Agency, Kinship, and History in North Ambrym
Patterson, Mary, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
Theories of agency have a long and complex history in philosophy and the social sciences and, of late, a certain prominence in anthropology. Built into the genealogy of the term is its dual nature as effective action in the world and a 'patient' quality representing not action itself but the grounds, limits, and situated possibilities for action. While attempts to see agency as a kind of bridging concept that will solve the perennial problem of the relationship between the individual and society have led to a number of famous and popular solutions, they also commonly end up privileging one or other of agency's antinomies, appearing either too voluntarist or overly determined by structure.
In his recent article 'Discussions around a sand-drawing: creations of agency and sociality in Melanesia', Knut Rio (2005) offers one such solution, emphasizing an existentialist (more specifically a Sartrean) notion of agency and arguing that certain kin relations in the island of Ambrym in Vanuatu are afforded a 'totalizing' role in sociality. Like the person executing a sand-drawing or illustrating his kinship system to an anthropologist, they tie up the 'loose ends' of social life.
The disappointing absence in Rio's stimulating article, in my view, is the ethnographic context in which this agency is operative. In the case of North Ambrym, this context includes over one hundred and fifty years of varied engagement with the labour trade, Christianity, colonialism, decolonization, anthropological interest, the revival of kastom, tourism, and a rapidly increasing population in an island with limited resources and an active volcano at its centre.
There are numerous instances in Rio's article where I might take issue with his generalized representation of Ambrym notions of place and kinship, but it would be tedious to list them all here. Instead I deal with two examples of missed opportunity to contextualize historically the Sartrean totalizing agency that would demonstrate more effectively its role in transforming and constituting sociality in contemporary North Ambrym.
The first example is the case of the sand-drawing that is said to 'totalize' its accompanying narrative (see Fig. 1). Now this drawing is not the most common kind of sand-drawing found in Vanuatu, being a story commemorating an actual event and in this case a risque one at that; it is a bit like a 'dirty joke'. The interesting thing about this drawing is its history. A much more elaborate version was collected by French ethnographer Jean Guiart in North Ambrym in the late 1940s (see Fig. 2). When Kirk Huffman showed it to a West Ambrymese in 1978, he was told that the design, called long opwer (taro pudding), and story originated with a man named Maru of Wou, a bush village in North Ambrym (Huffman 1996: 249).
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
The design depicts a woman holding a messy grated tuber above her head so that she does not leave tell tale-marks on the back of the man with whom she is having sexual intercourse (Huffman 1996: 249). As in the story recounted to Rio, Huffman was told that the couple was observed but also that the observer (Maru) made the drawing.
Rio's totalizing informant offers a drawing pared down to a graffito and linked not with the simple adultery story but with a version of a myth widely known and reported in north central Vanuatu. An important part of the mythic narrative involves knowledge of a design, executed in various different ways, but the telling of the myth has never been reported to be accompanied by a sand-drawing featuring this design. The central features of the narrative are always the same. A man's wife has sex with his younger brother after the husband has left her protected in some way by a design drawn either on the ground outside the hut, on the hut's door, or on her genitals. Finding the design disturbed, the cuckolded husband tests the men of his place. When the younger brother is the only one to reproduce the design accurately the husband knows that he is the adulterer, takes him to the garden on the pretext of digging up a yam, clubs him to death, and buries him in the hole. …