I am quickly getting ready for my upcoming trip to Vancouver for the 2019 meeting of the American Anthropological Association. I will be presenting a paper in a session I organized with my colleague Tom Strong entitled “Making the occult public.” We saw that people’s stories about magic were becoming increasingly visible and were now being repeated and discussed by more and more people, and not just out of purely ethnographic interest either. So we wanted to bring people together to discuss the forms these stories take when they move through various mass media, and what kinds of public identities are created for people when magical theories are transmitted widely and more or less anonymously.

As usual, my paper has evolved a great deal from the abstract I submitted for a paper on development journalism. My new paper deals much more squarely with the main problem of the session. Now my paper is entitled “‘Sanguma em i stap (Sanguma is real)’: Ethnographic citizenship and epistemic exclusion in Tok Pisin sorcery stories since 1945.” Rather than focusing on examples of public talk of the occult in government-sponsored media for rural audiences in PNG, I’m looking at a variety of examples of public discourse on the occult, and the ways in which people’s narratives are taken up and reframed when they are used as sources of information on people’s lives in the kinds of print media that have appeared in PNG since the late colonial period. This is the abstract:

In Papua New Guinea, people’s political participation takes place in contact zones among many different cultures, and public discourse circulates only when people create interfaces between disparate languages, systems of knowledge, and value orientations. Citizenship rests on one’s capacity to translate oneself; yet translations are not treated equally in mass print media. In the same way that the national creole language Tok Pisin is subject to competing ideological evaluations about the nature of multilingualism, Tok Pisin public discourse is characterized by competing tendencies toward epistemic inclusion and exclusion. In this paper, I present several different frames found in Tok Pisin public discourse which privilege different epistemological positions on sorcery and other occult topics. In each case, talk of the occult involves both an openness to differences in knowledge and a tendency to treat particular knowledge claims as beliefs (bilip) to be overcome. While bilip has become the dominant way to constrain public talk about the occult, I also show that the bilip can be reinterpreted to index a moral stance of mutual recognition of differences as well. Competing tendencies of inclusion and exclusion in Tok Pisin discourse also feed into and reinforce each other. The struggle over ontological recognition will thus always be a part of creole cosmopolitanism in PNG.

And, as I suppose is typical for me, my new paper grew a lot while it was evolving, and is now just under 9000 words long. The upshot is that my ideas are really coming together in this paper, and my thinking about news journalism in PNG is also developing in new ways. I will have to scale back for purposes of a 15-minute presentation, though. I hope to put the finishing touches on a tight seven-page reading script by the end of the week. An added challenge: Since there are several news articles I want to discuss as examples, I have to use slides for any passages I will analyze in detail. You can see my slides for my AAA presentation now on my web site for lectures and presentations here. I will post my AAA paper there as well very soon.

“Making the occult public” will be held on Saturday, November 23 at 4:15 p.m. Hope to see you there!