Banana Leaf Bundles and Skirts:
A Pacific Penelope's Web?
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). 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
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