This is a preliminary paper following recent fieldwork in Vanuatu. The rhetorical question in the title challenges two pervasive stereotypes: first, the presumed universal applicability of the hierarchical opposition society:individual and its corollary, the conception of ‘societies’ as encompassing collectivities of bounded, autonomous ‘individuals’; second, the hoary conventional opposition of ‘Oceanic’ (relational/communal) and ‘Western’ (bounded/individual) concepts of the person.
The second stereotype categorically segregates so-called ‘primitive’ or ‘traditional’ societies from ‘modern’ or ‘Western[ised]’ ones on the basis that the former lack a concept of the self as an autonomous individual, regarded as an effect and a characteristic of ‘civilisation’ or modernity. Such unthinking identification of modernity with ‘Westernisation’ and individualism is ethnocentric, anachronistic and denies contemporaneity to present people, such as Melanesian villagers, whom it consigns to the archaic, backward status of non-modern/non-‘Western’.
A far more thoughtful and sophisticated variant is anthropologist Marilyn Strathern’s abstract differentiation, along a ‘we/they axis’, of the (Western) unitary individual from the (Melanesian) ‘partible person’, conceived as a divisible composite of relations. Strathern destabilises the society:individual dichotomy itself, as an ethnocentric, hierarchised ‘Western’ construct inappropriate to ‘Melanesian sociality’.
Any analysis of actual indigenous conceptions of the person requires the profound familiarity with vernacular idioms and patterns of thought which can only be derived from lengthy ethnographic fieldwork. As a comparative anthropological historian I lack such access. Moreover, I dispute the assumption that very local, present ethnographic insights can be projected indiscriminately on to the region-wide past, as is logically entailed in the premise that there is an enduring, Oceania-wide, pre-modern theory of cultural and personal identity, in opposition to that of ‘the West’.
How one might know any such past regional theory of identity, other than deductively, is simply not addressed. My aims are more modest and my focus mundane. From a suggestive vignette of the early colonial past in Aneityum, southern Vanuatu, the paper shifts to scraps of narrative and testimony relating to my recent field trip in Vanuatu, with particular focus again on Aneityum.
Vignette and fragments alike address a key issue in the politics of representing indigenous women: the need to dislodge the romantic secularism or feminist ethnocentrism which deride or deplore their strategic engagements in seemingly banal Christian settings—especially sewing circles—because such settings seem to advance hegemonic missionary, male and national agendas of conversion, domestication and modernisation.