3. The Value of a Beautiful Memory

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3. The Value of a Beautiful Memory: Imitation as Borrowing in Serious Play at Making Mortuary Sculptures in New Ireland.

Karen Sykes


It is a rare to make a gift of an ethnographic insight - especially one borrowed from the Barok - to the principle ethnographer of the people who speak that language in Papua New Guineai. It may be fool hardy to borrow the work of those who came before you by imitating them. Forgive me. I want to speak in the key of the artists of that country’s region of Central New Ireland, although I choose that of its more gently spoken northern people, the Mandak, for whom the will to create the beautiful sculptures known as Malanggan is never straightforward. They speak about their renowned creations in the most understated ways telling us that the pinnacle of their ritual life, the final feast of the Malanggan, is ‘a little thing that we do that our ancestors once did too.’ Their neighbours to the south, the Barok, however, are not so interested in gentle recollections that liberate into conversation so many of their memories of days long past (even as they create and embed those memories in create new material forms). The Barok prefer to pre-empt their ancestors in a bit of serious play. None the less, for both, it is the case that they believe that the Malanggan remains inviolate, along with the memory of the ancestors, and that these images are only a beautiful memory of what the contemporary sculptures could be at their best. The Mandak and the Barok each remember and style their sculptures differently, one gently the other brashly, but each in poor imitation of all that went before. Here, I choose the Mandak style of making understatements about the work of imitating sculpture, and explore the power of not saying too much.

1. Imitation as Borrowing
Imitation is as old as poetry; the failure to mime is the soul of the poetic. According to classical philosophers the imitation casts shadows in which lay creativity; similarly, the shadows are evidence of the creativity that fires an intellectual life and is otherwise hard to see directly. According to modern social scientists, imitation lies at the centre of productive economic life, as shown when bodies mimic machines and technology extends a body’s reach such that ‘the economy’ or ‘the market’ become forms of life. However, imitations are both created and creative because they are sequences of social acts that presage materialization, and are the bits and pieces that make up the substance of creative life. Imitations are the mere shadows of beautiful memories and they show classical thinkers and modern scholars how to recognize what they knew and know.

In this chapter I define imitation as the conscious social act of borrowing the forms and images associated with one person or group by another one, and I argue that this act values specific social relations between those who imitate each other. My definition is somewhat different from either of two major thinkers of modern social science, each of whom was concerned in different ways with the value of the non-conscious processes of imitation. Emile Durkheim and Gabriel Tarde both argue that imitation is valuable to humans because it functions to integrate humans into society by creating the appearance of similarity between discrete social actions such as personal habits or recognized as social conventions (Candea et al, 7). Durkheim argues that imitative acts regulate society and specific social relationships, whether or not these are conscious social acts. Tarde argued the strongest case for imitation as the most significant social act in the integration of society, a practice that pulled people together in common styles and interests without them fully knowing how (Tarde 2007). According to Tarde, such acts of the human will were enigmatic and no prior social relationship was needed if humans are to imitate one another. I argue that each scholar’s claim that imitation is largely a non-conscious social act lying largely in the imagination is too narrow for understanding the complexity of imitation as a social act.

Although his definition of imitation was exceedingly fine, Tarde’s agenda for establishing the centrality of it to economic life remained very ambitious; firstly, he defined the central importance of imitation as the work of the imagination in economic life, and secondly, he re-defined his concept of imitation/imagination as the soul of what he ambitiously titled an “Economic Psychology” (2007). His assumptions for that project of rethinking the economy are twofold and inter-related: he assumes that the will is central to the creative intellectual project, and he assumes imitation constitutes the genius of a person or of a people through a process of negation and recognition (2007: 614-620). The case for making these arguments lies in his assumptions about the nature of exchange practices; “As it stands, donation and theft are moral notions, in themselves foreign to political economy, but exchange is a properly economic notion” (615). Yet, he claims that the exchange of ideas is different than the exchange of material objects because he does not think that ideas need to be materialized in social relations in order to transmit them, as if economics did not necessarily address the material world. In support of this, he argues that ideas can be imitated without prior social connection, and that imitation creates the social relation.ii

If it is possible to rethink the political economy (as the exchange of things) in terms economic psychology (as the exchange of ideas) (620- 625), and thereby invigorate political economy so that it is just as appropriate for old England, New Guinea, or contemporary virtual societyiii, then there are a couple of challenges to be met. The first challenge is what Tarde means by an economic psychology, which he wishes to separate (hypothetically) from political economy so that he can rejoin them. A second test is how political economy should be thought in terms of economic psychology as lived, rather than as only thought.iv Tarde’s aim to revision social science, but I confess that these are contentious assumptions for the Barok, the Mandak, and no doubt a good number of others. My aim in reflecting on the complications for Tarde’s economic psychology as they arise from the ethnography of central New Ireland is to further clarify the terms of Tarde’s economic psychology. That aim can be no bad thing. In the following pages I take up the matter of imitation as innovation and creativity in very specific, ethnographically informed ways, and use that as a way of understanding what that unified theory of economy (economic psychology + political economy) might be. So I invite the reader to understand the play of mimicry and imitation very seriously as creative actions.

My ethnographic analysis of imitation shows that an unpacking of Tarde’s ideas about it as a key aspect of economic psychology/political economy benefits from some clarification of how imitation constitutes a life (which ethnographic analysis is best able to do). Ethnography reveals this central tension: Readers might consider that for Tarde economic psychology can access imitation as that aspect of humanity which might be non-corporeal and also non-material (in all senses of the word), as such the economy does not become a simple tool of the human condition but remains a part of itv. If we are to assume that the creations of the intellect must be dealt with differently than the products of bodily labour before political economy can be rethought in a more integrative way, then as well we must conversely know what does the loss of the body, literally and conceptually, mean to any understanding of life processes? For this conundrum of knowledge, the funeral arts are a primary example wherein the celebrants of the mortuary ritual confront the loss of the material life in its most physical form, the corporal person.

I think that the more specific example of how Mandak people borrow from the Barok when making the forms and images of the funeral shows how political economy is thought in tandem with economic psychology in the rituals following death, without reducing imitation to its social and material effects, or relegating it to psychological and even theological interrogations. My ethnography of the Mandak people’s work of borrowing as a form of imitation in creating a mortuary sculpture illuminates the very social nature of imitation as borrowing, and casts doubt upon Tarde’s claim that imitation is the soul of economic psychology by insisting that the imitation of a beautiful memory is valuable because it is practiced, lived and materialized in borrowings of it, that are neither thefts nor appropriations, yet entail exchanges between actors.

The specific ethnographic case is the art historian’s famous example of the Malanggan. A Malanggan is a mortuary sculpture that has been famously displayed in national museums thereby making the renown of the New Ireland villages which are its provenance. In keeping with the anthropological habit of arguing from ethnography, I wish to work from the example of the preparations for the funeral ritual, and the processes of creating the specific mortuary sculpture, the Malanggan. Before going any further, it is helpful to overview some of the background to the creation of the ritual objects that I am discussing. Malanggans are fabricated in New Ireland villages and are part of the oeuvre normally associated with Oceanic Arts in most national museums (Gunn and Peletier 2006, Lincoln 1987). The varieties of Malaggans are many and expert attempts to classify these have been complicated by the uncanny similarities that arise across the island, despite the range of 11 language groups amongst a population of 100,000 in the last census and about 20,000 at the turn of the last century. The second complication arises from the propensity of makers to create a Malaggan as a composite of images (Strathern 2001), sometimes claiming the borrowings of these from neighbouring language groups, as those carvers who made a Malanggan dance mask insisted they had done when they presented the Nalik “tatanua” as a Mandak “labadama” for ritual goers, and sometimes claiming that the one Malanggan form supplanted another one, as when carvers said the Labadama supplanted the Varima, a Malanggan of local provenance upon which elderly men claimed that they had modelled the Labadama which gained renown in the film, Malaggan Labadama: a Tribute to Bukbuk. (Chris Owen, director 1979) In these examples ‘borrowing’ across groups becomes a form of creative imitation.

In order to help the reader to understand how borrowing is mostly a creative and conscious social act that imitates other’s acts, in this chapter I provide a single example of how Malanggans are made. The closer examination of the skilled practices of making a Malanggan mortuary sculpture shows us the difficulty that arises when the analyst separates substantive wealth from concepts, images or ideas in order to privilege imitation as a cognitive or psychic apparatus for thinking through economic psychology. What is obscured is the process of passing on images, a process in which people give them to other people, and gratefully or awkwardly receive them too. This imitative work recognizes and affirms the authority and receptivity of those who loan and those who borrow.vi So, instead of imitation as a socializing and cognitive activity, I turn to the creative work of borrowing as a means of elicitingvii new images and social relationships. In specific terms, I use the concept of borrowing to describe the social apparatus that people generally use for understanding what is ‘genius’ in social lifeviii. Drawing on this conceptual legacy will argue that genius emerges through a process of affirmation, rather than negation. That affirmation is known in giving, receiving, and giving back again.

In the ethnographic case, as the reader will see, the sculptors playfully imitate the acquisition of the soul of the form they aim to present, or rather to represent. In the case of the Malanggan borrowing as a form of imitation has been called ‘pre-emptive successorship’ for its ability to create the authority of the ancestors in the very act of displacing the ancestors’ power (Wagner 1986). While Wagner’s theory is elaborated with reference to the ethos of kinship, which I do not address fully here, a brief review of the concept shows that in pre-emptive successorship the younger generation learn how to be the elder generation by pre-empting the elders’ claims to pass on knowledge with the counter-claim that they have learned the skills inadequately, just as I heard them say to me during my co-residence with them. The Barok, the New Ireland language group studied by Wagner, say that the act of replicating a ritual, which is one and the same as celebrating a funeral demonstrates simply that such traditions as these will never be seen again, and what stands now in their place is but poor imitation. Such speech is both respectful deference and coyly pre-emptive. Such talk puts the nature of learning about beautiful memories of the past into the middle of the problem, and shows that the relationship to the elder generation is not severed, or lost, nor is it replaced and forgotten with the advent of the new (which they confess they have received from the their ancestors) nor does it carry ‘tradition’ as if traditional arts in a flow continuously from the past to the present. Instead, by highlighting skill-learning as a form of borrowing upon memory, central New Irelanders acknowledge that they can only borrow from their elders and that is a poor form of imitation. Borrowing is a conscious means of transmission, which otherwise might be non-conscious. The borrowers remain aware of the provenience of their skill and do not fully claim these for themselves.

I think this example of imitation as borrowing would interest Tarde for what it might suggest in support of his thesis. However, the repetition of these skills in intergenerational relationships does not naturalize transmission as socialization or learning quite as Tarde and Durkheim have argued, and it is not possible to call Malanggans ‘social facts’ in the Durkheimian sense of that term. Borrowing is a form of imitation, an appropriation or an assimilation of the skills or goods of another as if they were ones own; however, skills are learned by doing what appears natural to create the same effect; this is what might be called direct knowledge. To conclude, the work of borrowing is imitation, but it is imitation as serious play in the work of conscious transmission. It is through analyzing borrowing from their ancestors that I intend to show in the next section that the work of creative appropriation and economic innovation exist in tandem with each other, and are complementary forms of imitation when considered as borrowings.

2. Imitation as Borrowing while Learning Ritual Skills

“This is Tree that Grows in the Shadow of the Tree from Which We Make Canoes”

The work of making a Malanggan, in this example a luwara-lengkobus Malanggan, is hard to learn. This is largely because the teacher, an authority in the ritual arts, must be convinced of the worth of showing the student, who wishes to receive the skills for himself. I have direct experience of Malanggan making, which is different than learning indirectly from interviews with the experts, who frankly will tell you anything.

The Luwara Lengkobus is made from a tree that grows in the shadow of the tree from which craftsmen make canoes. I did not know the name of the tree for a very long time, and I was given only the nature of the relationship between the trees in response to my questions about its species and identity. Until finally I was given a long unusual name, which for three years I believed to be the name of the tree until a I was kindly told that the word was Barok rather than the arcane Mandak I believed it to be. For some months I thought the word was a species name, a kind of tree known in Barok, until its translation by a Barok speaker proved it to mean “the tree that grows in the shadow of the tree from which canoes are made.” So I was sent back to where I started.

All of this makes sense with reference to the Malanggan sculpture and its uses in the funeral. In the pre-Christian era, the canoe had been used for burials at sea, carrying the corpse away from the village with a Malanggan carving on board, or gracing its prow. The three entities, the canoe, the corpse and the Malanggan carving are thought to comprise the person in total and could be seen best as they were sent out to sea and away from the village. The body is just a corpse, the canoe is the shadow of the body and follows its movements, and the carving is the loroxan, or the will that grows in the shadow of the body. Three entities also comprise a Malanggan; the body is the wood, the paint is the shadow which follows it, and the after image captured in the minds eye upon viewing all of this is the loroxan (the spirit/will). Like the body, which is a corpse without shadow or loroxan, the Malanggan is merely cut wood without paint and memory. The Malanggan carver is only a chopper of wood and has no skills to animate his sculpture as a funeral art, let alone give it the life that many a Pygmalion hoped to do.

Many anthropologists find that a word that is borrowed from the Barok presents problems to their understanding of its uses amongst the Mandak, but only if they take its provenance and origin as determinant of its meaningix. The difficulty in privileging the Barok as owners of the meaning of the word is this: the Barok do not make Malanggans and do not claim to possess the arts. They do, however, upend trees to display shell wealth on the tree-roots as if the necklaces and armbands were fruit or leaves on branches. Amongst the many things that the Barok say about their own funeral arts is their claim that visual displays are meant to turn the world upside down and make participants see things in ways that they have never seen them before that event. And their more difficult claim is this: although the Barok do not make Malanggans they do complete the conceptual work of Malanggan displays, which is to say they understand the model of the Malanggan very well although they do not make the material form of it. They think that this is a practical joke that they have ‘played’ on other New Irelanders who are very serious about their work, but that is the point. The Barok are renowned for playing outrageous practical jokes on each other, on visitors and especially on those guests who are speakers of different languages. These are everyday joking practices, which the Barok carry one step further when they turn to ritual. (As you might guess, this does not make Barok villages popular destinations for some visitors. Often, I returned to the Mandak villages from Barok country too gladly, and told them I was happy to be back. They said they also felt that way when they left the Barok too.) If funeral ritual is meant to be imitative of ancestral traditions, then the Barok showed the Mandak that the Malanggan ritual is a huge practical joke on the living. The tree that grows in the shadow of the tree used for canoe-making is a model for Malanggan borrowed from people who do not make them. If an anthropologist can suffer a practical joke, in the same way that the Mandak do at the hands of the Barok, then let us say that the Barok word reminded the Mandak that the fabrication of a Malanggan entails conceptual borrowing, rather than imitation.

An entirely different story opens to anthropological analysis when borrowing is understood to be a form of imitation. Here I can tell you about the several processes by which the Malanggan is made, and the borrowings that enable the fabrication. I now turn to the creative processes of Malanggan making, outlining them in three sequences. This rest of this article describes the making of a funerary sculpture for a son of an elderly man in Central New Irelandx. This funerary sculpture is a lengobus, one of the luwara which are known to anthropologists, art historians, and curators of ethnology collections in national as well as university anthropological museums around the worldxi. So let us ask about borrowing rather than imitating such forms, by examining how the beautiful memory is valued by affirming the loan of it, even in the creative process of making the sculptures It also shows that an approach that examines borrowing as a social processes, might redirect anthropological attention to the kinds of questions that anthropologists might ask about what it means to be human, by considering the sorts of inquiries that New Irelanders ask about what is a life, and thereby illuminate some of Tarde’s concerns.
3. Jokes about the Social Processes and some other ‘Knots’ in the Sequence of Technical Operations

In the course of making the lengkobus-luwara Malanggan with those elderly men who agreed to help me, I learned that the makers of lengobus luwara work against the possibility of failure by borrowing techniques. Each link of the chain that makes up the sequence of operations in the creation of a Malangan is borrowed, and still follows upon the previous links in the chain. To take an example of how life is a composite of borrowed social techniques, or the skilled practices which people share, Ingold (2007) looks into the minute acts of cutting wood. He shows that the process of cutting a straight line through a plank might show us the failure of the relations of conceptual and material form is contingent on human error, but that makes all human creativity into a dangerous mistake that could result in splinters, breaks, and useless blocks of wood. He argues it is the process that is most interesting in understanding the creative work of a life, not simply its openness to the world. The failure to make a straight cut is less a problem of not being able to cut straight, and more a problem of a failure to make the human adjustments of the imagination to enable the straight line to emerge in the process of cutting it. Using saw and wood, he can show that cutting across a board in a straight line requires a series of minute calculations that ensures he can follow the imaginary form of a straight line there.xii Ingold, in these contemplations on technique, might be inspired by Mauss and those like Leroi-Gourhan who follow him. For Leroi-Gourhan, like those working after Mauss, artistic technique is less a tool, or a social effect, than it is a program that releases memory, without literalizing it as linear text. Reflecting upon this, Derrida tells us that “Leroi-Gourhan recalls the unity, within the mythogram, of all the elements of which linear writing marks the disruption, the technics (particularly graphics), art, religion, economy. To recover access to this unity, to this other structure of unity, we must desediment ‘four thousand years of linear writing.’ (Derrida 1974, 86)The experience of making a rope Malanggan , with all its jokes about the processes, glitches in social arrangements, or knots and muddles in techniques made the ‘chain of operations’ less a sequence of transmissions, and more of a tangle of borrowings. Yet, these tangles in the techniques, these borrowings between participants, were a source of instability, and of creativity. The makers were careful to acknowledge their borrowings from each other or from their ancestors, and this made for twisted complex practices of knowledge transmission when they became anxious about their failure to imitate carefully or to borrow respectfully.

Much of the published work on Malanggan making concerns itself with carving, rather than knotting as a construction technique. Although Kuechler (1999) has likened the form of carved sculptures to knots that bind memory, it is helpful to take some time to examine the process of making knots if we want to understand the very nature of creativity as imitation (as Tarde would have us do in the rethinking of political economy through the lens of economic psychology). Whereas Ingold’s meditations, which I noted in the previous paragraph, on cutting wood (with a saw) are helpful for redirecting our attention to the process of sawing in a straight line, I think that my less common experience of sculpting a Malanggan by knotting ropes spun from a decayed tree leads to a fuller understanding of imitation as a kind of borrowing. The examination of these processes helps to show the nature of imitation in innovation, and of the failure to imitate in relationship to that. Although the technology of its construction is laborious, it is surprising that the knotted Malanggan is rarely kept. I think this is largely due to the fact that it is already visible everywhere and all around the makers. It is life itself and underlines the serious nature of the play that goes into making it.

In what follows I describe three sequences of techniques, each one emphasizing a different column in the register of ethnographic understanding: the eidos, or the concentration of image and idea in the material product, the ethos, which bound up in the display of how social processes attune both aesthetic and social relations, and the social, which is visible at the point of the dispersal of the relation (which are the very forms of the eidos.)

3.1 Concentration

A. Trees into white rope

The lengkobus luwara Malanggan was fabricated almost exclusively on the Lelet, but its work begins out of view of the plateau villages, on a sheltered sunny beach on the east coast. There grow two kinds of trees; one that was used for making canoes (which in coastal villages had been used both for practical purposes and for burying the dead at sea), and the one that usually grows along side it. The tree is debarked, carried to the beach, and lashed firmly in place at the water’s edge in a place to capture the light. After 3 weeks or 3 months, depending upon the season and the tree’s qualities of density, the tree is taken from the water and left to dry. We were fortunate this time, and after a month it was ready and the soft fibrous wood could be pulled from the trunk and hand-spun into long ropes.

I traveled several times with men who were watching over this project while the trees rotted in the water. Later we convened there to make ropes from the trees. The ropes were made on the coast, while sitting on the beach in the shade and while catching a pleasant sea breeze. Sometimes they rope making was helped by coconut milk, both as beverage for the men working and as a lubricant for the spinning of the wood fibre. Turning trees into ropes is delicate work requiring the sense of touch that does not break the fibres too short, yet managed to extract lengths of wood that are adequate for use in making strings.

During these days I learned about the ways of burial in the past. These burial practices focused on substantive changes in the corpse, the stages of decomposition marking a need for a new ritual process to be completed at each stage. These stages were 1, the cessation of breath; 2, the rotting of the flesh; 3, the burial or reburial of the bones; 4, the dispersal of the life force (Mandak: loroxan). I did not see the cutting of the tree, but the transformation of the tree trunk into rope could be understood as an idiom for second stage rotting of the flesh and the extraction of the white dry bones from the corpse. Given that bodies were analysed as composites of mother ‘s matrilinage (flesh) and fathers matrilineage (skeleton), this work of turning soft decaying wood fibre into ropes made me wonder if the ropes were like bones, or not? Here, the making of rope, which entails drying out a living tree in order to reconstruct it as a supple rope, is underlined by the possibility of the image of a past mortuary practice; the separation of bones and flesh for final burial.

These were convivial times, and the work began easily enough because the Lelet men enjoyed time on the coast. They said the cool winds from the sea stirred them to sing ancient tunes. Some of the songs made them feel sad, and they fell silent from time to time to experience that sadness more fully. After a few days, men began to suffer coughs and watering eyes. They flagged at the work, and worried about their health. As lively and pleasant as the work had begun, they could not complete the ropes as easily as they had hoped. Two men went to seek cures for influenza from the Nurse at the aid post. Another retreated to his own men’s house for a period of time near the fire. A fourth went to stay with his cousin in a house down the road. All worried that they should not finish the work of making ropes. They said that their bodies were coming apart like rotten wood.

What was needed in order to rejuvenate the failing flesh of the elderly men’s bodies so that we could finish are work? We had come to point of no return in the Malanggan construction. It was inappropriate to leave so much work incomplete, and at the same time it was clear that the Malanggan needed a maker. I found Lenari, an elderly man of the clan Solon, who knew the techniques for the construction of a rope Malanggan. He took over the production, explaining that while it was a cooperative effort that the rest needed to have one person be the lead, and that he would help to organize the work of the others. I had been told as much about four months earlier, and had made several failed efforts to meet with men who might take this leadership. Three had said yes, but soon relinquished the task, always for different reasons of business elsewhere. Lenari was different. As a clans man of Solon, he would be making the Malanggan near to the inspirited ground of his own clan near the hamlet Lemptanas on Lelet, where the Malanggan makers would congregate to turn rope into bodies.

B. Rope into skeletal bodies

Ropes were carried to the Lelet, ready for use in constructing large round discs from the fibres. Each man took three ropes, joined them together and wrapped the end around his large toe and the one adjacent to it. Each man plaited the ropes from this ‘hook’ (that was a foot), so that the ropes would ultimately lie very straight and be easier to work with for the construction of the body of the Malanggan. The increasing lengths were wrapped around the foot and each man aimed to make their rope seamless and knot less. They said the Malanggan would not turn out ‘good’ if they broke the flow of the work. It would cause problems for the rest of the work to fail to create a continuous length of rope. As we continued to straighten the ropes into plaited ropes, the work seemed endless. It was never clear to me when we would have enough rope to do the work of Malanggan construction that was a judgement left to Lenari, who led the work.

We appropriated the front veranda of a new permanent style house, never used by the owners and spent the day plaiting ropes there. In the evening, the group reconvened in the men’s house. I did not join them. There they dreamed disturbing dreams. In the morning they told me about them. This continued for three nights, until the dreaming finally stopped.

I was not privy to their discussions of the events of the dreams, and they did not tell me of the process by which they made their decisions. They had dreamed of dead ancestors and seen their faces in those dreams. As Thomas said, he saw all the big men of his clan, even the ones that had been dead long before the day I was born. The dreams warned them of the possible disasters of the work and they discussed whether it was wise to continue the construction of the rattan discs. Strangely each man’s dreams stretched back in time to recover images from his matrilineage, a long queue of men from one clan only.

It was finally possible to construct the sculptures. First each white wood fibre rope was flattened between two modern planks. In the past they would have split a tree trunk and pressed the rope between the smoothened flat surfaces but now they took this short cut. The flattened ropes would be most useful for enabling the work. The disc was constructed of crossed over halves of wood, eight in all, which formed a star frame for the ropes, which they then wove through the eight bones of the body of the Malanggan. They wound the ropes wind in concentric circles forming a large disc that stood to my shoulder. The weavers aimed to be continuous, as they did not want to knot the ropes and break the flow of the ropes around the disc.
3.2 Display
A. Bodies animated with ‘eyes’

In the centre of the large disc, there is an open hole large enough for a man’s head to protrude. Sometimes it is filled with a man head, sometimes with a wood carving – such as pigs head—from the expert repartee of the maker. Sometimes it is made of wood fibre rope itself. The effect of placing the eye in the Malanggan is over whelming. As with the placing of the eye of the woodcarving, the eye of the woven carving can overwhelm the specialist maker. He is challenged to see himself in the placement of the eye, a pupil and iris unfolding from an open space.

B. Bodies animated with paint

The last work of making a Malanggan is painting it. The paint must glow in the sunlight, and have a lustre that catches the eye of the viewer. This is accomplished with magic, but also with a combination of ground seashell and the crushed saps or juices from tree fruits and bush leaves. Colours are applied with a brush made of coconut husk, and the work will be most successful when the final surface is as flat and ridge less as possible. The paint is most like paste, and it fills porous surfaces until we create a smooth surface on the disc.

While preparing the Malanggan, I learnded something new. The power of the visual memory on the landscape accounted for difficulties in assembling men and women to create a Malanggan. I shouted too loudly at a group of men passing by on the pathway to the next village, and by using a local idiom, “the men from Lavatkana just keep on advancing” often used to express appreciation for their renowned tenacity. At the moment they appeared, they had come from a day of house building near the aid post, and displayed their tenacity now in their community service. They had completed the building a guest house at the nearby aid post created a disaster. I have discussed elsewhere how the men of contemporary Lavatakana village carefully choose to never walk towards Lempatnas along the same paths as they took in battle a century and a half ago. They never repeat the same advance towards the hamlet Lempatnas because to do that would be to model the image retained in memory of the massacre and encapsulated in the idiom describing how they walked with tenacity for the purpose of making war. The idiom recalled another history of massacre, in which the tenacity succeeded in eliminating an entire clan, the same clan who could claim a history of relationship to the same Malanggan being made that month at the hamlet. The men from Lavatkana were ashamed at reference to the history of their leadership of massacre. This is an example of one way in which people shared their mutual vulnerabilities, and the ways in which I became embroiled in them.

3.3 Dispersal
A. Bodies into Memories
The songs of the knot Malanggan speaks from the experience of loneliness and lack of connection. (Consider too that this Malanggan is made appositely of rope, plaited and bound into a circular disc as if to emphasize how people are bound in relationships as a way of making the viewers imagine how life might be unwoven.) The Malanggan’s song underlines that human corporal life is an ephemeral experience against the prospects of a non-corporal eternity. The song is short and its tune is fleeting in memory, just as is life. The lyrics of the knotted Malanggan song are brief. Why did you leave me here all alone, weeping; I enjoyed your body for too brief a time compared with this eternity without you. When this song is sung, some women will hear it from the distance. Some will weep, some will mourn. The poetry evokes a response that draws from their common experience of death as the loss of the body, and their particular experience of the loss of kin. Some will speak of their long dead relatives, of whom they do not speak often in the course of everyday life because the social effects of the work of those dead has been completed at last.

It has been written by Kraemer that Malanggan images return in dreams. A viewer of the knotted rope Malanggan should appreciate the images over the material forms, just as the viewer of the carving does. However, viewers of the knotted Malanggan must understand the play of ethics and aesthetics. The surface of the knotted Malanggan is painted with red, white, black and yellow paints mixed with powered seashell, which makes a glistening surface to reflect sunlight. The hues are vivid and said to be body colours, not symbols of these. They evoke rather than represent, and hold a place in the life of funeral goers well after the funeral. The viewer who sees the igumes of Malanggan captures an image on the back of their eye. The viewer retains the image after closing the eye; it can be viewed privately on the closed eyelid. What matters here, is that the image of the Malanggan can be viewed on the back of the eyelid. The image reverses the colours of the Malanggan as it is viewed, so that what is painted black now glows as bright white light; and the red appears greenish. The experience of viewing a knotted Malanggan, painted with such glistening paint, underlines a problem central to Malanggans importance, namely a person learns about the beauty of seeing a Malanggan, and at the same time learns how to regard it. It is a central issue in the creation of Malanggan, that it is to be enjoyed in the course of a life and not deferred to its end.

4. Summary of the Operational Sequences

The ethnography of Malanggan making asks us to consider the way in which the economic psychology of ‘imitation’ is complemented by the social process of borrowing skills. In the case of described here, the makers of rope Malanggans remain much attuned to each other’s well being, and indirectly care for their own because they know that is the only way to make “a life’s work”. Each of the sequences of technical operations, concentration, display, and dispersal were recorded here as a story of interruption and near failure. To summarize:

Concentration: In the making of the rope from the rotting wood they saw the permeability and the decompositions of their own body. In the making of the Malanggan sculpture from the ropes, the makers saw the line of continuity of faces from the dead ancestors of their own clan. They acknowledged their borrowings from their ancestors, and discussed the limits of those borrowings.

Display: In the painting of the Malanggan, the makers saw the ghosts of the dead warriors who had murdered their own clansmen and so were reminded that meeting death is a part of living, but one that can be managed with dignity. They acknowledged that those who loaned them a place to build a display of Malanggan risked confrontation with the memory of a massacre, and they attuned their actions respectfully to that.

Dispersal: In viewing the complete Malanggan in the daylight, the makers saw the disc as an afterimage, while behind the Malanggan a voice sang weakly of its life as a living body, and of the loss of that life. The after image is all that remains of the tree that grows in the shadow of the tree for canoe making. It might represent the will, or even imitate it as it possesses the imagination of the viewers, and drives the person to see that Malanggan again. It is the afterimage that moves people to want to make the Malanggan, to really see it one more time and generates a new display at another funeral feast.
There is a practical joke which is not yet fully realized. The after image emerges from a model borrowed from other people, the Barok. If it represents the will, or if it imitates the will, then the will that possesses the Mandak is borrowed from the Barok it is not possessed by them as persons. Perhaps we could say that the Mandak are possessed by the Barok will. But there is one more turn of the joke yet. It is this, the model, and its teachings about the will, are borrowed from people who do not make Malanggans and thus cannot possess their neighbours imaginations with the products of their own.
Post –Text/After-Image: The Pidik (the Point) of It All

We live on borrowed time

Common to all considerations of death is the matter of human awareness that it will happen some day. What is not known about death is when and how. At the point in life at which a person meets death, they might not be able to weigh up the long chain of lived processes that composed their lifetime. This is because life is lived without the certainty of that a meeting with death will occur on this specific occasion. This basic uncertainty about the timing of death predisposes people to live a particular kind of life; a life that is in anticipation of it as a certain fact, but a life that must be about more than the fact itself. It is observed that living a good life does not guarantee a long life, nor does living a wicked one ensure early death. It is the case that a person can find the value of life in triumphing over it, but that does not answer the question of how they might value specific relationships and live a good life.

In this ethnography of borrowing as imitation I aimed to provide an insight into the value of a beautiful memory (a life). Here, borrowing is a social act in which the value of social relations must be explicit and discussed as a chain linking people to each other though things and to things. Value in this case is an example of the general theory advanced by Gregory (1997: 12) that value is an ‘invisible chain’ linking people to things and to relationships between people and things. Value links relationships to relationships, at least as strongly these relationships link people to things. His theory sheds new light on anthropology’s specialist considerations about how to value social relationships (12 - 40) because value is defined as a form of consciousness of the invisible chains that describe and prescribe. What I have shown here, is how his theory opens new questions, rather than answers old ones. Valuing social relationships, what anthropologists describe as a judgment of them, must be undertaken differently from valuing objects in the way political economy does, although relationships can be valued as if objects, because “fact and norm are parts of a dialectical unity mediated by value” The value of social relation can be made conscious and even discussed with concern; but most often borrowing is discussed in good spirits, and in a kindly even playful manner because people joking with each other know that time is neither their own, nor it been given to them by another.

How different this anthropological approach to living on ‘borrowed time’ is for understanding valuable relationships is from the post-structuralist philosopher’s claim that lives are valuable because we can contemplate what it means to lose them, as when lives are ‘given to death’ (or ‘put to death’ as Derrida better explains the English translation of the French idiom he invokes), as Derrida (1995) once told us in his curious use of Levinas to critique Mauss’s discussion of reciprocityxiii. Instead of making life into an object to be known at the moment of its loss, anthropologists have a chance to examine the processes by which people chose to live their lives, and the ways they compose the lives they share as they meet their obligations to each other. That is a project that really would take anthropologists into the eidos, ethics and sociology of how a life is committed, given and valued.

In this chapter I explored the creative work of valuing social relations. In order to explore how people value social relationships I discussed my own ethnographic example of making the rope Malanggan, as I helped to fabricate with a group of elderly men from the Lelet Plateau in central New Ireland in 1999-2000. I learned with them that it was quite right to say that the successful outcome of completing and displaying a Malanggans always remains uncertain, but that it is the case that a sculptor can claim correctly that the Malanggan will be made one day. A rumour that some carver will present one at a funeral feast can never be fulfilled with surety at this time. It may remain a rumor and the best intentions shamed by the failure to display a finished sculpture. It may be simple speculation about the possibility that the hosts of a funeral would display a Malanggan, even when never intended to do so. The value of the relationships can be weighed in the moment as people borrow on each others skills and capacities even as they know that they might not be able to complete their work of living well with each other. They know that Malanggans are composed of series of technical operations, and making one reminds them that life is a process of composing life itself. Making a Malanggan with these men was both a grave and a hilarious experience, a period of serious play in our mutual understandings and misunderstandings about the value of the social relationships that make up a life, the value of a life, and the value of the memory of how that life was lived.


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i This paper was also presented again in Verona, Italy at the conference of the European Society for Oceanists, July 8 – 10, in a panel honouring the work of Roy Wagner as a principle ethnographer of Melanesia. This chapter and its critique of Durkheimian Sociology is dedicated to him

ii If this sounds all too familiar to readers who are also scholars of the Malanggan ritual, then it is also likely that they would balk at both of Tarde’s assumptions about the will and creative genius.

iii The triad is borrowed from Latour, who names these as the suitable settlements embraced by the super-discipline of actor network theory.

iv The example of the case of the funeral arts puts the question ‘how should social scientists value life processes’ on the table for discussion by anthropologists. There is discomfort in confronting the loss of the substantive or corporeal human. In some songs the beautiful corpse is replaced with the word beautiful memory, as if it were a euphemism for a life. It betrays a complex popular doctrine to be considered in this, as my epigraph to this section suggests. Life is celebrated sadly as a beautiful memory. The quantitative measure of its duration (die young) is doubted by reference to its quality (live hard). It shows us that the problem is less that Tarde separates the intellect from the material for the sake of temporary analytic clarity, but that he thinks that material wealth can somehow be exchanged only as economic values and that it can be free from any moral valuation.

v Barry (2007), Thrift (2007) have discussed this in greater length than I allow it here. My aim is different than theirs because I seek to unpack imitation ethnographically in order to understand how we can better discuss the value of a beautiful memory in social relationships.

vi I borrow this ‘correction’ from Mauss (2006, p. 30 ff) whose annoyance with Tarde’s own borrowings is registered in Mauss’s words “Borrowing is shown all through Tarde, indeed it is borrowing one page after another”. What I wish to show by the end of this presentation is that Tarde’s essay on economic psychology is less inspired by classical theories of economy, and borrows rather heavily on Mauss, whose major point on the ‘economy’ of exchange is precisely this, that reciprocity is not simply economic exchanges of equivalent things, the obligation to reciprocate implicated the economy with moral and ideational concerns. Without discussing it at length, those who know Mauss’s book The Gift, will recognize that it is with good reason that the Scandinavian Edas stand as epigraph to it, emphasizing that giving and receiving was a way of valuing another person.

vii Elicitation is a central concept introduced by Wagner in his ethnography of the Barok to describe their creative acts that tease out, provoke or create specific responses in others,

viii My concept owes more to the insights of Leroi-Gourhan 1983, Mauss in Schlanger 2006 and to Wagner 1986, than to Tarde or Durkheim.

ix See Gunn 1987 for a discussion of these concerns.

x While this case seems a small ‘sample’, the work of mortuary sculpting is not often shared with ethnographers, and our best accounts are often based largely in interviews with expert Malanggan makers as the work of Kuchler 2002), Derlon 1997, Lewis 1964, Brouwer (1988) have shown. This absence of a record of Malanggan making is a problem for the production of a vulnerable form, the luwara, which is said to be a human body.

xi Lengobus means to be bound fast with rope. The lashing of the lengkobus are used in the long house construction of the Mandak of the Lelet, where an intricate system of ropes and trees made a very warm secure dark house, with the distinctive feature of a moveable ridge pole, that nestled in the meeting of the round timbers at the apex of the house. The lashing at each increase in the height of the house wall is named for their habitual uses in the final house, for example the lowest is named the rat-run whereas the highest is named the tobacco row, and because this is where fresh leaves hang to dry in the smoky upper area. The long house had one low door only, and people entered or left by the same way, bending their heads low as they came into the home of their hosts. It is respectful to enter the longhouse by extending the bared back of the neck to the hosts. Showing deference upon entering the home is more than a manner of etiquette. It is this expression of vulnerability that makes ethical conduct in the household possible.

Luwara does not translate but is demonstrated in various examples as the doorway to the house, the pupil of the eye, the centre of a whirlpool, and the backwards curl of the water at the canoe prow. In many respects the luwara appears to be similar to another Malanggan found in northern New Ireland, the kap kap that is worn around the neck by adolescents. I believe they could have shown me more examples of the places in the world or on the body that are permeable. The examples showed me that the form of the lengkobus-luwara Malanggan is unstable.

xii The influences of Mauss’s theory of technique are notable here, and like N. Schlanger (2006), Lemonier (REF) who all build on Mauss’s study of technique, Ingold shows that vulnerability in relations between conceptual and material form is always specific to the sensual and personal experience which is tacit not explicit. We know more than we can tell and a reworking of the understanding of what is a life, might well open up that part of experience to the anthropological examination. Like Ingold, I propose that pursuing this line of inquiry aids anthropologists in understanding how objects such as Malanggan remain meaningful, without insisting on interpretation of them as representations of other objects, or of social processes.

xiii Even more curious when compared with his earlier discussion of Mauss’s student, Leroi-Gourhan in Of Grammatology (1974)

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