Copyright © 2005 Tom Ludvigson. All rights reserved.
Chapter 8: Conclusions
8.2 The meanings of kleva
8.3 Self-explications: kleva on themselves
8.4 Lay interpretations: others on the kleva
8.5 Fellow Experts: kleva on other kleva
8.6 Order and disorder
8.7 Speech and visibility
8.8 Interpretive ethnography
I have attempted in this thesis an ethnographic description of the kleva of central Espiritu Santo, and matters relevant to their craft. To this end I adopted an autobiographical approach, grounding all interpretations of the kleva and related matters in detailed descriptions of the incidents on which those interpretations were built. This celebration of the particular did not in itself preclude generalization but, contrary to what is common in ethnographic accounts, preserved for the reader the link between those more abstract interpretations of the phenomena under scrutiny, and their concrete manifestation in experience.
In Chapter One I described the setting of my study: my fieldwork situation. Designed to provide essential background on the surrounding context of my encounters with the kleva and their world, the chapter dealt with both the history of the island and the history of my research project. I discussed my relationship with the people of Truvos, from the harsh reception I received on the evening of my arrival at Vorozenale, through the initial period of suspicion and misunderstanding, gradually mellowing into a tacit acceptance of my presence, which grew apace with my own involvement in combating disease in the area with the aid of Western medicines. I gave an account of my living conditions in the settlement, my own ill health, my medical work, my exchanges with local people, my difficulties with formal enquiry, and my everyday participation in work and recreation - all essential background to the kleva material, without which the latter would make much less sense.
Chapters Two to Six dealt with those of my experiences with the kleva and their neighbours that in one way or another contributed to the development of my understanding of the kleva and their craft. Accounts of pertinent incidents and conversations from my four field trips, and from my period with the kleva Sulu in New Zealand, were interspersed with brief summaries of my understanding of the kleva material at four different times during the period of research (2:20, 3:22, 5:14, 6:22), enabling the reader to follow in detail the processes of inference and progressive reinterpretation that constituted my path towards an understanding of the kleva in terms of meanings current within their own community.
In Chapter Seven I presented some further interpretations of the kleva material which came about after the end of my research on Santo, while I worked on the account that forms the body of this thesis. By keeping such later interpretations separate from the material that they elaborate and partly revise I have attempted to preserve for the reader the diachronic and essentially fallible nature of ethnographic interpretation, rather than following the common practice of letting the most recent readings pervade all descriptions, thereby conferring on those readings an illusory semblance of objectivity.
8.2 The meanings of
I stated in the Introduction my intention to produce a description not only of the kleva and their activities, but also of the meaning of their activities for themselves and their neighbours. I take kleva to be a cultural phenomenon, in the very manner of its constitution a phenomenon of meaning. - by this I mean that the kleva's being kleva is inseparable from others' interpretations of them, and their self-interpretation, as kleva.
This fact is thoroughly demonstrated in the account of the kleva. The gradual growth of my understanding of the kleva and their activities is intrinsically bound up with my being offered interpretations of what they are up to. By describing to me what the kleva do and say, they and their neighbours bit by bit reveal to me their respective versions of the healers and their practices.
The descriptions of the kleva and their activities not only reveal what the healers do - they also reveal a manner of describing the world. Each new such description extends my understanding of the world of the kleva, by contradicting, supporting, adding to, or otherwise elaborating what I already know.
Those descriptions enable me increasingly to "recognise" or read appropriately, and speak idiomatically about matters like maumau, patua and vavaulu, in their various manifestations. I learn to understand spitting and leaves as maumau; owls, deaths and disputes in terms of patua; and illness as indicating guilty secrets.
After reading the account of the kleva, the reader should know well what I mean: to some extent the gradually unfolding nature of the account will have taken the reader through a process of gradual growth of understanding in some ways similar to mine, albeit attenuated.
An indispensable clue to meanings of kleva and their activities for themselves and their neighbours is, then, what the same people say about these matters. We can review the account from this angle, in an attempt to gain an overview of such meanings.
The only kleva that I personally heard talk about himself and his craft is Sulu - none of the others told me about being kleva, or spoke about being kleva in my presence, despite my meeting some of them on numerous occasions.
Most of Sulu's self-explication is done directly to me, in private, during our conversations in New Zealand.
His description of how he became a kleva is idiomatic, wholly consistent with prevalent ideas about how local people come into possession of special powers, whether "leaves" for contraception (6:2), rainmaking (2:15), or, in the past, invulnerability through the aid of pulana tamate (4:1).
Sulu begins his account of his calling and special talents with a description of the very similar calling and talents of the dead kleva Letelete. Then Sulu describes in great detail his experience with the lizard that fell on his head, and the same night informed him of their future arrangement. Thus he on the one hand attributes his skills to the spirit ("...there is only one thing behind it all; this thing that comes like that." 5:6), while he in other places appears to give Letelete credit for showing him the way of a kleva ("...he showed the way of doing it like that." 5:6). Perhaps this is only Sulu's way of telling me that thought his talent is relatively unique and personal, it is not therefore wholly idiosyncratic; it is part of an established tradition.
His description of his working relationship with the lizard spirit provides us with a way of understanding, in retrospect, Sulu's instant diagnoses of my illness and Linsus' during my second visit to Santo. Well before someone comes to seek his services, he is forewarned by his spirit helper of the visit and the cause of the ailment in question. All he has to do to bring the illness to an end is reveal the cause ("When I arrive, then I say it, and like...the man's illness, it just ends." 5:6).
Sulu's account of the subsequent use of spells and fire on leaves, to speed the slow blood and heat the cold body of the ill person (5:6) is our only clue to the physiological meaning of that therapy. His explanation of avuavuti is different again: what I saw Mol Kleva do at Tonsiki Sulu explains as removing the pathogenic spit of bad things that live on the ground - presumably left on the patient's food by a rat or a lizard when stealing some of it.
During our conversations in New Zealand Sulu also informs me that he has taken a public stance against patua, vezeveze and kava root sorcery, linking the issues to depopulation (5:12) - a reformist streak that recalls the stories of Avuavu, Zek and Mol Valivu in the past (1:1). His vehement outpouring against these agencies of death and extinction leaves little doubt about Sulu's feelings on the matter, or about the sincerity of his concern over the issue.
At home in the hills of Santo Sulu says little directly about his craft. Instead his speech on a number of occasions exemplifies it, as when early during my second field trip he reveals to me and Linsus the respective causes of our illnesses (3:2, 3:3), or when he talks about his nocturnal experiences with the unseen: receiving a message from Lisa's dead daughter (3:5), being attacked by Tavui Pro and two other witches (4:4), or seeing Patua's patua (6:14).
8.4 Lay interpretations: others on
Much of Sulu's self-explication is echoed in what other people told me about the kleva, though there are also some clear differences.
Lay versions of the source of kleva powers and techniques are close to Sulu's own. Usa Pon tells me that the kleva receive their special spells and the ability to "see" from a devel (2:11). Krai Tui says that the kleva dream their special spells (3:12), and Eilili says the same about Sulu (3:5). And in Memei's tale Krai Vurombo learns a spell from a kleva in a dream (2:14). All this is consistent with Sulu's account, and with others' accounts of the sources of other exceptional powers.
Lay versions of the nature of kleva powers and techniques show more discrepancies when compared with Sulu's.
Avuavuti is a case in point. When, after seeing Mol Kleva's performance at Tonsiki, I enquired about it at Duria, I was told that he removed vezeveze and food (2:1). Accounts of Patua and the Zaraparo kleva removing and displaying vezeveze objects bear this out (2:8, 3:13). Sulu, too, endorses the removal of vezeveze through avuavuti (5:13), though he admits to never having done it himself (5:7). But in ordinary avuavuti he doesn't remove food, as in the layman's account. Instead he removes pathogenic animal spit that has entered the patient's body through food.
Usa Pon's account of kleva maumau also diverges from Sulu's. Usa tells me that the kleva always know which spells to use, as they can "see" what is wrong with their patients, and need not work through trial and error, like Usa himself (2:11). This is partly true of Sulu, in that he always knows which spell to use, but his account of the manner of his knowing is different from Usa's. What Usa describes as "seeing" Sulu explains as messages from his spirit helper. The devel informs him in advance of the causes of and remedies appropriate to each particulate case of illness (5:6).
Indeed, this is the area of kleva powers what we find the greatest discrepancy between Sulu's "inside" account and lay descriptions. The latter versions of kleva divination generally depict it as "seeing" (2:3, 6:13), sometimes employing the original Kiai term for kleva (matalesi) in its verbal form - mo matalesia: "he 'eye-saw' it" (6:7, 6:9). But then Sulu's own descriptions of particular encounters with witches seem to endorse the lay version. He himself talks about having "seen" patua on several different occasions (4:4, 6:14) - an impossibility for ordinary people.
We can note how much of what ordinary people say about the kleva deals with what the kleva themselves say - revealing the causes of illness (2:3), the identity of a rainmaker (3:14), sorcerers (3:13, 6:7) and witches (4:4, 6:9), or giving people new names (3:8, 6:6). This highlights the fact that to a large extent their products are verbal - a kleva is a kleva through what he says as much as through what he does.
Patua's mitin is a good illustration. Lisa's account of that affair is in terms of speaking: Patua told people to come and confess to him, and he said that he could rid witches of their patua (6:10). Sulu describes it in terms of people going to Duria to talk (varavara, and Patua would then name them (5:10). The italicised verbs above are all descriptive of speech. And even the label applied to Patua's endeavour emphasises speaking - mitin is used as a verb in Kiai, meaning "discuss".
8.5 Fellow experts:
A striking thing about the meanings conveyed by the kleva about other kleva is that much of those descriptions is defamatory. In New Zealand Sulu tells me that Mol Sale had patua (5:13) and that Mol Kleva is masulu and refuses to treat people (5:6). And what Sulu says about Patua talking to two little children at Vuties paints the latter as a witch.
Mol Kleva, in his turn, tells me about Mol Sale's being a witch (2:8). The Zaraparo kleva, according to the story, reveals Mol Sale as a vezeveze wielder (3:13). And we can infer that Maloi was the source of the tale of Mol Sale's witchcraft at Moruas (7:4).
Most of this defamatory talk revolves around evil powers. I have discussed this above as a possible result of the inherent ambiguity of any secret powers (3:22). There are some real similarities between kleva and witches. Witches, like the kleva, have spirit familiars who teach them spells (5:11).
What is more, the kleva appear to be able to see patua, in spite of the fact that the only people supposed to be able to see them are witches themselves. Indeed, acquiring patua is described as undergoing a ritual that enables you to see them (2:5).
When I ask Sulu if Patua and Mol Kleva operate the way he does, he says that he doesn't know their way (5:6). There are differences: Mol Kleva and Patua remove vezeveze; Sulu has not done this ever (5:7). The other kleva are a mystery to him - undefined and open to interpretation, as in the case of Mol Sale and Patua, as possible witches.
The only kleva described sympathetically by another kleva is Letelete. Though other healers may be enigmatic to Sulu, Letelete is not. His way is explicitly compared to Sulu's own, and nothing remains unexplained. There are no ambiguities: Letelete was a kleva like Sulu, not a witch.
8.6 Order and disorder
I wrote about, in the Introduction, the apparent need for a grounded account of Melanesian religious phenomena. I suggested then that an account based on descriptions of actual field experiences would help clarify the nature of the problems we examined there. Though the kleva material neither exhausts, nor is confined to, the realm of phenomena usually discussed under the heading of religion, it nevertheless should serve reasonably well as a basis for discussion of those issues.
The problem was whether or not order and coherence in Melanesian religion was intrinsic to the material or imposed by the ethnographer, whether by analysis or by eliciting.
Brunton provides a definition of such order:
This attempt at greater clarity is of little use to us, as stating the object of our interest in such reified terms renders it virtually unrecognisable: the task of relating abstractions like "comprehensiveness", "religious systems", and even "beliefs", to experience is itself fraught with problems.
Instead we hark back to the earlier formulation , phrased in terms closer to actual field research praxis:
We can examine the body of the thesis in terms of these issues, one by one. firstly, in the account of the kleva, does anybody appear uninterested when definite views might have been expected?
Perhaps Sulu's diffidence about spirits is a case in point. One could have expected him to be able to tell me a great deal about these things, as he dealt with them regularly, both in dreams (3:5, 5:6, 5:7) and when diagnosing and treating illness caused by spirits (3:2). Yet Sulu had little to tell me about ria, tamate and aviriza - they were all words for the same thing (3:2). When the Vorokus pataika struck me with malaria by talking about me, Sulu wasn't able to tell me any more details: people just call it "talking" (6:21). And when Sulu and Mol Kleva gave me an example of such spirit talk at Vunpepe, it was clearly descriptive of my own situation.
I mentioned then a suspicion that the two kleva were intentionally trying to put me off staying any longer in the valley, by suggesting that the spirits objected to my presence. Another reading of that same situation is that they were merely being unimaginative or practical, keeping to the case at hand: my own much-debated ill-health (2:18).
It is interesting to note that when during our New Zealand conversations I first try to approach Sulu's presumed "special knowledge" with questions aimed at eliciting it in a systematic but abstract manner, I have little success - Sulu has little to tell me (5:4). But it is also evident that he gets more proficient, between our first and our last conversation, at delivering the exegesis I keep demanding. But I doubt that his very intense sermon on the evils of patua and sorcery during the last of our taped conversations is attributable to my having "trained" Sulu in producing exegesis. More likely it was his concern over the issues brought up that generated that outburst. His use of second person address (Don't take patua again! And you men who have taken them, you own up and let them be! You take your patua and burn them! 5:11) recalls more than anything the occasional agitated speech delivered over the evening bowl of kava by someone wrought up about some issue or other - verbal expositions elicited by the context and certainly not by me.
Secondly, do the people contradict themselves and each other?
Some of what Sulu said during our conversations in New Zealand can be read as contradictory. I noted at the time the inconsistency between his denial that sova ('cough") was a zalo ('illness'), and his subsequent us of the two words in the same sentence, both of them then evidently referring to the same thing (5:4). There is also the apparent contradiction between Sulu's account of the lizard calling him to become a kleva, and his statement that Letelete had shown him the way of a kleva - a contradiction I tried to rationalize in my discussion above of Sulu's self-explication (8:3).
We can easily find in the kleva account many instances of people contradicting each other. I have already noted and discussed disagreements over spirits and totonos (7:5), over who is or isn't a kleva (3:22), and over discrepancies between lay and "inside" descriptions of the way of the kleva (8:4). Further examples are the several versions of how Patua got his name (Did he choose it himself or was it given to him by Mol Kleva? 3:6, 6:6, 6:10) and of the origin of patua (Two patua or many? Bought or given in payment? 2:6, 4:4, 5:11, 6:8).
Thirdly, is there a high rate of ritual obsolescence and innovation?
This issue is again phrased in terms not related to fieldwork praxis in any direct and obvious manner. We can still discuss the question of ritual though there is little material on this topic in the account. The paucity of material on ritual reflects its relative absence from the Santo interior - except perhaps at Tombet (1:4).
Guiart comments on the absence of traditional ceremonial at the time of his excursions into the Santo interior, more than twenty years ahead of my own fieldwork. He claims that it had all been abandoned, victim of the cult activity in the recent past (1958:214).
To sum up so far, it is clearly possible to locate in our material some evidence of disinterest, contradictions and ritual obsolescence, in keeping with Brunton's observations on fluidity and incoherence in Melanesian religion.
On the other hand it is equally possible to document in the material the opposite of what we have just done. Informant disinterest only stands out against a background of comparative interest. Sulu's lack of concern with the differences between spirits, and the precise nature of pathogenic spirit talk, can be contrasted against for example Lahoi's (2:12) and Maitui's (2:13) much more elaborate versions. And the contradictions reported stand out against a background of general agreement. We have noted above the prevalence of similar ideas about how people acquire extraordinary powers of different kinds (8:3), and the pervasiveness of the theme of secrecy/revelation in informants' explanations (6:22). Moreover, even the contradictions themselves can be seen to have a basis in shared understandings: my informants may disagree about whether tamate and ria are the same or different, but the topic still remains spirits, as opposed to viruses. Or they may offer different versions of the origin of patua, but all the versions agree that the deadly familiars were supplied by Europeans. Even our appraisal of ritual can be stood on its head: is the abandonment of traditional ceremonial evidence of obsolescence, or is the apparent lack of change since Guiart's visit to Santo evidence of lack of innovation?
Indeed, it looks as if we can reduce most of our documented incoherence to differences of detail within a larger framework of agreement and coherence. Should we choose to emphasize this latter material in our description we would most likely be on our way towards an "overstructured" presentation.
I suggested above that a grounded account of the kleva would help clarify the nature of the problems involved in the study of Melanesian religions, as discussed. Access tot he account has enabled us so far to do two things. On the one hand, we have managed to find evidence of disorder and incoherence, as specified by Brunton. On the other hand we have been able to also find evidence of coherence and order.
This seeming contradiction provides us with one insight into the nature of the problem. It shows very clearly the circular and self-validating character of such interpretation. Depending on how we choose to read it, we can sometimes even use the same material to draw radically opposite conclusions, as in our discussion of the four different versions of the origin of patua just above: whether we choose to emphasise similarities or differences between the tales is indeed arbitrary.
The above discussion must inevitably lead one to question the usefulness of such gross abstractions as "coherence", "elaboration", "disorder", et cetera. If they are so loosely related to actual field experiences as to allow for even mutually contradictory interpretations to be made of the same material, it follows that their use in characterizing ethnographic material is not very informative. One could indeed argue that they hide as much as they reveal, in that they arbitrarily emphasize only one aspect of the material, when at least sometimes the opposite emphasis can be seen to be equally as valid.
In this sense Brunton is right when he talks about "indeterminacy in much of the literature on Melanesian religion." (1980:112). But the indeterminacy is not due solely to overstructured accounts, as he would have it. The same indeterminacy can be seen to lie at the heart of all interpretations of human phenomena. We shall return to this theme towards the end of these Conclusions.
Meanwhile, this indeterminacy prevents us from reaching a final verdict on Brunton's problem about inherent or imposed order. The documentation of either of those two alternatives is in itself no less problematic than the documentation of order and disorder.
8.7 Speech and visibility
If we examine again the evidence cited above for order and disorder, another interesting fact comes to light: most of it is verbal. The actual material that we have been discussing, in wrestling with Brunton's problem, is in fact speech.
We compared what people said at different times, examining their statements for coherence or contradictions, and for evidence of interest or disinterest. Even what little material I have on ritual rests to a large extent on what people said and didn't say. I was told about the abandonment of past ritual, while the general absence of exegesis (i.e. speech) concerning the valavala and mele i toa performances led me to conclude that they were of no special significance.
This, then, is perhaps a significant observation about the phenomena we are examining. The discovery of informants' speech at the core of our topic brings out our dependence on what people say to us and to each other in filed research oriented towards religious phenomena.
We can recall in this context the similar observation made above that a kleva is a kleva through what he says as much as through what he does. Their products are to a large extent verbal in their manifestation in experience (8:2).
In fact, it would not be unreasonable to describe the account of the kleva as almost exclusively a series of descriptions of situations when I hear something said. And with a growing comprehension of the Kiai language I become less dependant on Bislama and eliciting, until, by the time of my fourth field trip, I am able to learn by just listening. It is no accident that so much of my material consists of discussions around the kava bowl. Speech lies at the heart of the unseen, as the chief medium of its revelation and realization.
Armed with this insight into the nature of the phenomena under study we are now in a better position to understand Guiart's observation, quoted in the introduction, that the ancestor cult no longer plays an apparent role in central Santo.
Guiart backs up that assertion with the following description of the treatment of the ill:
Guiart also has little to say about the kleva. In a brief discussion of the demise of magical practices in the upper Peiorai(2) valley, he mentions a seer, but only as someone whose services are no longer in demand:
In the context of a discussion of totemism in central Santo, Guiart also mentions a diviner:
But he doesn't link up these seers/diviners with the tradition of revelation evident in his historical account of cult activity on the island. Ronovuro, the cult leader executed for the killing of Clapcott in 1923, received prophetic messages at night (1958:201). He had a predecessor, an elder clansmen named Paia Loloso,(5) who sold magic that made people invulnerable to firearms. He had revelations from a spirit familiar, a shark that contacted much like the lizard spirit contacted Sulu (1958:200). Avuavu too had revelation, interpreted by Guiart as "vision divine"(6) (1958:203).
It seems to me that the existence of the kleva in the Santo interior aids our understanding of these cult leaders, as men firmly situated within a tradition of dreamed revelation of secret knowledge and powers. Simultaneously, we can see in Patua's mitin, and perhaps also in Sulu's public stance against sorcery and witchcraft, a continuation of the reformist heritage: kleva who each in their own way attempt to come to grips with the major public issue of their time: the problem of depopulation.
8.8 Interpretive ethnography
When I decided to focus my PhD thesis on the kleva of the Espiritu Santo interior, it was with a dual purpose in mind. The material I had gathered on the kleva and their concerns appeared to me interesting and in itself worthwhile to commit to the ethnographic record. Simultaneously, it seemed to offer a good opportunity to conduct an experiment in ethnographic writing, constructing what I have referred to above as a “grounded” account of the kleva.
The grounded account focuses attention on how the phenomena under study manifest themselves in our experience.
Thus I have attempted in this study to portray the manner in which the kleva and the unseen have their existence in concrete social practice, through interpretations of that practice, formulated within that practice, by participants in that practice.
The decision to write a grounded account has meant abandoning both some traditional concerns, such as the role of the kleva in the functioning of the central Santo social system, and traditional methods of presentation, such as generalised description in the ethnographic present. These concerns and methods are well matched to each other, but they were incompatible with my interpretive aspirations.
Instead I chose to employ an autobiographical method of presentation. At this end of the enterprise we can see more clearly the import of this choice.
One way to bring out the difference between my account of the kleva and more traditional accounts is that I have "authorized" the interpretations that constituted my topic. That is to say, I have tried to avoid presenting interpretations apart from their historical context of production: the situations within which they were formulated, and the "author" of the interpretation – the interpreter.
In fact, my account could be characterized as an attempt to retain and depict interpretation, to make obvious its omnipresence within any ethnographic undertaking.
Interpretation featured in the account in several ways. Interpretations appear as part of our object of investigation in the processes of interpretation that reveal themselves through what is being said in the conversations that lie at the core of most of the incidents described in the body of the thesis. They also appear as part of our methods of investigation, as the processes of interpretation that I myself went through in my own attempts to make sense of what I came across in the Santo mountains. Interpretations can thus be seen to occur as part of both our topic and our tools.
Let us look at an example of interpretation, as it figures as part of our object of investigation. In the Review section at the end of the account of my second field trip (3:22)I commented on how my Santo hosts detected the workings of witchcraft, spirits and moral retribution in their everyday experiences. The cry of an owl close to the settlement was interpreted as a witch on the prowl (3:19), a bad bout of illness was interpreted as a[the consequence of a Duria devel talking about me (3:2), and so on.
In the same place I noted the circular character of the reasoning that appeared to underlie and make possible these interpretations of everyday phenomena in terms of invisible agents such as the abovementioned. It went roughly like this: some everyday observation would be read as a manifestation of a hidden agent. This reading was not arbitrary; it usually followed close to prevalent notions about what was a typical agent behind that kind of phenomenon. But these notions of what was typical were themselves based on and corroborated by similar readings in the past. Thus the readings confirmed the pattern and the pattern informed the readings, closing the circle.
We can see this very clearly in the incident with the owl cry, mentioned just above. Eilili imitated its cry, and after a short silence told me that it was patua. I asked how he knew that it wasn't just an owl, thereby calling his interpretation into question. He replied by citing more evidence for his reading. Firstly, it didn't reply to his cry. Scondly, he had heard it the night before, and this was in accordance with the habits of witches: they were prone to attack when the man of the house was away, like Lisa was at the time of the incident. Last night's reading is thus part of the evidence for tonight's reading, and while the pattern of expected attack informs the readings, taken together the readings confirm the pattern of attack.
Now let us look at an example of interpretation as it figures in my own investigative practices. In the same Review section (3:22)I discussed the kleva in terms of a stage metaphor: as performers maintaining an image of secret knowledge and power in the eyes of their audience, by making displays of their craft. I was able to find much evidence for this interpretation: Sulu's instantaneous diagnoses, read as displays of his supposed ability to "see" the causes of illness; the public removal of vezeveze, read as a display of power over the unseen and so on. Later, during my third field trip, that pattern informed my interpretation of Sulu's account of his nocturnal experience with three witches that come to kill him: I took him to be making up the tale in order to impress and awe his evening kava audience. At the same time that reading became just further evidence for the pattern, just as we noted in the discussion above of Eilili's interpretation of the owl cry in terms of patua. It looks as if my own interpretation is just as circular as Eilili's.
We have already come across this circularity in the discussion of Brunton's problem (8:6). It is well-known phenomenon among interpretive theorists. Wilson describes it under the name of "documentary interpretation":
It is easy to see that this characterisation of interpretation does justice to the examples we have just discussed.
Wilson also draws attention to another feature of such interpretation:
We are familiar with this too, from the account of the kleva. We have seen it in the interpretations surrounding the death of Patua. Early interpretations of his condition in terms of illness are revised in the light of Sulu's revelation that he had seen Patua's patua. Instead he comes to be seen as dying the death of a witch killed in animal form (Te ese mo soroa: "Someone's shot him." 6:8). This compels a reinterpretation of his mitin. His claim to be able to remove patua was korekorei nasa: "just lies" (6:10) - he was himself a witch.
More powerfully, this process of reinterpretation is demonstrated in my own gradually developing understanding of Santo affairs during my field research - and after too, as discussed in Chapter Seven.
My reinterpretations of the meaning of poroporo (7:7) and masulu (7:8) are good examples - both propose new versions of what the meanings previously read into some incidents in the body of the thesis "really were". Similarly with my re-evaluation of Sulu's sincerity (7:2): his tale about being attacked by patua is no longer seen as an expression of his propensity for deception and display, but rather as an example of an authentic interpretation of a fever delirium.
Gadamer has drawn attention to this process, whereby earlier interpretations less appropriate to their object are replaced by later readings - readings which in some way or another make more or better sense. He sees this process of anticipation and progressive correction as an essential and unavoidable part of any interpretive endeavour. As soon as we encounter something new that invites our understanding, we cannot but form a preliminary idea of what it means. This initial reading, founded in our prevailing prejudices and habits of interpretation, is rarely an adequate appraisal of that which is genuinely foreign in the object of our understanding. The latter becomes hidden behind the cloak of familiarity of our own preconceived notion of what the object might be.
But such preconceived notions are not a limitation that keeps us permanently estranged from the genuine otherness of that which we are trying to understand. They are better understood as the starting point from which our understanding advances - a "rough draft" that will be progressively corrected during the course of the interpretive reading (Gadamer 1979:149).
This description of the process of interpretation is borne out in the account of the kleva. As soon as I encountered Mol Kleva in the midst of (what I later came to understand as) performing avuavuti at Tonsiki, I formed an idea about what he was doing. The way he folded up the leaves after pulling them down the arm of Piloi's wife had me speculating about the meaning of his actions. I took him to be some sort of magician, removing objects from the body of the woman, while I read her part in the exercise as that of a patient. I also took Mol Kleva's performance to be a conjurer's trick, saving my questions for someone else, for fear of embarrassing him (2:1).
It is easy to see that this preliminary reading of Mol Kleva's actions had only the most tenuous basis in observation of what he was doing. Most of what went into that reading was based on my reading of ethnographic literature. And though some of these anticipations were later confirmed, others eventually had to be revised. The removal of pathogenic material stood the test of time, while the implied insincerity of the "conjurer", though for a long time a basic ingredient in most of my readings of the kleva, eventually was replaced by an admittedly both slow and reluctant acceptance of the possibility, or even likelihood, that the kleva were in fact sincere.
I think this example is a good illustration of what Gadamer calls "the anticipatory structure constitutive of all understanding" (1979:152). Understanding always draws on our prejudices, as a first stepping stone on our path towards and adequate reading. But in order to proceed along that path towards adequacy, we have to be vigilant, because any person engaging in interpretive activity
Gadamer's characterization of "the constant task of understanding" echoes a passage in Heidegger (1927:153), cited by Gadamer as describing
Part of that passage runs:
In the light of this statement we can see what is problematic about the circular nature of documentary interpretation. The problem is not intrinsic to that nature. The problem arises when we imagine that just because we have succeeded in documenting our initial anticipation of meaning in the object of our understanding, this means that the interpretive undertaking has reached its conclusion, and nothing further remains to be done. Convinced through the circularity of documentary interpretation, we take our reading to be "correct", and abandon all attempts at a more adequate understanding - an understanding tempered by the object that we are trying to understand, rather than by our "fancies and popular conceptions".
We can see this clearly in the two examples of interpretation that we drew from the body of the thesis: Eilili's reading of the owl cry as patua, and my reading of the kleva as cynical performers. They are both cases of anticipations of meaning that are presented to us by just such popular conceptions - in Eilili's case by ideas about the habits of witches, and in my case by the writings of the American sociologist Erving Goffman (1959): popular conceptions within our respective communities. Both Eilili's and my preconception about the meaning of our observations, thanks to their compelling sense of validity (based in a circular nature of documentary interpretation), stifle our progress towards authentic readings more proportionate to their object. All we see is a reflection of our own preconceptions.
In the light of the above discussion of the nature of interpretation, we can now see why it no longer makes much sense to write ethnography according to a model where the categories of description are pre-set by our own tradition - "chapter-title" categories like "kinship" and "religion", problems in the literature of our discipline, and so on. Any such undertaking pre-empts authentic understanding, by deflecting us from the constant task of understanding: to secure the scientific theme by working out these fore-structures in terms of the object of our understanding.
This thesis constitutes my own attempt to come to grips with the problems seen to afflict the ethnographic endeavour. By grounding my description in my experiences I have tried to avoid concealing behind interpretations of what is typical, what actually took place during my field research on Santo island. And by letting my corpus of incidents to be included in the account grow organically from my object of understanding - an initial small selection of incidents involving the kleva in person, as I explained in the Introduction - I have tried to avoid an arbitrary pre-determination of what constitutes material relevant to my topic. Whether this attempt at exploring a different approach to writing ethnography has been successful or not remains for the reader to decide. But if it makes some contribution towards a solution to the problems discussed, my effort will not have been in vain.