Laughter and Truth in Fiji: What We May Learn from a Joke

By Toren, Christina | Oceania, March-June 2005 | Go to article overview

Laughter and Truth in Fiji: What We May Learn from a Joke


Toren, Christina, Oceania


   Laughter is both a fundamental contestation, exposing the basic
   frailty of an established truth, and a dawn of day, liberating one
   from fixed boundaries and ties. Fear is overcome by laughter but
   remains its origin. Laughter is a sovereign mode of thought,
   revealing the ground of a thing ... and there is no basic
   difference between laughing at something and understanding its
   truth ... And although laughter is considered an experience of
   sovereignty.... [i]t does not entail the exercise of power ...
   Basically it is an experience of revolt, of transcending servitude.
   (Hub Zwart, 1996, discussing Bataille's L'experience interieure)

More than twenty years have passed since I wrote the fieldnotes on which this paper is based: it's taken this long for me to come to grips with my puzzlement concerning what, actually, happened. The epigraph above provides the means of resolution. I had not, at the time of the events themselves, or later, paid enough attention to people's laughter. The revelatory force of laughter has peculiarly anthropological implications, for, as I show below through analysis of a minor but very Fijian contretemps, laughter can at once be evidence for and give new meaning to ethnographic analysis.

My case rests on a long extract from my fieldnotes for 1982. At the time I was undertaking my first fieldwork in Sawaieke, the chiefly village of the eight villages that constitute Sawaieke vanua or country on the island of Gau. (1) The edited notes cover the period from 6th to the 19th July 1982--that is, from two-weeks before the general election to just after it. The major parties in that election were the Alliance (the government party whose membership and following were predominantly ethnic Fijians) and the National Federation Party (whose membership and following were predominantly Fiji Indians). The small Nationalist Party and its leader Butadroka were vociferous and highly visible, but according to all reports had little real following and certainly none in Sawaieke country.

The history of Fiji, from the time of its independence from Britain in 1970, had been marked by a largely peaceful co-existence of ethnic Fijians and Fiji Indians--that is, until the military coups of 1987. In the early 1980s, however, there appeared little likelihood of anything like this. The 1980 census gave the population of Fiji as just over 634,000, with Fiji Indians numbering just over half. On smaller islands, however, like Gau the population was (as it still is) often almost entirely made up of ethnic Fijians. (2) My fieldnotes bear on the political rivalries of the time--national and local, but as the reader will see, my focus is not these rivalries as such, but a joke to which they gave rise and what we may learn from laughter.

The fieldnotes take for granted a knowledge of Fijian sociality, so I begin with generalisations derived from my previous work. They concern the fused antithesis of hierarchy and competitive equality that informs literally all social relations between Fijian villagers. This antithesis is manifest in ideas that are at once conserved and transformed in the practices of day-to-day living that bring them into being anew, and it was crucial to the success of the joke that was the climax of the events I describe. My use of the 'ethnographic present' is intended to suggest the continuity that resides in transformation such that the ideas and practices I discuss here are likely still to prevail in Sawaieke country (and indeed among those rural Fijians who live in central and eastern Fiji) as a function of the processes through which meaning is constituted over time. (3)

A SINGLE IDEA OF ANTITHETICAL DUALITY

In central and eastern Fiji, among ethnic Fijians, social relations in general and chiefship in particular are a function of complementary and opposing concepts of competitive equality (as evinced, for example, in reciprocal exchanges across houses and clans) and hierarchy (as evinced, for example, in tribute to chiefs). …

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