by Deborah Bird Rose
© all rights reserved
This paper reaches out, seeking points of communication between Aboriginal people of Australia, Gregory Bateson and other scholars. My project involves a form of dialogical spark.1 Of course I find points of connection, without which dialogue might slip into the ridiculous, but for me they are not a basis for unity so much as they are provocations. If our encounters situate us on a ground sufficiently shared to become meaningful and sufficiently differentiated to become provocative, what may erupt?
Bateson had formed the view that pre-industrial people ‘had a much larger vision of their place within the biosphere’ compared with western industrialised and post-industrialised peoples (Harries-Jones 1995: 215). I regret that he never had the opportunity to encounter the Aboriginal elder Mussolini Harvey (better known as Musso). If Bateson’s travels and investigations had brought him to the Aboriginal Australia I came to know and love, he might have heard beautiful words like these:
White people ask us all the time, what is Dreaming? This is a hard question because Dreaming is a really big thing for Aboriginal people. In our language, Yanyuwa, we call the Dreaming Yijan. The Dreamings made our Law or narnu-Yuwa. This Law is the way we live, our rules. This Law is our ceremonies, our songs, our stories; all of these things came from the Dreaming.
The Dreamings are our ancestors, no matter if they are fish, birds, men, women, animals, wind or rain. It was these Dreamings that made our Law. All things in our country have Law, they have ceremony and song, and they have people who are related to them… (Mussolini Harvey in Bradley 1988: x-xi)
Musso goes on to explain many aspects of Dreaming. The aspect to which I devote this paper concerns ceremony 2:
In our ceremonies we wear marks on our bodies, they come from the Dreaming too, we carry the design that the Dreamings gave to us. When we wear that Dreaming mark we are carrying the country, we are keeping the Dreaming held up, we are keeping the country and the Dreaming alive. That is the most important thing, we have to keep up the country, the Dreamings, our Law, our people, it can’t change. Our Law has been handed on from generation to generation and it is our job to keep it going, to keep it safe. (ibid)
In ceremony, people’s action is not so much directed toward a universal category such as the place of humanity in the biosphere. Rather it is at once more local (people in country) and more active: how to keep emplaced life flourishing. The focus is thus on localised connectivities: the totemic relationships among living things that sustain a world of kinship across species, including parts of the world that from a western perspective are inanimate (wind, for example). I will connect these issues with aesthetics through concepts of pattern and moiré. The resulting analysis brings me to a beckoning ground of desire.
Country and Dreamings
I began my anthropological research in 1980 in the communities of Yarralin and Lingara, located in the north-west sector of the Northern Territory of Australia. Since then I have continued to carry out research in these and other communities, and to work with people on their claims to land under the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act 1976, their efforts to register ‘sacred sites’ under the Aboriginal Areas Protection Act (1980; 1991), and other decolonising work. My original questions concerned Indigenous philosophies of life. As I began to learn, I became ever more aware that I was encountering a cosmology that was all about this living world: it was an ecology. There was no ‘other’ world, although there was a range of components of this world: fresh water country and sky country, for example, along with land country and sea country. The neologism ‘eco-cosmology’ captures the sense of cosmology located in the living world of this earth.
The concept of country is one of the main keys to understanding Aboriginal cosmology and action toward life. Dreamings are the great creative beings who came out of the earth and traveled across the land and sea. The Australian continent is criss-crossed with the tracks of the Dreamings: they were performing rituals, distributing the plants, making the landforms and water, and making the relationships between one place and another, one species and another. They were leaving parts or essences of themselves; they would look back in sorrow; and then continue travelling, changing languages, changing songs, changing identity. They were changing shape from animal to human and back to animal again, and they were becoming ancestral to particular groups of animals and humans (totemic groups). Through their creative actions they demarcated a world of difference and a world of relationships which cross-cut difference. They made the patterns and connections. Responsibility today entails sustaining those patterns and connections.
Dreamings established countries. A country is small enough to accommodate face-to-face groups of people, and large enough to sustain their lives; it is politically autonomous in respect of other, structurally equivalent countries, and at the same time is interdependent with other countries. Each country is itself the focus and source of Indigenous law and life practice. As I have discussed in detail elsewhere, one’s country is a ‘nourishing terrain’, a place that gives and receives life (Rose 1996).
Dreamings traveled, and they stopped, and now they remain fixed in place, except under special circumstances which I will discuss. They stopped, they changed over into permanent sites or into other living things, and they stayed. Equally, however, they kept going. Dreamings are masters of an art that includes both motion and stasis; they are both here and there, fixed and mobile. They also are both then and now: both origins and contemporary presence. People interact with Dreamings in daily life as they do their hunting, fishing, gathering, visiting, and resting (see Povinelli 1993 for excellent analysis). And people interact with them especially powerfully in ceremonial contexts.
In the ceremonies at Yarralin the songs consist primarily of place names. They recount the travels of the creation Dreamings through specific country, they are oriented on the ground in the direction of the Dreaming travels, and they require the participation of a large set of people whose country is traversed by the Dreamings and whose responsibilities are linked through those tracks. In Yarralin and Lingara, as in Musso Harvey’s country over six hundred kilometres to the east, people put their country and Dreamings (totems) on their body and carry them into the ‘ring place’ which is a circular arena of ceremony.3
Power and Motion
The origins of the cosmos are described in this way: In the beginning, the earth was covered with salt water. The water pulled back, and out of holes in the ground came life. The earth is referred to by some people as ‘Mother’; she brings forth life. The Dreamings began their travels, and their action was impressed into the still soft earth; so they carved out valleys, pushed up ranges, left stones and tracks that show their passage and their actions. At the end of their travels they retreated back into the ground at their sites. The motion starts from within the earth, moves to the surface of the earth (including sky as part of the surface), moves around on the surface, and then withdraws back into the interior.
Stories of Dreaming origins invite us to contemplate the relationship between static power and power in motion. The originary earth holds the power of potential life contained within. Origin stories tell us that life contained is life in some sense unfulfilled. Creation overcomes this lack: the earth gave birth to the Dreamings, the Dreamings came forth and walked the earth giving shape, boundaries, connections, law.
It is thus reasonable to say that the life contained within the earth has desire. That desire is to be embodied and mobile. Life wants to go walking around on the surface; it wants to live in the ephemeral world of bodies and motion, as well as in the inside world of containment. Furthermore, it desires pattern and connection; it wants to flourish. Life thus exists as both the enduring potential contained within and as the dynamic and flourishing ephemeral that lives and dies on the surface. This ephemeral world of passion and joy is the form life takes as it actualises itself.
Into the Ring Place
Many ethnomusicologists and anthropologists have found that Aboriginal people assert that ceremonies work to bring Dreaming power and presence into the time, place and bodies of the performers. Different scholars use a range of terms for talking about this process, but Cath Ellis, more than many, seeks to unpack the performative elements that make possible this coming together of ephemeral life and the world creative Dreamings.
In the desert and savanna regions music is performed with voice and the rhythm of clap sticks, clapping hands and thighs, and feet on the ground. Ellis asserts that time is a crucial technique in music, and she analyses the complex interlocking of a multiplicity of patterned elements:
From the smallest element of the fixed duration of the short notes setting the song text, through the beating duration, the repeated rhythmic segments, rhythmic patterns, text presentations, to melody, small song and songlines – each using its own time-scale, and each a series of intermittently emphasised patterns such that first one, then another occupies the centre of attention – a ceremony … is unfolded. (Ellis 1984: 160) 4
Elements are nested within broader elements, according to Ellis, and each element has its own time. The genius of Aboriginal performers is to interlock these multiple patterns into a whole pattern. Ellis explains that there are patterns within patterns, all of which have to mesh. Aboriginal people, far from being a people without time as some scholars have suggested, are masters at organising patterns in advance. Some performers manage mathematically complex divisions so that they fall correctly into the total pattern. This is done without reference to western mathematics, and thus depends on some other faculty which Ellis (1984: 164) labels ‘perfect time’, the counterpart to perfect pitch.
In Ellis’s view, the correct interlocking of all of the nested and co-existing patterns generates the power to draw the Dreamings out of the earth. In her words: ‘Through correct interlocking the power of the ancestor, being drawn out of the earth by the strength of the song, is present’ (Ellis: 1985: 109).5 These moments of perfect pattern constitute cosmogonic action that lifts the Dreamings up from the earth and enables them to become mobile, being carried by the participants. This is serious business. As Ellis (1985: 109) says, to lose the pattern, and thus to drop the Dreaming or ancestral connection in ceremony is ‘unforgivable’. Further, Ellis reminds us, every performance is different. The point is that the spontaneous and contingent can still be formed into complex patterns, and those patterns can connect with the world-creative potential. The enduring and the ephemeral find their most powerful connections by meshing into each other’s patterns.
Dancing at Yarralin
Ceremony is performative – it brings the Dreamings up out of the ground and carries them through the country. Ellis’s work is directed toward song; here I expand her analysis and link it to dance and other aspects of ceremony. In the part of the Victoria River valley where I have danced on many occasions, one of the main ceremonies is called Bandimi. The songs sing the track of a group of creative Dreaming women. The men sing and the women dance. I learned to dance, and so I learned to work the ground with my feet, and learned to make the dance-call that is integral to the pattern. Thus I learned that the body connects earth and air when you dance. The call comes from deep within and is propelled by the impact of your feet on the ground. It comes to feel as if the ground itself propels your voice out into the night sky. That call starts somewhere below your feet and ends somewhere out in the world. The call is a motion, a sound, a wave of connection. You are dancing the earth, and the earth is dancing you, and so perhaps you are motion, a sound, a wave of connection. You are a bearer of the call, and perhaps you are also a bearer of an answer.
Ellis asserts that Aboriginal music is ‘iridescent’. She explains this unexpected concept with reference to the phenomenon that occurs when background and foreground suddenly flip. Everyone experiences this phenomenon in visual form, particularly with art or photos that are designed to generate the flip between background and foreground. The flip phenomenon is also experienced aurally, as one or another pattern is heard as foreground, similar perhaps to choral singing of contrapuntal music, where cantoris and decani exchange foreground and background. The song becomes iridescent thorough the complexities of the shifting ground of interweaving patterns (1984: 160-9).
For the dancer there is also one’s embodied iridescence. There is the flip between the feet on the ground and the ground on the feet: who is the dancer and who is the danced? If I hold the analytic privilege on motion, I find that both are dancer and danced, and that the significance of this mutuality is located in the flip back and forth between us.
In Bandimi we danced all night. Each segment of song and dance, however, is set apart by a counterpoint of non-dance. Each small song is punctuated by a pause, a break in the music. The rhythms of the song and dance are thus set within a larger oscillation of music and non-music. The non-music interval is dedicated to joking. It is not a break in the ceremony but rather a contrapuntal engagement with the musical portion of the ceremony.6
In the Victoria River District there are some set joking themes, particularly the theme of women beating their mother’s brothers, and uncles swearing at their nieces. When women dance Bandimi, the intervals are their times to ‘kill’ their uncles (mother’s brothers). People joke about this relationship all year long, and bring it to rich heights during Bandimi. There are other jokes, too: about sexual affairs (usually not referring to real events), and about white people with their obsessions with offices, time, and money. One joke is topped by another joke, which will be topped by another one, so that the jokes run concurrently through the intervals, carrying themes of gender, sexuality, authority, and spontaneous inventive delight.
Ceremony thus works with two interwoven event types: the music and dance is Dreaming Law, and is internally and complexly patterned; the joking is spontaneous. Each joking interval is a qualitative and purposeful withdrawal from the song. Each song is a qualitative and purposeful re-entry into Law.
It would not be accurate to privilege either the musical performance or the joking. Nor would it be accurate to subsume one within the other. Rather, analytic privilege belongs in the movement back and forth between musical performance and joking performance; the dance – non-dance movement is another form of iridescence
Joking speaks of the ephemeral: of the spontaneous, the partial, the incomplete, the contingent and that which is (or may be) outside the law. Performance engages Dreaming power as it is contained within the earth; the call is performed in patterns that already are given, are intensely rule-governed, and require proper execution. Music and joking call participants back and forth between the enduring (Earth, Law) and the ephemeral (spontaneous, transient). Each can be seen to be embedded in the dance of the other. The ephemeral draws close to, and withdraws from, enduring creation power which itself approaches and withdraws. This motion captures a mutual embeddedness of the ephemeral in the enduring and the enduring in the ephemeral. Where they meet and flip or interpenetrate, all is iridescent there is an exultant awareness of life in action.
In ceremony one becomes part of the pattern, and to become part of the pattern is to join in the call. In the between place of iridescence, a further question arises: Who is calling and who is called? To become part of the call is also (when things go properly) to become part of the response. One is transformed from agent (calling) to vehicle (being called or moved though) and back and forth all night long. To dance, therefore, is to move within a generative, liminal matrix of betweens – between the caller and the respondent, between the ground and the foot, the earth and the air; between the many interlocking patterns and flips, and between the enduring and the ephemeral.
Between Bandimi and Bateson
When you dance all night you become too tired to think a lot. You just keep working your body. Exhaustion is a great stimulus for embodied knowing, but you realise this best later on as you start to reflect upon it all. Not only is there movement back and forth within the ceremony. There is also movement back and forth between doing and reflecting.
Writing is even more removed. Let us interrupt the flow of dance talk and withdraw for a moment to engage with Bateson, and with his concepts of patterns and aesthetics. Bateson’s work with aesthetics grew from his dissatisfactions with the limitations of scientific discourse, and with the limitations of reason, perception and analysis. Aesthetics as he used the term allowed him to revision understanding in terms of holism. Time was important to his analysis, both in the sense that iterations are subject to time-binding and in the sense of change (as a difference that makes a difference).
One of his metaphors for pattern and meta-pattern was the fabric known as moiré. The fabric is woven in such a way that a pattern is laid across another pattern so that a third pattern is produced. I do not want to use the moiré metaphor to hold Bateson hostage to stasis; he regarded patterns as extremely dynamic (summarised from Harries-Jones 1995: 199, 203). I would, however, like to bring the moiré metaphor into the ring place where we move back and forth, generating layers and layers of motion and pattern. Moiré might be thought of as super-iridescence. The work of lifting up the Dreaming is work that engages with life’s desire to be in motion. It brings time, motion and finitude into connection with the enduring. More than that, dance and non-dance perform patterns only to take them apart again, performing both finitude and the return. That which is broken off is not lost; it becomes part of the pattern of movement. As we withdraw and make separate, so too we return and interpenetrate. We make a ‘moiré pattern’, we unmake it, and we put it together again. We embody and perform life’s desire for pattern, reiterating it again and again, and in doing so honouring both separation and connection.
The movement between the ephemeral and the enduring suggests that the power of life in potential has yet another desire. The first desire, discussed previously, is the desire to come forth, to be mobile, to be part of an ephemeral world of living things. It is a desire that implicitly embraces death as the consequence of epheramality. A second desire seems therefore to be the desire of the source to have its ephemera return to it. The mobility of the surface is one moment in life’s desire; the return to the source is an alternative moment. In this dance of desire life calls forth more life, and life therefore calls forth connection. Ephemeral life is called to remember, to sustain connectivities, and to situate itself so as to return to its origins.
Later in life Bateson spoke of tearing the fabric. I am not certain that this metaphor relates to his moiré metaphor, but if Harries-Jones (209) is correct in his view that the tearing metaphor speaks to a process by which relationships between parts and whole could be perceived, it easily slips into the ring place.
Come into the ring place, dear Professor. Join the process. Set aside visions of the larger whole, and even of the parts, and embody the patterns in between.
The enduring power of life wants to get out into the world, to live, travel and interact. The ephemeral world of life expresses its vivid outpouring presence. At the same time, it knows its own transience, and is called to return. Inside the ring place we dance the return as well as the coming forth, the unmaking as well as the making, and we dance the connections between them.
Erotics of Re-entry
Dancing the patterns that connect takes us beyond aesthetics and into an erotics of life in motion. In drawing attention to the term re-entry I draw on Bateson’s work with recursivity and ‘the re-entry of the whole into the part’ (Harries Jones, p. 207). I will be suggesting that an erotics of re-entry takes analytic privilege away from either whole or part and situates it in a kinetic realm of desire.
I am defining erotics quite gently and generously as the mystery of and desire for life. The philosophical dimension of my argument is underpinned by the work of Freya Mathews (2003). She has recently produced a major analysis of mind and matter, of subjectivity in the ‘material’ world, and of the erotic self. Coming from a philosophical perspective that is influenced by Bateson, Mathews, too, notes life’s desire for connection (2003: 58). I came into encounter with an ecological erotics first by dancing it, and even more so, perhaps, by reflecting upon it and trying to connect my experience with my intellectual history and context. I had to wonder if the mystery and desire that infuse the ecological erotics I encountered in ceremony could also be encountered pursuing analysis in a Bateson mode. My re-entry into the world of ecological systems focuses on this mysterious ground of desire.
Mystery and desire are terms that call to us in the language of sensuous experience but they can also be defined technically. Mystery is an essential property of a holistic system. One cannot remove one’s self from the system under examination, and because one is a part of the system the whole remains outside the possibility of one’s comprehension (Bateson 1991: 299).7 One will always encounter mystery in a holistic system. Properly contextualised, mystery would be a cause for celebration as it would signal the integrity of larger systems. Conversely, total predictability would signal crisis – loss of connection, loss of the larger system, perhaps bad theory, or more seriously, the crisis entailing the deep epistemological error against which Bateson argued so forcefully in all his work.
Desire, too, can be defined technically. It is the will toward self-realisation that is characteristic of all life because life itself in all its many parts and processes is self-repairing, self-changing, and self-realising (as discussed by many scholars, for example Mathews 1993, Margulis & Sagan 2000). In humans, the desire for self-realisation includes a desire for knowledge. Thus desire must always bring us into encounter with mystery, and mystery, properly understood (if that is not too paradoxical) would enhance our desire for self-realisation because it would affirm our participation in flourishing systems.
Mystery and desire are thus connected through a feedback loop such that each calls for the other. This loop, or synergistic recursion, is powerful; it signals abundant and flourishing life. I am suggesting, therefore, that for humans (at least), concepts of ecological power reference a real-world process – the synergistic interplay between mystery and desire.
A Sacred Erotics?
Somewhere in the work of both dance and analysis one encounters the sacred. I want to pause briefly to acknowledge some limitations. I do not believe that I understand exactly what Bateson was intending with the term sacred. Like him, along with many others, I know it to be of extreme significance, and also to be terribly misused and at the same time quite mysterious. Following my foregoing analysis, the fact that the sacred seems mysterious could be cause for celebration, but inevitably one desires more.8
The first point I pursue is the cultural context of the sacred. Bateson writes in opposition to, and in a lifelong effort to expose, the epistemological errors of western dualism. He speaks of the sacred as a spark that crosses an in-between space – a spark of connection (1991: 300). Writing out of and against an overwhelmingly powerful tradition of Newtonian atomism and Cartesian dualisms, Bateson was drawn to understand and identify the sacred with the move into connectivity. He writes: ‘The damage is the taking apart. The sacredness is the coming together. The sacred is the hook up, the total hook up and not the product of the split’ (1991: 302). In his vehement opposition to the cosmology engendered by Newtonian and Cartesian theories, Bateson is led to conclude that the epistemology has ‘simply torn the concept of universe in which we live into rags’ (1991: 305).
My research has been with people who do not depend on atomism or dualism in understanding and working with the living world. As is clear, I am lead toward process and motion. Inside the ring place people do sacred work: they revitalise the relationships between source and ephemera, and in doing so they revitalise the patterns that connect living things with each other as well as with their source. The work, as I understand it, is required precisely because of life’s desire. To be born is to enter time, motion, and actuality, and is thus to enter the world of death. Entropy stalks the world of life; ceremony is a vivid practice of negentropy. The sacred, from this perspective, is action: it is the work within the between that vitalises the patterns of ephemeral life.
Once one notices this erotics of patterned connectivity, it seems possible to encounter it everywhere (at least where ecological damage has not overtaken diversity with monoculture). The great Arnhem Land sage David Burrumarra explained many complex things in language that is so suggestive as to be always open to more engagement. One can read his words and ponder them, have conversations with them and dream about them, but one never fully fathoms the depths of his insight. He tells us that Motj (a term that is variously translated as power, spirit, the sacred) is the source of all life. In comparing his sense of the sacred with Christianity, Burrumarra said: ‘The Bible and the Cross help us to remember Christianity and to believe in God…. They are like eyeglasses. Without these glasses would we see God in our image (and vice versa) or would God look different? Would he look like the natural world?’ (Burrumarra with Macintosh 2002: 10)
I understand Burrumarra to imply that the answer to his last question is ‘yes’, although I admit to remaining mystified and slightly off-balance by his enigmatic ‘vice versa’. He is clearly telling us that the sacred, without the metaphysical glasses of Christianity, is visible in the living world around us. I link this metaphysics to desire. Life desires its own becoming; it wants to enter the world of transience; it loves pattern and it wants to live. At the same time, it wants to pull its transient ephemera back into the source. Its exuberance, its movement into transience and connectivity, is equally its overflow into death. The Aboriginal origin myths tell us this, and we learn this in ceremony. We can learn this also from Bateson’s ecological vision, as we seek to extend it into domains of holiness, love, desire, mystery and the beautiful dance between life and death, this dance of emergence and re-entry.
Life comes into being in between – between the source and the ephemeral, between ceremony and daily life, and between the many living beings who participate in life’s dance. It cannot be located wholly in the enduring potential, or in the ephemeral actual, but arises in the dance between them. And so again we ask who is dancing? It seems that life’s desire for motion dances with life’s ephemeral beings, calling them to re-enter the source even as they call more life to re-enter the transient world.
Come, dear Professor, and experience the unmaking as well as the making. Dance with the patterns in between where desire brings life into transient mobility, and calls it back again into the source. Dance to re-enter it all, again and again.
Deborah Bird Rose is a senior fellow at the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, The Australian National University.
8. Bateson is clear that for humans silence and secrecy are important parts of the sacred, suggesting that language may in fact un-make communication concerning the sacred in the process of trying to achieve it (Angel, 80-81).
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