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On The Edge Of The Global: Modern Anxieties In A Pacific Island Nation

On The Edge Of The Global: Modern Anxieties In A Pacific Island Nation

by Niko Besnier

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Life in twenty-first century Tonga is rife with uncertainties. Though the postcolonial island kingdom may give the appearance of stability and order, there is a malaise that pervades everyday life, a disquiet rooted in the feeling that the twin forces of "progress" and "development"—and the seemingly inevitable wealth distribution that follows from


Life in twenty-first century Tonga is rife with uncertainties. Though the postcolonial island kingdom may give the appearance of stability and order, there is a malaise that pervades everyday life, a disquiet rooted in the feeling that the twin forces of "progress" and "development"—and the seemingly inevitable wealth distribution that follows from them—have bypassed the society.

Niko Besnier's illuminating ethnography analyzes the ways in which segments of this small-scale society grapple with their growing anxiety and hold on to different understandings of what modernity means. How should it be made relevant to local contexts? How it should mesh with practices and symbols of tradition? In the day-to-day lives of Tongans, the weight of transformations brought on by neoliberalism and democracy press not in the abstract, but in individually significant ways: how to make ends meet, how to pay lip service to tradition, and how to present a modern self without opening oneself to ridicule. Adopting a wide-angled perspective that brings together political, economic, cultural, and social concerns, this book focuses on the interface between the different forms that modern uncertainties take.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Besnier achieves a fascinating actor-centered ethnography of how urban modernity in Tonga is defined, enacted and performed by people of different segments of society. The book depicts vividly what is at stake for the actors involved and the emotions that surround these processes."—Sina Emde, Pacific Affairs

"On the Edge of the Global by Niko Besnier is a compelling attempt to straighten misconceptions and render instead a comprehensive account of how immersed in a globalized world and in modernity the people in (and out of) Tonga actually are. Besides its profound insights, the book is also just pleasant to read, comprehensible even in its most theoretical parts, as entertaining as it is instructive in its descriptions of daily life, and with a fine sense of humour shining through occasionally. For me as an anthropologist working in Tonga for more than ten years, this book is a jewel. For anybody interested both in region or the topics more generally, this book is a must-read. For everybody else, it is simply a pleasure."— Andrea Bender, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

"I found myself wondering why I had not seen these things before! . . . [T]he analysis is intriguing and raises many interesting and valuable questions. This well-written book sheds valuable insights not only on modern Tongan society, but also on issues and challenges that many modernizing societies face."—Cluny MacPherson, The Contemporary Pacific

"This book has expanded my understanding of contemporary Tongan life. Anybody interested in Tonga, or Polynesia at large, and the scholar or layman passionate about gaining insights into how 'globality' is realized in very unfamiliar places will find precious material to treasure. Another valuable piece is added to the literature about Tonga, contributing to the understanding of its fascinating reality."—Giovanni Bennardo, Journal of Anthropological Research

"Besnier takes us to Tongan beauty parlors, pageants, pawn shops, outdoor markets, church services and gyms to show how local 'modernities' and 'traditionalities' are enacted within disparate sites. His book, remarkable in its nuanced, respectful depiction of the emotional lives and intellectual perspectives of diverse informants, is wonderful in argument and ethnography."—Deborah Gewertz, Amherst College
"Ethnographically acute and open-eared, interpretively imaginative and principled, and always engaging, Besnier's book takes Tonga from 'the edge' to the center of new ways of thinking about 'the global.' Besnier's subtle attentiveness to the shape of both ordinary and extraordinary lives and events makes for a rich and theoretically provocative examination indeed."—Don Brenneis, Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz
"This is a study of how modernity renders one anxious—anxious to be a part of it, and anxious not to lose oneself, or one's traditions, along the way. Keenly situated on the global edge, and on the edges of bodies and things, Besnier's study of Tonga as a nervous kaleidoscope—of make-up, make-over, bodybuilding, and the pawning and reselling of everyday things—is sharply observed and beautifully drawn. Clear, smart, witty, and touching."—Anne Allison, Professor of Anthropology, Duke University

Product Details

Stanford University Press
Publication date:
Contemporary Issues in Asia and Pacific Series
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

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On the Edge of the Global

Modern Anxieties in a Pacific Island Nation

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7405-5

Chapter One

Straddling the Edge of the Global

On November 16, 2006, the center of Nuku'alofa, the capital of Tonga, became the scene of mayhem that until then no one had thought possible in the otherwise peaceful kingdom. It began with Tongans from all walks of life crashing through shop windows and helping themselves to anything in sight: food, liquor, appliances, furniture, electronic equipment, and so on. Then benzene drums were trucked in, and the town went up in flames. A sizeable number of shops, offices, and government buildings burned to the ground. Originally designed to target specific buildings, the fire quickly went out of control, goaded by a dry and fickle summer breeze. Cars were overturned and set on fire. An anonymous European tourist videotaped the events. The extensive footage, bootlegged copies of which would sell briskly in Nuku'alofa shops in subsequent months, captured looters in a celebratory mood mugging for the camera, oblivious to the fact that the police would later use the film as incriminating evidence in court. Eight looters entered the burning offices of a phone company, not realizing that the door was self-locking. Their remains were later found, charred beyond recognition, one with packs of stolen plastic phone cards melted onto his body. The trucks that had brought in the benzene were quickly organized to carry the loot back to suburbs and outlying villages. While on a global scale of violence, defined by genocides and natural disasters, the event did not even register as a blip, it was locally experienced as a day of infamy, to which Tongans would come to refer as "16/11" (in Tongan, taha ono taha taha), tacitly evoking the New York event that had preceded it by five years despite the profound differences in intention, magnitude, and consequence (Figure 1.1).

The looting and arson took place in a climate of anxiety of an unprecedented nature since the beginning of the country's modern history. This beginning can arguably be located in the mid-nineteenth century, when the nation emerged as what Tongans often proudly call "the last remaining Polynesian kingdom," managing with some difficulty to keep at bay the colonial takeovers that the neighboring polities endured. As the twentieth century was drawing to a close, the delicate political and social edifice on which the Tongan state had rested was beginning to unravel through a series of interrelated circumstances. The most visible of these was the increasing insistence emanating from some quarters of Tongan society for democratic participation in a government hitherto structured by a rigid rank-based order. This insistence was primarily associated with a "Pro-Democracy Movement," founded in the early 1980s by a group of vocal educated commoners and later renamed "Human Rights and Democracy Movement of Tonga" (HRDMT). Pressure to democratize also emanated from overseas (and, some cynics point out, more crucially so): from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and the two major powers in the Pacific region, New Zealand and Australia. For these latter, demonstrating a faith in "good governance" had become a precondition for economic assistance to their poorer island neighbors.

In 2005, to appease growing dissent, the reigning king, Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, appointed to the prime ministership Feleti (Fred) Sevele. Holder of a PhD in human geography from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, Sevele was at the time a Pro-Democracy parliamentarian and prominent businessman. The appointment of a progressive well-educated commoner to the post was a radical departure from tradition, as prime ministers until then had all been members of the royal family or close associates. It surprised the people and raised hopes, particularly as it took place in the wake of a series of embarrassing scandals, such as the government's illegal sale of Tongan passports and the mismanagement of the proceeds (which evaporated completely, apparently into the pockets of an American con artist who had befriended the king). But the mood did not last. Beginning on July 25, 2005, the underpaid civil service staged an unprecedented six-week general strike, marching to Parliament with a petition endorsed by 2,000 signatories and camping out for weeks at Pangai Si'i, ceremonial grounds located across from the Royal Palace. Civil servants were demanding that the government raise salaries to keep up with the price hikes of the last few years, the effect of double-digit inflation and a falling currency on an economy crucially dependent on imports. In the preceding years, members of parliament (including HRDMT members) and cabinet ministers had regularly voted substantial salary raises for themselves.

After some haggling, the government granted the civil service a 60 to 80 percent raise, bringing the biweekly starting salary of junior employees up to T$140. For a while, order was restored, and optimism returned. The aging king then constituted, with financial assistance from Australia and New Zealand, a National Committee for Political Reform (NCPR), at the head of which he appointed his late brother's son, 'Uluvalu Prince Tu'ipelehake. The committee visited all the islands of the group, as well as expatriate communities in New Zealand, Australia, and the United States, holding "conversations" (talanoa) with townspeople, villagers, and migrants. On July 5, 2006, however, before the NCPR had completed its mission, a drag-racing American teenage girl sideswiped the car in which 'Uluvalu was travelling on the freeway in Menlo Park, Northern California, an area with a high concentration of Tongan migrants. The prince, his well-respected spouse Princess Kaimana, and their driver were all killed. Sitiveni Halapua, a Tongan development studies scholar who directs one of the programs at the East-West Center in Honolulu, stepped in to finish the work of the committee and in August presented its recommendations to the king, who was lying in an Auckland hospital. The king, aged 88, died on September 10, 2006, and Crown Prince Tupouto'a, then aged fifty-eight and unmarried, became King George Tupou V.

Without warning, the government disbanded the NCPR and appointed a new committee, whose recommendations it chose to accept instead of the NCPR's. In early November, parliamentarians (including HRDMT members) voted themselves another 60 percent pay raise. HRDMT politicians then fissioned, as some jumped the fence to the government's side. 'Akilisi Pohiva, the self-appointed voice of the movement since the 1980s, and several other opposition politicians abruptly withdrew their support for the NCPR's recommendations and, on November 16, staged a march in the center of town. Crowds assembled at Pangai Si'i. While breakaway prodemocracy politicians were in negotiations with the prime minister in his office, a stone's throw from Pangai Si'i (and, indeed, a few stones were thrown at the building), the crowd moved to the business district, and the looting began. The premeditated nature of the arson that followed is unquestionable: Only selected buildings were originally targeted, several of which belonged to the prime minister, while the businesses owned by prodemocracy politicians and their wealthy and ambitious supporters were spared. In 2009, some still stood alone on street corners, surrounded by empty lots where other buildings once stood, shameful reminders of a crisis that many previously thought impossible, still haunting imaginations months and years after the government lifted the state of emergency that followed.

Many Tongans find the events too upsetting to even talk about, in a society that traditionally considers the public expression of conflict and anger outside the prerogatives of rank deeply disruptive. However, different narrative versions of the events "from above" continue to pepper conversations, preoccupy intellectuals, and fill newspaper columns. They also emerge in the international press when news is slow, bearing titles such as "Trouble in Paradise" or some predictably unimaginative alternative (for example, Teague 2007), in tune with the tone of condescending mockery that often characterizes international press coverage of Tonga. But, like all events of its kind, the looting and burning of Nuku'alofa were not simply the product of political intrigue by a few, a failed coup d'état inspired by the successive coups that neighboring Fiji has endured, or the action of a youthful mob looking for trouble and excitement. Rather, an understanding of 16/11 must be embedded in a larger historical, social, and cultural context, in addition to a political one.

Aspects of this context that are commonly invoked include the increasing anxiety that many people in Tonga are experiencing about their welfare, the sudden and unexplainable influx of immigrants from the People's Republic of China, and the breakdown of tradition that many believe is taking place, as "respect" (for hierarchy, tradition, government, and so on) is being sapped, ostensibly by overseas influences. This book seeks to cast a much wider analytic net than commonsensical analyses do when attempting to explain 16/11, as well as more generally the profound transformations that Tongan society underwent in the last decades of the twentieth century. I am particularly intrigued by some of the details of the 16/11 events that are easy to overlook and that today fuel the mocking contempt that better-off Tongans sometimes express for their less worldly compatriots: the looters mugging for the tourist's video camera, naïvely oblivious to the workings of modern police surveillance; the eight young men's tragic lack of familiarity with self-locking doors; the phone cards melted onto the charred body of one of the victims; and the fridges, washing machines, and beer cartons being cheerily carted away through smashed store windows.

These details betray complexities grounded in a considerably broader context than the tragedy itself. This context is constituted by the hopes, anxieties, and frustrations that ordinary Tongans are experiencing as their society retains a robust self-image of continuity while at the same time undergoing profound change. In the last half century, the society has transformed itself from a relatively stable organic entity into a diasporic, pluralistic, and deeply modern society. Islanders have moved in large numbers to New Zealand, Australia, and the United States, while Chinese immigrants and other agents from elsewhere (including transnational corporations, overseas governments, nongovernmental organizations [NGOs]) have played an increasingly determinative role in the affairs of the country. This book focuses on the ways in which Tongans negotiate the resulting tensions between traditionalism and modernity in everyday contexts. An understanding of what happened on 16/11 must be grounded in the uneasy structures of difference that have emerged in Tongan society since the 1960s and in the fractures that transverse it today. In turn, these must be embedded in a theoretical understanding of the modern condition, to which I now turn.

Tongan Modernity in a Theoretical Context

Unlike sociology, which has been preoccupied with modernity since its nineteenth-century origin, anthropology has long been saddled with its image as the social science of the "primitive other." It was only in the last decades of the twentieth century that anthropologists turned their attention to the nexus of material and ideational dynamics commonly referred to as "modernity," compelled by the realization that the societies in which we work are "exotic no more." Whether they live in the crowded neighborhoods of Cairo or Mumbai, poverty-stricken areas of the United States, African forests, or faraway islands of the Pacific, people are deeply cognizant of the world-scale structures of interconnection in which they are embedded. Even when hegemonic representations orientalize them as "people without history" or when they orientalize themselves as being on the edge of the global, as Tongans do, in the global but not quite of it, people everywhere are deeply implicated in the modern condition. Modernity is with us, wherever we are.

Attempting to define modernity is a notoriously hazardous enterprise because of the diffuse, shifting, and ungrounded nature of the category (Yack 1997). Language often provides little guidance. This is the case of the Tongan language, in which the rather vague term onopooni "these modern times," which contrasts with ono'aho "days of yore," is the closest in meaning to modernity in English, although sometimes the English word is borrowed into Tongan as moteni. Tradition, in contrast, is captured precisely and recognizably by the ubiquitous phrase anga faka-Tonga, which people gloss as "the Tongan way" when speaking English and generally equate with "culture" tout court (another term, fakatukufakaholo, foregrounds continuity with the past). The discrepant ways in which the Tongan language treats tradition and modernity comprise a revealing index of the unstable nature of modernity in contrast to the solidity that people ascribe to tradition, in the Tongan context as well as more generally.

Drawing inspiration from Marx and Weber, Anthony Giddens, one of the foremost contemporary theorists of modernity, locates it at the convergence of four large-scale forces: capitalism, or the production and circulation of commodities in a market context; industrialism, or the transformation of nature through technology; surveillance, or the institutional control over citizens; and military power, or the state monopoly over violence (1990: 55–78). These forces are interdependent, but none is reducible to the others. Together they produce what Giddens calls "time–space distanciation," the process of separating time and space from a local grounding and from one another, which he contrasts with a "social integration" that premodern persons generate through straightforward copresence (D. Gregory 1989: 187–190). Distanciation is generated, for example, by the disjunction between production and consumption under capitalism, as distance and time separate those who produce from those who consume, who as a result become mutually irrelevant. Another illustration is surveillance: video cameras roaming over different spaces at once, storing images of anonymous people's actions that can be viewed at a later date for the purpose of unmasking anonymity, of which the tourist's camera in Nuku'alofa on 16/11 offers a particularly relevant illustration. Time- space distanciation enables what Giddens posits would have been impossible before the rise of modernity, namely the "lifting out of social relations from local contexts of interaction and their restructuring across indefinite spans of time–space," a process that he terms "disembedding" (1990: 21).

At the same time, people still interact with one another on a daily basis and do not experience the Nietzschean nihilism that one would expect to emerge in disembedded lives. In particular, while people everywhere increasingly consume commodities generated by absent producers or produce commodities that absent others will consume, they still come face-to-face with familiar people, inhabit familiar spaces, and fill their daily lives with routines governed by a familiar sense of time. For Giddens, disembedded social relations are also subject to "reembedding," namely a recontextualization into a familiar space and time. For example, the shopping mall in the modern urban landscape is specifically designed to inspire security and familiarity, despite the fact that it is almost exclusively occupied by chain store franchises, virtually identical all over the urban world and controlled by forces invisible to most (1990: 141). It is this very possibility of the disembedded to undergo domestication that generates in people trust in modernity and faith in its possibilities, despite the specter of dehumanization that hovers over it.

Anthropologists have been particularly seduced by the creativity involved in reembedding, the sense that people are not passive flotsam and jetsam in an ocean of time-space distanciation, but active subjects. They have taken great pains to demonstrate that modernity does not just happen but that it is shaped by agents who engage with it while pursuing their localized life projects. Agents do so with the help of one powerful tool, the imagination, which provides grounding to disembedded dynamics even when other resources are lacking. Focusing on this creativity undermines the totalizing image of modernity that Giddens proposes and allows for its transformation when it operates outside the late capitalist Western nation-state. The imagination that people everywhere (not just shoppers in the malls of Western Europe and North America) bring to the modern condition can shape it in ways that Western common sense may find surprising. Anthropologists take particular delight in relativizing this common sense with ethnographic material from elsewhere and demonstrating that it is neither sensical nor common (Foster 2008: 14–17).


Excerpted from On the Edge of the Global by NIKO BESNIER Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Niko Besnier is Professor of Cultural Anthropology in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. He has also taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Yale University, Victoria University of Wellington, and UCLA. He is the author of five books, most recently, Gossip and the Everyday Production of Politics (2009).

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