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  • Remembering Papua New Guinea: An Eccentric Ethnography
  • Dan Jorgensen
Remembering Papua New Guinea: An Eccentric Ethnography, by William C Clarke. Canberra: Pandanus Books and Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University, 2003. ISBN 1-74076-034-4; viii + 176 pages, figures, maps, photographs, notes, bibliography. A$49.50 (includes GST).

When Australian administration was extended through the relatively poorly known highlands of New Guinea after the Second World War, it wasn't long before the first wave of ethnographers followed in the patrol officers' wake. The region became a testing ground for some of the day's latest anthropological ideas, and many viewed the highlands as a laboratory for ethnographic analysis. A number of coordinated research programs were launched, and none was more ambitious than A P Vayda's project on "Human Ecology in the New Guinea Rainforest." Set among the Maring of the Jimi and Simbai Valleys, the project gave rise to a number of studies of the relation of the Maring to their environment, including Roy Rappaport's famous Pigs for the Ancestors (1968). Trained both as an anthropologist and geographer, Bill Clarke joined the project in 1964. Originally brought in with fellow geographer John M Street, Clarke undertook survey work to assess agricultural practices, land use, and the possible effects of resource constraints on Maring culture and behavior. He then stayed on among a small Maring group, the Bomagai-Angoiang, and completed the research that he published in his own book on the Maring, Place and People (1971).

Clarke's stay among the Maring also yielded a large photographic archive. When the film began to deteriorate in the 1990s, he began salvaging his photographs with digital technology, a process that triggered many of the memories he recalls in this book, written nearly four decades after his original visit. True to its title, the book's organization is eccentric—a cross between a glossy picture book and a collection of short ethnographic notes. It has upwards of sixty color plates, mostly of the Bomagai-Angoiang. The photos are often striking, but the tone is unspectacular and quiet, the collection offering a combination of individual portraits, scenes from everyday life, and landscape shots illustrating the context of Maring livelihood. This works well to foster a mood of nostalgia for a past marked by subsistence affluence and few of the troubles that fill accounts of PNG life today.

Each photograph is paired with a page of text. Sometimes Clarke is content to simply describe the photograph, place it in context, and offer a few relevant observations, as when he tells us that a raised cooking platform is more convenient but less efficient than an earth oven (32), or that ringworm can render an otherwise pretty young woman unattractive to potential suitors (78). Occasionally, especially at the beginning of the book, he rhetorically addresses his comments to particular individuals whose photos appear on the facing pages. More often, however, he uses the photographs as points of departure for reflections that tack back and forth between academic debates and contemporary concerns about the environment, [End Page 176] development, and the situation of the Maring and people like them.

Melanesianists will recognize certain themes that reprise some of Clarke's contributions to earlier ethnographic discussions, such as his argument that episodes of madness in the New Guinea highlands often have a theatrical quality in which temporarily crazy individuals and their neighbors seem to be in cahoots with one another (124). Beyond that, much of the book can be read as a relaxed but pointed conversation with other Maring ethnographers (Roy Rappaport, Georgeda Buchbinder, Chris Healey, Edward LiPuma, and A P Vayda) concerning their overlapping projects. By far the most important talking point is the significance ofenvironmental limitations in understanding Maring culture. One of Clarke's key contributions to ecological anthropology was a debunking of the notion of "carrying capacity," a seemingly hard-edged concept that proved to be as mushy as they come. His work among the Maring and other New Guinea peoples showed that local productive systems are extremely elastic because people have a large repertoire of techniques of intensification that can effectively push back apparent...