Book and Bilum

“I would go as far as to say that the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.”
Ursula K. LeGuin, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” in Dancing at the Edge of the World (1986) 

Ursula Le Guin’s essay has been whispering behind my ear for some time now, as I have striven to make sense of what it really is I have been doing with the villagers of Reite on Papua New Guinea’s Rai Coast in Madang Province. Since 2012 I have been making books (using bookleteer and our Diffusion eBook format) with them about their ‘Traditional Knowledge’ and slowly becoming a part of something quite different from my everyday life in London.

This all began back in Summer 2009 when James Leach first asked me to help document the visit by two villagers, Porer Nombo and Pinbin Sisau, to the British Museum’s Ethnographic Store. There they were asked, by Lissant Bolton and Liz Bonshek, to look at and discuss hundreds of objects originating from their part of Papua New Guinea that are in the BM’s ethnographic collection. We made some books of this encounter and of their stay in the UK. Then, in 2012, I got the chance to visit PNG and Reite village myself, when James and I took part in the Saem Majnep Memorial Symposium on Traditional Knowledge at the University of Goroka, in Eastern Highlands Province, and followed this with a week’s stay in Reite. Since then I have made three further trips to PNG and to Reite, as well as two trips to Vanuatu – an island nation in Melanesia not far from PNG – all as part of the TK Reite Notebooks project.

I have been trying to find my own ways to arrive at an understanding of, and to acknowledge, the particular relationships to ‘knowledge’ (or knowing) that Reite people have, and what making books of their knowledge actually might mean to them, and to me. It has been abundantly clear to us that they have made no attempt to either create a systematic Western-style encyclopaedia of everything they ‘know’ about where and how they live, what they grow and care for in the forest and in their gardens. Nor do they seem to use the books in anyway similar to how people in our own culture might – as canonical references or teaching aids to pass knowledge on in a linear way from one generation to the next. Nor yet do they use them to share practices and techniques with neighbouring communities or trading partners, although the practice of making the books is now definitely woven in at some level in how they conduct their relations with other villages and communities – as a new skill or activity to share.

Something entirely else is going on – but what is it that they are doing, and why? How is it so different from the purposes of making that people in my own culture and community engage in? Over the years James and I have burnt much midnight oil (and quaffed some considerable quantities of wine, including some from his own vines) in discussing these knotty issues. James’ long and deep connection with the people of Reite gives him an extraordinary anthropological insight into their ways, evolving over more than 25 years engagement with them. Such attunement to their difference from our ‘home’ culture means it is possible for him to see past the usual tropes of our own cultural assumptions and values. Added to this I bring my own experience as an artist and my own experiences of working closely with a variety of communities at different levels of society on co-creative and participatory projects. Often these have involved direct making, inscribing and transmission of things (public authoring) which are outside of mainstream economic valuation, but which are intrinsic to identity and community (public goods).

“It is the story that makes the difference.” (UKLG)

Something is conveyed by these processes of making and sharing, it is carried across from person to person, from generation to generation, across time and distance, but always of place and within a continuity of culture. The forms may be different and unique to particular communities, but there are echoes and hints of valence that enable a connection, the possibility of an understanding. I often think of Le Guin’s writings when I am in the village or in similar places elsewhere in Melanesia – the feeling that I am in the midst of somewhere and something that is unmistakably human and familiar, yet so palpably alien at the same time. Just as science fiction can be used as a lens to interrogate our present, so the dislocation of journeying to a culture and society that is structured in such a radically different way to everything I had ever known is itself an opportunity to evaluate and scrutinise myself and everything I believe and trust in.

“Science fiction properly conceived, like all serious fiction, however funny, is a way of trying to describe what is in fact going on, what people actually do and feel, how people relate to everything else in this vast sack, this belly of the universe, this womb of things to be and tomb of things that were, this unending story.” (UKLG)

What is it that I have learnt? What have I understood about them and about myself?
That the discontinuity of being upon which individuality is predicated, upon which our belief that we can isolate and alienate things from context and interdependence to understand them, is just one way of being. It reveals some of what we might consider to be truth, yet it masks so much else in its exclusive gaze, avoiding the tendrils of subtle forces – the relationships – that bind every thing to something else.

It is in how these relationships are constantly practiced, demonstrated, made and re-made through the vital life of the community that I have found a thread that helps me make sense of what we have been doing together. And by locating it alongside another process of making that somehow seems to me to reflect something of the interwoven relationship between people, what they ‘know’ and how it is relational rather than fixed. What we might think of as a piece of ‘knowledge’ or a fact is or, rather, holds a relational connection that flows as long as those within its net continue to foster and nourish the relationship. It can change shape, expand or contract, be added to or refined as those in the relationship determine. Just as Le Guin conceives of a novel as being like a bag or a sack that holds things in relation to one another, so I have begun to consider that the books that we have been making with Reite people share some of the significance of the bilums – traditional string bags – they use to hold and carry things.

What is a Bilum?

Bilums are the ubiquitous hand-woven bags that almost everyone, women and men, in Papua New Guinea use to carry things in: from store and market cargo, to the daily harvest of vegetables and fruits grown in their gardens, to everyday items and treasures: buai (betel nuts), pepper and lime powder, lighter, pen, torch, pieces of newspaper, twists of tobacco leaf, money, mobile phone – and babies.

A bilum is both a functional thing, but it also conveys meaning – the decorative weave as well as the materials with which it is woven themselves convey information. This is not the same as branding or logos on bags in the industrialised world, but it does form a part of a complex visual language of signification that runs deep in the fabric of life in PNG. Bilums across PNG vary according to the materials they are made of, with wool being typical of bilums made in the Highlands, and string made from natural fibres being common on the coast. Other types of bilum include those made from woven grasses and reeds as well as man-made plastic strings and reconditioned plastic sacking.

Traditional bilums are intricately woven or netted, taking considerable time to make – which also depends on the size. The knowledge of how to make them is an important craft skill – and they are respected as both objects in themselves and for their significance as part of traditional dress in kastom and rituals like singsings. They are important items when given as part of bride gifts, or in other kinds of ceremony. The meaning conveyed by the design may have an additional significance to the gift of a bilum, beyond that of the skill, time and effort that had gone into making it. Using a bilum you have been given is always taken well, sealing a bond – a reciprocity between giver and recipient.

Book as Bilum: a metaphor

Le Guin refers to Elizabeth Fisher’s “Carrier Bag Theory” of human evolution (in Woman’s Creation, MacGraw-Hill 1979) and weaves an entire essay around the concept that,

“The first cultural device was probably a recipient… Many theorizers feel that the earliest cultural inventions must have been a container to hold gathered products and some kind of sling or net carrier”
Elizabeth Fisher as quoted by Ursula K. Le Guin

Le Guin contrasts this with the scene in Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey where an ape first uses a bone as an instrument, a weapon, to murder another ape – implicitly crossing some sort of cognitive threshold. This bone then becomes a figure for man‘s future conquest of space:

“…that wonderful, big, long, hard thing, a bone I believe, that the Ape Man first bashed somebody with in the movie and then, grunting with ecstasy at having achieved the first proper murder, flung up into the sky, and whirling there it became a space ship thrusting its way into the cosmos to fertilize it and produce at the end of the movie, a lovely fetus, a boy of course, drifting around the Milky Way without (oddly enough) any womb, any matrix at all” (UKLG)

She is, of course, making a powerful argument in the essay for re-thinking and re-positioning what we recognise as being of value in our culture – bringing back into view those things which patriarchal societies tend to ignore or de-value. The kind of consistent, persistent, necessary everyday activities of caring, cleaning, cooking, rearing so often unsung, or referred to, belittlingly, as “women’s work”. I also think that she is deliberately making an equivalence between language itself and with receptacles such as bags and nets. Language as a mode in which the thoughts, feelings and experiences of a conscious entity are carried across – held by words – to others. It is a literary demonstration of metaphor in itself. Language is a carrier, a matrix too – in which ideas, thoughts, observations and feelings are given shape and brought into the world.

In this regard, I am reminded not only of the physical performance required to make a Diffusion eBook (see below), but also of the collaborative and collective nature of gathering the ‘knowledge’ that it is used to fill – the stories, drawings, photos, recipes, instructions and guides. These elements are all harvested from social engagements between or for the different generations of the community. They are purposeful in that they are often intended to reflect or mark out specific relationships between people – for instance between a parent and a child or grandchild; or as a way of creating or facilitating a connection between specific a person and others who have come into the cosmos of the village’s inter-connected relationships, but who are not directly associated with kin groups. People such as James and, latterly, to a small degree, myself.

I re-read an essay James co-wrote with Lee Wilson in 2010 on creativity and innovation in the art, humanities and social sciences in universities. It reported on their findings from three workshops (in one of which I took part as a presenter) at CRASSH in Cambridge. It is full of brilliant insights into the nature of creativity and innovation, and the role of universities in fostering spaces and places that support it, as a responsive, civic process that is integral to the “project of citizenship”. One section on evaluation has the following sentences which, it seems to me, could easily refer to the creation and purpose of the books in Reite:

“The value of the knowledge created is not in objects, but is realised over and again in relationships, in processes of investigation, argumentation and understanding. Value is then elicited in actual relations. Change occurs in and through relationships. The facilitation of these relations is vital.”
James Leach & Lee Wilson, “Enabling innovation: creative investments in arts and humanities research“, report for AHRC/Nesta 2010

Just as the bilums used in everyday life are intricately woven from locally-available materials and and their designs convey information that can locate them to kin-groups or places, so I think something similar is happening with the books they are making. The bilums are practical devices for carrying tangible stuff, but are still made with an attention to detail that marks them out as more-than neutral receptacles. The books carry something less tangible but which also convey relationships to people and place. That they are hand-made items is, I think, a key factor in why they have come to be used. They are as much tangible demonstrations of relationships as they are receptacles for whatever maybe written or drawn within them. It is not so much that the books contain knowledge of any particular sort, but they are a manifestation of those relations. The knowing that they are a part of, is not just what is written or drawn within them, but is carried across in the processes of making them. A book is like a trace or a vestige – Ariadne’s thread – weaving a path between those for whom it has been made and those by whom it was made. It ceases to be media in the sense that we use it in the West, as a neutral carrier for the ‘true content’ – the knowledge’ or information it ‘contains’ – and instead it expresses the relationship itself, or an aspect of it. Like so much of life in Reite, it is direct and unmediated – it becomes and is the thing it describes.

These images below are of a book by Pinbin Sisau which describe a series of designs for drums and plates – men’s work in Reite – which give a flavour of the extraordinary visual and stylistic range of just a single lineage in a single village. Like the bilums pictured above there is great artistry in the designs, and clearly far more meaning to them than he has indicated in the book. What are we to make of this compendium of designs that we do not have a key to interpret the meaning of? Why did he make it and for whom? What relations is this book carrying within its matrix of paper sheets woven together in a bound form? Do we need to know such detail, or perhaps simply be appreciative that such a richness in their culture has been signalled to others in this way?

Tim Ingold‘s analogy of the pencil stub as a material artefact is also pertinent here. How would an archaeologist of the future interpret such a find, never having previously seen a new pencil?

“I would not myself throw away a newly bought pencil in mint condition. As I use it, however, it has periodically to be re-sharpened, and with every sharpening some of the pencil is shaved and its length is reduced, until eventually it is too short to hold. Only then do I throw it away. An archaeologist of the future who, having analysed the contents of early twenty-first century waste bins, came to the conclusion that things conventionally called ‘pencils’ could not actually have been made for drawing because they were too short (and perhaps had some ritual or symbolic function instead), would be committing what Davidson and Noble call the finished artefact fallacy.”
Tim Ingold, Making (2013)

What I love about his insight here is that the focus is not on what we think we know about something we might encounter outside of its original context (such as a pencil stub), but on the uncertainty that we have to accommodate into any assertion of knowledge that we might make. That the relational aspect of any device to its use must be contingent on how we imagine it – and that our imaginations are themselves bounded by our own experience, not those of the people whose artefacts we are trying to understand or interpret the use of. The very ordinary, humble and utilitarian pencil – an object which has been critical in writing and drawing, in the creation and flow of ideas, images and the expression of what it is to be human – could so easily be overlooked in its final, worn-down state. Its stub seems devoid of the power of creativity that its use enabled. A lowly thing, it seems as artless as a string bag might appear to a treasure seeker, as a hand-made book by a subsistence gardener living in a tropical rainforest might seem, especially if, like so many others of its kind, it told a similar story of taro, yam, sago, vines or the small freshwater shrimp from the local streams. By focusing on the object as the thing of value, we can be blissfully unaware of the relationships that it implies, and where the value may lie for its creator.

When we – westerners from the industrial world – encounter a thing like a Reite book, is it like coming across a mint condition pencil or is it more like unearthing a pencil stub? How are we to know whether or not we are merely projecting our own preconceptions of what constitutes ‘knowledge’ or value onto artefacts produced by a different culture? How are we so sure that we have the capabilities to ascertain what value might mean to someone who does not share our outlook, our experiences, our upbringing and acculturation?

And this brings me to consider the relational aspect of what might constitute knowledge in a place and community like Reite. Knowledge seems to be something that must always be sustained through intergenerational engagement and activity – a mutually reinforced knowing – rather than reified into a commodity that can be transacted, hoarded and controlled. It is the ongoing observation of and participation in the life and rituals of the community – attending to belonging – that lead to the acquisition of knowledge. Ritual payments to significant kin and elders of things which must be grown and harvested or collected and made from the local environment. Things which take time, effort and negotiation – that are in themselves, demonstrations of relationships. Constantly woven and re-woven. Being human, nested within an intricate matrix of connections.

I wonder if the “finished artefact fallacy” might be at the root of why the foundations of wealthy, cultured Westerners are so obsessed with “saving” things – like traditional knowledges – which they consider to be endangered. Significant sums of money are spent on documenting them and putting them into books, archives and museums, but not into sustaining the complex webs of relationships between people, places and things that are the actual fabric of what the ‘knowledge’ conveys. If the ways of life of peoples who live differently to us and the specific ecologies in which this is lived are not sustained, protected and supported, then what is the point of conserving their ‘knowledge’? What purpose will it have if these peoples, their environments and ecologies disappear into the voracious maw of extractive capitalism and its hunger for natural resources at any cost? What, then, is this urge to preserve, other than the collection of objects, artefacts of curiosity to be archived or put on display in such a way as to convey the impression of the deep culture and humanity of its owner or benefactor?

A few years ago at an informal dinner in Oxford, a distinguished scientist asked me to tell him the “three most important” pieces of Reite traditional knowledge that our project had “saved” for posterity. It was hard to counter the blithe assumption that their knowledge could be so easily alienated from the context of where and how they live. As someone who deals in scientific facts, in the certainties of binary logic, he struggled to make sense of my attempt to explain that our friends in Reite seemed to have no interest in cataloguing and transmitting what they know in such a way. Perhaps he disbelieved me, or thought that our work had failed in some empirical sense. In describing it, I suggested that what people in Reite appear to be interested in is the making of the books, and that many of these books appear– as we might see it – to repeat or share the same or very similar information. However, the articulation of the content in the books, as well as who was involved in making them, suggests whole other layers of meaning and signification which may be unintelligible, and perhaps of no value in any case, to anyone outside of the village and its tapestry of relationships.

So perhaps what James and I have been doing by making these books with our friends in Reite is to learn how to weave a different kind of bilum that holds and make tangible its own kind of relationships – and that conveys yet other meanings within it. Books which are not documents of knowledge or media containing information, but artefacts describing the relationships that make knowledge or knowing possible in particular places, between specific people. I used to wonder if our project was somehow contributing to a revivification of a local culture that was in danger of being lost to the swell of consumerism and rampant exploitation of natural resources that are the contemporary forms of colonialism. Now I am more of the opinion that it is being incorporated into a kind of local cultural dynamism that remakes itself as it works with the materials at hand, that articulates new relationships by evolving different kinds of ritual and exchange. What might readily appear as loss to us, so fond of our cultural heritage, provenance and history, might instead be resilience and adaptation without sentimentality.

“Still there are seeds to be gathered, and room in the bag of stars.”
U.K. Le Guin

London, March 2020