Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Indecorous, Too Hasty, Incorrect: Market and Moral Imagination in Auhelawa, Papua New Guinea

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Indecorous, Too Hasty, Incorrect: Market and Moral Imagination in Auhelawa, Papua New Guinea

Article excerpt

As If

The decorum of the Kula transaction is strictly kept, and highly valued. The natives sharply distinguish it from barter, which they practice extensively, of which they have a clear idea, and for which they have a settled term in Kiriwinian: gimwali. Often, when criticizing an incorrect, too hasty, or indecorous procedure of Kula, they will say: "He conducts his Kula as if it were gimwali." (Malinowski 1932 [1922]:95-96)

This is perhaps the hardest-working passage in the entire text of Argonauts. The argument here is not particularly important to the text as a whole, as Argonauts is a book where all the parts pull their weight equally in service of ethnographic depiction. In the service of social theory, though, this passage is probably the most quoted. It helps anthropologists and others quickly and clearly establish the concept of reciprocity as an instituted norm of exchange. With it, they dispense with any naïve marginal utility theory of value in the minds of their readers in one single stroke. Indeed, few people outside of anthropology need to hear "Imagine yourself suddenly set down..." (Malinowski 1932 [1922]:4). The image of sloppy reciprocity, however, has not only been evoked in countless introductory anthropology textbooks, but also cited in archaeology, sociology, law, and ethics to make the same point (Kimbrell 1994:300-301, Patton 1996:31-32, Fort and Noone 2000, Tandy 2000:117, Prentice 2007, Hénaff 2010:309).

Malinowski, Mauss (1990 [1925]), and Polanyi (1957), among others, all interpret this passage differently, but each emphasizes the evidentiary weight of "He conducts his Kula as if it were gimwali" as a reported statement from a typical Kiriwina person. By quoting a native observer, authors show that "the Kula" is, in fact, a single, unitary system, denoted always by its own proper noun.1 It is an excellent example of Malinowski's ethnographic method. Malinowski wanted to create a corpus inscriptionum Kiriwinensium (a body of inscriptions of Kiriwina) with which he could discover the "native's point of view" of everyday life (Malinowski 1932 [1922]:18-19). In this passage, the statement shows that "they have a clear idea," and they have a "settled term," for bad form. This quotation has led scholars to reify the Kiriwina words kula and gimwali. A contextually-bound utterance has been turned into an abstract statement of doctrine.2 Kula and gimwali have become names for "spheres" of exchange (Bohannon 1955:60).

In a paradigm in which kula and gimwalia are spheres, many scholars have reasoned that the commodity form of value will always present people with a "trader's dilemma" between observing norms of reciprocity and seeking individual gain, and that these kinds of moral categories will constrain individuals' self-interested accumulation (Evers and Schrader 1994). Market trading often takes place in interstitial spaces between distinct social worlds (Benediktsson 2002, van der Grijp 2003, Koczberski 2007, Addo and Besnier 2008, Cahn 2008, Besnier 2011, Sharp 2013). In many communities that straddle subsistence production and market trade, money is often classified according to how it is earned, and this places limits on how it can be spent (Shipton 1989, Toren 1989, Walsh 2003, Peebles 2012). All this has led many observers to see market trade as always posing a dilemma.

Yet, the "settled terms" are not the only thing that makes this statement rhetorically effective. Malinowski is himself, as elsewhere, making use of ethnographic irony too: a shell valuable is like holy water, or a salad fork. Its ethnographic authority, in other words, rests not on exoticism, but on the uncanny. The tone of this speaker's statement-ironic, arch, snobbish-comes through in the quotation and bolsters the ethnographer's point. Rather than being simply a report on the event, the informant's comment looks to be an example of "kula talk," that is, an account of events that aligns transactions with the roads between chains of partners and thereby establishes the rank of different valuables (Munn 1992:109, Weiner 1992:141, Damon 1993:236). …

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