Trobriand Islanders-Malinowski and Weiner

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  • Topic: Trobriand Islands, Milne Bay Province, Kula ring
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  • Published : May 17, 2011
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Banana Leaf Bundles and Skirts:
A Pacific Penelope's Web?

Margaret Jolly

In her review of the significance of cloth in Pacific polities, Annette Weiner has evoked the persona of Penelope, “weaving by day, and unweaving the same fabric by night, in order to halt time” (1986, 108).[1] This image of a Pacific Penelope halting time was inspired by Weiner's reanalysis of the Trobriand islands. In her monograph (1976), in several subsequent papers (1980, 1982a, 1983a, 1986) and in her shorter text (1988) she conclusively demonstrated that Malinowski and a host of other male observers had failed to see women's central place in Trobriand exchange: that in fixating so totally on men's exchanges of yams in urigubu and of shell valuables in the kula, they had ignored women's exchanges of banana leaf bundles and skirts, most importantly at mortuary distributions. In her reassessment of the relations of the sexes in the Trobriands she portrayed men as controlling events in historical time and space (the social domain) and women as controlling events in ahistorical time and space (the cosmological domain) (1976, 20). This distinction, she later observed, was an attempt to escape the connotations of two separate spheres constituted by terms like private/public or nature/culture (1986, 97). Rather than eschewing such invidious Western dichotomies her analysis ultimately reinforces them, by articulating them with another—eternal/historical. Such Eurocentric dichotomies typically presume that the private or domestic sphere is outside history (see Jolly and Macintyre 1989) and that women's nature is not only given but eternal. Essentialist elisions in Weiner's work have already been noted (M. Strathern 1981). What is suggested here is the further point that in situating women outside history, Weiner has reproduced Eurocentric notions of an unchanging women's world. But women's worlds in the Pacific, though they may have remained virtually invisible or [pic]

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hidden to centuries of male observers, have certainly not persisted unchanged. Exchanges of women's wealth have assumed an inflated and a novel significance since Malinowski's time—not only securing the regeneration of Trobriand persons but ensuring the perpetuity of Trobriand culture in the face of competing values. Perhaps Trobriand women see themselves as defending Trobriand tradition and the value of women against both monetary and male values. Women are, as Weiner has portrayed them, at the core of Trobriand traditions. But such traditions are, I contend, not unselfconscious persistences but self-conscious resistances[2] to modernity and monetary values. In the Trobriands as elsewhere in Melanesia, modernity and money are practically mediated by and symbolically associated with men.

Time and The Trobriands

The difference between Malinowski's and Weiner's accounts is thus not merely a contrast between an androcentric male observer and a gynocentric female observer,[3] but a difference amplified by the history between the periods of their observations. The passage in time between the fieldwork of Malinowski and of Weiner marks not only a shift in the historical context of ethnography and in the sexual politics of Europeans looking at Trobriand others, but also a transformation of Trobriand realities. Weiner herself is not unaware of either anthropological or Trobriand history. At several points in her monograph (1976, xvi–xx, 25–33) and in later essays (e.g., 1980, 271–272, 275–276, 280) she alludes to the historical changes affecting both Trobriand and anthropological culture. But such history is often alluded to in order to deny its consequences—in order to stress constancy rather than change. For instance, Weiner presents a genealogy of Trobriand high-ranking male informants and anthropologists, which links her good friend and valued informant Vanoi (1976, xvii) with the past. Standing in front of Vanoi's house gave me a sense of both anthropological and...
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