"Reverse Anthropology" - Padel reviews KirschPublished by MAC on 2007-11-15
"Reverse Anthropology" - Padel reviews Kirsch
15th November 2007
"One thing that might save our species hurtling to collective suicide"
REVERSE ANTHROPOLOGY: Indigenous Analysis of Social and Environmental Relations in New Guinea, by Stuart Kirsch, Stanford UP 2006
Reviewer: Dr Felix Padel
Perhaps, if one thing can save our species hurtling to a collective global suicide through the nightmare of over industrialization, it’s Reverse Anthropology: making our own society the subject of an objective analysis from the view-point of other cultures, and drawing on this insight.
Tribal societies represent an extraordinary range of possibilities, offering thousands of different ways to be human and construct the world conceptually, linguistically and socially, as well as materially. Beneath this variety are certain common features, differing from and challenging everything we take for granted in a modernity where thinking as well as relating is increasingly standardized by commercialized media and opaque hierarchies of power. If we can find a way to listen more systematically to people’s perceptions from indigenous societies, if anthropologists can become mediums for this Reverse Analysis, and if anthropological analysis can start to feed into formulating policies world-wide, then perhaps our species may yet be saved?
Kirsch’s book is a significant contribution to this exercise for several reasons. For a start, the area under study is in the lowlands of Papua New Guinea, near the border with West Papua or Irian Jaya, which the Indonesian army controls as a colonial power, using brute force to suppress a long-term movement for Independence. The Yonggom people living along the Ok Tedi river, among whom Kirsch did fieldwork, are in effect the same people as the Muyu across the border on the Indonesian side, and 6,000 Muyu refugees have come into PNG to live with their Yonggom relatives.
But the Yonggom are themselves living through times of extreme stress on their natural environment, bearing the full brunt of BHP Billiton’s notorious Ok Tedi mine, one of the world’s largest and deepest open cast mines, which started in 1984, and has devastated the Ok Tedi river, killing all its fish and most of its forest over long stretches. The lack of a tailings dam has caused a large part of the heavy metals and waste matter to pour straight into one of New Guinea’s great rivers. The Yonggom brought a case against BHP in Australia, which was finally settled in 1996 – a moral and legal victory, but only after the worst damage had been done.
The first chapter, “Historical Encounters,” summarises this history, using items of material culture as a way in. It was the hunt for bird of paradise feathers to grace the hats of high class females in Europe and America that brought Yonggom their first encounters with white men, in the early 1900s. “Enchantment of Place” introduces indigenous modes of comprehending the natural environment, and especially the Yonggom’s form of totemism and “perspectivism,” showing an ability to identify with other species.
“Unrequited Reciprocity” moves from traditional anthropological analysis of New Guinea systems of exchange to explore how colonial and mining company behaviour has been interpreted by Yonggom and Muyu in terms of a grossly insulting failure to reciprocate. Kirsch shows how Dutch colonial rulers in the 1950s fundamentally failed to understand the Muyus’ Merauke movement, which they saw as a “cargo cult” attacking their sovereignty, but which was more a search for proper reciprocity with their Dutch rulers.
Papua New Guineans taken to Australia to see the iron factories, making the tools and weapons which had long been key items of trade and materials offered by white culture, came forward with a demand to have such factories under their own control, with a “magical” understanding of the forces involved.
Chapter Four shows how Yonggom ideas about sorcery affect their response to BHP and its mine. A sorcerer’s essence is that he acts irresponsibly, harming an individual out of animosity and making people live in fear of sudden attack. The company acts even more irresponsibly when it devastates the environment, and people trace the causality behind a wide range of accidents to company culpability, pursuing compensation claims according to traditional models of seeking compensation from a proved sorcerer. “Mythical Encounters” explores the rites of male initiation and a cannibal myth central to indigenous modes of understanding about foreigners.
“Divining Violence” examines methods of tracking down responsibility for sorcery, and for the contract killings which sorcery involves; leading on to the last chapter and a discussion of the role of ethnographer, highlighting the seminal importance of anthropology in “bearing witness” to indigenous people’s situation: not just what is happening to them as victims, but also bringing forward indigenous modes of understanding the world.
These modes could yet play a vital role in complementing environmental analysis of current events, grounding this through ways of relating with nature and understanding it that come out of cultures’ rootedness in the world’s last wild areas of nature.
Mining is at centre of global assaults
What is so special about tribal societies, apart from each one’s individual genius, is that they are sustainable in the true sense of the word. They tend to use resources extremely carefully, wasting next to nothing. In the language of ecological footprints, they live within the earth’s limits, while most of us in the mainstream live a lifestyle that assumes several planets. They have sustained this for hundreds of years, and whatever changes they have made, their cultures still tend to value continuity (or sustainability) above change, unlike modern culture, where change or modernity is a key value in itself.
But of course tribal societies are changing fast, and less from their own choice than from the massive weight of outside forces imposing on them, and seeking their resources. The history of colonial conquest started by making each tribe part of a nation state whose government assumes the right to dictate the law and take away territory – often dividing a people by artificial borders, as happened to Yonggom and Muyu.
One major part of the industrialized norms we take for granted is mining. With accelerating force in the last generations of world history, the use of metals appears normal and necessary in an extraordinary range of applications. Many tribal societies started with iron tools traded by their first European contacts, which they themselves have now taken for granted for several generations. Now it’s motor transport, mobile phones, laptops, a material culture using metals composites, removed far from nature by complex processes of smelting, manufacture, investment and trade.
Mining is at the centre of current assaults against tribal peoples, worldwide. Showing how indigenous people relate to mining companies and conceptualize their actions is one vital task for reverse anthropologists. Another is to examine our own modes of understanding and motivating concepts, deconstructing these through an openness to indigenous conceptions where, rather than accumulation and profit, a proper reciprocity guides the natural order of human relations.
Dr Felix Padel is, author of “The sacrifice of human being: British rule and the Konds of Orissa”(Oxford University Press, India, 2005) and currently writing “Out of this earth,” with Samarendra Das: an analysis of the aluminium industry and its current impacts on Orissa.
“Reverse Anthropology” is available at US$21.95 from Amazon Books online: