Over thirty years ago, three authors embarked on a journey into Roebuck Plains, an area in the north of West Australia, just inland from Broome. The group consisted of Stephen Muecke, an emerging scholar who had just completed a PhD in linguistics, a Moroccan-born painter named Krim Benterrak and Paddy Roe, a Goolarabooloo Elder, a philosopher and storyteller, who was born in Roebuck Plains.
The three authors produced the landmark text Reading the Country: Introduction to Nomadology, which was celebrated during a three-day festival held at the University of Melbourne at the beginning of October.
Reading the Country is a free-form, highly experimental work, which combines Roe’s oral histories with Muecke’s theoretical essays and Benterrak’s arresting landscape paintings. The three authors traversed Roebuck Plains in an attempt to ‘read’ and re-imagine the stories bound up within the country. The book is an investigation of space and of place, of the way that different voices converge and contrast, and how cultures can come together, whereby multiple readings are enacted simultaneously.
‘One of a kind, sui generis, there’s no book like this anywhere,’ says Phillip Morrissey, the head of Australian Indigenous Studies department at the University of Melbourne, and the convener of the festival (the very literally-named Reading the Country: 30 Years On). The festival comprised of lectures and panel discussions delivered by some of Australia’s brightest academic minds, both Indigenous and not, on subjects as diverse as modern feminism, university funding structures and the degradation of traditional lands by the mining industry.
One of the key events was the ‘Philosopher’s Maul’, which was held on the university’s South Lawn and involved some beer and a rugby ball. In a kind of philosophical pop-quiz, prominent Australian thinkers such as Prof. Meaghan Morris and Justin Clemens and Adam Bartlett were tossed a ball and asked curly questions like ‘Is feminism dead?’
As well as attempting to dispel the conception of academics as fusty windbags, the festival was structured with the aim of recapturing the spirit of intellectual radicalism that Reading the Country was produced in, and which many believe has largely disappeared from Australian tertiary institutions.
And Reading the Country is a radical book. The palpable affinity with the Australian landscape that permeates the book is particularly pertinent now that the Roebuck Plains – which was occupied by Aboriginal people up until roughly a century ago, before becoming a freehold cattle station – is currently under threat from fracking by a company called Buru Energy.
But perhaps more importantly, Reading the Country is radical for the primacy it gives to Aboriginal systems of knowledge, not as items of anthropological interest, but rather as philosophical ideas that are deserving of rigorous study.
‘I’m not trying to encompass Aboriginal philosophy,’ Muecke, who is now a professor at the University of New South Wales, told me on the final day of the festival, ‘I’m just trying to knock on the door of the philosophy department, and ask “when are you going to start taking seriously Aboriginal knowledge as philosophy?”’
Benterrak, Muecke and Roe’s collaboration was in part based on the idea that ‘things must go both ways’, one of the unofficial slogans of the festival. The notion was told to Muecke by Roe, who passed away in 2001, when they first started to collaborate.
Even the decision to have three co-authors was in itself radical. Previously Aboriginal philosophers who came from the tradition of oral storytelling, like Paddy Roe, were, according to Muecke, ‘called informants, and later they were sometimes called co-researchers, but co-authors, very rarely.’ The three authors shared the royalties equally, and their names were presented on the cover in alphabetical order, a means of acknowledging the spirit of collaboration and intellectual intersection that is so prevalent in Reading the Country.
‘For those that actually hear,’ Phillip Morrissey told me, ‘this book makes us think about what activism really is. Intellectual activism involves engaging with the situation you find yourself in. There’s a type of activism which is external – picket lines and protests. But activism also concerns the politics of where you are, and this is a book, that through the key figures of Paddy Roe, Krim Benterrak and Stephen Muecke, shows the meaning of living out intellectuality and theory in practical ways.’
This idea of intellectual activism was a one of the key reasons that the festival was conceived – to protest against the conservative tendencies of Australian universities, which, according to many of the speakers, have been impeding the work of radical thinkers for decades. The block letters ‘TAZ’ were stuck to the walls in each of the conference rooms, defining each room as a Temporary Autonomous Zone, a space which is outside the strictures of the university administration.
A 2011 study showed that of the 67,000 academics currently working in Australia, more than 60 per cent were casually employed – and that figure is likely even higher now. Faced with swelling class sizes, and the persistent threat of further cost-cutting measures, it seems more difficult than ever for this generation of academics to pursue the kind of radical research that created texts like Reading the Country. One of the speakers at the festival, an anthropologist named Dr Terrence Twomey said that university academics are encouraged not to risk their jobs: ‘to keep their head down, so it doesn’t get shot off’.
Many of the speakers were convinced that the site of radical thinking is happening off-campus. Morrissey pointed to the research being conducted at organisations not affiliated with universities, such as the School of Continental Philosophy, while others acknowledged the inventive, and ultimately successful, forms of protest by Kimberley locals against the James Price Point gas processing plant.
But for all the doom and gloom, there were some positives to come out of the festival, including the release of George Dyungayan’s Bulu Line: A West Kimberly Song Cycle. The book is an experimental translation of oral poetry, and was a collaboration between Dyungayan, a Nyigina lawman from the Roebuck Plains and Dr Stuart Cooke, and was heavily influenced by the methodologies of Reading the Country.
The festival also marked the premiere of a film called Three Sisters, Women of High Degree, which told the stories of Nyikina women from the Fitzroy River, one of whom was Dr Anne Poelina, a countrywoman of Paddy Roe, who travelled from Broome to attend the festival.
The small publishing house run by Justin Clemens, re.press, made a small re-print of Reading the Country specifically for the festival, and is hopeful of doing a wider print run, so that a young generation can also experience the work. It seems that the radical spirit of this important book is in safe hands.