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.

by Dr. Michael Main

This thesis builds on the notion of an Ipomoean Huli modernity using a combination of historical writings and, by now, historical ethnographies, and my own ethnographic observations and interviews with various Huli elders. My ethnographic observations lead me to conclude that there is something missing from the theory of Ipomoean modernism, at least as it relates to Huli. Like Glasse, Goldman and Frankel I am drawn towards the seemingly modern features of Huli culture, which I conclude to be a form of Huli materialism. Modjeska’s theory of Duna “post-Ipomoean modernism” is focussed on the introduction of a new materiality of labour, which overtook the importance of earlier symbolic ritual that was the basis of their “cardinal values of sociality.” 1 However, I am prepared to take the notion of materiality much further and explore its relationship to a distinctly materialist Huli ontology that has direct impact on labour, gender relations, warfare, land use, the encompassment of colonial and missionary influence, and, more recently, the PNG LNG project. My use of the terms “ontology” and “materialism” are explained in Section 1.4 below.

I tend to agree with Trouillot that, although “modernity” is a “seductive” “North Atlantic universal” that is able to “evoke rather than define”, “it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge that the word “modernity” evokes sensibilities, perceptions, choices, and indeed states of affairs that are not captured as easily by other words.” 2 Trouillot draws on the work of Koselleck, 3 who shows that the moment of Western modernity may be defined as a shift in the way the past, present and future are perceived. Revolutionary changes in 18th century Europe resulted in a conception of the past that was qualitatively different from the present, the emergence of a modern subject who could be perceived in relation to a pre-modern, historically distinct ancestor, and the conception of a future that was distinguished from the present as something to be attained. Trouillot’s contribution is to point out that this concept of modernity need not be confined to the West and that other modernities can be found where revolutionary change has resulted in “a fundamental shift in regimes of historicity.” Modernity in the West “always required an Other and an Elsewhere, requiring therefore a space in which the other is imagined to be. 4 Modernity is related to the “ideology of progress” because “modernity requires a localization in space in order to position subjects within the historicity it creates.” 5 Huli position their pre-Ipomoean ancestors in relation to themselves in terms of social and material progress, and imagine a possible future in which a time of maximum abundance and social harmony might be achieved. Thus the Huli encounter with sweet potato, labelled as “the Ipomoean revolution”, cries out for recognition as a pre-contact Huli modernity.

In order to illustrate my use of modernity in this thesis, it is useful to reverse the onus of understanding and pose the question, “why is it that I, the reader, understand what this word ‘modernity’ means?” The word is so ubiquitous and useful that it is disingenuous to assume that a common understanding does not exist. The more interesting question is therefore, what is the source of its praxis? Modernity exists because of a shared understanding that there has been a break in history that has left behind an era that can be labelled as pre-modern. This break is characterised by advancement, in terms of material and technological progress, and generally a perception of progress in human development that is equated with material achievements. Exactly where the line is drawn as to where modernity begins is largely arbitrary, and subject to context. Western European modernity is clearly characterised by radical change in the ability for human beings to manipulate the material world. Crucially, this change comprises change in human understandings of materiality itself, that is, it comprises ontological change. Thus, modernity is associated with both the development of new technologies and the perceived triumph of rational thought, and especially the age of reason that underpinned the scientific revolution. We all look to the past and see that less was known and understood and less was able to be done and past conditions of life appear to be less favourable than the present. Huli also look to their pre-Ipomoean ancestors and see that less was understood and less was able to be done, and life was materially less favourable. This break from less to more, from inability to ability, from from less to greater amenity, is what characterises modernity.

My own view is that modernity, defined as a form of historical consciousness, is only telling half the story. What is also common to both western and Huli forms of modernity is a new regime of materiality. In both cases revolution is accompanied by the introduction of new material forms and the radical ontological shifts that occur as a result. I would also argue that conceptions of the future as a desirable possibility are dependent upon a material basis for those desires. Sweet potato resulted in radical material changes to Huli society and the resultant new materialisms are vital for understandings of Huli cultural forms and praxis and their relationship to the history of desired futures that continue to respond to new material influences of which ExxonMobil is the most recent protagonist. Huli conflict has an overwhelmingly material basis and the standard refrain to be heard across all elements of Huli society is that Huli fight over “land, women and pigs.” Sorcery-related killings are of only minor significance in Huli culture, and they do not result in the murder or torture of suspected sorcerers. Sorcery magic is something that has to be imported into Huli from neighbouring groups. Huli systems of land tenure, social organisation, and residence are in large part the product of sweet potato cultivation and the raising of large numbers of pigs that thrive on sweet potato as a staple food. This thesis also explores the pre-contact notion of the Huli Datagaliwabe 6 spirit as a detached moral invigilator and the extent to which this concept is linked to Huli concepts of nature that contain strong elements of a materialist ontology.

The quotation in my thesis title was made by a prominent Huli business man and project area landowner, Larry Andagali, discussing the protests at Hides and the failure of the PNG state to pay royalties and other project benefits: “We will not stop until Hela becomes a city.” 7 This quote immediately struck me as being representative of both the intense material desires that exist among the Huli population as well as the imagined futures that are created out of the material objects of those desires. Larry Andagali did not say that he will not give up until Hela becomes an agrarian utopia, and the desire for urban forms of development are widely expressed across all elements of Huli society. Most striking of all is that the late and widely respected Hela governor Anderson Agiru had intended to rename his vision of a fully developed Tari capital of Hela Province as “Zero City.” Zero City symbolises wholesale material renewal and rebirth for the people of Hela with Tari as its urban capital. Like year one of the French Revolution, Agiru’s vision heralded the end of one historical epoch and urged its replacement with a utopian destiny for which the past was no longer relevant. This nomenclature is strongly evocative of the material desires, and speaks to the materialist ontologies, that continue to shape and transform Huli futures and futurity. 8

This thesis draws on a combination of academic and non-academic literature sources (so-called “grey” literature), recorded interview text, recorded speeches, as well as speakers’ texts from unsolicited sources in the field. Much of the most important and valuable data that are used to support my theoretical arguments are derived from these less formal sources. There are moments to be found in Patrol Reports, for example, that stand out as exemplars in support of the core ideas of this thesis, especially in relation to concepts of modernity and materialism, although these terms are not to be found in the Patrol Reports themselves. These sources have not been produced in the context of a formal analytical framework, and my treatment of them is therefore not the same as my treatment of academic sources. I am able to critique academic sources on their own terms, however my selection of non-academic supporting data requires careful reading and selection that is not blind to evidence that might contradict my claims. Where I have attempted to stand in the shoes of the Patrol Officers to imagine what must have inspired their remarks, and recognised moments in the text that evidently appear to correspond with my own observations and theoretical construction, I have not done so uncritically. Similarly, in regards to the interpretation of interview text sourced from Huli people in the field, my listening to these texts forms much of the basis for the theoretical scaffold that is the substance of this thesis. My use of terms that have arisen out of a Western philosophical tradition is, on many occasions, a translation of non-academic text into the philosophical framework that I deploy.

(Extract printed with permission of Michael Main. “Until Hela Becomes a City: The Western Encounter with Huli Modernity”Doctoral Dissertation, Canberra: Australian National University, 2020. pp. 12-17)

  1. Nicholas Modjeska, “Post-Ipomoean modernism: the Duna example,” in Big Men and Great Men: personifications of power in Melanesia, ed. M Godelier and Marilyn Strathern (Cambridge and Paris:Cambridge University Press and Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 1991), 251-52. []
  2. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, “The Otherwise Modern: Caribbean Lessons from the Savage Slot,” in Critically Modern: Alternatives, Alterities, Anthropologies, ed. Bruce Knauft (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), 220-21. []
  3. Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004 [1979]). []
  4. Michel-RolphTrouillot, Global Transformations (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 38-39. []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Huli pan-spirit being that substitutes for “God” in Huli Christianity. See Chapter 2. []
  7. Quote given to EMTV, August 2016 []
  8. Given the strong Huli desire for future cities I am tempted to coin the word “futuricity []

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