Pacific Ways of Knowing and the Western Academy: A Postmodern Dialogue

University Convocation Address given at
Brigham Young University–Hawaii

September 7, 2000
Phillip H. McArthur
Associate Professor & Chair - International Cultural Studies, BYU–Hawaii

Letao ebed iben Amerika - un eo an dri Amerika kajur, kinke juon kajok ej jokwe ibeir - “The Trickster is with America - the reason the Americans are strong is because a joke lives with them”.  Thus spoke Kometo Albot a 77 year old Marshallese Storyteller and philosopher.  In this statement I am struck by how Kometo keenly attends to a history of encounter between his people and the Americans, who have left an indelible mark upon his Marshall Islands home.  And, I am interested in what I can learn from him about the means by which we make sense of encounters with difference, different people, different cultures, and different world views.

The Marshallese trickster, whose name Letao  means “the sly one”, cannot be reduced to merely a fictive or historical narrative character; he is a living cosmological force for the Islanders.  After WWII a narrative emerged about Letao explaining how, after tricking and subverting all the chiefs in the Marshall Islands, he sailed on to the south, eventually encountering an American ship.  Letao noticed their wealth which he greatly coveted.  They also recognized his extraordinary abilities.  Consequently Letao and the Americans made an agreement: He would travel to America and they would provide him wealth, and in return he would teach them everything he knew.

Marshallese storytellers will explain that after Letao left he was gone a long time.  Then one day many years later in 1943 during the Japanese times, American ships with large cannons and planes attacked the Japanese, destroying their great forces and taking control of the islands.  Then a few years later, the Americans exploded a bomb in the Marshall Islands, the first atomic bomb.  Where did the Americans get such power?  Storytellers will conclude this narrative by explaining how Letao represents all extremes: he is at once good and bad, possesses all knowledge and all stupidity, love and hate, kindness and meanness, all truth and all lies.  When concluding this story, storytellers will ask, “Now isn’t that just like the Americans”?

This is a wonderful example of a Pacific Islander people making sense of their history and global forces through an indigenous narrative.  I would propose that this cannot be written off as merely fantasy or imagination, but like all good story, it is the comprehension of the “order of existence in their own terms”.  Moreover, it reminds us how we all use narratives to comprehend our realities and invest meaning in our lives.  I find it most informative when alternative narratives meet, and I believe this meeting of different cultural narratives has special relevance for how we go about education at this university. Western learning has been a bit like a trickster, subverting other ways of legitimate knowledge.  But there is another side to a trickster that is also very creative and can lead to renewal by dismantling and reconfiguring.  Allow me to move from this introduction about a trickster figure in the Marshall Islands to consider the place of the Western academy in the Pacific, and how the opportunity is ours, to be a beacon in an unfolding global environment of alternative ways of knowing, thinking, and feeling.  In this way we become a truly postmodern university.

Now I realize that the term postmodern may make many feel very uncomfortable for various reasons, many rightfully so since the term has often been associated with either a philosophy and/or moment in history without values.  In fact it often refers to a critical theory and artistic practices that undermine even the foundation upon which any values can be established (not to mention its alienating jargon and faddish cynicism)   This, however, limits the application of the term and neglects many salient intellectual and spiritual implications well suited to our mission.  In order for me to spin my postmodern narrative I must return to that which is modern--to modernist knowledge and thought, and concomitantly to the pre-modern.  The term “modern” masquerades as a label for the present moment, but really it hides what I call a chronocentric judgment: It often connotes that a more desirable present has left behind an undesirable past.  The modern does not have to be so elitist, yet it carries with it an underlying premise of improvement both in its popular usage and in the academy.  This is because it also is linked to an “ism” - modernism, and is born of the ideals of social and intellectual progress established during the 18th century Enlightenment.

This modernist movement proposed that it had liberated itself from its pre-modern past.  Thus characterized, modernity is a movement from feudal and/or agrarian/peasant economies to capitalism, from a religious world view to a secular one, from monarchy to liberal democracy, from kinship and community definitions of self to individualism, from belief and faith to rationalism.  This marks a shift from the worship of God to the idealization of reason and its knowledge and values.

Now do not misunderstand me, this is no diatribe against the efficacy of reason and science; they have proven more than powerful tools for understanding the world, but only to suggest that these forms of knowledge  have a history and arise out of specific ideological and social forces that recognize certain kinds of knowledge to the exclusion of others.  It is important to understand that this enlightenment grows out of an age in which the Western world was establishing its claims to world power through global exploration, colonization, and imperialism.  It is at this moment of encounter--the West with the rest-- that the Western imagination about itself as dominant, and the coronation of reason, took shape.  These different cultures and world views, because they were situated in traditions that looked wholly other than Europe, were seen as simple, primitive, or at best interesting because they helped define what Europe was not, or, resembled its own pre-modern past it sought to out distance.  The knowledge of such people could not be taken seriously, and if to be studied at all, it would serve as justification that the enlightened man had truly arrived.  This condescending gaze upon alternative culture knowledge is the same project that has eliminated the values of faith and revelation from serious university study.

Because of the ascendancy of reason many ways of knowing, learning and thinking have been excluded from the curriculum of Western academe.  Even those fields that were formed out of romantic resistance to the humanistic coldness of the  Enlightenment, such as literature and the fine arts, have ironically ascribed to it by championing the western aesthetic over other creative accomplishments.  Some disciplines have targeted “otherness” as their object of study such as anthropology, folklore and art history, but historically they tend to also operate within a rationalist paradigm--others are studied as objects rather than alternative subjectivities.  I hope we can go beyond merely a study “about others”, to incorporate in our learning how others think, organize, interpret and feel through their cultural resources and languages.  This is not for some radical act of political correctness or a naive cultural relativism, but a creative understanding that illuminates ourselves and others.

By integrating alternative ways of knowing we become all that is positive about post-modernity.  Care should be given not to over swing the pendulum to the elimination of Western rationalism, but rather to engage it in a meaningful dialogue with our faith, revelation, and other cultures.  We can become actively engaged with the postmodern, capitalizing on opportunities for new insights that are both noble and good.  We need not fear; the gospel is our touchstone.  Instead of viewing it as chaos or nihilism, we can recognize its potential for creativity, how it draws from previous periods in the West and across cultures.  If we avoid the incapacitating rhetoric of certain “isms”, we could then view post-modernity as simply a historical moment, wherein new kinds of networks of relations have formed due to global flows of capital and information through a variety of communications media.  We could admit that with such sweeping forces, we must now confront, unlike ever before, the multiplicity of voices and cultures we encounter.  The postmodern, in decentering the power and universalist claims of Western rationalism, is in part just a return to the pre-modern and faith - it questions the limits of knowing through human intellect alone.  This is something with which we here at BYUH should be comfortable.  This university already significantly challenges modernism through the profound manner in which faith and spiritual principles are integrated into our studies.  We already participate in a dialogue between our faith and reason.  Now we must continue to expand the conversation with reason by including the knowledge and world views of the cultures that fill this campus.

I would briefly like to offer some points of dialogue between Pacific cultures and our Western curriculum.  The establishment of the Hawaiian Studies program certainly and profoundly brings to the heart of the campus a language, culture and world view, that if we do not learn from it as a whole, we will fail a litmus test to become truly an international school--and we would have most certainly failed to honor our Hawaiian hosts whose integrity is written upon the landscape we reside.  Within the humanities the possibilities of dialogue are abundant.  While I am profoundly moved by the recitations and literature in the Western canon such as Shakespeare or Hemingway, I am equally drawn to the Pacific orations of the Tulafale or matapule, the narratives of the fai fagogo or dri bwebwenato, and the poetic imagery and metaphor of the Punake and Ho’opa’a.  These oral poets, through performance, recontextualize voices from the past back into the present, and resituate social cultural meanings in poetic ways as incredible as Virgil, Shelley, or Frost.  Contemporary Pacific writers and playwrights (such as Wendt, Grace, Figel, and Hereniko), while writing in English, skillfully use oral culture, rhetorical strategies, and imagery that often escape the purview of Western critics.   In ballet and modern dance we can see the power and grace of human form, but also, are we not inspired by the “poetry in motion” of the Lakalaka, taualunga, the haka and hula?  These dances make profound social statements and communicate deep spiritual values.  In addition to the virtuosity of Michelangelo and the raw emotion of Van Gogh, I am inspired by women who in a collaborative effort create tapa cloth and quilts, and who, through word and craft, aesthetically invest historical, cultural and gendered meanings into enduring objects.   I am challenged by how the Islanders of Melanesia create sculptures which force me to rethink the very nature of art, as not merely the product of an individual genius now displayed in a static posture of a museum, but objects that embody an affecting presence (mana), created out of accountability to the local audience and participate in the most important social events of a community.

And what of philosophy?  While some may think that Pacific tales of tricksters to be trivial, I find that such stories quite profoundly confront the paradox that the Greek Philosopher Zeno articulated about motion, or address even more acutely Friedreich Nietzsche’s obsession with how we can never arrive at a stable meaning and how these meanings are dismantled into a creative flux of ideas.  While some may think the story of Papa and Rangi, or the Kumulipo chant merely reflect the cosmological groping of the Maori and Hawaiians respectively, I find that Friedreich Hegel’s dialectic or Immanuel Kant’s theory of antinomies are simply alternatives to the same problematic (Johnnies come lately if you will).  Pacific histories also force us to reconsider the nature of the past, that the “bin of the past” is not just some ontological linear reality we look back at,  but history is an active force and uncompleted in the sense that the past is continually  “lived in”.  Does not the way in which many islanders conceive of the past--as something that lies before us, and that the future is at our backs--give a wonderful twist to Western assumptions of history that go all the way back to the Herodotus and Thucydides?

There is also fertile ground for this dialogic experiment in the social sciences.  Instead of viewing Pacific Island countries as failures at adopting the Western model of the nation state, we could see a new articulation of modern government which attends to both ascribed and achieved status, to community and respect for the elders.  We could listen carefully to alternative clues about human nature and the psyche, ones that are not necessarily driven by radical assumptions of the individual or reduced to biology.  We could reconsider the economic basis of relations by understanding how Pacific exchange of goods and services are intimately connected to all systems of social life (religion, kinship, values) and that the accumulation of individual capital may limit certain kinds of deep family relations and hinder a more consecrated life.

In the sciences, there is room for some dialogue as well.  Pacific Islander knowledge of plants has lead to profound medicinal discoveries now recognized by ethnobotanists and chemists.  We could also glean much from the Islanders’ understanding of the land and sea, not only in terms of material properties, but their appreciation for its spiritual dimensions, and thus greater reason for its conservation. Might we reconsider by what criteria taxonomic boundaries are made when we attend to the Islanders’ categories and terms for a variety of fish, plants and waves that provide conceptual alternatives to the terminologies in English and scientific Latin?  Long before Europeans embarked on open ocean voyages the islanders had developed a complex knowledge of astronomical and oceanic navigational techniques that resulted in refined concepts, often materialized into maps operating on sophisticated principles of physics such as those found in Micronesia.

We can learn something from the Pacific for all disciplines.  The great Makahiki and other sports events reconfirm the necessity of integrating body, mind and spirit, and that games may not be trivial at all but have great social value.  We can learn more about the very process of learning, by attending to how Islanders educate their young through respect, imitation, and mentoring, and that the best knowledge is not always the new or progressive, or that derived by new technologies, but that things of enduring value are found in the elders as repositories.

The depth and breadth of the Western academy is rich and varied. There is much to be gained from the rigorous pursuit of what it offers. Yet I am convinced that the cultural knowledge of Pacific Islanders (and all cultures present here), has something to contribute to all of us, to make our knowledge more whole, to empower us and our students to think through a variety of means.  Either we are one of the last bastions of intellectual imperialism or the most promising intellectual experiment in all of academe.  For it is here that we merge cultural views, deep faith born of prophetic and individual revelation, and intellectual pursuits.

Kometo, my Marshallese mentor I started with today, explained to me that “to know” we must seek out the great ideas of all peoples, and coupled with the pursuit of the mysteries of the Great God, we would come to think and feel more wholly as human beings.  In the image of a good trickster he asked us to rethink boundaries and preconceived categories - to explore possibilities.  Similarly, President Kimball once offered, “We need people who can dream of things that never were, and ask, Why not?”