by Michael Allan 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.

It is possible to bookend a period of Huli history between two geological upheavals: a volcanic eruption, followed three and a half centuries later by a massive earthquake. Both events induced radical changes to the way Huli society understands itself, its relationship with history, and its role in the world. There had been other earthquakes of similar magnitude in between, and a 6.9 earthquake in the Southern Highlands Seismic Zone is predicted to occur on average every 30 years; 1 however, the most powerful earthquakes occurred before there existed built and permanent infrastructure, before there had been massive population growth, and before the existence of health and education services, markets, an economy, and everything that relies on connectivity and supply to and from the nation state. In both cases (the volcano and the earthquake) history was proceeding within a presumed set of conditions that appeared immutable and understood. In both cases the path along which history was proceeding became impassable: aporia. 2 The radical, unanticipated, and uncanny material transformations of these events induce the “naked” moment of “not knowing where to go”, as Derrida puts it:

The point where the very project or the problematic task becomes impossible and where we are exposed, absolutely without protection, without problem, and without prosthesis, without possible substitution, singularly exposed in our absolute and absolutely naked uniqueness, that is to say, disarmed, delivered to the other, incapable even of sheltering ourselves behind what could still protect the interiority of a secret. 3

If the Huli example allows me to posit a theory of change then it is in the incapability for culture to exist in any static form, and the primacy of history in its capacity to provide a framework for futures to be imagined. Culture is a flimsy shelter and history is a way of knowing that the future exists regardless of whether something is to be done about it or not. Floods, drought and earthquakes have meant that the Huli universe has always been unstable, and Huli have assumed a role for human agency in manipulating this material instability by acting upon its externality. Causality becomes an open question, subject to debate, doubt and individual opinion. As shown by Goldman, the individuality of what may be termed as “culture, custom or lore” is shown due respect via the acknowledgement of individual mana that may be expressed, heard and given consideration by others. 4 The material world is a constant source of change and doubt and nobody can be considered to be a reliable source of explanation. Huli historicity has ensured that the present is unlike the past, and the future will not and should not be like the present.

The puzzle of the extraordinary depth and breadth of Huli genealogical recall is that it occurs in the context of an abundance of land and food. Competition for land and resources is not about preventing starvation, but rather the accumulation of material wealth and thus the enhancement of social efficacy into the future, including the ability to service the debts of future conflict. Genealogical recall is grounded in a Huli epistemological relationship with history that involves the theorisation and articulation of history. 5 The material conditions of the Huli future are as different from the present as the future as it existed in the past was different from that past. I argue that the Huli conception of history is materialist because it accepts that all historical processes are contingent. Nothing is certain and everything is up for debate. Ballard revealed the ways in which Huli historicity defines historical epochs that relate to different material conditions: the time of pre-human dama spirits who ate wild foods including rotten swamp wood, mushrooms, and wild pandanus; followed by early pre-sweet potato humans who ate taro as their staple crop, did not dig large gana drainage ditches, and did not raise pigs; to modern humans who harvested sweet potato, raised many pigs on a diet of sweet potato, dug gana ditches, and fought great wars. 6 Running through this historical progression is a negative telos based on a perception of material decline. Yet there is nothing in Huli belief that provides a reason for material decline, and humans are considered to be active agents in its prevention. Huli historicity enables humans to make their own history, even as they are required to act reactively to unpredictable events: they do not make it out of the whole cloth. Rather than a culture that is based on social reproduction, Huli mana is directed towards social production. The self- reflective capacity of Huli historicity should not be underestimated, and is reflected in the Huli expression, tene te mani mo bi te holebira “a source story will later become a folktale.” 7 Huli differentiate between stories that relate to historical events (tene te) and mythological stories (bi te), but are aware of the ambiguous relationship between fact and fiction and of the historical processes that can result in the transformation of one to the other over time. Huli mana ultimately has a purpose, which is to facilitate the enhancement of the material conditions of life. The experience of aporia, or the shock of new materialities has itself a place in Huli history and it is the epistemological liberty permitted by the materialist aspects of Huli historicity and metaphysics that allows for creative and novel responses to material change. Historically informed experimentation, creativity, and the adoption of new ideas are the most salient characteristics of Huli Ipomoean modernity.

This thesis aims to contribute to an understanding not just of a particular aspect of Huli culture and society, or to provide an update to the story of that society, but also to advocate materialism as an important and often overlooked component of human thought. We are all, after all, of the same material stuff, inhabiting “an ineluctably material world.” 8 Our material world is one in which “human beings produce themselves and one another by establishing, though their actions, the conditions for their ongoing growth and development” and it is “within this mutual establishment of developmental conditions that we find the meaning of history.” 9 Does there exist in every human society some form of materialist belief, one in which doubt and non- spiritual reason is permitted an insight and makes a contribution to the cultural expressions of that society? If it is a truism that spiritual belief is something that is evidently common to all humanity, then perhaps as a corollary the human tendency towards materialist epistemologies, as varied as they may be, is also a common experience. As the long march of Western modernity continues to absorb the material desires of the human species, it becomes increasingly difficult to argue that these material desires are not influenced by certain universal characteristics. As Tim Ingold has recently argued, in order to be able to oppose the inequalities generated by “the hegemony of global forces” we need to comprehend a singular world, albeit one that is comprised of difference. 10 So called Western modernity, which emerged from the “age of reason”, is as much founded on the writings of ancient Greeks as it is on the experiments of English chemists, who are as different from each other as the Australian colonial explorers were from the indigenous residents encountered during the period of first contacts. Modernity has never been anything other than a pluralist phenomenon, ever emerging and with a limitless ability to incorporate the other. This global modernity is perhaps better understood as a human project, one that is simultaneously desired for its achievements and resisted for its egregious failings. In this I am advocating a materialist view of history that must be open to the materialisms of other cultures and that avoids the assumption that Western modernity and its characteristic materialism is not already shared in some or many of its aspects across cultures generally, just as spiritualism is clearly a shared experience across cultures. In defense of materialism I provide a riposte to Marshall Sahlins’ quip that “Materialism must be a form of idealism, since it’s wrong – too.” 11 Nonetheless I maintain that materialism is the only way to know that you are wrong.

For the final statement on change I quote a Huli elder based in Tari and a practitioner of gamu spells, which he has turned into a commercial enterprise by selling his skills to those who wish to purchase his gamu treatment.

Before the landscapes, the mountains, the people itself they look different. And their bodies were like very big huge people. But now it’s going different. Physically it’s changing. Before one woman they deliver about six, eight, nine, ten children. But nowadays one woman is delivering two to one children. That’s one example we are seeing is like the land itself or the world is changing, it’s drying up. People, trees are changing. Even the river. Before we see the rivers are big. Big rivers but now the same big river is changing to a small creek. It’s turning into creeks. So example is when the big rivers are changing in the creek same as applies to the people itself. Before they were big peoples but now the people are changing, they are physically changing. And before only men are allowed to slaughter pigs. And they kill pigs for parties, birthdays or even to sell it in the markets. But nowadays the women are slaughtering the pig for birthday parties because the cultures and traditions and the world is changing.

(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. 367-373.)

(Photo courtesy of Jimmy Nelson)

  1. I.D. Ripperl and K.F. McCue, “The Seismic Zone of the Papuan Fold Belt,” BMR Journal of Australian Geology & Geophysics 8 (1983). []
  2. From ancient Greek a + poria, “path”; therefore, “impassable path”. A type of paradox. []
  3. Jaques Derrida, Aporias, trans. Thomas Dutoit (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), 12. []
  4. Laurence Goldman, Talk Never Dies: The Language of Huli Disputes, 55. []
  5. Laurence Goldman, pers. comm. []
  6. Chris Ballard, “The Death of a Great Land: Ritual, History and Subsistence Revolution in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea.” Vol 1, 82-90 []
  7. Laurence Goldman, Child’s Play: Myth, Mimesis and Make-Believe, 106. []
  8. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, “Introducing the New Materialisms,” in New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, ed. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2010), 1. []
  9. Tim Ingold, “Anthropology comes to life,” in Being Alive: Essay on movement, knowledge and description (London and New York: Routledge, 2011), 8. []
  10. Tim Ingold, Anthropology: Why It Matters (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018), 27. []
  11. Marshall Sahlins, Waiting for Foucault, Still (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, LLC, 2002 [1993]), 6. []