Rhetorics: a blurred image of reality - navigating the waters of Melanesian thought
By: Andrew Moutu,
"The entire concept of the country, the idea of the nation state, is an act of violence and really an act of hostility against native village independence and village autonomy. You have 700 or 800 language groups with over 2000 villages, each having its own autonomous existence, then you have superimposed on it a legal entity called Papua New Guinea. This is one of basic factors we have to grapple with." - Bernard Narokobi, Pacific Islands Monthly 1991
"A fundamental problem for a Melanesian to describe a Melanesian religious experience is that he has to use non-Melanesian language and techniques to characterise... and make real his cosmos. It is like using blacksmith tools to perform an operation...." - Bernard Narokobi, Point Series 1977
Our thematic issue of information and the nation will become more complex and sensitive not only from the standpoint of the need for its managerial requirements it necessitates but also the concomitant economic, political and ethical considerations which it brings to bear. The world is witnessing the overwhelming power of the communication technology and mass media with new possibilities constantly being opened up by satellite launches and fascinating advances in electronics and data processing like the information 'super high-way' inter-net and so on. Consequently, the process of globalisation is being accelerated and a trend of universal discourses of particular meanings can be obviated in images of transnational linkages disclosed in metaphors of the consumer society in discourses such as "Pepsi: The Choice of the New Generation" and "Always - Coca-Cola".
Recent advances in communication technology and electronic media raise information or knowledge to the level of a new frontier for the competition and exploitation of resources. I am of the opinion that this re-enacts the history of the economic and intellectual imperialism of the west when it was last sailing the waves. Here, I am referring specifically to the general issue of power and control with reference to what some people have referred to as asymmetries of strengths in the negotiations of "resource development" and the asymmetrical relationship in academic production of knowledge. I think that what we are being told in the theme of our seminar here, is narrated in so familiar a discourse that it obscures fundamental ideological assumptions. These assumptions not only underlie this debate on information but touch the heart of Melanesian systems of knowledge, knowledge production and the exploitation of resources, both material and non-material.
Having introduced the interplay of power relations, I feel obliged to describe what I mean by power here. I acknowledge that it is relative term and its meaning can be elicited from the different contexts in which it is used.
Here I am referring specifically to power as a structural feature of social systems enmeshed in social relationships and social practices. Power is taken here generally to mean "the capacity to modify or transform, referring to the ability of human subjects to act in and on the world and in definite relationships to each other. It is this power that enables agents to... alter or attempt to alter, the conditions of their existence and the outcomes of determinate situations in specific social and material contexts".
In whichever way we may choose to fix its deictics, we have to come to rest with this social dimensional reality which emanates from the interface of human subjects, the relationships we have with each other and with our environment. It is that which is everywhere and gives effect to social reality and the object of discourses in which we are situated. Thus in speaking of information, technology, knowledge etc, the ultimate question remains, who has the power in the creation and manipulation of discourses?
Having put forward a particular conception of power, I would now like to talk of a particular kind of power, which emanates from a particular form of social and political relationship which, has a special place in the history of our country. In this paper I discuss the myth of a particular common sense discourse and show that the narration of this myth is indeed enveloped within the deictics of a colonial encounter. I close with up a comment on the intellectual property rights debate, a particular blossom of this month of August.
I begin by first problematising the theme of this seminar from a deconstructionist tone. Our theme reads "To know and be known: The first World Science Report 1993 of UNESCO points out the gap between rich and poor countries today is not so much a resource gap but a knowledge gap".
I take two phrases here as problematic and I will try to lay bare these problems to explain my assertion : i) the phrase "knowledge gap" and ii) the imposed conceptual opposition between the "rich and poor" or the developed and developing". To the former I will talk about how common sense discourses obscure reality and to the later I examine the concept of development from a Melanesian cosmological point of view. The concept of development is examined here for it is being seen by some as the means to bridging this knowledge gap or to use a religious metaphor, it is seen as a medium of bringing salvation to the poor.
The phrase "gap between rich and poor countries today is not a resource but a knowledge gap" already finds parallel with the pidgin phrase "ol wait man ol i gat planti save olsem na ol i divolop na mipela nogat ". This phrase, taken at its face value, does not admit that it is speaking of particular types or fields of knowledge which Papua New Guineans already have or are yet developing our potential. It more or less draws a line across the board by imposing this generic mythical knowledge gap.
For the unsuspecting mind this junk gets into our intellectual baggage which we carry around without worrying about keeping it as a treasure or resisting it with some contempt. I see two problems appearing here: If he or she keeps it, the junk not only occupies space in the luggage but it forfeits him or her the opportunity to re-think such discourse. Otherwise; if he or she rejects the phrase, how will he or she do justice not necessarily to acknowledge the fact that he or she as much as anyone else in this entire universe is an intelligent being but fundamentally what tools or instruments will he or she employ to counter-attack the power of such discourses.
The phrase " ol waitman i gat planti save " has negative effects in that it creates the condition for envy in which a Papua New Guinean compares his or her systems of knowledge to that of the white. Then, in this condition of envy, he or she zealously searches to acquire the whiteman's knowledge for the sake of development, consequently neglecting the quality and value of Papua New Guinean systems of knowledge and depth of ideas.
By the way I am not resisting the whiteman systems of knowledge, I am talking about appropriation of different systems of knowledge and blind conformism to common sense discourses. It would of course be hypocritical of me to stand here and talk as if I have not acquired the white man's knowledge of reading, writing and speaking.
Perhaps I should account for the phrase "common sense thinking". I am taking this to mean the uncritical mind that gets absorbed and entangled in the uncanniness of the ubiquitous web of familiar or common discourses. This occurs to the extent that the true value of such familiar assertions are erased (as is probably inherent in the statement from the First World Science Report of 1993) or concealed.
The problem with common sense thinking is that it is so common that it becomes uncommon (they usually cover up for not so common truth) in that there is a marked departure from the illuminating light of truth which inhere such discourses. With reference to the theme of our seminar and in particular the phrase relating to knowledge, it is framed in so familiar a terminology that the statement itself becomes unfamiliar to Papua New Guinean ways of thinking and conceptions of knowledge, not to mention other categories like information, technology, rights and so on.
The heart of the matter I am trying to raise is that the terminology of common sense discourses inheres a fundamental problem relating to the presentation of information as it not only brings forth ignorance which it does not abolish but helps to conceal and perpetuate its presence with subtlety. The superficial absurdity of common sense discourses lead me to hold that the shores of Melanesia are being revisited by a new wave of colonialism, but as compared to the earlier regime of colonial order. This order is more subtle and pervasive and is threatening to permeate almost every corner of Melanesian thought. This order has a peculiar instrument of control, the power of discourses.
It has been suggested by observers about the prospect of decolonising western conceptual constructions, which do not reflect our ways of thinking and to make every conceivable attempt to resist their rigid imposition on us. In this sort of exercise I examine the concept of development as it is perceived by some as a 'means to an end' in the light of a Melanesian cosmological ideas of spatio-temporal relations.
I return again to our theme, which speaks of the gap between the "rich and poor", or the "developed and developing countries". The story of the "gap between the rich and poor countries" and the implied meaning of development contained within this phrase is again narrated in a particular framework of spatio-temporal relations. Here the concept of development, coloured in a messianic message, is purported to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor countries. I seek to examine the concept of development with the hope that such a seeking will lead us to regather the pre-eminence of Papua New Guinean alternatives which are almost forgotten but are lying buried under the colonial debris of rhetorical confusion.
First the imposed categories of "developed" and "developing countries" is fundamentally a rhetorical illusion caught up in a kind of theoretical game which anthropologists called heurism which reify these concepts and speak of this divide between the rich and the poor or the developed and the developing as if they are really existing out there with marked concrete features that reflects the reality on the ground. Do these divisions really exist out there? No. These categories are rhetorical devices placed there to service particular anxieties.
Secondly this conceptual divide introduces the idea of spatial and temporal distances which can be only negotiated from and within the discourse of development. In spatial terms, I relate this to a common sense discourse which travels on a particular frequency and acquires controversy during election times at home in Sepik but in other contexts it runs with varying emphasis though (mind you this is not a political claim):
01 Sepik ya maski ol gat planti save man holim ol kainkain wok long kantri tasol Wewak i no develop liklik. Yu go long Mosbi na Lae na lukim. 01 Sepik i kam na go tasol Wewak i stap olsem yet. Nogat liklik senis blong em. Taun ya em wanpela strit tasol, olsem yet, oltaim, oltaim bipo yet. Na bus tu i karamapim em nau.
A claim made by some Sepiks ever since I was growing up at home and to an even higher degree, it is still current. As I understand it, this claim emerges out of a situation of comparison where someone standing on the shores of Wewak compares Wewak in relation to the bright lights and city ways of Lae and Port Moresby to speak of the so called "development". Yet the simplest answer that can meet the anxiety of the Sepik is this question framed by the Sepiks themselves: Wewak ya Wewak, Hau bai yu save?
Yeah. You can not know simply because the language of development (the same language I've referred to earlier) comes in a package of common sense discourse that alienates the Sepik or the Papua New Guinean from the fact that he or she should be the focus or object of development. This language marginalises or even totally eliminates him or her from the picture which is idealised in western images of development characterised by sky scrapers, freeways, punk-culture and sexual fantasies, all in the holy name of progress. This language has a particular power that forfeits the Sepik the opportunity to look into himself or herself and ask : how do I develop myself?
Its a pity the Sepik speaks of development in terms of these images when he or she compares Wewak with Lae or Port Moresby. The language gives a reason for envy and self-discrimination to take their place in our intellectual baggage and undermine our own calibre by superimposing upon us that we lack the instruments and intellectual capital to "develop". On a rhetorical level, the anxiety of development is widespread in Papua New Guinea and this anxiety can be obviated in discourses such as the Kauboi Kantri of Oro and Bultaun of Morobe. These discourses are symptomatic of a fundamental ideological problem confronting Melanesia, which requires a more vigorous treatment than a rhetorical massage board of the celluloid order, which comes to us from the Hollywood scenes such as Crocodile Dundee.
In any case, I think the optimistic and legitimate question the Sepik should ask in relation to his anxieties about development in Lae and Moresby is : What is that which is so developed in Lae or Port Moresby that Sepik lacks or as a nation what is that which is so developed in the "Other" that PNG lacks? How does one account for this knowledge gap? How does the government of Papua New Guinea account for this knowledge gap and how does it intend to fill this gap? What are its priorities? Who sets these priorities?
Let me relate to you the beauty I find in the question Wewak ya Wewak, Hau bai yu save? posed by the Sepiks in their anxious search for development. Wewak, as much as Oro, Daru, Kimbe or any other province in this country, is here to stay, and by the same token, Papua New Guinea is here to stay. But if you ask me, where does Sepik, Morobe Manus, Simbu, Kerema go in terms of development? The answer is simple as this simple question. Where are we going? We are not going anywhere; we are here to stay until the end of time.
My categorical answer here is intentional. I now seek to explain how the story of development is narrated in a particular framework of time and to examine it from a reproductive model based on Melanesian framework of social reproduction for the sake of pointing that western conceptual constructions stand in an urgent need of radical revision, not as a frustrated academic enterprise but fundamentally for two reasons:- there is some practical validity in the task of decolonising ethnocentric categories as I will try to demonstrate and that we can share with the world our knowledge and ideas, which have, been buried under layers of misleading terminology and theoretical discourse.
The concept of "-development" is conceived in a particular framework of time and introduces a sense of temporal and spatial distance between the developed and the developing countries. In terms of space we have seen the Sepiks envy of the development in Lae and Port Moresby. Temporality itself is disclosed in a unilineal path in which development travels. The spatiality between Wewak and Port Moresby can be conceptualised in terms of development and this process of development actively takes place within the temporal plane shown to be existing between point A which can be represented by Wewak and point B which can be represented by Port Moresby. The space enclosed within points A and B is both a spatial and temporal distance. It is temporal because it actively uses a particular version of time for the realisation of its project called "development.", This version of time travels on a particular temporal wave in a unilineal sequence, and it also inheres the idea of the source and social origins of "development", "knowledge", "technology" etc.
I have tried to show how the concept of development is anchored in a particular framework of time. Yet how much of this version of time is characteristic of Melanesian conceptions of spatio-temporal relations? Nothing. In the area where I come from, the Araphesh, and I suspect the same is true in most parts of Papua New Guinea and Melanesia, cardinal points of cosmological space and time are anchored in the praxis, the mundane practical interaction which takes place within the socio-cosmic environment.
Among the Araphesh, the concept of time is always understood in the context of the concomitant relationship it has with some form of practical mundane activities and outside of this domain of practicalities, the notion of time is vague and empty of content and meaning. My people make reference to the concept of time only in the context of its relevance to some type of practical activities in which one is engaged in for instance gardening, fishing etc, but outside of these activities; there is no abstract conception of time. Thus in relation to history, it can be inferred that we conceive of history or the past as a recursive, cyclical or regenerative phenomenon within the socio-cosmic ordering which is evident for instance in our systems of swidden cultivation, land ownership and so on.
The concept of space likewise is embedded in a web of interactions (of varying contents and complexity) people have with their environment. It is within these different contexts of interactions that make visible what we may call space. For instance, among the Araphesh, there is this reference to space as being oriented along a vertical and horizontal axis. In terms of the vertical axis, the idea of space is disclosed as a spatial span disclosed in our notions of "Ga iru" or " iruh" (space above), where for instance the Iruhin lives) and "Atap" (space below), where we live and the stage where practical activities and mundane everyday life is enacted.
Social life riddles along a horizontal plane. Along this horizontal plane I see different conceptions of space which emerge from my people's relationship with their environment::-
"The idea of totality does not mean that we are unable to distinguish between the various aspects of our existential experiences but we are acutely aware of the interrelatedness of all things, and awareness that has to a considerable extent, absent in western thought because of the analytical, fragmentary point of view. Man and nature, seen and unseen, living and the dead, past and present, natural and supernatural all belong together as a homogeneous totality of life. The individual, the community, nature, spirits are all aspects of the whole and representations of it. Everything is interrelated and interdependent. There is existence only within the framework of this cosmic totality."
The Melanesian socio-cosmic vision of universe can be summarised with the following characteristic features as observed by David Lea in his book Melanesian Land Tenure in a Contemporary and Philosophical Context :-
Having briefly discussed the Melanesian cosmology, I now examine the concept of development as it is being used in the context of resource development by multinational companies. Again going back to the common sense discourses, I discussed earlier, in the language of development there is a generic artificial category "resource developers" which is used to classify those who come here to "develop" our forestry, mining and petroleum resources.
This is already so familiar with us that we don't dare to ask - What kind of development are we talking about? What kind of "development" goes on in those projects of "resource development" carried out by the "resource developers" that at the at the end of the day what gets left for us is a big hole in the middle of Bougainville or the desert in trans-Gogol?
The story of development is here narrated in familiar discourses. So that although we know all about it, we almost cannot resist the fact that this is an exchange which has a particular framework of time which is short lived and as it momentarily moves along this framework of time, it compromises its ability to be to reproductive.
I view the concept of development in this context as a form of exchange based on resource owners exchanging their resources for some financial and or other benefits with those who come in to develop our resources. Exchange or transactions are also part of our cultural heritage but what form do these exchanges take on in these contexts I am referring to.
Melanesian systems of exchanges are based on an in-built model of social reproduction which is visible in various types of social relationships. A particular exchange relationship which some one engages in does not terminate immediately after the point of transaction but gets transformed and acquires new meanings in different places and in different times.
The kind of transaction involved in the context of the so-called resource developers is based on a relationship which is impersonal, exploitative and operates within a particular time frame. At the end of its use-by date, the relationship contained within the transaction, the transaction itself is immediately terminated and that which is embodied within these relationships also fade away into oblivion.
I am not proposing any grandscale macroeconomic theory of development. All I am asking is what lessons can we learn from our own systems of exchange, our ways of interacting with each other and with our environment from which we can use to rethink this absurd rubric of the so-called "resource developers". I solemnly believe that, and I know there are others among you, both expatriates and locals, we indeed do have a deep and rich intellectual capital deposited on the banks of the river of Melanesian thought and systems of sociality from which to build our country.
The myth narrated in the story of "developing" and "developed" countries projects an image of a universal history of social evolution based on a Euro-centric notion of time which traverses in a unilineal pathway. It speaks of a history which has a universal undertone and pays absolutely no respect whatsoever to particular societies and the dynamics of their particular socio-cultural and material conditions which shape up their histories. Anthony Giddens, in his book The Constitution of Society, observes that this picture of history seem to dovetail with biological evolutionism (which has also come to contaminate our minds) where:-
This is not a forum dedicated to address such questions but we can try and evaluate whether or not they are logically waterproof in view of the contaminating influence of the theory of evolution. But they are at least four dangers which evolutionary thought has which are: i) unilineal compression, ii) homological compression, iii) normative illusion and iv) temporal distortion.
The first danger, unilineal compression relates to the tendency of evolutionary thinkers to compress general into specific evolution. It is logically invalid in the sense that the idea builds up from a general proposition and throws out a particular verdict. For instance, feudalism precedes capitalism in Europe and is the social nexus from which capitalism develops, it is one sense the necessary forerunner of capitalism. Is feudalism then, a general stage in the evolution of capitalism? - Surely not.,
The second danger, homological compression, refers to a particular view that holds that there is homology between the stages of social evolution and the development of individual personality. Stated here, it is supposed that small oral cultures are distinguished by forms of cognition, affectivity or conduct found only at the relatively early stages of development of the individual in more evolved societies. The level of societal Organisation, for instance, may be supposed to be mirrored by that of personality development. This view holds that increased complexity of society implies a heightened degree of repression or affect.
The third danger, normative illusion, refers to the inclination to identify superior power, economic, political or military, with moral superiority on an evolutionary scale. Such an inclination is closely related to the ethnocentric connotations of evolutionism.
The final danger is that of temporal distortion which relates to the inclination of evolutionary thinkers to presume that history can be written only as a social evolution, that the elapsing of time is the same thing as change where in lies the confusion of history with historicity. Giddens noted that :-
This sort of story still forms the background image of history for most of us. Emerging from the fertile river valleys of the Middle East, history seems to creep around the shores of the Mediterranean and then up the Atlantic coast, with things getting better and better. Oriental empires, the Greeks, the Romans, Christianity, the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, industrialisation, (colonialism) and struggle for social justice.
Let me remind you the story is continuing even with our thematic issue of information.. We've got to see that this is not our story but it is a story of the "developed" Other. This is being presented to us in so familiar discourses that alienate us from the picture of development, defined in their own terms, which unfortunately caught the innocent imagination of the Sepik who stood on the shores of Wewak envying the "development" of Port Moresby.
I am not trying to conjure up a vision of the white heat of theoretical progress where bad old ideas are exposed and discarded nor am I merely politicking in theoretical hot air. I will now turn and relate my discussion here to the wider debate of intellectual property rights, which is gaining prominence and momentum in Papua New Guinea.
For those who are unfamiliar with it, the notion of intellectual property rights refers basically to products or process arising out of human creativity or intelligence and there are number of categories under intellectual property rights like patenting, copy rights, trade marks, trade secrets etc. There is now a sense of urgency for Papua New Guinea to come up with its own intellectual property rights legislation with our recent accession to the World Intellectual Property Rights Organisation.
But before we go on to come up with such a legislation, have we truly ask ourselves about the social implications of such a law? Have we taken it as our task to ask : how do different Papua New Guinean societies themselves conceive of particular constructions like "property, needless to mention other concepts like "rights", "creativity," "knowledge" and "information"? Are we going to continue live on borrowed brains, and let others supply us all the answers to life? Are we going to adopt blindly and conform to an ethnocentric conceptual construction that mirrors none of Papua New Guinean ideas of property? Before we rush into the plight of blind conformism let me remind you that the:-
western conceptualisation of the notion of property is intricately rooted in their own particular historical experiences. Basically their attitudes to property are often associated with the development of capitalism and with the notion of commodity. Property for them is based on the philosophy of private ownership which confers on the individual the right to use and dispose (the property at his or her free will). They have taken for granted - the idea of an individual actor having defined rights (often legally) vis-a-vis others, and the notion of property as consisting in objects or things - is far from being universal.
Slavishly adopting this kind of western conceptual constructions into our socio-political and legal framework will blind us to fundamental differences in the conceptions of property, property rights and issues of ownership as the notion of property as is conceived in the western capitalist tradition is primarily associated with money.
I have earlier discussed the notion of development as a form of exchange between resource owners and resource developers. Resource owners exchange their resources for particular benefits but it is a form of exchange which is short lived and exploitative because it compromises its own ability to be reproduced. The point I am trying to raise here is that these sort of exchanges are undermining our particular relationships which ensure the cyclical, regenerative movement within the socio-cosmic ordering. Let me demonstrate my point here by using a particular category of intellectual property rights called copyright which is intended to protect the rights of artist(s) in areas of literature, music and plays, etc.
Imagine a case where a local band or solo artist from one of our villages brings to a recording studio in Port Moresby a tumbuna singsing bilong ples and with some modification of the original rhythms of the songs, records them. After the record is out he goes along to the copy right office and acquires a copy right to his records. How does one come to rest with the fact that the tumbuna singsing is not his individual creation and yet in the act that I have just described, the artist relates to the tumbuna singsing as his own creativity so that he gets a copyright to it?
The threatening problem of this entire drama which must be taken into account before it gets clouded up in misleading rhetoric is that, blind conformism to western conceptual constructions which have little or no relevance to the realities of Papua New Guinean ways of doing things will have serious repercussions on Papua New Guinea not only in conceptual terms but more so it has the potential of uprooting Papua New Guinea from its foundations. It will turn the table around to the extent that qualities that enhance group solidarity, collective interests and maintain congenial social relationships will probably be sacrificed on an altar which offers individual pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, the ideal fantasies of the developed Other.
In the context of the momentous intellectual property rights debate and with reference to the copy right example, what we see here is an example where a peculiarly Papua New Guinean mode of property ownership is, in wholesale terms, transformed from a collective to a private ownership. Property in Papua New Guinea, as in land for instance, is embedded in social relationships. These social relationships, in whatever way they become visible or manufactured, these relationships get reproduced in different contexts, different places and different times and acquire new meaning and social significance in this cycle of socio-cosmic ordering.
In light of all that have been discussed here and drawing from the inspiration of the Constitution of Papua New Guinea I seek the place of Papua New Guinean ways in the face of this colonial encounter? In the face of asymmetric relationships in the academic production of knowledge along with the prevailing asymmetry in the strength of negotiating just returns in "resource development" and beneath the overarching order of western theoretical hegemony, I ask again, where is the place of Papua New Guinean ways?
This paper comes from the level of concepts and has three messages to impart : i) we are subjects of a new colonial order; ii) what is the place of Papua New Guinean ways in this new colonial order; and iii) a call for a judicious appropriation of different systems of knowledge, information and information technology.
It examines common place discourses to show that common place discourses are not always common with truth as they often cover up for not so common truths. In relation to the theme of the seminar I think the talk about globalisation, information super-highway, information technology and so on are framed in so universal, so common a language. And because it is so common it conceals a particular truth, a fundamental ideological problem - the question of power relations, for instance, who has the upper hand in the production and sale of information technology, who controls the market of information technology, who sets the priorities of the PNG Government? Thus I am of the opinion that so long as we continue to drift along with the tide of common place discourses without trying to rethink them or "essentialising" them, we will be perpetuating the hegemonic interests of the developed Other.
This paper begins with two quotes from Bernard Narokobi who wrote of the imposition of conceptual constructs like the " state". Needless to say they are countless other such concepts and the problem of having to use a non-Melanesian language to convey our ideas and conceptions. I believe that English language together with other institutions brought to us by colonialism is now part of our heritage to appropriate. I also believe that we are subjects of new colonial order, the intellectual and economic imperialism of the developed Other whose story is narrated to us in common sense discourses that we do not know we are subjects of this colonial order. As much as you and me are necessarily part of our families, clans tribes, province and the country, Papua New Guinea is necessarily part of the globe and so we can resist being part of the world and all that goes all to often in and around the world. But, I like many others before me, am persuaded by reflection that in the face of this dialogic encounter of power relations, there is lasting hope in Papua New Guinean ways of doing things which have survived the test of time to this day. Before we get caught up in rhetorical illusion brought to us in universal discourses, I ask again, where is the place of Papua New Guinean ways?
Rhetorics: a blurred image of reality - navigating the waters of Melanesian thought
By: Andrew Moutu,
The above artilce: is Copyrighted © 2000 by Andrew Moutu,
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