Wakuwal Reviews


What Stands to Reason: Isabelle Stengers and Peter Botsman

Who am I? Ha! My name is unimportant, for I have many names. I am one of the daione sidhe.

So begins Peter Botsman’s tale of ancient lore and transient peoples. The voice here belongs to a shape-shifting spirit whose journey begins in the ancient terrain of Éire and follows a peasant woman as she makes the convict’s journey to the Great South Land in the 1880s. There, the narrative consciousness becomes infused with the spirit – or spirits – of Aboriginal land, and takes off on a journey of its own, deep into a mythos as ancient as that from which it was born.

Peter Botsman’s profile on The Conversation website describes him as ‘an inter-disciplinary public intellectual.’ He has held a number of significant positions including Director of the Evatt Foundation, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Queensland, Executive Director of the Brisbane Institute and Director of the Whitlam Institute and the University of Western Sydney. For the past forty years, Botsman has been a prolific and cogent writer on public policy.

For someone with this track record to embark on a work of mythic narrative is an intrepid move. Wakuwal (Dream) is, as Botsman states in a brief preface, a quest for common ground between European and Aboriginal Australian traditions of spirituality, born of a conviction that there is need for a change in the national psyche. This, as he envisages it, is a change that involves re-engaging with atavistic mythologies belonging to the pre-colonial traditions of those who have migrated here and finding in these the ground for rapprochement with the mythological heritage of Aboriginal Australia.

The challenges of such an enterprise are obvious. Mythic narrative calls for an entirely different kind of language from that of public documents and critical essays.

A non-Indigenous man, Botsman is also taking risks with cultural protocols. A recent article for Guardian Australia by Indigenous novelist Claire G. Coleman reaffirms long-standing resentments of cultural appropriation: ‘White people’s practice was to ask Indigenous people for our stories, write them down, get them published and claim the royalty and copyright for themselves.’ Coleman further writes, ‘Indigenous stories are fundamental to Australia’s understanding of itself’ and in Wakuwal, Botsman is seeking access to this understanding. Wakuwal invites the question: are there ways to find some meeting ground between mythologies, without making intrusions on territory that is not ours to enter? Botsman takes a stringent line on the protocols, opening with a caveat: ‘please use this book with care.’

The provenance of its story line and his own credentials as the tale teller are explicitly set out. During the 1980s, Botsman witnessed Aboriginal ceremonies in North East Arnhem Land and developed friendships with the Yolŋu elders who presided over them. This unlocked a series of dream visions from his own ancestral tradition, as a fifth generation descendent of Irish migrants. Subsequent dialogues with Aboriginal friends and family persuaded him that he should attempt an experiment, weaving together the legends of the daione sidhe of Ireland with the story lines belonging to the first peoples of the Great South Land. Botsman does not attempt to tell Yolŋu stories, but rather to enter the imaginative domain of the story telling, under the guidance of these friends and elders. ‘Many Yolŋu eyes have helped this text as best they can,’ he attests. The scrutiny involved working closely with S D Gurruwiwi, co-author of the online dictionary of the Yolŋu language.

Daione sidhe (pronounced doina shee) are faerie people, invisible to most humans most of the time – but they will manifest themselves in situations of their choosing, individually or as a clan. They are pranksters, shapeshifters, healers and seers, able to travel at lightning speed through dimensions of time and space, yet ‘earthed’ in a literal sense, through their habitation in ancient mounds. Their relationship to modern consciousness fascinated the poet W.B.Yeats, who collected local accounts of them in The Celtic Twilight (1893), a work based on diaries he kept during a walking trip through the western counties of Ireland. Scepticism might be spreading, he observed, ‘but no matter what one doubts, one never doubts the faeries, for… “they stand to reason.”’

That’s a nice provocation, with a continuing potential to stir up the hornet’s nest of contentions about what constitutes reason, science and the forms of contemporary intelligence claiming to be constituted by them. ‘What, now, of animism?’ asked Isabelle Stengers in a presentation she gave for the Sawyer Seminar Series at UC Davis in 2013. Stengers, one of Europe’s premier scholars in the philosophy of science, wants no easy answers to the question of who or what stands to reason. The conventional scientific view of animism, she argues, is couched in the progress narrative of scientific modernity: propelled by the advancement of knowledge, civilisation moves from superstition to skeptical enlightenment and ‘thou shalt not regress’ becomes a commandment. Under this commandment, she says, we are faced with the disenchantment of the modern world.

In the context of an academic seminar ‘the disenchantment of the modern world’ comes across as a certain kind of theoretical avant-gardism, associated with a body of work published by Stengers and her co-speaker at the seminar, Donna Haraway. For their audiences, the disenchanted world is the default option, and Stengers poses the question, ‘How can we accept a return or regression to supernatural beliefs?’

There is a response to that question in the unorthodox literary experiment of Wakuwal, but from a very different cultural context. For a society in which Indigenous traditions of knowledge co-exist with those of scientific modernity, very real consequences are attached to the processes of disenchantment.

This is Botsman’s concern as he seeks to promote an engagement between the polarised cognitive worlds of contemporary Australia through the creation of a mythos in which Australian and Celtic traditions of animism are interwoven. From a literary point of view, the exercise is hazardous. While it is not uncommon for an academic writer to branch out into fiction, Botsman is attempting something that moves outside the bounds of modern literary convention. Although there are Joycean elements, Wakuwal is closer in genre to the mediaeval dream vision than to the modern novel. Yeats was alert to the challenges of supernaturalism even within his own tradition, and curious about how attempts to engage with it would result in rambling sentences or a proliferation of allegoric figures. There was, he admitted, a ‘vast and vague extravagance at the bottom of the Celtic heart.’

Against this, the Yirrkala Church Panels that are Botsman’s acknowledged inspiration for the Aboriginal dimensions of his story exhibit extraordinary aesthetic precision and narrative density. The panels, two four-metre strips of masonite painted with sacred designs of the Yolŋu clans, were installed in the Church in 1962 as counterpart to its Christian iconography. Now also recognised as a land rights statement, they formed the basis for the Yirrkala bark petition presented to Parliament in 1965, in protest against an application to license bauxite mining on Yolŋu land. Ultimately, the decision went against the Yolŋu, though with provision for compensation and monitoring. Such are the processes that decree the primacy of one knowledge tradition over another, and such are the consequences.

The Yirrkala Panels illustrate the predicament at the heart of Botsman’s enterprise. Aboriginal stories are told in song, dance and painting. The intricate structure of the panels, their elaborately cross-referenced symbolism, the minute detailing of their narrative frames, are impossible to replicate in literary form. What kind of language will serve to communicate the fusion consciousness he seeks to evoke? What kind of voice will convey the presence of an entity that can take on the form of a dog, or ride on the shoulder of a human being, or rise in atmospheric haze to conduct dialogues with ‘Old Man Fog?’

Lyric writing, as Yeats understood perhaps better than anyone, may come across as spontaneous effusion but requires subtle control. Two lines from Yeats’s ‘The Countess Cathleen in Paradise’ serve as an epigraph for the second chapter of Wakuwal:

Yet she goes with footstep wary
Full of earth’s old timid grace.

The wariness exercised so sternly on the matter of cultural protocols is not always matched by restraint in the style of Wakuwal.  The footsteps must at all times retain their timid grace. Faeries inhabit beings and forces that are other than human, and human thought processes do not map onto them. Inevitably, some form of cognitive anthropomorphism creeps in and the mental world inhabited by the narrative voice is cluttered with elements that belong to a twenty-first-century cosmopolitan awareness. How would a transhuman entity ‘see’ the massive global transitions taking place through the later decades of the nineteenth century? In the sweeping overview, the lyric mode wears thin: ‘Irish and Russian dynasties would merge in the great jigsaw puzzle of life and criss-cross again with Germany, county Mayo, county Clare and the wild Westmeath territory.’ A few pages later, there’s further slippage, into the zone of twentieth-century pop psychology: ‘As ever, there were great blockages of ego and selfishness.’

My purpose here is not to slight, but to stress that this is a seriously difficult kind of writing to pull off. The relationship between language and consciousness comes under new kinds of pressure in every phase of the narrative. What does this being know, and on what terms? There are passages where Botsman experiments with a Joycean stream of consciousness, running across pages in succession with hardly a paragraph break. Some readers might feel that it doesn’t work, because the payoff in stylistic virtuosity is not sufficient to compensate for the density of the prose, but we should not be too quick to evaluate experiment, or to assume we know where it is going.

The book opens with a vision of the aerial spirit rising into the stratosphere where all consciousness of time and space is lost. ‘Through cracks and holes the universe unfolds.’ It’s an inspired way of suggesting that the material transmigrations of the spirit arise from an essential emptiness, which is the enabling condition for a migration between spiritual traditions. To attempt a liaison between mythologies from opposite sides of the planet, however imperfectly it is realised, is an act of courage involving profound imaginative commitment. Sometimes remarkable things happen on the page: a narrative line, a turn of phrase, or a perspective that has the ring of truth. At the start of the third chapter, Botsman embarks on an alphabetical invocation the names of all the traditional peoples of Australia – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – inviting the reader to speak them aloud, slowly, to allow the vibrations to arise and, along with them, a world seen with new eyes. A stream of words in search of consciousness – that’s another stretch of literary convention, but stretching of some kind is what this is about. For twenty-first-century century small-screen addicts who are bound in a nutshell, captured by illusions of infinite space, this is an exercise that makes radically unfamiliar demands.

Stengers might recommend it as an exercise in reverse ethnography, a step in the direction of the more open and expansive knowledge economy she advocates in her latest book, Another Science is Possible. Its subtitle, A Manifesto for Slow Science, is shared with a 2010 German manifesto that calls for a break with four hundred years of technologically-driven science whose forward momentum is responsive to that of an industrially-driven economy, and a return to modes of enquiry that would allow the scientist time to think. But Stengers has a more ambitious agenda. She envisages a slow science that could be part of ‘the struggle against the imperialist disqualification of non-modern ways of understanding nature.’

This raises the question of who she is writing for. Who might have ears to hear in the laboratories where cultures of training lead to ‘arrogant and naïve forms of communication, devoid of the critical thinking they so often boast about,’ and where much vaunted commitments to experimental research are bound up with ‘cultivated disinterest in the messy complications of this world.’ Whether they are listening or not, Stengers writes with a stern admonition for all of us who are believers in the hierarchical knowledge economy over which they preside – and the word ‘believers’ here is used advisedly.

One of her rhetorical strategies is to reverse the evaluative terminology of nineteenth-century colonial science, to accuse laboratory scientists of living in a Peter Pan fantasy conjured up with promises of a future they can never deliver. Instead of the smooth-running, infinitely producing world they persist in imagining, their efforts have left us in an unholy planetary mess that gets worse by the year. And as for their history of purporting to represent the higher levels of cognition that are the defining component of ‘civilisation’ in its opposition to the ‘barbarism of those cultures still wallowing in a state of intellectual backwardness… well they must learn to present themselves in a civilized manner. And that means recognising that others have ways of finding meanings, tracing connections, and making things matter.

Ultimately, the appeal is addressed to the public as adjudicators. In place of the academic term ‘public understanding of science,’ Stengers proposes a public intelligence of the sciences. We the people should think about what concerns us without being over-ruled by claims from experts about ‘what we know.’ Questions about the public and its intelligence, though, are of a kind philosophers of science love to wrestle with. Everyday conversations don’t often move in this direction. ‘Professionalism has been mated with progress’ is a great catchphrase for a lecture, but one that is unlikely to get the conversation moving up a gear at a backyard barbeque.

Stengers is trenchant on the issue of ‘esoteric’ and ‘exoteric’ relationships in the knowledge economy. ‘Esoteric’ communications take place within disciplines, amongst those who are credentialed insiders in a particular field of enquiry. Exoteric dialogue occurs in the public domain, between scientists and laypeople who cannot expect to know or understand the sophisticated terms of front-line scientific enquiry. In such dialogues, the listening public is typically regaled with summary accounts of ‘what we know,’ and expected to take them on trust. A determination to challenge this dichotomy might have led to a different kind of book, one directly addressed to the general reader, and offering some specific ideas about what might constitute an intelligent line of questioning on a particular scientific matter. But such writing does not come naturally to Stengers. She is a philosopher through and through, and her own engagements have been predominantly esoteric, in the form of seminars and lectures held within the academy.

That’s not to suggest that this is a difficult book. The lines of argument are clear and well illustrated. At just over 150 pages, it is quite succinct and the translation by Stephen Muecke gives ease and fluency to the prose. Interested undergraduate students with some guidance in the relevant disciplines should have no difficulty with it. It is, though, essentially a book for the academy, because its arguments are contextualized within debates in science and philosophy. It is also, fundamentally, a plea for universities to play a different role in the knowledge economy, one that fosters the ‘slow science’ approach to all areas of enquiry. Ten years ago, Stengers writes, she was ready to declare that the academy was a dying institution, ‘richly deserving its fate.’ Today she sees things differently. The destruction of the academy would eradicate resources needed to address the future, not as the never-never land promised by biotechnologists, but as one in which the earth itself is under imminent threat.

A central paradox in her argument is the proposition that slow science is the necessary response to an overwhelming urgency. The reasoning goes something like this. Ours is a time of confusion, anxiety and perplexity. Our ecosystems are in crisis, all around the planet. And here she introduces the word Gaia, the name James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis used to invoke an Earth that is something more than ‘the totality of the resources available for our use.’ Gaia is no passive victim in Lovelock’s polemical mythos; she takes revenge. Or as Stengers puts it, ‘“We” face a devastating power suddenly intruding into the stories we tell about ourselves.’  ‘“We” here extends beyond the academy, to a general public who are both victims and beneficiaries of what we have been taught to call scientific advancement. We have endorsed a great divide, she says, between ‘peoples’ project their beliefs onto nature, and a more clinical order of consciousness that sees through such backwardness.

Gaia is her challenge, precisely because the term, with all its mythological associations, has been such a sticking point in scientific culture. Naming Gaia, Stengers insists, signals the irruption of a transcendence we can no longer be denied by those who equated human emancipation with the denial of transcendence. What does it take to break the commandment ‘thou shalt not regress?’ To begin with, it takes time. It requires an apprenticeship in knowledge traditions that have never undergone a divorce from animism. Botsman has evidently undertaken just such an apprenticeship, one that, in Stengers terms, involves ‘weaving relations with different peoples and nations.’ Ursula Le Guin, who died earlier this year, made a similar call in her 2014 speech at the National Book Awards:

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom—poets, visionaries—realists of a larger reality.

Reading Another Science is Possible and Wakuwal in succession, I am struck by the thought that Stengers and Botsman have written the same treatise in different languages, and from different places in the human psyche. They issue the same call for a tectonic shift in the cognitive landscape.


Wakuwal: Threads of reconciliation

✿ What did you hope to achieve in writing Wakuwal?

I was quite close to Manning Clark and I had several one on one sessions with him at his house at Tasmania Circle in Canberra. His 1976 Boyer Lectures filled me with awe when I came back to Australia from the United States as a young man. I had a very idealised view of what Australia could be. But I struggled to read his five volumes. So from an early time in my life I have wondered how the history of European Australia could be told better and more accessibly.

Two Aboriginal women elders Ms S. D. Gurruwiwi and Mrs Butambil Burarrwanga came into my life from the late 1990s and it amazed me that they could recite their family history back five and more generations with ease. They taught me so much about their culture. At a certain point, they asked me where I came from, what was my family and what were my stories? I was ashamed that I could only tell them about my parents and their parents.

Batumbil and I met over a memorable stingray meal in the early 2000s. We were discussing the development of the Gi’kal homeland which she and her husband a Galpu elder had initially developed. He had passed away at that stage but his yapa and my yapa Mrs S. D. Gurruwiwi introduced Batumbil to me.

It began a lifelong friendship and partnership. I was adopted into the Galpu clan as Djalu’s, the famous elder and Dhuwa custodian of the yidaki, brother and so Ms. S.D. Gurruwiwi became my sister. We have done many projects together. Once you start to work with Yolngu1 people if you are not to be seaweed that comes in and out with the tide you must be brought into the family. Then everyone, all Yolŋu people, can relate to you and know who you are.

Ms. Gurruwiwi’s brother Djalu played the yidaki into me in the early 1990s and it seemed to unlock something that I had buried in my unconscious. From this point, I had a succession of dreams that framed the writing. I started off writing something for children. I started looking very closely at Yolŋu paintings and reading as much as I could about them, starting with the Yirrkala church panels which really began modern Australian land rights law and have been misunderstood for a long time.

Wakuwal is my first fiction book. For me, it has been a wild ride. I still think about new chapters and ideas. I could keep on writing the story forever. My only regret is that I could not include the 20 paintings that motivated many of the chapters and sections within chapters. My feeling was that if they had have been included it would have been too much of a cultural appropriation rather than an intercultural history. Many of the paintings which inspired the book are in national art galleries and can be visited but their true place is on the skin of those taking place in ceremonies.

The painting on the cover of the book is by Mrs Burrarwanga and is a yirritja design, the painting on the back of the book is by her husband and is a dhuwa galpu design that seals it.

The book, as a written text, cannot readily be something that accounts to Aboriginal Australians for the great evils and invasion of their land, but I hoped it could begin a new level of discussion. I was surprised to find that my great, great, great, great grandmother Honor Hughes a refugee of the Irish genocide, lived on Bruny Island with Truganini, a refugee from the Tasmanian genocide. What could they have said to each other? Probably nothing could be said. Yet being totally historicised fiction I could imagine the beginning of a discussion that would also lead me to Batumbil and Ms.Gurruwiwi.

✿ How did you learn the traditional Aboriginal stories that are included in the book?

From a very small child, I grew up with Aboriginal stories. My father was an English teacher who wrote his Masters thesis on Vance Palmer and I remember reading many stories of the bush. There was a basic and crude understanding of Aboriginal oral history in the texts of those days. From the age of 10, I lived in Papua New Guinea and I remember reading the essays of the first generation of Papua and New Guinea university students about their creation stories of their homes from New Ireland to the Sepik River to Goroka. Then I did my last year of high school in Upstate New York and naturally enough my major HSC writing was on the five nations of the Iroquois around where I was living. After that, there was a long lacunae where I worked alternately at manual jobs and then for the Australian Labor Movement running think tanks and public policy projects.

In 1991 I along with several national Aboriginal leaders created the Indigenous Stock Exchange with the idea that we would create investments in Aboriginal businesses and social and cultural organisations. The thought was that we would create alternative investment streams than just the money coming from the State capitals and Canberra. That has been a long and interesting ride with all sorts of lessons. However from that time I have become very close with many Aboriginal elders and leaders. Our principal was always that any project supported by the ISX had to come directly from the community. It was a good principle but it has also meant that things have had to develop over time. To do anything meaningful in any part of Aboriginal Australia means learning directly from Aboriginal people themselves. You can read a lot from the academics who were paid to transcribe and record Aboriginal stories. But no matter how well that is done, you have to be sitting down on Country with elders hearing directly from them. The ISX gave me that opportunity on the South Coast of NSW, in the Goulburn Valley, in my own childhood places around Frankston and Seaford, across Cape York Peninsula, across the Pilbara and in Broome, the Dampier Peninsula and the Kimberley and in the place where I have done my deepest level of work and thinking across the Miwatj lands of North East Arnhem Land.

I was adopted into the Galpu plan and take my family responsibilities in Arnhem land seriously. My main mentors about Yolŋu stories were Ms Gurruwiwi and Mrs Burarrwanga and Djalu Gurruwiwi.

✿ What do you hope to contribute to Aboriginal communities?

The work I have been doing in Arnhem land for 10 years now has been about supporting an independent homeland movement and individual Aboriginal elders to support their families. I have personally raised about $300,000 to support Arnhem land communities notably Mata Mata and Gikal and the Galpu clan over the past decade at an average of about $30k a year. This is a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed. However, I and the ISX ensure that funds go directly into the hands of Aboriginal elders with no middlemen and no administrative or management fees or any bypassing of funds to non-Aboriginal experts.

The problem with both government and private corporate royalty payments is that very little goes directly to the people and it invariably does not address the most pressing needs of the community. I could write several books on the problems of the so-called Aboriginal funding dollar. Over recent years we have tried very hard to build a fleet of reliable cars for Mata Mata and Gikal so that scarce dollars can be used for purchasing goods that will benefit the community and not just the local plane and charter services. Without a car, the cost of a fortnightly grocery visit is $800 for a small plane before any groceries are purchased. A car reduces this to about $100 taking into account wear and tear on vehicles.

But every solution creates new demands and pressures. The next phase of the work will be to create something like a homeland cooperative or mutual with transparent accounts and with a traditional decision-making body. One of the longed-for dreams is to revive the homelands school abandoned after the missionaries left Arnhem land. Again that is a whole story in itself. We have a situation where one of the few Yolŋu trained teachers is living on the homeland with a very good school building at her disposal and where people can live sustainably but the government prefers to fund a mainstream school system in which Aboriginal people must live artificially and without employment and alongside clan groups that have traditionally been separated from each other. It is a disaster and it is no wonder that school attendance is something like 50 percent if that.

✿ What is the main thing that non-Indigenous Balanda can learn from Aboriginal cultures?

I think the speech I gave at the launch of Wakuwal probably answers this question. You can find the transcription at this link. The bottom line is that non-Aboriginal people have much more to learn from Aboriginal people than the other way around. There can be no authentic Australian nation until Aboriginal cultures are recognised as the foundation of our nation and the guiding wisdom through which our land, sea and sky talks to us and expresses itself.

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