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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

WITTGENSTEIN and others ...

WITTGENSTEIN and others …

Bertrand Russell was impressed by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory of a logical language that would not allow any nonsense to be produced. Gödel’s later refutation aside, one is also impressed with the final assertion in the Tractatus that, in Wittgenstein’s words, … meine Sätze erläutern dadurch, dass sie der, welcher mich versteht, am Ende als unsinnig erkennt, wenn er durch sie—auf ihnen—über sie hinausgestiegen ist. (Er muss sozusagen die Leiter wegwerfen, nachdem er auf ihr hinaufgestiegen ist.). Er muss diese Sätze überwinden, dann sieht er die Welt richtig. In other words, a sort of Nietzschean or Zen demand to go beyond dualistic concepts of sense vs. non-sense, and thereby discover the world as it really is. Since Russell was definitely not impressed by Nietzsche – he sees him as a forerunner of the German Nazi ideology – one can only assume that all philosophers mentioned are as confused as Wittgenstein himself, what with Wittgenstein asserting that philosophy itself doesn’t really exist as a worthwhile intellectual enterprise.

What is more interesting is Wittgenstein’s – and all philosophers before and after him – struggle with language per se. What exactly is language? Are thoughts independent of language? Hardly! What are the connections? Does language equal thought? Can language be described by language? If logic is a sub-set of language, how come the human species at large ignores it? How come we can land a spacecraft on a comet but we cannot have anything resembling peace on earth? Why does it seem impossible to eliminate non-sense? Why, even in the realm of pure logic, is it still possible to make mis-calculations? Obviously there is some fuzzy logic simply because the human mind, even withy the best of efforts, cannot comprehend itself. Chomsky’s has a fine analogy in that all sciences work on the principle of looking for the lost key near the lamp post because that’s where the light is. Defining and devising the grammar (syntax) of a language, let alone a putative universal grammar of language per se, at times looks like a lost cause and at other times looks like a successful landing on a comet, only with the damn thing bouncing into a crevice never to be seen again.

Wittgenstein’s post-Tractatus view of language in term of game theory is more amusing than scientific, especially when summarized as follows (by Wikipeadia):

Wittgenstein asks the reader to think of language as a multiplicity of language-games within which parts of language develop and function. He argues that philosophical problems are bewitchments that arise from philosophers' misguided attempts to consider the meaning of words independently of their context, usage, and grammar, what he called "language gone on holiday”.

What is a word? What is context, usage and grammar? And what on earth is the metaphor “language gone on holiday” meant to convey? Does personal context mean anything? Does Russell’s life (at least according to biographer Ronald W. Clark) and do Wittgenstein’s exploits (at least according to biographer Bartley) cast a sorry shadow over their academic achievements? They were both aristocratic snobs that embodied academic life as a long list of personal debauchery that caused them romantic pains  to be suffered over a glass of fine wine. Wittgenstein’s cruel treatment of his pupils in Austria would have been prosecuted if he had been a member of common society. Are bad people capable of good philosophical thoughts? Apparently they are.  Are good people capable of bad philosophical thoughts? Surely. In context nothing makes much sense. Russell as a donnish aristocrat could afford to be a bohemian anti-establishment figure. Great intellects like Wilhelm Reich, Alan Turing, Oscar Wilde and George Orwell (the list is endless) could not afford to be different and suffered accordingly.

What does meaning mean? The German cognates Meinung/meinen have an interesting twist in that Meinung translates best as ‘opinion’ while meinen in Was meinst du? carries the meaning ‘to mean’ (What do you mean?). As such everything is mere opinion, or as Nietzsche said, everything is story telling, science tells stories just like religion and myth. That the space craft landed on a comet is a good story. That god is dead is a bad story or a good story depending on one’s opinion about such matters. Fukuyama, the ‘end of history’ guy once took lessons from the likes of Derrida, Lacan and Barthes until he formed an opinion that said that they all talked bullshit (cf. Guardian interview). Fukuyama went on to become the darling of the American neo-cons, a state of affairs which he apparently now regrets to a certain degree. Context explains everything. Contexts are metaphorical constructs using the building industry: you need bricks to build but the bricks do not determine the structure of the building. If you want to understand the building (the sentence) you must deconstruct it to appreciate the structure and then you re-construct it to appreciate its beauty or ugliness as the case may be. Quoting people out of context is often a charge leveled for reporting idiotic utterances: in most cases the context will not change the idiotic utterance one iota. Structure does not in itself mean that the building is comprehended as such. The famous Chomsky sentence ‘Green ideas sleep furiously’ has perfect structure but lacks meaning. Why? To merge words into phrases requires not only syntactic selection criteria but also semantic criteria, e.g. the verb ‘sleep’ selects its argument from a semantic field that doesn’t normally include ‘idea’. Hence the sentence is ab-normal. When Fukuyama asserts that liberal democracy is the end-game in the history of humans, we acknowledge that both the structure and the meaning are comprehensible but as Wittgenstein might have said, such utterances are nonsense because they fail the test of logic. Surely Fukuyama’s language - and thoughts - have gone on an extended holiday – a holiday that did not deliver the promises of the on-line brochure that showed a pristine beach when looking out of the room booked. The bitter reality proved that the room was a concrete prison cell with no view at all. In the meantime Fukuyama and the likes make a nice living from the virtual world of make-belief.

Maybe mathematics is everything (cf. Max Tegmark): we can calculate everything but we do not know the basis of our calculations. Great minds construct axioms pared down to Wittgensteinian atomic ‘simples’. Then the atom splits into particles. The particles behave in strange ways. Higg’s boson’s moniker is the God Particle. It doesn’t properly exist yet because it has not been properly confirmed to exist. Chomsky says that in the beginning was ‘merge’, i.e. two words combining to make a phrase, phrases merge to make sentences, sentences merge to make iterative narratives about language. In the beginning was what? The Big Bang? What a laughable metaphor that is! The Bible has a good beginning (forget all the rest): in the beginning was the word! So what happens when and if the atomic word aka God Particle gets split? The universe will shrink back to its singularity and perhaps another Big Bang will follow.

Philosophy as an enterprise conducted by gentrified academics will to a certain degree always be incestuous, writing volumes about each other, for each other, against each other, and the lesser lights – those who have to earn a crust by being eight to five academics – will have to join the bandwagon in the hope that they too will publish a small volume or two, acknowledging that they, as midgets, stand on the shoulders of giants.

This is not to say that philosophy cannot be the proverbial queen of all sciences, especially if it encompasses a philosophy of language. Applied sciences such sending a craft to land on a comet can presumably do it without one iota of philosophy but then again the applied sciences are based on theoretical achievements such as those by Einstein. While Wittgenstein, à la Fukuyama, heralded the end of philosophy there is no end to speculation (in the sense of educated guesses) as to what might happen next. For example, will the ever increasing gap between those who know a lot (and have a lot) and those who know almost nothing (and have almost nothing) result in modern society that can be described as neo-feudalist in analogy to what history teaches about feudalism of old. If history is the history of the class struggle then the struggle will result in revolutions and upheavals driven by the sheer numbers of the prekariat (the modern version of the serfs and slaves). The CEOs and oligarchs will have to maintain ever increasing armies to control their subjects until the armies themselves will side with the leaders of the prekariat, in the safe knowledge that the revolutions will again eat their children. The repetition of history as a tragic farce.

Or will the super-intelligentia have found ways and means to colonize other planets where they can look down on earth with sad amusement, wondering what went wrong with people who never had a choice? Maybe philosophy is about asking questions, noting that Wittgenstein quite correctly asserted that every logical question must have a ready-made answer. In fact we often start with the answer: what makes 5? 1+4? 2+3? 0+5? If only such a method was available for the answers to ‘what do we want?’ knowing full well it includes items like ‘peace on earth’ and ‘a billion dollars for me and my Mum’. Perhaps philosophy is the freedom from logical thinking because logic dictates the answers. If there are 10 logical steps to happiness (and to becoming a billionaire) then everyone must be able to achieve it by decree. Logic, it seems, only serves those who are logicians. Logic did not serve Wittgenstein the man. As the joke goes, logicians have bodies to transport their heads to the next seminar on logic. Wittgenstein’s bizarre sexual urges defy the logic of decent human behaviour (unless one isn’t worried about the practice of renting young, male prostitutes in dark alleyways of London or Vienna for quick gratification). Wittgenstein says that all this stuff is ‘psychology’ and as such devoid of logic. Freud, Reich, Jung and some of his other Austrian and Swiss compatriots would think otherwise. Psychology is a science. Behaviour is what? Is it subject to cause and effect? What are the symptoms that define a person to be mentally ill? The APA currently has the DSM-5 version that informs clinicians on how to arrive at a diagnosis. To confabulate is a symptom. To talk nonsense is not. Killing people depends on the context. Killer-psychopaths are technically insane and cannot be held responsible for their actions. Personally I think that anyone who kills – or orders the killing of - any other living being is a psychopath. Wars are fought by old men who send (order) young people to die for them. Perhaps it is quite logical that countries with borders are like the padded cells of a lunatic asylum called the United Nations. BTW this is nicely illustrated by a NZ (since this is the peace-loving country where I write from) parable: The NZ Herald (31/12/2014) reports that one Simon Draper, a high ranking Forreign Affairs bureaucrat, is credited with getting NZ voted in as a non-permant member of the UN Security Council. His moto is: si vis pacem, para bellum. Obviously another oxymoron, with emphasis on the last two syllables.

We need people like Wilhelm Reich to tell us how to live with a modicum of fuzzy logic, how to be normal, how to be free, how to love, how to live in peace and harmony with nature, how to live a life of social justice. We don’t need homicidal maniacs to parade as presidents, prime ministers, chancellors and ‘leaders’ to lead us down the garden path where the promised flower fairy turns into a firry dragon of destruction. At least we can imagine it and say so. We can communicate such thoughts. Only language offers the hope that not all is lost: we speak, we write, we read, we listen. Just apply a bit of logic to ascertain what is nonsense and what makes sense. Do not fall for beguiling prophets who promise you paradise after death: it does not make any sense! Do not fall for the beguiling business prophets who promise you untold riches if you follow their business model (and yes, they are the living proof in the pages of the ‘rich listers’): it does not make any sense. If you sell a penny button to every Chinese you’ll be rich for sure: it’s pure business logic but you also know it’s pure conjecture that means absolutely nothing – unless you really do it by eliminating all the other button sellers on earth and at the same time devise a clever advertising campaign (with the help of behavioural scientists) that creates button demand where no need is present. Just do it (Nike)! Impossible is nothing (Adidas)! Success breeds success (social Darwinism)! No points for second place (Top Gun)! Believe me, to paraphrase Fukuyama, all these beguiling sayings are pure bullshit!

So what’s your philosophy? You don’t have one? Well, get one! It doesn’t matter at this stage if it’s right or wrong, logical or illogical. We need your version to have something to talk about! Otherwise there is deadly silence. Just imagine if Wittgenstein were to be right with his last sentence (in German Satz, which is a sort of homonym meaning both ‘sentence - as in grammar-’ and ‘axiom, postulate, logical formula’)  in the Tractatus:

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.

which in the original (somewhat totured) translation reads (remembering that the Tractatus was first published in German and English, i.e. the original German by Wittgenstein with the English translation by a Cambridge student and further edited by Russell and others):

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Is this a tautology, an oxymoron, a Zen koan or a philosophical statement of great impact? I beg your pardon? How about speaking the unspeakable, à la Derrida who famously asked if the unforgivable can be forgiven.

Note: I am in agreement with Wittgenstein who in the introduction to his Tractatus came up with this nice affront to pseudo-academics:

Ja, was ich hier geschrieben habe macht im Einzelnen überhaupt nicht den Anspruch auf Neuheit; und darum gebe ich auch keine Quellen an, weil es mir gleichgültig ist, ob das was ich gedacht habe, vor mir schon ein anderer gedacht hat.

So in the same vein, I don’t care if what I think (and have written down) has been thought before (and written about) by someone else. Believe me: intellectual property is an oxymoron!

Saturday, November 8, 2014


As I extolled the virtues of Wilhelm Reich in my previous blog, here is another occasion to showcase him as the arbiter of what is right and wrong. The liberal British press prefers to present the problem as an intractable one while reassuring all and sundry that, yes sir, we can tell you what’s what, such as John Gray’s recent piece in the Guardian entitled ‘The truth about evil’ (see link below).

The title is of course rather unfortunate, especially as the Guardian is fond to promote Russell Brand’s sense of humour, nicely expressed in some of his ‘trews’ sketches, taking the Mickey out of all truths that are more often than not exposed as lies. As such John Gray walks on thin ice even when he affirms that the likes of Bush and Blair are well known as having bent the truth themselves when they castigated Saddam Hussein as ‘evil’. Primitive notions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ abound and it is no surprise that the current war against Islamic State is premised on the same values. Gray attempts a historical analysis of ‘evil’ dating back to Zoroastrians and Manicheans, being clever enough to say that while Blair and company may be called Manichean, Blair’s primitive interpretation gives even the Manicheans a bad name. Gray then cites St. Augustine as the most influential thinker to have shaped liberal Christian understanding of ‘evil’ to this very day. He then, unwittingly hits the nail on the head in writing:

Reflecting Augustine’s own conflicts, the idea of original sin that he developed would play a part in the unhealthy preoccupation with sexuality that appears throughout most of Christianity’s history.

I will return to this crucial point later on. In the meantime Gray credits St. Augustine with a humanistic take on evil, namely

Yet in placing the source of evil within human beings, Augustine’s account is more humane than myths in which evil is a sinister force that acts to subvert human goodness. Those who believe that evil can be eradicated tend to identify themselves with the good and attack anyone they believe stands in the way of its triumph.

The idea that evil is within all of us is later confirmed by Gray via his hero Freud. In between he raises the question as to how Nazi fascism as the undoubtedly worst manifestation of evil in human history so far could come about. He cites Arendt who made the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ famous in regards to Eichmann. I other words we are all capable of the most atrocious evil given half a chance. Such an analysis does not sit easily with those who deny flatly that they would ever stoop so low as the Germans did, given half a chance or not. However in another article in the Guardian (see link below) that describes the exploits of a German Jew as a young interpreter during the Nuremburg trials, the protagonist, one Sig Ramler, says:

            “It’s not only a German problem, it’s a human problem.”

Gray is at pains to convince us that this is the case in general, hence present action taken against Islamic State will result only in a pyrrhic victory, for Obama and Cameron cannot get their heads around the ‘truth’ which is Freud’s pronouncement:

“there is no likelihood of our being able to suppress humanity’s aggressive tendencies”.

Of course Gray has no other solution than Churchill’s dictum that he ‘sup with the devil’ if it helped to get rid of that ‘evil man’ Hitler.  It’s all a question of degrees of evil and subsequent compromises one has to make. Who decides what degree of evil is perpetuated by Islamic State and the like? Do we need another Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Do we need small-scale warfare from the air? Gray hedges his bets both ways in his final analysis:

The weakness of faith-based liberalism is that it contains nothing that helps in the choices that must be made between different kinds and degrees of evil. Given the west’s role in bringing about the anarchy in which the Yazidis, the Kurds and other communities face a deadly threat, non-intervention is a morally compromised option. If sufficient resources are available – something that cannot be taken for granted – military action may be justified. But it is hard to see how there can be lasting peace in territories where there is no functioning state. Our leaders have helped create a situation that their view of the world claims cannot exist: an intractable conflict in which there are no good outcomes.

In all of this wishy-washy meandering there is a fundamental flaw, namely that there IS an explanation, if not solution, of the question of evil. As noted in my previous blog, Wilhelm Reich in his Mass psychology of fascism lays bare the real causes of any kind of fascism. Gray to his credit touches on it in noting St. Augustine’s inadequacies with regards to repressing sexuality, the freedom of procreation, the freedom to be creative. All oppressive ideologies start with proscribing sexuality as deviant if not strictly controlled by a male chauvinist. Homophobia and the denigration of women and children go hand in hand with acts of violence against minorities, infidels, heretics and anybody who does not fall in line with dogma. The Nazis invented the Aryan family as a blue-print for slaughtering anyone who did not fit the picture. A pathological sexuality imbued with insane racism put paid to Freud’s dictum that civilization is built upon the sublimation of the libido. The German Nazis let loose a crude phallic orgy of destruction, what with the likes of Eichmann reaching orgasms whenever killing a Jewish baby. Freud’s sublimation idea does seem to curb the worst excesses and it may well be that civilization as we know it today is the somewhat schizophrenic outcome of such a milder form of the suppression of sexuality. Reich on the other hand turns the table with his idea that a healthy sexuality is the foundation of a society that promotes social and economic justice for all human beings. Humans are not destructive by nature, they are creative, pro-creative but as soon as there is the slightest suppression of this creativity, we do indeed sublimate and end up in the worst case scenario as pathological killers. Reich details the processes in his Mass psychology of fascism even though it is never quite clear to me where the first impulses of suppression/oppression come from. If such impulses are part of the human make-up we do have a problem, a problem not much different from Freud’s assertion that ‘destructive’ behaviour is a human potential. Reich at least reduces this possibility to almost zero as long as we are truly creative/pro-creative, for what indeed is the point of biological procreation and human love if we allow even one iota of destructiveness? On  a New Zealand TV ad campaign for a ‘hope project’ an adolescent boy voices his ‘hope’ as “no fighting, no fighting whatsoever” – play fighting included. We have a long road ahead of us to get anywhere near there: to define good as the absence of evil (i.e. not defining ‘good’ as the opposite’ of ‘evil’). What about a Nietzschean glimpse of ‘beyond good and evil’? Reich’s realm is that of a healthy sexuality. The 1960s opened a small window of opportunity that was shut as soon as it let the light through. Present conditions are dismal, as detailed by Gray in his superstitious belief that evil lurks around every corner, and that all we can do is to relativize it and act as confused as ever.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

GAZA and being GERMAN .....

GAZA and being German …

The press barons in Germany have decreed that - after WWII - Germans cannot criticise the Israeli government lest they are anti-Semite, which is a capital crime, and rightly so, especially when not forgetting that both Israelis and Palestinians are Semitic peoples (henced Palistineans cannot be anti-Semite by definition). However, since nowadays even Palestinians with German passports get killed in Gaza, one has to allow German Palestinians in Germany some leeway to protest. If they are joined by German-German citizens then this is of course intolerable. There is a chain of contradictions that is hard to break: before the holocaust many Jews were ordinary German citizens; many German Jews migrated and fled  to the USA to become American Jews. Second, third generation American Jews with German surnames abound. Some of them are atheist, anti-Zionists like Michael Albert of Z-Communications (where another anti-Zionist, Noam Chomsky features large). Some of them still wonder about the German Germans, as Albert does in his recent piece on Gaza:

When I was in High School I used to stay up nights, sometimes, trying to understand how someone could become a good German. How could people go about daily life while their country engaged in hellish infernal injustice – in that case, the ovens. But I understood in time. The pressure of wanting to get by, of wanting to fit and of not thinking there was any alternative, and, for even more people, the bliss of ignorance (well guarded by asking few if any questions), and, for even more people, literally ignorant fear and intentionaly stirred up desire for revenge, did the trick. And I saw it all in the U.S., during the Indochina campaigns, and regarding the history of racism, and now too, as we destroy the environment. So I get that.

But then there are the storm troopers. The Brownshirts. This is harder to explain. I used to think maybe it was something about the German language – I knew they didn’t have different DNA but they did, after all, talk different. And then I learned that the training that produces soldiers, and to only a slightly lesser extent the education that produces adults, is precisely about obliterating human judgment and sentiment. And that many succumb. And so now we have Israelis. And the capacity for self delusion and ugly denial and even aggressive and fascistic purpose, in the broad population – even if they didn’t constantly claim to have deep and special understanding of the ills of racism – is truly remarkable. Truly sad. Truly enraging.

Even as I cry for Palestine’s pain and hope they prevail, part of me also wonders, when the dust clears, what the hell are the Israelis who are urging incinerating Palestine and Palestinians going to tell themselves so they can live with themselves? The corpses that look so human were really snakes? Or that I was, at least for a time, a monster? And what will they tell their kids? In order to live with their kids. And for their kids not to become monsters – one hopes.

And arguably even more so, what are the Americans with a disgusting past of supporting this horror going to tell themselves? And to tell their kids? And I fear the answer may be nothing at all. Because the ash can of history – which is CNN and the New York Times – may lug away culpability and truth by way of the sewage that is their reporting.

So who and what are the Germans today? Are they just like the bad Americans alluded to by Albert in the last paragraph above? Or are they worse? What of some moronic Arabs who still applaud Hitler for killing the Jews, knowing full well they would have been next? What of some moronic Germans who still applaud the Israeli army for killing the Palestinians? Is it really, as Albert says, to do with ‘training’ and ‘education’ that produces the obliteration of ‘human judgement and sentiment’? What makes people so appallingly bad? For an education in these matters I recommend the German anti-fascist Wilhelm Reich (and of course of Jewish extraction, like many a European intellectual – and being punished in the USA for it) and his book on Mass Psychology of Fascism (remarkably published in 1933) for an explanation of sorts (see extract in German below). Sure, everything in life is about ‘training’ and ‘education’.  Even if human nature were to dictate (via Albert’s DNA) that we are aggressive animals (as the German zoologist Lorenz claimed) hell-bent on killing and eating each other, there would still be the human capacity of benign ‘nurture’ (training and education, as Chomsky for example defines it) to mitigate ‘nature’.  If of course we combine lethal nature with lethal training (as we do with the universal soldier) and lethal  education (as we do with the intellectual commissars as Chomsky calls them) then we end up with Gaza, Nazi-Germany, Vietnam, Syria and all the wars and atrocities ever committed and yet to be committed. Just imagine both our human nature and nurture were of a benign character, designed to bring peace and social justice to all and sundry – then we could all sing the song IMAGINE and never having to put a single word into action! As it stands, the obstacles are just too great. Consider the UK’s top general (one SIR Peter Wall) who is reported to have said that

Afghanistan has left Britain with a 'warrior generation' of soldiers … British troops might have to return to Afghanistan if terrorists return there.

What hope is there when such ‘training’ bears such great fruit? What hope is there when Germans have to battle for ever with having put into action the totally insane idea of exterminating a whole race – the Jews -  by organised slaughter? Not that  others have tried it by other means, i.e. nearly exterminating native peoples like the Aborigines in Australia, the Maori in New Zealand, the Indians in the USA and the rest of the Americas – all done by covert neglect rather than by overt murder. It is often claimed that the victims of abuse will perpetrate the same abuse on others if they can. Will the Jewish state try to exterminate the Palestinians?  Albert quotes an Israeli MP who sounds pretty much like it:

“Behind every terrorist stand dozens of men and women, without whom he could not engage in terrorism. They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads. Now this also includes the mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses. They should follow their sons, nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.”
Ayelet Shaked, Member of Israeli Parliament

German fascism is a great role model for many such a nutcase, be they Norwegian, Israeli, Arab, American, Russian and what have you. The Germans let out the genie and nobody will ever get it back into the bottle. To commit genocide is a reality that is being tested again and again. The Hollywood movie idea that the good guys (the Americans and their allies) triumphed over the bad guys (the Germans and the Japanese) is being extended ad absurdum, i.e. the Israelis (Ukrainians, dissident Syrians, Chinese, etc.) being the good guys and the Palestinians (Russians, supporters of the Syrian, Chinese governments, etc.)  the bad guys, and the good guys will prevail over the bad guys because this is the way of the world. In Hollywood terms, why can’t bad Americans like Albert and Chomsky simply be good guys and get on with it? Why criticize the good guys like Obama, Bush, Rumsfeld, Clinton, Reagan (and did you know, on another planet, Arundathy Roy is even criticising Ghandi)? And as you know if you are a good guy in a bad country you will pay a heavy price. In the land of the free – the USA – you can be bad and criticize the good government and get away with it – or do you? No wonder good guys like Albert get totally confused about how to explain the bad guys amongst their midst. At least with Germans you know it is the language. It is a cruel language when spoken by fascists. English on the contrary is always  true to the word, so full of common sense, so full of common wealth. Thank god the Germans are learning English in large numbers. Maybe that’s the problem with the Palestinians? The Israelis all speak good American English, just listen to nice guy Mr. Netanyahu.

When history repeats as a farce it is easy to forget that real lives are expended by the thousands (at last count) and that life becomes so cheap as to be so meaningless as to be tossed away on the rubbish heap of history. The Israeli soldiers die for their country, the Palestinians die for nothing, following the German military practice that for every soldier shot by a partisan, a hundred civilians must die. An eye for an eye would be too cheap because the fight is not between humans, it is between humans and ‘snakes’ as Albert infers from the quoted Israeli MP. Why the reference to the Biblical (Freudian) ‘snake’ one may ask?  Wilhelm Reich (1933) explains this as part of uncovering racism which defines German fascism:

Die Geschlechtlichkeit verzerrt sich nun- mehr im Sinne des Teuflichen, Dämonischen,das zu bändigen ist. Im Lichte der patriarchalischen Forderungen erscheint die keusche Sinnlichkeit des Matriarchats als wollüstige Entfesselung finsterer Mächte, das Dionysische wird zum sündigen Begehren, das die patriarchalische Kultur nicht anders als chaotisch und schmutzig denken kann. Mit dem Eindruck der verzerrten, lüstern gewordenen menschlichen Sexualstrukturen in sich und vor sich, wird der patriarcha-
lische Mensch zum ersten Male in die Fesseln einer Ideologie gelegt, für die sexuell und unrein, sexuell und niedrig oder dämonisch untrennbare Vorstellungen werden.

To overcome such elementary and deep-seated psychological problems, a major revolution is required which few people are willing to consider. Reich is simply unpalatable when it comes to such matters of individual and societal survival: CREATION and PROCREATION. We are willing to consider political and economic revolutions – which never succeed -  but are we ready to consider a pathological ‘sexuality’ as the cause of fascism, as does Reich? If one really analyses statements as those by Shaked above, it is hard to escape the underlying sexual pathology, i.e. Palestinian ‘terrorists’ are the sons of bitches who should be exterminated just the same. Hitler’s racism theorist, Alfred Rosenberg, said as much, playing on the deep fear of the fathers who would rather kill their daughters  than see them seduced by ‘snakes’ in the apple tree. Given such primeval symbolism there is little wonder that the emotional responses engender a fascist ideology as described by Reich above. 

I would add that religious bigotry on all sides also has a root cause in such a pathology. After all the Israelis and Palestinians have few or no racial differences and instead project all their hatreds onto each other via religious differences: Judaism against Islam, and what with the Christians being  ambivalent  but in the end  favouring the Zionists simply to atone for what the German Christians did to the Jews (not to forget that the German racism was underpinned by the Christian religious fanaticism that has always declared the Jews as killers of Jesus). Marx was wrong to say that religion is the opium (a sedative) for the people: religion is the methamphetamine (speed) of the people that drives people to commit unspeakable atrocities.  Germany by the weight of its terrible history must support the state of Israel, come what may. The terrible ironies and attendant contradictions have no end. Albert will have to stay up many more sleepless nights pondering the impossible question on how to ‘become a good German’. Maybe Albert should consider the real possibility that German-speaking Jews like Reich and Marx (driven into exile to speak and write in English) are the only really ‘good Germans’ we know of.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A review of Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky. A film by Michel Gondry (2013).


Having seen the film at the Auckland Film Festival in 2014, I was surprised at the relatively high attendance (it was the second screening), negating the sometimes heard adage that Chomsky is an old hat. Gondry doesn’t pull any punches when he says that he better do this film before he dies (Chomsky is 85 in 2013).

Being a bit of an expert on Chomsky (see my book on Chomsky, 2006) I didn’t learn anything new about Chomsky in the film but it did strike me how difficult it is to get Chomsky’s ideas across to someone like Gondry who is obviously very well disposed towards Chomsky. Gondry as a film maker (animation being his forte) does of course not have the technical knowledge required to understand some of the finer details of Chomsyian linguistics and philosophy. Chomsky’s political ideas are not explored – which would have been a more accessible topic for Gondry.  

Chomsky’s key assertion that language is not a reflection of the world – real and unreal - but that the world is a reflection of language, is not easy to understand, and Gondry simply cannot get his head around it. When Chomsky explains the evolution of language, i.e. a mutation in the brain that gives rise to the language capacity and subsequent thought, first within an individual and progressively inherited by a larger group, etc., and then comments that therefore ‘communication’ was not the primary driver – this key moment was also lost on Gondry, and I suspect on the majority of the people watching the film. The language capacity that developed in the brains of the people allowed them to think (imagine, plan, interpret and whatever cognitive labels one wants to use) and only then did they think about externalising their language, i.e. train their vocal chords and what have you to come up with actual speech and thus communicate. Chomsky did try to make the point that we mainly use language and thought inside our heads – we talk to ourselves (=think) much more than we talk to others. My own additional assertion is that language absolutely equals thought.

This key concept of interpreting the world as we see it in our heads can be explained by various analogies. The dog or the tree we see out there is only a dog and a tree in our heads – they are mental representations. The dog who sees another dog or a tree receives this as visual information but the dog cannot put a label on either. The dog has no language. For the human species the mental representation of a tree is a complex assembly of many factors, not just the visual image of a particular tree. Chomsky mentioned ‘psychic continuity’ as one factor that children seem to hold dear, i.e. an entity like a donkey can be transformed into a rock in a fairy-tale but remains a donkey nevertheless. Chomsky also exemplified this by recounting the conundrum of the Ship of Theseus but again Gondry seemed to miss the point.

Without language we would not be able to interpret the world, like naming the dog ‘dog’ and the tree ‘tree’. In the animal kingdom there are dogs and trees but no ‘dog’ and no ‘tree’ – the old adage that animals are ‘dumb’ is therefore quite correct. All of this sounds a bit like a Zen paradox but when you think about it, it does make sense. Of course language as a biological organ in the brain must be subject to the laws of nature – laws that scientists have formulated within their capacity for language. Hence the study of language (linguistics) can be conceived as a paradox: the snake biting its own tail. Chomsky however doesn’t go as far as that. He simply credits the language capacity with the endless curiosity to ask interesting questions as to how and why everything works as it does – including the question as to how language actually works. He says that in that quest we are still at the level of Galilean science, debunking many of the myths that have grown up around language. Given that even many linguists still grapple with Chomsky’s science of linguistics, one has to agree with him on that score alone. Gondry doesn’t stand a chance!
Neither did poor old Gondry really get the title of his film. Question formation in English syntax involves the movement (known as MOVE in modern biolinguistics) of the verb in the ‘first’ verb phrase in the structure of a declarative sentence, as in

         [[the man] who is tall]] [IS happy]

In other words (excuse the pun) we move IS to the front of the sentence and get the question

         IS [[the man] who is tall]] [happy]?  

This amazing capacity by the language facility to extract structural key elements and manipulate them to construct new sentences is indeed a feat that Chomsky always marvels about. Gondry as a non-linguist is as dumb-founded as the casual non-physicist (who nevertheless takes an interest in popular physics) to whom we try to explain Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

It is also interesting that Chomsky used the analogy – that may turn out to be real thing – of language and mathematics having a very curious relationship. Sentences use iteration (via MERGE) in terms of integers only, i.e. you cannot have a sentence with 10 words and a half. If we accept Tegmark’s recent assertion (2014) that mathematics IS our universe, then maybe we get beyond Galilean linguistics and advance to Newtonian or even quantum-mechanics-linguistics (envisaged by Chomsky as ‘biolinguistics’). When I (2014) recently presented some of these ideas in a conference to language teaching professionals, few of the interested attendees (10 or so) had any clues about what I was talking about. The rest of the 290 conference goers had of course no idea who or what Chomsky is all about, hence didn’t show up to my paper at all. As such it was good to see that in the general population (of Auckland at least) there is quite some interest in Chomsky – judging by the 50 or so watchers some of whom could be heard discussing ‘linear’ versus ‘structural’ representations of a sentence like ‘Is the man who is tall happy?’ as they walked out of the movie theatre. Maybe I should have used the moment and take over the movie stage and enlighten everybody as to the true nature of Chomsky’s revolutionary ideas – something that didn’t quite succeed in Gondry’s otherwise fantastically animated film about Chomsky.

Chomsky did try on occasion to break out from Gondry’s narrow focus, for example by mentioning the French – Gondry being French of course – government’s recent treatment of the Roma much in the way the Nazis treated them. There was no response from Gondry but to his credit he did read from the Harrison report that Chomsky mentioned about the US treatment of holocaust survivors, quoting "We appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them, except that we don't exterminate them." Chomsky is a veritable mine of information, and more of such devastating material would have made the film much more relevant at a time when the Israeli government inflicts the same insane punishment on the population of Gaza. Gondry’s animation skills would be truly revolutionary in such a context, perhaps similar in effect to that other masterpiece of animation, Waltz with Bashir by Ari Folman (2008).

Sperlich, W. (2014). Can a theory of the lexicon inform the teaching of vocabulary?  
CLESOL conference paper, Wellington, 10-13 July, 2014.

Sperlich, W. (2006). Noam Chomsky. Reaktion Books.

Tegmark, M. (2014). Our mathematical universe. Knopf.

Thursday, June 5, 2014



Upon winning a tennis match, the Guardian reported the event as follows:

Petkovic, a deep-thinker who had entertained the media with her reflections on Nietzsche earlier in the week, wanted to talk after her best win in years and gave a press conference nearly as long as Götzen-Dämmerung oder Wie man mit dem Hammer philosophiert. But a little easier to understand.

“I have to say today I was in a real zone,” Petkovic said. “I didn’t think at all. I was just focused on what I had to do. Mentally I was really good.” Reading Nietzsche will do that to you.

It is difficult to judge who is more brainless, the tennis player or the reporter, unless one credits the reporter with a really clever pun with his last line – which I doubt. I am inclined to think that “Reading Nietzsche will do that to you” is meant to support Petkovic’s assertion that ‘mentally she was really good’, i.e. reading Nietzsche toughened her up mentally, for as we know from the common sporting mantra that in the top echelons of sports competition it’s the mental superiority that wins the game - top players all have the same skills.

Of course we (you and I) also know that this is a lot of nonsense, crediting brawn with brain. As such it is hilarious that Petkovic is described as a ‘deep-thinker’ (maybe writing this phrase with a hyphen is another inside-joke) when during the game ‘she didn’t think at all’! Does she ever think when not playing the game? I doubt it. Reading Nietzsche should not be equated with ‘understanding’ Nietzsche, for as the reporter indicates, reading Götzen-Dämmerung oder Wie man mit dem Hammer philosophiert (in German, no less) meets with little or no understanding on his part, and while Petkovic as a German tennis lass might well be better qualified in the language stakes, one would think that she would be able to articulate her witticisms accordingly, and not come up with the usual boring and brainless sports phrases like the meaningless “I was just focused on what I had to do”. Of course her English language skills may not be up to it but she could have tried a little bit harder at least.

In the end one cannot but help to credit her and the reporter with the Cartesian non-sequitur ‘non cogito, ergo sum’ – a motto many a celebrity sports star and their reporters will sign up to in the absence of the real thing ‘cogito, ergo sum’. I am arrogant enough to say that Nietzsche couldn’t have said it better himself, and BTW I do hope that Petkovic wins the French Open simply because she grunts less than Sharapova.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Why Westminster democracy will never work for you and me but random selection will

What with European Parliament elections over and having instigated the odd concern that all is not well, one may as well remind all these worry-warts that ‘democracy by election’ was doomed to failure from the very beginning. It is not, as Lincoln said, the best system we have even if it is not perfect, as it is a dismal failure precisely because ‘voting’ for or against anyone or any party creates winners and losers who will do almost anything to reverse the results, simply because everybody knows how elections are lost and won, namely by deceit, bribery, manipulation and above all ‘vote buying’, i.e. spending large amounts of money donated by interested citizens who want to further their very own interests (cf. election results from the Ukraine and Egypt). Modern election campaigns are large-scale media manipulations that result in often bizarre outcomes, what with power-hungry psychopaths relishing their electoral triumphs.

Even if we were to give some credence to the whole idea that the ‘majority’ has the right to rule as they see fit, one cannot escape the statistics that by and large it is only the minority that elects a majority which is then an even smaller minority. Take the 43% participation in the recent European-wide elections as an example. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to demand that the majority of the electorate actually votes, for the elections to have a legitimate outcome? Quite obviously the ‘majority’ of the so-called electorate (and that’s those ‘registered’ only) couldn’t care less about elections, and quite rightly so, especially if they think that their vote would be meaningless and/or even counterproductive.

Since the media as the ‘fourth estate’ is in charge of electoral manipulation, there are endless calls to vote as some sort of civic duty or  liberal citizens’ responsibility, and providing ‘proof’ that it can work after all. An informative example is an article by the Guardian that celebrates the electoral success of a Spanish political party:
Barely 100 days old, and lead by Pablo Iglesias, a 35-year-old political science professor with a ponytail, Podemos (We Can) emerged as the third largest political force in many Spanish regions, including Madrid. 
I am enamored by the realization that men with ponytails (like I have) can ‘win’ a seat in the European Parliament. We are even happier to learn that:
The soft-spoken, former Communist Youth party member may have stunned analysts with his party's performance, but it was not enough for him. The ruling People's party (PP) had won the elections, meaning that high unemployment and home evictions would continue, he said. "We want to build a political majority that reflects the social majority of Spain."
Thank God, he is a “former” communist as otherwise he might advocate a type of democracy that calls for the dictatorship of the proletariat. And how come the ruling PP won the majority vote if a putative majority of the electorate is ‘unemployed’ and has been evicted from their homes? They must be stupid! Or they must have been manipulated in the sense of the oppressed voting for the oppressor (the oppressed famously taking on the features of the oppressor). Either way it doesn’t make any sense. Or could it be that the remnants of the well-to-do Spanish middle-classes voted for Podemos because they are enamored of well-to-do academics with ponytails? And who are these people who vote for the fascists all over Europe – like they voted for Hitler and Mussolini a few decades before (and BTW, LOL, says bonnie Prince Charles, isn’t the elected Putin the new Stalin who was in league with Hitler?). It’s all a bit confusing, innit? Even a conservative Tony Blair (and potential war criminal) noted that Ukip is ‘nasty and unpleasant’.

And furthermore, didn’t our nice Señor Pablo Iglesias, as a savvy political scientist’ ever consider the most unfortunate name for his party? He must know that Obama won with the slogan “yes, we can”. Yes, we can screw you!

So what is the alternative, if there is one (contrary to Lincoln)? One should remember that the origins of Greek democracy are based on the procedure to ‘select by lot’ one of the citizens of Athens to lead them to glory if at all possible. The method of true democracy has all the hall marks to guard against the pathetic pitfalls of Westminster democracy, for even if the lot falls on a power-hungry psychopath, one can impeach him quickly on the grounds of insanity. In any case the statistical probability to ‘select by lot’ a normal citizen must be far above the statistical probability of ’voting’ for a normal candidate (let alone vote for a ‘winning normal candidate’). After all the American constitution boldly asserts that we are all born equal and as such it is our birthright to be selected by lot. If the lot falls on you or me, we will work tirelessly to make sure that social and economic justice will prevail, that private ownership of the means of production is outlawed, and that free beer vouchers are given to alcoholics in return for collecting rubbish on the streets of Amsterdam. You and I cannot possibly do a worse job than those who are elected by definition of means foul and unfair. Most likely we will do a much better job! We would give Senor Iglesias a job (not earning more than €1,930 per month) singing songs about the homeless reoccupying their houses while we send Farage and Le Pen into exile, to have fun on St. Helena. To be more lenient with breaking-bad politicians like Cameron, Merkel, Obama and Putin, they can make a living selling vacuum cleaners door to door (not earning more than a third of €1,930 per month) – yes, they can!

The point to make is that a truly participatory democracy cannot be based on ‘voting’ and the ‘majority’ ruling over the ‘minority’, especially if the majority is in the overall minority of the population (typically a ‘voting majority’ of less than a quarter of the total population ‘wins’ and so rules over the whole lot). True enough, under current conditions of media manipulation the idea of ‘selecting by lot’ a parliament and/or government sounds like a bizarre joke that might have worked in ancient Athens - but see where it got them to in the end. But think again: there are alternatives, there must be alternatives! Why don’t we give it a try for small-scale communal electorates? If the lot falls on the village idiot, so be it, for who knows, maybe the village idiot isn’t so idiotic after all. Chances are that the lot will fall on the average punter who will work for his village community without having plans to become lord-mayor of London town. Señor Iglesias too would know – as a tenured, reasonably well-paid political scientist earning around €1,930 per month – that there are many serious alternatives that have been discussed and described over the ages (from Plato to Chomsky). Modern forms exist in jury selection (random selection from the phone book, as it were), determining lottery winners, flipping the coin when election winners have the same number of votes, conducting opinion surveys, random breath testing – and isn’t there a famous story of ‘love being blind’? Life itself is a random event so why not rely on its implications a bit more and trust the notion that democracy too must be based on random selection.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Phoenix rising from the ashes: Kuwae, the story in na-Makir (Central Vanuatu)

I don't usually clog up my blog with lengthy academic articles but this one is different in that it is my first ever academic article that was 'rejected' by an editor (Farzana Gounder) of a volume on Pacific narratives. The anonymous peer reviewers savaged my article demanding that I delete any and all references to 'politics' even though I have quite legitimately, I think, framed part of the article in a Marxist context. I also offered some anti-religious (anti-Christian) observations from my time spent in Vanuatu and the peer reviewers flatly denied that any such sentiments existed in Vanuatu, hence I must also delete any such references to bring up my article to publishing standards! Needless to say I refused to give in to their pathetic demands. In my view this is one of the worst cases of academic right-wing censorship I have ever come across. In any case, you can decide for yourself by reading it.

Phoenix rising from the ashes: Kuwae, the story in na-Makir (Central Vanuatu)

Wolfgang B. Sperlich1


[1]            I want to tell a little story about the Kuwae volcanic eruption.

[2]            Once there was a man named Semet. He was feeding his fowl at his place
            called Tanamalal. It was on the island of Kuwae.

[3]             At the time Semet was feeding his fowl at Tanamalal, he heard the
            volcano starting to erupt.

[4]            Semet looked towards the volcano erupting and saw the lava coming
            towards him.

[5]            Semet saw how the volcano buried the whole place and set it on fire, and so
            he got very scared.

[6]            Semet was scared of the fire and started running away until he came to the
            village of Lakalia which nowadays is on the island of Tongariki.

[7]             Before the volcanic eruption, the islands of Tongariki, Ewose and
            Vale were all part of the island of Kuwae.

[8]            In the village of Lakalia there was a tamtam by the nakamal. The tamtam
            is a drum used for kastom dances.

[9]            Semet was so afraid of the fire that he went inside the upright tamtam.

[10]             The lava buried the tamtam with Semet inside.

[11]             Then there was a woman named Tariviket who had taken her stick to go
            fishing along the seashore.

[12]             Tariviket also saw the lava coming her way and she was scared and ran
            into a cave by the shore. This cave today is called Tariviket's Cave.

[13]             Tariviket stayed inside the cave until the fires burned out and the place
            cooled down, and then she came out.

[14]             The woman wandered about and she came to the village of Lakalia and the
            nakamal. She looked around until she found the tamtam still standing up.

[15]             Tariviket took her fishing stick and beat the tamtam.

[16]             As Tariviket was beating the drum she heard a man talking inside of it.

[17]             Tariviket made a big hole in the tamtam and Semet came out and talked
            to Tariviket.

[18]             Semet asked Tariviket where she had been. Tariviket told Semet that she had been fishing at the seashore, and when she saw the fire approaching, she became very frightened and ran inside a cave. And when the fire had finished, she had wandered about and came up here to the village.

[19]             Tariviket asked Semet: "What about you?" Semet told Tariviket that he was feeding his fowl at Tanamalal, and when the volcano erupted he ran to the place here and he went inside the tamtam, and the tamtam was buried with him inside.

[20]             As they were now on only half the island that used to be Kuwae, Tariviket said to Semet: "I know that around here, the old men used to bury the fermented breadfruit."

[21]             TARVIKET took her fishing stick and probed the ground until she found the
            stone that was placed over the hole where the breadfruit was buried.

[22]             They cleared the ground and took out the stone and then retrieved the
            fermented breadfruit.

[23]             They picked up some of the half-burned wood and they made a fire and they
            cooked the fermented breadfruit, and that was all the food they ate.

[24]             Tarimas on Makira saw the fire on the half of the island left over from
Kuwae. He told his people that he thought there were some survivors on that half of the island of Kuwae, and that they should go and have a look.

[25]             Tarimas took out his canoe, named Natololo, and he and his men went to the half island to look for survivors.

[26]             The place where they went onshore was called Tapurar before, but as they went on shore they called out Kaho-ov, and that's what the landing is still called today.

[27]             Having met the survivors, Tarimas went back to Makira to cut wood and wild cane, and transported it back the island where they built a house for the survivors.

[28]             Tarimas kept visiting them to bring them food and drinking water on the island.

[29]             Tarimas went back and forth and eventually told them that they should come to Makira where there is a good supply of food and drinking water.

[30]             When the two of them started to live in Makira, Semet and Tariviket got married and they had a daughter they called Nawa.

[3 1]             As time went on she grew to be a big young woman.

[32]             Then Semet prepared a feast and invited all the chiefs of Makira. He told the chiefs they should sleep with Nawa so she could have some children.

[33]             The chiefs of Makira proceeded accordingly and Nawa became pregnant and she gave birth to a boy that Semet named Ti Tongoa Leiserik.

[34]             Nawa became pregnant again and gave birth to twin boys; one was called Ti Tongoamata and the other one Ti Tongoaroto.

[35]             They all stayed on Makira until the children grew up, and then Tarimas and Ti Tongoa Leiserik went in a canoe to the half island, the biggest one left over from Kuwae.

[36]             When they went onshore at the biggest island left over from Kuwae, they saw the island full of egg plants that are called Woro Tongo. That's why Tarimas named the island Tongoa, and the smaller one, also once part of Kuwae, he named AWOH, and a still smaller one he named Vale after the big cave there, and the mid-size island he called Tongoa RIKI.

[37]             After he had named all the islands, they went back to Makira.

[38]             When they got back to Makira, the three boys, Ti Tongoa Leiserik, Ti Tongoamata and Ti Tongoaroto left Makira and went back to live on Tongoa.

[39]             At the time they went back to Tongoa, the men of Makira told Semet that since he was the first man to go back to his island, he should also be the one to take the children back to his island, and they named him Matan Na-ur Ni Tongoa which means 'the first man of Tongoa'.

[40]             All the chiefs of Makira thus named Semet as Matan Na-ur Ni Tongoa, and thereafter he took his children and grandchildren back to Tongoa, where they all multiplied.

[41]             So now you heard about Matan Na-ur Ni Tongoa and all his children who returned to the island of Tongoa, taking with them the language of Makira which you can still hear spoken there today.

1.     Introduction

The above version of the story is based on a recording the present author did on Makira Island in 1985, with then Paramount Chief Masoeripu who had one of his residences on Makira – himself being a native of Makira. A team of local Makirans helped to transcribe it (and other custom stories recorded in a similar manner), and back at Auckland University the stories were published in 1986 as ‘na-Makir Texts of Central Vanuatu’ - in the series of Working Papers in Anthropology, Archaeology, Linguistics and Maori Studies. When returning to Vanuatu (2002 – 04) as a UNESCO consultant, and the good fortune of the sixth Conference of Oceanic Linguistics (COOL-6) being held in Port-Vila, presented itself, a paper proposal to present the Kuwae story was accepted. I asked Chief Masoeripu (then an ex-Member of Parliament and resident in Port-Vila, together with a large section of the Makira community) if he'd be interested to tell the story to the conference participants - with me doing a follow-up discourse - he offered to recite the story in both na-Makir and in Bislama. Since the original transcript had no Bislama translation, we agreed to give the original text to Roslyn Daniel, a Makiran who happened to work as a secretary where I did, at the Ministry of Finance, and ask her to translate it into Bislama (in a sort of interlinear fashion). Roslyn and Chief Maseoripu worked together and they came back with a newly expanded version in Bislama and na-Makir, with the explanation that Chief Masoeripu had found quite a few mistakes and omissions in the old version. Hence, when 'reading' his own story told many years ago and converted into text, he found room for improvement, a process presumably familiar to all of us who write, and on reading what we write, we make changes if we are not satisfied, which in itself is a curious process when compared to the oral mode of communication and cultural transmission. However some of the new additions seem pitched at the 'tourist' audience inasmuch as he explained things like a tamtam, which most locals would know and understand without any explanation. I pointed out that the conference participants would be seasoned linguists and anthropologists who were likely to know more about ni-Vanuatu kastom than many a ni-Vanuatu. Chief Maesoripu made some changes accordingly but remained suspicious about the various anthropologists he had met in his life, i.e. foreign academics who want to know everything but never listening to anything they didn’t want to know.

In any case, above, the 'new' and improved version is presented. As we shall see, the reason for this detailed account of the story’s origins is that there are quite a number of other versions with which we can compare it. In the first place, however, we will do a close reading of the story in its own right.

2.     Interpretative frameworks

Three perspectives are employed to ‘explain’ the story inasmuch as it needs explaining. The anthropological/ethnographic angle – including the linguistic features – provides much of the background as the story has received quite a lot of published attention in these contexts already. As a sub-category of the above I attempt a Marxist interpretation which allows for considerable latitude if not controversial statements. In terms of the narrative structure we employ Labov’s (1972) scheme. The various perspectives come into play when discussing certain elements of the story.

2.1. Anthropological and Marxist points of view

If we consider the narrative to be in the genre of anthropological descent and identity we might also proclaim, generally speaking, that identity is manufactured from the stories and legends of the past. To disambiguate, and to indicate our subsequent frame of inquiry:

(1)  descent  and ancestry are key to establishing identity (Harris, 1983)
(2)  in a post-modernist, virtual world, identity is the cause of violence (Derrida, 1992)

Our preference is however for the Marxist angle which might encapsulate the Kuwae story as follows:

Identity politics is the political terrain in which various social groups engage in a “struggle for recognition” within bourgeois society, each seeking recognition for the special interests of a specific social group.

Even so, Marxist identity analysis can also be ambivalent, albeit on a different plane: the working classes/the proletariat have no personal histories, hence identity is a bourgeois concept; on the other hand the working classes/proletariat have always been the salt of this earth, and as inheritors of this world will always have an immutable identity.

Marxist anthropologists like Webster (1982) have pointed out that ‘story telling’ involving common people is one of the key resources of ethnography, hence we will proceed accordingly, at least inasmuch as the present narrative deals with ‘commoners’. One may also point to a recent example of this genre, namely Gounder’s (2011) investigation of indentured labour in Fiji which is based on narrative recounts of Indian labourers.

As anthropological linguists we cannot disregard yet another important angle, namely Labov’s (1972) model of structural analysis of narratives in general. We will adopt his scheme in the first instance, followed by other features relevant to the story, as told in the original language, na-Makir.

2.2  Analysis according to Labov’s scheme

This structural analysis will incorporate some of the anthropological and Marxist angles alluded to above. Labov’s scheme proceeds according to five stages: abstract, orientation, complicating action, result or resolution and coda.

(1)  Abstract

In line [1] we get the classical ‘abstract’ as “I want to tell a little story about the Kuwae volcanic eruption”, giving away only the barest information, thus creating suspense even if tempered with the customary modesty label of “little story”. Note also the ‘authorial’ ‘I’ which is of great importance in the context of chiefly authority to be discussed below.

(2)  Orientation

The main protagonist is introduced, namely the man Semet, living on the big island of Kuwae. Since this is the central character, we note here that there are other versions of the story which identify him as a chief (Luders, 2001, 2010 and pers. comm..) but there is no mention if his status in this story (but we can make certain inferences later in the narrative).

(3)  Complicating action

In line [3] we are launched into the action of a volcano erupting. Vanuatu and her many islands are part of the ‘Pacific ring of fire’ and as such many a ni-Vanuatu (the term used to indicate indigenous citizens) is familiar with the sights and sounds, if not with the immense destruction such natural forces can engender. Given however that there is now no island called Kuwae – nor has there been in any living memory – one may be inclined to believe that the narrative will be one of legend and myth. Indeed this was the case for contemporary observers until French anthropologists/archeologists/geologists Guiart, Garanger and Espirat, conducting fieldwork in the area in the 1950 and 1960s, found evidence for a volcanic cataclysm that destroyed the ‘mythical’ island of Kuwae, leaving behind only a ring of scattered small islands (now part of the Shepherd Islands, see Appendix 1: Map) that are well known today by various names to be yet encountered in the story. Garanger and Espirat published their findings in a series of books and articles 1972 and 1973, dating the eruption to about 1450 AD. More up-to-date studies by Monzier (1994) and Spriggs et al. (2005) confirm the Kuwae eruption of around 1452 eruption as a layer of ash in all of his digs around Mangaliliu and Mangaasi in North Efate.

Map showing the bathymetry and location of the Kuwae caldera (Figure 2 from Monzier et al., 1994)

The eruption may have had global consequences, as some studies maintain that it triggered the Little Ice Age (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kuwae). Luders (2001) describes it thus:

This was a colossal eruption. It was one of the eight greatest volcanic events in the past ten thousand years. At least thirty million cubic metres of rock, earth and magma were hurled into the atmosphere at an initial velocity of about 300 kilometres per hour and another vast volume slid into the sea. The dust-pall circled the globe, initially in the southern hemisphere and later in the northern hemisphere. The polar ice cores record that it persisted for at least three years (Delmas et al. 1992). The resultant blotting-out of the sun reduced temperatures so as to produce a minor ice-age with the result of widespread famine, evidently on a global scale.

Be this as it may, in lines [6] and [7] we learn the names of all the islands that exist today and were once part of Kuwae.

In terms of the continuing narrative one might expect a grand description of the cataclysm but of course this is not the purpose of the story. Instead we are taken along with Semet who flees the eruption only to be buried alive inside an up-right slit-drum (called tamtam). This seems to be a fanciful development in the light of an almighty natural catastrophe and yet this is the whole point of fact turning into fiction (i.e. legend and myth): a man called Semet is the only male survivor! In line [11] we are then flashed back to the beginning and introduced to a woman called Tariviket who from a different direction on the island also escapes the eruption – with the more likely scenario of hiding in a seaside cave. Note that the status of Tarviket is not mentioned (again as opposed to other versions of the story whereby she is also of chiefly descent and/or may be related to Semet, perhaps as cousins).

The narrative again becomes extremely fanciful in that Tariviket, after the eruption, wanders around the remains of the island and finds Semet trapped inside the drum, well and alive (up to line [17]). One may ask if these two survived, who else did? Other versions (cf. Luders, 2001, 2010 and pers. comm.) note that there may have been signs of a volcanic eruption over quite some time so many inhabitants may have fled to safer areas, even as far as Efate (for the contention that many Shepherd Islanders have land rights on Efate, see Wilson 2011) even though a natural instinct would have been to run for life to the north on the existing big island that is now Epi (see Hoffman, 2007). Again this is not the point. The point is to establish a Phoenix-like re-creation myth - out of a natural catastrophe.

Re-creation myths and legends are not exactly commonplace but feature prominently in various societies. While the Phoenix that rises from the ashes is a powerful symbol of personal regeneration if not reincarnation – with analogies in various regions of the world – there are far fewer re-creation stories that arise from natural disasters of epic proportions. In Western societies the probably best known is the Noah’s Ark story which may have a historical foundation in large scale flooding events in the Mesopotamian regions, what with bits and pieces of the ark supposedly scattered somewhere on Mount Ararat. The single survivor (or male and female, for procreation purposes) idea is of course contrary to common sense and all scientific reasoning but is a great vehicle to establish a totally exclusive claim to land, ancestry and identity. The main aim is always located in the present, namely to justify and solidify the current socio-political paradigm. The myth becomes the reality that shall be un-contestable in the future. That the Maori god Maui fished the North Island of New Zealand out of the water is as ridiculous as the Christian god creating the world in seven days. There is simply no archaeological evidence. However when re-creation stories such as the Kuwae narrative revolve around human beings who display no supernatural powers, we should be more circumspect.

Of course there is no evidence for Semet and/or Tariviket having ever existed but the fact is undeniable that today these remaining islands are inhabited (at least in part) by people speaking the na-Makir language. The language of na-Makir is claimed by the inhabitants of the eponymous  Makira Island (see Map, Appendix 1) which is quite a distance away from Kuwae and the islands that remain today. How did the na-Makir language establish itself on these islands? Did the people there speak the na-Makir language before the eruption? Well, again this is not the point.

The point is that this story is told by a chief from Makira Island, naturally claiming his na-Makir language to originate from Makira (hence the eponymous name), thereby explaining how the na-Makir language came to be spoken on these other islands. We will discuss this matter in more detail under the section ‘Linguistic consequences of the Kuwae eruption’.

Indeed the narrative as such has no subsequent part that Labov calls ‘evaluation’ (as step (4)) which would shed light on these speculations. Instead, and in line with myth-making, we are taken straight-away to what Labov calls the ‘result or resolution’:

(4)  Result or resolution

As soon as Semet and Tariviket make a fire (line [23]) we can see the proverbial solution: the smoke is seen on the distant island of Makira, and of course it is seen by a chief of Makira, named Tarimas (line [24]). Initially (up to line [30]) the rescue operation consists of visiting the survivors and assisting them in their daily life – again a fanciful scenario, given that there had just been a cataclysmic volcanic eruption. A potential motivation for this interlude is to show off chief Tarimas’ prowess as the captain of the canoe going back and forth between Makira and Tongariki – a distance of about 11 km as the crow flies – which is no mean feat, especially as the seas in that area can be very rough and unpredictable. In any case, in line [29] we are told that Semet AND Tariviket are taken to Makira, immediately followed by the revelation that the two got married on Makira and had a daughter called Nawa.

From line [32] onwards the narrative turns into the genealogy of the future inhabitants of Tongariki, Buninga, Ewose and Tongoa islands in as far as they are all speakers of na-Makir. It all begins with the feudal practice of the chiefs of Makira siring various children with Nawa who in turn become the first chiefs of the islands mentioned. Technically the narrative says that they all went back to live in Tongoa (the now largest island left over from Kuwae) but it can be implied that they also populated the other smaller islands where na-Makir is spoken today. Note that in the other versions to be discussed below, these events have a different flavour – not surprisingly perhaps if one is at pains to establish a different chiefly lineage.

(5)  Coda

The coda in line [41], asserts the claim over these islands by the virtue of the language of Makira being spoken there to this very day. Of course the chiefly lines via Makira have also been clearly established by way of an oral tradition that has been re-told again in the current narrative.

3.     Anthropological contexts

The story of Kuwae exists in various forms in the Shepherd Islands, with three main variants presently recorded: the Tongariki and Makira versions first recorded by Guiart (in Espirat et al. 1973), and the Tongoa version recorded by Luders (pers. comm., 2001, 2010). As a genre they belong to what Facey (1988) calls ‘locality and descent’ as a key to social organisation in Vanuatu. As a traditional way to record, maintain and establish claims to land, there are always bound to be conflicting versions, and indeed the disclosure of such lore to outsiders is only a consequence of modernity, often fraught with a mix of deception and leg pulling so as to confuse the inquisition from afar. As this newly imposed modernity insists on land titles within the prevailing capitalist mode of the metropolitan masters, such matters have become of intense interest to those who engage in real estate, and the existing Land Tribunals that are meant to sort out legal title begin to engage in oral and written history as means of disentangling conflicting claims. Wilson (2011) gives a vivid description of the Shepherd Islanders claiming land on Efate, based on a long history of migration between these islands. In New Zealand there is a similarity to the Treaty of Waitangi land claims, with their associated searches of historical lines of descent - quite apart from retrieving land that was alienated by the colonists – and which end up more often than not as contemporary legal wrangles rather than historical ones.

As such oral history assumes a new importance, even if for all the wrong reasons. Works like that by Espirat et al (1973) with their amazing detail on chiefly descent lines are sometimes cited as to support one claim against the other, even though it is well known amongst ni-Vanuatu that such records often suffer from the above mentioned leg pulling or other inaccuracies due to recording in linguistic contexts not well understood by the Western researcher.

So what are the differences in the versions that might be of interest to both ni-Vanuatu (in terms of land claims, for example) and ethnologists? First consider the original text by Guiart (1973), followed by a summary of the story as recorded by Luders (2001) – note that Luders also fictionalized the whole story in his (2010) novella Cataclysm.

Un homme appelé Sëmet était à nourrir ses poules a Tanamalal (Mangarisu de Tongoa). Devant l'éruption il parvient à s'enfuir jusqu'à Tongariki où il se cache à l'intérieur d'un tambour dressé a Lakilia. Une femme, Tarifegit, qui cherchait des coquillages au bord de mer, s'était cachée dans une grotte. Quand tout est fini, elle sort, va et vient et finit par rencontrer l'homme issu de son tambour. Ils trouvent à manger en recherchant une fosse à fruit à pain fermenté (na-maäay). Ayant fait du feu avec des débris, une fumée s'élève que voit TarimasU à Makura. Il pense qu'il reste là-bas un homme vivant et décide d'aller voir. Il ramène ainsi à Makura l'homme et la femme rescapés, et c'est à ce moment qu'il change le nom de Tapurar, celui de la passe de Tongariki, en Kahaov. Sëmet et Tarifegit se marient a Makura et vivent là. Une fille leur naît, appelée Nawa. Sëmet avait en effet tué un cochon, organisé une fête, et dit aux chefs de Makura de venir coucher avec Tarifegit, afin qu'elle puisse avoir un enfant. On procédera de même avec Nawa qui mettra au monde deux jumeaux : Ti Tongoa Mata et Ti Tongoa Roto. Voyant depuis Makura que l'herbe repousse à Tongoa, TarimasU y va en éclaireur et y trouve la plante broussailleuse dite worotongoa, d'où le nom de Tongoa donné à ce fragment de Kuwae, et d'où aussi les titres attribués aux jumeaux. On prend alors le nasumwaur de Makura: Samwan - avant l'arrivée de Mwasoe Rangi et de la déesse Leymangola - et on l'emmène à Mweriu sur Tongoa. Les deux fils de Nawa épousent deux femmes de Makura et repartent avec leurs parents à Tongoa, y introduisant la langue Namakura qui serait ainsi la langue la plus anciennement parlée a Tongoa. (p. 57-58)

Gujart adds a footnote (not reproduced here) where he explains why Sëmet might have called on the Makira chiefs to sleep with his wife and daughter, suggesting that Semet may in the meantime have suffered from impotence and that this was the traditional remedy (but see the interesting story to the contrary contained in the Tongoa (Luders, 2001) version below).

Earthquakes began six years before the eruption and, on southeast Kuwae at least, chiefs began to evacuate their people to Efate (with its offshore islands), calling on their long-standing associations there. They established food gardens, built houses and ferried people to Efate.
The youth who was to become the first Ti Tongoa, and whose eldest son became the first Ti Tongoa Liseiriki, was heir to an older title, one of the four referred to above. His personal name was Simeti, Simet or Asingmet, depending on the version. With other young men, who formed the rearguard of the evacuation, he was awaiting the canoes that would take them off, when the eruption occurred. He fled the eruption and survived by taking shelter in a slit-gong that became covered in the falling ash. A woman named Tarivekit or Terevikit also survived by hiding in a cave. These two were rescued by men from Makura Island under a chief named Tarimasu. After some five years on Makura, Simeti commenced re-colonization of Tongoa, the part of Kuwae that had been his home, and went to Efate to tell his father and other chiefs that they could return. A number of histories give the sojourn on Efate as being six years.
In the oral record it is unsaid, but very probable, that many evacuees did not return but remained on Efate. Simeti took a new title, suggesting that his father elected to remain on Efate with the old title and its claims to land based on the migration of some 25-30 generations earlier. In the nature of chiefly histories, Simeti's descendants inherit all the detail of the old title up to the point where Simeti takes the new title and thereafter their history records the new title. The fate of the old title is apparently lost. Simeti's father may have passed it to another son on Efate but it seems to exist no longer.

 While it is not recorded by Guiart as to who told him this story on Makira, there is a clear similarity with the story as here told by Chief Masoeripu. In the na-Makir language the name Sëmet tends to shorten to Smet and as such has always intrigued me as to its unusual pronunciation. Lueders (pers. comm.) however assures me that amongst the more ancient names (he has recorded Tongoa lineage down to 50 generations) there are similar sounding names, and indeed in the Tongoa version of Kuwae, the man in question is named as Semeti or Ti Semeti. The name of the woman is now commonly given as Tariviket - close enough to the French version. The localities of Tanamalal and Lakiilia match in both versions. The reference by Guiart to fermented breadfruit as na-maäay is a bit problematic as the na-Makir word is commonly given as na-mada. That Chief Tarimas (minus the ‘u’) of Makira brought the couple back to Makira is also in agreement, as is the change of place name from Tapurar to kaho-ov.

While both versions agree that Sëmet marries Tariviket on Makira, there is a significant difference in the Tongoa (Luders, pers. comm.) version where Sëmet and Tarifiket are cousins and as such should not marry, but when they are caught having sex with each other, they do so nevertheless. In the Tongoa version Sëmet marries again though, namely to a Makira woman named Nawa. In the Makira version, however, Sëmet and Tariviket have a daughter named Nawa, who eventually, when she grows up to be a young woman, is given over to the chiefs of Makira to produce three boys, Ti Tongoa Leiserik, Ti Tongoa Mata and Ti Tongoa Roto. Note that the Guiart version does not mention Ti Tongoa Leiserik.

All versions agree on the naming of Tongoa after the plant Woro Tongo(a). The Guiart version then tells of a nasumwaur (na-sumaur in my word list is glossed as 'god/spirit who created the world’) or Samwan being taken to Mweriu on Tongoa, together with the repatriation of the twins and their wives from Makira. It is also mentioned by Guiart that the nasumwaur or Samwan arrived on Makira before the chief Mwasoe Rangi and the goddess Leymangola. None of this is mentioned in the versions given by Chief Masoeripu.

Both Guiart and Masoeripu versions agree on the na-Makir language thus being introduced to Tongoa. Luders (ibid.) however in his Tongoa version points out that the na-Makir language had been in use all over Kuwae for many generations before the Kuwae eruption, hence the repatriation was only a re-introduction of na-Makir to what was left of Kuwae (but see Clark, 1996) who disagrees). This however begs the question as to what language Sëmet and Tariviket were speaking in the Makira/Guiart versions.

What is however most important in the Guiart/Masoeripu versions is that the chiefly bloodlines for the resettlement of Tongoa and the other islands of old Kuwae are descended from the Makira chiefs. However in the Tongoa version, according to Lueders (ibid.) - which by the way claims to be told by the descendants of Ti Tongoa Leiserik and Ti Tongoa Roto – we start off with a Tongoa chief, namely Semet who is to become Ti Tongoa Leiserik. And there are other re-settlement claims to be considered, i.e. many of the chiefs before the imminent eruption of Kuwae had sent their people to safety on Efate and Epi, and these people and their descendants returned to what was left of Kuwae all-the same. Lueders also claims that the Nakanamanga language of Efate reached Tongoa (and parts of Emae) only some time after the Kuwae eruption, especially as the Nakanamanga speakers seem to be resident on the much less desirable western coastlines, thus indicating lesser time depth (on this point Clark, 1996, agrees). What is also interesting regarding Guiart's version, is that the chiefly line of Mwasoe Rangi was not yet on Makira at the time of the repatriation of the chiefly twins to Tongoa. As our current author, Chief Masoeripu is a descendent of the chiefly line of M(w)asoe Rangi it might have been convenient for him not to mention it, lest it interferes with any claims to land and title.

In the present version, the pre-occupation with naming people and places actually comes after the telling of the main events, and as such reinforces the message that it's all in a name that bestows identity (cf. lines [36] and [37]). This echoes the universal practice of giving personal names to heroic figures who become progenitors of ancestral lines of descent. Here heroic status is conferred by surviving a cataclysm, having adopted somewhat unusual means in case of Semet who had hidden in an upright drum. Equally heroic is chief Tarimas of Makira Island who rescues Semet and Tariviket from their predicament, i.e. having survived but having no food or water to carry on. Indeed it is chief Tarimas who then calls all the shots and names all the new islands that formed as remnants of the former Kuwae. Furthermore to really claim the whole bloodline, there is the explicit line [33] which explains that various chiefs of Makira fathered three children with Nawa, the daughter of Semet and Tariviket. Importantly – when compared to the Tongoa version -  Semet is not mentioned to have chiefly descent (nor Tariviket) and thus it would have been common practice to marry off Nawa to a commoner of Makira. We now need a Deus ex Machina, i.e. a plot device to solve a tricky problem, namely to ‘invite’ the chiefs to impregnate a woman of presumably common origins, just so as to establish a new chiefly line that lays claim to all the islands newly emerged from the cataclysm. Guiart’s contrary explanation that Semet may have been impotent and thus invited the chiefs to have a go with his wife and daughter sounds more far-fetched but not impossible in view of feudal practices.

In terms of post-structural anthropology à la Derrida (1992) we contend, controversially perhaps, that such sexual violation as part of a feudal practice – note, it is the father that invites the chiefs to ‘sleep’ with his daughter - is mirrored in the establishment of nationalist identity that in Europe unleashed ‘the worst violences … the crimes of xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, religious or nationalist fanaticism’ (Derrida, 1992). While French and English colonialism in Vanuatu didn’t unleash such extreme violence, one must note that the unique establishment of a condominium (the first elected PM of Vanuatu, Walter Lini (1980) called it ‘pandemonium’) – i.e. Vanuatu was governed by France and the UK simultaneously – was very much based on supporting an extreme version of an indigenous patriarchal chiefly system which hitherto was a marginal force in Vanuatu tribal societies. To this day violence against women in Vanuatu is a major problem (an AUSAID 2011 survey reported that 60% of ni-Vanuatu women had experienced physical/sexual violence). Other may disagree and claim that the patriarchal chiefly system in Vanuatu persisted long before, e.g. Luders (2001):

the social structure in this region seems to have been fairly uniform and conformed to the essentially feudal pattern extant in the Shepherds. The chiefly structure is hierarchical and land is held by dominant chiefs who once had absolute rights over all on it, including people.

Guiart (2004) challenged Luders (2001) article, noting amongst other things, that the patriarchal system alluded to by Luders was an imposition by the Christian missionaries that were very active in the Shepherd Island groups.

My contention is that Melanesian societies in general, and the Shepherd Islands in particular, are historically described as ‘big men’ (I would add ‘big women’ as matriarchy in Vanuatu has been and still is quite pronounced in some areas) societies that lack authoritarian chiefly systems of power, as described by historian Brij Lal (quoted in Wilson, 2011):

chiefly systems have never been a prominent feature of the cultural landscape. Instead, small- scale, loosely organized, and shifting systems of leadership clustered around competitive "big-men" were more typical. These institutions have to a large extent endured in the face of relatively unsuccessful attempts to impose the paraphernalia of a western-style nation-state. Not only do elected leaders struggle to implement "development" and other policies among peoples whom they cannot control or coerce, but they often have to conform to traditional big-man norms and expectations in order to stay in power. Sofar as ordinary people remain very much in control of their daily lives, these systems may operate far more democratically than most "advanced" western political systems.

Vanuatu’s first ‘leader’ Fa. Walter Lini (1980) coined the concept of Melanesian Socialism precisely because progressive and egalitarian political movements could be instituted in a diverse society like Vanuatu’s.

4.     The linguistic consequences of the Kuwae eruption

This title is taken from Cark’s (1996) article where he argues that the linguistic evidence supports the archaeological facts surrounding the Kuwae eruption. The two languages (North Efate/Nakanamang and na-Makir) that persist in the islands formed from the eruption show all the signs (e.g. high cognition rates) of being of lesser time depth than the many other languages that tend to be geographically isolated. Clark refutes the possibility (as claimed by Luders, ibid.) that either language would have been extant on Kuwae before the eruption. Apart from the above argument, there is no evidence for the Epi languages of any substrate influences.

Clark (ibid.) gives credence to my suggestion that the Makirans played a major role in resettling the area by saying that this ‘assigns Makura people a pioneering role’ (p. 282). As such the narrative presented quite possibly reinforces a historical truth – and should have left it at that. That languages spread is more a historical accident rather than an imperial pursuit (although one might disagree with reference to the English language, cf. Phillipson’s (1992) evocative book title of Linguistic imperialism). Indeed the post-Kuwae spread of the na-Makir language to the island of Emwae is attributed to an epidemic on Emwae decimating the women in particular, hence women from Makira emigrated to Emwae and established their proverbial mother-tongue.

Clark’s assertion that with the Kuwae eruption all traces of the Kuwae languages disappeared also, is challenged by Hoffmann (2007) in his aptly titled article ‘Looking to Epi: Further Consequences of the Kuwae Eruption’. He makes the case that since Epi was to the largest extent part of Kuwae, there must be reason to believe that extant cultural and linguistic constructs on Epi must be related to Kuwae of old. Clark did not actually deny the possibility other than to assert that the current languages of the Shepherds (i.e. Nakanamanga and na-Makir) have nothing to do with any putative Kuwae languages(s). As Hoffmann suggests, further research of the Epi landscape may indeed find traces of the Kuwae languages buried in the extant Epi cultures and languages.

5. The politics of the narrative

To finally view the story’s preoccupation with chiefly aristocracy with Marxist eyes (see the introductory quote of ‘identity politics is the political terrain in which various social groups engage in a “struggle for recognition” within bourgeois society’), let us assume, with Marxist polemic, that the ‘commoners’ of Makira couldn’t care less about who is descended from whom and which island was named by whom and why. They just toil away in their bush gardens to put food on the table for their families. They go to church on Sunday because they have to, and they listen to the chiefs because the consequences for not paying attention can be dire. The priests and the chiefs have all the spiritual and political power – and they have none. They have heard about the newfangled ideas of democracy in Port-Vila and their supposed rights to vote for whom they want. In reality they have to vote for the single candidate who is their chief. For some time it was chief Masoeripu who held the seat in parliament for the Shepherd Islands electorate. Parliamentarians get to travel the world and can attend many parties thrown by the Port-Vila establishment, namely the high commissions and embassies of the donor countries. The occasional hand-out reaches back to Makira, like a second-hand outboard motor for the fishing canoe. When it malfunctions, no one can fix it. There are murmurings amongst the commoners that this is a scam and things should change. The priest reminds everyone that such murmurings are the devil’s work and all kinds of terrible disasters and hellfire will befall Makira if it continues. Those few who align themselves with the priest and the chiefs get a few delectable crumbs thrown at them, with the promise for more. It is a universal story and the only solution seems to be for the ‘workers of the world to unite’.

I attest to the above in as much my family and I lived on Makira Island for four months doing fieldwork (during 1985, cf. Sperlich, 1991), and that as an ardent Marxist I was involved in many discussions with the locals about politics and the proverbial meaning of life. Like everywhere else, the ordinary people of Makira are politically aware and astute but in the face of the oppression decried above, there is little chance to escape or to start a revolution or even institute Melanesian socialism. Even with the advent of independence and Fa. Walter Lini’s vision of a Melanesian Socialism (as quoted above) – and a visit of Lini to Makira while I was there, affording me the rare chance to talk with him – there was still in place a pernicious colonial system of oppression, exercised by the chiefs and others holding political power. When I recorded chief Masoeripu’s kastom stories I heard quite a few comments that I, of all people, was playing into the hands of those who tell tall stories to enhance their own reputation above all else. In retrospect I plead guilty.

On the other hand neither Marxist nor neo-liberal academic can deny that the Kuwae story has historical significance, and regardless of the ‘cultural’ baggage it carries with it, it must remind all and sundry of the deeper implications, namely that life is subject to nature’s whims but is also characterised by human resilience: we may be chastised for interpreting Semet and Tariviket as an ordinary man and an ordinary woman who rise from the ashes - Phoenix-like, and thereby re-establish a human identity on a desolate earth. That the story then launches into chiefly descent is another matter, one of critical regret espoused here. That we start of with ordinary human beings in this story is perhaps a sign of unintended hope that in future all narratives will start, continue and end with them (Wolf 1982, Fanon 1961).

Note 1:             thanks to Paul Burgess for proofreading and making valuable comments; all remaining errors are mine alone.


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APPENDIX 1: MAP: Language Map of Central Vanuatu (after Tryon, 1976)