(please excuse any cross-postings)
IS ETHNOGRAPHY ALL "IMAGINATION"?
"Cannibal talk..." and Ethnography as "imagination"? G. Obeyesekere and
the Huxley Memorial Lecture 15 July 2003
The CREDO (Centre of Research and Documentation on Oceania-Pacific) is
--a discussion forum, and
--original ethnographic files, or quotes from archival files
(some of them provided by Pr. Marshall SAHLINS)
in order to provide relevant information on the deconstructive
(followed by Pr. Gananath OBEYESEKERE and others)
who reduce ethnography to "imagination":
--are cannibalistic practices in pre-colonial Fiji and elsewhere in the
"South Seas" only "Seamen yarns" and "Cannibal talk" (Obeyesekere 1998
and the Huxley Memorial Lecture 2003)?
--are Polynesian early visions of Europeans as more-than-just-humans
only "European mythmaking" (Obeyesekere 1992 and, partly, Geraghty and
Tent 2001 in their discussion of the word "Papälagi")?
Details of this NEW WEB SITE:
home page--> two "topical issues"-->1) "Cannibal talk in the South
Seas" and 2) "Captain Cook, divinity and the Papalagi":
Details of the issues:
1) Cannibal talk...
IS ETHNOGRAPHY ONLY ‘IMAGINATION’ AND NEVER ‘TRUTH’?
A propos de The Huxley Memorial Lecture of Tuesday 15 July 2003,
‘Cannibal talk: Dialogical misunderstandings in the South Seas’, given
by Professor Gananath Obeyesekere
“Creating doubts about apparent ‘truths’ by arguing that their status
as truths is derived from the regime of power on whose behalf they have
been constructed” is the strategy followed by Gananath Obeyesekere in
his reconsideration of cannibalism in the Fiji Islands during
pre-colonial times, the same strategy that he used in his
reconsideration of Captain Cook’s fate in pre-colonial Hawaii. “The
allegation that good descriptions of Fijian cannibalism are really bad
prejudices of European imperialists has submerged its historical
practice in a thick layer of epistemic murk. The deconstructive
strategy is not to deny the existence of cannibalism altogether […]
rather to establish doubt about it. Not that there was no cannibalism,
then, only that the European reports of it are fabrications
Such is Marshall Sahlins’ introduction to his recently published
(June 2003) “Artificially maintained controversies: global warming and
Fijian cannibalism” (Anthropology Today, 19 (3): 1-5), where Sahlins is
warning his readers against the deconstructive strategy followed by
Obeyesekere when he reduces the question of cannibalism to “Seamen
yarns” (G. Obeyesekere, “Cannibal feasts in nineteenth-century Fiji:
Seamen yarns and the ethnographical imagination”, in F.Barker, ed.,
Cannibalism and the colonial world, 1998, Cambridge UP: 63-86) and to
“Cannibal talk” (the Huxley Memorial Lecture 2003).
These web pages provide additional ethnographic data on this topic
(more files will be added later) and a forum for discussion. We welcome
commentaries as well as proposals for additional ethnographic files
relevant to the topic.
2) Captain Cook...
Gananath Obeyesekere’s strategy for desconstructing cannibalism in
the South Seas (see the preceding entry) is the same strategy that he
employed in his earlier attempt to deconstruct Marshall Sahlins’
analysis of the fate of Captain Cook in Hawaii (G. Obeyesekere 1992:
The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific.
Princeton University Press). Was Cook viewed as the Hawaiian god Lono?
How on earth could Hawaiians have made such a childish mistake? As
Obeyesekere would have it, Sahlins’ hypothesis only serves to reveal
the persistence of the European paternalistic and colonialist stance
towards all indigenous people.
What Obeyesekere and his supporters have failed to see is that
Europeans were considered as super-human images of super-human
entities, and not just “as gods”.
The controversy resurfaces when we are dealing with the
ethnolinguistic history of the words that have been applied to
Europeans by Polynesians, such as “Papala(n)gi”, where the base
“la(n)gi” can refer to the “sky” (Geraghty, Paul and Tent, Jan, 2001:
"Exploding sky or exploded myth. The origin of papâlagi", Journal of
the Polynesian Society, 110 (2): 171-214). Did the Polynesians say that
Europeans came from the “sky”? Yes and no! We need to look again more
closely at the limited ethnographic data that refers to Polynesian
linguistic practices both past and present. Ethnography is not all
These web pages provide a forum for discussion and access to published
and unpublished texts on this topic and additional ethnographic data.
We welcome commentaries as well as proposals for additional
ethnographic files relevant to the topic.
Serge Tcherkézoff and Laurent Dousset
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CREDO (CNRS, EHESS, U. de Provence)
Campus universitaire Saint-Charles
3 Place Victor Hugo
fax: +33-4-91 10 61 21