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The Life and Afterlife Crises of Saribas Iban Television

  • John Postill


This paper discusses the exchange of television sets among the Iban of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. It focuses on two critical stages in the 'careers' of Iban televisions: their acquisition and their disposal. This approach captures these media artefacts as they transit through the gift and exchange systems that bind rural and urban Iban, as well as the living and the dead. One form of transit are burial rites at which television sets are destroyed so that the deceased can still enjoy their favourite programmes in the Afterlife - an upside-down world were only broken things work. The analysis reveals, therefore, culture-specific ways in which the material nature of television is understood. In addition, the paper puts forth a cross-cultural argument: television sets in Sarawak and elsewhere lead 'double lives' as both non-reciprocal media (most viewers have little influence over TV contents) and reciprocal artefacts (TV sets enter kin-based relations of reciprocity). This contradiction, intrinsic to all mass media, remains under-theorised in the media literature. 

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