Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Perpetual Lament: Kava-Drinking, Christianity and Sensations of Historical Decline in Fiji

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Perpetual Lament: Kava-Drinking, Christianity and Sensations of Historical Decline in Fiji

Article excerpt

Narratives of decline and loss are a common phenomenon cross-culturally, but the phenomena which they configure as leaving, diminishing, or disappearing vary widely and have different effects. For example, Raymond Williams (1973) argued that the English pastoral landscape was a projection for fantasies of the morally ideal society. The aristocracy, the middle class, and even the landless rural poor all tended to accept the idea that industrialization had caused 'a kind of fall, the true cause and origin of our social suffering and disorder' (Williams 1973: 96). Developing capitalist relationships were set in contrast with 'the idealisation of a "natural" or "moral" economy' in the past (1973: 37), thus framing economic issues in terms of virtue. In contrast to this sort of moralistic nostalgia, some societies emphasize the loss of power in narratives of decline. For example, the Wana of Sulawesi, Indonesia, as described by Jane Atkinson (1989), imagine a past in which a person had but to speak of a thing for it to come into existence; nowadays, Wana realize, the connection between linguistic representations and concrete reality is more tenuous. As another example, Baboule spirit devotees among the Mawri of Niger, as described by Adeline Masquelier (2001), were once able to vomit up all the money they needed, and if they needed anything that money could not buy, they could simply open their hands and it would magically appear. Now, with Islam aggressively pushing spirit devotees to the social margins, nothing is obtained easily any more for Mawri. Emphases on lost virtue versus lost power can shift contextually, and can also interpenetrate. I argue, however, that a relative emphasis on lost power, as opposed to lost virtue, has greater potential to transcend mere nostalgia and inspire political action.

In Oceania, history is often described as a transition from 'darkness' to 'light' (see below), with the latter signifying an age of Christian enlightenment; however, in these visions, the past's 'darkness' is often suffused with a power that has been lost. In other words, the loss of power correlates with the gain of moral virtue in these visions of history. In this article, I examine the theme of historical decline as I heard it discussed in the villages of Tavuki Bay, Kadavu Island, Fiji. (1) I examine the range, depth, and durability of the Tavukian theme of decline, and ask how it becomes practically meaningful for villagers, both intellectually and palpably. I argue that nightly sessions at which adults drink the beverage kava are sites at which the intelligibility and palpability of historical decline are generated in a particularly effective manner. This article, then, is an exploration in the ritual creation of embodied meanings, following from work by scholars such as Arno (2003), Csordas (1994), Desjarlais (1992), and Schieffelin (1985). (2) Its distinct contribution is to show that 'successful' performance can be grounded in senses of decline and loss--not the overcoming of potential failure, as in Keane (1997), but in actually achieving a lamented state. I argue that in frequent, copious drinking of kava, and in talking about frequent kava-drinking as a sign of historical decline, Tavukians make senses of loss into intellectual, palpable realities which can then have broad political effect.

In the first section, I discuss themes of decline cross-culturally and describe the specific signs of the Fijian 'fall from a golden age'. In the second section I am concerned with the different ways in which people may both experience and render intelligible a sense of loss within the distinctive arena of their village kava-drinking sessions. In drinking kava, one comes to feel corporeally a history of decline as well as to hear it articulated verbally, and, adapting the work of Urban (1991; 1996; 2001), I argue that this practical conjunction makes kava sessions particularly effective in circulating the theme of decline. …

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