Anthropology and Environment Society
Oral Presentation Session
In their classic (1963) article ‘The Consequences of Literacy’, Jack Goody and Ian Watt demonstrate how the inscription of cultural traditions can lead to discrepancies between the written record and oral representations of history, which are more flexible, ambiguous, and situationally responsive. In this paper I show how people’s own acute awareness that such discrepancies could dangerously interfere with homeostatic social processes of forgetting, revision, and negotiation of reality played out in my work documenting local history in an Arapesh village of Papua New Guinea. One case involved the collection of GPS waypoints for historically significant village locations; the other involved selection between multiple referentially equivalent labels to be applied to such locations. In both cases, the tantalizing allure of “fixing the truth” once and for all coexisted with villagers’ intense apprehension of being trapped in conflict by an explicit assertion that, once inscribed, could no longer be modified or denied. But the village’s homegrown historian avoided these tensions in his own unprompted inscriptions by deemphasizing the veridicality of the map in relation to the territory and instead schematically representing the key social relations associated with that territory. Inscription has its hazards, but it can also serve as a welcome prompt for cultural creativity. When making maps in indigenous communities, it’s good for us to be aware that both are real possibilities.