The Sutton and Walshe book, Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers?, did not start the debate over Pascoe’s Dark Emu, but it has certainly escalated it to a broader public. Now there are numerous reviews, essays and opinions, from Geoffrey Blainey in The Australian (an ideological rant that even manages to drag in the Federal Labor leader for criticism) to Guy Rundle in Crikey (tying himself in rhetorical knots trying to defend Pascoe). It’s another battle in the culture wars, reminiscent of the one led by Keith Windschuttle on Aboriginal history twenty-odd years ago. Is that really what Sutton and Walshe wanted? Or do they just want to defend the pursuit of truth by the best possible means?
No doubt, they would say the latter. Outraged by the factual and rhetorical slippages in Dark Emu, they set out to straighten the record and defend a particular mode of truth telling, one we can rightly call the discourse of the human sciences, in their case via the disciplines of anthropology and archaeology. This is a discourse of fairly recent origin, originating in Europe in the late nineteenth century. It is nothing compared to the knowledge passed on across the millennia by hundreds of diverse Aboriginal peoples inhabiting the continent: nothing in terms of its longevity, perhaps even in terms of its relevance, as we shall see.
The ‘God trick’
This discourse of the human sciences is a very powerful tool in generating knowledge about Aboriginal Australia. Wherever it goes, its practitioners can produce knowledge by translating into written English texts what they are observing and being told by Aboriginal knowledge holders. Whether they are being told about the tjukurpa (dreaming) in central Australia or the bugarrigarra in the Kimberley, they produce the same kind of text in a special kind of academic English. Which is fine, these are very useful records, but they have their limits.
Yet the discourse is a powerful one; it can perform a magical trick. The person writing it can supposedly see objectively and omnisciently; they can see the whole country from above: the first image in Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? is a map of Australia. From this initial viewpoint, what Donna Haraway described as ‘the God trick’, one can zoom in on the details and describe them.
The practitioners of this discourse are equally mobile. They can pop up as expert witnesses in Native Title hearings across the country, with an account of Ngarinyin kinship structures or Kaurna governance models. As authorities, they can cite earlier experts and their own first-hand experience with Aboriginal knowledge holders (or ‘co-researchers’; they used to be called ‘informants’). Most often, these knowledge holders do not claim such universal expertise. They stick to their own Countries. If asked, they often say, ‘I don’t know, you will have to ask the elders’—even if they do know. The protocol is to defer to the authority of the elders. Imagine if a social scientist said that? Or said, ‘It isn’t my place to interpret what these Ngarinyin people are saying; you will have to ask them.’
But one skill the human scientist does have is knowing, through experience, just which Ngarinyin experts to ask. Such valuable translators, negotiators and advocates, I should add, will always be needed.
Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? has an early chapter on ‘spiritual propagation’, which is a pervasive Aboriginal practice of ensuring the maintenance of other species and things through mimetic or sympathetic magic. For instance, they cite the Wik of Cape York performing an action to maintain the supply of goose eggs at a site where there are baler shells in a depression in the ground and people go there to ‘throw’ debris and grass, call on the powers of the ancestors, and rearrange the shells which ‘represent’ the goose eggs.
Far from denouncing this performance as ‘mumbo-jumbo’ (as those ‘civilised’ people who came up with the phrase used to do), the human scientists take it quite seriously, which is an aspect of their own performance. It is a part of their magic to incorporate the various magics of the others.
Missionaries, back in the day, intent on installing their own god, used to burn the fetishes of the ‘natives’. Bruno Latour has delved into this desire to ‘believe in naive belief’, the suggestion that fetishes, objects invested with mythical powers, are mere fabrications, and that ‘facts’ are not. Building on his earlier work in the anthropology of science, he uses the notion of ‘factish gods’ to explore a way of respecting the objectivity of facts and the power of fetishes without forgetting that both are fabricated.
This is why I say that the work of the human scientist is a performance, like the goose egg one. Facts are not plain facts, sitting out there waiting for our recognition; they have to be brought into being with curiosity then some kind of funding, nurtured, celebrated and maintained in laboratories and seminars, and then propagated in the form of books. Let’s not forget, the fetish-burners on the African continent were installing an Abrahamic religion of the book, and these objects themselves continue to have a fetish-like power.
Like Pascoe’s book. It was very good at spiritual propagation, which is very annoying for the human scientists. With no small amount of myth-nurturing of its own, it reached all the way from high praise in Federal parliament, in a speech by Anthony Albanese, to editions of children’s versions of the book, earning good money for the small publisher, Magabala, in Broome. Its seeds were broadcast with a large bandwidth. But Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers?, despite its powers, has the narrow bandwidth of academic readership, except when it is catapulted via polemic into the journalism of The Good Weekend.
Pascoe’s myth-nurturing is identified by Sutton; and I see it as another play of whitefella magic. For what Pascoe does is incorporate the old European myth of civilisational advancement, implying that Aboriginal people were progressing through an agricultural stage, with villages, sewn clothes, and so on, something his readers were urged to marvel at. Sutton counter-argues that this ignores the fact that Aboriginal people were already fully civilised as ‘hunter-gatherers’ (for want of a better label) through the millennia, with complex and sustainable knowledges and practices, all adapted to what different Countries had laid out in the Dreamings. Pascoe’s use of whitefella magic performed its role; it got a message out there. But, armed with the facts that they say the public should have known, Sutton and Walshe say it is the wrong message.
But there is another implicit message in Pascoe’s project, which is much more than a book, because it is several books, lecture tours, regenerative farming with native grasses and collaborations with Aboriginal people. It is a message of continuity for Aboriginal people, a continuity that Pascoe claims as his own, and that Sutton and Walshe don’t want to go into because their discourse is not equipped to deal with the twists and turns of positionality that they bat away as ‘identity politics and racial polemics’.
Sutton and Walshe’s ‘factish gods’ repel such positionality, even as they try to promote the universality of their discourse of the human sciences as simply ‘scientific and scholarly’. It performs a clear exposition of the facts, without any of that other kind of whitefella magic, called ‘theory’. What kind of theory underpins their text? Do they embrace the recent ‘ontological turn’ in anthropology? – Certainly not. Any interest in ‘multi-species ethnography’? – No. But there is the constant appeal to ‘culture’ and ‘philosophy’, something that the ‘Old People’ have, and which Pascoe has neglected to include. But I can’t find any explicit philosophy in the book. What would have happened, I wonder, if they had invited a philosopher to contribute a chapter or two? Who? Certainly Mary Graham, Val Plumwood or Helen Verran would have had interesting things to say, moving the conceptual furniture around a bit. This might take us in the direction of the posthuman critique of classical humanism, something that may well have been around ever since Nietzsche.
‘Human, all too human’
I like very much Sutton and Walshe’s use of the phrase ‘skilled ecological agents’, a phrase consonant with the work of the late Deborah Bird Rose, who took Australian anthropology in a new direction. Her environmental and ‘posthuman’ emphasis decentred the human in the human sciences, that concept being axiomatic in earlier years. ‘Anthropology is the scientific study of man’ would have been the first sentence of many a textbook.
But if the human is not central, what is? Many Aboriginal people would say ‘Country’ is, or use the word for dreaming. And, if elaborated, the animistic or totemic kinship relations that humans have with honey-ants, pelicans, rivers and so on, are the important relationships that must be maintained as more permanent than our brief, transient human lives. Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? has lots of useful information on this topic, gathered from decades of immersion in the field and in the literature. And, it could be argued, this is all about ecological management, something which is very much an urgent matter for our times.
The book would have been more innovative had it embraced more of the Aboriginal ‘pre’ or ‘post’-humanism that exists in practice and on Country. For example, Sutton has an explanatory trope, that ‘the spiritual worked hand in hand with the physical’. This is used to reconcile a pragmatic action (like leaving some plants for next season) with an ancestral story (the ‘spiritual’). But what if that binary is irrelevant, what if no one in that Aboriginal group habitually opposes ‘the spiritual’ and ‘the physical’? Sutton knows this is possible because he states ‘the category ‘natural’ is foreign to Aboriginal tradition’. Without the ‘natural’ (aligned with the ‘physical’ in the Western tradition), the opposition to ‘culture’ becomes difficult to maintain, so some use the neologism, ‘naturecultures’. As we know, ‘culture’ along with ‘the human’, are cornerstones of the classical human sciences. The task remains: to rebuild a set of descriptions of human and nonhuman life on the continent, and to do that you need more philosophy, more Aboriginal concepts, and less kow-towing to the ‘factish gods’.
Image: A detail from the cover of Dark Emu