Political Performance in the Pacific

Dorothy K. Billings. Cargo Cult as Theater: Political Performance in the Pacific

Andrew Lattas

Dorothy K. Billings. Cargo Cult as Theater: Political Performance in the Pacific. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books. 2002. Pp.x + 267, references, index. $US90.00 (Hc.), ISBN 0-7391-0238-9.

This book is ostensibly a history of the Johnson cult on the island of New Hanover in Papua New Guinea. It begins with rich ethnographic detail presented almost as a travel diary documenting a series of encounters with missionaries, government officials, plantation managers and local villagers. But the book concludes with subtle comparative analyses of how cargo cults may be linked to certain kinds of social structures and cultural styles. The book deserves to be read. It is a book that is not afraid to be old fashioned by going back and reworking the grid and group axes of Mary Douglas and radical Marxist analyses of culture, colonialism, hegemony and aesthetics.

Dorothy Billings offers more than just ethnography on a cult; she documents the colonial culture and the etiquette of race in pre-Independence Papua New Guinea. This includes the uneasy alliances and tensions between planters, missionaries, government officials, anthropologists and villagers. Even within the colonial bureaucracy, she notes its internal divisions and rivalries; and the cultivating of petty forms of resentment, ways of stalling, forms of procrastination, and tactics for infuriating and frustrating people.

Along with documenting colonial assumptions about natives and cargo cults, Billings also challenges anthropological assumptions about cargo cults. She proposes understanding them primarily as vehicles for forms of hope rather than as based on magical or supernatural beliefs about the dead, cargo and America. Mystical beliefs about the dead and cargo were not the primary driving force of the Johnson movement. Instead, it was a resistance movement against Australian colonial rule and against an emerging Melanesian elite that was being positioned to take the administrative place of the Australians. Forms of hope were not directed towards seducing a supernatural power but another country, America. In the movement, America operated as an imaginary utopian geography in terms of its redemptive promise of racial equality. Even when followers suspected that the Americans might not come, there was a felt need to continue seeking their love, to keep alive a desire for the possibility of their love. It is to Billings’ credit as a subtle ethnographer that she does not portray blindly trapped ideologues. Rather, these are people who sometimes suspect their faith may not be justified but who recognise that their experiences of their social world require such faith.

During the 1964 House of Assembly election, the Johnson cult emerged as a collective vote for President Johnson of the USA to be the island’s leader. This coincided with opposition to council government and a refusal to pay council taxes. It was a rejection of the Australian administration, but also of the educated villagers aligned with the administration and seeking to take the place of the Australians with the move towards self-government and Independence. The cult expressed the hopes of those who lacked Western education and who resented the new governmental powers of educated villagers. The failure of the colonial administration’s cash crops projects led to a widespread rejection of existing government structures as domains for producing the hope that could propel people to action and make life meaningful. I would suggest it was the governmental management and production of hope as a form of social control that people were contesting and reinventing. The cult saw self-government as something that would ‘bugger up’ people. This angered the local Melanesian administrative elite who supported the jailing of cult followers for their failure to pay council taxes. As with Bali Island in West New Britain, these jailings served to unify the cult movement. The Johnson cult’s celebration of America as an alternative government was a resistance to colonial processes of localisation, which sponsored new inequalities where the state became a vehicle of social mobility for an emerging local elite. For Billings, the cult was resisting the new hegemony of the post-Independence period where White authority was employed to sustain new inequalities between Melanesians. She uses Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, as an alliance between groups, where the ruling class rules at the expense of certain groups by co-opting the consent of certain subordinate groups (here the educated council faction) who then remediate its power. What cult followers resisted was this new hegemonic alliance between the Australian government and Western educated villagers. I would have liked more use of Gramsci’s notion of how modern hegemony relies on an intellectual class with followers resisting being governed by Western educated local ‘intellectuals’ and, instead, sought alternative knowledges that did not generate the same local power hierarchies. As Billings points out, this was a savvy cult that sought knowledge and clarity. Followers resisted Australia’s attempts to create a local administrative elite through followers developing other knowledges and forms of hope that privileged another whiteness as the true ground for people’s Westernisation.

Cult followers did not want to be free from outside rule, but wanted more powerful and competent outside rulers. There was no rejection of colonial paternalism. Instead, cult followers characterised themselves as children without a father, or as orphans in search of a father. Another trope took up the feminising effects of colonialism, with cultists characterising themselves as a wife who runs away from an uncaring non-providing husband. The rejection of Australia and endearment of America was maintained in the post-Independence period even though there was no longer direct Australian rule. I noticed similar contemporary reproductions of colonial critiques in other cult movements in New Britain. Here, too, the critique of Australia was maintained as a critique of villagers who had been ‘schooled’ by the Australians. When the Johnson cult finally decided to participate in council government, it gained control and then voted the council out of existence. This denied opponents a future power base through which to create local governmental hierarchies. The Americans offered a means of resisting an emerging local Melanesian elite empowered by self-rule and an alliance with whiteness. The Americans provided a more empowered version of whiteness, of racial authority, than the Australians, thereby undercutting this local elite, which drew on Australian governmental authority for its cultural capital. Through the promise of America, followers contested and relocated white governmental authority away from educated villagers and in favour of their alliance with the promise of another kind of white man who, I believe, seems to be suspiciously Melanesian. During World War Two, the Americans had shown a certain generosity of spirit; they shared in a way that Melanesians often idealise as the true and better version of themselves.

I was not totally convinced by Billings’ analysis of cult followers as actors and the movement as a theatrical drama. Yet Billings is on to something. Her analysis can be positioned as halfway between Geertz and Turner in showing how symbolic protests are political theatre, but her main inspiration is Gramsci, Lukas, the Frankfurt School and Marxist notions of art and aesthetics as political vehicles. What was important in the Johnson cult was the theatre of resistance and the culture of hope. Ultimately, it did not matter if the Americans never came. Followers treated the careful explanations by Europeans of the futility of their actions to lure America and its President as beside the point.

This book takes a while to warm to and treat seriously. The deceptiveness of the initial travelogue ultimately gives way to thoughtful reflections on Melanesian models of desire and sociality. This is a complex book that, in the end, I enjoyed and learnt a great deal from.

Andrew Lattas

The University of Newcastle, NSW

COPYRIGHT 2006 Australian Anthropological Society

COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group