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Making the Baruya great again: From glorified great men to modern suffering subjects?

Abstract : This paper explores avenues for prestige-making now available to and championed by the Baruya, the archetypal ‘Great Man’ people of Papua New Guinea, who I recently studied following previous work by Maurice Godelier. Amid critiques by Robbins and Ortner of anthropologists’ drive to document and empathise with “suffering subjects”, I suggest that being ‘left behind’ and ‘forgotten’ is an important part of Baruya social life that reinterprets previous ways of ‘making great men.’ Baruya exposure to material and institutional modernity remains very limited. Local rhetorics of being ‘last place’ (las ples) are both concomitant and discordant with Baruya assumptions and assertions of being ‘the greatest people’ of their region. Unable to revive traditional contexts for producing great men through warriorship, shamanism, cassowary hunting, and salt-making, Baruya turn to the very modernity they cannot quite reach for their own pursuit of masculinity and prestige—which paradoxically now lies within domains also open to women. Desirous to both establish continuity with their glorified past and to depart from it, Baruya's local modernity itself constrains their newly-shaped desire for prestige—and dramatically changes gender relations in the process. Though the concrete impossibility to ‘be great’ reinforces Baruya perceptions of enduring what we might call a ‘suffering slot’, the larger issue is how concrete experiences sediment into socio-cultural change over time. This process is informed by a tension between a quest for modernity and its larger failure, resulting in a drive to reignite longer standing values of morality, spirituality, and ultimately, greatmanship.
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Submitted on : Friday, March 11, 2022 - 12:49:41 PM
Last modification on : Friday, March 11, 2022 - 2:22:24 PM


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Anne-Sylvie Malbrancke. Making the Baruya great again: From glorified great men to modern suffering subjects?. Australian Journal of Anthropology, Wiley, 2019, 30 (1), pp.68-83. ⟨10.1111/taja.12305⟩. ⟨hal-02473278⟩



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