11 April 2005

K. R. Howe on Culture as History

For reasons that were thought perfectly appropriate and correct at the time, imperial Pacific history depicted indigenous societies as fundamentally weak, flawed, and degenerate. In postcolonial history, indigenous societies are more likely to be strong, resilient, adaptable, and vibrant. The underlying reason for the contrast is the fundamental shift in explanatory paradigm from nature to culture and the associated reevaluation of the relative merits of Western and non-Western cultures. The result is that imperial values have been inverted. Today's Pacific historians operate in an ideological environment that tends to privilege the idea of indigenous societies. Notions of indigenous culture and custom have been reified.

Chapter 1 argued the case for a twentieth-century reconceptualizing of Pacific nature in the form of the ideal tropical island. Something similar has happened to the idea of Pacific culture. Both the generality and the specificity of indigenous Pacific culture have commonly been re-ennobled. At its extreme level, perhaps more in the realms of journalism and political rhetoric than academic history, is the claim that Pacific islanders, and indigenous peoples elsewhere, have culture, whereas many Westerners, especially in "newer" countries such as Australia and New Zealand, do not. More commonly, islanders are attributed characteristics commonly thought to be lacking in Western society. They are spiritual rather than materialistic; holistic rather than analytical; sharing, caring, communal, and inherently democratic rather than individualistic and self-interested. They are deemed to embody pre-industrial ideals such as honesty and self-sufficiency, as opposed to corrupting values of urban modernity, and they have a closer affinity with nature. There exists a late-twentieth-century version of the noble savage.

Of course such idealizing and privileging of indigenous societies have been recurrent themes in Western thought over the past thousand or more years. The current postcolonial version is a natural and necessary reaction to now outmoded imperial views and colonial practices. Just as imperial history attempted to disempower islanders, postcolonial history is an attempt to reverse that process. It positively supports attempts to improve identity and life for peoples who have been colonized and marginalized. But it does create an environment in which historians sometimes have difficulty depicting multidimensional aspects of indigenous culture in colonial/postcolonial encounter. Criticism or what might be construed as negative comment about island societies tends to be avoided. The idea that island societies, like societies everywhere, may be riven with internal conflicts and contradictions and engage in reprehensible practices is not commonly expressed, by either insiders or outsiders. If such critical comment is made, it is more often than not explained as a consequence of colonialism.
SOURCE: Nature, Culture, and History: The "Knowing" of Oceania, by K. R. Howe (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2000), pp. 70-71

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