Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Reading :: Naven

Naven: A Survey of the Problems suggested by a Composite Picture of the Culture of a New Guinea Tribe drawn from Three Points of View
By Gregory Bateson

Two men of the Iatmul hobble about their village, dressed in filthy women's clothes, smeared with ashes, carrying a fowl. They act utterly decrepit, supporting themselves with walking sticks and frequently falling, legs splayed in an exaggerated manner. In the voices of crones, they call for their laua (essentially, their sister's son, although the lineage is a bit more complicated). They want to congratulate their laua for making a large canoe for the first time in his life. But he has hidden, ashamed of his wau (his maternal uncles). Who can blame him? "If the wau can find the boy he will further demean himself by rubbing the cleft of his buttocks down the length of the laua's leg, a sort of sexual salute which is said to have the effect of causing the laua to make haste to get valuables which he may present to his wau to 'make him all right'" (p.13). But they can't find him, so instead they take his canoe for a short ride - paddling seated, like women, rather than standing, like men (p.13). After the ride, they wash themselves, put on men's clothing, and - now that it's safe - the laua is found and presented with the fowl.

In another instance, the laua's achievements are celebrated by his maternal uncles' wives. They dress in men's garb - but in "the smartest of men's attire." (If the Iatmul men wore their transvestite garb like Benny Hill, the women wore theirs like Annie Lennox.) They celebrate by beating the laua with sticks.

Both these events are instances of the naven, a ceremony that celebrates the acts and achievements of a sister's child. Such achievements include homicide - the Iatmul were headhunters in recent memory, and although the colonial government has made them give it up, homicide is an important rite of manhood, often carried out by young boys against captives with the help of the wau (p.6). "Another act contributory to killing which may be honoured is the enticing of foreigners into the village so that others might kill them" (p.6; my marginal note here says RUN!!!). But other achievements might include making a canoe, spearing an eel, planting coconuts, and sundry other parts of Iatmul life.

Why do these fierce headhunters, who scorn women and weakness, dress as women to celebrate such achievements? This is the question that nagged at Gregory Bateson, then conducting an ethnography off the coast of New Guinea to fulfill his MA. By Bateson's account, he didn't make much headway in the field - he apologizes frequently for the inadequacy of his data, and dismisses his work as the unfocused product of "a few months"(p.257; he spent 1929-1930 with them). After returning to England, he developed a tripartite analysis (structure, sociology, ethos) to examine the naven, developing the notion of schismogenesis: "a process of differentiation in the norms of individual behavior resulting from cumulative interaction between individuals" (p.175).

Based on this notion, he argues that the naven actually makes celebration of young men's deeds possible - it provides a mechanism that is otherwise lacking. The Iatmul men generally celebrate only their own achievements: "Anger and scorn they can express with a good deal of over-compensation; and joy and sorrow they can express when it is their own pride which is enhanced or abased; but to express joy in the achievements of another is outside the norms of their behavior" (p.201). Conversely, the Iatmul women can express joy and sorrow unselfishly, but they have no public ceremony role (p.201). For both sexes to publicly celebrate a young man's achievement, they must take on part of the role of the other. Hence the transvestitism (p.202).

It's a good story, made more concrete by the photos Bateson took of the Iatmul. (In one, a man looks directly at the camera with seeming murder in his eyes. RUN!!!) More than that, the analysis is intricate. As Bateson admits, it is perhaps too detailed to be supported by the ethnography itself, but it still provides important background into Bateson's thinking. In this way, Bateson's Naven seems the opposite of the early ethnographies of Margaret Mead, whom he met after concluding the ethnography and married six years later. Where Mead writes confidently and shows not a trace of doubt, Bateson writes with hesitations and caution. Where Mead believes that six months of fieldwork is more than adequate for understanding a culture, Bateson emphasizes how inadequate his year with the Iatmul was. Where Mead offers easy lessons, Bateson laboriously develops an analytical approach and a theoretical concept. Not surprisingly, I really enjoyed Bateson's book, even though I agree with the author (in both of his epilogues) that the book is flawed. If you're interested in ethnographies, Bateson's work, headhunters, or transvestitism, I highly recommend this book.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book

Reading :: Growing Up in New Guinea

Growing Up in New Guinea: A Comparative Study of Primitive Education
By Margaret Mead

I recently reviewed Mead's first book, Coming of Age in Samoa, and enjoyed Mead's storytelling while harboring grave reservations about her methodology. Mead's second book, describing the six-month New Guinea ethnography that Mead and her new husband Reo Fortune conducted as her first book went to press. This second book has many of the virtues and vices of the first.

In this ethnography, Mead lives in the Manus village of Peri, where she conducts "six months' concentrated and uninterrupted field work" in which she focuses on how Manus children grew up (p.12). The village is situated in a shallow lagoon, with houses on piles and people circulating via canoes that they learn to pilot at a young age. Mead studied the children through observation, but also by collecting their spontaneous drawings, asking them to interpret ink blots, collecting interpretations of events, and posing problem questions (p.210). Although six months may seem quite short for an ethnography of children's education, Mead explains that it is adequate: Whereas "our own society is so complex, so elaborate, that the most serious student can, at best, only hope to examine a part of the education process," she assures us that "in a simple society, without division of labour, without written records, without a large population ... it is possible for the investigator to master in a few months most of the tradition which it takes the natives years to learn" (p.8). I have my doubts.

But nevertheless it's clear that Mead learned a great deal, enough to produce a vivid cultural sketch that makes this book very readable. Mead describes how the Manus teach their children basic safety early (swimming, canoeing, fire, hygiene), then spoil them endlessly (especially the fathers) while leaving them largely to their own devices. This constant indulgence, she says, produces the predictable result: the children regard their parents with contempt and expect them to make sacrifices with no return. Consequently, Mead says, the Manus are a society of self-reliant individuals, materialistic and acquisitive, and with middling respect for their ancestors.

One might suspect that Mead's conclusions, based on six months of fieldwork, are overdrawn. Those concerns are not assuaged in Mead's last four chapters, in which she draws equivalences between the Manus society and that of the United States. The Manus are acquisitive, constantly thinking about how to acquire dogs' teeth, which serve as their currency; people in the US are acquisitive too! The Manus spoil their children; so do we! And she also provides less flattering contrasts, arguing that the Manus do a better job of teaching respect for property than parents in the US do: they don't treat different kinds of property differently, like "American parents who let the child tear the almanac and the telephone book and then wonder at its grieved astonishment when it is slapped for tearing up the family Bible" (p.28). When Mead makes such rough generalizations about her own culture, not even considering its considerable class and region differences, I begin to suspect rough generalizations about the Manus too.

Nevertheless, the book is absolutely fascinating and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Mead has managed to pack in a lot of detail about Manus culture, from marriage to birth to childhood and adolescence. As with her previous book, I wouldn't take this one as a model in terms of methodology, but I'd still recommend it.