Academic journal article Oceania

Gift Exchange as Sensory Experience among the Anganen

Academic journal article Oceania

Gift Exchange as Sensory Experience among the Anganen

Article excerpt


Gift exchange among the Anganen of the Southern Highlands Province (PNG) may be a complex, multifaceted sensory experience for participants and audience alike. This article primarily looks at the sensory dimensions of the organisation of space, with attention also given to sound, the immense heat of large pork distributions and the possibility of heightened emotional states such as trepidation or expectation that may feature in some events. These provide the ambience for the specific meaning of exchange to emerge. I compare a number of exchanges primarily through focusing on what I term politicisation (which may variously concern prestige, the degree of social opposition, or the amount of aggression displayed). Be it through contextual factors, or the inherent structural orientation of any exchange, political intensity varies due to different manifestations of sensory criteria. Gender and space are a major focus. In events that lack overt political intensity such as the marriage ceremony, women occupy centre stage. However, in more overtly politically intense events such as the yasolu ceremonial pork distribution, it is men who command centrality. As far as sound is concerned, while oration may feature, most interest is directed at the role of silence at marriage, the keening of women mourners at mortuary exchange, and a number of non-discursive utterances by men in politically intense events that express aggression or exuberant pride. The argument is that these are not incidental but constitutive aspects of the politics of exchange. As such, the sensory dimensions of sight concern more than just the amount of wealth given, while the audible dimensions must go beyond oration alone.


The extensive literature on gift exchange in Melanesia has produced excellent accounts of its material and strategic dimensions. Similarly a great deal has been written on the role of oration. These aspects are often linked when addressing the articulation of power, be it within male hierarchies or for gender relations. The importance of these concerns for what exchange may be about is undeniable. However, less attention has been given to the less obvious sensory dimensions of exchange, the full range of its sights, sounds, silences, and perhaps smells that also help construct its meaning, including the politics of prestige and perhaps aggression that exchange may generate.

My intention here is to treat gift exchange among the Anganen of the Southern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea, as a far more nuanced and complex performance of which wealth quantity and male strategy are just part. The principal focus of this article concerns how space, especially in relation to gender, and perhaps sound, including non-literal utterances and silence, may feature in a number of forms of gift exchange Some attention will also be given to other sensory aspects such as heat and smell. My interest lies in how these, in and of themselves and relative to each other, form part of the ambience of exchange. This ambience provides the setting for how those involved or witnessing such events render them meaningful in ways that largely defy detailed exegetical explanation. One product of this meaning ambience is what I have elsewhere called degrees of politicisation (Nihill 1996a). By this I mean that, comparatively, some exchanges are inherently more open to explicit quests for individual prestig e and perhaps stylised aggression than others where the political remains largely implicit. Conventional exchanges pertaining to marriage typify the latter, while a progressive shift through mortuary exchanges to the yasolu ceremonial pork distribution highlights how this intensified politicisation process takes place.

The significance of gender in Melanesia is reflected in the way it encodes meaning through the categorisation of a vast array of physical and social phenomena. Space is one instance of this. …

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