Visual anthropology review


THE SAHLINS-OBEYESEKERE DEBATE



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THE SAHLINS-OBEYESEKERE DEBATE

According to Obeyesekere, Sahlins’ account (1992, 1995) of Captain Cook instantiates a “myth model” of deified European conquerors: “To put it bluntly, I doubt that the natives created their European god; the Europeans created him for them. This ‘European god’ is a myth of conquest, imperialism, and civilization”…(Obeyesekere 1992:3).

While commentators have expressed greater confidence in Sahlins’ handling of the historical data, they agree that this heated debate raises crucial issues in anthropology (e.g. Borofsky 1997, Geertz 1995). The debate is animated by two major, opposing schools of thought: Obeyesekere argues for a pragmatic, calculating, universalistic mentality, whereas Sahlins argues for distinctive cultural logics. Although Sahlins seemed to have put this debate to rest in Culture and Practical Reason (1974), such silencing turns out to have been only a temporary solution; contrary to Sahlins’ winner-takes-all claim to victory for cultural analysis, Obeyesekere insists that practical reason cannot be dismissed so easily.

Also at stake here is the entire postcolonial critique of anthropological representations and knowledge—“whether we are not so imprisoned in our own modes of thought and perception as to be incapable of grasping, much less crediting, those of others” (Geertz 1995:5). Clifford Geertz does not offer much detail on this critique because he doesn’t have to: it has become part of the anthropological predicament ever since Edward Said (1978) and others began to interrogate the connections between colonialism, power, and representations of other cultures. And these two critiques are related: the representations that Obeyesekere is criticizing, the ones supposedly imprisoning our modes of thought, are images of prelogical, non-pragmatic natives.

“FC” may well fit Obeyesekere’s myth model. Australian whites, while making first contact with Papua New Guineans in the 1930s, are shown in the film as the “harbingers of civilization,” especially in the repeated scenes of native awe at Australian technology, such as gramophones, airplanes, and even tin lids. The Australians are also initially viewed by the Papua New Guineans as powerful supernatural beings, the returning dead ancestors, and the natives seem to be, at least in one reading, ruled by irrational beliefs. “FC” therefore offers a good test case of Obeyesekere’s myth model, especially since Obeyesekere believes that myth model is still in force today: hence he speaks of the Prospero myth model as “one of the most enduring ideas in Western culture” (1992:11); and, summarizing almost the entire history of anthropology, from Lévy-Bruhl to Sahlins, Obeyesekere says that “The idea of the prelogical or childlike native…is the social scientists’ myth of the Other” (1992:16). It is not only fair but important, then, to investigate whether this charge accurately explains a contemporary anthropological representation like “FC.”





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