Society for Linguistic Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
In one of the more influential strains of the ontological turn, indigenous peoples are taken to be a source of concepts that would ameliorate persistent defects of the Western philosophical tradition and the social, environmental, and political ills spawned by these defects. Melanesia—often grouped with the Amazon, the Andes, and Native North America as an enduring space of indigeneity—would thus appear ripe for the conceptual prospecting of Western ontologists. Yet, one of the hallmarks of sociocultural life in the region has proven resistant to the ontological treatment: "cargo cults". After all, the esoteric rituals, concepts, and beliefs of so called cargo cults—that offer better understanding and control over the national currency or over the “nature” that a conservation NGO seeks to protect, in examples discussed here—are notoriously changeable and short-lived. Indeed, cargo cults and other esoteric movements in Melanesia arise from a persistent dissatisfaction with existing ontologies, which motivates the search for new ones in much the same way it does for the conceptual prospectors of the ontological turn. In that respect, cargo cults are the ontological turn’s double. What is vital to both are not so much the ontologies involved, but the epistemological anxieties that give rise to a restless quest for new ontologies. And, as a result, both spotlight the processes through which ontologies are formed and reformed—processes grounded in the semiotics of reference, representation, and metasemantics, which unfortunately have been largely obscured in both the ontological turn and contemporary linguistic anthropology.