From my field diary: Dealing with secrecy and ethnographic knowledge

When is it important, imperative even, to keep certain kinds of local knowledge secret? By which I mean absent from the ethnographic data that one publishes and/or otherwise makes available to a broader public?

This is an age-old question that has been addressed in various ways at different times, in both private and institutional contexts, and is constantly pondered and discussed in anthropological circles (see here and here, for instance).

In this post, however, I want to get specific and refer to a particular instance of ritual secrecy in the Torres Islands, and the ways in which my thinking and acting on this issue have evolved over the past decade.

5 Day Mortuary Ceremony

During my first period of fieldwork (1998-2000), I became aware of some of the workings of the local status-alteration rituals that are constitutive of the hukwe, which is the name given to the group of men who have acquired a title and rank within the gemel, more commonly known as nakamal in Vanuatu, which is basically the “men’s house” that is reserved for initiates of a system of ritualised authority by which special types of secret knowledge are transmitted (the image at right shows a simplified “dress rehearsal” of the initiation ceremony that these children will undergo when they are selected to enter the hukwe later in life).

Members of the hukwe are considered to be “powerful” insofar as they are capable of consorting with primordial spirits and can become – after years of acquired learning and proper deportment – capable of manipulating magical forces. The most powerful and highly ranked persons may eventually master the art of traveling on shamanistic-like journeys to the Land of the Dead (these are extremely powerful persons known as temetrong, men who can “hear/perceive the spirits”).

The point here is that even the summary information that I have just presented is the result of a very long and extensive learning process which came to a surprising climax during my most recent stint of fieldwork. In essence, I was given privileged access by some of the highest ranked men and chiefs to ritual knowledge that I had never previously known existed. This knowledge is considered “taboo” insofar as it is meant to be transmitted only within the confines of the nakamal to members of the hukwe. During this past visit I was unexpectedly awarded a rank and title within the hukwe, and was thereby exposed to specialised forms of ritual knowledge.

[Above: The entire membership of the hukwe of the Torres Islands during a mortuary kava-drinking ritual]

Why am I telling all this? Because I think that the context which I am describing represents precisely the kind of extremely difficult situation that some of us face when presented with forms of knowledge that are meant to be kept secret, but might offer crucial insights into the workings of local cosmologies and value systems. That is, in fact, the case with some of the ritualised knowledge that was made known to me; in other words, it allowed me to clarify some important and outstanding issues having to do with notions of agency, causality and effect proper to the worldview of the Torres people. Specifically, I was able to clearly decipher the basic dynamics of the relationships between the living, the dead and the primordial spiritual forces that have a decisive and constant influence on the course of everyday life.

So. What to do? Basic common sense and ethics dictate that I keep this knowledge secret, notwithstanding its possible relevance to academic debates. And that is exactly what I intend to do: keep it secret. However, that does not preclude my being able to discuss the insights that I have gained as a result of this knowledge.

And I suppose that that is what this (highly self-reflexive and self-indulgent) post is all about, which is to argue that there are ways of discussing and making use of privileged knowledge without violating the specific terms in which it was presented; in other words, without making that knowledge public and violating its secrecy or sanctity. I have no need or intention of revealing the specific type of knowledge that I was offered (i.e. a translation of verbal or non-verbal formulae, etc.). Nor do I have to: it is enough to be able to state, on the basis of intimate authority, the broader implications that it carries for the manner in which the value system and socio-spiritual dynamics of the Torres work.

That, anyway, is my conclusion at this point. It is worthwhile stating that in the past I have been extremely concerned about not revealing more than I thought I should, to the extent of having restricted access to my PhD thesis at Cambridge University (for which I was chided by the authorities – to no effect). At the time, I was operating on the basis that there might me some unintended consequences arising from my mentioning certain names (toponyms, ancestors, what have you). This was no exaggeration, and still holds true in many respects. However, I have since then been able to discuss the contents of my thesis with the people of the Torres Islands, and even though I am under no illusion as to the misinterpretations that can still arise from its circulating freely, I am satisfied that as much has been done to respect their sensitivities as I could manage. Nevertheless, it remains a fact that ethnographic knowledge, even when presented with the best of intentions, often takes on a life of its own that can come back to bite us in unpleasant ways.

But the point is that there are always possibilities of finding a middle road that satisfies most of the limitations imposed by our own personal and institutional codes of ethics, while fulfilling the declared intention of our scholarly. It is towards just such outcomes that we must always direct our efforts, and make the best of it when things happen to go wrong. To do otherwise, for instance by shying away from all controversy, would be to abandon critical thinking completely, and give in to the notion that research, insofar as it is about a critical exercise in cultural interpretation, is an absurd enterprise.

I, for one, am not there yet, and probably never will be. To take a leaf from the book of Robert Harrison, this is about owning up to the fact that the academy is precisely the home for critical analysis and hermeneusis. To hand this recognition over to an exercise in feel-good, confessional self-limitation may, in effect, feel good, but it will hardly resolve the problem at hand.

Since this issue (and my own developing position in respect of my fieldwork) are hardly uncontroversial, I welcome any comments or critique.

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