Academic journal article Oceania

Longing for Completion: Toward an Aesthetics of Work in Suau

Academic journal article Oceania

Longing for Completion: Toward an Aesthetics of Work in Suau

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Aesthetics is a relatively recent 'discovery' for anthropologists, and on the whole has been limited to analyses of art and other forms of material culture. This article asks whether aesthetics might not also be applied to 'cultural images', or the forms in which people imagine their relationships to be made manifest. I take as my example gendered working relationships in the Suau region of Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. In Suau the work of men and women is contingent upon, and assessed according to, values which appear at the juncture of particular relational configurations. Work is in fact the medium through which these relationships are made visible and 'real' to those who witness it. The forms taken by work refer to a morally freighted domain of values and interpretations, and the appropriate performance of work thus maintains an image of sociality as it is ideally conceived.

There have been in recent years some cogent and compelling arguments against claiming 'aesthetics' as an aspect of social life applicable to non-Western societies (Gow 1996, Gell 1998). However, these have focused primarily on considering non-Western art and artefacts under the rubric of the aesthetic, which as J. Weiner (1995) has noted, limits discussion to an immanent, subjectivist aesthetic mode, thereby suppressing an alternative transcendent one. One could also argue the opposite, that preoccupation with the 'art object' suppresses aesthetics as creaturely engagement with the world and privileges a dispassionate Kantian contemplation which rejects the sensate (Bourdieu 1984:486). In either case Weiner would still be correct in his assertion that aesthetics cannot be disposed of by suppressing one of its terms (1995:32). In doing so we would in fact be practising the same strategy of concealment by which, in several Oceanic aesthetic schemes, 'any mode of symbolic articulation rests on the simultaneous c overing over of its opposed mode' (1995:37). In this article, I am more concerned with the motivation and agency of work than with its products. I will claim that work is locally evaluated in a manner describable as aesthetic. Work, especially subsistence work, is hardly one of the enchanted technologies of Gell's and Weiner's arguments, and it is for this reason that I wish to call attention to it as a potential egress from debates over whether non-Western art ought or ought not to be analysed in terms of an aesthetic, indigenous or otherwise (Price 1989). I aim for a recognition that particular forms exposed to critical assessment may appear for non-Western peoples in arenas that have little to do with art, but everything to do with human agency operating upon the world.

I will argue that work is one such arena for Suau-speakers on the southern mainland of Mime Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. [1] Suau people have not produced anything recognised by Westerners as 'art' for some sixty years (see Beran 1996), and explanations in terms of an 'impoverishment of the culture' are popular among Papua New Guinean proto-nationalists, adventure journalists and 'tribal art' dealers. Equally this fact may suggest that Suan creative life did not reside exclusively in carving, if indeed it resided there at all. Since I have as great an investment in the integrity of 'Suau culture' as art dealers have in its impoverishment, it should come as no surprise which of these positions I will take. I will propose, taking my cue from Schwimmer (1979), that the value placed by Suau people on certain kinds of work done for certain kinds of people is as much a 'statement on patterns in the universe' (1979:311) as the taros grown by Schwimmer's Orokaiva informants: the manifestation of 'real work'. But when Schwimmer compares garden work to art work, arguing that the products of both can be construed as signs as well as objects, I do not believe he means that the criteria by which a taro is judged and those by which a painting is judged belong to commensurate value systems. …

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