Five Questions With Katerina Teaiwa

This week in our conversation with a Framing the Global Fellow, we take up the concept of “framing” itself.

Katerina Teaiwa is Pacific Studies Co-Convener and President of the Australian Association for Pacific Studies in the School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific at Australian National University.

In her Framing project, Indigenous Peoples and the Global Remix, Teaiwa is exploring the way Oceania is framed in global discourse. She’s also thinking through how the region can be imagined as a highway of sorts, instead of barrier.

She spoke with Rosemary Pennington about how she uses framing to enter the global.

Rosemary Pennington: What drew you to Framing the Global?

Katerina Teaiwa: I heard about the project through the Australian National University USA outreach office while I was in discussions with Indiana University Press about publishing a book manuscript titled Consuming Ocean Island: people, phosphate and histories of Banaba.

It sounded like an exciting opportunity to work with and learn from diverse colleagues in an interdisciplinary environment. I had participated in a Ford funded Pacific-Caribbean project called Islands of Globalization form 2003-06 at the University of Hawai’i and East-West Centre and wanted to reconnect with research on globalization.

I was also impressed with the collaboration between IUP and the Centre for the Study of Global Change and liked the way in which Hillary Kahn and her colleagues articulated the goals and scope of the project.

I am used to hearing about “the global” in an institutional environment heavily dominated by International Relations, Political Science, Public Policy and what some might describe as a “pragmatic” approach to national, regional and global issues.

I believed that Framing the Global would take a nuanced, creative and dialogic approach to understanding the complexities, challenges and inspiring aspects of global phenomena while appreciating the grounded and local realities and agency of everyday peoples.

RP: What is your entry point and why did you choose it?

KT: My entry point is “Framing,” because the ANU, and Australia-based research on the Pacific in general, is widely known for either producing or sustaining fairly negative framings of the Islands — some grown in this region and others imported from analyses of what many view as the “developing” parts of the world.

These frames consistently focus on what scholars and policy makers see as a Pacific Islands deficit or lack and include terms such as “the Doomsday Scenario,” “Arc of Instability,” “Arc of Crisis,” and “Failed States.” While much research in the disciplines of History, Anthropology and Linguistics focuses more on complexity and indigenous cultures, it is predominantly from a non-reflexive, “laboratory-like,” authorial position and with very few Pacific Islander scholarly voices or critiques.

I am thus interested in how approaches to contemporary Oceania can be reframed in multi-scalar and multi-faceted ways, and how assumptions about the Pacific in terms of its demographic, terrestrial, economic, social and other conceived deficits are challenged by reimagining the ocean as a highway, rather than barrier for the movement and exchange of Pacific ideas, peoples and things.

I am committed to decolonization, empowerment, and Pacific scholarly and artistic activism within the higher education and development contexts.

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Heiva Dance Festival Opening Ceremony by Pierre Lesage (Flickr)

In this project I engage and explore the idea of “remix,” which I believe re-frames indigenous and diasporic Pacific Islander ideas, practices and policies in terms of their active, agentic and creative elements. The project I am working on as a Framing the Global Fellow is “Indigenous Peoples and the Global Remix” with a focus on performing arts festivals and cultural policy in Oceania.

While I do aim to highlight resilience and creativity, this is not to undermine or diminish the imperial, colonial, or current national, regional and global forces that consistently marginalize Pacific Islanders and Islands.

Pacific scholars that have inspired and helped shape my entry point include the late Professors Epeli Hau’ofa and Greg Dening, Emeritus Prof. Albert Wendt, Greg Fry, Prof. Margaret Jolly, Dr. Teresia Teaiwa, Prof. Terence Wesley-Smith, Prof. David Hanlon, Prof. Vince Diaz, and Prof. David Chappell. I also draw on indigenous studies, dance studies and feminist ethnography for theoretical and methodological inspiration.

RP: What challenges have you faced as you’ve navigated the global this way?

KT: Aside from being the only scholar located in the Southern hemisphere in a project on “Framing the Global,” (this gets very fun during real-time online meetings: our winter is always everybody else’s summer) I’m never quite sure if I’m articulating the potential of reframing the global from Oceania in a convincing fashion.

When I highlight the “indigenous” factor, a reflection of the fact that the Pacific has the highest proportion of sovereign indigenous peoples in one region, I get the sense that some scholars conflate indigeneity with nationalism, essentialism, positivism, exceptionalism, and conservative or romantic ideas and principles.

One challenge has been illustrating how historical time may be conceived up to 40,000 years and beyond in Pacific Studies, Pacific History, Archaeology and Linguistics, and in Indigenous Pacific Studies such as Maori or Hawaiian studies where the frameworks for knowledge are not linear, but genealogical and relational. This genealogical framework encompasses the worlds of people, animals, and things, those of the sky, land and sea and the cosmos as a whole.

This is not an exotic or romantic approach to epistemological or ontological states, it just is how many indigenous peoples view, understand and move through the world while still working through the everyday realities of providing food, clothing, shelter and education for their families, including after Christian “conversion”, and in a world dominated by global capitalism.

RP: In her introduction to the upcoming book, Dr. Hilary Kahn writes that one of the questions scholars of the global are faced with is “How do we know its global?” How do you answer that question in your work?

KT: You could argue my work is regional. I think, in the first instance, people imagine something is “global” if it connects geopolitical powers such as the United States or China to Indonesia, Cambodia or Nigeria, but might not think it’s global if Tuvalu and Kiribati are collaborating on a climate change issue.

Do notions of “the global” require assumptions about geopolitical influence, demographic or economic scale and reach, and terrestrial spread?

I argue that Oceania, which physically encompasses one third of the whole planet and involves 25 Island nations, states and territories without including all of those in the Pacific Rim, is pretty global, but not just because of its size which is often reduced cartographically to an empty blue space, or a blue reduced in size and falling off the edges of a Mercator map centred on Europe and the Americas.

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Kelan Sing, a fisherman from Taremb community, on Vanuatu’s Malekula Island by World Bank — East Asia and Pacific (Flickr)

I believe my work is global because the Pacific has and continues to play a major role in global histories and the development of significant ideas about biological and social life, is one of the major highways across which an unfathomable amount of goods and materials are transported, profoundly shapes global weather and climate patterns, and is home to thousands of Islanders whose lives have been shaped significantly by global forces, almost completely not of their own making or benefit.

It is also clear that the Pacific seabed is the next frontier of serious and potentially calamitous resource extraction.

RP: How have your discussions on the space of global studies within the Framing the Global interdisciplinary group affected your view of your home discipline?

KT: My sense is that despite the efforts of a few well-known interdisciplinary and Area Studies scholars such as James Clifford, Arif Dirlik, Chris Connery, Rob Wilson, Elizabeth Deloughrey, Nicholas Thomas, Matt Matsuda, and others, the Pacific is still relatively unknown in global and other US, European, UK and even Australian scholarly communities.

The Pacific is assumed to mean East and South East Asia or is the “Asia-Pacific”.

I thus feel that my field of interdisciplinary Pacific Studies, with just a few key centers in places such as Suva, Hawai‘i, Los Angeles, Auckland, Wellington, Canberra, Bergen, Nijmegan, St. Andrews and Marseille, is relatively invisible within mainstream disciplinary and interdisciplinary fields such as cultural studies, gender studies, postcolonial studies and global studies.

That being said, it’s also become clear that Pacific Studies can offer many critical and creative insights for these fields in terms of methodological and ontological alternatives to mainstream approaches.

You can follow us on Twitter: @FramingGlobal.