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The Materiality of Anga Male Rituals (Papua New Guinea). Objects, Gestures and Mechanical Actions (Far) Beyond Symbolism
Pierre Lemonnier (Emeritus Research Director, CNRS, Paris)
Among the artefacts, gestures and material actions of all sorts with which we daily interact, many if not most are involved in social life for reasons that cannot be reduced to their technical function: e.g. a plough hung under someone’s window by the village youth in the middle of the night as part of “faire la jeunesse” in South-West France is not ploughing the wall (Fabre).
The anthropology of material culture usually considers such material items as meaningful and explains why and how their colour, materials, relation to ancestors and spirits, to wealth, to power, to gender, etc. make them part of a system of thought and social relations. Such is obviously the case for most of them. However, for whoever follows Mauss and considers techniques as “. . . traditional actions (…) felt by the author [of the actions] as actions of a mechanical, physical or physicochemical order and that they are pursued with that aim in view” (Mauss 1934, Mauss’ italics), the hunt for indexes, icons and symbols appears to be also a good way to sweep the mere physical dimension of material actions under the carpet.
The Anga male rituals are indeed a moment and space overwhelmed with ancestors, spirits and invisible powers. A given type of clay, the way to collect a particular leaf, a feather, a bone, etc. refer to imaginary agents and forces. However, during several key ritual actions – indeed those stages that are pivotal for the structural transformation effected by the ritual – it is the physical dimension of the artefact involved that are operative in the ritual and relevant for anthropology. Notwithstanding the value of notions such as the “seamless web” (Hughes), “collectives” (Latour) or “system” (Gille) formed by material actions and other sociocultural practices, the necessity to adopt a non-dualist perspective for some time is therefore undoubted.
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An event organised by Risk and Renewal in the Pacific Network
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