Paradoxes of the Cosmopolitan in Melanesia1
Is it an oxymoron to speak of Melanesian cosmopolitanism? The region is often portrayed in the popular media as inhabited by isolated 'last unknown' peoples. At the same time, as is also well known, it is a region with over 700 different languages, famous for its cultural and social diversity. It is this intensity of difference — one that often belies a sense of cultural and social 'isolation' — which significantly informs Melanesian cosmopolitanism. The emphasis on difference co-exists with its opposite, the surmounting of difference, in order to create the grounds for new forms of distinctiveness. This recurrent process, as exemplified in exchange relations, person and place-name transformations, among others, is the basis of what I refer to here as a 'grassroots' kind of Melanesian cosmopolitanism. It is perhaps akin to what Kahn (2003: 409) refers to as 'popular cosmopolitans', where he suggests that in modern Malaysia and the surrounding archipelago '[a] certain cosmopolitanism governs the practices of localized individuals and institutions, everyday interactions between individuals and groups, popular cultural activities, forms of economic relations and institutions of village government.' However, a further distinctive feature of Melanesian cosmopolitanism is its cosmology: the widespread view across the region that each collectivity occupies the centre of the world. The capacity to draw in otherness, often from great distances, is evidence of this centrality and the power associated with it. In Melanesia there is a different kind of commerce evident, compared to that typical, for instance, of large-scale mercantile, urban societies of the Mediterranean, fertile crescent or South-East Asia. It is a commerce of symbolic transactions between relatively small cultural collectivities and one that engenders a cosmopolitan world of exchange. The 'conversation' in Melanesia (Appiah 2006) is not so much verbal but nevertheless highly symbolic and communicative.
The question, however, is: how is this distinctive form of Melanesian cosmopolitanism being sustained in the face of the unequal relations produced by Westernisation and predatory economic globalisation? James Clifford has noted that cosmopolitanism '[a]llows us to hold on to the idea that whereas something like economic and political equality are crucial political goals, something like cultural similarity is not' (Clifford 1998: 365). In considering the impact of globalisation on indigenous peoples he argues that, 'the goal is not complete separation from the