NUPSA Philosophy Sessions (c) William Pascoe, 2018 (independently written and produced, this content is not owned or provided by UON or any Government or Commercial entity, except externally sourced material)
The Pambalong Clan of the Awabakal Nation are the traditional custodians of the land where this website is hosted and where this course is delivered.
Indigenous philosophy is both the most ancient and among the most cutting edge of philosophies. Traditional Australian Aboriginal philosophy is communicated in stories, among other things, specific oral traditions have been dated to around 10,000BC, based on geographical evidence. As well as these living indigenous philosophical traditions, indigenous people often engage with contemporary and colonial philosophy as an means of asserting their own experiences and perspectives.
While we sometimes see similarities in traditions, such as a close relationship with country, and in common contemporary causes such as land rights, there is enormous diversity in indigenous philosophies as each varies according to the local culture. In Australia there are around 200 language groups. In Africa there are 1000s. The civilisations of ancient Mesoamerica are vastly different to those of the Australian Central desert. In contemporary life there are those who live in cities and those who have life closer to traditional ways.
The importance of country, region, the place, the local situation is inherent in the term 'indigenous'. It refers to the people who were in a place first, or before it was occupied by foreignors.
The word 'philosophy' means 'love of wisdom' so 'indigenous philosophy' loosely means the wisdom of the people who first occupied a place.
This firstness is in relation to new comers. If there were no newcomers there would not need to be the term 'indigenous' - it would just be 'philosophy' or 'wisdom' or perhaps neither of these words, since these are words used in English about intellectual categories from a European tradition - it might be something different entirely.
All people have some kind of 'wisdom' expressed in some form or other but the term 'philosophy' comes from the ancient Greek - it is indigenous to Greece and was taken up by the rest of Europe.
In this sense, coming from the ancient Greek tradition, 'philosophy' has always been colonial. Western philosophy 'begins' with Thales of Miletus - a Greek colony. He learned from the civilisations of Asia and Egypt, as did many other Greeks. Athens at it's height was a thalassian hegemony. Many major schools come from Greek colonies in Italy and Asia. Much Greek thought comes from Egypt and Babylon, and some crucial points come from India through Pyrrhuo and the Gymnosophists during Alexanders' conquest. Greek philosophy was adopted by Rome, which colonised Greece and a large part of Europe, Africa and Asia. Britain is made up of successive groups of colonisers - Romans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Norse and Norman - who went on to make the 'greatest' empire in history, ultimately colonising Australia. The nations of Europe, including Northern Europe, emulated Rome and Greece thereafter. In many ways Britain modelled it's empire on Rome and the United States carried on those echoes. Here in Newcastle there was initial British agricultural interest in establishing olives and wine, not characteristically British crops, as part of sophisticated British people's Roman pretensions. Western philosophy is very much a 'colonial' philosophy. Ideas change when seperated from their indigenous roots. Note that 'indigenous' British philosophy, such as the Mabinogion has references to 'country'. The 'Odyssey' for seafaring Greeks, similarly has references to the 'country' of the Mediterranean Sea - Scylla and Charybdis refers to an actual place as well as a moral parable. See also the importance of social memory in the Lotus Eaters and the island witch. Something is lost when story is taken out of country context - ideas become abstract moral tales more than pragmatic, etc.
'Philosophy' then, is a colonial term. All people have some kind of 'wisdom' expressed in some form or other but the word 'philosophy' comes from another place where people had different experiences in relation to their environment, their history, their political situation, and so on, which produce different assumptions, aims and strategies. The term 'indigenous philosophy' itself is already open to a philosophical critique - already exposes the tensions typically found in indigenous philosophy.
The language of philosophy is none the less any of us, indigenous or foreign, can learn (I didn't learn it from my mother). Indigenous philosopher Aileen Moreton-Robinson asserts that the subjectivity of indigenous and non-indigenous people cannot be the same due to this different ontological relationship to land. She acknowledges that foreignors/colonists/migrants and their descendants may have a sense of belonging to place but says it is fundamentally different, and however much the indigenous person may adopt coloniser culture the relationship to land is not lost:
Our ontological relationship to land, the ways that country is constitutive of us, and therefore the inalienable nature of our relation to land, marks a radical, indeed incommensurable, difference between us and the non-indigenous. This ontological relation to land constitutes a subject position that we do not share, and which cannot be shared, with the post-colonial subject whose sense of belonging to place is tied to migrancy. Indigenous people may have been incorporated in and seduced by the cultural forms of the colonizer but this has not diminished the ontological relationship to land.
Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Indigenous Belonging and Place in Uprootings/Regroundings p31
In the mid to late 20th century H Odera Oruka developed a critique of African Philosophy, coining the term 'Sage Philosophy'. He criticised the conventional approach at the time of either simply teaching European philosophy in Africa or attempts to describe the 'philosophy' of groups of African people which he and Hountondji call 'ethnophilosophy'. Ethnophilosophy is an anthropological approach where the people are studied and an account of a belief system or religion given, eg: that there is a certain pantheon of spirits or gods and certain ritual practices, or that the Azande believe in 'witch doctor' cults and describe the circumstances under which a potter will attribute a cracked pot to a curse, or bad craftsmanship etc. This latter style of European study of 'Others' has come under much criticism for objectifying people by treating them as the objects of science rather than having their own subjectivity. Oruka in particular argues that this treats people as if they could not possibly have any other belief than the one described - as if they all blindly have that belief and nothing more, as if one person is the same as any other in their tribe.
Oruka argues that Philosophy, in the Western tradition, and in the strict sense of the term necessarily involves a critical attitude as the basis of reason. It also celebrates individual thinkers. The ethnophilosophical attitude then denies Africans the possibility of being philosophers. Oruka's aim is to demonstrate that there does exist, and always has existed philosophy in Africa, before and after colonisation in the African traditions. Philosophy also is often not recognised unless it is written. While Oruka acknowledges the value of writing in making philosophy well known and widely communicated, he demonstrates that it is not essential for something to be written for it to be philosophical. After all, Socrates wrote nothing. What is important is the 'critical attitude' and supporting views by an argument.
Oruka's method is then to speak to African's who might be regarded as philosopher's or, as he calls them 'sages' and in his book 'Sage Philosophy' finds that there tend to broadly two attitudes of such sages - 'Folk Sages' and 'Philosophic Sages'. Folk sages are focused on retaining, repeating and passing on the wisdom of the community, rather than on critiquing it or forming their own views. Other sages, by contrast, do have a critical attitude, not necessarily accepting the prevailing views, applying reasoning techniques and presenting their own arguments for their own views.
See also Hountondji.
Contemporary indigenous philosophy is often political, as indigenous people are often in a situation where political problems cannot be ignored or set aside. Kant spent his entire philosophical life in a small German town, following the same comfortable routine of teaching, walking, entertaining guests and writing and so had the luxury of the most abstract and subtle thoughts about 'universal' ethics. Even in recent memory and still today, forced sterilisations, stolen children, massacres, deaths in custody, economic manipulation, and theft of land are lived realities for many indigenous people.
Frantz Fanon coined the term 'Decolonisation' in the post war period when many former European colonies gained independance, sometimes through bloody wars. Fanon's background was in revolutionary Communism, though he changed his attitudes to focus on indigenous independance, his revolutionary rhetoric remained. Fanon advocated sudden, violent change as the only way to acheive 'decolonisation'. Fanon lived and wrote in France, and so was also steeped in French philosophy. Often French philosophy is anti-authoritarian and revolutionary, and is about the exercise of power and resistance to it. One of Fanon's most famous early works 'The Wretched of the Earth' included a preface from renowed existential Sartre. As global philosophy has also been highly influenced by French thinkers, many contemporary indigenous philosophers continue to make reference to, both to use and to criticise.
Fanon argued earlier that the colonized were brought into existence by the settler and the two, settler and colonized, are mutual constructions of colonialism.
p26 Smith, Linda Tuhiwai Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples
If you were at the session or read the notes for 'Theory 2000' this idea that the existence of one thing depends on it's being defined in contrast to another thing will be familiar from Structuralism and Post Structuralism. The idea here is that people only gain the identity 'indigenous' when colonised - so to does the 'settler' or 'coloniser'. As the coloniser, sees themselves as 'civilised', 'good', 'advanced' etc, the indigenous people come to be seen by them as 'savage', 'wicked', 'backward' in a whole system of binary opposites.
Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is, obviously, a program of complete disorder. But it cannot come as a result of magical practices, nor of a natural shock, nor of a friendly understanding. Decolonization, as we know, is a historical process: that is to say that it cannot be understood, it cannot become intelligible nor clear to itself except in the exact measure that we can discern the movements which give it historical form and content. Decolonization is the meeting of two forces, opposed to each other by their very nature, which in fact owe their originality to that sort of substantification which results from and is nourished by the situation in the colonies. Their first encounter was marked by violence and their existence together--that is to say the exploitation of the native by the settler--was carried on by dint of a great array of bayonets and cannons. The settler and the native are old acquaintances. In fact, the settler is right when he speaks of knowing "them" well. For it is the settler who has brought the native into existence and who perpetuates his existence. The settler owes the fact of his very existence, that is to say, his property, to the colonial system.
Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, p35
Individualism is the first to disappear. The native intellectual had learnt from his masters that the individual ought to express himself fully. The colonialist bourgeoisie had hammered into the native's mind the idea of a society of individuals where each person shuts himself up in his own subjectivity, and whose only wealth is individual thought. Now the native who has the opportunity to return to the people during the struggle for freedom will discover the falseness of this theory. The very forms of organization of the struggle will suggest to him a different vocabulary. Brother, sister, friend--these are words outlawed by the colonialist bourgeoisie, because for them my brother is my purse, my friend is part of my scheme for getting on.
Fanon, The Wretched Of The Earth, p47
Aileen Moreton-Robinson, responding to Fanon and his popularity in Post-Colonial theory suggests the term Decolonising rather than Decolonization to highlight that it is an ongoing process, and not a utopian final end or return to a state prior to colonisation - which once colonised is not possible, even if the direct colonial power and all 'settlers' are removed. She also highlights that this process is different in different places due to very different situations - such as India having relatively few settlers compared to indigenous people, while Australia has a vastly disproportionate settler population.
(Consider how vastly different the colonial situations are in Ireland, India, Canada, Peru, Algeria, DR Congo, South Africa, Israel/Palestine, Tibet, Mexico, Taiwan, Paraguay, Nigeria, Liberia, Guatemala, Jamaica, New Zealand, Timor, West Papua, etc. Every one is unique set of circumstances. Who is indigenous may depend on where you are standing - in Liberia there has been conflict between repatriated black people from the America's seeking an indigenous homeland and the 'indigenous' Liberians; to English all the Indians in India may be indigenous, but to Indians this term would apply to only those people living in remote tribal contexts; to a European all the people in DR Congo may be indigenous, but mass migrations of people and warfare mean that many are not living in their own 'country'; in Australia also, many indigenous people live as 'migrants' in other parts of the country or have been dispossed, sometimes to the point of not knowing what country they/we belong to; due to an enforced silence over generations and eugenics policies, many white people in Australia don't even know they have a little 'indigenous' ancestry [Bruce Pascoe - Convincing Ground].
Against this and other representations of Australia as postcolonial, I argue that it is not postcolonial in the same way as India, Malaysia and Algeria can be said to be. These nations do not have a dominant white settler population. In Australia the colonials did not go home and 'post colonial' remains based on whiteness. This must be theorised in a way which allows for incommensurable difference between the situatedness of the Indigenous people in a colonizing settler society such as Australia and those who have come here. Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples are situated in relation to (post)colonization in radically different ways - ways that cannot be made into sameness. There may well be spaces in Australia that could be described as postcolonial but these are not spaces inhabited by indigenous people. It may be more useful, therefore, to conceptualise the current condition not as postcolonial but as postcolonizing with the associations of ongoing process which that implies.
p30, Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Indigenous Belonging and Place in Uprootings/Regroundings
This is attractive because ‘postcoloniality’ is seen here as a continuing process, in which different subjects occupy very different positions, particularly in Indigenous/white settler societies such as Australia and New Zealand. ‘In Australia the colonials did not go home and ‘postcolonial’ remains based on whiteness’ (2003, p.30; Smith, 1999). The position of non-white settlers in Australia complicates this process even further, but at the same time draws attention to the dynamic nature of the postcolonising nation, for whiteness is not a static category and access to it changes over time and in different contexts. For Moreton-Robinson however, ‘Indigenous people cannot forget the nature of migrancy and we position all non-Indigenous people as migrants and diasporic. (…) the inalienable nature of our relation to land, marks a radical, indeed incommensurable, difference between us and the non-Indigenous’ (2003, p.31). The term postcolonising then, allows for the important recognition that ‘Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples are situated in relation to (post)colonisation in radically different ways- ways that cannot be made into sameness’ (2003, p.30), nor should they be. For resisting the impulse to create sameness (as opposed to equity) can help illuminate the powerful forces that try to do precisely that, as part of a restricting but politically dominant form of nation building. If used in Moreton-Robinson’s conceptualisation, the term postcolonising inherently resists unifying discourses that sometimes underlie the term postcolonial. Moreover, it actually allows us to see difference as part of an ongoing, dynamic, and potentially productive field of power relations, rather than something that signifies a lack and therefore needs to be erased. However, it is at the same time open to misappropriation in which case postcolonising would be seen as part of a process towards a postcolonial nation that would in turn be based on an assumption of linear progression, which in itself is of course deeply embedded in colonial discourses and implicated in colonial practices.
Huijser, Henk, and Brooke Collins-gearing. “Representing Indigenous Stories in the Cinema: Between Collaboration and Appropriation.” International Journal of Diversity in Organisations, Communities and Nations, 2007. https://www.academia.edu/2093466/Representing_Indigenous_Stories_in_the_Cinema_Between_Collaboration_and_Appropriation
In reference to Moreton-Robinson, Collins-Gearing and Huijser note that these differences should not be seen as something that needs to be 'resolved' into sameness or equality, as a way of 'erasing' a lack. That might be an erasure of difference, and so of identity into a kind of homogeneity. It also is implicated in the colonial discourse of progress to a new improved future. They note that these diffences are productive - the produce identity, and power relations between those identities. It's inevitable that if we aren't the same we will disagree sometimes - a comfortable peace where we are all the same is not necessarily a good thing if we lose who we are in the process. Nobody wants violence, but friction and disagreement is inevitable if we are to remain different - this doesn't necessarily mean we can't live together and negotiate conflict (as any marriage will demonstrate).
It's worth pointing out here a common misconception about multiculturalism, where for example someone will argue, when there are outbreaks of racial violence that 'multiculturalism has failed' as if this were proof that people of different races and cultures can't live beside eachother without fighting. For example Fraser Anning recently blamed the massacre of moslem people in a mosque in Christchurch by Australian right wing terrorist, Brenton Tarrant, on moslem immigration. Similarly in the past, this argument emerges when there is racial violence, such as Serbs and Croats fighting outside a tennis match in 2007 or the Cronulla riots. On the contrary, these outbreaks of violence are motivated by racism. That's straight forward. The attack is not motivated by someone being multicultural. If violence is a symptom of failure, then clearly it is racism that has failed. Multiculturalism is the view that people can retain their culture and live alongside each other - you don't see people with that belief commiting acts of violence against another race. Outbreaks of violence are rare and shocking so we notice them. Instances of people getting along peacefully are rare so we seldom notice them. If you get on a train in Melbourne at any time of day you will see people of races from every corner of the world going about their business without violence. Every moment there are millions of successes of multiculturalism. One racist failure shouldn't discount this.
Indigenous philosophy can be indigenous philosophers taught in Eurocentric situation bringing all the critical aparatus of academia to bear or it can refer to traditional philosophy that developed before the arrival of colonisers. It's important to remember though that this doesn't mean it belongs to the historical past or is out dated, something of yesteryear and no longer relevant. This idea of historical 'progress' is typically transplanted by the coloniser themselves.
Traditional philosophy is clearly still relevant wherever it is practiced and continues to be a vital part of people's identity, guiding their lives and livelihood. Many would argue that it is a more succcessful than Western assumptions and practices - capitalist ownership model and environmental (mis)management are grounded on Western philosophical attitude and after more than 200 years have clearly failed in many parts of Australia with mass fish and livestock deaths symptomatic of widespread ecological and economic collapse. This may have been a contentious issue in the past but the scale of these catastrophe's can leave no-one in doubt that the system isn't working.
Traditional philosophy is not something of the past but lives in the present - Yolngu people show us some good examples in film and TV, others revive and reclaim language and practices that have been threatened by colonialism, in Congo young people disenchanted with the failure of Western ways look to traditional ways.
Bruce Pascoe on indigenous knowledge (so epistemology), agriculture and environmental management:
East-West or North-South - Said and Orientalism, Eurasia is contiguous 'old world'
European modernity coincides with colonial history.
Criticises not just enlightnement but post-structuralism
Learning from not about. [Raewyn Connell, Southern Theory
- Can't see it. Yuendumu art movement - it's paint on a 2D surface - now we see art. [Vivien Johnson Once Upon A Time In Papunya]
- Jacko Ross Jakamarra - what does he mean?
- Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu and the Great Estate, friable land, hunting estates.
- could learn from it, eg: the rivers are full of dead fish. QLD is full of dead cattle. Farmers are bankrupt. Suicide rates are high.
- Terra Nullius, protecting information, avoiding being objects of study where knowledge is power, but also being recognised as not terra nullius and appreciated as civilisation.
Reduction of subject to object.
objectification and othering
objectification and violence
objectification and science
objectification and language
Bartolomeo de las Casas
Rousseau is often credited with the idea of the 'noble savage' but there is some controversy around this, and the consensus seems to be that his view of the 'progress' of civilisation from a 'natural' state does not include a 'noble savage'. None the less, the idea was prevalent at the time, and another good articulation of it, from the early times of European globalisation - when their encounters with the rest of the world started to change their understanding of who they were and their understanding of what it means to be 'human' - is Montaigne's Essay, 'Of Cannibals' (c.1590).
These nations then seem to me to be so far barbarous, as having received but very little form and fashion from art and human invention, and consequently to be not much remote from their original simplicity. The laws of nature, however, govern them still, not as yet much vitiated with any mixture of ours: but ‘tis in such purity, that I am sometimes troubled we were not sooner acquainted with these people, and that they were not discovered in those better times, when there were men much more able to judge of them than we are. I am sorry that Lycurgus and Plato had no knowledge of them; for to my apprehension, what we now see in those nations, does not only surpass all the pictures with which the poets have adorned the golden age, and all their inventions in feigning a happy state of man, but, moreover, the fancy and even the wish and desire of philosophy itself; so native and so pure a simplicity, as we by experience see to be in them, could never enter into their imagination, nor could they ever believe that human society could have been maintained with so little artifice and human patchwork. I should tell Plato that it is a nation wherein there is no manner of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name of magistrate or political superiority; no use of service, riches or poverty, no contracts, no successions, no dividends, no properties, no employments, but those of leisure, no respect of kindred, but common, no clothing, no agriculture, no metal, no use of corn or wine; the very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, detraction, pardon, never heard of.
I conceive there is more barbarity in eating a man alive, than when he is dead; in tearing a body limb from limb by racks and torments, that is yet in perfect sense; in roasting it by degrees; in causing it to be bitten and worried by dogs and swine (as we have not only read, but lately seen, not amongst inveterate and mortal enemies, but among neighbours and fellow-citizens, and, which is worse, under colour of piety and religion), than to roast and eat him after he is dead.
Montaigne's Essay, 'Of Cannibals' (c.1590)
The point of Montaigne is to expose the hipocracy of condemning cannibals when Europeans routinely wage war, massacre, hang, torture, rape, and commit countless other vile acts. Europeans tend to have a progressive, rather than cyclical or other view of time. One fo the many criticisms of the noble savage view is that although viewing 'savages' benevolently it is still racist, assuming a lower stage of progress, assuming all are 'simple' and 'innocent', and good by nature (essentialising) rather than complex individuals in complex social and environmental situations, etc. Either by constructing this identity, Europeans construct themselves at the same time, by contrast to it.
In particular the well known 'Englightenment idea of progress' is that through reason and science we will continue steadily improving knowledge and technology to improve life for all humanity. There have been many much criticised problems with this view, such as the atrocities committed as part of spreading 'civilisation' to the world, and the destruction of other cultures to make way for Eurocentric world views etc.
One of the most well known challenges to this view, within Europe was the French Revolution, which began with great hopes of liberty, equality and brotherhood, but quickly descended into a violent state of anarchy, entrenching forever after in European thought contrasts between oppressive dictatorial tyrrany and freedom and equality, and violent revolution and conservative comfort. One of the key philosophers leading into the revolution was Rousseau ("Man is born free, yet is everywhere in chains.") and his views none the less owe a lot to the popular perceptions of the 'noble savage'. In this view European civilisation has fallen from a 'state of nature', analogous to Eden, and declined progressively into a society of greed, corruption and oppression. Rousseau suggests a better society would be founded on a 'social contract' where we each agree to do what is in everyone's interest, not just our own. The point is that European's encounter with the world radically transformed their ideas of who they are, what the meaning of 'human' is, and lead to it's most radical and long lasting political upheavals.
Romanticism was a response to the clear rationality of the Enlightenment where it was recognised that the emotions hold as much sway over humanity as does reason. As often as not more so. Romantics advocated the pursuit of profound feeling, and closeness to nature, holding 'the sublime' as the pinnacle of aesthetic achievement - an emotion of awe bordering on terror, such as may be had standing on the edge of a cliff, and generally were strong supporters of the French revolution as the best hope for freedom from oppression. Romantics too had to confront dissillusionment at the anarchy, violence, brutality and terror that ensued.
Through the return to 'nature' the romantic movement came to reinforce nationalism. Wordsworth for example, after being homesick in Germany, became pre-occupied with the Lake District in England and he and other Romantics turned to English vernacular, as an indigenous language, rather than ornate classicisms, as the medium of their poetry. Ie: Indigeneity and 'country' became a central concern. It's worth noting that Wordsworth was very well read in travel literature and explorers narratives with many volumes attested in his library and having fed Coleridge material for the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. Distant travels constructs our home, our identity.
Yet were I grossly destitute of all
Those human sentiments which make this earth
So dear, if I should fail with grateful voice
To speak of you, ye mountains! and ye lakes
And sounding cataracts! ye mists and winds
That dwell among the hills where I was born.
The Two-Book Prelude, William Wordsworth, 1798–99
Through various shifts this feed into nationalism, the drive for official national languages out of dialects, the demarkation of national boundaries according to language use, with sometimes very bad consequences, like Hitler's annexation of Austria, invasion of Poland and European and World Wars generally. European powers, in order to compete with their neighbours had to maintain colonial empires. Notably, Germany did not do well colonially. At the same time this 'nationalism' growing from the importance of 'country' and language was used in resistance to colonialism. Irish nationalism, which drew heavily on Gaelic language and mythology to establish identity, brought about independance. Nationalism was also a rallying call in many postcolonial independence movements.
The overall point I'm getting at here is that that indigeneity, 'humanity', and 'country' in Europe has been as much influenced by the colonial encounter as the rest of the world. It s not as if 'philosophy' emanates from the dominant coloniser - rather the coloniser and their thoughts are produced through that encounter. Further though these assumptions determine European perceptions of colonised peoples, and this can be a thin veil for unashamed exploitation. When Colombus first encountered America, his notes keenly observed the Carib's of those islands were cannibals which, according to Spanish law exempted them from being treated in a humane manner. Leading to the atrocities described in Bartolomeo de Las Casas' 'A Short Account Of The Destruction Of The Indies'. Europeans are sedentary - they have long been farmers and so see things in terms of paddocks with fences clearly demarkating what is in and out, what is mine and yours, what is animal and crop, what is cultured and wild. This feeds into the the idea of 'Terra Nullius', the view that people who are not farming or mining land are not 'using' it and so do not 'own' it - a failure to see indigenous land management. This blindness is transparently willful since it suited colonisers very well to grant themselves land. It is still with us today - the AIATSIS map is effective because it shows in a way that it easy to understand that there were hundreds of 'nations' occupying Australia in different language based territories. Yet the AIATSIS map remains widely acknowledged as problematic, the language groups might not be accurate, the borders are blurry - the people using language move vast distances and might routinely be in other parts of the country for periodic feasting festivals and so on. There are no European mapping conventions adequate for representing traditional Australian indigenous country. The map remains the best option, able to translate at least some understanding.
Césaire, Aimé in ‘Discourse on Colonialism’ criticises the idea of 'civilising the natives' arguing that what happens in the colonial process is 'savaging the the civilised', in so far as even those far from the frontier condone the greatest atrocities for the sake of having delectable spices at the dinner table. He also makes the point that those atrocities Hitler commited in Europe are only those committed by the other nations in their colonies.
First we must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism; and we must show that each time a head is cut off or an eye put out in Vietnam and in France they accept the fact, each time a little girl is raped and in France they accept the fact, each time a Madagascan is tortured and in France they accept the fact, civilization acquires another dead weight, a universal regression takes place, a gangrene sets in, a center of infection begins to spread; and that at the end of all these treaties that have been violated, all these lies that have been propagated, all these punitive expeditions that have been tolerated, all these prisoners who have been tied up and interrogated, all these patriots who have been tortured, at the end of all the racial pride that has been encouraged, all the boastfulness that has been displayed, a poison has been instilled into the veins of Europe and, slowly but surely, the continent proceeds toward savagery.
Yes, it would be worthwhile to study clinically, in detail, the steps taken by Hitler and Hitlerism and to reveal to the very distinguished, very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century that without his being aware of it, he has a Hitler inside him, that Hitler inhabits him, that Hitler is his demon, that if he rails against him, he is being inconsistent and that, at bottom, what he cannot forgive Hitler for is not crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India, and the blacks of Africa.
Césaire, Aimé in ‘Discourse on Colonialism’
There is often an argument in recent European philosophy and in Post Colonial critiques of it against 'essentialism'. This is an argument against reducing people to some essential defining characteristic which is assumed to be in their 'nature' and so can't be changed. For example, that all women are kind, good natured, have motherly instincts and are suited to cooking and cleaning houses. Or that men are violent, domineering, stupid, hairy apes. And so on. Obviously there is a long history of Europeans and colonisers 'essentialising' indigenous people as savage, lazy, stupid, greedy, lustful, and so on. Beyond this there has been a tendency of scientific study to confirm these biases, or if not, to none the less essentialise indigenous people. Eg: anthropological study might give the impression that all people of a certain type or culture, beleive in a certain group of gods and devoutly follow certain rituals in the worship of them, and so on. The problem here is that it denies the possibility of any individual having a mind of their own, thinking, judging and criticising, and in particular makes them an 'object' of study, rather than a human for whom things also exist and who can make their own judgements. The argument against this says that what it means to be Chinese, or Arrente or Azande is socially constructed, not an essential or natural characteristic of the individual - Azande people are not necessarily all fierce warriors who believe in 'witch doctors'.
Gayatri Spivak introduced a term 'strategic essentialism' to describe a situation where, although indigenous 'subjects' don't actually have 'essential' characteristics, some common identity is adopted in order to act collectively toward a political goal. Thus groups of people, to ensure their survival as a group, might self describe themselves as having certain traits and strengths etc.
It may be argued that to suggest an ontological relationship to describe Indigenous belonging is essentialist or is a form of strategic essentialism because I am imputing an essence to belonging. From an indigenous epistemology, what is essentialist is the premise upon which such criticism depends: the Western definition of the self as not unitary nor fixed... Questioning the integrity and legitimacy of Indigenous ways of knowing and being has more to do with who has the power to be a knower and whether their knowledge is commensurate with the West's 'rational' believe system. The anti-essentialist critique is commendable but is premised on a contradiction within the Western construction of essentialism; it is applied as a universal despite its epistemological recognition of difference.
p32, Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Indigenous Belonging and Place in Uprootings/Regroundings
What Moreton-Robinson is getting at here might be made clearer by considering a passage in the famous post-structuralist essay 'The Death Of The Author' by Roland Barthes. Barthes articulates a commonly held view that indigenous cultures, as oral cultures, don't have an idea of a 'genius author' who creates a great work - rather the great works are created and owned by the community as a whole, and repeated mnemonically generation after generation without newness and novelty being of any concern. This is in contrast to the European artist or writer and the myth of them creating new things out of their own individual genius and that this myth of the 'author' comes after the middle ages. Barthes argues against the meaning of the text being in the author's intention - instead he says that the meaning of a text is in the reader. The point for Barthes, is to use this to argue against the author as way of resisting 'authority' and power, and putting power of back into the hands of the reader who determines the meaning for themself. This is part of a European rhetoric of political struggles for individual freedoms. Barthes enlists 'primitive' or as we would say, 'indigenous', societies in his argument against authorship and for freedom from capitalist and political oppression.
Anyone familiar with Australian art should see the flaw in this argument. Aboriginal art has been caught up in an endless scandal of theft and missappropriation. Failure to recognise and acknowledge indigenous authorship, rather than liberating from capitalist and political power, instead has been the instrument of capitalist exploitation. Art dealers and charlatans have made a lot of money from the sale of art without acknowledging or giving much back to the creators of the works. This reality contradicts Barthes' theory. Furthermore, as Moreton Robinson puts it - Barthes is arguing that many diverse meanings reside in individuals with no central over-riding authority - yet his argument assumes this will apply Universally to all mankind. This universality of extreme individualism denies the particular case of indigenous essentialist belonging to land (ie: the idea that who 'we' are is not an invention or varied interpretation, not arbitrarily determined by a reader, but essentially belonging to country.)
"...in primitive societies, narrative is never undertaken by a person, but by a mediator, shaman or speaker, whose “performance” may be admired (that is, his mastery of the narrative code), but not his “genius”. The author is a modern figure, produced no doubt by our society insofar as, at the end of the middle ages, with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, or, to put it more nobly, of the “human person”."
p2 Barthes, Roland The Death Of The Author
Does it matter who is speaking?
Can a white person speak about Aboriginal experience? Can a white person leave out Aboriginal experience? It's just good writing to properly research characters.
If it does then who am I? A product of British Imperial Eugenics, designed and built for a redundant empire.
If the criticism is of Eurocentrism, then it seems to me obvious I should seek other influences and cite them. But not anthropology - not as the object of study, unless anthropology methodology is radically rethought, there are attempts at this.
If the criticism is objectification then it seems to me worth pursuing a strategy of subjectification. What would this be?
Subjectivity and objectivity. This is a big subject in Ethics, so in brief... Kant subject object, as in subject verb object sentence construction where the subject is that which does, and the object is what it is done to, or about. Similarly in terms of consciousness - the subject is that which is conscious and the object is what we are conscious of (which gets complicated when we are conscious of ourself - our subject grasping ourself as an object). In ethics a subject is something conscious of objects in the world. When we encounter another person, in the so called 'Face to Face' relation [Levinas], or 'intersubjectivity' we encounter an object in the sense that they are outside of us and we are conscious of but we are also aware they are like ourselves, that the objects in the world exist for them also. When using things objects in the world we don't usually think much about it - they are 'ready to hand' [Heidegger]. In the gaze of another person, for who the world also exists as it does for us, they can judge what we are doing - they might think things should be used or done differently. Since they have lead a different life to us it's likely that will happen. When we encounter another person we encounter something like ourselves but also radically different. We can never be absolutely sure we have understood them. We never know what they are thinking, and if we do they can change their mind. They are infinitely beyond our comprehension. This can lead to curiosity, to desire, to friendship and love. It is also possible to treat a subject as if they were an object. To treat them as something knowable, who just carries out typical stereotypical behaviour, who can be used for my own ends, whose judgmenet is irrelevant or non existant - this is 'violence'.
So subjectivity is somewhere between, or beside 'blindness' such as terra nullius, the inability to see anything at all, and anthropology or ethnophilosophy where 'man' can be 'known' as the object of a science. It is where there we recognise someone for who the world also exists in just as much complexity as it does for ourselves, who is not a means to an ends, who cannot be 'used' but for who the world is also useful, for who can judge us and our actions and who we also might judge, who we can negotiate with and interact with - but never finally know completely, whose thoughts remain always a mystery.
Reading Jacko Ross Jackamarra's 'How I Came Back To Yajarlu' has that effect on me. So too does Clifford Possum's Warlugulong which has 9 stories layered on one canvas. So does the ability to see that one plant which you can suck water from the leaves of if there's no creek nearby. So too when I learn that the patterns painted on the Gabi Gabi calf, a line with branching lines on each side (a fish skeleton and or a tree), indicate both the mullet run and the bunya tree, both feasting times which other mobs travel for months to attend. These things reveal that there is a lot that I don't know.
Avoiding homogeneity - it's not going to be easy [Collins-Gearing and Huijser in the 10 Canoes essay].
Japan and the Meiji era. [You can't change Japan but you can add to it. Very few parts of the world resisted ever being colonised - Ethiopia is one, Japan another. Japan strictly blocked interaction until 'gun boat diplomacy' then modernised within a generation and became an imperial power on equal footing with Europe.]
The masters tools and bricolage.
Dense saturation of multiple meanings. Place names. etc.
Mixtec Place Names
Poems and repetitiveness.
Gubbi Gubbi bunya tree and mullet bones.
https://artsearch.nga.gov.au/detail.cfm?irn=167409 Warlugulong, 1977, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri Clifford Possum, Anmatyerr people, one of the earliest large scale canvas works from the Papunya movement. 9 dreaming layers on each other, the clearest is the start of the original bushfire.
I have heard more than a few people say that there is no substitute for being on country and hearing the stories and the wisdom from elders, aunties and uncles, and forging that direct ethical, personal relationship with the place. There's no denying that - most would agree that even just seeing a sun set over the water and smelling the brine and feeling that balmy breeze on your face cannot be adequately put in words. But most of us don't have that priveleged access to a place to go and someone to teach us. So what can we do to appreciate and learn from indigenous cultures as we would from other intellectual traditions around the world? To learn from not just about [Raewyn Connell Introduction in Southern Theory]? How can we do this without misappropriating, misrepresenting, stealing, offering unwanted help, being patronising, seeming like a hippie who thinks having an intense dream gives them access to a 40,000 year old system of spiritual law, accidentally saying the wrong thing, making naive well intentioned mistakes, adding insult to injury? Even indigenous people who have lost touch, or who have had that connection taken away might have some of these questions when trying to reconnect.
Asking first is always a good start, without expecting anyone owes you an answer, and someone who has made themselves available for question - not everyone wants to be questioned. If there is no-one you can ask individually, sometimes this asking might just be doing some research, bearing in mind you still might not have understood and you are seeing only one person's view. This is just a good way to go about life anyway.
What follows is just my attempt to pass on what I have learnt and found useful to gain a better understanding and appreciation of indigenous culture, focusing on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.
Traditional indigenous philosophy is often oral, but also written in art, dance, sand sculpture, the land itself and other ways. With 200 different language groups there are many different styles from different places.
Some talks about songlines: Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters, National Museum Australia
Warlugulong, 1977, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri Clifford Possum, Anmatyerr people, one of the earliest large scale canvas works from the Papunya movement. 9 dreaming layers on each other, the clearest is the start of the original bushfire.
Wanjinas - A 20,000 year old style. Don't paint them without permission.
At a recent conference about Australian studies, a Waanyi woman, Josephine, expressed great dissappointment that more indigenous people weren't invited. Instead there were many white people, all talking about bad things that had happened to indigenous people sometimes without even asking Aboriginal people and without aboriginal speakers. At such a conference, you can't understand it. You can understand it intellectually, but you cannot really understand it.
All the bad that has happened must be recognised and acknowledged, but it is as important to recognise and acknowledge the beauty, the good, the skill, the intricate and subtle brilliance coming from indigenous living culture. Rather than a 'victim' narrative, a narrative of 'resilience' would be better (Josephine's aide and translator used this word).
When trying to understand something we translate it into terms with which we are already familiar. We are constrained to do this but it can lead to misinterpretation. As Aboriginal stories have often been translated into a recognisable form of folk tales and myths, familiar to Europeans, it is easy to see this as confirming myths and folktales are similar all over the world, and to see these stories as myths and folktales. Typically we hear, by contrast, that these stories contain not just myth and folk tale, but practical knowledge about how to navigate on long journeys, what food to find where and when, laws about proper behaviour and ceremony, kinship and marriage, profound spirituality and entertainment. There are many layers of intersecting meaning - or 'polysemy' in any manifestation of Aboriginal knowledge, be it dance, art, story telling, and so on. We often hear that, but without misappropriating or telling things that we aren't allowed to tell - how does that work?
One of my favourite works of literature is Jacko Ross Jackamarra's story 'How I Came Back To Yajarlu' in Warlpiri Dreamings And Histories because I don't understand it. It reveals to me, what I understand about it, is that there is a vast amount, a whole way of looking at the world, that would take me years to even begin to understand. I like it because it 'subjectifies' - there is someone who exists, infinitely beyond my ability to ever finally and totally understand - I'm not lead into the false assumption that I have understood, or know.
In a commentary on an Awabakal song of mourning, only 4 lines long [sorry I need to find this reference] the commentator notes how simple and repetitive a lot of Aboriginal songs seem. Partly repetition is a memory aid, but the simplicity is deceptive. Another strategy for remembering is polysemy - an art of imbuing one thing with many layers of meanings and associations (in contrast to trying to clearly distinguish ideas and words).
We are all familiar with how Japanese poetry plays on subtle and profound interconnected meanings with skillful simplicity. A common example is the Cherry Blossom. A haiku or waka need only have these words 'Cherry Blossom' to evoke many connotations - Spring, the beauty of youth, the short lived, transient nature of that youth, the cycle of youth and old age, the spiritual acceptance that all things change such that cheerful cherry blossoms come to signify the melancholoy of old age and ultimately the Buddhist teaching that because all things pass unhappiness and torment is caused by desire to hold on to things, clinging to things that must inevitably pass.
What does wattle bloom mean? To me here in Newcastle it marks the end of winter. In 'Welcome To My Country' by Laklak Burarrwanga and family (Yolngu country in north NT) it's explained that the first budding and blooming of wattle means the turtle hunting season will be starting soon - it's a time of excitement, looking forward to family gatherings feasting on good food. The book relates stories associated with turtle hunting which demonstrate the crucial ethical imperative not to be greedy but to share food among family and community. This is of primary importance over personal satisfaction. The book is pitched at a child's reading level, so even with a child's level of education, we can start to see, like the cherry blossom in a haiku, that the meaning of wattle involves satisfaction of desires, looking forward to feasting, to good times with family and the ethical and spiritual imperative to share. The book is teaching us a little about how to read the country. When a story is taken out of context of it's country and put into a Western style collection of 'stories' the full subtlety and profoundity can easily be lost, making it seem a mere folk tale.
An illiterate foreignor might see a hill and some eucalypt trees. A painting in a gallery, away from the song and the place, looks abstract. The assumption for foreignors should be that if you don't see much that there is something you don't see, not that there is nothing much there.
Often people mention that cyclical time is more important than linear time and so called 'progress' - there are concentric scales of cyclic time, from breath, to seasons, generations and the dreaming. This is well portrayed in the film 10 Canoes.
The epistemic value of stories and dreams: People who have grown up accepting scientific determination of truth, with an atheistic, materialist view of the world have great difficulty accepting beliefs such as the dreamtime as factual - the idea that there really were these spirits emerging from the ground and so on. But this focus on literal factual meanings is a product of this scientific world view. One way people with that world view can begin to accept the value of this knowledge is in three ways that I can think of.
1. Pragmatic value - if there is a story that reliably predicts where to get food, it has some 'truth' value in that sense - science is based largely on predictive capacity of a theory. Perhaps simply translating into scientific language helps: the appearance of wattle has a positive correlation with the appearance of turtles and the average diameter of wattle blooms correlates with the quantity of turtles.
2. Legal rulings - stories and dreamings may contain legal truths, which are arbitrary not laws of nature.
3. Parables - they can be seen as providing good advice or articulating moral guides, just as proverbs and parables do. There is great debate about whether the bible should be taken literally or as proverbs providing spiritual guidance or guidance for making good choices in life etc. These are 'truths' of a different kind to scientific truths, but truths none the less.
A good example of this latter is the famous chickadee dream of Plenty Coups, a leader of the Crow Nation in North America. The Crow people were losing battles in the ongoing war of white people's expansion across North America. Plenty Coups dreamed of a chickadee, a small bird that is very cautious and intelligent, always learning - a contrast to the usual brave, daring attitude of Crow warriors (Plenty Coups gets his name from having many times snuck into enemy camps and stolen something without even having to kill anyone). The characteristics of the Chickadee were adopted as a strategy leading to the successful survival of Plenty Coups and the Crow Nation. It's hard to deny this dream has 'truth' to it.
Bending low, I heard the Four Winds rush past me as though they were not yet satisfied, and then I looked at the destruction they had left behind them.
"Only one tree, tall and straight, was left standing where the great forest had stood. The Four Winds that always make war alone had this time struck together, riding down every tree in the forest but one. Standing there alone among its dead tribesmen, I thought it looked sad. 'What does this mean?' I whispered in my dream.
" 'Listen, Plenty-coups,* said a voice. *In that tree is the lodge of the Chickadee. He is least in strength but strongest of mind among his kind. He is willing to work for wisdom. The Chickadee-person is a good listener. Nothing escapes his ears, which he has sharpened by con- stant use. Whenever others are talking together of their successes or failures, there you will find the Chickadee-person listening to their words. But in all his listening he tends to his own busi- ness. He never intrudes, never speaks in strange company, and yet never misses a chance to learn from others. He gains success and avoids failure by learning' how others succeeded or failed, and without great trouble to himself. There is scarcely a lodge he does not visit, hardly a Per- son he does not know, and yet everybody likes him, because he minds his own business, or pre- tends to.
" 'The lodges of countless Bird-people were In that forest when the Four \Vinds charged it. Only one is left unharmed, the lodge of the Chickadee-person.
[Plenty Coups presented his dream to the council and the wisest among them remarked:
The meaning of his dream is plain to me. I see its warning. The tribes who have fought the white man have all been beaten, wiped out. By listening as the Chickadee listens we may escape this and keep our lands.
Aboriginal people can navigate hundreds of kilometres using songlines and other forms of maps (stars, dance, sand drawings, etc). For this they need good ways of remembering.
Some stories are around 10,000 years old according to geological evidence [Nunn & Reid]. Many people will know the children's party game called 'Chinese whispers' where a story or sentence is whispered from one child to another in a chain. By the end, the words have changed through errors along the way. So how can oral stories last this long? In information theory there is a concept called 'redundancy'. If you send two copies of a message, it is easy to identify that there is an error. If there are any errors it is highly unlikely they will both be exactly the same error. In oral cultures there are many techniques and rituals for remembering and error detecting. The rhythm and repetition of poetry and song is an obvious example. Another is that in some cultures there will be a someone with personal responsibility for remembering and telling the story, and another who is not allowed to tell it, but who is responsible for saying if the other is telling it right - thus 'redundancy' is used to drastically reduce error rates in story telling, and it is possible for stories to last for 10,000 years (that's about 400 generations taking a generation as 25 years).
You may have heard of myth being likened to a weave. In ancient Greek myth there are many stories involving Athene on one axis, such as when she appears in the tale of Perseus or in the Trojan wars, and the story of Athene herself winding through all these other stories. The stories and landscape can also work like that. Each place may be assigned a person or people who are is responsible for it. That person will know stories relating to that place. Because people must move around the country to find food and so on, stories are often used to remember travel routes - songlines. To hear the whole story though you might have to travel the songline to hear all the parts of the story from the people responsible for that place [Paddy Roe in Benterrak, Meucke & Roe 'Reading the Country: Introduction to Nomadology']. So people and places and stories are all connected. A place will have many parts of different stories associated with it, and be connected to other places through those stories. So in So in Clifford Possum's, Warlugulong, painting which depicts 9 overlapping stories. So in Jacko Ross Jackamarra's story 'How I Came Back To Yajarlu' it is hard to understand what he's talking about because he's talking about one particular place, and we don't know all the connections.
The rhetorical method of 'loci' or ‘mind palace’ is a well known memory technique used in ancient and medieval times. In this method we imagine some familiar place, such as the house we grew up in or some other familiar building and in each room or some place within it we imagine placing some object that will help trigger the desired memory. We can wander through the house and recall in sequence whatever we need. In The Memory Code Lynne Kelly points out that this is a technique used in traditional Aboriginal culture. Most people in the world have heard of 'songlines' and have seen traditional Aboriginal art which depicts, in partly abstract form, landscapes, laws, stories, journeys and practical information such as where and when to find food, and conveys different information for people with different roles in society (eg: https://nga.gov.au/collections/atsi/). In this sense the painting can be read as a text, like writing, but also, the land itself, which bears these stories about law, spirits, food, water and so on, becomes the text in which memory is written and from which is read, and which can be journeyed through in the mind or in reality, using the method of 'loci' - understanding this, we can begin to appreciate how country, songs, art, poetry, memory, law and survival are all connected.
The Deep History of Aboriginal Trade and Exchange Networks in the Top End of the Northern Territory Mudburra and Jingili people
When asked what a person can do to try to appreciate country better, on more than one occassion I've heard one way is to pay attention to the land underneath the layer of streets, shops and houses. Take note of the contours of the land and feel it beneath your feet, as it was before this was all here, and still is. This prompted me, as I walked about, to do some research in the hope of seeing what was here in this hollow where my kindergarten was, on this aspect overlooking the plain towards Westfield shopping town. One house I lived growing up. I didn't know that at the creek down the end of the road there was once a Bora ring until last year, nor that near my kindergarten there were once regular corroborees, and that on the traffic island across from my student house there was once a spring used as a healing spa. Consider the meanings of these places, written over. Now that I know these things, my 'reading' of the land, it's meaning, has changed. It's a matter of learning to read the meanings that are already there.
Since a lot of indigenous philosophy is oral and involves story telling, watching a few shows seems reasonable.
There are many great films by indigenous film makers, but these few examples highlight the contemporary relevance of indigenous philosophy and are either created or co-created by indigenous people. There's lots of interesting stuff on SBS and NITV too.
Some indigenous film can be heavy, because of the history, so if you want something with a lighter tone, try the Black As web TV series from Yolngu country, you can watch on the ABC, Youtube or the Black As website.
Some brilliant cinema. Some are slow paced, beautiful and compelling, Rhymes For Young Ghouls is rough and hard hitting, Ten Canoes is a masterpiece of non-linear narrative, cinematography and just plain good story telling.
A good question arose in class deserving consideration: Is Indigenous philosophy more like what Heidegger talks about? Where he says philosophy ended at Plato, and we should get back to the pre-socratic way?
Heidegger is critical of philosophy as a purely rational process, solving abstract problems etc, and wants to return to it as more of an attitude or way of being in the world. It is a bit like 'mindfulness' being conscious and paying attention to the sense of being in the present moment (he famously chopped wood just to be wood chopping), paying attention to the being of that circumstance, and extrapolating that out to Being itself, the being of Being. Is this 'being' more like what indigenous philosophy is about, with its emphasis on being in country?