MENTAWAI IN GLOBAL CONTEXT (1): BEACHES, TRAVELLERS, AND VAGUE BOUNDARIES: DEVELOPING GLOCAL PERSPECTIVES ON THE MENTAWAI ISLANDS
MENTAWAI IN GLOBAL CONTEXT (1)
BEACHES, TRAVELLERS, AND VAGUE BOUNDARIES: DEVELOPING GLOCAL PERSPECTIVES ON THE MENTAWAI ISLANDS
Note for the Reader: There is not very much specific content about the Mentawai Islands in this article, since its purpose is to map out a framework within which, I argue, such content needs to be contextualized. It represents, then, a general vision of the broad issues impacting upon the contemporary reality of the Islands, formulated in concert with recent rethinking of the nature of ethnographic research, to which future ethnographic research in this region would need to be sensitive. In my own recent work, these sentiments have driven the production of the series of texts titled Mentawai Journal . This article specifically sets the scene for a consideration of the assertion of local political processes as outlined in the following: Globalization, Regional Autonomy, and the Innervation of Local Political Process in the Mentawai Islands
A few years ago I began an attempt to edge my way towards a more adequate mode, not just of thinking about, but of engaging in ethnographic research and writing practices that would more accurately address or reflect the contemporary reality of the Mentawai Islands. Having spent the best part of 1991 tracking down and reading a variety of ethnographic portraits, I was left with a feeling of unease, not that something was being left out (or a lot of things for that matter), but that much was beyond the possibilities of awareness, languishing in the virtual (in the Deleuzian sense), or the realm of doxa, the unacknowledged ground of the known (orthodoxy and heterodoxy). It seemed to me that the ethnographic perspectives through which the ethnographic reality of the Islands was being presented had not evolved at the same rate as the discipline of anthropology as a whole.
This initial effort resulted in, amongst others, the piece “The Production of Social Spaces: Towards a De-Centered Anthropology of the Mentawai Islands” (see also the article here). Using “practice theory” as a kind of deconstructive foil, I attempted to loosen what appeared to me to be the theoretical shackles that appeared to be discursively shaping what was known, and hence what could be known, about the Islands. A key theme of that early piece was an articulation of the central, if not the most important or relevant, topos from which to regard this region, namely the dynamism and cosmopolitan nature of the cultural/social/political/economic processes that tend to be elided in many accounts. It was, and remains, my contention, that the dynamic and cosmopolitan dimension needed to be elevated to a central position in our efforts to understand the contemporary reality of this region.
In the early 1990s, however, I lacked the breadth of vision, not to mention reading, that would have allowed me to go even some way towards an adequate realization of this vision. Having now made some modest progress on this front, I hope to move a little further ahead. In what follows I attempt to sketch out a sense of the important cultural and ethnographic research issues that I would argue need to be consciously and reflexively incorporated, to greater or lesser degrees, into any adequate research project and resultant account of the contemporary reality of the Mentawai Islands, hopefully coming up with a general framework or charter within which specific ethnographic research can take shape. In doing so I cover a good deal of literature. Hence much of this article constitutes a review of recent ethnographic and theoretical trends in order to assist in the move towards a more adequate ethnographic vision of the nature of this region that has hitherto characterized ethnographic endeavour. In the following article Mentawai in Global Context (2): Globalization, Regional Autonomy, and the Innervation of Local Political Process in the Mentawai Islands I apply some of the insights developed here to specific events on the Mentawai Islands.
A place to start is perhaps with a cognate Austronesian outpost many thousands of kilometers to the south and east of the Mentawai Islands, another group of islands known to the rest of the world as the Marquesas, but known to the locals as Te Henua. In articulating the complexity of entanglements with the world beyond the shorelines of Te Henua, the historian/ethnographer Greg Dening (1980) formulated the metaphor of “islands and beaches” to encapsulate a sense of the centrality of culture contact between indigenous and European that occurred in this part of the world from the late 18th century. He extends the argument to more than this the nature of the Pacific generally can be thought of as a “total island world [where] every islander has had to cross a beach to construct a new society. Across those beaches every intrusive [or otherwise] artefact, material and cultural, has had to pass. Every living thing on an island has been a traveler”. And in crossing the beaches that lead into the island “every voyager has brought something old and made something new” (Dening 1980:31). The beach is thus a boundary or frontier of an island as it interconnects with the sea and all that it brings. A focus upon it can highlight generally the perpetual movements to and fro, from island to sea and back again, in which movement and travel through, rather than rootedness in, time and space is equally as important as the latter. The metaphor of islands and beaches can, of course, be usefully applied to any oceanic or island context, and is particular apt with regard to the Mentawai Islands. It fundamentally concerns, of course, the issue of travel, without which beaches cannot be crossed.
This premise of the central importance of travel and movement in human affairs, of the routes through which humans have inscribed their existence upon the globe rather than the roots that would define human sociality in terms of fixed positions in time and space, has been recently explored by James Clifford (1997). Clifford takes issue with the grounding metaphor or assumption upon which ethnography as a practice and the consideration of “culture” has proceeded, namely that it has been fixedness to a region in time-space rather than movement through it which has defined the units of analysis.
Dwelling was understood to be the local ground of collective life, travel a supplement; roots always precede routes. But what would happen, I began to ask, if travel were untethered, seen as a complex and pervasive spectrum of human experiences? Practices of displacement might emerge as constitutive of cultural meanings rather than as their simple transfer or extension. (Clifford 1997:3)
The overall trope, then, is one of “dwelling-in-travel” and the elevation of movement to the forefront of meditations upon things cultural where travel and contact become the primary loci for an “unfinished modernity”. From this perspective, even the notion of “location” is transformed into that of an “itinery rather than a bounded site—a series of encounters and translations”(Clifford 1997:11). A consequence of much ethnographic practice proceeding with the assumption that a culture is largely bounded geographical unit has resulted in the localization of those constitutive elements that have their origins beyond the (hence arbitrarily imposed) boundaries and the relegation of those whom cannot be so subsumed to the margins of considerations. In terms of ethnography then
once the representational challenge is seen to be the portrayal and understanding of local/global historical encounters, co-productions, dominations, and resistances, one needs to focus on hybrid, cosmopolitan experiences as much as on rooted, native ones [the goal being] not to replace the cultural figure “native” with the intercultural figure “traveler”. Rather the task is to focus on concrete mediations of the two, in specific cases of historical tension and relationship. (Clifford 1997:25)
Thus it is not a case of making the margin into the new center in which everyone becomes travelers. The task is for the comparative understanding of the “specific dynamics of dwelling/traveling” where ‘culture’ comes to be understood “as much a site of travel encounters as of residence” and where we “focus on any culture’s furthest range of travel while also looking at its centers, its villages, its intensive fieldsites”. This leads to key foci including the ways in which group negotiation transpires in the context of external relations, and the ways in which a culture becomes a topos of travel for non-members. But it most naturally leads to a displacement of the core binary of Local:Outsider and engenders an investigation of the degree to which the ‘center’ of one culture is also the periphery of another. The corollary to this is the admission of a whole host of identities in the spaces opened up with the departure of the deconstructed “native” including “missionaries, converts, literate or educated informants, people of mixed blood, translators, government officers, police, merchants, explorers, prospectors, tourists, travelers, ethnographers, pilgrims, servants, entertainers, migrant laborers, recent immigrants” (Clifford 1997:25) persons who have been and continue to be intricately entangled in the ongoing drama of cultural process.
Having broached the subject of travel and itsconcomitant border crossing we need to now engage with the overall context within which these take place in the present day, “globalization”, and the related concept of “modernity” which leads us to a reconsideration of the nature of social and cultural hybridity.
On one level Clifford points out to us that the world has been ‘global’ for some time, despite the current popularity of the concept of “globalization”, heralding its putative centrality in social and cultural process in the present. This can be placed in the context of a growing number of qualifications and modifications that are being made to the concept as it becomes subject to critical evaluation: as Livingston (2001:149) notes, ‘globalization’ is a “contested and polyvalent term.” Firstly, Trouillot (2001:128) makes the point that “If by ‘globalization’ we mean the massive flow of goods, peoples, information, and capital across huge areas of the earth’s surface in ways that make the parts dependent on the whole, the world has been global since the 16th century.” This links ‘globalization’ with the expansion of firstly mercantile capital and latterly industrial capital, a history which must be understood as embedded in the hegemony the concept enjoys in the present. The terms ‘global’ and ‘globalization’ had their genesis within the marketing arms of expansionist capital (Trouillot 2001:128). Insofar as a crucial dimension of globalization is the “intensification of consciousness of the world as a whole” (Robertson 1992:8), Trouillot suggests that this consciousness can be seen as a form of false consciousness where we end up as unwittingly incorporated within the self-understanding and expansionist strategies and tactics of capital, where we in fact need critical distance in which they are turned to our advantage.
Robertson (1992:165), in his seminal publication on the issue of globalization, stresses the need to move away from a view of the global as being set off from the local which has the effect of encapsulating a matrix of complex entanglements within a set of simplifying and familiar binaries such as abstract versus concrete, mind versus body, and so forth (Livingstone 2001:149). Understanding ‘globalization’ in terms of a paradoxical movement towards homogenization on the one hand and differentiation on the other, Robertson draws our attention to the latter—thus counterbalancing the hegemonic definition of ‘globalization’ as largely about cultural and economic homogenization—describing the phenomenon of glocalization (Robertson 1992:173-174). To ‘glocalize’ was a strategy formulated by Japanese companies to increase marketing success in the global economy, and became a key marketing term in the 1990s, although not achieving the ubiquity of its cousin ‘globalization’. The advantage of this concept is that it refocuses attention upon the mutual entanglement of the global and the local, neither of which is meaningful without the other.
For instance Cunningham (2000) argues for the need to view the ‘global’ as local practice in which ‘globalization’ is not simply a given but a reflexively constructed context of “identity and practice”. Fundamentally glocalization, or the foregrounding of local practice within global process comes to be about the nature of places as they are constituted through the various flows of people, practices and commodities, and of the dwelling-in-travel that is central to their identity or rather the processes of identification (cf. Hall 1996) that invest such places with meaningful content. Hence Livingstone (2001), for one, designates location as a key ingredient in global social process and thus is the material ground through and upon which ; ‘globalization’ operates. It is the sense of place, then, particularly the transformation of sense of place, that is the critical element in ‘globalization’, where “a robust sense of glocality can grasp the production of place by a constant, often conflictual working and reworking of practices, discourses, and more or less durable institutions” (Livingstone 2001:148).
Arguing along similar lines Appadurai identifies the production of locality as a crucial site in his explorations of “global cultural flows”, noting that this not be viewed as “scalar or spatial” but as a “complex phenomenological quality”(Appadurai 1996:178) involving the “socialization of space and time” a universal activity in which socially situated agents go about the quotidian tasks of social (re)production. In this locality, as a universal property of social life, is seen from the perspective of those who live it as something transitory in which effort must be continually invested in its production and maintenance, an effort which creates it as a “structure of feeling” (cf. Williams 1977;Said 1993) in respect of the “conditions of anxiety and entropy, social wear and flux, ecological uncertainty and cosmic volatility, and the always present quirkiness of kinsmen, enemies, spirits, and quarks of all sorts”(Appadurai 1996:81) with which humanity must continually contend. Complementing locality is the concept of the “neighborhood” understood as “the actually existing social forms in which locality, as a dimension or value, is variably realized” (p.179) as a spatiotemporal form. A neighborhood provides a “frame or setting within which various kinds of human action (productive, reproductive, interpretive, performative) can be initiated and conducted meaningfully” (p.84).
The global dimension connects with locality and neighborhood through the concept of ethnoscape, one element in Appadurai’s broader scheme consisting of ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, financescapes and ideoscapes. Each “scape” is not objectively given as much as it is “perspectival”. The relations constituting each depend upon the situated agency of those who navigate their way within them, how they view these scapes and perceive and thus act on their place within them. The contemporary moment can be defined in terms of an increasing disarticulation or disjuncture amongst these scapes on a global scale. But crucial to Appadurai’s formulation is that these scapes become the material from which imagined worlds are fashioned, that is the “multiple worlds that are constituted by the historically situated imaginations” of people and groups across the globe (p.33).
The key concept of ethnoscape is Appadurai’s means of moving beyond the foundational anthropological prop of the “spatially bounded, historically unselfconscious” ethnically homogenous “culture”. As with Clifford, Appadurai places the realities of people in movement, of travel-in-dwelling if you like, on equal footing with the vectors of stability, those of community and neighborhood. And an essential part of the processes constituting ethnoscapes is what transcends the local through interconnecting localities. Also placed side by side are key motivators, those involving the absolute necessity of moving as well as the “fantasies of wanting to move” (p.34). A central dimension of contemporary ethnoscapes, then, is the imaginary dimension, to be understood as much as an “organized field of social practices…and a form of negotiation between sites of agency (individuals) and globally defined fields of possibility” than as an emotional, ideational phenomenon (p.31). These possibilities must also be considered in light of the ways in which they connect, or alternately disarticulate, with the other “scapes”. In short, localities and neighborhoods across the globe can be considered variably constructed of, and in relation to, elements of greater or lesser degrees of remove from them. We find, then, variable degrees of territorialization and deterritorialization of people, things, ideas caught up within varying processes of conjuncture and disjuncture in the myriad contexts in which these processes are manifest at any given historical moment. As Moore argues: “Attention to local practices and discourses of knowledge entails a recognition of the global not as a monolithic entity sustained by grand narratives of progress, but as a set of situated and interrelated knowledges and practices, all of which are simultaneously local and global” (Moore 1996:9).
Turning now to narratives of progress, any talk of globalization also needs to be contextualized in relation to the issue of “modernity”. Or rather talk of glocal processes of locality and neighborhood production must be viewed through the prism of the modern and the variable ways in which modernity figures in these processes.
As both a philosophical principle and a principle of social organization the “modern” or “modernity” is as much an outlook, an element constituting the social imaginary, as a material part of glocal process. It is founded upon a separation of humanity from the natural world in which the latter, “nature”, is a measurable material object over which dominion by human agents is sought. It is primarily there to serve human utility. The vehicles utilized in the realization of this vision are science and its practical offspring, technology. The application of these will lead to significant social and material benefits, and particularly the progressive improvement of humanity both in material and political terms (cf. Pippin 1991). Indeed the notion of “progress” and its cousin “development” are integral parts of the narrative of modernity, a narrative which is manifest in various modes across the globe, which brings up an important qualification. In its various modes modernity must be understood as multiple in its variability and hence not monolithic.
For example Aihwa Ong (1996) sketches the outlines of a modernity particular to Asia, or of China at any rate, where “an alternate vision of the future is being articulated, an increasingly autonomous definition of modernity that is differentiated from that in the West” 1996:60). Ong’s argument centers upon the existence of two varieties of “modernist imaginaries” in the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) one centering upon post Mao Dz-dung state-building aligning race, culture and nation, where Confucianism is allied with instrumental rationality geared to a future in which capitalism is incorporated into domestic structures and mores. The other envisages a future based on a transnational business environment built around capitalists, professionals, and diasporic Chinese communities in the rest of Asia, geopolitically centered upon the coastal cities of Southern China. In general the “modern”, or “modernity”, concerns a reflexive vision of, and contains a trajectory towards, the future embedded within the activities engendered in its realization. A more rounded understanding of particular practices is forthcoming, then, from taking account of the particular elicitation and articulation of“modernity” as it intersects with the particularities of various spatiotemporal contexts across the globe. An appreciation needs to be gained of local scripts being produced from one historical trajectory, editing, reworking, rewriting scripts produced from within another, often one with roots some way removed.
A concern with a variably constructed and construed modernity brings us, hence, to the key issue of syncretic, hybrid identities. The concept of “hybridity” is mainly used in the context of, problematically, invoking the mixture or synthesis of two or more largely pristine essences. In this it partakes in an underlying dialectical, binary logic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis married to a misrecognition of the differential operation of power and hierarchy that is inadequate to account for the complexities of sociocultural practices and institutions.
Trouillot (2001) and Burawoy (2001) both illuminate that dimension of globalization discourse that constructs it as a totalizing reification, as a concept which whilst ostensibly revealing the reach and penetration of capital across the globe also promotes a misrecognition of its wellspring, that of capital itself. Glossing Chakrabarty (1996) Kraniauskas recommends reading against capital’s tendency to reify thereby ‘forgetting’ and obscuring alternative histories (and modernities we would add)—capital, the time of Modernity, becomes a site of “re-memoration rather than reification” a site for the retrieval or recognition of alternative temporalities that we find embedded in the dynamics of social and cultural practices (Kraniauskas 2000:236-7). There is no room here for notions of ‘tradition’ being overcome or even combined, syncretically, with ‘modern’ social or cultural hybrids qua acculturation. Kraniauskas draws upon Rama’s (1997) replacement of the concept of “acculturation” with that of “transculturation”, an example of which saw the “insertion of the black Atlantic into Cuba”, a process at once cultural and economic (slavery). Acculturation refers to cultural hybridization that proceeds on the basis of the dubious assumption of a passive/inferior receptor of change brought about by an active/superior force (cf Thomas 1996). And we could also add to these terms ‘local’ and ‘global’, respectively highlighting that ‘acculturation’ entails the local being overwhelmed by the global, obfuscating in one grand imperial flourish the fetishization of the global and the denial of local agency and the existence of variable histories, temporalities and ‘heterogeneous worlds’ in which, minimally, the time of capital is variably put to work in pursuit of alternate interests.
There are a number of implications for the researcher that emerge from this which include the need to be open to breaks and discontinuities in (apparently) dominant orders a “trace of something that cannot be enclosed, an element that constantly challenges from within” (Rama cited in Kraniauskas 2000:238), or simply post-structuralist ambiguity. It is within ambiguity that ‘real’ time is to be found. With regard to the various “assemblages”/contexts within which the researcher finds him or herself embedded, the concept of hybridity, then, is at best a strategic device that assists in relativizing an essentialized order (Thomas 2000:199). And whilst we must never lose sight of the multiple ways in which localities are connected to localities of greater or lesser degrees of remove, we must also be open to the possibility that locals may have no interest in either resisting or incorporating what we might describe as ‘global’ forces or influences thus placing critical distance between ourselves and the “critical metanarrative of plural appropriations” which is not necessarily the viewpoint of the locals whose “investments may be in strategies that neither collude with nor resist global relations” (Thomas 2000:208). This may also open us up to the ways in which local agency either intentionally or otherwise makes its presence felt in those particular localities currently recognized as the centers of global, Euroamerican, or regional(state) power.
I want to finish off this scene-setting by briefly considering the implications of all this for ethnographic practice.
Recent reflection upon ‘globalization’ from an ethnographic point of view emphasizes the need to de-mystify or “defetishize” the concept from a number of viewpoints including that as a process, ‘globalization’ is not simply uneven but is “an artifact manufactured and received in the local” where it is produced and consumed within organizations, institutions and communities (Burawoy 2001:148). An ethnographic approach reveals the fundamental bias embedded within the concept of ‘globalization’: it is almost universally articulated from the vantage point of its reception (from above) than from the perspective of its production where its contingent and variably hegemonic nature becomes visible (Burawoy 2001:150).This firstly locates ethnography as a central research strategy to any effective research effort. It also suggests, minimally, an alternative strategy to the dominant village or community-based mode of ethnographic practice that has characterized research throughout the 20th century.
The “multisited” approach as outlined in George Marcus’(1998) recent work represents a sound point of departure in this. Here the object of ethnographic research, insofar as this is usually intimately connected with a particular locale, has not been identified in advance, since it is “ultimately mobile and multiply situated”, a vision of research and sociality as firmly secured within movement, a “fractured, discontinuous plane of movement and discovery among sites as one maps an object of study and…posit(s) logics of relationship, translation and association among these sites” (86). In supplementing standard dwelling approaches with traveling approaches this mode of research would appear to be useful.
The above discussion illuminates issues that I would argue must be central to understanding cultural and social process in any context in the contemporary world, but particularly in the Mentawai Islands, which require appreciation of their ramifying complexity in the above terms. We need to be sensitive to the fact that the beaches of the Pagai Islands, Sipora, Siberut and also the myriad other islets in their vicinity have been crossed continuously in the two or three millennia of human occupation in this area, more so at some times than at others. These have been porous boundaries, or rather boundaries constructed within the movement of people and things across them. These islands and islets need to be appreciated in terms of their own histories and modernities which are under continual reproduction and renegotiation, and integrated, in greater or lesser degrees with other islands, islets or lands right across the globe. We need to appreciate their dialogue with Capital and Modernity/Development, and the ways in which these seemingly dominant structures are fractured from within through the operation of local agency which extends far beyond the islands’ shores. This suggests a need to supplement the classic ethnographic endeavour in this region, dwelling-at, with a traveling-through dimension, in which we pay as much attention to the representatives of the various communities across the islands who travel to the furthest limits, and in-between, as we do to those who are more sedentary. There is also much to be gained from delving into the depths of the various dimensions of the experience of glocal process (as per Burawoy), a perhaps essential analytical strategy, since it is unsustainable for these aspects to remain ignored or marginal to ethnographic concern, if our aim is to further understanding of a world increasingly in motion
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Copyright 2001 Glenn Reeves
1. cf. Robertson (1992:170).
2. And I would concur here with Livingstone’s (2001:146) comment regarding “globobbable as the cliché du jour”. Burawoy (2001:150) notes the way in which ‘globalization’ amounts to a “convincing ideology” that obscures the wellsprings of its connects and disconnections/disjunctures presenting them as “natural and eternal”.
cf. Kearney (1995:549): “Globalization entails a shift from two-dimensional Euclidian space with its centers and peripheries and sharp boundaries, to a multidimensional global space with unbounded, often discontinuous and interpenetrating sub-spaces.”
3. A key dimension of Robertson’s conceptualization of globalization.
cf. Eade (1997) on articulating a platform of research that seeks to go beyond the hackneyed concepts of local and global.
4. A major theme in the articles by myself concerning the concept of“The Sociospatial Cosmos
5. Burawoy (2001:150) once again fighting against the power of the concept as fetish works within a conception of the experience of globalization as “an ideology countered by a postnational imagination that galvanizes collective action.”
6. I refer the reader to Ong’s analysis of the role played by the karaoke bar, a non-local institution that has been appropriated by locals, particularly young professionals who usethem as a means of creating transnational guanxi connections (pp.76-77).
7. “The regime of modernity globalizes specific histories of the modern and encompasses the dualities of modernization theories and their creation as kinds of ideologies and discourses that are themselves products of the modern” (Marcus 1998:60).
8. Cf. Battaglia (1999)
9. The reader might refer to my “Local Places, Non-Local Imaginings: Culture, Politics, and Imagination in the “Mentawais” which considers the structures that govern the ways in which the Mentawai Islands are viewed by Euroamerican sojourners to the region.