Introduction. The Interweaving of Vital and
Technical Processes in Oceania
Ludovic Coupaye Perig Pitrou
University College London CNRS/Paris Research University
Among the diversity of theoretical options applied to study life from an anthropological standpoint,
we suggest that it is relevant to use the concepts and methods of the anthropology of technique. In
addition to the issue of the relation between living beings – that works on animism or multispecies eth-
nography aptly tackle – we suggest investigating life as a process of production and the many kinds of
interweaving of vital and technical processes. The aim of this dossier is, then, to propose some exam-
ples of the insights that this global framework – dealing with life as animation and as fabrication –
can bring for the analysis of Paciﬁc ethnographical materials.
Keywords: life, technology, living beings, artefacts, magic, art, production.
One technique for securing life we call ritual.(…) If we call the theory that under-
lies that technique the science of life, and that technique itself the applied science
of life then we shall feel less alarmed for the reason of our friends if they trace
discovery after discovery to this theory of life, discoveries in the life-giving prop-
erties of foods, of minerals, of heat and of light, discoveries even in social organi-
zation (Hocart 1935:348–49).
The theme of ‘life’ is far from being a new topic in the anthropology of Oceania. On
the contrary, it almost appears as a central node around which productive activities, concep-
tions of people and things, or even circulations of ﬂuxes and substances seem to gravitate.
Ethnographies on horticulture, kinship, material culture, exchanges, and values, all seem to
delineate the distribution of living beings in a myriad of conﬁgurations and at different
scales. At ﬁrst glance ‘life’ seems then to produce its effects everywhere, distributed in all
beings, following at times complex networks of exchange, including transfer and conver-
sions. This distribution is such that artefacts themselves, including valuables as Maurice
Leenhardt (1937) and Arthur Hocart (1953) noticed, emerge as instantiations of life princi-
ples. While Oceania is by no means the only region where this pervading dimension mani-
fests itself, it occupies a privileged position to investigate the bases upon which societies
can elaborate their own conceptions and representations about these phenomena.
Anthropology has long studied these concepts of life through a variety of phenomena: rites
– which Hocart (1953) called applications of the ‘science of life’–in particular, rites associated
with the ‘cycle of life’; ethno-classiﬁcations (Berlin 1992); creation myths; grammar and lexi-
cons; the circulation of substances; therapeutic practices; and so on. Compartmentalizing the
study of vital phenomena this way remains problematic: how can life be constituted as an object
© 2018 Oceania Publications
Oceania, Vol. 88, Issue 1 (2018): 2–12