A Gentle Deconstruction

Mary Douglas

  • The Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia by Marilyn Strathern
    California, 422 pp, $40.00, December 1988, ISBN 0 520 06423 2

‘What has been happening in anthropology since Margaret Mead died?’ This book would have helped me to answer that casual question. A study of Melanesian culture, it does refer to Mead’s field reports from New Guinea and to her interest in adolescent and sexual behaviour: it also surveys the whole record of anthropological reporting in the region. The state of the art that it reveals is rather disconcerting, but the manner of revealing it is highly original.

Note that the book is written for a Post-Modern anthropology. That means it is addressed to a generation engrossed with problems of authenticity and authority, and profoundly sceptical of claims to objectivity. What is left to write about is personal experience, and the central rhetorical issue is how to establish authenticity. Post-Modern anthropology manages to seem sincere by disdaining to hide the plumbing. It conveys the Pompidou effect (or the Camden Town Sainsbury effect) by showing that inside is as valid as outside. Indeed, showing how the thing works is the main achievement that it values. In ethnography the front-stage space, in which foreign culture used to be recorded, has been vacated because of its inauthenticity. The front is now occupied by the former back-stage anthropology of fieldworkers’ self-questioning commentary, and their letters and diaries. An interesting comment on the current vein by Clifford Geertz[*] demonstrates why writing whose first aim is to explore consciousness is unsuited for sending messages.

Marilyn Strathern actually has got something she wishes to communicate, but she also wishes to write a Post-Modern book. This presents a severe problem. Post-Modernism is against domination, claimed authority and distinction. Once it has shown how a statement is made (and invalidated it by exposure of its origins), it has undermined the means of saying anything at all. To establish enough authority to declare her views Strathern has to develop a peculiar strategy, which will involve putting the back-stage problems up front. Her object is to interpret Melanesian ideas central to their understanding of themselves: these are ideas of person, gender and agency. For this, she re-examines the rich ethnography of Melanesia that has accumulated since World War Two in the light of three debates among anthropologists. Drawing analogies between the three dialogues, she allows each one to invalidate one of the others. It is like the puzzle of the missionaries and the cannibals who must ferry them across the river and who will devour any missionary left alone with them. What she calls ‘a gentle deconstruction’ of existing readings on Melanesian culture is a devastating criticism, yet she manages not to have authored any criticisms herself. Extraordinarily difficult, a tour de force. I am left dazzled by the cunning of the design.

The first of the three dialogues is dominated by the fiercest cannibal of them all. It is about how to deal with the universalist fallacy: the idea that nature is one and the same for us, living in advanced industrial economies, and for the others, the subjects of anthropological research. For instance, an earlier generation thought it plausible to interpret Melanesian boys’ initiation ceremonies by their own idea of what it feels like to become a man, as if there were a shared natural basis of experience to guarantee a universal concept of manhood. The present generation finds it objectionable to assume that any concept familiar to ourselves should be present in every culture. Supposing naively that other peoples use the idea of ‘society’ in the same way as we do is regarded as a piece of monstrous ethnocentrism. This is fair enough, so long as there is some acknowledged way of meeting the criticism. If there is no way of justifying the use of any of our terms, the cannibal wins and all our discourse is plunged into total relativism. Marilyn Strathern’s strategy is to place this relativising discourse athwart both of the others, a trap that can catch them out in almost any word they utter, as we shall see.

The second discourse is between feminist scholars and feminist anthropologists. The feminist scholars have a practical objective, to improve the situation of women. Their commitment against domination extends to their style: since they wish all views to be heard without any one suppressing any others, it is a sustained polyphonic chorus. By contrast, the feminist anthropologists speak within anthropology, where judgment and priorities are applied: there they are just one more new strand of thought, offering another view of old matters. In that context, inevitably, their work contributes to the construing of an on-going discourse, and so is more focused. Both feminist discourses are concerned with the exploitation of women. Both use the relativising attack on universalised ideas of nature to dislodge preconceived ideas about women’s nature. Both debate passionately the issue of whether Melanesian men do or do not exploit Melanesian women.

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[*] Works and Lives, Stanford University Press, 1988.