Academic journal article Oceania

Cargo Cult Horror

Academic journal article Oceania

Cargo Cult Horror

Article excerpt


Anthropological analyses of cargo cults offer certain plots alongside ethnographic detail. Many such accounts assume one or the other of three common storylines. Cargo cults have been plotted as bildungsroman, as horror story, and as carnival. Bildungsroman cargo narratives suggest that cargo is good but culting is bad. Carnivalesque accounts reverse this polarity to celebrate culting while disparaging the dangers of cargo. The horror storyline laments both cargo and culting. Over the past fifty years, shifting appreciations of modernity, technology, and progress have reshaped the stories in which cargo cults get accounted: Modernity's cargo bildungsroman has given way to postmodern horror.

A critical retrospective of cargo cults has to be a little cock-eyed. One eye stares back at the history of such movements and at theories thereof. The second peers crosswise at the present to focus on still tenacious cargo outbursts and cultic renewals. And another eye surveys cargo culting in Melanesia, while yet another looks homewards at our own participation in cargo cult stories. The Melanesian cargo cult is a strangely prevalent tale in popular culture. [1] This perennial cargo cult is a problem, and I have speculated elsewhere about why such stories continue to engage the anthropological, and the popular, imagination (Lindstrom 1993). Clearly, as many have discerned, cargo cults are 'good to think,' to borrow Levi-Strauss' bon mot (see Wagner 1981:31; Dalton, this volume). Cargo cults can titillate. They reflect certain motifs and mores that help us sometimes better to comprehend, sometimes better to challenge, life in a global economy.

Previously, to recap briefly, I suggested that cargo stories are a kind of late capitalist romance. [2] Like love, cargo desire metaphorically is a form of madness. Even an apparent acquisition of the love object cannot end the story. Desire is never satisfied and lovers lust after the never-ending emotion of aching desire itself as much as they covet some particular lover. A lover in the end, like the marketplace where one may never stop shopping, never frilly satisfies.

But it is possible also to read cargo cults in terms of a different literary genre -- that of the gothic horror story. Cargo texts may take the form of a Mary Shelleyish tale of horror. Cargo is not just about desire that won't quit (i.e., the modern romance); it can also be about an unquenchable desire that unwittingly brings about a horrid fate: a fatal plunge straight into the grim merciless maw of modernity.

My appreciation of cargo texts as horror stories was informed by the reissue, for the third time, of a cargo classic -- of Kenelm Burridge's Mambu. [3] Princeton University Press' Bollinger Series in World Mythology, which 'makes available in new paperback formats many classic and influential studies on world mythology,' has treated us to a new edition of Mambu. Burridge's analysis of cargo cults that occurred in Papua New Guinea's Madang Province from the 1930s to the 1950s is, as the book's dust jacket promises, an influential classic of cargo literature. First issued in 1960, Mambu was published again as a Harper Torchbook in 1970. Now it has come back around a third time. Burridge, in a new preface, appears bemused and not much concerned to rework Mambu for the 1990s. He admits he was surprised to get the call from Princeton and he only offers a few new pages of introduction. This preface acknowledges upfront, 'here it is again, neither edited nor rewritten, a response to varieties of demand' (1995:xv).

What can we make of a book that sails unchanged through time to reappear 35 years later? Melanesian cargo cults are notoriously recurrent but so, it seems, are cargo analyses. And how are we to understand those 'varieties of demand' that Burridge sensed? What interests lurk out there that animate the repackaging of the cargo story? In this case, one might say that the cargo text itself is the undead -- a monster impossible to kill. …

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