Research (Dispossession)

My most recent book, Dispossession and the Environment: Rhetoric and Inequality in Papua New Guinea (2016, Columbia University Press and winner of the 2017 Columbia University Press Distinguished Book Award) examines the relationship between social and material inequality and racist rhetoric in Papua New Guinea to make a set of arguments about how inequalities are produced, lived, and reinforced in today’s globalized world. In the book, I argue that there are deeply socially embedded rhetorics of representation that underlie all uneven development and that if we examine the various representational strategies we see every day, we can begin to develop a more robust understanding of the ideological work that underpins the differential economic climates that capital needs for its constant regeneration. Throughout it I attempt to show how representational strategies with regard to the social forms that have been called ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ are complex acts of dispossession and carefully crafted accumulation strategies as well as ideologically grounded attempts to persuade and motivate. It is a book of ethnographic essays, three of which were presented as the Leonard Hastings Schoff memorial lectures at Columbia University in the fall of 2013 and was awarded the Columbia University Press Distinguished Book prize in 2017.

The first essay focuses on tourism, the second on international development and resource extraction-related development, the third on environmental conservation, and the fourth on Indigenous theories of possession, accumulation, dispossession, and sovereignty. In the afterword I write about where some of my thinking on uneven development originated. Throughout the book I come back to several themes again and again. First, in each chapter I demonstrate who employs representational rhetorics to produces images of others in a way that results in dispossession. In the first chapter I show that surf-related tourists, publications, and businesses all work to make others using specific descriptions of nature, culture, savagery, discovery and gender. I then show that all of this is wrapped up in a set of ideas about temporality. In the second and third chapters I build on this to show how bankers, the employees of big international conservation organizations, the employees of resource extraction companies, economists, and ecologists all use descriptions exactly like the ones I first outline in the previous chapter. Throughout, I tag moments in which we can see how these representational strategies draw on ideas first put out there by anthropologists. Concomitant with the images that produce others, I show how all of these actors also work to make selves through their representational rhetorics of others. I show how they accumulate status and senses of their own subjectivity through representations of the subjectivities of others.

In each chapter I also show how these descriptions of nature, culture, savagery, discovery, and gender are used to dispossess. And I think through dispossession both in terms of material dispossession that is happening now and the potential dispossessions of material objects and access as well as dispossessions of sovereignty. I take sovereignty to be multifaceted with aspects connected to power or authority, the ability to self-govern (n the state-related political sense as well as in the sense of rights to make decisions about self, land, family and future), as freedom from domination and control, and as the ability to assert autonomy through daily practice and action. Throughout the book I return to the theme of ‘discovery’ repeatedly and how each instance of ‘discovery’ that I describe is an act of dispossession. Each chapter has a host of actors who in their ‘discovery’ of something or someone in Papua New Guinea creates the conditions of possibility for the kinds of processes that are outlined above in the discussion of the Rent Gap Theory. I show that rhetorics of discovery are never innocent and never apolitical. Make no mistake, the theme of discovery grows tiresome. I urge the reader to think about how tiresome it is for Papua New Guineans to be met with these narratives of discovery all the time.