For more than a generation, anthropology has struggled with where to locate its object in space and time. On the one hand, ethnography has become unabashedly global and historical in scope; yet, on the other, anthropologists have never been content to set local cases against a larger background without also questioning how these levels and boundaries are constituted. Anthropologists seek a newness and an emergent quality in everyday life that comes from the complexity of global history, yet they remain skeptical of teleology. It is no longer necessary to justify—in fact, it is probably assumed—that anthropology studies societies in formation. Yet it is still undecided what kinds of metaphors can portray this. One could rightly ask whether ethnography itself is up to the task. It partakes of an older holism in which the totality of culture is coterminous with the fieldworker’s visit. What would ethnography need to capture in order to both acknowledge and problematize change?

Oceania has an interesting position in these developments. Many people assume that it is one of the world’s most remote regions and hence treat it as a privileged place for encounters with cultural others. In the re-thinking of anthropology’s epistemology, though, there has been a double shift in Pacific Islands studies. First, scholars now recognize the role of contact and colonialism in the formation of supposedly isolated societies, and, importantly, the role of anthropology itself in the denial of coevalness to these societies as a part of their domination. Hence, the scope of fieldwork has widened both in historical time and global space, and more attention is paid to local actors’ creative agency, especially the interplay between the innovation of traditions and adaptation of foreign cultural forms. Second, especially since Marilyn Strathern’s (1988) critique of social anthropology’s implicit ontological biases, there has been a step away from a particularly western metalanguage of social relations in favor of models of sociality derived from indigenous ideas of personhood. These two critical projects may at first glance appear to diverge. The first stresses a historicization of culture as object and the second stresses an even more deeply rooted alterity which in some ways denies the salience of historical events. From the outset, people have argued that they need to be pursued in tandem in spite of this divergence (e.g., Foster 1995). I would argue that they both in fact lead to the same destination, a new conceptualization of anthropology’s object of inquiry. In this new metaphor for sociality, a mixedness of temporalities and geographies is given. There is no single collectivity lurking behind the actual social environment. Rather people are surrounded by a variety of potentially meaningful forms: ways of acting and speaking, ideas, symbols, and objects. It is assumed that when people act in this mixed world, they rearrange the many diverse elements in one of multiple possible configurations. When people interact with these forms, they change their position with respect to other people and things. Each instrument of action affords its own perspective on oneself and one’s relation to the environment. Each imposes boundaries within this field and makes connections between its many elements. In that sense, people as subjects act on the world, but the world acts back on the subject, as Marx’s (1845) first thesis on Feuerbach says. At different moments, anthropologists have favored one particular mise-en-scène of people’s mixed world. They have rendered it as a dialectical struggle, articulation, borderlands, or the subsumption of one schema of values by another. Yet in so doing they have committed two mistakes. Firstly, they ignore that actors themselves may configure their environment differently and thus experience the relationship between cultures differently. Secondly, they ignore their own role in creating a specific configuration of elements, that is, their role as representing a manifold and complex environment as one kind of totality, and circulating this image not only to global but local audiences as well. […]