Accident and Absolute Liability in Huli

by Jaap Timmer

Dr Jaap Timmer is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Macquarie University, Sydney. He has a broad regional interest in the Southwest Pacific and Southeast Asia, with particular emphasis on Melanesia (Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands) and Indonesia (Papua, Maluku and Kalimantan). His anthropological research focuses on the cultural politics of knowledge with particular emphasis on religion, ethnicity, migration, tenure arrangements, access to justice, governance, and non-state regulations. Jaap is interested in designing, undertaking, and managing research, and organising and managing projects that take a lively interest in the history, use and meaning of indigenous knowledge and material culture.

This work is the first major study of language and law in a non-Western society (the Huli, Southern Highlands, Papua New Guinea). It is a contribution to the burgeoning field of legal anthropology and makes a strong case for assigning a central position to the law-and-language approach. In line with Goldman’s previous studies of Huli disputes, it presents a welter of ethno-linguistic information with continual references to various approaches to explanations of accidents and the ethnographic background, which makes the linguistic analysis meaningful and lively.

In a ninety-two-page appendix we find a very readable transcript of a dispute about the death of a woman, Gegai, who was burnt to death in her house. Her friend, Ngaulime, managed to retrieve many of her personal belongings and livestock before the house was destroyed by the fire. In the aftermath, the deceased woman’s son accepted the event as an accident, as something just waiting to happen. Gegai’s two stepdaughters, however, accused Ngaulime of having deliberately locked Gegai in the house, following a quarrel, and then setting the house with Gegai in it on fire. The discussion between the disputants hinged on the possible motives that Ngaulime may have had. The resulting conflict was about whether it was a case of murder or accident, which each involved quite different views of responsibility and liability. The antithetical nature of these two concepts allows ‘accident’ to stand out in bold relief. Goldman’s subsequent painstaking analysis of linguistic form and practice results in a detailed account of Huli socio-legal epistemology.

The fact that the deceased’s son judged it to be an ‘accident’ while his stepsisters cried ‘murder’ appears to be less remarkable after Goldman successfully unravels the Huli socio-legal system, where the conception of liability takes account of mental states. This Huli case thus challenges some conventional anthropological notions, which go back at least as far as Evans-Pritchard. In many studies, African and Melanesian social systems appeared as systems where mishaps and misfortunes were implacably and mystically reductionist in nature (and man seemed to act at his own peril), disregarding the mental element. This leads Goldman to argue that the cultural definitions and the interactional rhetoric of ‘accident’ in Huli and Western legal systems ‘appear similar in a way that draws relationships between demotic and forensic reasoning, and which may well be rooted in a universally understood, and linguistically realized, distinction between agentive and non-agentive happenings’ (p. 271-2).

The bulk of the book is devoted to formal analyses of the grammar of excuse and exoneration in Huli and the various linguistic routines of subjugation, sarcasm, and sympathy evocation. Furthermore, Goldman examines the role played by the cultural stereotypes of ‘male’ and ‘female’ and the way in which the agendas of murder/accident as ‘whole meanings’ are linguistically developed in the course of the debate. At times this microscopic view of the accidental in Huli philosophy is hard to digest. The dedicated reader, however, is rewarded by the valuable insights and analysis offered.

In the last chapter Goldman explores the implications of ‘intention’ in forensic language. It investigates Huli notions of person and mind, and looks at the place of ‘accident’ in the wider cosmological and eschatological philosophies of fate and fortuity. In analysing the omnibus notion of ‘state-of-mind’ in terms of Huli ideas about desire, will, purpose, intention, premeditation, and so forth, Goldman highlights the benefits to be derived from bringing together linguistically oriented disciplines and anthropology. The interesting findings challenge one of the most recurrent ideas in Melanesian ethnography: a belief in the lack of direct access to the inner life of another person, which remains hidden to everyone else. In his attempt to understand the concept of accident in Huli, Goldman discovers that in Huli ‘fortune’s wheel is not spun by supernatural ordination’ (p. 317). On the contrary, ‘accident’ appears to be the upshot of a culturally constituted understanding of an eventful world, and one option in the imposition of order on the relationship between humans and events.

This ethnography is a challenging and valuable contribution to our understanding of accident and absolute liability, as well as of method in anthropology and linguistics.

(A review of Laurence R. Goldman’s The Culture of Coincidence; Accident and Absolute Liability in Huli. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993, xvi + 443 pp. ISBN 0.19.827873.X. )