HD Keir Martin: Are subaltern perspectives silenced in posthuman perspectives on ritual?

Keir Martin: Are subaltern perspectives silenced in posthuman perspectives on ritual?

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Keir Martin is Associate Professor in Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo and is the author of a number of academic and media publications on Papua New Guinea and the global economy.Abstract:Recently anthropology has seen the emergence of a concern to defend indigenous ontologies against the allegedly singular and oppressive colonial or modernist settlements that are said to seek to forcibly replace them. These Western settlements are said to particularly rely upon conceptual separations such as that between nature and culture or similar separations, such as a distinction between ‘nature’ and ‘beliefs’. These conceptual separations are held to be at the heart of the malign effects that Western modernity is perceived as creating, such as impending environmental catastrophe. And they are also relentlessly imposed upon non-Western indigenous peoples whose very different perspective, in which the world is inhabited with many non-human subjects that humans should relate to, is a barrier to the relentless exploitation of ‘natural resources’ that the Western world-view legitimises.De la Cadena for example, argues that a distinction between (scientific) truth and (cultural) belief has been at the heart of modernist projects to disallow or marginalise the everyday and ritual relations with non-human ‘earth beings’ (such as living sacred mountains) that she describes as being central to Latin American ‘indigenous’ ways of being. The moves to protect the tubuan, a ritual figure non-human actor held to be of great importance by many Tolai people in Papua New Guinea’s East New Britain Province, could easily be read through this framing in which a modern Western ontology imposes a separation between a ‘natural’ order and ‘cultural beliefs’ which are relegated to a secondary order of importance. Whilst this framing looks very much like the perspective taken by some Tolai at some points, it is far from the only perspective that can be advanced. In particular this framing tends to most often be most strongly rejected by those who are most critical of the emerging postcolonial indigenous elite in PNG. In simply advancing a framing that celebrates non-human agency as a rejection of colonial ontological imperialism, anthropology risks not only deliberately flattening out the ethnographic richness of the shifting perspectives of the people that we work with but in particular silencing subaltern perspectives in a world of rapidly increasing socio-economic inequality.