between consanguineous matrikinship and affinal and patrikin relationships. To understand what bwabwale means we need to shift how we understand meaning. The proper question is why does bwabwale bring together and align the actions of abstaining from sharing a gift, observing taboos on graves and memorials, deference, and duality. Through the lens of bwabwale, one perceives the iconic resemblances between these different kinds of behavior as traces of a deeper divide in the social field that positions oneself, others, and everyone else. In that sense, bwabwale is an ethnoscientific account of behavior implicit in each of the acts of mourning. In doing each kind of act, the mourner displays oneself to others in ways that invite the perception of that one’s acts form a single coordinated movement with others, much in the same way that different lines converging toward one vanishing point allow people to imaginatively construct a depth of field in an image.

Importantly, the lens of bwabwale figures the acts of mourning as part of a larger cycle of exchanges between two sides, not between two individual people. As a perceptual frame, it is a reflexive perception of oneself as well as others as part of particular kind of totality (Reed 1999; Leach 2002; Rio 2005). It totalizes the social field in two ways. First, when one makes a bwabwale, it is implied in the logic of division that everyone is either on one side or the other. Anyone who does not give a bwabwale can potentially stand in the role of receiving it, and in taking on part of the obligation to repay it. In other words, anyone to whom one does not pay respect is related to one on the basis of mutuality. Hence, in a mourning feast, the hosts consist not only of the susu of the deceased but also their “supporters,” who can be anyone who is not part of the opposing side in the transaction of bwabwale. Most commonly, a susu invites people who have the same totemic bird or some migratory origin as themselves, but it can also invite individuals who are tied in a particular way to the deceased on the basis of any mutuality. During a feast, all [325]of the hosts’ natuleiya will offer bwabwale, and consequently when one of their susu’s members dies, it is common for them to invite their taliya natuleiya (fellow children of the father’s susu, or father’s brothers’ children) to share in receiving a return bwabwale from their fathers’ susu. Second, while people who stand on one side of the division frame their relationship as based on similarity, this sameness itself needs to be reinforced by recursively inscribing a division within it in order that lesser exchanges can take place. Segments of a maximal matrilineage affirm their solidarity by reciprocal namesaking and inheritance relationships, which are ratified with gifts that entail the same abstentions by donors as bwabwale. The restricted exchange of identical items between structurally equivalent sides is a key form that relationships take, yet, what is important here is that bwabwale is an icon of division that aligns many other modes of behavior.

This contrasts with another, alternative framework for seeing relationships in the rituals of church worship, called tapwalolo. People in Auhelawa say that they live today in a “time of light” (masele yana hauga), which began when their ancestors were converted to Christianity by Polynesian teachers of the Australian Methodist mission in the early colonial period. Since then, they say, they have always participated in tapwalolo, a broad term that covers prayer, worship, and everything related to the institutions of Christianity, as well as Christianity itself. Tapwalolo is a major part of daily life. People do tapwalolo together at the beginning and end of most public events, including feasts, when food is being shared, when people are sick, and in regular Sunday services. Very little of people’s religious practice is performed alone. Although people say that what makes one a Christian is one’s subjective faith in church teachings, this is mostly expressed in the communal worship in a congregation, reflecting tensions that one finds in many different Christian expressions, especially in communities based on kin relatedness and mutual obligation (see Robbins 2004; McDougall 2009; Schram 2013). Thus when people say that this is an era of light, they mean in part that this is an era in which everyone claims to be a Christian by virtue of their membership in a Christian congregation.

Since the founding of the Methodist mission in 1902, Christianity has become more diverse and there are now two major denominations and several minor fellowships and independent congregations. In the 1950s, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, a Roman Catholic order, established a church and a school. The Methodist mission gradually became a local church with its own pastors and ministers. In the 1960s, Methodists entered into a union of congregations with other reformed churches, eventually becoming the United Church of Papua New Guinea. More recently, Auhelawa people have brought Pentecostal and other charismatic ideas to Auhelawa, and founded their own congregations, some with no more than a handful of members. Yet, in spite of this apparent diversity, Christianity is still treated as a unitary phenomenon. People class all of these varieties of worship as different kinds of tapwalolo. Most people describe the differences as one of emphasis and style and do not think of the churches as rivals. While these groups worship separately on Sundays, they have no problem with praying together in tapwalolo in other contexts. Catholics do emphasize the importance of sacraments, but in fact, the Catholic parish only holds a mass with the resident European priest about once a month. On the weeks when he is traveling to other outstations, Catholic lay leaders hold a bible reading service that resembles the plain, reformed worship [326]of the neighboring Methodist congregation. All of this suggests that Christianity’s salience is as a singular historical shift. For Auhelawa there is no religious change that could be more significant than the arrival of the first missionaries.

Auhelawa people believe that when people practice tapwalolo, the congregation should have “one mind” (nuwatuwu ehebo), that is, the people of the congregation should commit to a common purpose (Schram 2013). This unity is both subjectively felt as well as tangibly expressed in the order and harmony of the worship. A collective prayer is always led by one person who calls people together and then speaks aloud on behalf of all. The other people bow their heads, close their eyes, and reverentially focus on the words of the speaker. People should “support” (tubwe) the speaker with their own inner thoughts. Yet while the support comes from individual minds, most congregations seek to replicate certain conventional forms of worship handed down from missionaries. They sing old songs from books originally published in the nineteenth century. They pray using the same formulas each week. In many other ways, worshippers attempt to displace as much as possible the appearance of an individual author of religious messages in favor of the voice a “we.” In Sunday services, the talk of the prayer leaders and preachers is almost always voiced in terms of what “you and I” believe, and never spoken as an “I.” In other words, Auhelawa people have linked their religious identity as Christian very closely to a specific set of social relationships. They make themselves as Christians by doing tapwalolo. While newer churches have different liturgical styles, they have not entered into the cross-denominational forms of tapwalolo, which Auhelawa use in other large events such as mourning feasts. In these settings, Pentecostals, Uniteds, and Catholics all strive to create a congregation based on “one mind.”

Unlike the division of bwabwale, people constitute themselves as members of a unity through the practice of tapwalolo, especially as a kind of ritual that is implicitly and explicitly framed as an expression of “one mind.” This unity is also strongly linked an epochal shift, which, like the missionaries, Auhelawa represent in terms of light and darkness. The production of this kind of Christian identity does not happen only in tapwalolo. The idea of masele (light) also elicits relationships of unity in other areas. Masele is a word people use to refer to an alternative form of collective mourning in which there is no dual division of participants with respect to their relationship to the deceased, and there is no exchange between the sides (Schram 2007). A masele is a common meal, which means that natuleiya must share in the food they give to their fathers’ susu. Ideally, the masele way of mourning does away with all of the elements of bwabwale, even wailing. For some people masele feasting is intrinsically Christian, but for most people, it is good because the taboos associated with mourning interfere with normal life. In either case, though, when people talk about traditional mourning in relation to masele, they reflexively figure themselves and other fellow mourners as people whose normal existence as fellow members of a social order has been interrupted and replaced by a division. In other words, masele frames people as individuals who are all the same and thus paints bwabwale as an imposition rather than as a productive way for incomplete sides to come together as a whole. By proposing to eat a common meal, people construe themselves as fellow members of a mechanical unity, much in the same way that praying together as “one mind” construe the participants as fellow members of a Christian congregation. Today in Auhelawa, death presents a choice to mourners [327]whether they should mourn with bwabwale, with masele, or as most people prefer, with a “mix” (mikisi) of both, exchanging some items and sharing others, and alternating between different modes of eliciting social forms over the course of a single event. Even though the same people can be involved one event, there are many possible potential configurations of these people, or many possible ways of reading who is doing what.

In the next section, I will examine two cases of mourning that were ambiguously situated between bwabwale and masele. In most people’s mind these were a mix of both kinds of mourning, and as such they may suggest the possibility of an alternative, third discourse of the person who is neither individual nor dividual. I will argue that it is better to examine these cases as genuinely ambiguous. They do not express one social form through a stable symbolic language. In these cases, people attempted to change the frame of the whole ensemble of actors, living and dead, from one alternative mode to another. To use Strathern’s terms, the actors attempted to elicit different relational forms from others by their actions. To be clear, this is not the same as saying that people had different subjective interpretations of what their acts of mourning meant, but that people were engaged in fixing that meaning using bwabwale and masele as methods for accounting for why people were doing what they were doing.

A little bit of custom

If one thinks about bwabwale and masele as institutional orders, then it would make sense to see them as mutually exclusive, or at least mutually antagonistic. Indeed the way people in Auhelawa often talk about the relationship between the two assumes that they are distinct ways of mourning, and the susu of the deceased must choose whether to do one or the other. In this normative sense, bwabwale and masele are each a “rule” (loina) that a susu has the authority to impose. Yet in actual cases of mourning, simply choosing to do masele is not sufficient for staging a feast, and many acts of mourning are read by people as being both bwabwale and masele. I will argue that the apparent mixing of masele and bwabwale does not indicate that people compromise between the values of complementarity and unity. Rather, in attempting to constitute a social field as a mechanical unity and to displace alternative readings, people have to draw upon the method of bwabwale to elicit a dual organization. Masele needs to draw bwabwale into itself in order to be a complete frame for casting people as a unity. I will first present an example of the limits of the choice of masele to completely frame the social field as a mechanical unity. I will then present an example of how people were able to accomplish mechanical unity through masele feasting by first drawing a bwabwale relationship into it.

The first example shows that one can never simply choose to hold a masele feast. This example comes from an Auhelawa Catholic woman’s death on a Friday in August of 2004. Her adult children, led by her eldest son, convened to discuss what kind of celebration they wanted to have. Her eldest son was an active member of the local Catholic parish and lived with her in the matrilineage’s village, where he managed a large trade store. He was not only wealthy by local standards but he, his siblings, and most of his children were all active in the church and highly educated. [328]Although he did participate in mortuary exchanges on other occasions, he usually talked to me about bwabwale and other traditional institutions as relics of the preconversion era. He, his business, and his lifestyle all seemed to many like a concrete example of the modernity that Auhelawa associate with the church era, for good or ill. When his mother died, the other members of his matrilineage, their natuleiya, and the children of natuleiya (tubutubuni) came to the village to “wail” (dou). Eventually, the son appeared in the village and said that later that day there would be a tapwalolo, then his lineage would bury his mother, and they would all eat together. Then on Monday they would have another small meal. He said that he wanted the sports league to play on Saturday, and for women to come to the marketplace in the Catholic mission. Normally these would be canceled out of respect. In other words, it was strongly implied to everyone that there would be no bwabwale because the deceased’s children and matrilineal descendants did not want to have one.

At this point, I had only lived in Auhelawa for about three months. Looking back on my field notes from this time, I can see that I was attempting to read this situation as a kind of bwabwale, albeit one that was modified. This was strongly encouraged by the people who were giving me running commentary. They highlighted the aspects of the proceedings that were components of a bwabwale division. For instance, onlookers pointed out that the deceased woman’s son’s children, who lived with him and in a neighboring village, were being quiet and respectful because they were natuleiya. I noticed that their matrilateral cross-cousins, susu mates of the deceased, were working as the grave diggers and thus became bwabwale to everyone else because they had touched the corpse and dug the earth of the magai. They allowed me to enter, but they said, “Don’t touch the ground, or Lucy [my adoptive mother, natuleiya of this susu] will chase you!” After the burial, during the supposedly common meal, these workers ate separately. Also, some elements of the mourning seemed to evoke the idea of bwabwale, but only very subtly. Before the meal, some of the natuleiya and affines were seated in a row. A host of the feast went to each one with a bowl of water and a cloth, daubing water onto their hands, making a gesture of washing them before they were invited to share food with the hosts. In other words, mourners were ceremonially released from a traditional taboo on self-cleaning less than 24 hours after having undertaken it. Nonetheless, it was also clear that some elements of the mourning would not fit into the bwabwale frame but instead needed to be read in the frame of masele. For instance, all of the attendees to the feast also went to the church for a funeral Mass officiated by the parish priest. More importantly, it was announced that there were not going to be exchanges of food, without which there is no relationship of complementarity.

On Monday, I attended the second meal in the woman’s village. Many of the same people who came to dou on Friday returned and began to cook the food that they would share with the hosts. After a few hours, I heard a conch being blown somewhere down the road. A conch is a traditional way to announce the arrival of group coming to a feast with gifts. A large group of men from another matrilineage who were natuleiya to the hosts appeared, bearing a pig and baskets of yams. Several were carrying a long, slender tree trunk to which they had tied long ceremonial yams to the stumps of its branches. Suddenly the crowd started buzzing around as the visitors quickly entered, planted the yam pole in the central clearing of the village, and [329]started to pile their gifts around it. I asked the woman’s son—who up until now was firmly directing the activities—what was happening, and he said half-jokingly, “I don’t know. I’m a bit scared!” Later a member of this group told me that his matrilineal uncle had told him to take a pig and yams to the hosts. When they appeared, he said, “everything changed”; the party was no longer masele because the visiting mourners were forcing the hosts to accept a bwabwale gift. While it is not clear that merely giving a gift in a certain style or with a certain intention is sufficient to compel everyone to participate in a bwabwale, it is clear that neither is the choice not to participate. While at the outset, the hosts of the feast insisted that what was going to happen should be read from the perspective of masele and not bwabwale, several things seemed to break the frame. Many things could be framed through the lens of bwabwale as a sequence, as my informants suggested to me when they gave themselves the task of explicating others’ actions. Neither reading then could claim to be a consensus. While many people put forward explicit statements or conspicuous displays as attempts to guide people’s reading of the events, none were firmly taken up by all until the visiting group barged onto the scene with a large ceremonial gift. As a gift, it was both an act and a statement about itself as an act. The donors loudly and forcefully gave the gift in a way that overrode any possible alternative perception of how it related to other acts of mourning. Importantly, the gift was not merely forced upon the recipients, but as a type of gift it was able to achieve a consensus in the way that ritual acts of unity—the Mass and sharing of food—could not.

The next example illustrates how masele can succeed when it draws bwabwale into itself. In this example, the intention to do masele is ultimately attributed not to a decision of the hosts but to the decision of the spirit of a deceased man. In January of 2006, my adoptive father’s sisters’ children, all residing in one village, planned to hold a memorial feast for several members of the lineage who had died over the years, including my father’s brother, who was a Methodist pastor. The event that this feast would celebrate was the placement of a cement headstone over the graves of those being memorialized. This event and the feast are usually called a sementi, and it is considered to be the final act of mourning, coming a year or more after someone has died. Even though the name and the purpose of the event are new, the feast is not necessarily masele. A sementi echoes a now defunct generational feast called so’i on Normanby Island, which is held to memorialize several deaths of a lineage. A sementi is generally no bigger than a feast held when one person dies. It can involve either bwabwale exchanges or masele commensality. In this case, the men of the lineage planned to enter the cemetery and erect the memorials, while in the village several groups of natuleiya, including me and my siblings, would cook for everyone. After the work was completed, hosts and guests would all eat together in the village. When I first arrived, I asked what kinds of gifts people would be bringing, and one of the hosts scoffed and said, “This is only teibolo (table),” that is, the food would be given to all freely, like food served to a congregation from a missionary’s table. No food was bwabwale and nothing was to be exchanged. Later I asked another owner about this, and he furtively agreed that they had chosen masele but they might take on some gifts from visitors after all. He said that there was a disagreement but did not elaborate.

Toward the end of the day, the workers came back into the village from the cemetery. They had not been able to finish their work pouring the cement base for the [330]headstone for my father’s brother. The timber frame they had constructed to mold the cement was too long for the grave, even though they has carefully measured it. They had to start over tomorrow. I walked home to my village and planned on coming early the next morning. The next day, when I arrived in the hosts’ village, there was hardly anyone there. It looked like everyone had dropped their preparations for the feasts and left behind the baskets of food and pigs. I asked someone waiting behind where everyone was, and he said that they had all gone to the lineage’s cemetery. Feeling a little foolish, I rushed down the road toward the cemetery, which was several villages away, and at the top of a hill. About halfway up the steep, muddy path to the cemetery, I practically collided with a pastor of the United Church, smartly dressed in his church’s uniform of black trousers, white shirt, and black tie, and carrying a leather-bound Bible. By the time I got to the top, visitors and hosts of the feast were turning to head down the path. Whatever happened was already over. I went back with the group to the village where we would hold the feast. Later I found out what had happened. The day before, while the workers were still in the cemetery, some visitors and hosts had argued over whether visitors could give gifts in honor of their dead magai relative to the hosts. The workers unexpectedly found that the frame did not fit. Everyone agreed that the spirit of one of the deceased being honored was offended by the argument and caused the problem with the frame. Whenever there is work in a lineage cemetery, the spirits of the lineage dead hover nearby and watch over it to ensure that they are properly respected. This particular deceased person was in fact a United Church pastor, and had said before he died that his children should not perform bwabwale for him but only remember him with masele. (It is a trope of Auhelawa thinking that the dying wish of the father should always be honored, and it is often used to justify masele.) His supernatural action was meant to be a warning to his descendants to honor him with a real masele feast, and not to argue over gifts and debts. So, the next morning, the hosts and guests all went together into the hosts’ cemetery to have a tapwalolo. They prayed to their deceased ancestor to ask for forgiveness and “to ask him to ask God to forgive them.” The work continued in the cemetery and was eventually finished. At the end of the day, the owners and visitors cooked and ate together.

Discussion

Even though masele and bwabwale are conceptualized as incompatible, exclusive choices, in practice they seem to merge easily. I have tried to show that this merger is not the creation of a new type of social action, or a new category of personhood. Through masele and bwabwale, people frame acts of mourning in relationship to specific ideas about agency and thus elicit persons of particular kinds. Yet, as accounts or frames they can be applied to similar kinds of objects, and so people’s acts of mourning are hard to decipher, and no one single framing of a social event of mourning ever dominates. Both masele and bwabwale depend on manipulating objects—pigs, graves, food, tears—in ways that anticipate another person with whom one mourns. They both use pigs and food, among other things, to signify this mourning with others. Yet each imagines a different relationship between the [331]people, their gifts, and each other. A person can attempt to elicit from others a particular kind of relationship, either complementarity or unity. Yet it is not enough to simply intend to communicate a particular relationship in a particular symbolic form. There needs to be a “reciprocal recognition” between people about what kinds of acts will count as what kind of relationship (Gregory 1997: 16). In some cases, this is clear-cut. For instance, in the midst of mourning with dou and ve’ahihi, when someone appears to lead a tapwalolo, people reconfigure themselves with respect to the tapwalolo and displace division with unity for a time. Similarly, when someone is being buried, people reconfigure themselves with respect to their different relationships to the cemetery as a magai and constitute themselves as divided. Even when hosts and guests in a feast eat together, the guests would never enter the hosts’ magai, or have contact with the gravediggers, who are bwabwale. In this sense, any act of contemporary mourning involves switching from one mode to the other. The two modes remain distinct because they are carefully distinguished by the objects and actions that are specific to them. Yet as the two cases discussed above suggest, people also mourn in ways that are ambivalent. At these moments, in spite of one’s intentions, one’s actions are not recognized for what they are by the other. And so the events take on a disorderly quality. It is hard for people to provide coherent accounts of the unfolding of the event, and they struggle to fix the meaning of people’s actions, as well as the type of person who serves as an agent for these actions.

As a method for accounting for the meaning of mourning, bwabwale is often more stable. This is to say that people can provide a complete, normative account of bwabwale in a discursive form, and so set up clear lines for what should and should not count as constituting relationships of division. Although people have a clear, normative understanding of tapwalolo and can account for people’s actions as signs of their worship, they do not have a similarly explicit, discursive formulation of masele as distinct alternative. The most prevalent way of defining masele discursively is by posing it as the negation of all the characteristics of bwabwale (Schram 2007). As such, masele is easily transvalued as teibolo, in other words, an unrestricted giveaway. The command to mourn without showing respect or giving gifts seems hard for people to fully accept because no positive alternative is given. Masele can easily sound like the old Nichols and May skit about the $65 funeral.3 In the skit, Mike Nichols plays a grieving relative seeking to plan a basic funeral for the lowest possible price. Elaine May, funeral director, tells him that a basic funeral costs only $65, and then asks him if he’d like to buy the extras: a coffin, hearse, burial plot, et cetera. Outraged and bewildered, he asks what he’s buying for $65. The response: We have two men who take your dearly departed away “and do God knows what.” Because a masele is defined by the negation of customary procedures, it always runs the risk that other mourners will expect something else, and see it as an absence of mourning rather than an alternative to mourning.

If the simple decision to abstain from bwabwale is not sufficient to constitute people as a unity, then as one sees in the second example, people can draw upon the method of bwabwale in order to elicit the form of unity. The people involved in [332]mourning could not achieve a reciprocal recognition that the food between them was to be shared, and so they argued. When something unexpected happened, though, they collectively attributed it to the agency of the deceased. They posited the continuing presence of their relationships to the deceased after death and then chose to reconfigure themselves with respect to this person to whom they all had some connection of kinship, but of different kinds. In other words, they allowed themselves to be bound in a relationship of division between matrilineages in order to accept that they should become a unity. In order to frame their mourning as masele, they have to first frame it as bwabwale. To a lesser extent, the token gesture of washing mourners in order to release them from taboos quickly seems to do the same thing. Their masele meal can be defined as both a negation but also a fulfillment of the alternative. In that case, the sharing of food was ultimately overturned when another group of people brought a gift that was presented in a way that strongly compelled the reading of bwabwale because of the form of its presentation. Once the frame for their gift had been established by the conch and the tall, planted pole, no one could deny that the gift was part of a reciprocal exchange.

I began this analysis by rejecting the assumption that constructs such as bwabwale and masele are symbolic representations of people’s relationships, which people could intentionally project onto situations. Instead I adopted the working assumption that the meaning of people’s action was brought out through others’ perception of it, and so could only be analyzed in the relationships between action and its reception. Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology influences my way of thinking about this relationship. For Garfinkel, human action does not have to be intentionally motivated in order to be socially effective. He assumes instead that all action is, as he would say, inherently accountable. That is to say, when people act, they do so in a way that makes it available for people to notice, observe, report on, comment upon, and to give an account of what it is and what it counts as or stands for. In this sense, action contributes to the making of social order not because it follows a rule in an abstract sense but because it is taken up by a flow of other actions that ratify it, extend its effects, and link a sequence of actions to an account of “what is going on.” Accounts of social formations and processes are not just given by observers such as anthropologists. In fact we live in a world that is saturated with many ongoing accounting regimes, and indeed, we all participate in a distributed process of accounting for what is happening while it is happening. Bwabwale and masele are two alternative methods Auhelawa people use to account for what people’s mourning accomplishes and what kinds of relationships people have with others who mourn. When people mourn in certain ways, they make their mourning available to be accounted by these methods. Depending on what methods of accounting people use, they posit different kinds of persons and create the grounds for different kinds of relationships.

Given this set of assumptions, one would not assume that constructs of the person such as dividual and individual should typify whole complexes of social forms and values in an absolute sense. Rather, in this view, any social situation is inherently multiple, and it is only when an account of “what is going on” develops through people’s interactions that a particular social form emerges. This raises the question of this collection, which is whether we should think of dividual and individual as mutually exclusive, or whether third types might exist. My answer is both yes and [333]no. Clearly there is no justification for limiting the classification of persons to two types. This dichotomy was only initially entertained as a thought experiment in suspending the ontological dualism underlying most Western social thought. To assert that there are only two kinds of social order as a positive claim is to unwittingly undermine the whole basis of the thought experiment, which was concerned to let indigenous accounts of action replace those imposed by outsiders. Having said that, I do not think it is productive to argue for seeking a third kind of person as yet another type of person that is meant to model a particular social order. We need to return to the thought experiment of Marriott and Strathern, and find a way to take heed of people’s own accounts of their actions. We need to give these not only an explanatory authority, but recognize that they constitute social order itself. This process is what Alan Rumsey calls “emergent typification” (Rumsey 2006: 64). He argues that such a conception of intercultural encounters is necessary to explore the dynamics of cultural change without presupposing a specific teleology of either transformation or continuity. What I would add to this argument is often the emergence of social order is shadowed by its alternative. At some points alternative accounts of order are strongly dissonant and thus encourage people to abruptly shift back and forth between stable states, as when Auhelawa interrupt their performances of ve’ahihi in order to sit down together as “one mind” in tapwalolo, and then switch back. When constituted through the signs of respectful avoidance and collective prayer, division and unity appear to be radically different. Yet these alternative accounts can find unexpected resonances with one another, and seem to support one another. We see this when masele draws the logic of bwabwale into itself to constitute people as a unity. The dividual and individual are indeed different kinds of person imagined by two very different accounts of social life, yet that does not mean they can never be merged. In fact, in Auhelawa they exist in a constant dialogue.

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Une société divisée: Mort, conscience de soi et christianisme en Auhelawa, Papouasie-Nouvelle-Guinée

Résumé : Le christianisme est souvent perçu comme une force antisociale et désintégratrice, une force hostile à la tradition et à certains modes de vie en société. Les missionnaires de l’époque coloniale en Papouasie-Nouvelle-Guinée (PNG) imposèrent aux peuples qu’ils évangélisèrent une rupture avec l’ordre traditionnel, afin de les abstraire de leur obscurantisme, selon les termes de cette mission. Ainsi, il a pu être productif de concevoir le christianisme et la tradition comme deux systèmes incompatibles et en confrontation, deux ontologies incommensurables de la vie en société. Cependant, les examples d’harmonisation du christianisme et de formes traditionnelles de socialité abondent en Papouasie-Nouvelle-Guinée, et dans beaucoup d’autres sociétés. Dans cette article, je propose de réexaminer la personne “dividuelle” dans la pensée anthropologique et d’en faire un outil d’analyse des relations interindividuelles établies par des actions communicatives. Je présente deux exemples de deuil auhelawa—une société de l’île de Normanby (PNG)—dans lesquels survient un désaccord sur le type de personnes—individus chrétiens ou parents définis par la nature d’une relation de parenté—qui doivent être considé- rés comme les agents des échanges rituels. Si par moments, les rites de deuil sont présentés comme si ces deux modes d’action étaient opposés, en pratique ces deux perspectives se fondent l’une dans l’autre et dialoguent entre elles, et forment ainsi un support à une subjectivité individuelle chrétienne. Il apparait donc à l’issue de cet article que l’anthropologie n’a pas besoin de modèles supplémentaires de ce que peut être la conscience de soi (personhood); il importe plutôt, comme le disaient dès le départ Marilyn Strathern et McKim Marriott, d’être attentif à la façon dont les gens se pensent eux-mêmes dans la pratique de leur socialité.

Ryan SCHRAM is a cultural anthropologist and Lecturer at the University of Sydney. His research examines the methods by which peoples of Oceania reflexively frame their history and social experiences in terms of narratives of intercultural encounter and social change, and the various sites at which these palimpsests of culture are formed, including Christian ritual, formal school, oral history, and development projects.

Ryan Schram
Department of Anthropology (A26)
University of Sydney
NSW 2006, Australia
ryan.schram@sydney.edu.au

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1. Here I am indebted to arguments made by Danilyn Rutherford (2012) about how audiences are recruited to ratify performances of sovereignty in West Papua, although in developing this argument she mostly avoids this debate over personhood.

2. In this passage, she also says that this is a “Melanesian” conception of agency, yet throughout the book she is careful to use this term to represent an alternative to the “Western” theory she is working to overturn. Hence I see her argument as contributing to a new view of agency in which efficacy hinges upon another’s perspective.

3. Nichols, Mike, and Elaine May. ca. 1960. “The $65 Funeral,” a sketch on Tonight Starring Jack Paar. Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0vSLIO7m20.