Sunday, May 15, 2011

Suspending knowledge...

I've been trying to find the best way of articulating where the experience of teaching about Australian Aboriginal traditions has left me, what led one student to liken my closing remarks to the moment when Tibetan monks, who've spent days making a sand mandala, abruptly sweep it all away.

Our final readings related to the Kumarangk/Hindmarsh Island Bridge controversy. Last week we read an assessment of the anthropological evidence offered to the Royal Commission by Robert Tonkinson that came close to endorsing the “fabrication” view. But for the last class, the readings were from the two rival groups of Ngarrindjeri women themselves: Listen to Ngarrindjeri Women Speaking, compiled by the so-called “proponents” of “secret women’s business," and The Cost of Crossing Bridges by Dulcie Wilson, a leader of the so-called “dissidents.” (The former was in our library; the latter I had to order especially from a used bookseller in Australia.) It seemed important to me to leave the last word of the class to Aboriginal voices, but also to make clear that there is no single Aboriginal voice to which to defer.

This was partly scholarly due diligence, partly my own commitment to provide voice to un-PC positions. It's also the sort of way I like ending a class - not with closure but with a membership card in an ongoing enterprise: after our work together this semester I trust you know enough about what's going on here to come to your own conclusions or further inquiries - over to you!

But this time was different. The Kumarangk case hinges on alleged secret knowledge, and my intention was in fact for them to reach an impasse. We don't have enough evidence to come to our own conclusions, and, if we have learned anything in this class, we know we are neither likely nor entitled to get enough evidence. I suppose I suspended knowledge to make room for faith - whom do you trust? One student said he appreciated the importance of faith's appearing here, since this was after all a Religious Studies class, but my point was more political. We - the academic community - can't be the judges here. It's not our business. The best we can do is recognize whose business it is.

I've been planning to let this be the course's finale from the start, as you know. It brings together issues of difference across Aboriginal traditions and pan-Aboriginal movements, problems of sedentarization and assimilation and Aboriginal Christianities, the "invention of tradition," challenges of different understandings of gender in Aboriginal as well as European Australian culture, tensions in the role of scholars - especially anthropologists... and of course it's a signal case of the collision of Aboriginal cultures of traditional knowledges with western law. What a great way to finish, I thought, a fireworks finale! (At one point I'd even contemplating fabricating copies of the infamous sealed envelopes to use as visual aids.)

I expected to end with a positive spin on a bitter irony: although even the South Australian government has dropped its fabrication charge, the bridge has been built - but the Ngarrindjeri haven't been destroyed by it. In January I was taken by the claim of a (male) Ngarrindjeri elder in a TV spot about the bridge: "We may use the bridge to access our land and waters but culturally and morally we cannot come to terms with this bridge." This seems like a powerful image of the forced reinventions of Aboriginal traditions, I reflected. Some gaps are meant to stay unbridged. But in time, especially colonial and postcolonial time, nothing meant to stay apart is safe from being bridged. How do I teach without invidious bridge-building?

That was the question, and the sweeping away was my last-ditch effort to ensure that no bridges had been built. But isn't building bridges what education is all about?

This might sound little but it's huge. I expected at the outset that I'd be teaching about a fascinatingly different economy of knowledge, one embedded in complex and complementary kinship structures of custodianship, performance and transmission which are themselves anchored in specific sites and linked to the world of flora and fauna, ancestors and ancestral beings. That happened. But I didn't anticipate that teaching this in my familiar liberal arts setting would start to pose fundamental questions about the economy of knowledge of the liberal arts, not really. But has it ever!

How can I put it? You could put it in terms of the knowledge system among Aboriginal peoples, misunderstood as founded in "secrecy." As we learned early on, "secret" doesn't mean a given person isn't acquainted with it but that s/he can't use it. The Warlpiri use the English words "cheap" and "dear" for public and restricted performances, but it's a mistake to think that "cheap" business is any less important than the "dear"; indeed, since it unites the community, it's arguably the most important.

It's better to think of the "sacred-secret" instead as part of a larger system of knowledge generation and transmission defined by:
ownership: certain people own certain knowledge but are also owned by it; they are responsible for it, and their identity is defined by this responsibility
distribution: knowledge is distributed among groups, genders and generations and kept in balance by their constantly recalibrating social balance; even ownership is distributed, as owners of something require the permission of "managers" to use it
protocol (as a Kaurna elder described it to Margaret Simons, The Meeting of the Waters, 129): respecting other people's relationships to knowledge; more generally, accepting that there are things you do not and cannot and need not know
If you wanted to add a grand Stannerian coda, you could say that the living out of this system is Aboriginal philosophy and metaphysics.

This is quite appealing in various ways - I see myself attracted to it for nostalgic, ecological and socially utopian reasons. But it is very different from the project of knowledge to which I am committed as a scholar and teacher. All knowledge should be available to all people, and efforts should be made to distribute it widely. Everyone should be taught to feel entitled to full knowledge about anything, and all of us should object to any effort to monopolize or restrict access, or, especially, to create dependence or exclusion by such restriction. True knowledge doesn't require authority, and is better maintained and expanded by a culture of critical questions and ongoing inquiry. Knowledge, and democracy, too, will flourish if all citizens exercise the freedom which this system of knowledge affords.

Of course this was the position of the conservative lawyers in the Kumarangk case! Shouldn't the moral of the story be that nobody is hurt when knowledge is shared? Why doesn't this settle it?

Ah, "settle," the word of the hour. Eve Tuck, the third of the alumni panelists at our Lang @ 25 discussion on the liberal arts, suggested that there's an affinity between the liberal arts and settler colonialism, but that a different kind of liberal arts might "teach the settler to be indigenous." I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. For it is in settler terms that I have been accustomed to think about what I do. Every field of knowledge (notice that we use land language for knowledge) can be yours if you work for it. A liberally educated person has broad horizons, can navigate the terrain of many fields, and is always looking for new knowledges to make her own. Sounds... like colonialism! Knowledge as theft!

So my impasse. Even if I somehow understand the Aboriginal knowledge system (I'm not saying I do), by what right am I entitled to share it? Do I or don't I teach about it as another territory my students might make their own through study, something they can "learn from," a study from which they can "take away" something of use to them? I'm still tangled up here, as you can see... but I don't want to leave it as a puzzle, a paradox. This isn't something to think through, but to do something about. Do what?

A playwright I've recently met wrestled with some similar questions in writing a (commissioned) play about a Native American figure famous in the region where he too grew up. I've only read about the play, but I think that part of what made it successful was his giving himself - his story, his (settler) family, his fears, his hopes - to it. He was able to incorporate the questions into his performance - and to offer his performance to Native American as well as settler audiences. Perhaps there's a way I could do something like this?

No comments: