Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Who owns history? and other annoying questions

[As the school year nears an end I’m continuing my harassment of my research students. Here are a couple of questions I’ve just hit them with…]
John Thomas’ legacy
A decade ago a young scholar named Andy Mills arrived at ‘Atenisi to research a PhD thesis on Tongan war clubs. Mills soon discovered, though, that akau tau, along with other artefacts from the era before Christianity, were in short supply in the Friendly Islands. Many of them had been destroyed or exiled during Tauafa’ahau’s violently successful campaign to Christianise Tonga in the second quarter of the nineteenth century.
The founder of modern Tonga used fire or blasphemy to destroy the enclosures and houses where heathen gods had been revered and summouned. Pigs and bananas were allowed to flourish in the grounds of  godhouses. The carved deities which had presided over heathen ceremonies wearing robes of intricate tapa were stripped naked, hung by their necks from ceilings, and mockingly challenged to revenge their sufferings. War clubs were considered sacred, sentient objects – some of them, stories hold, could move of their own volition, and choose their own victims during a battle – and were often kept in godhouses. Taufa’ahau did not spare them.
Those artefacts which survived the destruction of godhouses and pagan forts were often given to Wesleyan missionaries as symbols of the victory of Christianity. Some of these treasures have found homes in the chilly storerooms and display cases of European and Australasian museums. The Auckland War Memorial Museum has a fine collection of ‘akau tau on permanent display; these objects helped Andy Mills finish his thesis, and have also inspired Auckland-based Tongan artists like Benjamin Work.   
The Reverend John Thomas was Taufa’ahau’s early spiritual advisor, and his sanctimonious yet bloodthirsty sermons helped inspire and legitimate the young king’s crusade to unify and Christianise Tonga. It is perhaps not surprising that Thomas, who had a hateful fascination with pre-Christian Tongan religion and culture, built up a collection of artefacts during his thirty years of missionary work in the Friendly Islands. Recently Thomas’ descendants offered these objects for sale at a London auction house. The decision of the Thomas family to part with the artefacts was reported in the Tongan media, where the Tongan government was reported as saying that it did not have the money to purchase them.
How do you feel about the sale of Tongan artefacts by the descendants of John Thomas? Does the fact that the artefacts were gifted to Thomas by sympathetic Tongans like Taufa’ahau mean that he had a legal and moral right to them, and that by extension his descendants have a right to sell them? Should the Tongan government prioritise buying the artefacts and returning them to Tonga, or are they not worth that effort? If not, why not?
Petroglyphs, and questions of appropriation
You read David Burley and Shane Egan’s essay ‘Triangular Men on One Very Long Voyage’, which examined carvings in a stretch of beach rock on the island of Foa. These petroglyphs were discovered by Foans after a storm shifted tonnes of sand off their shores.
You have seen how Burley and Egan conclude that the carvings were made many hundreds of years ago by Hawaiians, or by people very familiar with Hawaiian culture. Burley and Egan suggest that the Hawaiian influence on Tonga probably came via Tahiti, because of the difficulty involved in a direct journey between Tonga and Hawaii, and they speculate that the influence was relatively light, because of the lack of traces of ancient Hawaiian culture elsewhere in Tonga.
‘Triangular Men on One Very Long Voyage’ created considerable interest in the scholarly community, because it offered rare evidence of a connection between the Eastern Polynesian society of Hawaii and the much older Western Polynesian society of Tonga.
David Burley is a senior archaeologist who has done a lot of research in Tonga; he is particularly well-known for his work at Nukuleka village, across the lagoon from Nuku’alofa, which he believes is the site of the oldest settlement in all of Polynesia. Shane Egan, by contrast, is an amateur archaeologist, who worked as an assistant to Burley in Foa. Egan makes his living running the Blue Banana guest house on the northern Hihifo coast, and operating a shop in Nuku’alofa which offers Tongan-themed gifts to tourists.
Since he visited Foa with Burley, Egan has begun to make money from the patterns he found in the rock of the island. Visitors to his gift shop can buy T shirts, for instance, printed with patterns taken from Foa. Some of the patterns are reproduced as Burley found them, but others have been altered for commercial purposes. One of the T shirts, for instance, shows the outline of a human figure found on the Foa rock, but places a surf board and a wave underneath the figure. Hawaiians, of course, invented surfing, and their beaches are today home to some of the sport’s most prestigious competitions. 
Here’s a thought experiment: imagine that David Burley and Shane Egan examined and wrote about a petroglyph showing Hawaiian figures which was uncovered near your village, and that Egan then began to market these figures on T shirts.
How would you feel about Egan’s use of the past? Would Egan be guilty of appropriating and commercialising the history of your village, or would the fact that the petroglyphs were probably created by a group of transient members of a non-Tongan culture mean that Egan could use them?
 [Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The dialectics of Tongan churching

[I blogged a few months ago about Tevita Manu'atu, an 'Atenisi Institute student who has been finishing his Bachelors degree by undertaking a detailed study of Kala'au, a village on the isolated southwest coast of Tongatapu. Tevita produced an outline history of Kala'au last semester, using as his raw material a series of interviews with his village's elderly people. Tevita's history noted the religious diversity of Kala'au. Despite its tiny size, the village is today home to members of many different denominations of Christianity.

This semester I've been asking Tevita to test the material he has gathered against the academic literature on Tonga and similar societies. I've thrown him a series of texts and references, and asked him whether they illuminate or contradict the facts he has gathered in his village. Here are some notes I gave Tevita this week.]

Hi T,

You have stated that you would like to analyse Kala’au society using the methods of FutaHelu and Futa Helu’s great inspiration, the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesos. I want to discuss a study of religious life in another Tongan village, because I think this study features the sort of method you want to deploy.  

First, though, let's talk quickly about the method Futa Helu got from Heraclitus. Heraclitus is often seen as the father of dialectics, because he emphasised what is sometimes called the contradictory unity of the world. According to Heraclitus, or at least Futa Helu's interpretation of Heraclitus, the world is made up of an almost infinite number of interconnecting parts and processes. Everything affects everything else, at one time and in one way or another.

Despite all this interconnection, the world does not, according to Helu and Heraclitus, exist in any sort of harmony. Different parts and processes of reality clash with one another, and these clashes create perpetual change.
A quick example of contradictory unity: class and capitalism
Let us concretise the vision of the world as a contradictory unity by considering the composition of a typical Western capitalist society. Such a society is broken into classes, whose members are defined by the way they make their living. A small class of people possess and live off capital goods, like factories and businesses, and invested money. Members of a much larger group of people known as the working class make their living by working for the businesses owned by the capitalist class. A ‘middle class’ made up of ‘professionals’ like lawyers and doctors and small business owners sits between the two most important classes in society.
Historically, the capitalist class and the working class have often been in conflict. The working class has formed trade unions and political parties to demand better wages and salaries and better social services from the capitalist class, which has run its own competing business associations and political parties. Election campaigns generally see a party supported by the workers clashing with a party favoured primarily by the capitalist class. In extreme situations conflict between workers and capitalists has exploded into strikes, riots, and even revolutions. The middle class has tended to vacillate between the two more important classes, siding at one time with the capitalist class and at another time with the working class.
Western societies are unified by the fact that all of their social components – all of their classes – are related to and dependent on one another. Capitalists need workers to operate their businesses; workers need capitalists to pay their wages and salaries. But, as dialecticians like to remind us, unity does not mean harmony. Capitalists and workers are constantly in conflict. It is this continual conflict which generates change.
The Beagleholes and the mystery of Tongan churching
Now that we’ve gotten a clear notion of what contradictory unity means, let us leave the West and return to Tonga. I want to suggest that some of the most interesting studies of Tonga have a dialectical quality, because they treat Tongan society as a contradictory unity.
I think that Ernest and Pearl Beaglehole’s discussion of the role of religion in the life of the Vava’uan village of Pangai has a dialectical quality which might have pleased Futa Helu. You have read an excerpt from the Beagleholes' short book Pangai: Village in Tonga, which was based on a few months of field work done in 1938 and 1939.
As you have seen, the Beagleholes analyse a feature of Tongan village society which has puzzled many palangi visitors, and which frustrates some Tongans. They try to explain the way that even the smallest Tongan village is home to outposts of a variety of churches. In Pangai, which was a very modestly sized village when the Beagleholes came visiting, four churches – the Free Wesleyans, the Church of Tonga, the Free Church of Tonga, and the Catholics – had buildings of their own where they held regular services, and a number of other religious organisations, like the Mormons, had followers, but hadn’t yet established places of worship.
I remember you telling me that, as a curious teenager, you decided to do a 'church tour' of Tongatapu, and experience a service by every denomination active on the island. That adventure took a long time to complete! Many palangi tourists are astonished by the number and size of the churches that rise from even the smallest and remote villages on Tongatapu.
It is important for us to remember that not every South Pacific society features the sort of religious diversity found in Tonga. Although Samoa is home to a number of different Christian denominations, many Samoan villages boast only a single church. It is normal for every member of a village to attend the same church, and in some villages residents who do not attend church regularly can be fined. There have been cases, even in recent years, of Samoans who have converted to a religious denomination not represented in their village being forced to leave that village.
Horowitz's gambit: Tonga as Texas
Some scholars have ascribed the religious diversity of Tonga to the supposed history of the country. Maikolo Horowitz, for instance, has called Tonga ‘the Texas of the South Pacific’, because of what he regards as the extreme individualism of its people.
Horowitz thinks that, because Tonga is made up of a large number of relatively small islands, Tongans were historically able to solve social conflicts through emigration. A group of Tongans who found themselves in conflict with authority could ‘up sticks’, sail across a lagoon or a relatively short stretch of open ocean, and found a new village on a new island. Horowitz thinks that the supposed fluidity of ancient Tongan society has left its mark on contemporary Tongans, by making them respond to social conflict by seceding from one organisation and starting another. It is not surprise, for Horowitz, that Tongan boasts so many churches, and that these churches are so prone to splits.
It seems to me that there are a couple of problems with Maikolo Horowitz’s explanation for religious diversity in Tonga. As Patrick Vinton Kirch, Sione Latukefu, ‘Opeti Taliai, and numerous other scholars have shown, ancient Tongan society was highly centralised, and featured a large class of tu’a who had very few rights and little mobility. Ancient Tongan society was also relatively densely populated - Kirch estimates that Tongatapu was filled to capacity a thousand years ago –  and so the opportunity to ‘up sticks’ and settle somewhere new would have been limited, even if the would-be settlers had managed to evade the control of central authority.
Horowitz’s talk about the fluidity and disunity of Tongan society also fails to explain the stability which has marked much of modern Tongan history. Between 1852, when Tupou I captured and burnt Pea, the last stronghold of his heathen enemies, and 2006, when the enemies of Tupou’s descendants burnt downtown Nuku’alofa to the ground, Tonga saw little or no violent social conflict. How could this be, if Tongans are as relentlessly fractious as Horowitz claims? It seems to me that Horowitz’s claims about Tongan society over-emphasise contradiction, at the expense of unity.

The dialectics of religious diversity

As you have seen, Ernest and Pearl Beaglehole explain the religious diversity of Pangai by arguing that the competing churches allow for competing personalities in the village to at once express and solve their conflicts.

The Beagleholes discuss a Catholic who falls out with other Catholics over their alleged theft of melons from his fields, and expresses his disgust with them by leaving the church and becoming a Wesleyan. They cite the case of the very argumentative amateur theologian, whose idiosyncratic interpretations of the Bible cause conflicts with his fellow worshippers, conflicts which are solved, albeit temporarily, whenever he shifts church. And the Beagleholes mention those men from Wesleyan families who, wanting to differentiate themselves from their peers and to acquire what seems like them esoteric knowledge, shift their allegiance to the Catholic church.

In a small village set in a relatively remote part of what was, in the late 1930s, a profoundly undemocratic society, competing churches provide malcontents and dissenters with a way of expressing their sense of difference and dissatisfaction.
But the churches of Pangai are not only a means to rebellion – they also, according to Beagleholes, allow for the regulation of conflict. By shifting church, the person angry with his or her former social circle can acquire a new circle of friends, and leave behind old conflicts. By leaving the church of their family, the young and dissatisfied man or women can rebel without - usually - seriously disturbing the social order or attempting to enter the restricted realm of politics. For Beaglehole, then, the religious diversity of Pangai, and by extension Tonga in general, has a dialectical quality. It both expresses and - at least sometimes - manages social conflict, and divides as well as unites Tongan society. It offers a lesson in contradictory unity.
Of course, the Beaglehole’s' study was made more than seven decades ago, and it needs to be examined in the light of more recent research, including texts like Niel Gunson’s examinations of Tonga's Christian present and shamanic past, ‘Opeti Taliai's PhD thesis, which argues that Christianity has been, in Tonga, a ‘totalitarian’ religion, Nico Besnier’s discussion of the rise of ‘charismatic’ churches like the Tokaikolo Fellowship in Tonga, Giovanni Bennardo’s recent and very detailed neuroscientific studies of the worldviews of Tongan villagers, and your own research in Kala’au.

Some questions to consider:

Does the Beagleholes' account of religious life in Pangai have relevance in Kala’au today? Do the churches in your village express and regulate social conflict in the way the Beagleholes describe? 

Are the Beagleholes exponents of dialectical analysis?

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Monday, November 18, 2013

An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in Nuku'alofa

[This poem is part of a series.]

An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in Nuku’alofa (for Visesio Siasau) 

Watch those ceiling fans
on either side of the chandeliers: 
they are the rotors
of an elephant-sized engine
the missionaries installed in 1886,
the year before Tupou I sent them home.
Watch the rotors turn faster 
and faster, hear them hum louder 
and louder, and know that the engine is working 
in concert with your prayers,
is straining to lift this rocket-shaped
godhouse, to send it north, all the way 
to heaven, or some other
imperialist nation.

Christ will not let us go.
Christ is a Tongan.
Christ is a pagan.

Christ is made of banyan
and suffers on a banyan cross.
Those nails through his hands and feet
hold his cross to the wall
and the wall to the floor
and the floor to the earth
of Tongatapu,
the prone body of Hikule'o,
her seven bellies stuffed full
of midden-shells and pot-shards

and skeletons.

As the rotors strain
he holds us here.
Under the chandeliers
our saviour shines with sweat.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Dangers of the crossover

When I attended Rosehill College, the pride of Papakura's educational system, back in the late 1980s and early '90s, the school had two official uniforms.

The first uniform, which was worn grudgingly and scruffily, consisted of the sort of grey shirt and blue jersey with which so many institutions, from schools to prisons to mental hospitals, homogenise their inmates.

The second, unofficial uniform, which was worn underneath those colourless shirts, and which burst proudly out of its hiding place on the school's rare and coveted mufti days, showed the letters AC and DC on either side of a lightning bolt and featured either a nihilistically black or garishly purple background.

By the end of the '80s the Aussie metal band was fifteen or so years old, and its members had acquired stock options and golf club memberships. At Rosehill, though, AC/DC's deadhead lyrics and two chord drones were still seen as a symbol of rebellion. The band was so popular that anyone who spurned it was seen as a cultural traitor. I got teased for months after I wore a T shirt that honoured The Smiths rather than the Aussie metallers on mufti day.

I felt like I was entering familiar territory, then, when I turned up at the waterlogged campus of the 'Atenisi Institute this year and heard AC/DC blasting from a stereo. I soon realised, though, that loud guitars are not as popular in Tonga as they are in South Auckland.

After one of my first days teaching at the Institute, I accepted a car ride home with Salise and Hai, two of the school's biggest metalheads. As our vehicle skidded and roared through the crumbling backstreets of Nuku'alofa, launching chickens into the air and pigs into puddles, Hai put an old AC/DC cassette onto the stereo, cranked up the volume, and hooted with a strange anticipatory delight. Soon 'Highway to Hell', the title track to AC/DC's most famous album, was bringing Tongans onto their doorsteps and verandahs. An old man stepped out of a Free Wesleyan Church and frowned meaningfully at the din. A couple of boys sprinted down the drive of their 'api and stared at us, wondering if we were the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Men and women in passing cars gave us thumbs down signs and shouted curses from which I was magically protected by my ignorance of Tongan.

"Tongans don't like loud music" Salise explained when we got back to my place. "They don't even like rock. Kava songs, love songs, reggae - anything mellow, island style, that's what they like. Not AC/DC." In Nuku'alofa, fans of bands like AC/DC are not snotty-nosed bogans but avant-garde provocateurs.

I soon learned that Salise doesn't need a stereo to play music. He's an extraordinarily talented musician, who can knock out a classical piece for Spanish guitar as easily as the riff to 'Highway to Hell' or 'Smoke on the Water'. I've been working on winning Salise over to my tastes in guitar music, by lending him CDs by Nick Drake and John Fahey, but he remains a devotee of the heavy stuff. Together with a couple of mates, he has formed a band called One in Blood, which is battling against the Tongan distaste for rock music.

This semester Salise is doing a research project - autoethnography is the fancy term I'm using for it - in which he reflects on the difficulties of making loud guitar music in Tonga. I've been giving him music and texts which relate the struggles of path-breaking musicians in other countries, and asking him to relate them to his own experiences. I'm not so much interested in discussing the technical aspects of music, which are beyond me, as in hearing Salise talk about the sociology and politics of rocking out.

Here are some of the notes I've given to Salise. Some of the musos who frequent this blog, and in particular the great Bill Direen, might have their own responses to the questions I ask.

The art and politics of crossover music: Miles Davis and Death considered

You have been listening to Miles Davis, and reading Nick Kent’s classic portrait of the trumpeter. As Kent notes, Davis was a compulsive innovator who repeatedly crossed from one genre of music to another during his career, as he sought out new sounds and new bandmates.

You have heard Kind of Blue, which Davis released in 1959, and Bitches Brew, a double album which appeared in 1970. While Kind of Blue is considered a jazz classic, Bitches Brew upset some jazz fans, and helped create a new genre of music, which is usually called ‘fusion’ or ‘jazz-rock’. As his use of electrified guitars and pianos and the wah wah and other effects pedals shows, Davis had become a fan of Jimi Hendrix by the time he recorded Bitches Brew. The sound of the album also owes something to James Brown, whose funk sound was very popular amongst black audiences in the late ‘60s.
Miles Davis hoped that by bringing Hendrix and Brown into his sound he could attract a younger and blacker audience. After the release of Bitches Brew he began to leave behind the relatively small clubs where jazz musicians usually play and instead perform on the same bill as rock bands in stadiums. He went on tour with the Stevie Miller Band, an outfit which played middle of the road rock, and appeared alongside bands like The Who and The Doors at the Isle of Wight festival, which was Britain’s answer to the massive outdoors concert at Woodstock.
Davis’ desire for a blacker audience was connected to his anger about the racism that he and millions of other black Americans faced in the decades after World War Two. As a young man, Davis was attacked by a policeman outside a jazz club. The musician loved to drive fast sports cars, but often got pulled over by cops who were convinced that a black man in an expensive vehicle must be a thief.
Davis often referred to the battles of African peoples against colonialism in his music. In the early 1970s he composed a half-hour track called ‘Calypso Frelimo’, which paid tribute to the Mozambican guerrillas fighting to throw Portugal colonialists out of their homeland; in the ‘80s he released an album named Tutu, after the anti-apartheid leader the Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Davis was perplexed that so many of his fans were well-off white people, and that it was much easier for him to find an audience in a prestigious American college or a fashionable Parisian music hall than in Africa or one of America’s black ghettoes.

 Despite the changes he made to his sound, Davis found it hard to attract large new audiences. In the years after Bitches Brew he achieved, instead, what one critic called a ‘negative crossover’. Davis’ use of rock instruments and funk rhythms alienated traditionalist jazz fans, but his long, intricate, turbulent songs – as you may have realised, the title track of Bitches Brew ran for a whole side of vinyl! – were too much for many fans of rock and funk to absorb.
Between 1975 and 1980 Davis retired from music. When he returned, he played in a much more accessible style, and began to incorporate ‘80s pop into his repertoire. He made a cover version of Cyndi Lauper’s hit single ‘Time After Time’ and worked with several rappers before his death in 1992.

You have read about the black Detroit band Death, whose members created a punk-like sound years before supposed pioneers of punk like Britain’s The Sex Pistols and New York’s The Ramones. Like Miles Davis, Death wanted to reach a black audience, but struggled to get a hearing for their fast, loud sound. They were working in a city famous as the base of Motown Records, and their community wanted to hear the soul and funk of Marvin Gaye and George Clinton. Death only reached an audience decades after disbanding, when their music was discovered by record collectors and historians.  
Some questions to consider:
What is your response to the differences between Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew? Which album sounds more accessible to you today? Which album did you enjoy more?
Is it difficult to cross musical genres in Tonga today? How would a band like Death, or an album like Bitches Brew, be treated in Tonga?
Can you relate to the difficulties that Miles Davis and Death had in making music that audiences were unfamiliar with and hostile toward?

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Saturday, November 09, 2013

The noble savage and the Toilet Club

Sometime in the late nineties I went to a seminar given by the University of Auckland art historian Dr Rangihiroa Panoho. I remember Panoho turning off the lights in the seminar room and flicking through a series of slides. One of the slides showed a tribesman from the highlands of New Guinea dressed up for some sort of ritual. The man had painted his face and torso, but what interested Panoho’s audience was the empty packet of Kellog’s Corn Flakes that he had fastened to his forehead. The tribesman wore his unconventional headdress solemnly, but some members of the audience began to titter, and others winced.
“I think this next image is just as funny” Panoho told us. He punched a button, and a carved wooden face mask, painted in an intricate pattern of reds, blacks, and greys, appeared on the screen. “This mask was made for a particular ceremony in the highlands, and then thrown away. An anthropologist salvaged the mask, and a museum acquired it. Now the shield is on public display in the West.” The audience was silent. “Why aren’t you laughing?” Panoho asked, in a low voice.
Panoho’s audience had found it amusing and pitiable that a New Guinea tribesman would salvage and revere an empty corn flake packet. When a Western scholar did the same thing with an item New Guineans considered disposable, though, nobody regarded his action as peculiar. As Panoho went on to explain, this double standard says a great deal about the way that Westerners still see the indigenous peoples of ‘remote’ regions like the New Guinea highlands.
In the West we are accustomed to consuming a continuous stream of cultural artefacts imported from near and distant parts of the world. We watch movies from Hollywood or Bollywood, wear jeans made in China, sit on furniture assembled in Scandinavia, and collect masks from New Guinea, without feeling that our eclecticism is strange or dangerous. But when a New Guinean or Amazonian or Tahitian shows a similar eclecticism, by donning blue jeans or acquiring a cellphone, we lament the way that modernity and globalisation are corrupting indigenous cultures. Like oil and water, modernity and indigenity cannot, we assume, mix.
As Rangihiroa Panoho pointed out in that now-distant seminar, our patronising attitude towards indigenous peoples was born in the eighteenth century, when Rousseau and other European intellectuals concocted the notion of the noble savage. Newly ‘discovered’ indigenous peoples like the Polynesians and the native Americans were considered child-like in their innocence, ignorance, and capacity for corruption. Untroubled by abstract thought or a sense of time, the noble savages lived happily and in harmony with nature in the forests and glades of Virginia and Tahiti. Once they were introduced to curses of the West like Christianity, cash, alcohol, and politics, though, the savages were doomed to decline and extinction.
In the nineteenth century Pacific, the noble savage myth was a useful excuse for colonisers. Because they were incapable of dealing with the modern world, the noble savages required Europeans and North Americans to administer their affairs. The fanatically imperialist leader of fin de siècle New Zealand, ‘King Dick’ Seddon, compared the Urewera mountains, homeland of the ‘primitive’ Tuhoe tribe, to a wildlife preserve. Wilhelm Solf, the chief administrator of German Samoa, used similar metaphors to characterise his domain.
I thought about Rangihiroa Panoho’s slide show when I read an advertisement for a hefty new book by the photographer Jimmy Nelson. In Before They Pass Away, Nelson has collected images of a series of indigenous peoples who are supposedly on the brink of extinction. Nelson doesn’t seem to register the fact that many of these peoples have large and growing populations, and that some of them, like the Kazakhs, have their own nation states. For Nelson, ‘tribes’ like the Maori, the Kazakhs, and the New Guineans are doomed because their members are increasingly wearing jeans and chatting on cellphones.
When he talks about tribal cultures succumbing to the onslaught of modernity, Nelson repeats for the umpteenth time the view that indigenous peoples are noble savages whose way of life is both static and incompatible with modernity.
Any New Zealander who looks at one of the portraits of Maori included in Nelson’s book will immediately recognise the absurdity of the photographer’s project. Like a Victorian-era painter, Nelson has dressed Maori up in 'traditional costumes' and portrayed them in front of a pristine piece of forest. Looking at Nelson’s photograph, we would never guess that Maori drive cars, earn cash, run political parties, record hip hop albums in their native language, and generally inhabit the world of the twenty-first century.
The unmistakable implication of Nelson’s photograph is that the only authentic Maori culture is a 'primeval' pre-contact culture. It has been half a century now since New Zealand artists and museologists realised that Maori culture, like virtually all indigenous cultures, is dynamic and flexible, and capable of adapting to assimilating aspects of Western modernity without losing its essence. Maori culture is in no danger of vanishing, and I suspect the same is true is for the other cultures (mis)represented by Nelson. 
For scholars of history and sociology, the noble savage myth recycled by Nelson is an annoyance; for indigenous artists, though, it is a serious threat.  
I have mentioned the Selaka Club, or the Toilet Club, as it is often nicknamed, before on this blog. Led by Tevita Latu, a talented artist and indefatigable cultural activist who was jailed, beaten and briefly charged with treason after peacefully protesting against the Tongan monarchy in 2006, the club’s kava-fuelled members work at night on drawings, paintings, posters, and music in a fale beside Nuku’alofa’s lagoon. Determined to reject stereotypes of Tongan culture, the Selakarians, as they call themselves, drink their kava from a toilet bowl, fly a Tongan flag adorned with a satirical swastika, and antagonise neighbouring and more conventional kava clubs by playing their favourite dubstep, techno, and death metal tracks through their PA system late into the night.  
With its fearless assimilation of influences from diverse parts of the globe and its rejection of insulting notions of a static, unchanging indigenous culture, the Selaka Club regularly collides with the expectations that palangi visitors bring to Tonga. All too often, tourists turn up to Nuku’alofa’s arts and crafts gallery wanting to buy cute carvings of turtles or dolphins, and are horrified when they see the Selakarians’ Cubist-influenced portraits of fast cars and parties and street protests. Tevita Latu and co are condemned as un-Tongan by palangi who have been fed a myth of the indigenous person as a noble savage.

Last week Sally Richardson, a Fulbright scholar from Alabama who has been living and making art in Tonga for most of the year, opened an exhibition of her work at an old house in central Nuku’alofa run by On the Spot, a collective of young Tongan painters, dancers, and actors. Richardson’s opening was an opportunity for Nuku’alofa’s thriving arts community to party. As the sun set and Nuku’alofa’s growing population of flying foxes began to shake themselves awake in their banyan and mango trees, the Selakarians rolled up in their club truck, which is painted with the same psychedelic colours and surreal slogans as the famous ‘Magic Bus’ Ken Kesey and his band of merry pranksters drove across America in the sixties. The Selakarians were armed with guitars, plates of watermelons, and their notorious kava bowl.
While kava songs floated out of the doorless house into the dark street, Sally Richardson and her close friend Tevita Latu held court, talking of tapa cloth and Picasso, photoshopping and traditional tattooing.
Richardson’s works, many of which were composed on her laptop between cups of kava at the Toilet Club, brought together the disposable and sacred objects of Tongan and non-Tongan cultures. One vast collage, which was made with a standard photoshopping programme, introduced a plastic salt shaker to a wooden tapa beater, and a dairy cow to a Polynesian chicken. The exhibition’s most extraordinary work blended scores of tiny photographs of schoolkids parading through downtown Nuku’alofa; when viewed from a distance, the lines of uniformed boys and girls resembled the sort of colourful Chinese-made mat popular in contemporary Tongan homes.
In a small, shadowy room to the side of the house, Sally and her On the Spot comrades had made an art installation by stretching woven patterns along the walls, strewing fragrant Tongan flowers on the floor, and lighting quaint-looking glass lanterns. Creeping into this mysterious space, I might have been entering a recusant priesthole in Elizabethan England, or one of the hermetic godhouses where shamans stoned on green kava summouned the spirits of Tangaloa and Hikule’o in pre-Wesleyan Tonga.
Like so much of the art that is being made in Nuku’alofa today, Sally Richardson’s works joyously mock the notion that indigenous and non-indigenous cultures cannot commune and converse with another. She and the Toilet Club could teach Jimmy Nelson a few lessons.  

(Photos pinched from On The Spot and Sally Richardson.)
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Who needs Google Maps?

In a new blog post Giovanni Tiso explains how Google Maps, which has apparently remained free of the deformities that cursed its Apple rival last  year, is allowing him to travel home, by mouse, to his beloved Italy.

Here in the Kingdom of Tonga archaic technology means that I can't easily use Google Maps and similar programmes to get a God's eye view of landscapes. Who needs digital technology, though, when you've got the mosaic map on the floor of the International Dateline Hotel?

The Dateline was the first large-scale hotel raised in Tonga, and its Kaliningrad-style concrete buttresses and balustrades have had a perhaps unfortunate influence on local architects. Nowadays the hotel is dim, dirty, and virtually deserted; mosquito netting peels from its windows, and the swimming pool which was once the pride of Nuku'alofa has become the sort of septic green stew out of which new and sinister lifeforms evolve in JG Ballard's more lurid novels.
I still visit the Dateline, though, to tread reverently over the enormous map of Tongatapu on its floor.
When I look down at the island and its outliers, I feel like I'm several hundred feet high.

With its bright colours that refuse to succumb to the grandiose melancholy of their surroundings, the map reminds me of the mosaic tableaux that survive amidst the Roman ruins of Giovanni's native land.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, November 01, 2013

Pillaging the east

[As we struggle towards the end of the semester at 'Atenisi, cramming lessons about everything from Eastern philosophy to Tennessee Williams to sociology into the drowsy heads of students, Dr Maikolo Horowitz and I have taken to sitting in on each other's lectures, and helping or hindering each other with sage words from the back of the class. I give Maikolo a hard time about his affection for the Tibetan Book of the Dead; he ridicules my romantic pseudo-Marxism.

This is an excerpt from some notes I recently made for a student in one of Maikolo's papers who is writing, or attempting to write, an essay about the relationship and differences between the Eastern and Western philosophical traditions. I'm putting my comments, which probably reveal more about my own obsessions and oversights than they do about either Eastern or Western philosophy, on this blog in the hope that some learned reader might like to offer his or her own thoughts. I'll be sure to pass on any comments.]

Hi T,

I think that your attempt to define a Western philosophical tradition beginning with Thales and other pre-Socratics and then to compare and contrast that tradition with Eastern forms of thought makes a sort of sense, but I do wonder if it doesn’t risk becoming a little abstract.
By defining the Western philosophical tradition, with its myriad schools and controversies and schisms, in terms of a couple of characteristics – a commitment to rational argument, a distaste for appeals to the authority of the supernatural – you risk obscuring as much as you reveal. How does the Diogenes the Cynic, who repudiated rational thought, lived in a barrel, and ran through the Athenian marketplace naked, fit your definition? What about Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Derrida, who in their different ways insisted on the limitations of reason?
There are also problems inherent in any attempt to make a general definition of Eastern thought. What does Hinduism, with its swarm of luridly coloured gods, have in common with Zen Buddhism, a religion so austere that it has sometimes been mistaken for atheism? What does Confucius, a thinker so focused on the problems of life in this world that he dismissed the supernatural almost entirely from his mind, have in common with Siddhartha, who gave up worldly power and tried to starve himself to enlightenment?
If you were worried that your approach might be too abstract, you could complement your attempts to define Western and Eastern thought by looking at some of the concrete ways that ideas from the East have influenced individual Western thinkers.
Consider, for instance, the influence of certain Eastern ideas on Martin Heidegger, a man generally considered, in spite of his odious personality and disastrous politics – as the Rector of Freiburg university in the 1930s he sauntered about in a Nazi uniform, and presided over the burning of books by Freud and Thomas Mann – as the most innovative philosopher of the twentieth century.
You have studied Descartes in the past; Heidegger’s philosophical career can be considered as an extended struggle against the influence of Descartes on Western thought. Descartes brought a radical individualism to philosophy. In his famous meditations he tried to doubt the existence of everything in the universe, including himself, before deciding that the reasoning part of his mind was the only object whose existence he could ascertain with certainty. From this minimalist beginning Descartes built up his philosophy piece by piece, proposition by proposition. He took for granted the notion that the individual mind is an isolated unit of rationality, and the view that statements about reality have to be assessed individually as true or as false. 
We can see Descartes as the father of a sort of ‘philosophical atomism’ that reached its peak early in the twentieth century, when analytic philosophers like Bertrand Russell tried to build up complete pictures of the universe one logical proposition at a time.
Karl Marx argued that Descartes’ approach to philosophy was linked to the rise of capitalism. Just as capitalism encourages us to see human societies as aggregations of individuals, each of which makes rational independent decisions in the economic marketplace, buying this and selling that, so Descartes encourages us to consider human minds as discrete units of rationality, and to consider human knowledge as the sum of the efforts of those individual minds.
More than any other thinker, Heidegger overturned the Cartesian approach to philosophy. He did so by shifting the focus of philosophy from epistemology, which examines the basis for our beliefs, to ontology, which examines the nature of being. Heidegger insisted that human beings had to be understood not as isolated rational minds, but as the products of the worlds around them. Human consciousness is, he argued, formed by culture, language, and nature.
Because the individual human is born and raised in a particular place and time, he or she is made by a particular culture and language, a culture and language which is itself rooted in a particular natural ecosystem. Whenever we think, feel, or speak, we do so in the context of ‘primeval’ presuppositions given to us by our human and natural environment. It therefore makes no sense to consider the individual human as an abstract unit of rationality, or to imagine that human knowledge can be built up piecemeal by a series of disinterested, rational observations.
Heidegger used the phrase Dasein, or Being in the World, as a synonym for human, because he believed it summed up the situation of the human being. We exist not in our own minds, but in a world of objects and relationships. Our consciousness is not a cell closed off from the world, but a ‘clearing’ where the creatures and objects of the world manifest themselves. Arguably, Heidegger’s notion of Dasein and of human consciousness as a clearing echo Marx’s claim that ‘in humanity nature becomes conscious of itself’.
In a famous passage of his early masterpiece Being and Time, Heidegger picked up a hammer and used it to illustrate what he saw as the absurdity of the individualistic, Cartesian approach to thought. How, Heidegger asked, can we grasp the nature of a hammer? If consider the hammer in isolation – by examining it from every angle, or weighing it, or placing it under a microscope – then we can never hope to understand it.
We can only comprehend the hammer if we consider it as part of a set of human relationships and practices – relationships and practices which occur inside a larger natural environment. The hammer’s shape makes sense when we consider that it must fit snugly into the hand of carpenter; the hammer’s head of steel is explicable when we remember that it must strike nails; and the hammer’s importance becomes clear when we consider the necessity of human beings sheltering from the elements.
Just as we cannot understand a hammer without grasping a whole set of relationships – without grasping what Heidegger’s early mentor, Edmund Husserl, called the ‘lifeworld’ – so we cannot understand more abstract concepts, like being and truth, in isolation.
In Europe, especially, Heidegger’s ideas revolutionised philosophy. Instead of considering humans as individual units of rationality, thinkers influenced by Heidegger began to consider the self as something inextricably tied up with the wider world. They developed an approach to the self which is sometimes described as ‘philosophical anti-humanism’.
Instead of considering philosophical propositions in isolation, philosophers influenced by Heidegger began to consider how the meanings of these propositions were determined by  complex cultural and linguistic contexts. They developed an approach to the study of meaning which is sometimes called ‘epistemological holism’.
Heidegger was an egotistical and compulsively evasive man, who often covered up his borrowings from other thinkers. It is only in the decades since his death that scholars have realised what a debt he owed to certain Eastern philosophical traditions. We now know that Heidegger was fascinated by both Taoism and Zen Buddhism, that he spent years working on a translation of the Book of Tao, and that he hosted and conversed at length with Zen philosophers visiting Europe. In his 1989 book Ex Oriente Lux, Reinhard May argued that Heidegger’s borrowings from the East were extensive, and faulted him for never admitting them.
It is apparent that the Taoist and Zen traditions helped Heidegger to develop his alternative to Cartesian thought. As Maikolo Horowitz has shown you this semester, and as Richard Von Sturmer emphasised during his recent visit to Tonga, Zen Buddhists reject the notion of a discrete self, insulated from the world. Many Zen practices, like meditation and the writing of haiku and koan, are intended to make students realise that the self is an illusion.
(As I said when I sat in on Maikolo’s class, I think the notion that the self is an illusion is extreme, and can have negative practical consequences, when it is exploited by charismatic and unscrupulous religious leaders, like the fanatical Zen masters who trained Japan’s kamikaze pilots, and the leaders of New Age cults. I’d like to think that we can reject Descartes’ notion of a very isolated self without embracing the Zen position, and I’m not sure if Heidegger himself goes as far as Zen.)
Taoism and Zen Buddhism ask us to view the creatures, objects and acts that make up the world as inextricably connected, and thus suggest the sort of epistemological holism that Heidegger developed.
When Heidegger acknowledged other thinkers, he tended to look not to the East but to the very early days of Western philosophy. He believed that Western thought had taken a wrong turn when Plato and Aristotle had started trying to categorise and systematise reality in their great and weighty books. By doing so, he thought, they had forgotten about the pre-rational ‘lifeworld’ that grounds all thought. Later philosophers like Descartes were, Heidegger insisted, simply adding to the mistakes made by Plato and his students.
Heidegger presented his work as an attempt to revive the spirit of the pre-Socratic philosophers, who had supposedly remained free of the rationalism that tainted Plato.
It is worth noting, as an aside, that Heidegger’s attitude to the pre-Socratics is radically different from that of Futa Helu. Where Futa Helu believes that Heraclitus laid the foundations for the whole tradition of Western thought, from Plato to Descartes to Einstein, Heidegger sees him as an alternative to the route taken by later Western thinkers.  Your own attempt to make Thales and the other pre-Socratics the fathers of the Western tradition implies an acceptance of Helu’s perspective.
Personally, I think both points of view are equally plausible. I think that Heraclitus’ writings have come down to us in such a fragmentary form, and that so little is known about his life, that one can make him exemplify almost any philosophical position. But my mate Ted Jenner, who knows a good deal more than me about Heraclitus (he can actually read Greek), and about many other things, likes Futa Helu’s angle!