Out of the Depths of Saurian Waters: On Psycho-Bakhtinianism, Ethnographic Countertransference, and Naven

  • Jadran Mimica Department of Anthropology, University of Sydney


The ethnographic focus of this paper is on the Iatmul people of the Central Sepik region in Papua New Guinea. Over the years, especially after the second world war, the Iatmul became famous in anthropological circles not just because of themselves and their life-world but also due to the renown and mana of their first ethnographer and savant Gregory Bateson. However, the most comprehensive ethnographic corpus, including an important ethno-psychoanalytic piece, was produced by a group of ethnographers originally based in Basel whose main monographic works are not available in English. The reflections to follow were prompted by my reading of the most recent Anglophone ethnography of the Iatmul, a book by Eric Silverman. I found this work a valuable addition to the ethnographic documentation of the region, but deficient both as an ethnographic interpretation of the Iatmul and, especially, as a self-certified piece of psychoanalytic ethnography. Since my primary interest is in the life-worlds of New Guinea and in the practice of ethnographic psychoanalysis, I have written this paper as an exercise in critical engagement with Silverman's interpretation of the Iatmul, who are a remarkable and irreplaceable instance of a mode of human existence (dasein), whose fullness of being they can no longer actualise. And precisely because of the Iatmul's enduring yet attenuated originality, this critical pursuit dwells on the local existential conditions of creation of ethnographic understanding. In particular,my aim is to elucidate the inner horizons of such conditions of understanding, delimited and  demanded  by the ethnographer's chosen interpretative framework, namely psychoanalysis. Well then, what does a psychoanalytic ethnography amount to, what are its potentials and pitfalls; how is it and how can it be done in the context of that basic project of anthropology - the creation of ethnographic understanding? With these questions, a specific New Guinea ethnography becomes transfigured into an object of critical theoretical relevance. But by the same token, productive critical theoretical cognition is in the service of the task of comprehension of a given phenomenon, which in this instance is, the Iatmul life-world and their dasein. Therefore - to the Iatmul themselves.