Exchanging the Past: A Rainforest World of Before and After By Bruce M. Knauft University of Chicago Press (2002)

303 pages; 24 color photos Hard cover US$55; soft US$20


Deborah Van Heekeren

Bruce Knauft's latest book is written as a companion volume to "Good Company and Violence" (1985), which was based on his initial fieldwork, undertaken between 1980-82, among the Gebusi of the lowland rainforest in the Western Province of Papua New Guinea.

His ethnography of that period revealed the Gebusi to be unusually traditional, a situation prolonged by remoteness, lack of exposure to missionisation, wage labour and opportunities for cash cropping.

The Gebusi of 1982 were still practicing ritual homosexuality, conducting spirit-seances, and brutally executing suspected sorcerers.

Returning sixteen years later, after having little communication with them during his absence, Knauft spent six months with the Gebusi in 1998. 'This book follows the remarkable path of social and cultural change' (p.4) that he discovered to have taken place in the interim. One prominent indication of the extent of social change is the dramatic decline in the homicide rate, as the Gebusi have ceased to pursue revenge-killings for sorcery deaths.

Knauft observes that the Gebusi are now self-consciously exchanging old ways for new ones as they seek participation in modernity. He argues that it is desire itself that expresses the 'locally modern' (Knauft's term for the uniquely Gebusi experience of modernity, p.5), as the very things which prolonged tradition now severely limit opportunities for development. What is argued not to be unique to Gebusi, however, is 'the way desire for modern wealth informs altered modes of subjectivity and new forms of subservience' (p.6). The Gebusi are not strangers to subservience, having previously been subjected to the raiding of their more aggressive neighbours, the Bedamini, and willingly accept their inferior role in exchange for the enticements of the West.

Unlike traditional forms of exchange practiced by Gebusi, such as sister-exchange and revenge killings, which were a matter of 'direct reciprocity', exchanging past for future is not a matter of equivalence (pp.14-16). It requires Gebusi to accept a position which Knauft terms 'recessive agency'. He defines this as 'willingly pursued actions that put actors in a position of subordination, passivity, and patient waiting for the influence or enlightenment of external authority figures' (p.40). In 1988, during a move that profoundly altered Gebusi social life, they relocated to the site of 'Gasumi Corners’, which is only a half-hour walk to the Nomad government station. There the authority figures take the form of the lay preachers of the newly arrived Christian Churches, the police and the teachers at the community school, which together regulate daily life.

The new social institutions, which have transformed the Gebusi lifeworld, are acutely observed and engagingly described by Knauft in the latter chapters of the book. Earlier chapters provide details of the Gebusi of his previous work so that the reader may fully appreciate the magnitude of the changes that have taken place. It is Knauft's ethnography, which charts an important period in Gebusi history, and his ability to offer convincing explanations for the apparently unimaginable (sixteen years prior) changes which have taken place in this remote region which make Exchanging the Past a valuable contribution to Melanesian anthropology. Nevertheless, the book self-consciously seeks to situate the locally unique Gebusi in a broader discourse of 'globalisation' and ‘development’, which unproblematically relates the introduction of Western institutions to an oppressive modernity. I am uneasy about a number of assumptions, which Knauft makes in order to relate Gebusi experience to these issues.

I agree that we must appreciate the uniqueness of the experiences of social change in the innumerable villages of Papua New Guinea and be cautious about generalisations (pp.5-6), but it is fair to say that many areas of Papua New Guinea have undergone similar, although not identical, periods of change. Surely it is the consideration of these similarities and differences that are of greatest interest to Melanesianists. Exchanging the Past, in emphasising the specifically local in relation to global processes, underestimates the comparative potential in what is described.

Although reluctant to make ethnographic generalisations, Knauft makes an analytic generalization, which has serious implications. He argues that in exchanging their past for their future the Gebusi are making an exchange of time itself (p.38). He bases this on the idea that 'This past abuts on a modern sense of time that is straight and directional; time changes from a circle to a line ... To not know time is to not be modern' (p.30). More relevant is the point that in a Christianised world 'the passage of time becomes a moral problem' (p30) but distinctions between cyclic time and linear time are themselves problematic and to claim such a phenomenological shift requires far more by way of explanation and analysis than Knauft offers his readers. Oddly, he gives a footnote to Gell's scholarly work The Anthropology of Time (1992) that would certainly challenge his argument.

The ethnographic descriptions of the new institutions, which influence life at Gasumi Corners, are illuminating in their ability to show the particularity of this engagement. They also highlight a general tension in the book's perspective. Mr Gobi is the friendly Senior Constable who keeps the dilapidated police station running at Nomad in spite of the bureaucratic frustrations and inefficiencies common to contemporary Papua New Guinea. Knauft describes 'a desk-bound forty-pound Underwood typewriter with no top, a broken 'e' and a ribbon that Mr Gobi rewinds by hand as he painfully produces a typed report or correspondence' (p.92). At a nearby desk Knauft is allowed to transcribe police records on a tiny Libretto computer (which visitors loved to observe). In a footnote Knauft further elaborates the impressive array of hi-tech equipment that assisted his data collection (p.253-fn.13). His descriptions not only depict a vast discrepancy in the technology of the two occupants of the police station but illustrate against his own argument that there is very little, apart from the anthropologist, that is 'modern' in this quaint, almost exotic space. The point is made more salient by Knauft's careful analysis of local police work which, relying heavily on local knowledge and informed discretion, is carried out more in the manner of legal aid counseling than law enforcement (p.110). Being uniquely Gebusi appears to have de-modernised the very institutions, which Knauft suggests provide the local role models for respectable modernity.

Although I would recommend Exchanging the Past to anyone interested in Melanesia or social change, I am concerned about the trend in Melanesian anthropology that assumes equivalence between 'change' and 'modernity'.

Deborah Van Heekeren is with the Anthropology Department at the University of Newcastle in Australia.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Australian Anthropological Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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