A Review of Lynne Hume’s Ancestral Power: The Dreaming, Consciousness and Aboriginal Australians

Published by Melbourne University Press, 2002

by Fiona Probyn

© all rights reserved

Lynne Hume’s Ancestral Power: The Dreaming, Consciousness and Aboriginal Australians (MUP 2002) challenges anthropology, ethnography, religious studies and sociology to extend the parameters of legitimate and rational academic inquiry to include the study of multiple realities (‘sub-universes’) and Altered States of Consciousness (ASCs). These subjects have long been excluded by academic discourses on the grounds of being unfalsifiable. Hume’s challenge to academic discourses represents a fascinating project in itself and on the surface shares some of the problems faced by other marginalised knowledge systems faced with the difficulties (and paradoxes) of working with/in academic orthodoxies. Hume’s discussion of Altered States of Consciousness , both the techniques and research, suggests that there is much in this area that warrants her own and others’ interest.

Hume is well aware that the book’s focus on ASCs will cause controversy and dispute and she situates her text as an alternative view amongst many. She is particularly cautious about how the book will be received, given that ‘Western academic circles are inhospitable, and even actively hostile, to reports of anomalous human experience as they seem to violate axioms around which Western concepts of reality are constructed’ (7). In the face of the ‘defensive brick wall’ of the academy Hume intends to ‘resuscitate’ the ‘disqualified knowledge’ (borrowing from Foucault) of ASCs in order to contribute further knowledge on the subject of human consciousness. Fair enough. But what does this have to do with Indigenous Australians and the Dreaming? The title and cover of this book (featuring Cindy Newman’s ‘The Spirit Returns’) give the impression that the book is about ‘Aboriginal Australians’, the Dreaming and Ancestral power, but my reading of it leads me to suggest that it is more clearly concerned with legitimising the study of Altered States of Consciousness (ASCs) within the academic field. It seems that Indigenous Australians and Indigenous cultures represent no more than a cover for this particular project.

Hume writes that ‘there is increasing interest in all things Aboriginal’. The more information that can be offered, the more understanding can be gleaned of the richness and complexity of a philosophy based on the land/people/spirituality triad. This might also help speed the process of reconciliation, and increase our understanding of ourselves as human beings'(3). While sympathetic to some of these ideas, it is troubling to see the politics of reconciliation being deployed to (a) justify data collection without regard to questions of cultural appropriacy, and (b) support an argument for legitimising the academic study of ASCs.

Regarding the first point, the collection of data which appears in this book is from existing literature on the Ngaringman, Ngaliwarra, Yolngu, Aranda, Murinbata, Mardudjara, Pintupi, Pitjanjatjara, Gadjerong, Narinjin, Worora, Wunambal, Umi:da, Iwanja, Ungarani, Njigina, Bardi, Njul-Njul, Balgo, Walbiri, Dalwaba peoples and more, put together by mostly anthropologists, musicologists and ethnographers. While the argument that early missionaries and anthropologists often got cultural information wrong is no surprise, Hume assumes that anthropologists and missionaries failed in their accounts because of language difficulties and the propensity to exclude alternative views of ‘reality’ not based on rationality. While both arguments are valid1, it is also true that so-called ‘mistranslations’ can and did result from the protection of cultural knowledge by the bearers of that knowledge, especially knowledge which was, as she describes it ‘of a secret or sacred nature'(3). It often seems that the idea of cultural secrecy inflates the value of data and heightens interest, rather than signalling the inappropriacy of the collection. Alongside these warnings of cultural secrecy, Hume’s text explores the data in the existing literature and recreates a catalogue which attempts to describe the dreaming in relation to the ways in which access to it was determined by and practised through Altered States of Consciousness. Hume concedes that this is a ‘western understanding'(37) of the dreaming that she is dealing with, but this apparent concession to cultural specificity sets an imaginary limit, the full ramifications of which are then ignored. Hume does not explore the ‘western-ness’ of the ‘western understanding’ that she locates and while the text seems to suggest that she is not dealing in Indigenous cultural belief but a ‘western understanding of it’, the fact is that it is that ‘western understanding’ of Indigenous cultural belief which is of concern for those seeking to control the transmission of knowledge. Helena Gulash, in an interview with Denise Cuthbert, argues that control over cultural information is a priority for indigenous Australians:

there has to be that proper respect for us to pass on to the mainstream society, to the rest of the world, what we choose or what we know to be appropriate to pass on – it’s not as if our culture has even been this completely open book in terms of knowledge being available to everyone. There’s certain knowledge that is appropriate.2

This kind of power over and through cultural knowledge is not the kind of power that Hume is interested in. In fact, she sees this kind of power as ‘wielded by human beings for mundane purposes’. The kind of power that she focuses on is the ‘impersonal force or energy; a kinetic or psychic energy'(55). Hume’s interest in this kind of power transcends even the calls for culturally specific rights to knowledge; the ‘energy’ that she locates is extra-cultural and so therefore are her politics.
Hume’s justification for bypassing questions of cultural appropriation in cross cultural studies relates to her view of culture as necessarily superfluous to the ‘essences’ beneath/above it. In a rhetorical manoeuvre which she casts as ‘fundamentally phenomenological'(10), Hume separates culture from consciousness. She locates multiple realities as the essences within the abstract properties of culture, holding that ‘sub-universes can be experienced by anyone in any culture, but they are experienced through cultural filters.'(9) The notion of ‘cultural filters’ or, as I see it, culture as filter, separates consciousness from culture and therefore makes consciousness a free-floating signified without a signifier. The notion of ‘filters’ also suggests a kind of extraction, a dilution, a purification process, and also implies an economy of access and retrieval whereby ‘knowledge’ can be collected without interfering with the ‘essence’. Again, such a view bypasses arguments about who gets to tell which stories and why. Hume registers some problems with cross cultural research, but ‘humanity’ wins hands down in a contest between ‘problems’ (unspecified) and ‘understanding the human experience’. She writes:

Although there are problems in investigating experiences cross-culturally, if we take the approach that it is impossible we should have to abandon any attempt at understanding the human experience in general, and at tracing what is common to us all. (10)

Such humanist arguments have long been poor justification for discounting the politics of engaging with cultural difference. Here the implicitly more valuable universal (‘human experience in general’) does not hide the fact that what is at stake and what is of principle interest in the text is not ‘humanity’ but the credibility of academic study of ASCs.

My second concern is about Hume’s use of Indigenous culture in order to legitimise the academic study of ASCs. Hume draws an equivalence between the world of ASCs and the ‘Indigenous worldview’ by suggesting that both are alter-native practices which must be recognised as culturally valid in themselves and not judged according to a ‘materialist worldview'(5) which privileges a rationalist approach. While this is true (both may be pre-judged by an intellectual framework that is hostile to that which it tries to exclude) it is not true that both the Indigenous world view and studies of ASCs then share the same cultural space in relation to that intellectual framework which disqualifies it. In other words, they may be Othered but they are not the same Others. While Hume has ‘no intention of reducing all cultures to one single homogeneous entity’ her use of ‘human consciousness in general’ as a category beyond cultural specificity does not do her own intentions justice. It seems to me that Hume’s reference to an ‘increasing interest in all things Aboriginal'(3), as well as her allegiance to the indisputable need to respect cultural difference is an appeal for the same (interest and respect) in regards to studying ASCs, as if respect for and interest in one will rub off on the other. This is not to say that the study of ASCs is incapable of garnering these for itself. My objection is to the way in which Hume deploys Indigeneity to speak on its behalf and ropes the politics of reconciliation into a politics of equivalence. This seems to me to be an unnecessary manoeuvre that damages the validity of a subject worthy of scrutiny and inquiry without recourse to universalising tendencies which deflate the difference and multiplicity that seem to be the topic’s main defence.
Fiona Probyn lectures in the Gender Studies Department, University of Sydney, and has published work in Australian Feminist Studies, Meanjin, New Literatures Review, Senses of Cinema, and has fortcoming articles in Journal of Australian Studies and Westerly.


1The dismissal of alternative cultural belief systems was a characteristic of Hindmarsh Island Bridge Royal Commission (1995) where the test of ‘fabrication’ of women’s business was conducted with incommensurable standards of empiricism.

2Helena Gulash, quoted in ‘Crossing Cultures: An Interview with Helena Gulash’ by Denise Cuthbert and Michele Grossman, Hecate, xxiii, no.ii, 1997, 48-66, 51-52.

This essay was funded by the Literature Fund of the Australia Council.

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