'God has used the foolish thing to confound the wise': ontological confusion in southeast Solomon Islands
Michael W. Scott
(London School of Economics)
Paper short abstract:
Through an ethnographic examination of the uncertainties the Arosi of Makira (Solomon Islands) articulate today about their island, I argue for the importance of recognizing essentialist ontologies that resist analysis in terms of an open-ended and multidirectional relational matrix.
Paper long abstract:
Among the Arosi of Makira (Solomon Islands) many people express perplexity when discussing stories about their island. These stories include frequently iterated accounts of huge snakes swimming ashore and disappearing into caves, reports of mini-submarines disguised as marine mammals patrolling close to shore, recollections of a British royal visit, anecdotes about unidentified aircraft said to make regular passes over the island, and speculations about the presence of a mysterious subterranean military base inside Makira. Even those Arosi who are said to have visited this underground world or who tell of bemusing encounters with its supposed inhabitants acknowledge, in the words of one elderly man, 'That's what we're confused about.... That's something we don't understand.' In this paper I focus specifically on this man's puzzlement over his shaman-like visit to a mysterious realm he himself struggles to locate. Although many Arosi who hear his stories identify this realm — more confidently than he does — as the subterranean Makiran world, uncertainty remains. What is it and why is it there? By puzzling over this elderly man's claim that during his visit to this confusing realm he 'saw the future world that we're moving towards', I examine how his stories and perplexity reveal historically shifting ontologies and the resulting tensions among multiple co-existing existential principles and subjectivities in Arosi. I argue furthermore for the importance of keeping an analytical space open for recognizing essentialist ontologies that resist assimilation to an open-ended and multidirectional relational matrix.
Shifting ontologies and contingent agencies