Whitefella Mischief: a tour of the museum of the magicians of reason

It is the year 2060, and we are driving through Kullilli Country, also known as the Channel Country, a Bio-Region defined by its waterways. This ‘State’ was called ‘Queensland’ after Queen Victoria in 1859, and this was in the south-west corner. But really it is where Max’s people come from. At a turnoff on a dirt track there is a wooden sign, with ‘MUSEUM’ roughly painted in white, and an arrow. A few hundred metres down the track is an old tin shed, a shearing shed, surrounded by a few casuarinas. It looks abandoned. But there’s our museum guide Max, standing outside, waiting for us.

Max: Dahli Mura everyone, and welcome to the Museum.

He opens the door and ushers us inside. Unlike the deceptive outside, the interior is all perfect 2060s hi tech. The living veggiemesh walls are glowing faintly with bioluminescence as they regulate the temperature and humidity to suit the niches where the exhibits are nestled…

In fact, just inside the door is a statue of St Michael, the archangel and the patron saint of the military and the police, as well as bankers and grocers. He wields a sword to defeat the enemies of god, and scales to weigh the good and the bad. A powerful symbol of whitefella magic.

Max: Here we are on Kullilli Country. For a time, this place was a largely forgotten part of the continent. Before we Blackfellas regained sovereignty and did away with the idea of the Nation, the Country here used to sit in the south-west corner of Queensland. It was cut in half by the State borders, but now that we have Bio-Regions the Country is whole again. Of course, the Living Country speaks to us as it always has. In this Kullilli Bio-Region, we pay close attention to watersheds, gorges, goanna, emu, and kangaroo.

Whitefellas invaded, as you know, in 1788 and within a couple of hundred years had nearly destroyed Blackfella Countries, so we had a lot of restoration work to do. No offence, but they really had no idea about how to look after Country. They would say things like, ‘I’m here to run cattle. My job is to turn grass into protein and protein into money.’ And in three generations the Country would be made sick, tipped out of balance.

So, anyway, let’s have a look around at this exhibition, Whitefella Mischief. We called it ‘mischief’ because that is what kids get up to when they want to cause trouble for the adults. That’s one meaning—we are having a bit of fun. The other meaning is ‘magic’, as in the ‘Museum of the Magicians of Reason’.

The kinds of magic we are presenting here have a long history, going back to the Whitefellas’ European origins—back to their own version of whitefella Dreaming, which, as we know, worked okay for some things, but not others.

(Max gestures towards the statue of St Michael.)

Each exhibit is supposed to demonstrate an intellectual trick that whitefellas used to perform to control the rules of the game, to maintain the power and control that they had during the long colonial period. Now, Stephen (we have known each other for years), I know you know the story behind this exhibit, can you tell the group about it?

Stephen: Sure, happy to.

Exhibit #1

This is an aquatint by Francisco Goya from the end of the 18th Century. The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, or in Spanish ‘El sueño de la razón produce monstruos’. It was from a series of caprichos (caprices) that were satirical digs at Spanish society from an Enlightenment point of view. So it was about the triumph of reason over superstition, over irrationality. You see the man sleeping with his head resting on a plinth with the slogan in Spanish, and around him are crowding fearsome bats and owls.

Stephen: Yes, so this first exhibit is about rationality and its critique. In the first stage, the whitefella trick here is to convince people that the rational mind reigns supreme. It is a magic that says there is no such thing as magic …

A Tourist: But there is no such thing as magic! No-one really believes in that kind of stuff …

Max: (laughing) That’s what you guys always used to say. Superstitions and archaic customs have to be left behind so we can all progress. Even religion, for example. It makes no sense for the enlightened rationalist. But this European rationalism has its own internal critique, here in the form of philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari …

Stephen: I remember them! Yes, you see, they become the second part of this first Exhibit:

Exhibit #1

This is an aquatint by Francisco Goya from the end of the 18th Century. The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, or in Spanish ‘El sueño de la razón produce monstruos’. It was from a series of caprichos (caprices) that were satirical digs at Spanish society from an Enlightenment point of view. So it was about the triumph of reason over superstition, over irrationality. You see the man sleeping with his head resting on a plinth with the slogan in Spanish, and around him are crowding fearsome bats and owls.


‘It’s not the slumber of reason that engenders monsters, but a vigilant and insomniac rationality.’ (Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia)

Max: Deleuze and Guattari’s formula is a counter-spell, an antidote to obsessive rationality. Rationality, if you are not careful, could strip away some really important things that we love and cherish. Can you think of any?

A Tourist: Um … yeah … poetry. Dance. All of the creative arts, come to think of it … all the fun stuff!

Max: So, that’s how each of our exhibits is supposed to work: spells and counter-spells. Let’s move on to the next one.

Exhibit #2

A political map of Australia from the 1950s, showing the different states and territories in ‘attractive’ pastel colours.


An illustration from Su-Ming Khoo’s Zine based on the feminist philosopher Donna Haraway’s famous 1988 essay ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’

Max: What does this look like to you?

A Tourist: Just a plain old map of Australia, isn’t it?

Max: An innocent-looking map of Australia. An old one, before we abolished those arbitrary rectangles, the States, and brought back Bio-Regions. Now we have desert mobs, freshwater mobs along the Bulloo River just a few kilometres that way… saltwater mobs back East on the coast.

Stephen: Nothing wrong with this map, is there?

Max: Well, no-one lives in any place that looks anything like this. Looking down, suspended miles above the Earth. It is an illusion. An illusion they call the omniscient viewpoint. You see this map in a textbook, and the illusion is that the author has access to anywhere on this map, and you too, as a reader. You can hop around all over the place, without even asking permission of those who live there.

Stephen: This reminds me of a debate we had back in the early 2020s. You probably wouldn’t remember Bruce Pascoe and his book Dark Emu—I mean, you weren’t even born then, right? Anyway, he was making a case that Aboriginal peoples had been using agricultural methods from day one, that living was more complex than hunting and gathering. This book was a huge success. Anyway, he might have pushed his argument a bit too far in some places, and a conservative anthropologist and an archaeologist wrote a book pointing out some factual errors. But at the beginning of their book they use a map just like this one. Like any social sciences textbook. The feminist philosopher Donna Haraway called it the ‘god trick’, aligning it with ‘masculinist science’. There you go, a bit of whitefella magic for you.

Max: Spot on! Speaking of the ‘god trick’, check this out!

Exhibit #3

The room darkens. A marble-sized hologram floats down from the ceiling. It begins to inflate into a hologram of the Earth about one-metre tall. This vision of the Earth spins slowly, clouds are swirling around. Everything is in high-definition.


After a little while the perspective zooms in and in until it is hovering over the roof of the museum and stops. The lights come back on.

Max: You know the famous ‘blue marble’ picture that was taken from space way back in 1972? Well, here it is again. An Uncle picked up this hologram at a yard-sale sometime after COP27 and donated it to the Museum.

Images like this one are fleeting pictures taken from a space capsule hurtling thousands of kilometres per hour through space. In the 1970s when images like this one were first taken it promoted ‘planetary consciousness’, you know, as if this ‘blue marble’ was our home. But look here, you can wave your hand through this hologram. Good trick, aye? It’s a hollow image, an illusion, and yet it was as solid as peoples’ belief in scientific progress at the time; telling us that we all live in this one spot.

Stephen: Donna Haraway provides the counter-spell by breaking our illusion. She reminds us that the infinite vision from above is just ‘a god trick’, and that we need to reclaim our vision again by being aware of all the visualising tricks and powers of modern sciences and technologies. She claims ‘only a partial perspective can provide objectivity’ as she argues for knowledge that is situated, located. People used to be in awe of images like this one, and I guess ‘planetary consciousness’ was OK for a while, but the new climate regime changed everything…

Max: You’re right. That is why the next step from planetary consciousness is restoring territorial consciousness. See, we do not live anywhere that looks anything like this. We live on Country.

With climate change we had to recognize that we had a chance to save specific territories—Bruno Latour called them ‘critical zones’[1]—but not if we started with the whole planet.

That was all part of the counter-spell: global networks of Indigenous peoples getting their Countries back, sharing knowledge …

Stephen: I just want to add a bit more about the Pascoe/Sutton debate. I used to be a lecturer, so forgive me if I go on a bit.

Max: You’re right, no worries. We respect our elders.

Stephen: Anyway, that book Farmers or Hunter Gatherers?, by Sutton and Walshe, had a map of Australia just like that at the beginning. The unified Nation. But it was also written in an omniscient language that goes with it: the discourse of the social sciences, a particular kind of academic English. So the map is a sign, an index of how whitefellas thought they had a passport permitting them to feel at home everywhere, or to assert that nothing that is human is foreign to them. Zooming around to any point where people might be talking Nyikina, Walmajarri, Kaurna … but then they would translate what they were saying into that universal discourse of the social sciences, as if it could understand everything through the production of positivist, objective facts. It was a mono-realist prose, not yet multirealist.

Max: Ah, yes, the illusion of the one real world. That was a good bit of whitefella mischief. We did restore multirealism in the Aboriginal Philosophy Department at Naarm Pluriversity back in the 2030s.[2] That’s why it was called a Pluriversity, because it restored multiple ontologies, multiple ways of being …

Stephen: Anyway, that mono-realist discourse, the discourse of the human or social sciences was so short-lived, originating in Europe in the late nineteenth century. It was nothing compared to the knowledges passed on over the millennia by your mobs …

Max: What you are saying about the discourse of the social sciences is true but it is also coercive. It imposes restraints because it is a discipline. It has coercive tricks. If you don’t obey, you are not ‘in the discipline’. Obey, and pretty soon you assimilate the tricks—well, the tricks assimilate you, trap you in.

Stephen: But there was another little trick that Sutton performed. Anthropologists wrote about increase ceremonies or ‘spiritual propagation’, you know, a pervasive Indigenous practice of ensuring the maintenance of other species and things through mimetic or sympathetic magic. In the book, 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, sing the song, call on the powers of the ancestors, and rearrange the shells which ‘represent’ the goose eggs.[3]

Far from denouncing this performance as ‘mumbo-jumbo’ (as those so-called ‘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. In other words, they denounce Pascoe in the name of rationality, but use the magic of the Wik (the supposedly ‘real’ blackfellas) and incorporate it without critical judgement. They really believe they have found the authentic blackfellas, but the Wik themselves know that their performance is an artifice, just like a nicely made artefact.

Unlike missionaries, who, back in the day, were intent on installing their own god, and used to burn the fetishes of the ‘natives’. Bruno Latour, years ago, delved into their 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 used 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.[4]

So, I reckon 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 —books— continue to have a fetish-like power.

Max: You’re right. Country was always our Book, and we restored its legibility, thanks to the explosion into studies of concepts like ‘biocultural landscapes’ and then the current political Bio-Regions. We gave up the Map and went back to the Territory … so we could read the Country once again.

Exhibit #4

The first panel shows an engineer’s wet dream from the 1980s: an aerial image of highways looping through a city landscape dominated by skyscrapers.


The other panel is a 2040s reconstruction of the same site. Transport is all-electric and has gone underground. Green spaces have been restored, rivers cleaned up and people now cohabit with native animals in medium-density neighbourhoods.

Max: What’s happening in this exhibit is the consequence of what happens when you forget you inhabit a territory and you follow the lines on the map. The map is a trick for disciplining territories. It reinforces what Dipesh Chakrabarty has called ‘asymmetrical ignorance’,[5] and someone else called ‘knowledge valves’.[6] I will give just one example: if you are writing an essay and all of your footnotes are to Northern Hemisphere whitefellas, then you are helping knowledge to flow only one way. You will be enriching the imperial discipline.

A Tourist: I gave up writing essays long ago.

Tourist’s friend: [replies, sotto voce] You gave up thinking long ago. (laughter)

Max: I know, I know, ‘it’s all academic’. But to decolonise, as we have largely done, meant working through ideas like ‘discipline is empire’. Sylvia Wynter’s essay ‘On How We Mistook the Map for the Territory, and Reimprisoned Ourselves in Our Unbearable Wrongness of Being, of Désêtre[7] provided a useful critique of discipline. In this piece, Wynter dwelt on black studies — the black arts movement, the interventions of Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire, anticolonial movements in the Caribbean and South Africa, the post-1960s institutionalization of Africana-African-Afro-American Studies, and more. It was a global movement, globally subordinated peoples moving out of their Western assigned places and calling into question what was, in effect, the structures of a global world system.

Stephen: Kunmanara (Mumu Mike) Williams, the great Pitjantjatjarra artist, knew something about this global movement, and offered us a powerful counter-spell to this when he wrote ‘Mapa Wiya’ (‘No Map’ or, ‘We don’t need a map’). Hanging over there. 2017. Ink and acrylic on a found map.

Max: It is Dreaming which gives us all the direction we need.

Tourist: Which way is the coffee shop?

Max: Sure, take a break. We’ve got coffee, tea, pituri infusions.

[Pituri is made from leaves of the narcotic shrub Duboisia hopwoodii, the most potent of Australian tobacco plant species containing nicotine and nicotiana. Traditionally used on long journeys as an appetite suppressant, to sharpen the senses during important meetings, and as a painkiller in higher doses, it was traded far and wide from Kullilli Country.]

Stephen: We’ve got plenty of time. Isn’t that the next exhibit, when they all come back?

Exhibit #5

A series of time technologies. An hourglass. An escape mechanism, modelled on the flintlock gun. A calendar. A pendulum clock…


Gordon Bennett. Triptych, Of Grandeur, Empire. 1989. The three panels show a raw, burnt-orange landscape with black angular lines diminishing down into the central view point of each panel. The lines of the central panel are arranged as the tri-part of a Christian crucifixion, with two crucified arms emerging on either side. An Aboriginal woman, Bennett’s own mother, is knelt down, cleaning with a rag. A framed newspaper cutting showing his mother as a domestic servant is fixed opposite. On the right panel, the face of Truganini appears on the horizon. On the left panel, an Aboriginal man sits beneath a structure resembling the Arch of Titus, but with Roman soldiers standing beside a figure being pulled along on a four-horse chariot.

Max: Welcome back, folks, you all focussed now, with that pituri? This next exhibit is all about time and history. Both were key parts of whitefella mischief. Often as the spells beneath the spells, magic beneath magic.

They took time and made it mechanical and linear, stripping it away from place and making it universalized—they forced four seasons on everyone, split the day into seconds, minutes, hours.

‘Progress’, that word the whitefellas loved so much, became like a law of Nature.

But when you break time away from place, it becomes abstract.

The whitefella version of ‘History’, at least in the post-Enlightenment sense of the term, is a perfect example of this abstraction. It holds the past at arm’s length, approaching it only through ‘distanced representation’.

That allowed lots of whitefellas to escape the past that gave rise to their present, to not really connect the dots and see how colonisation in the past gave form to the here-and-now.

For a long time, Aboriginal people were seen as being outside of history, as ahistorical, incapable of progress and change.

When the government set up reserves to try and force whitefella civilisation on us, they even talked about needing to suspend the laws of Nature to get us to transform into disciplined, obedient and supposedly ‘civilised’ subjects. That was their idea of bringing us into history.

Stephen: That makes me think of Kurnell, the spot they used to say was the ‘birthplace of Modern Australia’, because it was Cook’s landing place. As if ‘history’ started there. So where did that place Aboriginal history?—in a perpetual ‘catch-up’ position?

Max: Definitely. But at times it was even worse than that, because in imagining Aboriginal people had no history they could also imagine that we had no future here in Australia.

But you’re right, they used historical trickery to place us along a sliding scale of development and—particularly from the last half of the nineteenth century—they used it to justify Australia’s colonisation with a perverse kind of benevolence.

The strangest example of that is an article that was written in the 1940s, called ‘Nice Chains for Lucky Natives’, which said that chaining Aboriginal people by the neck was a benevolent act, because they were bringing them into a modern utopia.

It’s interesting that you mention Captain Cook, though, because his use of the legal fiction of terra nullius was all about whitefella’s time magic.

When Cook summoned up terra nullius to take possession of a third of the Australian continent not that much happened. Its power was not realised spontaneously. On the contrary, it gained its power through the potential that it created, for Modern Australia as it would emerge through colonisation and occupation.

In that way, its power came from what would follow on from it. As well as being a possessive spell, it was a spell based around progress.

After all, without colonisation taking place and the formation of Modern Australia over the next few centuries, Cook’s magic of terra nullius would have been nothing more than a line on a map. And we know from before that maps don’t really count for too much.

Stephen: I guess Cook didn’t just pull terra nullius from thin air either, did he? It was Hugo Grotius and other fellas who gave those words their power when they spelled out their political theories of property many centuries ago. And the Popes, the Romans and Ancient Greeks all played their part, too.

We can’t say it’s all ancient history when it all followed through and carried on in its own way. But what is the counter-spell for all this time magic? I guess it would be putting time back in its place—letting Country tell the time again?

Max: You’re dead right, I think. Putting time back in its place—well said. We can restore proper-time, ‘real’ time if we ignore numbers and look instead at events, colliding singularities, like: ‘he was born when cyclone Tracy destroyed Darwin’.

Let’s check out the next exhibit.

Exhibit #6

Interior: A mid-twentieth century living room. Mannequins of a quintessential nuclear family—father, mother, daughter—are arranged around a flickering black-and-white television. Father is reading the newspaper in an armchair, mother is working on a sewing machine at a sewing desk, the daughter is playing on the rug.


Exterior: Old Mick Tjakamarra, Honey Ant Dreaming, 1982.

Three groupings of concentric circles formed by white-dots ripple outwards. They are joined by curved bodies, convex shapes, that gather around. Amongst them, the black and brown silhouettes of flowers and plants gather on each side. All around, asymmetrical clusters of dots in reds, yellow, black, brown and white fit unevenly together and seem to continue on, as if the painting has no end or margin.

Max: Come on through, you mob. Come and sit down on the chairs here, this one is an interactive exhibit. A good chance to put your feet up for a second. Whitefellas have this cultural thing where they are really wrapped up in interiors. That’s all part of their trick for thinking that humans, and their culture, are separated from ‘Nature’. Enclosures like this one maintained an apparent separation, a dividing line.

But then they would even extend this notion of interiors to people! When the missionaries came into our communities in the early days—or when the police forced us to go to the missionaries—they had this idea of ‘soul’ which was really hard to translate. One old man translated it with the word for ‘hairs on the chest’ because that was where the missionary kept pointing.

But our people are oriented outwards, towards the world, towards Country. We never looked in mirrors and contemplated ourselves as ‘self’. We looked in the eyes of our loved ones and we saw kinship and sharing, sometimes conflict too.

But the more we listened to whitefellas the more they began to redesign our sense of self, to recreate us as individuals. We had to resist this silly idea. We had to be wary of their ‘swollen brain syndrome’, I like to call it. Cognitive functions, The psyche (without telling us that was a Greek god, meaning soul), or the brain being in control of the body.

The one thing we know we have inside is our stomachs, because we can feel things there. You call it intuition, or ‘gut feeling’; we call it liyan or miwi. We really listen to that.

So, Sigmund Freud had a different idea of dreams to our Dreaming. Totally different, because our dreaming is the law; while his is pathological, things going wrong in what he sees as the structures driving human desire. Look at his human family, an intense little triangle, with the patriarch as the head, the brain, the master. In our families a kid calls all his mother’s sisters ‘mother’; and all his father’s brothers are ‘dad’; it is an extended network of support.

We don’t live in interiors enclosed by rectangular walls. Our camps are open, 360 degrees, close up and as far as you can see or hear…

The rectangle is yet another kind of knowledge valve that can be decolonised with a different kind of visual art practice, as Old Mick Tjakmarra’s Honey Ant Dreaming reminds us. He has the counter-spell: a ngurra aesthetic, he might say, using his word for ‘camp’: all around, near and far, all at the same time.

Exhibit #7

Tracey Moffatt, First Jobs, Pineapple Cannery 1978, 2008

This photograph, a hybrid of found imagery and photoshop illusion, is colourised in bright fantasy candy colours. The artist has inserted herself role-playing on the shop floor where young women are arrayed in disciplined rows, doing the repetitive work of a cannery production line, an odd job she might have had as a teenager in Queensland.


Capitalist Sorcery: Breaking the Spell[8]

‘Stengers and Pignarre launch a call to invention, against the spell of the infernal alternatives that bind us to the capitalist ‘realist’ logic of choosing between the lesser of unliveable evils. To counter this capture, they propose a political ‘magic’ capable of creating new possibilities. But do not be misled: the ‘magic’ is all in the technique, and the technique is all in relation. Capitalist Sorcery is a veritable toolbox for an anticapitalist politics of collective empowerment…’ — Brian Massumi, University of Montreal, Canada.

Max: Here we have Philippe Pignarre and Isabelle Stengers, whitefellas criticising their own system, but in a different way. They are not doing negative critique, dialectics, they are trying to break the spell of capitalism.

Stephen: How on Earth do you do that?

Max: They were saying you have to move outside of the capitalist assumptions. For instance, you don’t assume that the next step for a destructive capitalism will be even more destruction. And you don’t assume it is behaving rationally, that you have to bow down before the ‘Gods of Reason’, as Lesley Green from Cape Town said.[9] These Gods were Scientific Objectivity, Technical Efficiency and Economic Profitability. They need to be dethroned, because, as she said: ‘You cannot solve a problem with the same ideas that created it.’

Stephen: So Stengers and Pignarre were saying, what if capitalism were just another kind of sorcery?

Max: Yes, but a peculiar kind of a sorcery: a system of sorcery without sorcerers (that is, sorcerers who don’t think of themselves as such). Just techniques. It is a kind of sorcery that operates in a world which judges that sorcery are only simple ‘beliefs’, superstitions, so you don’t need to protect yourself from it.

Their counter-spell, outrageously naming capitalism as a kind of sorcery, transforms the relation with those ‘others’ who were always supposed to be superstitious primitives, or pagan, or witches. Because thinking that one has no need of protection is a kind of recklessness, the recklessness that characterizes the drive for progress. But those ‘others’ were always aware of the need for protection from evil. And the Gods of Reason were telling us there is nothing to fear! Whitefellas, with these Gods on their side, thought they were invulnerable. That all changed when the destruction of climate change set in. Everybody became vulnerable, and the destructive capitalist practices were named, one after the other.

Climate change fractured forever the continuity Whitefellas created as valid for the whole of humanity, as if the truths of the European enlightenment were piling up one by one and the rest of the world was eternally grateful for them. Back then, Whitefellas liked to think so, but certainly not those whom they colonized. When they sent missionaries, teachers, armies—and nowadays smart bombs or the bureaucrats of the IMF and the World Bank into distant countries—it was always ‘civilising’’ work: they weren’t destroying enemies; they didn’t have enemies. They were rescuing people from their primitive fate!

Tourist: I’m from Kenya. The colonising armies justified their extreme violence with the same ‘civilising mission’. When they brought out their guns, they had that chilling pedagogical saying: ‘That should teach them a lesson!’

Stephen: Rhetorical mischief if ever there was any! It masks the genocide. I can certainly see the point of unmasking the ‘magic of reason’.

Max: Okay, moving over here we have a related exhibit. The Nation State. It has its foundational violence, but it sustains itself with equally foundational magical techniques and practices. We picked up ideas from Mick Taussig’s old book, The Magic of the State.[10] He sees the State as a kind of theatre of spirit possession. He stages, in some fictional South American country, a Spirit Queen on an enchanted mountain, around which ‘the dead—Blacks and Indians, Europe’s fetishized others—pass into the bodies of the living, creating a circulation of ecstatic bodily power.’ I’m reading from the back cover: ‘The Magic Of The State envisions power’s violence, but also its abjection and attraction. This work is, in the surrealist tradition, a kind of defacement of power, and of the sacred underpinnings of modern sovereignty.’ Same deal here in Australia.

Exhibit #8

The Magic of the State

An eternal flame burns at the centre of the room. The words ‘Lest We Forget’ are etched into the ground in gold lettering, and radiating out and across the room are the names of the recorded conflicts and massacres that took place during Australia’s invasion.


A 7-foot-tall Captain Cook statue, partly toppled over. Scrawled across the plaque at his feet reads ‘Change the Date’ in black graffiti. Painted over the top in ochre red, ‘The Date has Changed’

Tourist: And what’s this bronze bust over here?

Max: Just our local invader! Vincent James Dowling, who came to Kullilli Country in 1863 and got a spear through his ‘long American hat’ for his trouble! Saved by a lucky hat. We don’t want to forget that story.[11]

Stephen: What does Taussig mean by the ‘magical harnessing of the dead for stately purpose’?

Max: Well, if we were being perfectly rational we would just bury our dead and forget about them, right? Why does the State ‘honour’ the dead, but only certain dead? Unknown soldiers in overseas wars, in the case of Australia. It became a founding myth for the Whitefella Nation.

Tourist: Only in 2023 did the National War Memorial even start to honour the dead in the Australian Wars. I remember Rachel Perkins’ TV series of that name gave the War Memorial a kick in the butt! So, what do you reckon is the counter-spell? …

Stephen: Could it be desecration, rather than erasure or cancellation? All these war memorials erected in every country town. You don’t even notice the monument until it is desecrated, and suddenly all its power spills out…

Max: Taussig again: ‘when you cut across perfection you release something holy’.

Stephen: The monument can then persist in its hybrid form, as it was and with a new story attached, with a new meaning: representing both the Nation and resistance to the old national myth.

Max: Taussig’s other counter-spell is creative, a hybrid form of writing called ‘fictocriticism’. Taussig is striving to write his way out of that disciplined, uniform ‘discourse of the social sciences’ you were talking about, which he once called ‘agribusiness writing’ in a book called The Corn Wolf:

I have long felt that agribusiness writing is more magical than magic ever could be and that what is required is to counter the purported realism of agribusiness writing with apotropaic writing as countermagic, apotropaic from the ancient Greek meaning the use of magic to protect one from harmful magic.[12]

Exhibit #9 Gravity

A video showing Elon Musk’s Space X Starship blowing up shortly after takeoff in 2023. It is surrounded by rhetorical statements. Quasi-religious ones about transcending our Earthly state. Over-familiar colonisation stories. Technological progress as saviour. Reckless abandonment of the Earth. By 2060 five missions to colonise Mars had failed, with the death of 1243 ‘pioneers’.


The 2013 film Gravity, with Sandra Bullock, is a counter-narrative to the Elon Musk ones. The final scene in the film shows her character, Dr Ryan Stone, drawn inexorably back to Earth (by gravity), having survived a dramatic tech breakdown in orbit. She crawls exhausted out of a lake where her capsule has landed, and grasps a handful of mud…

Max: Our final exhibit is about our connection with the Earth, which, funnily enough, depends on gravity. You remember that old, old film Gravity, which was made at the turning point of many people becoming more conscious of the need to care for the Earth’s territories.

Stephen: Oh, I remember this scene. When Sandra Bullock came down to Earth after her adventures in space, after all the dangers of her space mission, she took a handful of earth and drew it towards her heart, because here on Earth is where she belonged. Was that irrational?

Max: Gravity is what holds us to the Earth. It is what makes it possible for our very bodies to be shaped the way we are, to have bones of a certain strength. The final scene in the film is a quintessential counter-spell to the billionaires’ ridiculous dreams of colonising other planets, continuing to perform those same magical tricks to get people to believe in modernisation as inevitable human evolution and transcendence upwards and away from primitivism, from earthiness, from the paganism that worships (in order to respect and care for) sacred groves of trees, water spirits, and mountain goblins.

Sacred places are sacred precisely to make us respect their singularity, with reverence and perhaps fear. A fear that keeps the bulldozers away. But rationality has been working for a very long time to remove that reverence and that fear, precisely so the bulldozers can go in unimpeded.

The Gods of Reason and their magic need to be deposed. After all, they are not very inspiring. The new gods of reason will be once again pagan ones.

Tourist: I’m not surprised, after all, ‘pagan’ is from the Latin for ‘Country’ (as in Fr: pays, It: paesano.).

Stephen: The new gods of reason will be spirits of the Country.

Max: Well, that’s the tour of whitefella mischief. What’d ya reckon? Thank you for visiting the Museum of the Magicians of Reason. Feel free to stick around and see the other exhibits and ask any questions. And remember to see the gift shop on the way out!


[1] Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, Critical Zones: The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth, Cambridge, Mass: MIT press, 2020.

[2] RMIT University in Melbourne became Naarm Pluriversity in 2032.

[3] Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe, Farmers or Hunter-gatherers?: The Dark Emu Debate, Melbourne University Press, 2021, p. 24ff.

[4] Bruno Latour, On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods, Durham: Duke University Press, 2010

[5] Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for “Indian” Pasts?’ Representations, 37, Winter, 1992, pp. 1-26.

[6] Stephen Muecke and Paddy Roe, The Children’s Country: The Creation of a Goolarabooloo Future in North-West Australia, London: Rowman and Littlefield International, 2020, pp. 53-54; 101-102.

[7] Sylvia Wynter, Not Only the Master’s Tools, London: Routledge, 2006.

[8] Isabelle Stengers and Philippe Pignarre, Capitalist Sorcery: Breaking the Spell, London: Macmillan 2007.

[9] Lesley Green, ‘The Changing of the Gods of Reason: Cecil John Rhodes, Karoo Fracking, and the Decolonizing of the Anthropocene,’ e-flux Journal 65, May-August (2015), pp. 1-9.

[10] Michael T. Taussig, The Magic of the State, New York: Routledge, 1997.

[11] Martha Rutledge, ‘Dowling, Vincent James (1835–1903)’ Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 4 , 1972.

[12] Michael T. Taussig, ‘The Corn Wolf: Writing Apotropaic Texts’, in The Corn Wolf, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015, p. 10.

Max Brierty

Max Brierty is a descendant of the Kullilli people and a Research Fellow at the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry at the University of Queensland.

More by Max Brierty ›

Stephen Muecke

Stephen Muecke is Adjunct Professor at the Nulungu Research Institute Notre Dame University, Broome, and Emeritus Professor of Ethnography at the University of New South Wales.

More by Stephen Muecke ›

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