Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Form, Attention and a Southern New Ireland Life Cycle *

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Form, Attention and a Southern New Ireland Life Cycle *

Article excerpt

One of the ways in which we experience our surroundings is as a world of forms. Many of our interactions with that world, on that construal of our surroundings, are in the modality of form; certainly many of the ways in which we express our experience of ourselves in the world are formal. This is in a manner that transcends other major distinctions in our experience, such as that between mind and matter. As I write, I am attempting to inculcate formal qualities of coherence, clarity, and clear articulation in my thoughts, but I could as well be attempting to instil the same qualities into a physical sculpture or painting--though that is not to say that they would appear in the same way or that form can be freed from its substrate.

Form's ubiquitous role in subjective experience may indicate its importance in social processes composed from, and shaping of, human life worlds. As such, I believe that it is a topic of some importance to anthropology. This article high-lights one way in which the experience of form becomes relevant to social processes through an investigation of its essential relationship with attention. A theoretical discussion of this relationship is followed by an attempt to demonstrate the explanatory potential of this approach through an ethnographic analysis of a series of life-cycle rituals in Lak (1) in southern New Ireland.

Perhaps because of its ubiquity, form as an aspect of subjective experience is a slippery subject to write about. Indeed, the concept of form itself despite, or perhaps because of, its long philosophical genealogy (see Summers 1989) has been relatively little discussed by specialists in the anthropology of art (the place one might most expect to find it), though much ink has been spilt on the production, interpretation, and interrelationship of 'forms' without corresponding attention to the term on which these analyses are predicated. (2) Within anthropology, Gell argues (1998: 163-4) that formal approaches have become unfashionable, damned by unviable oppositions between form and content to an association with sterile iconography or unproductive 'structuralist' methodology. It may also be that a lack of reflection on the root concept (form) has given most formal analyses little purchase on questions that tend to interest anthropologists not specializing in the 'anthropology of art'. Recently, two theorists have done much to buck this trend, reviving and revising form as a topic within anthropology. Gell (1993; 1998; see also Pinney & Thomas 2001) renewed the relevance of formal analysis for anthropological theory by focusing on the active cognitive force exerted by the form of art objects and suggesting that the interrelationship of forms in an oeuvre might usefully be regarded as traces of intentionality, of mind no less, distributed over space and time. Ingold (2000) has particularly contributed to our understanding of making and the generation of forms, both in terms of their reciprocal shaping of the maker in the acquisition of skilled practices, and as unfolding within morpho-genetic fields of forces that interrelate object, environment, and maker.

These authors raise important themes that I also touch upon in this article: Gell, in particular, highlights the subversion of the subject/object distinction implied by the connection of form with cognition and the ineluctable implication of process, future and past transformation, in any specific materialization of form. (3) Though Gell does not link attention to form, Ingold does. In an important parallel to the argument of this article, he argues that forms are emergent from an 'education of attention' prompted by the engagement of a subject with its environment, and that their perception is a learnt skill. While this may be a step forward from the unproblematic 'giveness' of form that Gell seems to assume, it still, in my view, implies a directionality to attention and a substantiality to form. (4) To my knowledge, there is no implication in Ingold's writings that form itself waxes and wanes with the volatility of subjectivity and the politics of sociality, and not only with the cumulative emergence of the evolutionary or learning processes he describes so well. …

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