Session Detail (parallel) Life Itself in Oceania Coordinator(s) Tony Crook, Thomas Strong, Mia Browne Session presentation
‘Life Itself’ stands for the biological and social reimaginations arising from the conceptual collapse of 'nature' and 'culture' - ideas that underpinned the critical assumptions hampering ethnographic attempts to describe Oceanic metaphysics in their own terms. ‘Life Itself’ was first named by Foucault, and developed by Franklin, Rose and Haraway to describe 'genomic thinking'; the ‘technologization of life itself’ as a 'system to be managed'; and governing life itself via the internal and external life choices of citizens. ‘Life Itself’ has been deployed to describe new forms of biology, kinship, governance, society, technology, ecology, ethics, policy and human being - and these discourses characterise national as much as international visions of inequality and development. Do descriptions of social life in Oceania in these biological derived registers in fact promote and exacerbate inequality? ‘Life Itself’ provides a distinctive vantage point on Oceanic philosophies: that the corollaries of this ‘genetic imaginary’ are here and there circumvents the issue of ascribing ideas to peoples or regions or epochs, and yet motivates a fresh attempt to understand life itself in Oceanic terms. If relationality provides the ‘vital supports for all living persons’, then how do Oceanic peoples now imagine the energetics and causalities of life itself?
Paper submissions are closed Accepted papers Introduction Mia Browne (University of St. Andrews) Tony Crook (University of St Andrews) Thomas Strong (Maynooth University) ‘Life Itself’ stands for the biological and social reimaginations arising from the conceptual collapse of 'nature' and 'culture' - ideas that underpinned the critical assumptions hampering ethnographic attempts to describe Oceanic metaphysics in their own terms. ‘Life Itself’ was first named by Foucault, and developed by Franklin, Rose and Haraway to describe 'genomic thinking'; the ‘technologization of life itself’ as a 'system to be managed'; and governing life itself via the internal and external life choices of citizens. ‘Life Itself’ has been deployed to describe new forms of biology, kinship, governance, society, technology, ecology, ethics, policy and human being - and these discourses characterise national as much as international visions of inequality and development. Do descriptions of social life in Oceania in these biological derived registers in fact promote and exacerbate inequality? ‘Life Itself’ provides a distinctive vantage point on Oceanic philosophies: that the corollaries of this ‘genetic imaginary’ are here and there circumvents the issue of ascribing ideas to peoples or regions or epochs, and yet motivates a fresh attempt to understand life itself in Oceanic terms. If relationality provides the ‘vital supports for all living persons’, then how do Oceanic peoples now imagine the energetics and causalities of life itself? Life’s error(s): witches, for example Thomas Strong (Maynooth University) “Life is that which is capable of error.” When Michel Foucault coined this phrase to sum up Canguilhem’s reflections on what life itself consists in, he drew attention to his mentor’s problematization of the normativity of the living in relation to pathology. Further, he noted that life’s normativity, the fact that living beings are not indifferent to the conditions of their existence, was a property of something like ‘information’ — or knowledge. If life is that which grows and decays, it is also that which mutates and suffers. This paper takes up these ideas in the context of Melanesian ethnography today. What might be life’s error in Melanesia? If Melanesian sociality is vitalistic, a relational unfolding of processes of creation, or growth and diminishment, what might ‘error’ be in this context? While I pose the question from an exogenous source, it is very much one that concerns Papua New Guineans. Apprehensions of pathology are all around in both everyday social life and in reflection on encompassing political circumstance. What are the ways in which people sense that something is wrong? Perhaps ‘witchcraft’ (kumo, sanguma) is one form that this apprehension takes. Ideas of witchcraft assemble around living substance (blood) and the affective qualities of interpersonal relations (such as envy). They become a way of knowing how the social milieu is embodied, and perhaps they are a way of judging the unhappiness that that embodiment may engender.
Cloning and its recursive possibilities Marilyn Strathern (Cambridge University) Inspired by Tony Crook’s account of the way taro stalks and leaves displace one another as they grow, this paper draws from abundant ethnographic materials on old Melanesia to reconceptualize the perpetuation of life. To appreciate this animist world from the perspective of vegetative reproduction is to engage with technologies for the displacement and replacement of plants and persons alike. We would be mistaken, however, to imagine that cloning is the ceaseless production of similarity. The way successive generations of people are thought through or enacted with the plants they eat makes for a recursive alternation of possibilities in how propagation is conceived. Life emerges as ever-present; so too does death, bringing to mind Andrew Moutu’s exposition of their intimate pairing.
NB Please correct my authorial name to MARILYN STRATHERN (omit the Ann for this purpose!) The Unity Team: tackling Christianity as a technology of governance Priscila Santos da Costa (University of St Andrews) This paper draws on ethnographic material collected during my fieldwork (2015) in the Parliament of Papua New Guinea, where I worked closely with a Pentecostal inflected group (Unity Team) whose main claim was that Christianity is the only appropriate national ideology for Papua New Guinea. The Unity Team, spearheaded by the Speaker of the 9th Parliament, Hon. Theodor Zurenuoc, were responsible for controversial initiatives, such as the destruction and dismantling of traditional carvings from Parliament in 2013, which they considered ungodly and evil, and the placement of a donated KJV Bible in the chamber of Parliament in 2015.
By exploring Christianity ethnographically, I will show how the Unity Team regarded it as more than a way of doing away with satanic forces and building a Christian self. They expected Christianity to be a means of channelling work ethics, infusing citizenship and, finally, productive of a public and national realm. As such, I address Christianity as the Unity Team’s technology of governance and highlight its relevance within the group’s broader nationalist interests.
Ontic Loss and the Scope for a New Humanism in Central Australia Ute Eickelkamp Notwithstanding their everyday hardships as marginalized First Australians, Aboriginal people have become significant participants in the international culture industry. Not unlike those behind the European humanist movement half a century ago, they are bringing deep aspects of their traditions into a dialogue across borders. But if the abiding creative passion of Aboriginal thinkers, musicians, dancers, painters, composers and storytellers reaches deep into time, this is not a Renaissance of a bygone antiquity. Rather, as the Anangu culture makers in the APY Lands in northern South Australia who I know make clear, they are working to sustain a nexus of life in crisis. Their existence as Anangu – meaning human being – is under threat, as the cosmology of Dreamings is straining under the weight of life in settlements, the Western im/materialist culture and modes of knowing, the transforming desert ecology, and the diminishing social space of engaging Country in situ. One of the effects is ontic loss. ‘Everything had Story’, a woman friend told me, ‘but now, this ant that just bit you is just an ant!’ Ancestral power is under siege. The ecology of Tjukurpa, the land-based cosmology of the Dreaming, is in the grip of a shrinking habitat, recoiling from the white judgmental gaze, fear of primitivism and fear of a punishing God. A stressful inversion is going on, ‘giving people a headache’ and taking lives: Ancestral spirits are internalised as Nature becomes external object. Rennellese Vernaculars of Life-Itself in an endangered World Heritage Site Mia Browne (University of St. Andrews) On Mugava and Mugiki (Rennell and Bellona) in the Solomon Islands, stories begin with the first tupuna (grandparent), Kaitu’u, who arrived 24-26 generations before. This is described in hanohano (lineages) and tagutupu’a (history stories) which show how people ‘come out of place.’ Everything (even language) that infers the intergenerational movement from this common grandparent is tagutupu’a. This is just one of the qualities that enable the generative potential of people and place. On Mugaba, where growth and vitality is qualified by movement and flow, people lament the dissipation of life: of crops becoming smaller, language flowing out, unreciprocated giving and people becoming smaller.
Different kinds of stories are also folded into these descriptions of the generative potential of people and place. Research expeditions that renamed Mugava’s life forms would later provide the compelling qualities to merit East Rennell as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (and later as World Heritage in Danger). Earlier ethnographic accounts that endeavored to capture the last glimpses of a pre-Christian culture, represented both Euro-American genetic legacies and Rennellese and Bellonese descriptions of people ‘coming out of place’. This paper explores Rennellese vernaculars of Life-Itself, how people’s growth is also enabled by different kinds of movements and flows- those that have elsewhere been qualified as ‘history,’ ‘kinship,’ ‘gender,’ and even ‘ecology.’
Life itself in a Sepik society Borut Telban (Research Centre of Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts) For an urban human being living in the 21st century, life itself has become determined by biopolitics following advances in molecular medicine and new technologies, by concurrence of corporeal, genetic and technological self. In the present paper I discuss life itself as perceived and conceptualized in a specific non-urban New Guinean context and ask what happens to people’s ontologies and life itself when societies and individuals become confronted with intense biopolitical and technological innovations? How is life itself experienced and talked about when resourceful relationships not only between human beings, but also between different beings and living environment at large, come under the pressure of being radically modified? “How much you give is your decision, it is your life!” An indigenous alternative to Robbins’ individual Tomi Bartole (Research Center of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts) The transcendence of God and the experiences of conversion have brought about, Robbins claims, an interruption of relations that he characterized with a schism between the individual and the relational person. This paper argues that Robbins’ individual is but one possible rendition of an observation, namely, that Melanesians at certain moments cease to exchange and thus cease to be relational. From this perspective, the Anthropology of Christianity becomes less about radical breaks and more about the possibility of articulating questions related to the dimension of what Kirsch calls failed exchanges, which have traditionally received less attention compared to the performative contexts of exchange. Succesful exchanges are significant analytical situations that elicit ideas of vision and display which are associated with concepts of growth, efficacy and relationship. Failed exchanges, however, allow to shift the focus from social action to people’s thoughts about and the conditions of acting. My ethnography presents an indigenous alternative to Robbins’ individual - ‘the work of the heart’, which is evinced through folding, folds and a spiral-form that elicits haptic qualities rather than visual ones. The work of the heart is materially effective thoughts that revolve around existential concerns with life itself: it contemplates how much of oneself one should give to others and reveals how the gifting of the Holy spirit has a haptic and non-relational character. Lowland Ok problems with Life Itself, New Guinea Tony Crook (University of St Andrews) Lowland Ok speakers straddle the border between Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, reaching across the Fly and Digul rivers, and include the Mandobo, Muyu, Ningerum, Yonggom and Awin peoples. This paper takes up the large-scale pig feasts which drew in people from small-scale socialities across the region to exchange cowrie shells, pork and sago, and revisits early work by the Dutch ethnographers den Haan and Schoorl in particular alongside the broader Lowland Ok ethnographic literature. Hosts attempt to retrospectively move life between generations, but in unexpected ways. Analysis from the adjacent Mountain Ok region provides one vantage point from which to consider assumptions about scarcity derived values and ideas of flowing fecund effects, whilst theorizations of Life Itself afford a vantage point on the pig feast as an inter-dependent system of vital relations to be managed. But rather than focussing on entities such as pigs or shells as life-giving forms or exchange systems as supporting forms of life, the problems with the Lowland Ok materials suggest looking to the configured preparations for the pig feast which transform and redirect particular flows of both analogy and life-giving effects through the attraction and exchange of relational forms and the cowrie shells carried by them. Panel Discussion Tony Crook (University of St Andrews) Discussion of the panel papers