You are on page 1of 14

Ritual as Communication: Order, Meaning, and Secrecy in Melanesian Initiation Rites Author(s): Roy Wagner Reviewed work(s): Source:

Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 13 (1984), pp. 143-155 Published by: Annual Reviews Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2155665 . Accessed: 16/01/2013 08:27
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp

.
JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.

Annual Reviews is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Annual Review of Anthropology.

http://www.jstor.org

This content downloaded on Wed, 16 Jan 2013 08:28:00 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Ann. Rev. Anthropol. 1984. 13:143-55 Copyright? 1984 by Annual Reviews Inc. All rights reserved

RITUAL AS COMMUNICATION: Order, Meaning, and Secrecy in Melanesian InitiationRites


Roy Wagner
Departmentof Anthropology, University of Virginia, Charlottesville,Virginia 22903

No topic in cultural anthropologybears more significantly on the relation or explanationof a culture,and its between the anthropologist's understanding own internalrelations, than ritualdoes. Ritual, then, relates-and sometimes confounds-two differentsortsof relativity:thatof the anthropological analyst andthe subjectculture, andthatof significantpartsor categoriesof the subject culture. The study of ritual amounts to a sort of double relation. It is a communicationbetween the anthropologistand his readershipof what he has learned, throughfieldwork and analysis, regardingthe ritual and its significance. And on anotherlevel it is a communicationinvolving its performersand perhapssignificantothers-persons, groups, spirits, deities, abstractforcesrecognized in their culture. The first relationis fairly clear-cut;if ritualis, in its usual definition, what code" (8, p. 77), then the anthropologist's MaryDouglas calls a "restricted job is to decipherit. But what is encoded and why? And what is the natureof the code and why is it formulatedin that way? These questions bear upon the relationalrole of ritualwithin the subject-culture,what it does as communication, regulation,or whatever. Here, too, anthropologyhas made, since Durkheim, a fairly explicit assumption. Paraphrasing Gluckman, J. Christopher Crockerdistinguishesritualas against ceremony, the expression of the status quo:"Ritualalways involves moralissues, andhas a definiteoutcome, whether positive or negative . .. Above all, ritualhas, or seeks to have, a transformative ritualas communicacapacity. . ." (6, p. 160). Thus, if we choose to approach tion, the differential,or relation, across which communicationtakes place for
143

0084-6570/84/1015-0 143$02.00

This content downloaded on Wed, 16 Jan 2013 08:28:00 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

144

WAGNER

its performersamountsto the kind of differencethat, in the words of Bateson, "makes a difference"(3, p. 110). The issue in recent anthropologicalwriting seems to be that of how this difference is made. Is it purely conceptual, involving the relation between knower and known, symbol and symbolizer'?Does it involve, directly or indirectly, relations among groups or categories of people. communicants, Does it further,inclusive or exclusive subjects, or objects of communication'? of these first two possibilities, articulatethe relationshipof a people to their None of these alternativesfor how ritualmakes physicalor social environment'? of the firstrelationmentionedabove, that is independent entirely its difference For the anthropologist,whatever his communication. of the anthropologist's idea of the efficacy of ritual and its means, must communicate this idea symbolically-he does not affect the sociological or ecological balanceof those to whom he communicates. An anthropologicalaccount of ritualis always to this degree "symbolic":it must be conveyed through our symbols. This condition of anthropological analysis has a significant bearing on the way in which ritual is conceived to operate. For if the action of the ritual is consideredas wholly symbolic in its effect, then it will be of the same "scale," or phenomenal order, as its translation,which can, if effective enough, amountto an expressiverelayingof the communication.But if the ritualcommunicationis freightedwith sociological or ecological implications as well, then as mere translation, however sensitive it may be, it cannot possibly bring across all of its implicationsand effects. In this case, the "message" has a pragmaticsignificance all out of proportionto its mode of conveyence; it is not merely enacted meaning but enacted regulation, a "meaning"on several levels at once. The difference between ritualas conveyed meaning and ritualas conveyed regulation-message as against metamessage-marks a significant watershed in modernculturalanthropology.In a recent collection of essays on Ndembu ritual, Victor Turnersummarizesthe development of his views:
At one time I employed a method of analysis derived essentially from Durkheimvia A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. I considered the social function of Chihamba with reference to the The ritualsymbol, I found, had its own formal form of Ndembu society structural categoryof secular principle.It could be no more reducedto, or explainedby any particular behavior,or regardedas the resultantof many kindsof secularbehavior,thanan amino-acid molecularchain could be explained by the propertiesof the atoms interlinkedby it (19, p. 186).

Yet the significance of Chihamba, for Turner,has to do with communica". . . we have, in Chihamba the local expression of a universal human problem, that of expressing what cannot be thought of, in view of thought's subjugationto essences" (19, p. 187). Because ritualhas "itsown formalprinciple,"it is not primarilya formof
tion, though in an elusive and transcendental sense:

This content downloaded on Wed, 16 Jan 2013 08:28:00 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

RITUAL AS COMMUNICATIONIN MELANESIA

145

Durkheimiansocial glue, nor is it necessarilyany sort of social or mechanical regulatorymechanism. Its address to moral issues, its definite outcome, its transformative capability, is realized in an altogether different direction. functionof transcending Ritual, in Turner'slaterworks, has the "performative" thought's verbal and categorical boundariesby enacting meanings that are interstitialto them. It completes the conceptualworld of a cultureby allowing man to experience what thought cannot frame. This Turnerian view, it mightbe said, makesreligion morerealthansociety, because of society's categorical limitations. It forms a sharpcontrast, at this point, with the approachof anotherleading modernauthorityon ritual, Mary Douglas. ain1Daniger(7) to The tendency of Douglas's work, especially from Puirity Natural Svmbols (8), has been to develop a frameworkaroundthe parameters of categorizationand social grouping,within which the significanceof ritualin various, differentiallysituatedsocieties can be compared.Thus, having begun with the same subject as Turner, and from a similar orientation, Douglas proceedsin the oppositedirection,makingthe significanceandeffect of rituala functionof category (classification, boundaries)and social solidarity("secular behavior"), precisely those elements which ritual, in Turner'sanalysis, transcends and eschews. But Douglas's "groupand grid"model is neithersimple functionalismnor simply social determinism,but a supple, generativesystem sociality with cognitive categorization.As correlatingthe stuff of Durkheimian Douglas puts it, "The restrictedcode is used economically to convey informasocial form. It is a system of controlas well as a tion and to sustaina particular system of communication"(8, p. 79). Ritualas control, as a socially effective regulator,manifeststhe anthropologist's descriptionor communicationof the phenomenonas a kind of absolute presence within the culture itself. It becomes, as a reificationof the heuristic, somethingmore thana description,for it reveals what the naturalsciences call an "order"in the subject. Order in the social sciences may be manifested as meaning (more often "coding"or "classification")or as behavior (as in the is thatit is not limitedto "rituals" of animal-behavior studies);whatis important either. A classic example is Gregory Bateson's concept of schismogenesis (2, p. 58), in which social norms and behavior interactdialectically to bring about culturalchange. Bateson, who first introducedthe idea in the 1936 edition of Naven, was only able to resolve the runaway dynamic of schismogenetic change into a model for stability throughthe introductionof the cybernetic in his 1958 epilogue to the book. A recentgeneralization conceptof "feedback" of this solution, Roy A. Rappaport'sEcology, Meaning, and Religion (I8), into cybernetichomeostasisand the "restricted code" of ritual expands"order" into a general model of culture. The collection of essays representsa meta-

This content downloaded on Wed, 16 Jan 2013 08:28:00 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

146

WAGNER

morphosisof the ecological homeostasis model of Rappaport'searlier monocybernetichomeostasis graph,Pigsfor theAncestors(17, p. 67), into a broader in which "Wholeness,holiness, and adaptivenessare closely related . . ." (18, p. 234). The significant innovation, then, is that the meaningfulelements in ritual, and thereforein culture, assume a centralplace in Rappaport'shomeostasis, they ". . . define the teleology of such systems . . ." (18, p. 125). cybernetichomeostasis Like Douglas's and Bateson's models, Rappaport's makes ritual meaning integral to the cultural dynamic; more than that, for Rappaportit is the raison d'etre of the system. But for that very reason, meaning is not and cannot be separatedfrom the regulatorysystem as it is in Turner'slater work. The critical point at issue here is not one that has often been raised in connection with ritual, nor necessarily is it one that most writers on ritual consciously address. Anthropology'sliaison between the interpretiveand the naturalsciences tends to blur over sharpdistinctionsbetween the significance of a semiotic expressionon one hand, andthe regulatoryfunctionsof or purport actions, images, and ritualorderingson the other. Grantingthat the fusion of these two considerationswas a remarkableachievement of Bateson's schismogenesis model, it does not follow thatthey can be automaticallyor thoughtlessly synthesized. More to the point, however, it is by no means established and explanathat such a synthesis is in any sense crucial to the understanding tion of ritual.Commitmentto one position or the otheris very much a matterof theoreticalassumptionand expectation. The point was raised, however, because it is centralto an exchange thattook place in thejournalMan in 1980 and 1981, following an articleby Ron Brunton on "Misconstrued Orderin MelanesianReligion" (4, p. 80). Bruntonfocuses on two recent studies of ritual, Alfred Gell's Metamorphosisof the Cassowaries (9, p. 75), and FredrikBarth'sRitualand Knowledgeamong the Baktaman of New Guinea (1, p. 75), in developing a critiqueof what he construesas the of Melanesian religions. In the most succinct terms, he "oversystematizing" arguesin effect thatfactorssuch as ambiguityand innovation,"antisystematic" tendencies if you will, constitute evidence for certain socially correlated determinatesof religion. Bruntoncriticizes academic traditionsfor putting a high premiumon intellectualorder(4, pp. 112-13), althoughBrunton'sown are fairly rigid and problematicand make of it someexpectationsof "order" thing of a "strawman." Before rejoininghis strategy,then, it might be helpful to consider more closely the prime target of his attack, Gell's monograph. may well be, as Bruntonclaims, ". . . the of theCassowaries Metamorphosis most sophisticatedand detailed attemptto date to uncoveran internallycoherent pattern in the religion of a Melanesian people" (4, p. 120). Certainly, however one might feel about the significance of inherentpatterns, it is the most detailed. Perhaps no other account of a Melanesian people makes the

This content downloaded on Wed, 16 Jan 2013 08:28:00 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

RITUAL AS COMMUNICATIONIN MELANESIA

147

immediacyof sociological, lexical, andritualdetailas availableto the readeras Gell's does, and the sense of familiarityis heightenedby the author'sdry and often brilliantly witty asides. On the other hand, for all of the masterly andskill with which Gell has handledhis data, the analysisof the craftsmanship ida ritual is striking for its lack of theoreticalcoherence and conclusiveness. Applications of the ideas of Victor Turner, Levi-Strauss, and the linguist StephenUllmanabound,as well as germinalinsightsinto indigenouscosmology. The most original theoretical innovation involves a "breaking"of the acceptedrules for semiotic analysis. Gell extends the notion of lexical motivation to include much broaderrangesof verbalrelationship,based primarilyon sound-similarity,thanare conventionallyadmitted,and achieves a remarkable "core" cosmological metaphoras a result. This is what he calls the "triple analogy"(9, p. 148) of social role, body part,andpartof a tree, a principlethat serves to orient Umeda social and anatomicalspace. The metaphoris salient in the ida ritualand Gell often returnsto it. But it is not conclusive. As Brunton
remarks, Gell's interpretive method is "centripetal," and ". . . using any of a

numberof proceduresof widely differing status, he isolates an aspect, which it into the gradually may be only one out of manypossibilities, andincorporates unfolding model of the ida's meaning." (9, p. 118). All of this, in Brunton's view, would be justified if we had some good evidence of the unity and consistency of the Umeda world view. If, in other words, Gell can explain Umeda ritualto Westernersbetter than Umeda can, for the ritualis not likely to exist amongthe Umeda, and thenGell's "meaning" their religion. But what if Gell had he will be guilty of "oversystematizing" used the ambiguities in Umeda ritualin such a way as to give a more coherent account of it? Should he then be praised for "undersystematizing" Umeda religion, or should he be criticizedfor yielding to perniciousacademictemptation andtransmuting an honestindigenousconfusion into a self-seeking clarity'? If oversystematizingis one sort of misconstruingof order, then equating the anthropologist'sexplanationwith a described, intrinsicentity may be another. This also raises the issue of coherencein symbolism generally. Is a "loosely structured" symbology possible?Whatwould be the reactionof linguistsif Gell had reported an indigenous grammarfull of major ambiguities and gaping It is partof anthropology'sconventionalwisdom that there are irregularities? no primitive languages; what, then, of primitive symbologies? Granting, of course, that languages and general symbologies are ratherdifferent things, of public utteranceis somehow have we the right to assume thatthe patterning less subjectto the "pushes"and"pulls"of socioenergeticsthanthe patterning of public conceptualization? It is also partof anthropology'sreceived wisdom that all grammars"leak," and the play of ambiguity(and often ambivalence), innovation,and nescience in Melanesian cultures generally is established ethnographicfact. Like other

This content downloaded on Wed, 16 Jan 2013 08:28:00 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

148

WAGNER

antipodalempiricists, Brunton(he cites McArthur'sKunimaipawork approvingly) has capitalizedheavily on this fact in advancingthe case for sociological determinism.But what if ambiguity, innovation,and nescience are partof the meaningfulprocess (ratherthan the sociological undertow, so to speak) of Melanesian religion? This is the implicationof much of the Telefolmin-area data, presentlyto be considered, and, as we shall see, it is also significant in Gell's area of research. Ambiguity and innovation, as much as anything, test the resourcefulness, flexibility, and imaginativerange of theoreticalconception of "order."A very brittle or frangible order (like the "dogmas"of the Hogbin era in Australiananthropology),introducedas straightforward model or as argumentivefoil for anothermodel, is certain to succumb. This brings us back to the argument that underlies Brunton's critique. Assuming that ". . . we are probablynot justified in assuming that there is a basic humanneed to develop comprehensiveand consistentresponses to what we might see as fundamentalexistential questions"(4, p. 123), he states his majorthesis: "Itis particular formsof social organization,or morespecifically, cleavages of a certaintype betweencategoriesor classes of people, which cause
the supernatural to be 'colonised
...'"

(4, p. 123). "Sociology" for Brunton

(and also, apparently,for Gell) involves, as its major "players,"the indigenously generatedcategories within the population(e.g. age-sets, senior married men, young unmarried women, etc). These categories (they are certainly not self-sufficient and corporatelike the "groups"of traditionalsocial anthropology) may vie with one another in terms of their particularinterests, and express this competitionin attemptsto controlreligious "order."Thus we can expect to find a high degree of orderin those partsof a religious system being used to advance a group's (sic!) political interests . . ." (4, p. 125). Brunton speaks of a "continuum,"ratherreminiscentof Douglas's "groupand grid," across which religion is more or less affected by competition of this sort. There are serious problems here, even at the level of definition. Brunton's sociological argumentis reminiscentof the functionalists'attemptto explain segmentarysocieties in terms of the organic solidaritythat Durkheimposited for hierarchicalsocieties-having no evidence of an institutionaldivision of labor, they proceededto cut one out of whole cloth, then stitch it togetherwith "functions." Brunton adduces the major competitive dynamic of a society among categories defined in a complementaryrelationshipto one another. What, then, of the complementary interests,impliedby definition, thatserve to unite them against any divisive "political"intereststhey may conceive? And what of the cross-cutting"symmetrical" competitionamong opposed lineages or villages? The most damagingflaw, however, involves an assumptionabout priorities. Why, if competition is engendered through the categorization of people in a certainway, should the competitionaffect religious "order"more than, or ratherthan the equally conceptual order through which the social

This content downloaded on Wed, 16 Jan 2013 08:28:00 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

RITUAL AS COMMUNICATIONIN MELANESIA

149

categorizationwas made?Is not social categorizationas much of a problemas ritual categorization? The next contributionto the exchange is that of BernardJuillerat, who
worked with the Yafar, immediate neighbors of Gell's Waina-Sowanda (Ume-

da). Juillerat's comment suggests a much more immediate reason for Gell's of the ida, andraises the issue of ritual difficulties in resolving an interpretation secrecy, which has widespread theoretical ramifications elsewhere in Melanesia. The Yafarhave, accordingto Juillerat( 16, p. 732), adoptedthe ida from the Umeda "some time ago," and so Juilleratis able to offer the closest thing to comparativetestimony. According to Juillerat,
the unityandconsistency of Gell's mistakeis not, as Bruntondeclares, thathe "exaggerated" the Umeda world picture (p. 124). It is ratherthat he wishes to reconstitutethis coherent pictureby his own intellectualmeans, having alreadydecided, as an established fact, that there was no exegesis (16, p. 733).

The claim that a ritualtraditionhas no exegesis was made also by Barth, in the BaktamanstudythatJuilleratdeclines to discuss. It is interesting,however, that the two major monographsto which Bruntonaddresseshis critiqueboth support their analyses on this claim. I shall consider Barth's study and its ethnographiccontext presently. The substanceof Juillerat'scriticismof Brunton as well as Gell is that the ida ritualdoes indeed have an exegesis, and he proceeds to list a number of significant events of the ida in which secret revealed by his informantscontrovertGell's conjectures. Juilinterpretations lerat argues, on the basis of his own field experience, that exegetical material concerningthe ida is consciously withheld, or releasedto the "foreigninvestigator" only in small and unconnected details. The core of the exegesis is mythic, and, accordingto Juillerat,"I subsequentlyestablishedthat the smallest ritualdetails (beforeandduringthe public ceremony), the briefestof spells, and the natureand the mineralor botanical identity of the materialsused, all referredsystematicallyto certaindetailsof chronologicalnarrative expressedin the myth" (14, p. 732). It might be supposed that the ethographicfact of secrecy-interpretation itself regarded as a scarce and precious commodity-would subsume the substanceof Brunton'sethnosociology at a single stroke. Why graphcontinua of organizationalcomplexity in relation to the competitive dynamic of complementaritywhen the subjects of study themselves manipulate"order"conAnd if this puts the sciously in the neatly packagedform of exegetical secrets'? ball of religious order and sociological competition squarely in the "natives" court,the ball, by this time, is an invisibleone-for whatis moresecretthanthe traffic in secret knowledge'?Barth's monographis very much a treatise on the sociological and epistemological implications of this sort of invisible
tennis.

This content downloaded on Wed, 16 Jan 2013 08:28:00 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

150

WAGNER

Brunton,in his responseto Juillerat,remarksthatthis sortof secret exegesis is just exactly the sort of thing that his sociological interpretationof the Umeda/Yafar would lead us to expect-do they not belong to the "highly side of the continuum?He accuses Juilleratof implicitlydenying that ordered" there are substantialvariationsamong Melanesian societies in "the extent to which secrecy is stressed and maintained"(5, p. 734). He credits Juillerat, however, with correctlyrelatingsecrecy to complementarymale/female competition. It is clear, at this point, that the differences between Brunton and Juilleratarethose of sociology as againstsymbolic interpretation. ForBrunton, this comes down to why religious materialis controlled, and he tracesthe crux of theirdifferences to Juillerat'ssubscriptionto the assumptionthat there is "a basic humanneed to develop comprehensiveand consistentresponses to what we might see as fundamentalexistential questions" (5, p. 735). Brunton's remarksindicatethatJuilleratis ignoringempiricalevidence thatthis is not the case-the evidence being the sociological readingsBruntonis able to make of ostensible intersocietalvariationin Melanesia. (However, a judicious observer might wish to point out that it was Juillerat who provided the empirical evidence-both the fact of a secret exegesis and some specific details-here, and thatthis was evidence of which Bruntonwas ignorantwhen he formulated his initial position.) Before I follow up on this most significant matterof secrecy, it might be helpful to consider Gell's rejoinder to both Brunton and Juillerat, which follows Brunton's comments (10, p. 736-37). Gell castigates Brunton for making "broken-backed" argumentto the effect that he (Gell) is guilty of oversystematizingthe Umeda symbolic system, but that the system is itself extremely systematic and ordered. He takes Juillerat's part, essentially, as against Brunton, but he also seems to favor a sociological as opposed to a strictlysymbolic approach.Gell uses the extremesecrecy of Juillerat'sreported exegesis, in fact, against Juillerat'sposition, in a comment that bears significantly on the issue at hand:
It would be Juillerat'saccount, not mine. which would be parochialor mystical"if. as he ida is to be found in local mythologicallore. Such an approach proposes, the "explanation's makes of every culture a windowlcss monad, and begs every conceivable interesting analytical question (10. p. 736).

Gell defends his lack of awarenessof, or rapport with, the native exegetical traditionby appealingto received theory-the "applications" of L6vi-Strauss, Turner,and Ullmanthatenterinto his involved effort to make sense of the ida. Data, no matter how significant or revealing, are not theory. The point is importantenough to compel an immediaterejoinder:what are the theoretical implicationsof a secret, mythologicalexegetical tradition'? Gell suggests that they are sociological and political, and that "Withthis recognitionthere also

This content downloaded on Wed, 16 Jan 2013 08:28:00 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

IN MELANESIA RITUAL AS COMMUNICATION

151

follows . . . a general devaluation of the explanatoryvalue of such secret is not what is knowledge, for it is patentlyobvious thatwhat is most important secret, but that it is secret" (10, p. 737). Separationof content from status, and perhapsthereforeof symbolics from politics, is perhapsless useful thanGell's remarkssuggest: how can therebe a secret without a content, something to be secret? And it is Gell himself who draws our attentionto Barth's monographon this issue, so let me consider it now. The actuallength of Barth'sfield researchamongthe Baktaman,a small and isolated community of Faiwol speakers in New Guinea, has the status of professional rumor (though it is an unknown that both Bruntonand Juillerat comment upon). Barth's preface speaks of "fieldwork during JanuaryNovember 1968"(1, pp. 6-7), thoughit is clearthatBarthspenta considerable amountof time traveling.He was at the time a highly experiencedfieldworker, however. Ritual and Knowledge among the Baktamanof New Guinea, whateverelse might be said of it, provided the first monographictreatment, and the first serious anthropologicalassessment, of the remarkablesecret initiatorycomplex of the "Mountain Ok"peoples in its full implication.Even thoughthe work is addressedto what its authorcalls "TheEpistemologyof Secrecy"(1, p. 217) and addresses itself at the outset to culture as ". . . an ongoing system of communication. . ." (1, p. 15), Barthdifferentiateshimself methodologically and theoretically from what is usually called "symbolic anthropology." Addressing himself to "spontaneous, unelicited word and act" and to the with one another,he seeks to free his studyfromthe conversationsof Baktaman of the "feedback" contamination structures engenderedwhen an anthropologist informantinterviews (1, pp. 224-25). If it is possible at all, such a search for the pure, uncontaminated"emic" presumesvery muchon the linguisticandkinesthetic"fluency"a fieldworkeris aptto achieve in the eleven-monthrangeBarthallows for his fieldwork. (And if a good bit of fluency were not present by the second or third month, it is questionablehow much objective eavesdroppingcould have accompaniedthe in the entireinitiatoryseries.) Barthfinds, not surprisingauthor'sparticipation ly, that Baktamanritual has no exegesis, and that it is primarilybased on nonverbalcommunication:"in such a world, only 'real objects' persist while communicationis by definition ephemeral"(1, p. 229). Grantingthe ethnographerboth points (the force and effect of nonverbalcommunicationhas been and undervaluedin much Melanesianresearch)only seriously underestimated serves to make his methodology the more questionable. What is to be contaminatedin such a world?Unless the nonverbalmeaningsareto be directlyor would seem to requiremuch more telepathicallyintuited, their understanding care, background, and communicationin areas where verbal articulationis

This content downloaded on Wed, 16 Jan 2013 08:28:00 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

152

WAGNER

possible, than verbal meanings. The alternative,which Barth seems to advocate, is a kind of "dumbbarter"of quizzical tokens. A self-imposedtaboo on verbalproliferation makes the verbalmessages one is able to overhearvery precious. This also seems to be the way the Baktaman epistemology operates:the scarce good (which Barthprovides, very sparingly, in Appendix III) is just precisely verbal and mythical knowledge. So are the "secrets"that seem to be focal in Baktamanmagic, power, and ritualunderstanding-names, myths, and mythic details-all of them in words. Thus it is not the undervaluingof verbal communication that animates Baktamanritual, but a cult of secrecy that assures that words and the shared, conventional understandings that they convey will retain their centralityand significance. When Barth tells us that Baktamancollectivities are "poorly constituted and conceptualized," that patrilineal exogamous clans "emerge more as a by-productof certaincult activities"that manifest membershipand
solidarity obliquely through ritual (1, p. 25), and that "the striking fact .
. .

is

the absence of ... commonpremisesandsharedknowledgebetweenpersonsin intimate interaction"(1, pp. 264-65), he is documentingthe operationof a powerful indigenouspraxis for controllingand compelling the collective. His account, however, emphasizes the outward and experiential effects of this control ratherthan providing insights or explanationsregardingits manipulation. Barth'stheoreticalandmethodologicalstanceis interesting,fromthe general standpointof communication, in that it seems to have reversed the order of contamination.Instead of inadvertantlycommunicatingthe overstructurings and biases of the anthropologist to his informants,he appearsto have internalized their communicative constraints. It is practically inevitable then that however eloquent his evocation of thefact of secrecy, its content will remain uncommunicatedin the same way, and for the same reasons, that the Faiwol themselves curtail communication. A parallelwith Gell's work suggests itself here, for Juillerat'scommentson Umeda secrecy mightbe extendedto the Baktamanas well. Is therea vital core of exegesis in Baktaman or Faiwol culture,protectedas a vital secretagainstall comers? Or are the Baktaman, as Barth insists (and as Gell asserts for the Umeda) without exegesis? Fortunately,some comparativeevidence exists for the "Mountain Ok" area, as a considerable amount of field research has occurredtheresince Barth'svisit. With very few exceptions, however, most of the findings are as yet unpublishedand remain in dissertationform. At least two dissertations address the issue of communication centrally. BarbaraJones spent two years with a largerand somewhat more acculturated groupof Faiwol speakersthanthe Baktaman,at Imigabip(13). Her accountis no less emphaticthanBarth'son the subjectof secrecy, andits delineationof an integralambivalencein Faiwol cultureis also reminiscentof Barth's descrip-

This content downloaded on Wed, 16 Jan 2013 08:28:00 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

RITUAL AS COMMUNICATIONIN MELANESIA

153

tion. But whereas the Baktamanseem largely to be missing a sense of shared convention, the Imigabiphave, in their insidious biis witchcraft, wroughtthe collective into what Jones calls ". . . a powerful negative image of society as society with no higher motivating principle"(13, p. 8). Jones's informants among the elder cult-house guardians told her that they were "cowboys," drawinga conscious parallelbetween the dangerouslife of a Westerngunman in films they had seen and the dangersthey incurredin protectingcult-house relics. These are absolutely essential to the growth of taro, and hence to the well-being of the community, but they exert a debilitatingor lethal effect on those who keep them (12). Taken altogether, Jones's evidence, although acquiredamonga largerandmorenearly"acculturated" community,represents a greater degree of ambivalence and uncertaintythan Barth's! If there is a Faiwol exegesis at all, it must be a well-kept secret indeed. Dan Jorgensen'sdissertation,basedon extensive researchwith elders of the acknowledged"motherhouse"of the initiatory(bani)system for the entireStar Mountainsregion, at Telefolip, gives a good indicationof just exactly where the exegetical traditionmay be. Somewhat after the conclusion of his initial fieldworkin 1979, Jorgensenwas requestedby the elders to returnto Telefolip recordof the relics, mythologicalcorpus, andexegetand preparea permanent Christian ical doctrineof the motherhouse. Fundamentalist elements had set in motion an effort to destroy the "pagan"complex (they did not, in fact, succeed), and a number of Telefol, including government officials, were concernedto preservetheirheritage.Jorgensenwas able to accomplishthis. He received permission to publish the material, and it is incorporatedin his dissertation,which appearedin 1981 (14). The exegesis, comprisinga series of revelations, encompasses the serial negation of the symbolic premises of Telefol culture, and is impressive by any philosophical standard. Insofaras the Faiwol, as well as most other peoples in the "MountainOk" region, recognizethe primacyof the Telefolip motherhouse and send youths to its initiations, the case can be made that the ritual exegesis for a numberof discreet ethnic units has been maintainedas an exclusive secret at Telefolip. This possibility bears significant implicationsfor our assumptionsregarding the autonomyof culturalmeanings,and it would also tendto confirmJuillerat's commentary on Gell's material. The initiatoryritual is concerned with the and is exclusively male. It is, above all, communicamoral, is transformative, tive, and the communication takes the form of a revelation of exegetical interpretation concerningcentralculturalmeaningsby elders to ritualnovices. It represents,in other words, the same "scale"of communication-that of the exposition and analyticalpenetrationof culturalmeaning-as the anthropologist's account of it. In this context, Jorgensenadds a commentaryon Brunton'sposition to the Man exchange:". . . Bruntonseems to thinkthatwe can 'explain' the symbolic

This content downloaded on Wed, 16 Jan 2013 08:28:00 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

154

WAGNER

realm with reference to the political (never clearly defined)-presumably because political relations are in some sense prior to or more 'real' than of the world"( 15, p. 471). "Theonly sense in which religious understandings differentials in cult lore are political is simply by definition, by equating esoteric knowledge with secular power" (15, p. 471). He criticizes Gell for
retreating into ". . . a stylised affirmation of sociological faith," and suggests that Gell's work will be rememberedmore for its exegesis of the idaIthan for

any contributionit might make to general sociology (15, p. 471). A final word in the exchange is RagnarJohnson's review of the discussion, in which he criticizes Gell in particularfor adherence to a rigid structural model. Johnson stresses the importanceand effect of analytical models, and notes that"Theproblemof 'order'in Melanesianceremonialinstitutionsis one thatderives almostentirely fromthe models used by anthropologists to present their research findings" (1 1, p. 474). A tight, logically integratedmodel, in other words, is apt to projectacademic standardsonto ritual, and obscure the dynamic, "becoming"aspects of its enactment. Johnson'spoint is a cogent one, whetheror not the anthropologist intendshis meaningsto replicatethe indigenoussense of a ritual. For whetherthe anthropologist's communication is presented as sociology or epistemology, and whether it presents the natives' understandingof a ritual or some order or it deals with the scheme presumedto explain or determinethatunderstanding, representationof human creativity. The anthropologist may represent the creativityof the ritualas the staticartifactof his own creativity;he may attribute thatartifactto the nativecultureitself, as an inherentor determinative "order"; or he may use his creativityto communicatesomethingof the creativityof the ritual. If ritual is understoodto be transformative-the productionof a social status or a cosmological state-then only the last of these three alternatives does justice to thatfact. Forotherwise, however incisive or insightfulit may be, the production(and the creativity)is that of the anthropologistalone. Jorgensen's criticism also strikesto the core of the exchange; when it comes down to and Mountain Ok converge at this secrecy (and the Waina-Sowanda/Yafar point), it scarcely matterswhether one refers to "religion," "sociology," or "politics."Secrecy is, perhaps,the politics of meaning. The "sociology" that Gell and Brunton invoke is an epiphenomenonof cultural categorization, a matterof categories in confutationratherthan groups in competition. can be misconstruedin as many ways as it It would seem, then, that"order" can be construedin Melanesianreligion. For Melanesianreligion, if we are to understandBarth, Jorgensen, and Johnson correctly, is itself the process of construingorder, and disorder.

This content downloaded on Wed, 16 Jan 2013 08:28:00 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

IN MELANESIA RITUAL AS COMMUNICATION

155

LiteratureCited
1. Barth, F. 1975. Ritual and Knowledge among the Baktaman of New Guinea. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press 2. Bateson, G. 1958. Naven. Stanford: StanfordUniv. Press 3. Bateson, G. 1979. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. New York: Bantam orderin 4. Brunton,R. 1980. Misconstrued Melanesian religion. Man (NS) 15(1):112-28 Man 5. Brunton,R. 1980. correspondence. (NS) 15(4):734-35 6. Crocker, J. C. 1983. Being an essence: among the EastTotemic representation ern Bororo. In The Power of Symbols: Maskaand Masqueradein theAmericas, ed. N. R. Crumrine, M. Halpin. Vancouver: Univ. British ColumbiaPress 7. Douglas, M. 1966. Purity and Danger. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 8. Douglas, M. 1973. Natural Symbols. New York: RandomHouse 9. Gell, A. 1975. Metamorphosis of the Cassowaries. London: Athlone 10. Gell, A. 1980. correspondence. Man (NS) 15(4):735-37 Man 11. Johnson,R. 1981. correspondence. (NS) 16(3):472-74 12. Jones, B. 1979. Personalcommunication 13. Jones, B. 1980. Consuming society: Food and illness among the Faiwol. PhD thesis. Univ. Va., Charlottesville 14. Jorgensen, D. 1981. Taro and arrows: Order, entropy, and religion among the Telefolmin. PhD thesis. Univ. British Columbia, Vancouver 15. Jorgensen, D. 1981. correspondence. Man (NS) 16(3):470-72 Man 16. Juillerat,B. 1980. correspondence. (NS) 15(4):732-34 17. Rappaport,R. 1967. Pigs for the Ancestors. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press 18. Rappaport,R. 1979. Ecology, Meaning, and Religion. Richmond, Calif: North Atlantic Books 19. Turner,V. W. 1975. RevelationandDivinationin NdembuRitual. Ithaca:Cornell Univ. Press

This content downloaded on Wed, 16 Jan 2013 08:28:00 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions