Knowing Minds is a Matter of Authority: Political Dimensions of Opacity Statements in Korowai Moral Psychology
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Knowing Minds is a Matter of Authority:
Political Dimensions of Opacity Statements in Korowai Moral Psychology

In this essay, I want to set forth briefly the hypothesis that New Guinea people's statements about the opacity of other minds are often statements not only about knowledge and meaning but also about authority. Melanesian sensitivity about not presuming to know others' minds is intertwined with sensitivity about not presuming to impinge on each other's self-determination. Reflexive models of the possibilities and problems of knowing other minds are also models of the political terms of people's coexistence.

I make this suggestion based on patterns of talk about minds among Korowai people of the southern lowlands of West Papua. There are about four thousand speakers of Korowai dialects, who live dispersed on clan-owned lands across five hundred square miles of forest, as well as increasingly in centralized villages along the region's major waterways (van Enk and de Vries 1997; Stasch In press). It is a feature of the generally egalitarian, fractious tenor of Korowai collective life that people overtly represent otherness of thoughts as a matter of politics, and politics as a matter of otherness of thoughts. The central item of talk illustrating this point is the commonly-heard [End Page 443] verbal formula yepa yexulmelun, literally "Herself her thoughts," or "Himself his thoughts," an expression closely parallel to canonical statements about opacity of other minds reported from many other New Guinea communities. The word I translate as "thoughts" here, xulmelun, could also be glossed as "thinking," "mind," "intention," "will," "plans," "consciousness," "awareness," "feelings," or "reasoning." The word xulmelun also means "guts" or "viscera." Korowai like many other people identify cognitive and emotional deliberation with spaces of bodily interiority, specifically the internal cavity of a person's torso, and the organs there.1 The statement "Herself her thoughts" or "Himself his thoughts" juxtaposes two noun phrases, which add up to the proposition: "She herself has her own guts," "She thinks for herself," or "She decides for herself."

One kind of situation in which I repeatedly heard this statement and variants on it during my fieldwork with Korowai was in reply to my own questions about why some third person had performed a certain action, or about whether a third person would perform a certain action in the future. When I asked interviewees to discuss the motives or future actions of other people in these kinds of ways, my interlocutors routinely replied by disavowing knowledge of other people's thoughts. The assertion "She has her own thoughts" is an argument against an opposite idea people took to be implied in my questions, an idea of mind-reading. In fact, one common variant of the statement that people sometimes put to me means literally " It's not as though our minds are unitary" (xulmelun lelipfano).

Plenty of times, though, interviewees did answer my questions about reasons for others' actions with statements of those people's motives, and they answered questions about others' future actions with outright predictions of what those others would do. It seems also that disavowal of telepathy is topic-specific. Korowai persons are highly influenced in their actions by "shame, embarrassment" (xatax) or other feelings of being disparaged by other people. I was often struck by the contrast between people's prominent disavowals of the ability to know others' thoughts on most subjects, and their readiness to attribute to others thoughts of ill-regard toward my interlocutors themselves, without any expressive evidence of such thoughts. For example, interviewees would tell me about being "mocked" (xulmo-) by other people, but then when I questioned them closely it would frequently turn out that this mockery was a mental state attributed to the other persons but not concretely signaled by those persons. It might be fine to claim quasi-telepathic knowledge of someone else's thoughts about one's own [End Page 444] worth, even when it is not fine to presume to know or impinge on that person's own plans and hopes for him- or herself.

In this and many other respects, claims to knowledge of other people's motives and intentions are a focus of...