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The Power of Perspective

September 26, 2008

By Taylor, John P

The Power of Perspective: social ontology and agency on Ambrym, Vanuatu. By Knut Rio. Berghahn: Berghahn Books 2007 Since the foundation of the discipline, the central Vanuatu island of Ambrym has held a very special place in the anthropological imagination, and The Power of Perspective rightly celebrates this. From W H R Rivers’ The History of Melanesian Society (1914, University of Cambridge Press) onwards, the vagaries of the Ambrymese’s seemingly anomalous social and ceremonial forms have for decades both delighted and eluded scholars of kinship, exchange and ritual, and have even piqued the interest of continental philosophers. Perhaps the most important and memorable moment in this legacy is A B Deacon’s description of a conversation that took place between himself and a sadly unnamed ‘native informant,’ appropriately, for northern Vanuatu, over a diagram made of stones and sand. The dizzying incorporation of tripartite relations across a spiraling form that emerges from this image provides Rio with a starting point for his reexamination of exchange, social ontology and agency in Ambrym.

Like Trobriand Islands kula exchange -although somewhat less famously – for that period during the 1960s and 1970s when kinship studies and exchange ‘systems’ were all the rage, Ambrym sociality became so thoroughly abstracted from its anthropological setting that it no longer resembled in any obvious way the dynamic social world from whence it had been extracted. Indeed the incident described above – or at least Deacon’s description of it – seems to have taken on a life of its own. This has included, somewhat surprisingly, becoming embroiled within a somewhat rarified but nevertheless important debate between Claude Levi-Strauss and Jean- Paul Sartre concerning reciprocity, agency and ‘thirdness.’ As well as richly describing the disembodied social life of Ambrymese ‘social form’ within the ivory towers of the European academy, this debate is also of crucial importance to Rio’s analysis. Indeed, through rubbing dense ethnography against theories of exchange, agency and social process, it is Rio’s task to reconnect these worlds, and to thus resume that conversation between Ambrym and the Western academy that began with Deacon and his Ambrymese interlocutor all those years ago.

In exploring chapter-by-chapter what are familiar anthropological territories for Vanuatu – such as kinship and marriage, gardening practices, the male ‘graded society’, funerary and circumcision ceremonies – Rio develops a complex argument concerning the importance of ‘third parties’ to more ostensibly dyadic relations of exchange, and to social re-production more generally. However, it is not simply the case that these third parties impose their agency over the relationships of others, like police directing traffic. Rather, Rio’s analysis goes beyond a simplistic understanding of power as control through encompassment, and instead tracks its oscillations across shifting levels of perspective, from male status hierarchies, kinship and gender dynamics, to colonial and neo- colonial relations. This complexly nuanced exploration of the shifting dynamics of power and perspective not only provides the book with its title, but also its major strength.

Since the publication of R. H. Codrington’s The Melanesians (1891. Oxford: Clarendon Press), researchers of Vanuatu have produced a rich body of anthropological and historical scholarship. Sadly, in highlighting the debate between Sartre and LeviStrauss, as well as the geographically distant ethnography of Papua New Guinea, more recent contributions within this important body of thought and literature seem to have fallen through the cracks of Rio’s ethnography. Indeed, the important work of Mary Patterson, who thoroughly explored Ambrym kinship, exchange and history through long-term fieldwork in the 1970s, and in subsequent research, receives scant attention. For this reviewer, at least, a deeper engagement with this body of literature would have added significantly to the book. It is also a shame that such an ambitious work should be so sorely marred by the countless typographical errors that occur throughout the text. This is attributed to very poor copy-editing on the part of the publishers.

As the first ethnographic monograph of Ambrym to find its way to publication, The Power of Perspective is to be highly recommended, particularly to students and scholars of Melanesian anthropology and to theoreticians of ritual agency and exchange. Rio’s treatment of exchange, ritual process and social form are highly sophisticated, and I have no doubt that his development of the theory of ‘thirdness’ will prove to be of enduring value to the discipline.

John P. Taylor

Australian National University

Copyright University of Sydney, Oceania Publications Jul 2008

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