Postmodernist theory and the sublimation of Maori culture

Postmodernist theory and the sublimation of Maori culture

Steven Webster

KUPER, A. 1988. The Invention of Primitive Society; the history of an illusion. Routledge, London.

LAMB, J. 1990. ‘The New Zealand Sublime’ in Meanjin, 49:663-75.

—– n.d. (1991) ‘A moment of the sublime off the Coast of Poverty Bay, 9 October 1769’ paper read 21 March 1991, Auckland University.

LEVINE, H. B. 1991. ‘Comment on Hanson’s “The Making of the Maori'” in American Anthropologist, 93:444-6 (1991).


A grasp of the diffuse movement of postmodernism may best be gained by examining some of its manifestations in a particular social context with a particular social interest. This essay outlines the situation of the New Zealand Maori, and sets against this some of the postmodernist formulations of Maori culture which have recently emerged at University of Auckland. Postmodernist interests converge from many disciplinary directions at Auckland (including architecture, sociology, archaeology, education, history, and psychology) and often have reference to Polynesian and especially Maori culture. Here I will examine only certain of them in social anthropology and literary criticism. Generally speaking, the anthropological notion of other cultures plays an important, often ‘decentred’ role in postmodernist theory, and the discipline is deferred to in this regard. For better or for worse, anthropology can be said to be reaping an interdisciplinary harvest from its decades of dedication to the understanding of the Otherness of other cultures.

Postmodernism may be defined as committment to a theory or assumption which holds (in varied ways) that the contemporary social world is in a postmodern condition: it is generally constituted by meanings, signs, or imagery — but of a new sort which has lost its objective reference and represents only other meanings, signs, or imagery. Most formulations of postmodernism are posed as a radical critique of advanced capitalist society, but some are more encompassing or ambitious than others. In 1978, Baudrillard offered an (ironically?) periodised account of the successive phases of the image in society:

— It is the reflection of a basic reality. — It masks and perverts a basic reality. — It masks the absence of a basic reality. — It bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum. (Baudrillard (Simulations |1978~), cited in Gill 1984:78)

These successive views of the world appear to correspond roughly to: European naturalism or positivism; modern critiques of naturalism or positivism such as Hegel’s, Marx’s or Freud’s; the modernist scepticism of the 1920-30s aesthetic avantgardes; and finally, postmodernism. From a postmodern point of view, however, postmodernism cannot be an historical period which succeeds a modern period or any other, because the signs of discourse no longer refer to anything but the simultaneous universe of signs. All previous periods are instantaneous in postmodernism; any such history has, so to speak, imploded.

Certain general themes recur: disillusionment with the Enlightenment goals of human emancipation, especially exemplified by Marxism; eschewal of any such notion of totality, foundations, or their theorisation, often called grand narratives or dismissed as nostalgia; oppression in an encompassingly cultural, semantic, or semiological dimension of hegemony; appeal to communities of resistance modelled on something which can be hoped to be outside such hegemony — often the cultural Otherness posited by the anthropological notion of cultural relativity.

Postmodernists themselves usually have a theory, albeit often unacknowledged. Most generally and sympathetically, it can be said that postmodernist interests continue the grand narrative of European Romanticism. The powerful Romantic ‘structures of feeling’ (cf. Williams’ materialist conception, 1977) are the historically concrete foundation of the ambivalence of postmodernism, manifested both in relentlessly radical critique of, and ideological escape from, this one world. In anthropology, the Romantic tradition is perhaps more central than in any other social science (cf. Stocking 1989). However, romanticism is a very grand narrative, and postmodernist anthropologists have rediscovered — apparently without knowing it — traces of their discipline’s past.

The fascination of some anthropologists in the British as well as the American tradition with structuralist and now post-structuralist theory echoes several Romantic themes: the illusory search for primitive society; the neo-Kantian defence of subjectivity against positivism; Durkheim’s search for the French republic and the legacy of functionalism; idealist interests in early British sociology itself (Kuper 1988; Arato 1974; Collini 1978). More recently, Marshall Sahlins is among the few to acknowledge the roots of his new culture history theory in German Romanticism, although he no longer cites the key influence of post-structuralists (Sahlins 1981:7; Webster 1989b). Poststructuralist theory in France (from Barthes and Foucault to Baudrillard and Lyotard) is the most influential contemporary meeting-ground with earlier anthropological explorations, but even this immediate foundation tends to be taken for granted. Post-structuralist theory is itself a fairly direct development of surrealist sociology and primitivist ethnology in the aesthetic avant-garde movement of 1920-30s Paris (Webster 1990). As one might expect in an often unconsciously relived history, while elements of tragedy are apparent in the earlier developments, elements of farce sometimes subvert the radical intent of current postmodernist developments.

My purpose in this essay is to examine the contemporary relationship between postmodernist interests in social theory and popular or expert representations of Maori culture in New Zealand. Although I support the radical intent of postmodernist theory, I contend that its practice is frequently ideological in the sense that it mystifies rather than clarifies social problems. My own theoretical position may be seen as old-fashionedly ‘modernist’ among Baudrillard’s periods. In that it seeks the objective root of social problems for the sake of progressive critique and social change. Although I have explored and accept some implications of phenomenology, hermeneutics, and literary criticism for the anthropological notion of culture, I defend a realist (but not positivist) position in the face of the profoundly sceptical, subjectivist, or voluntarist implications which others have drawn from these theoretical developments. More specifically, I follow the lead of anthropologists such as Talal Asad, William Roseberry, and Paul Rabinow who, while appreciating the hegemonic potential of systems of meanings, insist that postmodern processes can, like all social processes, be distinguished from and thus critically viewed in relation to their own specific social and historical contexts.


For the sake of maintaining specificity in the following analysis I focus primarily on some recent commentaries on Maori culture, examining only enough of the wider context to raise critical questions about the relationship between them. For a more thorough critique, the distinctions and relationships between several social dimensions in New Zealand, such as the postmodern intelligensia, postmodern social processes, and Maori society, remain in need of closer examination. Another closely related essay examines postmodernist interests in sociology, social anthropology, and archaeology at Auckland University (Webster, n.d.b). My focus on what I refer to above as expert and popular commentary on Maori culture might also be seen as problematic; elsewhere I examined the social and historical context of this commentary and argued that expert definitions (by both Maori and Pakeha — Europeans or ‘whites’) have had considerable influence on popular definitions of Maori culture (1989a; 1992).

The primary goal for anthropologists remains a better understanding of contemporary Maori society itself. However, there has been very little detailed ethnographic description of contemporary Maori society since the advent of meanings-based anthropology at Auckland in the 1970s, and a preoccupation with traditional or surviving Maori culture has tended to fill the vacuum. Now the ground for renewed ethnographic research needs to be cleared. Maori society is constituted primarily by its specific history of land and social relations, but also by a specific history of their ‘culture’ in the sense of their own and others’ ideas (or representations) about themselves. Currently, these ideas have come to obscure the history as a history of struggle. Recognition of this ideological relationship between Maori society and expert or popular definitions of Maori culture enables a better understanding of contemporary Maori society, and thus of New Zealand and how it might be changed for the better.

Postmodernist interests in Maori culture tend to display an instructive version of this ideological relationship. Given the theoretical approach of postmodernism, critical distinctions between Maori society itself, Maori culture, and its integral history tend to be merged in representations: discourse, symbolism, images, and their meanings. Thus a persistent contradiction arises between these representations and ordinary experience of Maori society by Maori and Pakeha alike. This contradiction arises at a point which is ever more problematic in modernist perceptions of the world, but claimed to be irrelevant or nostalgic in a postmodern world where (as Baudrillard might say) an image of Maori culture ‘bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum.’

Conceptions of Maori culture have been influenced by the heritage of Romanticism since earliest colonial times. Ideas about Maori society by Maori and Pakeha alike have been held up as ideals against social reality, in some cases becoming real and in others taking on an ideological life of their own. Current images of Maori culture include kin and community solidarity, authoritative elders, public ceremonial and ritual symbolism in hui at marae (gatherings at kin-based meeting places including carved meeting houses), sharing of resources, fluent use of Maori language, and spirituality. All this is viewed as in some sense traditional or primordial. Although social practice usually fails short, those who have lived with Maori people know that a lot of this general ideal is realised on particular occasions. This is perhaps more so now than ever before, in what has come to be called the Maori Renaissance.

There is a long history of Maori protest movements but those since the recession of the late 1960s have been sustained in a series of mobilisations and reactions which can be seen as a whole ethnic movement: the Maori Renaissance. One result is an important development of Maori culture, at least in certain senses. Popular, media, and state awareness of Maori culture, among Maori as well as Pakeha and other ethnic sectors of the society, has risen especially over the last ten years to a level probably unprecedented since the land wars of the 1860s. As cultural or ethnic ‘others’ in the abstract anthropological sense, ‘the Maori’ are probably more self-conscious, prominent and — albeit still with few economic resources — successful in confrontation with the Pakeha than ever before. Since the early 1970s there has been increasing emphasis on the teaching of taha Maori (‘the Maori side’) at all public levels of education, and Maori Studies programmes have been established in most New Zealand Universities. In the 1980s a spontaneous movement spurning state sponsorship developed hundreds of kohanga reo, infant school Maori ‘language nests’, throughout the country. Most government department names and many government circulars are translated into Maori, the national radio programme carries regular news in Maori language, and Maori phrases are heard on the many new Maori radio stations. A spectacular collection of Maori carvings and other artifacts toured the U.S.A under sponsorship of Mobil Oil and returned in triumph to exhibit in New Zealand. Reports on issues featuring the Maori appear frequently in the newspapers. Legislative changes in the 1980s also re-established venues for the hearing of Maori grievances over the loss of traditional land and marine resources. These claims have been successful in slowing the 1980s rush to privatise public resources and, in a few cases, have succeeded in diverting their control into Maori hands.

However, this increasing cultural prominence and even influence must be seen in relation to objective social conditions with which it is peculiarly incongruent. The Maori are, especially since the recession of the late 1960s, an increasingly visible sector of the New Zealand working class, itself formed in specific but shifting conflicts of opposed interests. These conflicts are precipitated mainly by mounting unemployment and impoverishment, and the Maori have taken the brunt of this. They are a large and increasing ethnic minority (now about 12% of the New Zealand population) the majority (over 75%) of whom live in what are classified as urban areas, and many have done so for several generations. Maori are often distinguishable from other Polynesians who have immigrated to New Zealand by their dress styles, which often spurn middleclass aspirations and are defiantly rural working-class, especially among the young. Gaoling rates are high in New Zealand, and the proportion of Maori inmates is grossly disproportionate. Some Maori are returning to rural Maori communities, but along with those few who have remained there, rely on resources not essentially different from the cities — the dole, the so-called informal economy, and trickle-down of wages of the few who can find employment. Like the cities, these so-called rural communities usually have their share of violence, local gangs, and street kids.

Recent census data reveal that even after twenty years of rising ethnic solidarity and a sense of personal identity among many Maori, about 25% of those living in urban areas cannot identify their iwi (‘tribal’) affiliation (Government Statistician 1990). My experience with urban Maori suggests that most of these would sincerely — or defiantly — not know the region from which their parents or grandparents immigrated because knowledge as well as contact with it was lost. Maori language has fared worse. Due largely to a deliberate education policy which, until the 1960s forbad the speaking of Maori in school premises, about 85% of the Maori do not speak Maori as their mother tongue, and I would estimate that more than half of those are unable to speak it at all. Although in response to the Maori Renaissance there is clearly increasing interest and perhaps fluency in Maori language, linguists have found that few languages have survived when the proportion of those who speak it as a mother tongue has fallen so low.

A small but significant proportion of Maori have worked their way into clerical, teaching, and management jobs since the 1950s, but relative to Pakehas and most other ethnic groups they are disproportionately working-class, unskilled, or de-skilled by technological changes. Census data and other government reports indicate that in terms of employment, income, child health, education, and justice, the actual social conditions accompanying the Maori ‘Renaissance’ have gravely disadvantaged the Maori. Relative to Pakeha, in 1990 they were no better off than in the 1970s, and often they were worse off. Maori have continued to bear the brunt of rapidly rising unemployment since then. Meanwhile, the state and public policy of promoting Maori culture in order to reduce social inequalities during the 1970s and early 1980s has been replaced by a more subtle and sometimes conscious policy of fostering the token appearances of a bicultural society and an upwardly mobile Maori middle class (Sissons n.d.).

It is increasingly clear that the over-riding concern of government policy with regard to Maori culture is to integrate the Maori more efficiently into the workforce, and meanwhile to manage economic crises in ways which deflect public criticism (Barber 1989). Thus the state has an interest in promoting the appearances of the Maori Renaissance regardless of the availability of resources to give those appearances substance. The relationship between cultural riches and material impoverishment can be quite direct. For instance, it is widely believed by Maori and Pakeha alike that Maori are more caring and therefore take better care of their old people. In one region Maori recently found that for this reason welfare funds were not being granted to them in fair proportion compared to Pakeha. Meanwhile, indigent Maori elders were neglected in Maori communities which were themselves riven by unemployment, poor health, and inadequate housing. Similarly in the 1930s depression, while the dole was granted to Pakeha it was withheld from Maori on the belief (confirmed by a Maori parliamentarian) that the Maori could live off the land. However, at that time most Maori land had long since been alienated, the Maori population was rapidly growing, and many individuals and whole families were on the road seeking work at wages unacceptable to other New Zealanders.

The contradictory and ideological relationship between prevailing definitions of Maori culture and the realities of Maori society has developed historically. In the next section I will argue that it has been brought to a head by postmodernist interests in Maori culture. However, here it must suffice to show that if a fuller understanding of contemporary Maori society is to be achieved, Maori culture must not be seen abstractly in the Romantic tradition as ‘a whole way of life’ somehow unique, integral, harmonious, and Other than that supposedly led by European societies; quite to the contrary, it must be grasped concretely as a whole way of struggle inextricably bound up with a particular colonial history. Without presenting much detail, I will sketch some aspects of this history and some origins of the current understanding of Maori culture.

The history of the Maori is an important example of the strikingly uneven development of capitalism. The whole Maori way of struggle immediately reflects the conflicts of opposed interests in the wider New Zealand society, of which Maori interests have been a central political and economic factor (sometimes the controlling one) for over two centuries. In 1840 at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi with the British Crown, a northland rangatira (‘chief’) famously remarked that only ‘the shadow of the land will go to him (the Governor) but the substance will remain with us’ — but within a year had bitterly to admit the reverse was the case. Nevertheless, the Maori were able to retain most of their land and remained the majority population until the 1860s land wars. Large kin groups furthermore maintained control over the social relations of agricultural production in many of the most productive regions of New Zealand until the late 1850s, including supply of most settlements and considerable mercantile control including coastal and even overseas snipping, often in vessels which they owned. Even after control over these social relations was lost, these kin groups maintained control over the key productive force of land in those regions themselves until the confiscations of Native Land by the Crown enforced by the wars of the 1860s. The most productive agricultural region of all, the King Country, held out against settler and Crown land interests until the 1880s.

Since 1840 the patient but persistent goal of capital accumulation under Crown and later state authority has been the legal extinguishment of Native Title and the commercialisation of Maori land. Nevertheless, largely because of equally persistent Maori struggle and resistance, 15% of the total land (albeit usually relatively unproductive) remained under Maori control as late as 1891, and almost 5% still does. Grudging government response to persistent grievances since the land wars has resulted in repeated if token monetary compensations which, since the 1920s, have financed the organisation of most tribal trust boards. Strengthening of the Waitangi Tribunal in the 1980s, and re-affirmation of the legal status of aboriginal or Native Title in land or marine resources contestable against the Crown, has resulted not only in further compensations but in the return of small portions or partial control of land itself, and the return to Maori control (albeit more or less privatised) of as much as 50% of the lucrative fisheries quotas in key regions.

Although it is not widely recognised, colonial policies sought to accumulate capital through the control of Maori labour as well as land. Earliest policies explicitly intended to force most Maori into a landless working class by acquiring all ‘waste’ Native Land for the Crown and later by legislation opening it to commercial interests. Even before the land wars in the 1860s this policy and the availability of casual work had produced sectors of independent wage-seekers and entrepreneurs in the midst of Maori communities consolidated on a kinship basis of production. The resulting erosion of solidarity increased rapidly after the land wars and the establishment of the Native Land Court, and by the 1870-80s Maori labour recruitment was the primary basis of extensive public works in roads, bridges, railways, telegraph lines, and bush clearing for settlement and agriculture. When after the turn of the century the Maori population began to grow, 85% of the land had already been lost. The state took note of Maori restiveness and encouraged their integration into the labour force. Until World War II, policies were devoted to development of agricultural schemes on the basis of Maori labour, but thereafter policies and rural recessions prompted migration to timber, meat processing, mining, and manufacturing centres where Maori labour became an important basis of the industrialisation of New Zealand.

The ideological notion of Maori culture tends to obscure this history of conflicting interests. Specific conflicts are rarely reducible to so-called racial interests, and have sometimes been explicitly class interests. The current notion of maoritanga or a positive valuation on ‘Maoriness’ probably has its roots in the 1920s, when a few leading anthropologists and administrators (Maori as well as Pakeha) began to conceptualise what was first called ‘culture-form’ and recommend it to the Maori in terms of ‘race-pride’ (Webster 1992). At this time many Maori were among a growing transient unemployed, and involved either in militant wings of the shearers’ union or in a charismatic church movement which rejected traditional authority and emphasised the rights of Maori as workers. Worried by what they saw as the ‘degeneration’ of Maori culture into working-class habits, and influenced by the romantic notion of cultural relativity as well as by administrative urgencies, these authorities developed an idealisation of Maori culture.

The contemporary generation of scholars of Maori culture in charge of Maori Studies departments throughout New Zealand universities are themselves Maori. The conception of Maori culture assumed by most of them and their Pakeha colleagues in anthropology has a common foundation: that is the vision of Maoritanga developed in reaction to Maori unrest in the 1930s, the charismatic teaching of Professor of Anthropology Ralph Piddington at University of Auckland 1950-72, and the political and ideological struggles of the Maori Renaissance which included the establishment of several Maori Studies departments in the 1970-80s (Webster 1989a; n.d.a). Many also gained their PhDs in cultural anthropology in the U.S.A., where Professor Piddington’s functionalist and ahistorical understanding of culture in now old-fashioned terms of primitive or tribal societies was reinforced by symbolic or meanings-based approaches to culture popular in the U.S.A. The apparently radical but fundamentally unthreatening appeal of the romantic or traditionalist image of Maori culture has been most ready to hand in the urgencies and opportunities of the Maori Renaissance.

However, the central influence of academic expertise in the Maori Renaissance has tended to lead it still further from an understanding of the workaday culture of the majority of Maori themselves. The eyes of the Maori elite as well as Pakeha liberals tend to be averted from Maori culture as a whole way of mundane struggle which continues against the new modes of exploitation in ordinary but always disquieting ways. Nor is the state likely to fund any interest in or support of this struggle.

The other side of Maori culture is all around us, and just as familiar as the lumpen-proletariat of every city; far from uniqueness, harmony, and wholeness it immediately and somewhat threateningly reflects New Zealand history and society: the downcast uncomprehending eyes in response to spoken Maori; the insistent assertion of ignorance of Maori culture — ‘I never learned any of that’; black wool singlets, gum boots, and acrid sweat of forestry, shearing, and slaughter house gangs; two street maintenance workers leaning on shovels and watching a third dig around a watermain; young unemployed eyes gazing expressionlessly from under a baggy stocking cap; battered women nevertheless solidary in standing up for their men; chain-smoking unto death; defiantly sprawling graffiti asserting that ‘Maoridom is boredom’; street-kid ‘homies’ sleeping in derelict buildings; the shapeless threat of a motorcycle gang in the park; Black Power gang members living in the midst of a ‘traditional’ Maori community; a Maori haka or war dance done not by a rugby team, but by the inmates of a gaol; the laconic denial by an inmate tatooist that Maori motifs might be in need of the expert advice of Maori elders; on every TV screen a Maori motif flown on the spinnaker of the New Zealand yacht in the America’s Cup race; a jagged scar where a piece is torn from the sacrosanct decoration in the Maori meeting house of a University few Maori can ever hope to enter.

If Maori culture is something most Maori have — or don’t have — then all this and the history which has led to it must necessarily be its foundation. Maori culture is not something that has been lost, it is the loss; being ‘a Maori’ is struggling to be a Maori. Few Maori consciously participating in the Maori Renaissance are not painfully aware of this other side of Maori culture, and aware that it is their culture too.


Some implications of postmodernist developments in anthropology are exemplified by the reception at the University of Auckland of the publication of an essay on the New Zealand Maori by Allan Hanson entitled ‘The making of the Maori: culture invention and its logic’ (Hanson 1989).

Hanson is a well-known American cultural anthropologist whose research specialty has long been Polynesia. He carried out intensive research in New Zealand on traditional Maori culture for over a year in the late 1970s as a Fulbright scholar and for a few months in the mid-1980s, and published an important book with Louise Hanson (1983) and several papers as results of his research. He worked mainly at Auckland during his first visit, and his ideas were influential in social anthropology where structuralist analysis had caught on. With the exception of my own critique (Webster 1987), their book was favourably received and influential among several Maori Studies scholars including most of those at Auckland: Hugh Kawharu (1985), Rangi Walker, Palkakariki Harrison, and Anne Salmond (1990). All these scholars share more or less in Hanson’s structural or semiological approach to culture or, more broadly, meanings-based anthropology. However, the 1989 essay, or rather a summary of it in New Zealand newspapers, precipitated a hostile reaction and among some previous colleagues, a sudden forgetfulness even about who Hanson was.

Hanson’s essay was published in the American Anthropologist at the end of 1989. The abstract of his paper summarises his argument:

‘Traditional culture’ is increasingly recognized to be more an invention constructed for contemporary purposes than a stable heritage handed on from the past. Anthropologists often participate in the creative process. Two distinct inventions of New Zealand Maori culture are analyzed, together with the role of anthropologists in each of them. The conclusion explores the logic of culture invention and some of its implications for the practice of anthropology (1989:890).

Hanson’s discussion is clear, scholarly, and unpretentious. Since his comprehensive structural analysis of traditional Maori culture (1983), he has been interested in semiological analyses of culture history. This is a ground-breaking effort to reintegrate historical change into structural analysis which has paralleled Marshall Sahlins’ studies of Hawaii and other Polynesian culture histories since 1981. In Hanson’s 1989 essay he adduces evidence to show that whereas an historically earlier version of Maori culture emphasised similarities with Pakeha or European colonist culture, a later version emphasises differences, each with political intent. His analysis makes it clear that along with the Maori themselves, prominent anthropologists (including some Maori) and historians, past and contemporary, were centrally involved in this normal history of what he usually terms ‘culture construction’. The less cautious locution ‘culture invention’ appears in his title.

As I will describe below, Hanson’s discussion of the theoretical issues was soon identified among sympathetic U.S. anthropologists as a significant contribution to the postmodern movement in their discipline. It is an innovative adaptation of semiology to deconstructionist theory (the poststructural successor to semiology developed in France), drawing especially on its proponent Jacques Derrida. Hanson argues that the construction of cultures is not essentially different from the development of linguistic meanings, a process of (in Derrida’s terms) ‘sign-substitution in a play of signification’. The major transformation of Maori culture since the turn of the century, from an emphasis on signs of similarity to Pakeha culture to an emphasis on signs of difference from it, is best understood in terms of sign-substitution. Hanson tentatively suggests that the process whereby culture is invented is the same as that in daily social reproduction of conventional behaviours through interpersonal communication, except that cultural sign-substitutions involve greater symbolic differences, selectivity, and intentionality in political and other terms (1989:899).

In conclusion, Hanson addresses the dilemma of how anthropologists can be taken seriously if there are no clear criteria by which an account of a culture can be assessed as more or less authentic, and if, furthermore, anthropologists are active participants in the ‘invention’ of culture. He points out that the preconception of authenticity in terms of a primordial culture or historically fixed tradition is a form of what Derrida calls the modernist ‘metaphysics of presence’, ‘logocentrism’, or ‘nostalgia’. Nevertheless, Hanson reasons that a description of a culture is ‘authentic’ insofar as the bearers of that culture accept it as authentic in terms of what they see as their heritage.

I myself do not find this a satisfactory solution to the dilemma because it is circular. Which bearers of what culture? Which heritage (if all are illusory)? Who (which anthropologist?) says ‘they’ accept it? That is to say, we are back where we began. The beginning point is necessarily a specific history and a specific situation in which, as Marx said, the truth is a practical not a philosophical issue. However, the hostile response of many New Zealand anthropologists to Hanson’s essay seemed to arise in quite different motives and to move in a quite different theoretical direction.

Few knew of the article until it was reviewed in the New York Times’ Science section in late February 1990 and, four days later, headlined in New Zealand in the Wellington Dominion: ‘US expert says Maori culture “invented”‘. Such a header might be politically provocative in the context of the Maori Renaissance, which had already drawn theatened reactions against its claims to land, representation, and autonomy. A less sensational and generally accurate if academically superficial account appeared simultaneously in several other major New Zealand newspapers, based on a New Zealand Press Association correspondent’s interview with Hanson in the U.S. Hanson was reported to have expressed his assurance that although the essay might be controversial in New Zealand it was in no way derogatory to the Maori; to the contrary, he hoped that being a foreigner freed him from the highly politicised environment in which culture was being studied in New Zealand, and furthermore hoped that New Zealand would be successful in becoming truly bicultural.

Within hours of the publication of the New Zealand newspaper articles, prominent local scholars of Maori history and culture had been interviewed; at least some had responded on the basis of the newspaper reports and without having themselves read Hanson’s essay, although even surface-mailed copies were available in the libraries by this time. In addition to the general criticism that the notion of invention would invite Pakeha backlash, some of the responses from anthropologists (Maori and Pakeha) went so far as to contend that Hanson was unknown and should not be taken seriously; that he did not live in New Zealand and did not know what he was talking about; that the American Anthropologist was irresponsible for publishing the essay; and that except for the American Indians the Maori were the most studied people in the world, and similarly they didn’t want any more anthropologists sitting in their tepees.

Although there were no further signs of public scandal, the tenor of this scholarly reaction to Hanson’s article was maintained in some quarters throughout the year, including a dominant faction of the New Zealand Association of Social Anthropologists. The initial reaction can be fairly termed uninformed and chauvinistic; even the later more careful reaction can be criticised as illiberal and unscholarly, insofar as few of Hanson’s facts or theoretical concerns were addressed and nationalist or at least moralist interests were indulged.

Hanson’s essay probably was of interest to the New York Times primarily because of the notoriety recently gained for Maori culture in a widely publicised tour of Maori traditional art objects to New York, Chicago, St.Louis, and San Francisco 1984-6 (entitled Te Maori and sponsored by Mobil Oil of N.Z.). Indeed Hanson discussed the implications of this tour as one episode in the second of his two models of Maori culture construction. Thus one specific factor in the politicised ethnic context in New Zealand was the prestige gained for a primarily spiritual or mystical sense of Maori culture in the success of this tour and its triumphal return to New Zealand. The moralistic academic response can be partly understood as a defensive — and sometimes patronising — reaction to an apparently authoritative statement from America which could be mistakenly seen as trivialising Maori culture. The notion of ‘invention’ flew in the face of the primordial sense of Maori culture fostered by the exhibition. Against the established interests which had been drawn together behind this view of Maori culture, Hanson’s efforts in the essay and his interview to head off misunderstanding were to no avail.

Silence on the theoretical issues was notable, even though most of them were adequately raised in the newspaper articles as well as Hanson’s essay. The commentary in the Times was carefully researched by interviews with appropriate leading anthropologists throughout the U.S. It presented the key theoretical issue as ‘postmodernism’, and specifically the influential revisionist criticism of anthropology deriving from the recent works of James Clifford, George Marcus, and Michael Fischer. Hanson himself had credited these, as well as Clifford Geertz and Derrida. These theorists are also key sources for those scholars in New Zealand pursuing a meanings-based anthropology, including many of those who were hostile to Hanson’s essay.

My own understanding of the hostile reaction to Hanson’s essay is that by revealing necessary implications of his own theoretical position, he had left closely related and popular theoretical interests in New Zealand in a precarious position. The unspoken corollary of the charge that Hanson was a foreigner was that he wasn’t there to take the heat. Other anthropologists specialising in Maori culture must operate in the midst of an ethnic movement — as Hanson said, in a ‘highly politicised environment’ — where expert definitions of Maori culture are at a premium. Hanson’s theorisation took the assumptions of a meanings-based anthropology to their logical conclusion, but at the same time discredited any claim to authenticity and instead focussed attention squarely upon those who claimed it. The heat revealed that some meanings-based anthropology was too close for comfort to postmodernist interests.

The academic year began soon after Hanson’s essay was featured in the media, and a few weeks later a panel discussion of the issues was organised for the Anthropology Department Seminar. The panel was comprised of two Maori social anthropologists (Rangi Walker of Maori Studies and Graham Smith of Education) and two Pakeha social anthropologists (Anne Salmond, a New Zealander, and myself, an American). There was unusually high attendance, including a few staff members from the English and the History Departments. Opinions had cooled down since the first flurry of media reports: the moralistic charges of political insensitivity and foreigner status were avoided, although these were perhaps replaced by (I would say, unsubstantiatable) charges that Hanson’s familiarity with and research on Maori society was superficial.

Salmond and Walker criticised Hanson for falling to grasp a sense of Maori culture which they implied was authentic in the sense that it had been maintained apart from Pakeha history. Walker emphasised that cultural dynamic which ‘stood coherently as a mythological charter against colonialism’, in contrast to the reinvented ‘bitsa’ Maori culture fragmented by colonial history. Salmond emphasised that cultural dynamic which is ’embedded in the complex politics of the elders’ discourses’, discourses which furthermore showed that the Maori had ‘theorised such dialectical change long before Hanson’. While Walker’s alternative brought Malinowskian cultural analysis into some historical context, Salmond’s relied on the simple counterposition of a more ‘complex’ or esoteric level of discourse (that of ‘the elders’) to Hanson’s assumption that cultural discourse lies at more ordinary levels of communication.

Smith and I, on the other hand, emphasised the one-dimensional or depoliticised character of Hanson’s analysis which prevented a fuller understanding of the Maori as integral to a specific history of material and ideological oppression. Thus, in our view, Hanson was getting his theory wrong rather than his presumptuous grasp of Maori culture. Smith pointed out that a Gramscian analysis could accommodate the focus on the symbols of Maori culture without such a depoliticisation. My own point in this context was that the one-dimensional theoretical ground of Hanson’s analysis was the same as that ground assumed by Salmond, Walker, and many of his current critics: the a priori cultural essentialism which has emerged from language- or meanings-based anthropological theory.

The four reactions were diverse, but tended to split along significant lines: while Hanson, Salmond, and Walker all shared a similarly culturalist position committed in various degrees to an understanding of a culture as a system of essential meanings, Salmond and Walker took up a much more emphatically cultural relativist position than Hanson. Although neither claimed a primordial status for Maori culture, against Hanson they were inclined to see indigenous cultures as overriding historical change. This commitment to an a historical sense of cultural uniqueness was, equally a commitment to an intuitive basis of understanding, a position which also excluded Hanson. Smith’s and my own critiques, on the other hand, by emphasising political, economic and thus historical over cultural factors, precluded neither comparison nor assessment of theoretical assumptions.

These opposing undercurrents exemplify, I think, the emerging tension between culturalist and political economic analysis implicit in Ortner’s (1984) and explicit in Roseberry’s (1988) reviews of contemporary cultural anthropology. That is to say, significant theoretical issues animated what otherwise might have been a kangaroo court. It was also reassuring that, given the highly politicised ethnic context, the theoretical split crossed the ethnic lines of the panel.

The actual congruence between Hanson’s and Salmond’s theories of Maori culture is considerable. Robert Norton finds that like Hanson, Salmond describes Maori culture as a ‘dialogical affirmation of identity’ in the face of Pakeha culture; he concludes that ‘Maori culture feeds on disjunction’ (Norton n.d.: 12). Salmond put her position in the 1990 Hanson seminar in similar terms. However, Norton’s acceptance that ‘Maori culture feeds on disjunction’ seems at odds with his purpose, which is to throw into question ‘the present vogue in the social sciences’ to reduce social action to ‘discursive constructions of systems of difference,’ and he raises Hanson’s article itself as a key example of this reductionism. I suggest that this is just what Salmond’s as well as Hanson’s descriptions of Maori culture have done. In both cases their consistent theoretical interest since the 1970s has been a meanings-based anthropology of culture as expressed by ‘discursive constructions of systems of difference’, albeit shifting from Levi-Strauss’s to Derrida’s leads.

To challenge the meanings-based understandings of Maori culture we need to scrutinise social action at the level of historically specific conflicts rather than abstract or supra-historical confrontation. At these more empirical levels the ‘disjunction’ between Maori culture and Pakeha culture cannot be aestheticised as ‘a creative process’ or ‘the play of sign-substitution’ (Hanson), ‘dialogical interpretation’ (Salmond), or a ‘mythological charter against colonialism’ (Walker). The postmodernist preoccupation with discourses must not overlook ‘the ways in which discourse itself is shaped, constrained, liberated by circumstances of the contexts of social action’ (Norton n.d.). In everyday social reality, discursive reifications of cultural difference, like ‘race’, are themselves frequently over-ridden by more pressing conflicts of interest which cannot be so freely chosen, because they are already given in a particular history and thus define even more fundamentally what persons are in a given situation. As evident in the panel of Hanson discussants, ethnic difference (Maori, Pakeha, American) is a poor predictor of the theoretical or political line-up which might actually occur.

Two further critiques of Hanson’s position emerged from other New Zealand universities which similarly focussed on what I think is the root of the matter. One critique argued that Hanson’s perspective fails to distinguish between the invention of Maori culture and political ideology, and thus crucially obscures the relationship between the ways in which people act and orient themselves in the social world and their rhetorical discourse about society and culture (Levine 1991:444). The other critique, suggested by one of the few who opposed the Association’s decision to censure the American Anthropologist for printing Hanson’s essay, is perhaps the most trenchant: Hanson’s analysis was inclined to arbitrary closures which excluded an historical and institutional context crucial to any cultural changes or to their criticism. The articulation of this argument is an appropriate answer to Hanson’s culturalist critics as well:

Do we need to attribute the unwelcome interpretations of Hanson’s work to his own thoughtlessness, incaution, or even mischievousness? Or could such consequences be seen as flowing predictably out of the theoretical tradition in which he writes? When, for example, both cultural invention and ordinary everday social reproduction are seen, as they are by Hanson, in terms of ‘sign-substitution in a play of signification’ (p. 898), and his own anthropological writings are seen in the same terms (p. 899), is it any wonder that self-serving interpretations might be derived from it? And if the tradition in which he writes denies, as he claims, any solid foundation for truth and knowledge, then doesn’t it also provide the licence to interpret things in any way one pleases? By the same token, doesn’t it also deny any notion of responsibility for what is written? These are some of the sorts of questions that might usefully be addressed to Hanson’s theoretical approach and to some of the other approaches in anthropology that go under the broad heading of ‘interpretive’ (Barber 1990).

In fixing upon the deconstructionist principles of the arbitrariness of objective signification and the foundationlessness of truth claims, Barber’s critique foregrounds the specifically postmodernist character of Hanson’s interpretation.

Hanson’s essay attempted to find a middle ground between this profoundly relativist or atomistic theory and the remnants of semiological anthropology. I would suggest that his culturalist critics were left in a still more precarious position by their reaction: reliance on an intuitive grasp of cultural Otherness which can only be asserted a priori. Together they invoke the manichean postmodernist vision of cultural autonomy and cultural hegemony. Were we to take up either position, we would have to give up any general understanding of the uneven history of precolonial, colonial, post-colonial and even postmodern social relations — which, after all, have constituted cultures in a such a way that they can misleadingly appear simply as hegemonic or as an autocthonous and whole alternative.


The difficulties outlined above for anthropology and literary criticism are closely interwoven. The precarious implications are sometimes more vivid in literary criticism, perhaps because it is the nature of the discipline frankly to grant aesthetics priority over social reality.

The unusually wide academic interest of the Hanson affair drew members of the English and History Departments to the Anthropology seminar. One historian present was relied upon by Hanson in his essay and was invited to join the panel, but declined and offered no comment. Another authority on Maori history had earlier declined an invitation to respond to a journalist’s enquiry with the insightful comment that the issue was a ‘hot potato’. The literary critics, on the other hand, offered theoretically informed comments and have continued to contribute to the issues in their own Department seminars. Postmodernity and colonised cultures have been topical in the University of Auckland English Department at least since 1989 in what one contributor sardonically characterised as ‘ethnographic piety’. Against this, however, postmodernists have set a sublime sense of the ‘postcultural’.

‘The New Zealand sublime’ (Lamb 1990) raises the example of the Anthropology seminar on Hanson’s essay as indicative of the impossibility of understanding Maori culture except in the aesthetic sense of sublime understanding. Although Lamb mistook my criticism of Hanson’s critics as support for Hanson’s theory, he correctly senses the ambivalence of Salmond’s and Walker’s theoretical positions in their attacks on Hanson. He attributes their anger to ‘the distorted and tactless reflection he (Hanson) gives of his opponents’ own attempts to negotiate a contradiction that is in fact irreducible in the terms proposed’.

However, against the cognitive or political interests of both Hanson and his critics, Lamb urges the non-cognitive aesthetic attitude of ‘the sublime’ developed from Kant by Foucault, Lyotard, and others. Thus a sublime description of something expresses ‘a sort of transcendental inadequacy’ or ‘unpresentability of the idea … matched only by the urgency of the need to present it’. As a classic example of the sublime otherness of Maori culture, Lamb examines the ambivalent and involuted account of Frederick Maning (a ‘pakeha Maori’ settler of the 1830s) of his life among the Maori and particularly his obsessive preoccupation with tapu or taboo.

In 1991 in the English Department symposium Lamb presented another essay entitled ‘A moment of the sublime off the Coast of Poverty Bay, 9 October 1769’ (Lamb n.d.). In this essay he analysed several divergent but similarly sublime accounts of Captain Cook’s abortive effort to carry out his Royal instructions humanely to lure the natives into patterns of commodity trade. On this occasion the result was the abduction, escape, and massacre of some Maori fishermen under Captain Cook’s direction, apparently followed immediately by hospitality extended to — and jovially accepted by — the Maori survivors aboard the ship Endeavor. The enormity of the event was differently expressed in the accounts of Cook, other witnesses, and subsequent commentators, but always reflecting the fundamental ‘unintelligibility’ and ‘non-narrativisability’ of the sublime: an irreducible inadequacy between cognition and perceptual experience of cultural difference that can be expressed only in terms of the inadequacy itself. In conclusion, Lamb suggested that efforts in discourse to bridge the abyss between cultural differences are the most likely place for the sublime to ‘wrest prose from the grip of narrative into more turbulent rhetorical forms’ (ibid).

Even were I not an anthropologist, I would protest that such conceptual impasses are likely to be viewed as irresolvable by those who have some interest in maintaining them (more true of anthropology than other disciplines!). It is perhaps significant that the Otherness of other cultures is characteristically invoked by postmodemists to dramatise what, ex hypothesi, is seen as unanalysable: the hegemonic sway of their own culture over all Western reason. This use of other cultures betrays a certain disingenuousness long characteristic of Romanticism in its veiled complicity with capitalism. With reference to the influential anthropology of Clifford Geertz (frequently cited in postmodernist literary criticism and history), Mark Schneider points out that while ‘sublime phenomena by their very magnitude elude full comprehension causing us to lose our bearings’, they at the same time avoid ‘evoking in us a fear of being really lost’ (1987:836fn3). One suspects that postmodernist interests are not really disoriented or dominated, either by their own culture or by others.

Recent essays by Simon During of Melbourne University’s English Department also consider Maori culture, and furnish a further opportunity to scrutinise the relationship between postmodern aesthetics and politics. In a sympathetic critique of ‘postmodernism as the logic of late capitalism’, Frederic Jameson describes what he terms ‘the hysterical sublime’ as a desertion of politics (Jameson 1984). However, against Jameson’s criticism, Lamb asserts that the sublime in Lyotard’s sense is not merely aesthetic but ‘the most serious engagement with injustice we are capable of making’. During’s politics are anthropologically well-informed, and invite a closer comparison with the positions of Hanson and Salmond on understanding the Maori.

During’s essays ‘Postmodemism and Postcolonialism Today’ (1987) and ‘What was the West? Some Relations between Modernity, Colonisation and Writing’ (1989) have been widely influential and are frequently cited at Auckland. His 1989 essay considers diverse examples of the predicament of postmodemity, but centrally the postcolonial situation of the Maori in New Zealand. His examples of Maori culture include the struggles of Frederick Maning to escape the extending parenthesis of his account, suspended between culturally incommensurable sorts of tapu; the odyssey of Makareti, a Maori tourist guide who undertook graduate studies at Oxford in the 1920s; and the currently proclaimed bicultural policy experiments of the New Zealand government. During’s 1987 essay had accepted the pervasive postmodern condition as given, but challenged Lyotard for failing to distinguish postcolonial new nations and their identity struggles from their imperial metropoles. Hence, During seems committed to a relatively politicised approach to other cultures in the context of postmodernity.

During’s approach is furthermore not anthropologically naive. He suggests that a modernist teleology is hidden in the opposition ‘modern’/’non-modern’ or primitive, and that after the sixteenth century this teleology hardened into an assumed dualism between the Enlightenment and the anthropological conception of culture. Thus he is critically aware of the Romanticist tradition in anthropology. Crediting James Clifford’s commentaries on the postmodern predicament of anthropology and his notion of ‘the newly traditional’, in 1989 During puts his own position in thoughtful and convincing terms:

One has entered postculturalism when, accepting that the construction of a non-modern cultural identity is the result of interactions between coloniser and colonised, of mutual misrecognitions and forgettings, one celebrates the productive energy that is released in these processes. Postculturalism has its politics too. Somewhat in its spirit, a New Zealand identity can be constructed, not simply from a Maori or a Pakeha viewpoint but by Maori-ising Pakeha formations and vice-versa. This social programme counters the Europeanisation of the Maori by constructing a non-essentialist unity across a maintained difference (1989:767)

During’s political interest in emancipation even enables him to identify a shortcoming in Clifford’s position: he suggests that Clifford’s notion of the ‘newly traditional’ may indiscriminately welcome oppressive as well as emancipatory components in the new national postculture.

The postmodern alternative appears to be a more laissez-faire postculturalism. For instance, Lamb (1990) suggests that During’s emancipatory ideals show a touching modernist faith which somewhat compromises his otherwise postmodernist opposition to any grand narrative or totalising historiography. He further implies that this nostalgic preoccupation is parallelled in positions such as Clifford’s, Hanson’s, and Hanson’s critics at Auckland, and is in fact disruptive of the spontaneous play of signifiers in the postcultural alliance between Maori and Pakeha which During appears to welcome.

However, scrutiny of During’s conception of politics suggests that it is drawn back into the sphere of aesthetics with the hysterical sublime. Like Lamb, During’s foundational axiom is that the world is irrevocably postmodern, that is, it is under the hegemonic sway of semiosis or the play of signifiers inherited from modernity but now pure simulacra: free of any objective reference and structured only by unlimited inter-signification of representations of representations of — nothing. For During, postmodernism is

neither (modernism’s) necessary triumph over the premodem, nor its universalism, but ‘a simultaneous irruption of the Same and the Other’ as Foucault puts it… The order of simulacra knows no origins, no facts anchored in a transparent description of the world, no anchored hierarchies, but rather circulation and aggregations of representations (1989:770).

This ambivalence between emancipatory critique and postmodernist abandon recurs throughout During’s analysis. In the nature of the postmodern predicament, the postcultural forces of other cultures which ‘break through’ the semiologically totalised hegemony are necessarily themselves ‘unintelligible’ or ‘un-namable’: they can only be evoked. In a 1991 English Department seminar at Auckland, During characterised his analytic method as ‘skidding across the history’ of such cultural encounters.

Thus During’s postmodern political practice seems unable to escape a fundamental aestheticisation of experience even more willingly accepted by Lamb. A continuity emerges in the positions of Lamb, During, Salmond and Hanson: their interest in the condition of the Maori is inclined to accept ‘discursive constructions of systems of difference’ as ‘the most serious engagement with injustice we are capable of making’. The oppressed peoples to whom an alliance is offered would probably not be reassured.


During’s well-informed but ambivalent position is an appropriate conclusion to this essay: like Hanson’s, it displays the international as well as inter-disciplinary dimensions of what otherwise might be mistaken as a parochial academic and ethnic predicament at the University of Auckland. The ideological confluence of postmodernism is quite real, drawing into itself both the political and economic interests of the wider society as well as long established anthropological theories of cultural difference.

The roots of postmodernism in the Romantic reaction to the European Enlightenment become clearer. These Romantic motives suggest both a sufficient justification of postmodernism (as irreconcilable critique) and a sufficient criticism — as inconsolable cynicism or political reaction. Jurgen Habermas pointed out that the postmodernist claim to radicalism, like its predecessor in the avantgarde movement of the 1930s, is developed in a cultural realm which, like art, has been historically and ideologically separated from the mundane world and cannot be restored to it by fiat. On the other hand, the impetus behind the theory is mundane and historically specific, as were its predecessors in the 1920s surrealist movement and the 1970s post-structuralist movement. From this historical vantage point, postmodernism may be seen to be an unacknowledged theory separated from its practice, rather than (as is often claimed) a spontaneous practice freed from grandiose theory.

There is a certain consonance between postmodernist interests and ‘market forces’ which subverts postmodernism’s promise of relentless critique. At the most general level, this is manifest in its profound scepticism and fragmentary or atomistic view of the world. These philosophical positions can serve as ideological underpinnings of the apparent anarchy of the international marketplace, a preconception which in turn serves the interests of those who actually control it. The preoccupation with ‘discourses’, the apparently random ‘play of sign-substitutions’ (Hanson) and ‘circulation and aggregations of representations’ (During) in an apparently ‘simultaneous irruption of the Same and the Other’ (Foucault) indeed seems harmoniously to echo the ambiguous hyper-reality of the contemporary shopping mall. But this simulacrum of ‘market forces’ should not be confused with the forces themselves. Postmodernism is no hegemonic ‘logic of late capitalism’ but rather merely a symptom of the historical inter-relationship between commodity culture and social practice (Slater 1987). An Auckland sociology graduate student put it more tellingly: ‘Postmodernism is the Toyota of social theory’.

The convergence of postmodernist interests and ethnic politics has promoted the anthropological principle of cultural relativity to market brokership: the more esoteric or rarified the definition of a culture, the more expertise or influence is required to affirm or deny the authenticity of a version. Like high art, Other cultures are a long-term investment. On the other hand, where ethnic politics makes too much control over the definition a hot potato (as in the Hanson affair), authenticity can be transformed into sign-substitutions in the play of signifiers; no apologies need be made for inferior goods — the buyer must beware.

However, the consonance between an ideology of culture and the ‘market forces’ which it may mystify must not lead us, in postmodern abandon, to the conclusion that they are identical. The social and historical conditions of a particular culture are always found to be stubbornly irreducible to a culture itself. Unlike the case of the production of commodities, it is only the appearances of a culture which can be appropriated and exploited; meanwhile the real thing — the other side of culture in an ideological sense — necessarily remains in the hands of those whose culture it is.

Quite unlike Maori land, only the shadow of Maori culture can ever go to the Governor. This is not because a culture is inalienably the meanings or plays of sign-substitutions a people themselves give it, but because it is their history. No history, least of all the histories of other cultures, is freely chosen. Even more indelibly than their history, a culture is a people’s whole way of struggle in the effort to regain control of that history. On the other hand, although culture is in this sense inalienable, by the same token one cannot eat it any more than the Maori can eat the shadow of their land. Thus, ordinary workaday culture in the sense of a whole way of struggle guides the hunger to rectify history — and no amount of postmodernised culture can satisfy that hunger.


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