Academic journal article Ethnology

Creating the Moral Body: Missionaries and the Technology of Power in Early Papua New Guinea (1)

Academic journal article Ethnology

Creating the Moral Body: Missionaries and the Technology of Power in Early Papua New Guinea (1)

Article excerpt

British missionaries went to Papua New Guinea in order to create a new moral body: a Christian character that would fit into Great Britain's colonial world. Education by missionaries became, in an interpretation paralleling the theories of Michel Foucault, technologies of power for imposing particular forms of social discipline upon individuals so that they might want to become part of the institutional relationships that favored Christianity and colonialism at the expense of local forms of life. These technologies of power were established during the early stages of missionary education. (Missionaries, technologies of power, the moral body, colonialism, Papua New Guinea)


In 1871, the British missionaries A. W. Murray and Samuel MacFarlane, along with eight "native teachers," sailed from the Loyalty Islands and opened a new Pacific mission field in New Guinea. Undertaken by the London Missionary Society, the goal of this mission was, according to the Reverend Murray, the "overthrow of the reign of darkness throughout New Guinea and the almost numberless islands that skirt its shores, and the establishment in its room of the kingdom of light and life" (Murray and MacFarlane 1871:32). The features of this kingdom were defined by the missionaries of the L.M.S. in the field, in co-operation with their directors in London.

The establishment of the L.M.S. in the area that became known as Papua (and eventually as a region in the country of Papua New Guinea) is an excellent example of the beginning of what Foucault (1979, 1980, 1984; Dandeker 1990) refers to as a "disciplinary society"; i.e., the imposition of discipline over individuals soon becomes part of the continual recreation of institutionalizing social bodies or "technologies of power."

Featherstone and Turner (1995:2) have noted that one of the most prevalent contemporary styles of analysis concerning the body involves considering it as a metaphor for the construction of a desired social discourse. In other words, the body becomes an iconic location for technologies of power. They also state the need to develop "a strong sense of the history of the body" (Featherstone and Turner 1995:8). I disagree and suggest instead that we need to start writing histories of the body; descriptions of the diverse contexts in which bodies came to be used as metaphorical locations for social projections under unique though comparable historical, social, and cultural conditions.

This essay is concerned with the protocolonial situation that Jean and John Comaroff (1992:70), following Pierre Bourdieu, refer to as a "re-membering" of the body. In such contexts, "attempts to remake habit tend to treat the body as a `memory' in which are lodged, in mnemonic form, the organizing principles of an embracing context. Scrambling this code (that is, erasing the messages carried in banal physical practice) is a prerequisite for retraining the memory, either to deschool the deviant or to shape new subjects, as the bearers of new worlds" (Comaroff and Comaroff 1992:70).

Taussig (1992:84), like the Comaroffs (1991:62), points out that colonization tends to bring with it pressures for a new kind of person; one that will be amenable to the modernizing forms of discipline required for life within a very different social milieu than the kind that previously existed. "At its core was the modernist self: the familiar figure of the right-bearing, responsible, `free' individual whose very condition of possibility was the nation-state itself" (Comaroff and Comaroff 1997:365). Pressures for the creation of a modern self were neither one sided nor limited to situations of colonization; they were exerted against both peasants and the newly emerging working class in Europe (Frykman and Lofgren 1987) and rebounded from these colonial and noncolonial "others" to affect the consciousness of the European middle classes themselves. That is, the European middle classes were fashioning their conceptions of modern life at home at the same time as they were trying to create it elsewhere (Frykman and Lofgren 1987; Comaroff and Comaroff 1997). …

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