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.

The idea of modernity as a form of historical consciousness can be traced back to Hegel’s landmark work The Philosophy of History in which he identifies a radical change in the relationship between history and culture as the marker of modernity. 1 The combination of a material basis for modernity, and modernity as historical change provides the basis for the notion of “historical materialism” coined by Engels. 2 Philippe Descola makes a valuable contribution here when he points out that it was a radical change in the concept of nature brought about by the scientific revolution of the 17th century that resulted in the material developments that followed. 3 Similar points are made by Catherine Wilson who links the rediscovery of Lucretius’ De rerum natura in 15th century Germany to the revolutionary ideas that followed to produce the scientific revolution. 4 John Bellamy Foster links Marx’s idea of a “metabolic rift” in the relationship between humans and nature to the influence of Epicurus on Marx’s thinking. 5 What distinguishes western modernity is the development of a materialist ontology that preceded the development of new material forms.

Huli society is so materialistic that it is tempting to launch unthinkingly into a Marxist analysis of development, but it is Huli materialism that invites a Marxist lens rather than the other way around. Although a materialist theory of desire has been revealed in the work of Marx, 6 anthropological conceptions of development and the hedgemonic influence of Western modernity tend to focus on forms of desire that are created by modernity, rather than desires that pre-exist and interact with the capitalist spectre of the global north. Huli society exhibits a strongly materialist culture that is historically produced and has interacted dialectically with the material seductions of the global north. It is this dialectical nature of desire that I think is missing from standard conceptions of the influence of western capitalism, such as de Vries’ “capitalism as a desiring machine”, 7 which echoes Trouillot’s “global production of desire”, 8 and from Sahlins’ resort to “humiliation” as a necessary precursor to the type of change that globalisation displays. 9 These unilateral theories of development and change make the same error of assuming there to be a singular historical modernity that spread from 17th century Europe. For the alternate modernity theory to work it must incorporate revolutionary shifts in material relationships as well as historical ones: it must be about materiality as well as historicity. But it also must be about desire. Arjun Appadurai comes close when he links the “capacity to aspire” to the awareness of “the links between the more and less immediate objects of aspiration.” 10 Clearly Appadurai is writing about desire, although his use of the word “aspire” means that he is also writing about agency, and he links agency with a cognitive awareness of structural possibilities for a desired future: “Where the opportunities for such conjecture and refutation in regard to the future are limited… it follows that the capacity itself remains relatively less developed.” 11 It is easy to see where this is going: “Man makes his own history, but he does not make it out of the whole cloth; he does not make it out of conditions chosen by himself, but out of such as he finds close at hand.” 12 Huli history was made under material conditions that were not chosen by Huli, but to which they responded and included radical changes in material possibility. To make history is to do the future, and culture, as Appadurai states, must be seen as being about the future, rather than the past. 13 A focus of this thesis is to present the materialist ontology that preceded colonial contact and the subsequent interaction with capitalism’s materialist desiring machine.

Wardlow’s work focuses on the transformation of Huli desire into something negative and destructive. The introduction of desirable commodities and increasing material inequalities has resulted in covetous behaviour that often has violent consequences, with Huli describing themselves in terms of resentment and their own destructive acts that result. 14 My interpretation of Huli desire in this thesis is in some ways the polar opposite of this approach. Wardlow is absolutely correct in her analysis of the dark consequences of jealousy and desire. However, my take on Huli desire is concerned with desired futures, and the material influence of the Ipomoean revolution on this desire. Wardlow translates the Huli word madane as a noun that expresses a state of mind similar to “resentment”, and translates the phrase Tari em jelas ples, ya. Madane piyita as “Tari is a covetous place. Resentment did it”. 15 However, this is to mistake action for motivation, as madane is not a noun or a state of mind but a transitive verb that means to perform a very bad act. Madane piyita in this context translates as “they did bad things there”. 16 In the case that Wardlow is describing, something bad was done as a result of resentment, but madane does not mean “resentment”. This does not do much to change Wardlow’s argument as the bad acts, the madane that she is describing are certainly a result of the darker consequences of desire. However, there are further observations that can be attached to the verb madane that I explore in Chapter 7.

Although the terms development and modernity remain as contested as they are indispensable and widely used, their propagation as concepts relies on the desire of human populations to have whatever promises are contained within. This thesis contends with desire as it must exist for development and modernity to have any material form. Desire is therefore understood in the Lacanian sense as an “indestructible persistence”, 17 and dialectically as the “desire for the object of the other’s desire”. 18 Rather than view modernity and development as something that is done to a culture to which a culture responds, be it by way of humiliation 9 or the grindings of a “desiring machine”, 19 Modernity (i.e., the encounter with Western Modernity) is an historical moment that encounters desire which responds to the new object in its own dialectical path. Modernity can only exist because it is desired, and is defined and understood locally in terms of local desire(s). This thesis therefore seeks to present a history of Huli society that upends the ways in which change has been understood and to develop an understanding of Huli culture as an historically produced vehicle for the production of futures desired.

(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. 17-22.)

  1. Georg Hegel, The Philosophy of History (Scotts Valley, California: IAP, 2009 [1837]), 5. []
  2. Friedrich Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, trans. Edward Aveling (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1908 [1880]), 14. []
  3. Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 68. []
  4. Catherine Wilson, Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 1-38. []
  5. John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000). Marx completed his doctoral thesis on the epistemology of Epicurus. []
  6. Bradley Macdonald, “Marx and the Figure of Desire,” Rethinking Marxism, 11, no. 4 (1999), 21-37. Macdonald defines a Marxist theory of desire as “the continual sensuous striving beyond one’s facticity, a striving embedded within its own embodied historicity and not necessarily tied to issues related to production or labor per se”. []
  7. Pieter de Vries, “Don’t Compromise Your Desire for Development,” Third World Quarterly 28, no. 1 (2007). []
  8. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, “The Anthropology of the State in the Age of Globalization: Close Encounters of the Deceptive Kind,” Current Anthropology 42, no. 1 (2001). []
  9. Marshall Sahlins, “China Reconstructing or vice versa: Humiliation as a stage of economic “development”, with comments on cultural diversity in the modern “world system”,” in SOAC Congress (Seoul, Korea1989). [][]
  10. Arjun Appadurai, “The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the Terms of Recognition,” in The Future as Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition (London: Verso, 2013), 188. []
  11. Ibid., 189. []
  12. Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, (Project Gutenberg, 2006 [1852]), EPUB. 12. []
  13. Arjun Appadurai, “The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the Terms of Recognition,” 194. []
  14. Holly Wardlow, Wayward Women: Sexuality and Agency in a New Guinea Society, 31. []
  15. Ibid., 30. []
  16. Laurence Goldman, pers. comm. []
  17. Jacques Lacan, Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: Norton & Company, 2006 [1966]), 39. []
  18. Ibid., 92. []
  19. Pieter de Vries, “Don’t Compromise Your Desire for Development,” Third World Quarterly 28, no. 1 (2007), 26. []