by Michael Main

Michael Main Portrait
Michael Main has a PhD in anthropology from the Australian National University. Michael’s PhD research focused on the Huli population in the Papua New Guinea (PNG) highlands and the impact of ExxonMobil’s Papua New Guinea Liquefied Natural Gas project. Michael has a professional background in geology and environmental science, which underpins his interest and work in the anthropology of development and resource extraction.

Nature is, we call it, minane. It’s nature. It happened nothing. Nobody made it. Earthquake, nobody made it. It happened itself, minane. That’s nature. Earthquakes is natural or nature. Beard it’s not Michael yourself growing it but it’s nature coming out so minane. It happened by itself.
Fred Tomai, Haliago, September 2016

Nature is forthwith seen as free, denied Subjection to proud overlords, managing All things herself unhampered by the gods. Lucretius, “On the Nature of Things”, Book II, 1095-97 1

Most researchers of Huli society at some point stake a claim as to why they believe that the culture and society that they are studying is unique. For Robert Glasse the most obvious theoretical problem was how to understand the Huli system of residence and descent, which differed from any other known group. 2 For Laurence Goldman it is the size and extent of the creative flexibility of the Huli language. 3 For Stephen Frankel, it is a Huli historicity that delinks them from the past and incorporates the anticipation of social changes into the future. 4 A sense of the uniqueness of Huli historicity was also a key reason for Chris Ballard’s choice of the Tari basin as a field site. 5 Before I confess to my own view on the uniqueness of Huli, it is clear that Huli themselves consider their own culture to be unique. 6 Indeed the tourist industry in the Tari basin has traded off the projected uniqueness of Huli culture for many years. 7 A friend in Tari told me that now that he has grown up and learned more about the world, he sees that he belongs to a unique culture, particularly because of its intricate and discursive system of social organisation. Most researchers who come to Huli society consider Huli social organisation to be the most outstandingly difficult aspect of their work, and it is doubtful that any of us truly believe that we have a full and comprehensive understanding of what is going on. For me, and this is a point I stress repeatedly throughout this thesis, the most arresting and overlooked feature of Huli culture is an evident materialist ontology that is the foundation for a distinctive Huli epistemology.

Huli materialism has not been entirely disregarded, and forms an important component of Laurence Goldman’s linguistic analysis of the perception of accidental cause in Huli society. Huli analysis of incident and injury is able to employ various “linguistic options” to ascribe lack of cause that Goldman identifies as being “emblems of an epistemological identity. They are a material culture expressing the verismo of accident”. 8 This materialism, as I have argued in Chapter 2, is a vital component of the absence of sorcery killings in Huli society. A materialist ontology also plays a fundamental role in Huli conceptions of modernity and development and how those have changed and adapted over the past few decades. At the base of my argument is the contention that a pre-contact Huli materialism is the foundation of what can be recognised as a pre-contact Huli modernity and materialist historicity. To the great body of scholarship on Melanesian ontologies this is no idle threat. My intention is to defy a great deal of what has been written on partible personhood, individuality, encounters with modernity, historicity, and the nature-culture relationships for much of Melanesian society. In one sense, I am arguing for the consideration of a “radical alikeness” in the conceptualisation of Huli culture and thought. Goldman touches on this when he argues that the “presence of a central classificatory axis around a coincidental/non-coincidental principle” should be shown in comparison to principles found in “Western metaphysics”. 9 Huli culture is unique because it is not.

The Huli word minane, is the translation of the English word “nature” as provided by a particularly thoughtful Huli friend from Mt Haliago. A related word, minalu, is analysed by Goldman as indicating an accidental occurrence precipitated by a “human agent” but involving an “absence of mind” by that agent. 10 In other words, minalu is used as an adverb to describe an event that occurred as an unintended consequence of an intended event, such as if I were to cut down a tree to clear a garden and that tree falls and kills my neighbour’s pig. The killing of the pig happened by way of no volition, it just happened. Another related adverb, mememe, also means “accidentally” but in the subtly different context of something happening “of its own accord” yet also related to human concerns, such as when you plant a tree and it grows mememe. 11 Minane is also an adverb and related to the concept of mind (mini), but is unrelated to either human agency or concern. Nature is the realm of the material; it is without cause or design. That is not to say that nature consists of trees and earth and birds and living things that occupy the metaphysical absence denoted by minane, rather that there exists in Huli ontology a materialism that surprisingly parallels the Epicurean in its embrace of a-causality, and that within this ontological space can be found a noumenal concept of nature that is something close to Kant’s Ding an sich, 12 that is to say that a Huli perception of the innate is closer to Western metaphysics than that proposed for indigenous Papuans by Roy Wagner as “the flow of human potential across the physical diversity of the landscape.” 13 In Wagner’s terms, Huli nature is “a universal phenomenal exemplification of figurative construction” and “natural phenomena have the spontaneous and self-contained character of standing for themselves.” 14 Another related word, manane, translates as “omen”, but literally means a type or form of mana. 15 Nature is conceptualised “as manifesting Mana” in a way that is in and of itself and to which “man stands in receptive relation” 16 The idea of the innate in Huli can be contrasted with Marilyn Strathern’s description of “the Hagen case.” For Hageners the distinction between domestic and wild is “innate in the sense that it is treated as an attribute of the given world.” 17 Although the domain of the wild, rømi, is not all that is innate, and human sociability and relationships, which embody the concept of mind or consciousness, noman, is an innateness that “marks people out as human. 18 My view is that our search, at least in the Anglosphere, for indigenous perceptions of nature has been dominated by an English language obsession with nouns. Nature does not have to be a noun, and in Huli what is concrete is what occurs, it involves process, it involves verbs. Hence the innate is to be found in that which happens without cause.

There is deeper parallel between Huli materialism and the Epicurean world-view that provides a framework for a highly sentimental relationship with the material expressions of the natural world. Materialism is often mistakenly contrasted with idealism as commodity versus spirit. Yet this perception of materialism, seen as it is through the contemporary lens of western capitalism, and previously via Soviet dialectical materialism, is far removed from the Epicurean materialism that is at the foundation of western modernity. 19 It is this classical idea of materialism that I want to explore in relation to a Huli materialism that is also at the basis of a Huli modernity. Nature must be created in order for it to be deployed symbolically, and in Huli the power and significance of symbolism involves action. The bipiawi bird described in Chapter 3 doesn’t just exist, but comes and talks. The phenomenon is meaningful in contrast to processes that can be dismissed as minane.

Once nature is afforded that status of the noumenal, of its ontological separation from the inquiries of the human mind, then it is simultaneously granted the possibility of benevolence, genuine mystery, and wonder. Materialism is not the antidote to spiritualism, but rather the foundation for the immense creative space of unknowing, scepticism and doubt. I also argue that Huli materialism stands out in comparison with other Melanesian groups. Bronwen Douglas, in response to Lawrence and Meggitt’s differentiation between highland and coastal religions, declares that “Melanesian cultures… routinely attribute significant worldly occurrences to the actions of extrahuman beings with whom certain human actors have relationships through ritual.” 20 This is certainaly true of Huli, however it is also the case that the attribution of natural phenomena to literally nothing is encoded in Huli language and is a fundamental component of a Huli world view. If this is not unique to Huli, then it is something that has been routinely overlooked elsewhere.

The encoding of naturalistic phenomena in Huli language has been a central concern in the works of Laurence Goldman. Goldman identifies “the bipolar paradigms of naturalistic (inexorable laws of nature and inevitable accident) and deterministic (naturalistic and agentive) idioms. These models have their own grammar and vocabulary…”. 21 Goldman is mainly concerned with things that happen to human beings, and the subsequent attribution of cause, where cause can be understood and expressed in Huli as being naturalistic. My contribution is to expand and follow the logic of this idea towards a model of understanding what happens in the world, and not just to human beings.

Previous researchers have described an intricate and extensive Huli cosmology that is concerned with the evident decline of both the physical and moral order of the universe, and ritual efforts to stave off such decline. By the time of my fieldwork much of this cosmology had disappeared and many of its elements had morphed into new forms in correspondence with contemporary realities. There has been a great deal of focus on Huli cosmology in the literature, however what has been overlooked are the finer-grained sentimentalities of Huli life-worlds that find their expression in song, love-ritual, poiesis, and spells. Behind these lie a materialist ontology, a commitment to an ethos of individualism, and an historically embedded desire for social change that has operated dialectically with colonial and post-colonial etic views of change and need. Materialism and spells? The basic difference between idealist and materialist ontologies, as put by Engels, is that idealism asserts “the primacy of the spirit to nature”, whereas materialism regards “nature as primary.” 22 This point of view is obviously predicated upon a Cartesian separation of nature and spirit. However, such a separation is exactly what I argue is extant in Huli ontology, as evidenced by Huli objectifications of nature as something in and of itself, and the existance of a spirit world that is material, yet separate to the materiality of natural, observable objects. This separation creates the space within which gamu incantations can be applied, and these are applied to a nature that, whilst it may be subject to the agency of spoken words, 23 is nevertheless regarded in its primacy as an externalised reality that happens minane, without reason or cause.

I invoke the Cartesian analogy somewhat loosely, as it is the dualism itself that is relevant for comparison, and not the specific ontologies of nature and spirit. For Huli, mind has a materiality that does not find accommodation within a Cartesian framework. I take from Merleau-Ponty that the Cartesian separation of nature is more radical, it “entails the idea of nature as a system of laws.” 24 These laws require there to be a God to have made them, so that “Nature loses its interior, it is the exterior realization of a rationality that is in God.” The human mind does not interfere with the clockwork “auto-functioning of the laws”. For Huli, minane is nature without an interior, but not one that is governed by a superimposed set of laws. The space that Descartes fills with God is seemingly left open in Huli ontology. There is no indication that naturalistic phenomena happen according to a set of laws, and certainly not according to the direction of any deity. This question has been thoroughly interrogated by Goldman in his examination of datagaliwabe, and supported by my own observations as outlined in Chapter 2. The one exception to this is found in Huli understandings of the entropic behaviour of the universe.

The ritual engagement with nature that has been described in the literature on Huli cosmology represents the attempt to dominate nature. A basic tenet of cosmological belief among Huli is a belief in the entropic decline of both the physical and moral universe, as described in the introduction, which is a perception that has also been described for many other highlands societies. 25 I would argue that the Huli notion of entropy, like its scientific counterpart, is a version of a materialist ontology. Huli do not imagine a causal agent to explain the decline of the universe, rather its decline is regarded as a fundamental property of nature. The Huli belief system does link human agency with the possibility of preventing this decline, and the wrong or immoral actions of society can ultimately bring about the end of the world, however such belief is a doctrine of prevention rather than cause. Incorrect behaviour results in the failure to manage the end of the world so that a better new world results. Huli provide no explanation as to the source of this universal law of nature.

Entropy doesn’t entirely happen by itself, as it is linked to the moral behaviour of human beings. But processes that are morally neutral and have no other consequential links do seem to occur in a genuine explanatory vacuum. To the anthropologist schooled in Western traditions of science and philosophical enquiry, this absence can appear as a frustrating lack of curiosity. Glasse, in describing the Huli concept of dinini (the “soul”) observes, “Huli have little personal interest in the fate of the soul… their views about the destination or habitation of the soul are in fact hazy and uncertain.” 26 To have little personal interest in the fate of one’s own soul suggests, to me, that “soul” is perhaps an inadequate translation of dinini. For Glasse, “Huli conceive dinini to be the immaterial part of human personality.” 27 Goldman describes three “fleshless beings, a triumvirate of active forces that can all reflect as well as constitute mental and emotional dispositions.” 28 These are dinini (“spirit”), bu (“breath/ emotional heart”), and mini (“mind / name”). These distinctions are crucial because a fundamental component of Huli ontology is the separation of spirit and mind. Where your dinini goes after death is not the fate of your identity. The comparison here is closer to the dualism found in Buddhism, rather than Descartes.

Before I present some aspects of a Huli relationship with nature that I observed during my fieldwork, I should emphasise what I believe to be important implications of “a notion of nature as an autonomous ontological domain.” 29 Here I will again turn to Lucretius when he observes that unexplained phenomena result in fears that are appeased by assigning cause to divine interventions. 30 Once unknowing is embraced, and nature is constructed as an autonomous mystery, it becomes possible to create a relationship with nature such that nature can be used allegorically as a vehicle for sentimentality and the expression of pathos and desire. Descola describes this process of the construction of nature at the beginnings of Western modernity:

Liberated, thanks to reason, from the dark muddle of the experience of others and rendered transcendent by the severance of the links connecting them to the disorders of subjectivity… Nature, stripped of its marvels, was now offered up to the child-king, who, dismantling its workings, shook off its power over him and enslaved it for his own ends. 31

This point of view has influenced much of the material presented in this chapter.

(An extract from, “Until Hela Becomes a City”, The Western Encounter with Huli Modernity. Michael Main. A thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of the Australian National University. Canberra, April, 2020., pp. 157-166.)

  1. Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, trans. Palmer Bovie (New York: The New American Library Inc, 1974), 75. []
  2. Robert Glasse, Huli of Papua: A Cognatic Descent system, 21-22. []
  3. Laurence Goldman, Child’s Play: Myth, Mimesis and Make-Believe, 66., “In one sense the whole artistic empire is built on the foundation of appellative transformations.” []
  4. Stephen Frankel, The Huli Response to Illness, 6. []
  5. Chris Ballard, “The Death of a Great Land: Ritual, History and Subsistence Revolution in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea,” 24., vol. 1 []
  6. Although the fact of this self-perception is not something I consider to be unique. []
  7. Jaap Timmer, “Inclined to be Authentic: Altered Contexts and Body Decoration in a Huli Society” (Master of Arts thesis, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Amsterdam, 1993), 77. []
  8. Laurence Goldman, The Culture of Coincidence: Accident and Absolute Liability in Huli, 114. []
  9. Ibid., 118. []
  10. Ibid., 115. []
  11. Ibid., 110. []
  12. “Thing in itself.” Kant’s metaphysics requires of reality an absolute from which human reason is separated. Slavoj Žižek, Organs without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences (London and New York, Kindle file: Routledge, 2004), loc. 1278. []
  13. Roy Wagner, “Scientific and Indigenous Papuan Conceptualizations of the Innate: A Semiotic Critique of the Ecological Perspective,” in Subsistence and Survival: Rural Ecology in the Pacific, ed. []
  14. Ibid., 394. []
  15. Laurence Goldman, “Talk Never Dies: an analysis of disputes among the Huli,” 324 & 30. []
  16. Ibid., 330. []
  17. Marilyn Strathern, “No nature, no culture: the Hagen case,” in Nature, Culture and Gender, ed. Carol MacCormack and Marilyn Strathern (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 190. []
  18. 18 Ibid., 196-198 []
  19. Catherine Wilson, Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity, 3: “…we are all, in a sense, Epicureans now.” Wilson traces the history of modernity to the re-discovery of the writings of Epicurus and makes a convincing argument for the influence of this materialist ontology upon the scientific and industrial revolutions. []
  20. Bronwen Douglas, “Autonomous and Controlled Spirits: Indigenous Rituals and Encounters with Christianity in Melanesia,” in Across the Great Divide: Journeys in History and Anthropology (Amsteradm: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1998), 229. []
  21. Laurence Goldman, The Culture of Coincidence: Accident and Absolute Liability in Huli, 310. []
  22. Engels, as quoted in John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature, loc. 155. []
  23. As pointed out by Laurence Goldman, The Culture of Coincidence: Accident and Absolute Liability in Huli., 149 “…in the context of spells. Saying gives material reality to words.” []
  24. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Nature: Course Notes from the Collège de France,” (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2003), 10. []
  25. Chris Ballard, “The Death of a Great Land: Ritual, History and Subsistence Revolution in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea,” 132., vol. 1 []
  26. Robert Glasse, “The Huli of the Southern Highlands,” in Gods, Ghosts and Men in Melanesia, ed. P. Lawrence and M.J. Meggitt (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1965), 30. []
  27. Ibid, 29. []
  28. Laurence Goldman, The Culture of Coincidence: Accident and Absolute Liability in Huli, 290. []
  29. Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture, 69. []
  30. Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, 19., Book I, 151-155 []
  31. Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture, 62. []

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