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Compte rendu de In the Shadow of the Palms : More-Than-Human Becomings in West Papua de Sophie Chao

Durham NC, Duke University Press, 2022.
David Lipset
p. 125-126
Référence(s) :

Sophie Chao, In the Shadow of the Palms: More-Than-Human Becomings in West Papua, Durham NC, Duke University Press, 336 p., ill.

Texte intégral

1This book examines the changing environment and society among Marind villagers of West Papua from a posthumanist perspective. Sophie Chao sees Marind plants and animals as having their own autonomous subjectivity and agency. But she also wants to use her ethnography to lodge a complaint against the moral vision of posthumanism wherein non-human species and beings do not necessarily instance a more integrated, and perhaps sustainable, relationship between nature and culture than that in a Cartesian model.

2Marind people, whose warfare and ritual practices meant to ensure agency, fertility and growth, were made famous in Melanesianist circles by Dema, Jan Van Baal’s monumental 1000 pages ethnography based on research in the 1930s and 1950s as well as earlier work (1966). Today, the Marind still live in a large, flat alluvial territory that is divided by rivers and swamps and stretches inland from the south coast of the West Papua side of New Guinea, where they are citizens – at least in some minimal sense – of Indonesia. While Van Baal was most fascinated by the coastal Marind, Chao’s study concerns an inland, upriver group who hunt, forage and (most importantly from their perspective), process the pith of sago palms into flour, which comprises the most relished part of their diet. During the past several years, however, millions of hectares of forest have been “sold,” with or without local consent, to oil palm plantations, under the auspices of the Indonesian government allegedly trying to achieve national food security. And it could be said that one of Chao’s main ethnographic goals is to contrast how the Marind morally oppose these two plants – sago palms and oil palms —thus to comprehend and critique differences between themselves and the monocrop capitalist economy which is threatening them. Let me briefly detail this contrast.

3The Marind exalt in collective excursions from the village into the swamps to do the work of processing sago flour, excursions which recall a Durkheimian corroboree with a postcolonial inflection (to me). Being together in the groves arouses “collective effervescence” (p.  140), brings families to work, celebrate together and recall the ancestors. As a result, moral community is reproduced and people – women in particular – are made to feel strong. It also bestows a moment of freedom from the State, its police and the agribusiness it sponsors. Although Chao would like to label this setting a “sagoscape” (p.  130), which is to say, it is an environment dominated by sago palms. From an analytical standpoint, however, I should have thought that the metaphor of cultural reproduction might be more apt. The sago palms, after all, are named after children or menstruating girls, and are seen as nurturant, fertile mothers. Its pith is likened to the body of a pregnant woman and the breast milk she feeds her newborn. Moreover, the work of processing the sago flour is likened to raising children. In addition, sago palms are understood to get “pregnant” and have “children,” some of whom are “weak” because they are poorly cared for by “parents” (p.  128).

4By contrast, oil palm is associated not with reproduction, motherhood and the ancestors but with “a symbolically charged moral-vegetal spectrum—one that nevertheless remains shot through with” a state of uncertainty the Marind refer to as abu-abu (p.  146-147). Oil palms, the Marind complain, are asocial. Lacking friends, they are selfish, greedy and eat everything, sago groves in particular. Yet, their character and propensities, the Marind say, are not entirely all their fault. Villagers express compassion for oil palms, due to their total subjugation to the human society that robs them of any and all autonomy. Marind women pity them as orphans but they also view them as siblings of the sago palm who have been kidnapped from families and trucked away to “grow alone” on plantations (p.  150) where they become inhuman, and lacking in “affectively charged fleshiness” (p.  156). They disorient time, growing as they do regardless of the seasons and sever growth and reproduction in ways that do not sustain the lives of birds, animals or fish. Oil palms create international relations, but where are they from, the Marind wonder ? The capitalists who control them are invisible.

5Dreams, caused by the ancestors or enemies, are very significant in Marind concepts of the person. Dream reporting and interpretation they view as an essential part of being human. Now, however, people have dreams in which sago palms eat them and dreams from which they awaken feeling confused and nauseous. Not having this kind of dream is also suspect because the dreamer may be accused of being in collusion with the company. Thus daily life has become disoriented. If sago palms are moral “embodiments of relational becoming” (p.  204), oil palms kill, subvert, appropriate, destroy people and the landscape. Worst of all, they engage in no “interspecies reciprocity” (p.  204) or, as the Marind put it, they do not “hug back” (p.  206). The Marind do try to resist oil palm modernity and its “slow […], more-than-human omnicide” (p.  213), however. They reject its future and the inert landscape it would create by continuing to dream and continuing to discuss dreams, which is to say, they continue to live according to their own values, rather than those of modernity. At the same time, at least some Marind people are attracted by this new world and try to care for oil palms. They sell land to the company and seek work on plantations.

6In other words, the relationship between sago palms and oil palms, which is to say, the relationship between the Marind and modernity, is morally ambiguous, or what Bakhtin would have called dialogical (1981). Posthumanism is naïve, Chao thus concludes, to expect that interspecies relations are necessarily moral. “Adherents of the plant turn” are wrong to uniformly celebrate all “vegetal life-forms” because, as in this case, some plants can be colonial, dehumanizing, violent and unfair. Capitalism has created plantations in which an anti-social, non-human plant species flourishes : the oil palm is “nothing less than pharmakonic” (p.  208), i.e., it is poisonous. What is needed, she declares, is a “critical plant turn that is situated within the necrobiopolitics of capitalist natures” (p.  214).

7In the Shadow of the Palms is an appealing, but problematic, work. The fieldwork vignettes Chao that describes in a sure and expressive hand give way to relentless lapses into a “plant turn” rhetoric that is often impenetrable and strangely cut off from both its empirical and theoretical (totemic) “roots” in disciplinary history. Nevertheless, I still look forward to reading future work and hope for the development of a more judicious balance of ethnography and analysis.

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Bakhtin Mikhail, 1981. The Dialogic Imagination, Trans. Michael Holquist, Austin, University of Texas Press.

Van Baal J., 1966. Dema : Description and Analysis of Marind-Anim Culture (South New Guinea), The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff.

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David Lipset, « Compte rendu de In the Shadow of the Palms : More-Than-Human Becomings in West Papua de Sophie Chao »Journal de la Société des Océanistes, 156 | 2023, 125-126.

Référence électronique

David Lipset, « Compte rendu de In the Shadow of the Palms : More-Than-Human Becomings in West Papua de Sophie Chao »Journal de la Société des Océanistes [En ligne], 156 | Année 2023-1, mis en ligne le 30 juin 2023, consulté le 29 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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David Lipset

Professor of Anthropology, U. of Minnesota, Minneapolis

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