No final theory
The Pomomamö and the Boat Builders
A Postmodern Fable
(revised November 10, 1996)

Among the Pomomanö of the island of Pomo'ua in Micronesia, there arose in the early seventies a heated debate about where their ancestors had come from. Fu Kow, at the time an ambitious and talented young man, did a detailed and extensive study demonstrating convincingly that the popular belief that they had come in boats was most vociferously upheld and propagated by the families and friends of the boat builders. Although the study refrained from drawing any explicit conclusions, it was clearly in the cards that the old doctrine served no nobler purpose than to boost the social standing of this already highly privileged group of people, from which Pomo'ua's leaders were routinely drawn. From then on, any such claim, even if not made by a boat builder or any of his friends and family, was looked upon with great suspicion, and became the subject of entertaining tales at the beach-side bonfire gatherings that was the mainstay of Pomomamö social life. Soon it was nearly impossible to claim that the ancestors had arrived on the island by boat, and the ancient craft of boat building fell into such disrepute that young people frequently abandoned their parents' profession and took the lead in denouncing the ancient boat-building elite. In the 70s and mid-80s, whole families not only willingly abandon their livelihood but collectively joined in the communal boat-burnings, which came to mark its instigators most convincingly as true men of the people, gaining them access to the choisiest bits of roast pig during the festivals.

Of course, living on a relatively small island, totally abstaining from using a boat was both impracticable and tedious, even for the most virtuous of the Pomomamö. However, it was considered good practice to poke one or several small holes in the boat every time you went out, to signal that you despised the very vehicle you depended on. These continually punctured boats were still usable, but making a trip in one became primarily a means of public display--ideally, a tall jet of water would be visible above the rim of the boat as you paddled, as a way of making a political statement. A new fashion arose of building extremely elaborate and stately boats out of the most unlikely material, or according to the most novel principles, and putting them out to sea during the evening feasts. The reformed builder would then pretend to be going somewhere in it, while everyone on the beach would be watching and applauding as it pitifully sank, thus establishing beyond any doubt that the boat builder had thoroughly dissociated himself from the oppressive and deluded regime of his self-serving predecessors. The whole field of boat building became performative rather than practical, a mode of display rather than a mode of conveyance.

The puzzle of how their ancestors had in fact come here, it was further argued by Fu Kow's follower Ri Da, was itself an issue that would only be posed by a boat builder--the question itself was wrong. The whole notion of an 'ancestor' that had 'come' was part and parcel of the tissue of stories the old elite had constructed to bolster their position. Since they had been dominant for so long, Ri Da acknowledged it was almost impossible not to think in their way; however, was it necessary to think in any particular way at all? The people on the beach were having a great time, and the old 'ancestralism' debate itself was thoroughly discredited.

Occasional visitors from the neighboring islands, including the traders that supplied the island with highly-prized pigs, found the Pomomamö's behavior puzzling and paradoxical, but on the whole they minded their own business. Naïve and thoughtful critics alike, in any event, were dismissed with a shrug, since it was glaringly obvious that the very means by which they had come was highly suspect, and even if they did not realize it themselves, that fact alone made them errand boys of the old dispensation. The visitors, finding the ears of the Pomomamö no more attuned to their words than the shells on the beach, traded their pigs, loaded their coconuts, and paddled home. Tales of boat-burnings and hole-punching soon made the rounds of their own beach-side bonfire feasts.

Only once did one of them decide to play the Pomomamö a trick. So Ka had been listening to Pomomamö stories for years, frequently participating in their feasts. He was just as enthusiastic as the locals when it came to celebrating their liberation from the stuffy boat-builder elite of old. Recently, however, some daring story tellers had begun attacking the pig traders, claiming that their boats were just as full of holes, and that they really served no other purpose than to show off and perhaps even intimidate. For So Ka, who prided himself on the tradition of boat building that allowed him to cross the large body of open water between the islands, this was going too far, and because he did not want their cause to be entirely discredited among the other islands, he set about to teach them a lesson.

Whenever he could, he would join in the feasts and listen to the latest story tellers describe how his own people built boats--not in accordance with some obscure principle of "waves" and "ocean", but according to personal quirks and interests, social prejudices, fortuitous events, and the desire to curry favor with the big chiefs. Working secretly, So Ka built a great-looking boat, using materials from his own island, but putting them together in the Pomomamö way. When he explained that his own people had come to realize that their boats were social constructions, just as the Pomomamö said, the local chiefs of one of the festivals agreed to let him perform the boat, treating him, with some misgivings, as an honored guest from another island who had seen the truth of the Pomomamö way. On the day of the feast, however, So Ka invited people from the other islands too, telling them in confidence that he was just making fun of the story-tellers, to shame them. Just when the Pomomamö were shouting their approval for his wonderful exposé of the pig-traders' false boat-building pretensions, he told everybody how silly and ridiculous they were to think one could trade pigs in a boat like that.

That day and in the following weeks, the Pomomamö were the laughing stock of all the islands, and many lost no time in denying they had ever thought you could trade pigs in boats like theirs. Some of them are starting to study the craft of boat-making again, but most people appear to feel the ways they have become accustomed to are more fun. Though worried at times they will run out of pigs, the Pomomamö continue to throw great parties.

Francis Steen
November 1996

No final theory
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© 1996 Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California, Los Angeles