11/29 Lecture, Gabriel Solis
Jodi Byrd, Responding to "Moving Beyond Preservation"

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Gabriel Solis (above)

[On Monday, November 29, 2010, the Unit for Criticism hosted “Moving Beyond Preservation: 'Traditional' Music, Arts Institutions, and Modernity in Papua New Guinea,” a lecture by Gabriel Solis, a professor of musicology and African American studies at the University of Illinois. Below we publish Professor Jodi Byrd's response]

Gabriel Solis' "Moving Beyond Preservation: 'Traditional' Music, Arts, Institutions, and Modernity in Papua New Guinea"

Written by Jodi Byrd (American Indian Studies/English)

In his paper, “Moving Beyond Preservation: ‘Traditional’ Music, Arts Institutions, and Modernity in Papua New Guinea,” Gabriel Solis raises a number of significant issues here at the intersections between and among Pacific Island studies, anthropology, ethnomusicology, and indigenous cultural studies, and in the process, offers us some important interventions to the anthropological notions of tradition and cultural preservation which have trapped indigenous cultural productions in the rigid binaries of traditional/modern, local/introduced, past/present.

What particularly intrigues is Solis’s dissatisfaction with hybridity as sufficiently useful to theorize what might be understood as an indigenous modernity in PNG and the place of Papua New Guineans within the larger, transnational scale of modernity within the Pacific. The problem with hybridity (and perhaps syncretism) as framing ideas to apprehend indigenous cultural practices, is that they both are givens, and they both reify “indigenous” and “western” into the very categories that the artistic and musical forms are trying to resist.

Indigenous peoples continue to be trapped by the structural logics within the ethnographies and historiographies that attempt to account for the violences and accommodations colonialism has produced within indigenous communities around the globe. In the North American context, the modern and assimilative is often lamented within the colonial nostalgias that produce anthropological historiographies as loss, death, and betrayal even as the continent remains a melancholic site for settler remorse over the colonial administrators and agencies that demanded and surveilled such assimilation: boarding schools, removal and reservations, and the state formations of enlightenment democracy which supplanted indigenous structures of consensus governance and transformed power and relation into sovereignty and citizenship. And as Solis reminds us, it is in these ways that the colonial encounter led to the development of modern subjectivities for both the colonial and the native in the first place, an argument that for me calls to mind Philip J. Deloria’s Indians in Unexpected Places in which he reminds us that within colonial narratives foundational to U.S. modernity, Indian people are expected as “corralled on isolated and impoverished reservations” where they “missed out on modernity, indeed, almost dropped out of history itself” (6).

And yet, it is the anomalies that Deloria points to, those moments in which modernity is revealed to be constitutive through indigenous presences rather than absences which disrupt the dialectics of modernity which leave indigenous peoples trapped a priori and ahistorically in a past-present lack on the world stage. Indigenous peoples are not distinct from these histories, Deloria reminds us, because modernity and its world “took as its material base the accumulation of capital ripped from indigenous lands, resources, and labor over the course of centuries” (231).

What I found particularly generative in Solis’s discussion of Papua New Guinea and his critique of ethnomusicology’s continued reliance upon a dialectic that renders certain practices outside and alien to modernity, or trapped within visions of change that either celebrate continuity or mourn catastrophic loss is the way in which he challenges the structural logics that shape the binary set of Melanesian or Western. Within those dialectics that Solis critiques reside the colonialist accompaniments epitomized by Marshall Sahlins’ attempt to encapsulate “how ‘natives’ think” about anything at all in the project of historical ethnography dependent, as Kanaka Maoli scholar Noenoe Silva has argued, upon the centrality of how “English” thinks natives might think in indigenous languages, epistemologies, and philosophies.

The problem that lingers is the problem of tradition as invention and indigeneity as other to modern world history, where anything authentic always already owes, according to Sahlins, “more in content to imperialist forces than indigenous sources” or the vice versa where indigenous modernity replicates indigenous premodernity (475). One of the things that gets lost through such structural renderings of indigenous modernity and the invention of tradition is the fact that tradition itself might be said to be the repetition of invention. If we are to understand within the three different strands of attitudes towards local music in Papua New Guinea which Solis delineates for us--the impulses and contradictions of the documentary, the salvage, and the root-stock resource for national innovation and creativity--then perhaps one of the possible directions that emerges for us is how indigeneity disrupts and refuses the binaries colonialism leaves behind. One of the key questions that rises to the fore in emergent forms of indigenous cultural studies is the question of agency, where finally, PNG culture and music are “living, changing thing(s).”

It is here that I think Solis diverges importantly and significantly from Sahlins to offer us a third possibility that is, in Solis’s words, “neither clearly replicating older social structures, nor simply operating within structures governed by transnational capital.” These third ways, (especially as they manifest within the University of Goroka’s art program and the work students produce), have, Solis compellingly tells us, “the potential to ‘do’ modernity in a way that is unlike other entities in PNG,” where the arts department explicitly serves nationialist goals, but in ways that confound, Solis argues, “any sense of Papua New Guinean people’s marginal position within the system of transnational capital as a problem.” His turn here, in significant ways, echoes and diverges from Arif Dirlik’s argument in his essay “The Past as Legacy and Project: Postcolonial Criticism in the Perspective of Indigenous Historicism” in which Dirlik pairs purity and hybridity to a self-same concern with an ahistoric essentialism. “Indigenous voices,” Dirlik writes, “are quite open to change; what they insist on is not cultural purity or persistence, but the preservation of a particular historical trajectory of their own” that is “grounded in the topography much more intimately” than settlers and “is at odds with the notions of temporality that guide the histories of settlers” (18). In other words, indigenous nationalisms and the doing of modernity might be framed not as a recovery of a lost past, but of imagining alternative trajectories for an active, living indigenous modernity that has been functioning all along.

Both the University of Goroka and the Mulka Project, Solis argues, resist structuralist readings of culture and “a yearning for a kind of pre-contact state of grace” and are instead enacting creative and innovative transformations of the salvage preservation of endangered culture into indigenous run institutions demanding a condition of possibility that imagines a present and future for Papua New Guinea cultural productions. The two examples Solis gives us engage in what Kahnawake Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson has articulated as ethnographic refusal dependent upon “a tripleness, a quadrupleness, to consciousness and an endless play” (74). That potential frame of ethnographic refusal might be said to reside in Solis’s point that the work of the teachers and students is “something other than a kind of run-of-the-mill World Beat hybrid form.” It is process oriented rather than commercially oriented, community-centered and depended upon people to create rather than consume.

In the end, Solis gives us a hopeful direction for indigenous cultural studies in the place of the pessimistic tropics, and one that pushes against the expected and oppositional indigenous/Western binaries that leave indigenous peoples as develop-men upon a world stage still expecting their arrival. Instead, Solis’s paper and examples point to alternative trajectories that confound and refuse the waiting room of history by foregrounding the on-the-ground and local appropriations the emerge where pop music and tradition transform into the doing of Papua New Guinea modernity.


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