Saturday, April 27, 2013

Cruising with Paul Theroux

I’ve often lamented, on this blog and elsewhere, the influence of Paul Theroux on Western conceptions of the modern Pacific. Theroux is a bad-tempered man at the best of times, and when he researched and wrote his bestselling book The Happy Isles of Oceania twenty or so years ago the implosion of his marriage and a cancer scare had left him particularly dyspeptic, so that he could take sadistic pleasure in characterising Tongans, Samoans, and other inhabitants of the Pacific as comically stupid, chronically dishonest, and disgustingly gluttonous.
The Happy Isles spends hundreds of pages reviving or inventing racist stereotypes, but it does have a few enjoyable passages, thanks to its author’s love of the natural world. Theroux the misanthrope is happiest when he turns his back on the contemptible mass of humanity, and walks into a forest, or paddles out to sea. In the chapter on his visit to the Trobriand Islands Theroux describes kayaking across a flat stretch of water at night, under a sky teeming with stars. As he paddles towards a horizon that is the same colour as the sea, the author makes an analogy between the thousands of islands flung across the Pacific Ocean and the uncounted solar systems strewn through the Milky Way. He looks up at the stars, and imagines that he is guiding his little craft through Outer Space, from one archipelago of planets to another.
Yesterday Skyler, Aneirin and I caught the new and improved ferry which motors between Tongatapu and ‘Eua Islands on every day of the week except the Sabbath. When I travelled on the old, small, unstable boat to ‘Eua a couple of years ago, my face turned as green as a gangrenous limb, and I donated my lunch to the fleets of sharks that cut the deep water of the Tongatapu Channel. On the new, three-storey ferry, though, I confidently ate first one and then another ham and cheese sandwich, and only leaned over a handrail to take photographs.
The journey to ‘Eua begins with a ride through Nuku’alofa harbour, which is home to a series of small islands, each protected by its own reef. Tonga was one of the seedbeds of Polynesian culture, and these islands gave their names – ‘Ata, Motutapu, ‘Eueiki, Hihifo, Hahake, Onevao - to forests and beaches and marae thousands of kilometres away, in Tahiti and Aotearoa and Ontong Java. Wooden dinghies lay beached on the islands, like the landing craft of an invading army, an army which had disappeared amongst groves of coconut trees and giant taro.
By noon, when the ferry pushed past the V-shaped island of Fukave, the sky had turned the same very dark shade of blue as the sea. Nuku, the round green island just beyond Fukave, seemed to float like a little planet in this universe of blue.
After the ferry had left Nuku’alofa harbour and entered the Tongatapu channel I went downstairs, to a room with linoleum floors and tinted windows, and found a space between its sprawled snoring bodies. I fell asleep quickly in the gently rocking semi-darkness, and began to dream that I was back in Auckland, in the darkness of the Civic Theatre’s little basement cinema, where avant-garde dramas and overly serious documentaries are shown to clusters of graduate students during the city’s yearly film festival. I knew, thanks to the background knowledge which is mysteriously granted to dreamers, that I was about to watch a recently discovered extended cut of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I leaned forward in my seat, peered at the man seated beside me, discovered that he was Paul Theroux, and began at once to complain to him that the very notion of an extended version of a film as long as 2001 was absurd. “Dreams are defined by their absurdity”, Theroux replied solemnly, without bothering to turn his head in my direction.

Slowly, with the soft roar of a distant but unstoppable tidal wave, seven long, bone-white spacecraft cruised onto the movie screen’s black sky. Untwinkling stars appeared one at a time in the distance: I wondered whether they might be the lights of a fleet of outpaced pursuers.
In the last science fiction movie I had watched all the spacecraft resembled Stealth bombers and had little American flags painted on their wings, so that they looked like stamped envelopes. The ships on the Civic’s screen lacked flags, but had koru patterns carved into their sides. A carved atua perched like a wart on the nose of the closest ship, just above a cockpit filled with orange light and brown tattooed faces. “A thousand years ago seven waka set out across interstellar space, from the constellation of Tropical Polynesia to the outlier planet known as Aotearoa”, a voice announced through the theatre’s speakers. “This is the story of the Imperial Starships Tainui, Aotea, Mataatua – “
Theroux was looking at me grumpily. “Foolish!” he shouted. “How foolish – and how implausible!”
I was suddenly impressed by the distinguished travel writer’s knowledge of New Zealand history, and by his awareness of the blunders of amateur Victorian ethnographers like Percy Smith and Elsdon Best. “Yes, well, the Great Fleet story about seven founding waka was pretty much discredited in the ‘70s” I began. “We know that Smith and Best simplified the stories they collected, and settled on a number of mythic significance – “
Theroux’s face had hardened. “Foolish boring man! I’m not interested in your tinpot country’s oral history – I’m talking about the mechanics of space travel. Those ships are impossibly cumbersome – they’d sink into the depths of space before they made it a mile to Aotearoa. The only way to travel through space is with a small kayak – the paddle is more efficient than the fission engine. An explorer has to travel alone, not with a herd of engineers and ethnographers.”
As Theroux spoke the screen began to turn the same dark shade of blue as the sky and the sea that enclosed the ferry to ‘Eua.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The sociologist as DJ

Last year I blogged about the great historian EP Thompson's brief but entertaining stint as a BBC DJ. Here in Tonga, where the population is small, resources are in short supply, and multitasking is a way of life, the sociologist Dr Michael Horowitz has been moonlighting as a prime time radio DJ. Horowitz has spent decades teaching at Tonga's 'Atenisi Institute and at various North America institutions, and spent last summer in Wellington, as a Visiting Fellow of Victoria University.

Now that he's back on Tongatapu, though, the man locals call Maikolo is spending Wednesday evenings as a DJ on the state-owned FM broadcaster Tonga One, where he presents a classical music show sponsored by the Vava'u Academy, a thinktank he co-founded with the 'Atenisi graduate Dr 'Okusi Mahina.

When Maikolo came over for dinner the other night, I lobbied hard for the inclusion of my favourite pieces of music in his show. He repeatedly refused, though, to promise to play John Adams or Steve Reich or any other of the minimalist composers I favour. "It was hard enough for me to get this show" he said. "And if I play that stuff there'll be outrage. I'm sticking to Bach's Brandenburg Concerto". I tried to explain to Maikolo that I'm no classical music snob, and that I enjoy the trance-like music of Reich and Adams and other minimalists because it is intended as a populist reaction against the elitism and hyper-intellectualism of avant-garde atonal mid-century composers. Maikolo was not interested in my protestations. "I might let you guest DJ one night" he said, "and then it'll be on your head".

Even if you live outside the Friendly Islands, you can listen to DJ Horowitz tonight on Tonga One by going to this page and following the link.

Maikolo is no stranger to the radio industry. During a sojourn in native America in the mid-noughties, he worked for the liberal radio network KBOO, presenting well-researched programmes on everything from America's neo-fascist Christian Reconstructionist movement to political affairs in the Pacific. As one would expect, Tonga was a recurring subject of Horowitz's work for HBOO. Here's a link to a programme the sociologist made in the aftermath of the riots that destroyed a third of central Nuku'alofa in November 2006. You can use the search engine on HBOO's homepage to find more of Horowitz's programmes.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

See you in Nuku'alofa next Monday night

Riots, Idleness and Land Reform: the ideas of EP Thompson, and what they might mean in Tonga
A seminar by Dr Scott Hamilton, to be held on the 7 pm, 22nd of April, at the ‘Atenisi Institute’s Lalo Masi Building, and followed by refreshments.
Edward Palmer Thompson was one of the most versatile and passionate intellectuals of the twentieth century. Thompson became famous in 1963, at the age of thirty-nine, when he published his massive and meticulous book The Making of the English Class, which tried to tell the story of the world’s first Industrial Revolution from the point of view of artisans, factory workers, and peasants, rather than the statesmen and industrialists who dominated the work of more conventional historians. Thompson showed the human cost of the Industrial Revolution and the establishment of capitalism in England. He sympathised with the peasants who were driven off their lands, and forced into the cities to toil for a pittance in factories. He cheered the men and women who organised trade unions and similar associations to fight for a better deal from factory owners.
Thompson’s approach to history can be explained partly by his politics. A lifelong socialist, he was as happy marching against nuclear weapons or standing on the picket line with a group of striking workers as he was working in academic archives or delivering a seminar. As well as academic books and essays, Thompson produced hundreds of articles about important political issues.
EP Thompson’s academic writing focuses mostly on England in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but its themes of social conflict and modernisation give it a relevance that extends far beyond his homeland. His books have for decades been popular in nations like India and Korea, and this month a conference in Australia marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Making of the English Working Class.
Thompson was always interested in comparing the histories of different nations. During a visit to Auckland to deliver several lectures in 1987, he announced that he was keen to learn about the history of the South Pacific, and about the ways both Polynesian and local palangi peoples organised their societies and used land. Sadly, Thompson’s declining health and early death in 1993 prevented him from realising this ambition.
If EP Thompson were able to visit the Kingdom of Tonga in 2013, what would he make of the place? What lessons might he have to offer Tonga, and what might Tonga be able to teach him? In this seminar Scott Hamilton will suggest a couple of possible answers to these questions.  
Hamilton will argue that Thompson would have been fascinated by Tonga, because of the unusual historical path the country has taken. In the nineteenth century Taufa’ahau managed to unify and modernise Tonga without embracing capitalism. Even today the basis of the domestic Tongan economy remains small, semi-subsistence farming, and non-capitalist practices involving gift-giving and the distribution of wealth through family networks remain extremely important.
Hamilton will suggest that EP Thompson’s great essay ‘Time, Work-discipline and Industrial Capitalism’ can help Tongans to understand the clash between their traditional ways of life and the demands of the capitalist sector of their economy. Thompson’s essay describes how factory owners and other employers regulate the time of their workers, so that they labour for a certain number of hours a day, and a certain number of days a week, and how workers in the West have gradually internalised this regulation, and come to regard it as natural. In nations like Tonga, where the people can still live off the land, and thus do not have to sell their labour to survive, capitalism struggles to force workers into its patterns. Frustrated employers and foreign ‘experts’ on economic ‘development’ complain about the ‘idleness’ of the native people, and call for them to be disciplined, or separated from their land. But Thompson shows that rejection of the nine to five rhythms of the capitalist economy does not equal laziness. For thousands of years, humans laboured according to different, looser rhythms, as they brought in harvests or hunted game. Their work was guided by the seasons, not by the clock.
Thompson grew up in a strongly Methodist family – his father was famous for his work as a Methodist missionary in India – but was sometimes critical of the faith. In a famous and controversial passage in The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson rails against John Wesley for turning the poor of England away from a political solution to their problems. Thompson complains that, instead of encouraging the poor to campaign for better wages and the vote, Wesley  convinced them to blame their own supposed sinfulness for their miserable state. Instead of marching for justice and confronting England’s rich and powerful, the Methodist poor congregated in chapels. Tongan’s Free Wesleyan Church has sometimes been criticised for its links with the state, and for its alleged political conservatism. Are EP Thompson’s complaints against the English Methodists relevant to Tonga?
One of EP Thompson’s best-known essays discussed the riots which occasionally disturbed eighteenth century England. In ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd’ Thompson argues that a riot can tell us much about the fundamental beliefs of a society. In eighteenth century England an unspoken contract between the poor and the powerful usually ensured social stability. When this contract was broken, though, the poor could loot and burn with a ferocity that shocked the powerful. Can we use Thompson’s celebrated study of civil disorder to understand the causes of the riot which hit Nuku’alofa nearly seven years ago?
Hamilton will suggest that Thompson could learn from Tonga, as well as offer the country lessons. Despite his sympathy for the often illiterate peasants and workers of eighteenth and nineteenth century England, Thompson seldom used oral history in his work. He considered old texts much more reliable than oral traditions about old events, because stories can change so easily as they pass from one tongue to another. Hamilton will suggest that Thompson might change his mind about oral history, if he could consider the work of scholars like Sione Latukefu, Niel Gunson, and Wendy Pond, who have discovered important truths in the songs and oral traditions of Tonga.
Scott Hamilton is the author of The Crisis of Theory: EP Thompson and the British New Left, which was published by Manchester University Press in hardback in 2011 and in a paperback edition last year. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Bathing and sweating

I got back to Tonga on Monday, and was driven almost directly from Fua'amotu airport to the campus of the 'Atenisi Institute, where 'Opeti Taliai, subject of a recent interview on this blog, was giving a seminar on 'Thinking as the Art of Unwrapping'.

After a week of Auckland's autumnal weather I sat at one end of the Lolo Masi building, sweating and scratching in the tropical humidity, and feeling like a diver decompressing after a long dip in cool waters, as 'Opeti moved from philosophy to linguistics to Tongan oral history without raising a sweat or misplacing a syllable. In an alliterative burst near the end of his address, the Dean of 'Atenisi brought the names Heidegger, Hegel and Helu together. Karl Marx made a cameo appearance, and the problems of German idealist philosophy were made to foreshadow the problems of Tongan social reformers.

In one of the more meditative sections of his talk, 'Opeti mulled over the differences between the word fakakaukau, which is nowadays often used by Tongans to describe the act of thinking, and the semi-obsolete word faka'au'au. Kaukau means to take a bath; 'au'au can describe the acts of scraping or unwrapping. 'Opeti suggested that both words were descendants of mafaufau, which Samoans use to denote thinking. Why, he wondered, had Polynesians chosen, unknown centuries ago, to use bathing and unwrapping as metaphors for thought?

During the discussion which followed 'Opeti's talk, I told him how gentle both the traditional Tongan metaphors for thought seemed to me. By contrast, modern Western societies often choose cold, brutal metaphors for thinking. We talk of conducting autopsies for ideologies which we perceive have failed; we say that a thinker has cut to the bone, when we consider that he or she has excelled; we try to make penetrating analyses of this or that subject.

Where we treat thinking as a violent, invasive activity, Tongan metaphors suggest it is something altogether gentler - a washing, and hence purification, of the brain, or the unwrapping of a gift. 'Opeti drew a parallel between the Tongan sense of knowledge as something already inherent in our minds and environment, and simply waiting to be revealed, and ancient Greek ideas about intellectual inquiry. He pointed out that Plato believed that teaching involved the recovery of knowledge students had gained in previous lives, and stored deep in their brains.

'Opeti also reported that, during some of the thousands of lectures he gave at the school he founded, Futa Helu linked the act of thinking to the deflowering of a huge idol which apparently once enjoyed pride of place in a godhouse on a Tongan island. The idol, which was wrapped up in tapa cloth, had been consulted, during solemn and visionary ceremonies, for decades or centuries, by a fearful and reverent populace. When traditional religion began to collapse in the early decades of the nineteenth century, though, a group of Tongans entered the godhouse and unceremoniously removed the idol's tapa cover. After stripping off layer after layer after layer of tapa, the startled defilers discovered that the idol they had worshipped for so long was nothing more than a small seashell. By unwrapping the idol, Tongans had exposed an important truth.

Kik Velt, the science teacher and IT entrepreneur whose penchant for bright flowing dresses and enormous earrings and noserings has been made famous by Tongan Ark, Paul Janman's documentary feature film about life at 'Atenisi, was less than impressed by the waffling of humanities graduates like 'Opeti and me. "You guys talk and talk and never reach any definite conclusion" he complained. "I prefer physics - physics is exact." I told Kik that many sociologists have desperately jealous of the precision that the natural sciences can attain - my old PhD supervisor Ian Carter complained about 'physics envy' amongst his colleagues - but that it wasn't clear whether it was possible, nor even desirable, to formulate precise laws that could describe and predict the behaviour of millions of humans, given the enormous number of variables involved in human behaviour. "In physics there are only four or five variables" Kik replied. "And that is very good".

The day after 'Opeti's seminar I devoted a Creative Writing class to the literary technique known as stream of consciousness, and to James Joyce's epic and chaotic attempt to record the variable inner lives of a handful of Dubliners on a July day in 1904. I tried to ease into the subject of stream of consciousness by playing Bob Dylan's 'Visions of Johanna', which I consider a fine example of the genre, but I got a much better response when I read a passage from the sixty-one page monologue Molly Bloom offers up at the end of Ulysses. I'm not sure whether it was the smuttiness of Molly's thoughts or the daring of Joyce's technique which had the students laughing loudly and asking for a copy of Ulysses - a book which, I had to confess, I had never managed to finish.

After discussing Joyce the class had a go at stream of consciousness writing. Here's the attempt I made to write down the thoughts crawling through my head at a quarter past ten last Tuesday morning. My students guffawed.


Sweat. Why am I sweating so much this morning? Or do I only think I am sweating more than I usually do in Tonga because I have spent a week in Auckland, where the cool air kept my brow dry? Sweat: isn't this what all humans have in common? Socialists use a red flag, to symbolise the oneness of humanity, our common blood, the disgusting mess of tube-shaped organs and bulging veins and pussy ulcers that we all carry under the thin disguise we call skin. But aren't humans divided by different blood groups, different lines of descent, whakapapa? 'Opeti says Tongans are obsessed by genealogy, the narrative in their blood. Genealogy is a type of coagulation. Black slick of blood on the floor of an abandoned hospital in the overgrown centre of Tongatapu, vines reaching through the corners of the windows with spindly fingers, like the zombie survivors of a made-for-cable apocalypse, coconuts falling through the ceiling like shells, or severed heads. If a Tongan has a blood transfusion, does he have to add new branches, spindly and low-hanging, to his family tree, to indicate new cousins, new half-brothers? Or are his new blood-relatives epiphytes, strangely separate from him even as they link themselves with him? Sweat, not blood, is truly democratic: there are no sweat-groups, no discrete Tongan or palangi or Chinese varieties of sweat - there is only the same persistent fluid, everywhere. Why don't socialists fly a sweat-coloured flag? My sweat drips onto the page: rain falls onto the soil, onto the gardens of Tongatapu, Tonga Lahi, the great island. Could sweat nourish the earth, swell the boils of tomato plants, excite the banana trees until they produce erections?

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, April 04, 2013

A vexillological mystery in Nuku'alofa

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am a flag geek. My love for abstract painting and my weakness for political sloganeering are both indulged by vexillology, which is an art that values brusque communication as much as elegant design.

Back in February I criticised antipodean liberals for their convoluted flag designs, and suggested that a simple banner was a good banner. But a mysterious flag I recently discovered attached to the rundown Maseia (that is, Messiah) Plaza in downtown Nuku'alofa makes me wonder whether simplicity is always such a good thing. The flag in question, which was one of four obscure ensigns being muscled by a humid wind on a late Saturday afternoon, consists of a single green stripe on a plain white background (click on the photo to enlarge it).

There are a number of very stylish flags dominated by lone horizontal lines - on another weekend walk through Nuku'alofa I spotted a woman wearing a T shirt emblazoned with the words Proud to be Nauruan, and dominated by the beautiful flag of that betrayed and damaged nation - but I can't, offhand, think of a banner where the line sits on a background so drained of colour.
I wandered around the back of the Maseia building, which was opened by King Tupou IV in 1980 and is decorated with verses from the Bible, but nowadays seems empty apart from a pizza joint, and found myself in the grounds of Nuku'alofa's Catholic Basilica, where the flag of the world's smallest nation flew three huge silver bells stamped with Latinate phrases. (As I photographed the flag, I began to wonder why the world's two smallest nations both have flags which are dominated by yellow. Apart from the Vatican City and Niue, is there another country which has made yellow the main colour on its banner?)

I was about to leave the basilica behind when a voice called from the little garden at its rear. The bishop of Nuku'alofa wanted me to join him and a dozen or so of his parishioners around the kava bowl. "We're getting ready for the service tomorrow" he explained, as he sat in front of a cup of kava and a tall glass of beer. After we'd talked about the new pope, and wondered whether his southern hemisphere heritage might make him sensitive to the prolems of South Pacific nations like Tonga, I asked the bishop about the meaning of the strange banner flying on the Maseia Plaza. "I think it means...approximately...bullshit" he replied, as his congregation laughed.

Can anyone do better than the good bishop, and explain what odd piece of the globe the flag flying over Maseia Plaza might represent?

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]