Academic journal article Oceania

'Yams Have No Ears!': Tekhne, Life and Images in Oceania

Academic journal article Oceania

'Yams Have No Ears!': Tekhne, Life and Images in Oceania

Article excerpt

Consider the following encounter in Nyamikum, an Abules-speaking (Abelam) village in the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea, between Ganbakiya, a renowned yam grower in his 40s, and me. Ganba was particularly famous for the power of his manegup, the spell-songs used, among other things, in long yam cultivation (see Coupaye 2013:135-137). (1) On an early morning of 2003, on our way to his garden, I asked him about the reasons why he was singing to the yams, hoping to elicit a vernacular explanation. Ganba paused with a bemused yes, before laughingly saying: 'Galeware [my village name]! Yams can't hear! They have no ears! They are just food!' Then he resumed his walk, laughing at my puzzlement (Coupaye 2013:45-46).

This exchange encapsulates several issues--notably the particular jocular rapport between Ganbakiya and a credulous European anthropologist. For the purpose of this paper, I start with this relation made (even a negative one) between singing and a type of living being, yams. I consider that singing occupies within the cultivation process the same status of a 'technical act' as clearing the forest, digging the mound or building the trellis for the vines. 'Technique' is taken as the definition forged by Mauss (2003[1909]:49-57; 1973 [1935]:75) through his work on prayer, magic, and body techniques, that is, actions which are 'efficacious' (according to the actor) and 'traditional'. I use this premise, upon which the Francophone anthropology of techniques, or Cultural Technology (2) was built (Lemonnier 1992:4-11) to address the ways in which relations between technical processes and vital processes are put to work to make specific forms emerge.

This paper, thus, weaves together three related themes. The first examines how the anthropology of techniques, when investigating the relationship between technical and vital processes, my second theme, can empirically contribute to current debates on a third theme, that is, materiality and ontology. Because of the Euro-American dominant narrative about 'technology', particularly in anthropology (Pfaffenberger 1992a), I start by examining two important critiques of this modern productivist understanding of tekhne. The first comes from the ethnography of Melanesia itself and its long discussion about production in terms of aesthetics and sociality. The second, coming from Ingold (2013), posits a phenomenologically inspired position on 'making' which replaces the hylomorphic premise by a flowing generative process of form creation. Both critiques provide powerful alternatives to the modernist perception of production and technology, however, both also overlook the analytical potential of investigating techniques as such. I claim instead that such an approach can specify how such material activities make forms emerge, and, in particular, reveal some elements of the vernacular logics at play in these processes. In this frame, I suggest that the ethnography of techniques can provide concrete and empirical means to shift the analytical focus from the question of ontologies, relational or not, composite or not, towards the ontogenetic capacities of such processes, from which both living beings and artefacts emerge and, at times, can merge. Rather than trying to validate the existence of a vernacular clean separation between technical processes and vital processes, I am shifting instead the question towards a heuristic and empirical frame: 'what can material activities tell us about indigenous conceptions of life?'. In a form of 'hermeneutic refraction' (Pitrou 2016), this approach has not only a heuristic value in itself, but could also be mirrored in the ways in which some Pacific societies themselves play with the possibility of distinguishing and/or merging living beings and artefacts.

To demonstrate this, I use Mauss's definition of technical and ritual acts as being efficacious, as my main analytical entry into the ways actors themselves conceive the logic of their actions, and how such logic provides both them and the ethnographer with empirical grounding for interpreting what they do, and the reasons for doing so. …

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