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This article appeared in Volume 1 (2) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Signs of History/Signs in History

by Michael Harken

The Sacred Remains: Myth, History, and Polity In Belau by Richard J. Parmentier 1988, University of Chicago Press, xix + 341 pages, ISBN 0-226-64696-3

Parmentier's book is an attempt to produce a somatically-informed anthropological history of the Micronesian nation of Belau (Palau). He present an "emic" account of Belauan history as a series of events linking, but also separating, the present and the past. Unlike other Pacific historians, such as Dening (1980), Parmentier does not consider history to be only a product of Western contact. Rather, he argues that history is a category of culture, and like other categories such as kinship, is culturally relative (p.7). That is, the specific mode in which a culture constructs its history may not conform to Western ideas of history, but at the same time refers to the same phenomenological realm and is clearly recognizable as history to the sensitive observer. Parmentier is an eminently sensitive observer. He has colected narratives ranging from what academic historians would consider myth to "history proper". For Belauans they are all elements in a single discourse about the past that becomes actualized in the present. Of course, ethnohistorians have collected such narratives since the beginnings of the discipline, but have always sought to filter out the "mythical" aspects in order to arrive at a kernel of historical fast (Vansina 1985:196). This positivistic approach impoverishes understanding in two basic ways. It ignores precisely the sorts of cultural meanings that Interest anthropologists. We would do no worse to ignore, say, kinship or religion, than to fail to take account of a category of culture that is of at least equal importance to the "natives" as the other two (Rosaldo 1980b:92). Second, and of more direct concern to historians themselves, is the culturally-specific way in which historical discourse is actualized in what Sahlins calls the "historical practice" of a culture. That is, should we wish to limit ourselves to a positivistic view of what "really happened", we cannot produce even an adequate account of that if we ignore the historical practice of the culture. This may be relatively unproblematic when looking at recent Western history, but becomes relatively more so when the subject is medieval or non-Western history (see White 1980). Why, for instance, in a 19th century Fijian version of the Peloponnesian War, did the superior Rewan army, on the verge of victory, surrender to Thakombau simply because the chief of Rewa died of dysentery (Sahins 1985:40)? The point Is that not only does history involve the interpretation of past events but also the production of the res gestae.

For Parmentier, the structure of the conjuncture, that arena in which cultural structure encounters human agency, is fundamentally semiotic. He makes a basic distinction between two classes of signs: signs of history and signs In history (p.11). Signs of history are elements of the historical discourse, evidence of past events. Such signs (olangch) originate in a relationship to historical events; this relationship may be one of contiguity, iconisity, or symbolization. For the Belauans, such signs are often lithic. These objects may become signs in history by being strategically deployed in meaningful action. An example from United States history that illustrates that distenction is Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream" speech uttered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The Lincoln Memorial alone is a sign of history, as an icon and symbol of the great man. Its use by another great man in the context of political action becomes a sign in history.

Parmentier applies a Peirceian model of semiotic to his analysis of Belauan history. This is an original and productive choice. Previous non-positivistic historiographies have generally employed either Saussurian-Struoturalist models (e.g., Sahlins 1980; Valeri 1985; Achard et al. 1984) or have taken a hermeneutic turn (eg., Racer 1984; White 1973). Some potential disadvantages, such as the still-esoteric status and arcane formalism of Peirseban semiotics, are overcome by the author's lucid treatment. The advantages, particularly over the structuralist approach, are soon made clear. Structuralist such as Sahlins, who produces highly elegant models of structural transformation, are nevertheless trapped in the essential dualism of the tradition represented by Saussure, Jakobson, and Levi-Strauss. Structuralist analysis is often trapped In the unproductive space between signifier and signified, paradigm and syntagm, synchrony and diachrony. The triadic form of Peirweian semiotics is not only more productive but more powerful; its pragmatic focus, which is built into the triad, allows a direct rather than, shall we say, metaphorical-- application to nonlinguistic sign phenomena. Thus historical signs are always already part of a system of social relations, and are necessarily productive: of signs and also of actions.

Parmentier identifies a set of four diagrammatic icons that function as cognitive schemata for interpreting past and present social structures: path, side, cornerpost, and large and smaller(p.110). The first three have as their physical prototypes important features of the social landscape, and each is extended non-uniquely into a semantic field. Thus the path, rooted in the physical paths between villages, involves the concept of a sequentially ordered series of positive elements which is repeated. Such a concept is deployed frequently in social interactions, where visiting a village for purposes of trade, marriage, alliance, etc., presupposes the existence of a recognized, if only dimly remembered, path between the two villages (p.114). Similarly, the concept of sides, rooted in river banks and body symmetry, involves abstract concepts of opposition, reciprocity, and mutual implication. This concept is deployed not only at the level of villages, which are divided into sides of the mangrove channel, but the context of alliance and opposition in a pan-Belauan context. Finally, the cornerpost schema, based on architectural structure, involves concepts of underlying support, functional differentiation, and coordination. The basic social structural application is the quadripartite structure of chiefs and villages, wherein each of the four positions has a defined role that is instantiated by the holder of the title or position. The larger/smaller icon may be used to modify the others, and is the basis of concepts of hierarchy and value, as, for instance, in the case of pieces of stone money.

These schemata provide a framework by which other signs may be interpreted. Thus, named lithic monuments, signs of history, may mark nodes of paths; possession of a specific valuable by a village may mark not merely its hierarchical position, but its position with respect to sides of heaven, or political alliance. From our point of view, the most interesting way in which Belauans use these schemata is in the interpretation of their own history. Belauans view their past as consisting of three historical epochs. The first involved the creation of a cultural order by means of paths, that is, the creation of distinct villages in a sequential (south to north) order. Before that time, there were no humans, only fish, who, through a series of cosmological events, found themselves inhabiting the islands of Belau. The creation of paths represents minimal social connectedness, although in this epoch many precultural elements remained. Thus, lacking fire, the people ate raw fish; being piscine themselves, this constituted cannibalism. The important point about paths is that they represent the creation of an initial template or prototype which is then sterotypically reproduced by later, culturally defined action p.116. In Peircian terms, this is the ascpect of thirdness (Peirce 1931-35:7:471).

The second cultural epoch was characterized by cornerposts. A flood myth marks the conjuncture between these two epochs. A single woman, spared by avenging gods, survives to give birth to four children who go on to found four district capitals; each of these children is marked by lithic monuments, signs of history. Not only does this legitimate the precedence of the four capital villages, it provides a quadripartite model of functional differentiation which further ramifies throughout the political and social structure. This model, based on principles of siblingship, is the defining characteristic of the second, "classical" age of Belau.

The third epoch, which includes the present, is of particular interest to the ethnohistorian, as it is marked by contact with Europeans and, later, Japanese in a colonial context. The result of this contact was a reduction of the mature structure of cornerposts to the more basic icon of sides. Rivalry for European trade, added to pre-existing rivalries, resulted in the division of the polity into "sides of heaven," centered on the two most powerful city-states. From time to time Westerners were drawn into armed conflict on one of the sides, and by the 19th century this structure was sedimented (p.189).

A model more-or-less reminiscent of Vico is thus suggested for Belauan history. Three distinct epochs are characterized by three distinct modes of social being and practice. These epochs are separated by critical events which I have elsewhere characterized as "horizonal" in sofar as they mark the temporal limit of a given lifeworld. Parmentier's analysis does not stop here, however. He demonstrates that each of these diagrammatic icons may be deployed in the present, that they are all part of the logic of an enduring Belauan culture. Moreover, these narrative and lithic signs of history are themselves condensations or epitomizations of these icons, so that referring to them in practice --making them signs in history--is to act effectively (p.196), It has frequently been noted that a major function of historical knowledge is to legitimate the present social order, but seldom has the strategic use of historical knowledge been so well demonstrated.

It is difficult to find much negative to say about this book. However, one aspect that may bother readers in the field of semiotics is precisely Parmentier's use of Peirweian theory. It is not, as it were, "pure" Peirwe we are getting, but Peiroe via the seminar rooms of the University of Chicago. This in itself is not necessarily a weakness. The observant reader will, however, find occasions where Peiroeian concepts are abandoned for Silversteinian ones, or are simply dropped at a point where they might have proved useful. For instance, in his discussion of paths Parmentier never mentions Peiroe's concept of thirdness, although Peirse himself uses the path as a prime example. Perhaps the author shied away from a too rigorous use of Peirse in the interest of a broader audience; however, l felt that his argument would have been clearer had he introduced further Peiroeian concepts--beyond the familiar triad icon, index, symbol--at crucial points.

A second drawback to Parmentier's analysis can be found in that area in which the book is ethnographically rich, the- use of narrative. The author reproduces narratives collected both by himself and by earlier observers, which constitute his basic source of data. For the most part he offers sophisticated analysis of these narratives, comparing variants and correlating them with the social position of the narrator. He mines them as rich sources of native meaning. However, his focus on semantics is at the expense of the formal and performative aspects of narrative. His presentation of the texts is for the most part in English translation only; interlinear translations would have been welcome, perhaps in an appendix. As scholars such as Hymes (1981), Tediock (1972) and others have shown, narrative structure and performance are integral to the overall "meaning" of narrative.

Such quibbles aside, The Sacred Remains represents a significant advance in the field of anthropological history, and a novel use of Peirceian theory. The best previous monographs in the field (Rosaldo 1980b; Sahlins 1981) for all their strength do not sustain both the theortical rigor and the ethnographic sensitivity present in Parmenter's work


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Dening, Greg (1980) Islands and Beaches: Discourse on a Silent Land, Marquesas 1774-1880. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Hymes, Dell (1981) "In vain I tried to tell you": Essays In Native American Ethnopoetics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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---. (1985) Islands of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tedlock, Dennis 1972 Finding the Center: Narrative Poetry of the Zuni Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Valeri, Valerlo 1985 Kinship and Sacrifice: Ritual and Society In Ancient Hawaii. Paula Wissing, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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---.(1980) "The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality." Critical Inquiry 7:S27.

Michael Harkin is Visiting Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wyoming. Among his writings are: "History, Narrative, and Temporality: Examples from the Northwest Coast" (Ethnohistory 35:2:99130,1988), "Mortuary Practices and the Category of the Person among the Heiltsuk" (Arctic Anthropology 27:1:87-108,1990), "Dialogues of History: Transformation and Change in Heiltsuk Culture" (in press, University of Nebraska Press).

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