A clash of ontologies? Time, law, and science in Papua New Guinea

Marilyn Strathern


Stimulated by recent discussions of temporality, this essay is about abrupt transitions. What is happening when such transitions are reinvented in the future? What is happening when a radical break with one kind of past is also recalled as looking forward to a moment when aspects of another kind of past might finally come into their own? The essay revisits a country, Papua New Guinea, where many have seen colonialism come and go in a lifetime. People’s aspirations for the future, raising questions about the nature of such breaks and about the horizons being engaged, throw out some challenges as to how anthropologists might envisage the kinds of time involved. The questions lead into diverse fields, both unusual and less so. They include, on the one hand, deliberations about introduced and customary law, and on the other hand, everyday processes of generation and the displacement of generations. They also take us beyond particular circumstances to ponder on what is taken for granted in the ubiquity of change, on ideas of reproduction and creativity, and on whether talk of different ontologies is going to be helpful.


time, presentism, cosmology, regeneration, Papua New Guinea, colonization

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/703796