Other Ways of Being Modern
Cultural homogenity or diversity in the contemporary world
By Bruce Knauft, Samuel C. Dobbs Professor Anthropology

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Gebusi, then and now
Images from Bruce Knauft's travels and research, on his web site.



In recent years, scholars have debated whether contemporary changes homogenize cultures or make them more diverse. Is the world a shrinking globe? Or does modernity act like water on a grease fire of spreading cultural diversity? Are people in different world areas becoming increasingly alike? Or do they maintain and reinforce their cultural differences?

In a post 9/11 era, such questions seem especially important. My interest in this issue has taken several forms, including field research, individual and collaborative publication, and the Vernacular Modernities Program that I have directed at Emory since spring 2000.

Matters of modern cultural change became poignant for me when I went back to a remote corner of the New Guinea rain forest four years ago. I had first studied the Gebusi people of Papua New Guinea’s Western Province in 1980 through 1982. At that time, Gebusi practiced ritual dances in eye-popping costumes, all night spirit séances, sorcery inquests, male initiations, ritual homosexuality, and, until 1979, cannibalism. My first book on Gebusi (Good Company and Violence, University of California Press, 1985) documented a range of these customs and analyzed the Gebusi’s striking ethic of camaraderie, on the one hand, and their tendency to accuse and execute each other as sorcerers, on the other. But by the mid-1990s, I wanted to go back and see how Gebusi life had changed. Supported by arange of agencies and foundations, including Emory’s University Research Committee, I returned for a stay of six months with Gebusi in 1998.

Amid selected continuities, changes among Gebusi were astounding. The group I had previously lived with had picked up and moved its entire community to the outskirts of the nearest government station. Eighty-four percent of them had become baptized Christians and regular church-goers in the Evangelical Protestant, Catholic, or Seventh-Day Adventist churches. By contrast, Gebusi spirit mediumship was defunct, and initiations and ritual dances were practiced only in remote settlements. Newly socialized, Gebusi children were now dutiful pupils at the local community school—seven hours a day, five days a week. Women hauled their produce for hoped-for sale at the government market on Tuesdays and Fridays. Weekends included “video nights,” “discos,” “parties,” and numerous games of refereed soccer and rugby against teams of erstwhile enemies on the ballfield adjacent to the government station. Sorcery inquests were moribund, and the rate of homicide among adults had plunged from 33 percent to virtually zero.

Perhaps most strikingly, these changes transpired with very little in the way of wage labor or political intervention. Economic development has been minuscule, migrations out have been nil, and the locale has no exportable resources or roads to connect it to other parts of the country. The government station and its institutions are not much different from what they were in 1980. The biggest change is with Gebusi themselves—their desire to find a local way of becoming modern. They have done this by dressing in Western clothes, adopting Christianity, giving up many of their traditional rituals, and sending their children to the local government school. In the process, and in bittersweet fashion, Gebusi have subordinated themselves to outsiders who take positions of local power and control. Though Gebusi could go and live back in the forest, they choose to humble themselves as relatively passive participants in church, school, at the market, and in government. These organizations are run by the few educated Papua New Guineans who come to their remote area from other parts of the country. In the process, Gebusi are not encouraged to take initiative as modern entrepreneurs but rather to accept the authority of outsiders. They do not benefit from economic development but become modern in a subaltern kind of way—as subordinates.

Fortunately, economic dearth has not prevented Gebusi from growing their own food and providing for themselves. Nor has it extinguished the social life of their own community. I was heartily welcomed back by old and new Gebusi friends. Within a day, I was provided a bush house and surrounded by throngs of well-wishers. The ensuing six months passed in a whirlwind of intense social life in the local settlement, at the government station, and in sojourns to the deep rainforest. This past summer, the research results of my visit have been published in my fifth book: Exchanging the Past: A Rainforest World of Before and After (University of Chicago Press, 2002). This volume considers the Gebusi engagement with modern institutions and shows what their experience tells us about becoming subordinate subjects in a contemporary frame of non-Western reference. I am particularly grateful for a subvention from Emory College and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), which supported the publication of twenty-four color photographs in the book.

Gebusi provide a fascinating example of how people become alternatively modern. But how does their experience compare or contrast to that of other cultures and societies? Since returning to Emory, I have become increasingly interested in this question. Though many peoples choose to submit themselves to institutions they may not locally control—church, school, market, and so on—they often do so with ambivalence. Sometimes they resist these influences, in some cases very strongly. Gebusi, for their part, are a tiny language group of only 615 persons; they have little political or economic clout even at the local government station, which services eight ethnic groups totaling nine thousand people. If Gebusi have consciously exchanged their past for new interpretations of their future, the speed and extent of this change is bequeathed by special features of their cultural and political history.

A comparative perspective on how people become differently modern emerged in a cross-cultural panel on “Inflections of Modernity” I organized in 1999 at the national meetings of the American Anthropological Association. This forum yielded a mix of
presentations by ethnographers and theorists of Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean as well as Melanesia. Some argued that the analysis of “modernity” carries an intrinsic Western bias—no matter how hard the researcher tries to be culturally relative. Others suggested that an emphasis on the cultural or subjective dimensions of being alternatively modern neglects the power differentials of global capitalism.

Yet others reminded us that modern ideologies of becoming developed or progressive have very strong influence in the world. These influences encompass the development policies, funding initiatives, and strictures imposed bya host of organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, United Nations, a growing plethora of non-governmental organizations, and strong mandates for progress and development among national governments and local leaders—not to mention among multinational corporations and the government of the United States.

I have found it particularly useful to combine approaches that emphasize culture and subjectivity with those that foreground political economy: articulating these viewpoints provides fresh perspective on the relation between local tradition and modern change. Framed by this orientation, I have recently brought together the results of several lively discussions in an edited volume (Critically Modern, Indiana University Press, 2002). The chapters of this book engage ethnographic specifics with contemporary issues in critical theory to reconsider culture, power, and representation in different world areas. Ethnographic case studies address the meaning of money, consumer goods, and Christianity in Papua New Guinea; development schemes in Kenya; radio broadcasting in Zambia; slave identity in the colonial Caribbean; Evangelicalism and Marxism in the Ethiopian revolution; and the arbitrary nature of American power in recent decades. My own contributions include an introductory chapter that surveys the problematic of modernity—West and non-West—and a chapter on Gebusi public culture and the enactment of folklore on Papua New Guinean Independence Day. The volume contains strong chapters from three other faculty members at Emory (professors Donald Donham, Ivan Karp, and Debra Spitulnik) as well as an Emory graduate student who is now an assistant professor at the University of Toronto—Holly Wardlow. In all, the book recasts our understanding of how people become alternatively modern in a contemporary world.

Beyond comparative assessments and my own work among Gebusi, I have benefited greatly from the interests of students who are pursuing research in diverse world areas. With support from the Ford Foundation, Emory College, and the GSAS, the program I direct on “Vernacular Modernities” has operated at Emory as an Institute for Comparative and International Studies seminar initiative since spring 2000. In addition to nationally and internationally known speakers and a post-doctoral fellowship, we have developed the Vernacular Modernities Program to include a two-semester seminar sequence that includes participation by funded graduate fellows. Vernacular Modernities (VM) fellows take a four-credit-hour seminar with me in the fall and spring semesters and receive substantial funds for their summer foreign research and language training—in addition, in some cases, to an augmented period of graduate stipend funding. To date, twenty-four VM fellowships and awards have been given to graduate students from nine different Emory departments. These students have or are presently in the course of conducting pilot research in twenty-nine different countries in all major world areas.

On the undergraduate side, we have awarded eleven Vernacular Modernities foreign summer scholarships to undergraduates in ten different departments. These students have or will be conducting summer foreign research projects in ten countries that span all continents (except Antarctica). We hope that this undergraduate initiative will be institutionalized as a regular program under the auspices of the Institute for Comparative and International Studies in future years.

As for the other dimensions of the Vernacular Modernities Program, it is an open question whether and how they will continue after their funding expires at the end of the present academic year (August 2003). The Vernacular Modernities Program has been successful enough that we hope Emory and the Ford Foundation will support its continuation in one form or another. The question of how people become alternatively modern is not one that can be answered by a single case or even by a set of comparative instances. As the world changes with ever-quickening speed, new waves of research re-contextualize and complement existing work. It is particularly exciting to learn from a new generation of scholarship carried out by students and colleagues. For me, the combination of individual research, collaboration, and mentorship of young scholars has been much larger than the sum of its parts.