Cargo Cults and Discursive Madness

By Dalton, Doug | Oceania, June 2000 | Go to article overview

Cargo Cults and Discursive Madness


Dalton, Doug, Oceania


ABSTRACT

Understood as mimetic portrayals of the image of unlimited good projected by European colonial culture, Melanesian 'cargo cults' are therefore viewed as 'irrational' within indigenous understandings. Consequently, Western anthropological discourse has sought to functionally normalize and nativize 'cargo cult' behaviors at the expense of denying their nonrational character. The result has been a lexical and semantic uncertainty and explanatory instability in 'cargo cult' discourse that can be analyzed as a type of discursive 'madness.' A strategy of reading the 'madness' of 'cargo cult' discourse is outlined and applied to key anthropological texts, in particular Peter Worsley's The Trumpet Shall Sound.

Ever since F. E. Williams (1979a[1923], 1979b[1934]) characterized what was to be called the 'cargo cult' phenomenon as a kind of 'madness,' even though this characterization has been widely challenged by anthropologists, 'madness' has nonetheless continued to haunt 'cargo cult' discourse. Williams' essay was a plea to recognize and preserve the functionality of traditional ritual, which he viewed as primarily an outlet for emotions which, once denied ritual expression, found a liberation in cargo cult 'madness.' Yet in his view this 'madness' by definition did not have the same functionality as did traditional ritual. He therefore thought that the useful aspects of 'traditional' culture should be preserved while the bad ones, like those manifest in the liminal dysfunctionality of 'cargo cults,' should be done away with.

Williams' evolutionist notion that this deluded, irrational behavior would eventually give way to greater rational comprehension was soon displaced by explanations that focused even more on its functional utility and cultural sense, which had the advantage of at least accounting for why so-called 'cargo cults' never went away. What has been identified (Lutkehaus 1995; Bruner 1986) as a transformation between two literary modes -- from 'narratives of decline' to 'narratives of resistance' -- thus took place in anthropology and, as Lindstrom (1993) has shown, what was originally thought strange was thereby culturally and functionally nativized and normalized. Now often thought of as Melanesians' standard way of doing things, it is widely held that 'cargo cults' do not really exist as discrete phenomena.

So-called 'cargo cults' are not only often impossible to distinguish from practical political and economic activities and movements, the category 'cargo cult' was also clearly historically used to suppress legitimate native endeavors that threatened white colonial domination. These findings, however, have created something of an impasse: in explaining why cargo cult phenomena did not go away, 'cargo cult' disappeared as a type of activity. Yet fieldworkers continue to encounter the strange behaviors that are their hallmark. Recent ethnographers (Leavitt this volume; Whitehouse 1995), for example, report themselves being identified as returned dead ancestors and associated with millenarian expectations. It appears as though as soon as anthropologists figured out how to explain cargo cult phenomena, they ceased to exist as phenomena, even though they continue to be discovered.

Because of the recurrence of cargo cult type behavior, a certain 'madness' therefore continues to inhabit cargo cult discourse. Cargo cult discourse requires the explanatory reduction, forgetting, or denying of the irreducible irrationality of these millenarian beliefs and behaviors. But as Wagner (1979:164) writes, 'Melanesian "cults" or "movements"' are 'strangely impervious to the kind of "argument through dependency" that our rationalistic outlook fosters.' The Western rational explanations that govern cargo cult discourse and the strange irrational behavior that defines the 'cargo cult' phenomenon work at cross purposes: one 'explains' through rationalistic arguments while the other works at a completely different level through symbolic elicitation or mimetic enactment. …

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