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Social scientists often write the signature of their age in the unstated assumptions they make about the nature and reality of their subject. For anthropologists of the colonial era, the reality of society corresponded to a native "administration"—official conventions for the adjudication of person and property. The more recent regime of political independence overlaid by economic colonialism has favored the realities of obligation, circulation, and reciprocity. Although it is intriguing to speculate as to what tokens of solidity and credibility a future anthropology might develop, the more pressing issue is that of the unstated assumptions themselves. Where is the "reality" of society, and what ought we make of the idea? What guarantees the credibility of social exchange and relationship?

The Foi people of the Mubi River say that "the heart of the pearl shell" is nowhere, that its reality is, as their myth paraphrases Catullus, "written on the wind, and inscribed in running water." Among the finest achievements of Dr. Weiner's supple and powerful argument is its fidelity to this penetrating indigenous insight. Dr. Weiner does not seek to "cash in" the heart of the pearl shell for a wealth-equivalent in economic exchange, to invest it in a sociology of invidious rights and interests, or to materialize it as putative groups or systems.

A telling and successful study of the meanings of a sociality implies more than the acceptance of local insights, however; it requires the analytical penetration of a world of unfamiliar significances. It may be tempting enough for those with no patience or no head for theory


to take the myths, the practices, the art objects of another people at face value. Idealism of this sort has much to offer; it salves the ethical conscience and it monumentalizes the "data." But insofar as a viable anthropology is concerned it is the kiss of death. For projection is the inevitable consequence of unstated assumptions: when it is assumed that the meanings of another culture are self-evident, the only meanings that are evident at all are one's own!

Dr. Weiner has made his grasp and understanding of Foi meanings the cornerstone of this book. A fluent speaker of the Foi language, he is in every respect a superb fieldworker, and the high standards he has brought to the collection and translation of the myths are evident on every page. Those who are familiar with his personal circumstances, and who know something of the difficulties encountered in his field situation, will also know him as one of the most courageous anthropologists to have worked in Papua New Guinea. He is no stranger to the notion of obviation, and I remain very much indebted to him for the advice and insights he offered when I was working through the concept with a corpus of Daribi myths. Before I comment on his own subtle application of the idea, a few words are in order on its epistemological scope and implications.

If meaning were a self-evident property of things, a "given" of the world around us, then we would scarcely need an anthropology. We could make do well enough with museums, art objects, documentaries, and lavishly illustrated coffeetable books. But meaning is instead something that human beings learn—after the fashion of their cultures—to perceive in the happenings around them. It is a specialized form of perception, as is binocular vision, and it may even be related to the capacity for binocular vision. The forms in which this perception is elicited and encoded, trope in all of its identifiable varieties of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, iconicity, might be said to project the "third dimension" of language and cultural convention, a dimension that is invisible to those who espouse the "flat" perspectives of systematic "rule" and process alone.

The problem is not so much that anthropology has been indifferent to meaning as that it has not known what to do with an allegedly static, subjective effect. And this is largely because trope itself, as the elicitor of meaning, has been understood as something detached and incidental—a by-blow of the businesslike logics that structuralism and semiotics use to model culture. But what if trope were, instead, a dynamic process, a constitutive principle that elicited not only the meanings but their sequence and organization as well? What obviation mod-


els is just such a processual form of trope, a sequence of contagious tropes that expand into the composite trope of a larger cultural frame—a myth or ritual.

As perception, of course, meaning remains as purely subjective and personal as the sense you or I make individually of a certain color or sound. What we can share of such an intimate experience (and what makes of such sharing a cultural phenomenon) is its conventional means of elicitation. Because it is the means by which personal perceptions can be shared and expanded into larger cultural forms, obviation is also a means of rendering the integral unity of cultural meanings accessible to us. Melanesians have always insisted on the central significance of certain myths and rituals for their way of life but, without a way of "reading" this significance in its totality, its indigenous sense could scarcely be grasped. Thus an approach to Foi sociality through myth becomes a privileged entrée to the meaning of Foi social life in its own terms, through the indigenous meanings rather than through the application of typological glosses.

Obviation is not a methodology, nor is it a recipe for myths. It comes into its own rift as a free form of interpretation, but precisely because of the constraints it places on interpretation. Diagrammatically it images the limits a myth places on the range of its possible interpretations. Add to this the conventions of a particular culture—those of exchange, the "fastening" of a woman, affinal protocols, the abia relationship, and the other usages that Dr. Weiner has learned so well—and the interpretive possibilities are further constrained by Foi culture. Using this coordinate set of constraints as a positive advantage, Dr. Weiner has managed, with suave dexterity, to elicit an indigenous commentary on social structure from Foi oral literature. What if pigs were substituted for affines, a man's bow or his fishing spear for his masculinity? What of the remarkable Foi practice whereby a man "adopts" his daughters' husbands by fostering their bridewealth payments? The implications of these "as ifs," in what Victor Turner called the cultural subjunctive, spell out an amazing Foi discourse on topics such as gender, relationship, mortality, destiny, autonomy, and personhood.

The cultural person contains implicitly the relationships that contain it; where else but in the mirroring dimension of myth can this reflexivity be articulated? And if it were not so articulated, then sociality could not enter the world of personal meaning, and would represent a merely imposed arbitrage.

What are pearl shells without people, without the person? The mag-


nificent Foi myth tells us that the heart of the pearl shell is blowing in the wind, streaming beneath running water. It is motion without substance, just as life would be if people did not imbue this motion with their lives, their wishes, their own thoughts. Pearl shells carries human life and human destiny on its wings because it has a place in human thoughts, human meanings and emotions, and in the person.



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