Jun 6, 2016
Colonial Planning and the Unravelling of Plans


Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte, Boltzmannstraße 22, 14195 Berlin, Germany

Abstract "Colonial Planning and the Unravelling of Plans. Where is the agency? And what forms might such agency take?"

I begin with two brief stories of colonial planning of what has become the Papua New Guinea PNG modern economy, and of the unravelling of these plans. In the first case, planning by German colonising companies was systematically countered by the German colonial judiciary. The legacy of this judicial counter-planning remains active in PNG to this day. In the second case planning by PNG’s new Australian colonisers was effectively unravelled by some daisy plants of the speciesTanacetum cinerariifolium. The second story is partly ethnographic. As a nineteen-year old girl I worked for a few months with these daisies and their Engan growers (mostly women), and Australian colonial officials (all men), in what became Enga Province after PNG independence. It was my very first job. I felt deeply ambivalent about my work putting into effect a colonial plan to establish a New Guinea modern economy. Yet it was clear that the Engan women who took me under their collective wing welcomed me enthusiastically. As it turned out I need not have worried myself, for the daisies themselves countered and unravelled the planning quite effectively without any help from me. The daisies’ agency turned out to be far more significant than any agency I could identify for myself despite my wanting to intervene to make a difference. I take this as a cue to reprise that experience in the form of an analytic excavation of the figure of the Australian girl colonial officer. My entry point into this reprise is a disturbing puzzlement I experienced at the time. I recognized that the care showered upon me by Engan village women entailed obligations. But how to understand these obligations? In reprising the experience, I propose the village women rendered me as a representative, and in feeling my way around in this idea I pick up on a recent intervention in science studies which seeks to evert the concept of representation. I see this eversion as remembering that in representing one is always managing a paradox—making present that which is not bodily participating in a here and now.


Dr. Helen Verran is University Professorial Fellow at Northern Institute, Charles Darwin University. Dr. Verran’s book, Science and an African Logic (University of Chicago Press, 2001) discusses Yoruba and English counting practices in Nigeria and proposes research methods that can work against the reinforcing of colonial legacies in postcolonial contexts. This book won the Society for the Social Studies of Science’s Ludwik Fleck Prize, among other prestigious international prizes. Between the late 1980s until 2012, Verran taught history and philosophy of science at University of Melbourne and worked on the relations between Yolngu Aboriginal Australians in Arnhem Land and Western science and scientists.

In numerous contributions Verran has reworked key terms and practices of western philosophy— including ‘ontology’, ‘metaphysics’, ‘generalization’, and ‘comparison’—from a postcolonial perspective. Her comparative empirical philosophical inquiries are embedded in stories on counting and enumeration, firing practices and landownership in Australia, and the development of digital tools for Aboriginal communities. Verran’s work also uses participant storytelling as a method and ‘disconcertment’ as a hermeneutic tool.

Her recent articles include “Plants, People and Health: Three Disciplines at Work in Namaqualand (2015), “Enumerated Entities in Public Policy and Governance” (2015), “Governance and Land Management Fires Understanding Objects of Governance as Expressing an Ethics of Dissensus” (2015), “Postcolonial Databasing? Subverting Old Appropriations developing New Associations” (2014), “Working with Those who Think Otherwise” (2014), “Extending the Cosmopolitical Right to Non-humans” (2014), and “Ethnographic Stories as Generalizations that Intervene” (2012).

2016-06-06T10:00:00SAVE IN I-CAL 2016-06-06 10:00:00 2016-06-06 12:00:00 Colonial Planning and the Unravelling of Plans Sarah Blacker Sarah Blacker Europe/Berlin public