Theses Doctoral

Sounding Sovereignty: The Politics of Presence in the Bismarck Archipelago

Nason, Patrick

This dissertation examines socioecological rhythms in the Bismarck Archipelago of Papua New Guinea. Drawing on a year of ethnographic fieldwork in New Ireland Province between 2015 and 2016 and archival research conducted in 2017, I describe how the movement of bodies, spirits, and substances in and out of place engenders knowledge of distant pasts, social relations in the present, and the anticipation of diverse futures. I argue that it is possible—first through local ontologies and epistemologies, and second through an engaged environmental anthropology—to identify and negotiate the compositional forces which accelerate or delay such movements. In making this argument, I analyze a critical question asked by Mandak-speaking peoples of any new arrival (U pas mia?/From where have you come), and develop a second, supplemental question To whom do you owe the timing of your arrival? as a means of “sounding” spaces like the deep sea.
In 2011, a multinational company known as Nautilus Minerals received permission from the Independent State of Papua New Guinea to commence the world’s first seafloor massive sulfide (SMS) mine in the deep Bismarck Sea. SMS deposits are rich in gold, copper, and other valuable metals, and have been identified in conjunction with deepwater hydrothermal vents along tectonic faults. In published literature and public fora, Nautilus has suggested the “offshore” location of the proposed site, along with its depth, darkness, pressure, and intermittent volcanism, afford it certain “natural” advantages over terrestrial mine sites. The Solwara 1 mine, they have argued, will cause “minimal environmental harm” and will be free of “landowner issues.” To this extent, Solwara 1 has been envisioned by the company, its consulting scientists, and the PNG government as a way of making development sustainable.
Many people in New Ireland and its neighboring islands reject this assertion. Having experienced multiple waves of dispossession across successive generations, they are well aware that when foreign interests remove objects from their place, these objects often resist or refuse repatriation. Seabed mining not only poses a threat to sharks, tuna, and the endemic biodiversity present in the deep Bismarck Sea, but worse, it threatens the potential for social relations and self-determined futures that emerge out of such spaces. Through local meetings, legal channels, and social media, New Irelanders continue to resist the experimental nature of the mine.
Considering this resistance, along with my own primary accountability to the people who have become my relatives in New Ireland and New Hanover (Lovongai), I offer in this dissertation a way of knowing Solwara 1 through Presence. As I describe it, Presence is both a spatiotemporal concept and a methodology. In the first sense, it serves as the logical ground for the critical questions asked of all new arrivals (mentioned above); it is the here and now from which the there and then can be imagined. As a research methodology, Presence makes possible a rhythmic political ecology—a way of experiencing and qualifying change within spaces that have been physically or discursively alienated from the peoples to whom we are (or should be) most accountable. Overall, Presence makes possible a critical redefinition of “environment”—one which accounts for the history of nurture by which potential relations are made to emerge at certain moments, or in other words, their nurtural history.
This dissertation is divided into six chapters. In the first chapter, I describe the historical context of my arrival and fieldwork in the village of Tembin on New Ireland’s western shore. I include this for the reader as an answer to the question, From where have I come? In the second chapter, I draw on ethnographic evidence from a Mandak mortuary ceremony to describe the context and the work involved in producing a particular cultural object known as a mumu. While this particular mumu cannot be abstracted from the conditions of its own emergence without great consequence, my description of its production together with an appended timeline are intended to afford the reader a sense of the physical and conceptual grounds of what I am calling nurtural history. In the third chapter, I draw on theories of space, place, and knowledge from indigenous Pacific scholars and from philosopher Henri Lefebvre to formulate a rhythmic political ecology. The fourth and fifth chapters apply this approach to Deep Seabed Mining (DSM) and “Sharkcalling Culture,” respectively. Drawing on archival and ethnographic research, I consider in these chapters how distant places emerge into the present through both representation (by scientists, cultural tourists, and indigenous New Irelanders) and through “sounding,” or calling. In the final chapter, I consider how Solwara 1 has emerged as a social being in the Bismarck Archipelago, and how indigenous practices of sharkcalling and naming may be understood as assertions of continued sovereignty across local seas and in biksolwara—the big ocean.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
West, Paige
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 15, 2018