brad brace

8/15/2008

Linearity

Filed under: General,global islands,ideology,png,trobriand islands — admin @ 4:12 am

The Trobriand Islands are an archipelago of coral atolls off the eastern coast of New Guinea. Most of the population lives on the main island of Kiriwina. The people of the area are mostly subsistence horticulturalists who live in traditional settlements. The social structure is based on matrilineal clans who control land and resources. People participate in the regional circuit of exchange of shells called kula, sailing to visit trade partners on sea-going canoes.

Although an understanding of reproduction and modern medicine is widespread in Trobriand Society, their traditional beliefs have been remarkably resilient, and the idea that in order to become pregnant women must be infused with spirits from the nearby island of Tuma, where people’s spirits go after they die, is still a part of the Trobriand worldview. In the past, many held this traditional belief because the yam, a major food of the island, included chemicals whose effects are contraceptive, so the practical link between sex and pregnancy was not evident.

Particularly interesting and unique to the Trobriand Islands are the linguistic aspect of the indigenous language, Kilivila. In such a linguistic system, the concept of linear progress of time, geometric shapes, and even conventional methods of description are lost altogether or altered. In the example of a specific indigenous yam, when the yam moves from a state of sprouting to ripeness to over ripeness, the name for each object in a specific state changes entirely. This is because the description of the object at different states of development are perceived as wholly different objects. Ripeness is considered a defining ingredient and thus once it becomes over ripe, it is a new object altogether. The same perception pertains to time and geometric shapes.

Our arrangement of history is mainly linear. My great grandfather read by kerosene lamp, my grandfather studied by gaslight, my father read by an electric light, and I study by fluorescent lighting. To us, this is linearity. This is the meaningful sequence.

To the Trobriander, linearity in history is abominable, a denial of all good, since it would imply not only the presence of change, but also that change increases the good. But to the Trobriander value lies in sameness, in repeated pattern, in the incorporation of all time within the same point. What is good in life is exact identity with all past experience and all mythical experience. There is no boundary between past Trobriand existence and the present. It can be indicated that an action is completed, but this does not mean that the action is past.

Where we would say “Many years ago” and use the past tense, the Trobriander will say, “In my father’s childhood” and use non temporal verbs. They place the event situationally, not temporally. Past, present, and future are presented linguistically as the same, are present in existence, and sameness with what we call the past and with myth represents value to the Trobriander.

Where we see a developmental line, the Trobriander sees a point, sometimes increasing in value. Where we find pleasure and satisfaction in moving away from that point, in change as variety or progress, the Trobriander finds it in the repetition of the known, in maintaining the point, or what we call monotony. Esthetic validity, dignity, and value come to them not through arrangement into a linear line, but rather in the undisturbed events within the original, nonlineal order.

The only history which has meaning for the Trobriander is that which evokes the value of the point, or which in the repetition increases the value of the point. For example, every occasion in which a kula object participates becomes an ingredient of its being and increases its value. All these occasions are enumerated with great satisfaction, but the linear course of the traveling kula object is not important.

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