[This is the fourth installment of an essay which began here.]
To tell the truth I was surprised to be able to teach sympathetically about Aboriginal traditions. In Australia I had been blown away by recent Aboriginal art, and entranced by the land and the idea that it had been shaped over tens of thousands of years by Aboriginal care. A spontaneous sand-painting by an Arrernte guide at the Desert Museum in Alice Spring suddenly shone with cosmic significance. But I was repelled by the initiation rituals which seem to be what most fascinates western observers of indigenous cultures, bothered by gender binarism and uninterested in kinship. I'm cool to people's enthusiasms for animals, dreams and secret knowledge and suspicious of gerontocracy. Aboriginal stories don't sing for me. Clapsticks are tedious. Hunting is a bore.
By the time it came to teaching my class, however, I felt I had come to a deeper understanding of a profoundly interesting and valuable way of being human. Amazing what a little reading can do! What I tried to get across to the class had little to do with secrets or totems, and initiations were barely mentioned. Instead I challenged students to imagine a life of participation in a radically different economy of living knowledge. It is 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. Participation in this economy of knowledge - whether the knowledge in question happens to be "secret sacred" or not - interweaves people and the world.
At the end I summed it up for myself in these terms:
• ownership: Certain people own certain knowledge; their identity is defined by their responsibility for it. All knowledge is someone's responsibility, and if all are able to carry out their responsibilities, the whole world is taken care of.
• distribution: Knowledge is distributed among groups, genders and generations; even ownership is distributed, as owners of something require the permission of "managers" to use it. All is kept in balance by their a constantly recalibrating social balance; when needed, gaps are filled by dreams.
• protocol: People's relationships to knowledge are to be honored; others' knowledge cannot be used without permission. More generally, all accept that there are things they do not, cannot and need not know.
Pretty nice, eh? But pretty abstract. This was in part a response to the variety of Aboriginal traditions we explored, and to the irreducibly local character of most of their knowledges. The abstraction was also the expression of a growing uneasiness about handling the knowledges in question. If Aboriginal people are careful not to use knowledge that's not theirs, how much more should I be? These were the concepts of property and protocol which ended up complicating my relationship to my business as a teacher of religious studies more generally.
I'd not thought about these issues deeply before. Had I managed (with the help of W. E. C. Stanner, David Mowaljarlai, Howard Morphy, Deborah Bird Rose, Marcia Langton, Fred Myers, Françoise Dussart and many others) truly to open myself to other ways of being in the world - so much so that I was actually changed by them? Or had I just found my Numbakulla - cherry-picked elements which resonated with what I already believed to be important?
Reflecting on the aspects of the Aboriginal traditions which became paradigmatic in my account, I do wonder if I was merely projecting. Take Birrinbirrin's words, "this is where we stop." They became for me the key to explaining how a culture lives out ideals in messy reality. The many discussions and reviews of the film I read don't even remark on them. But I found it made sense of everything, even the awkward discovery of ethnographers who follow an Aboriginal community over time: Dreaming stories demonstrably change, but their tellers insist the Dreaming never changes. Isn't that what a living tradition looks like? Reconstructing my thinking now, I think Birrinbirrin's words resonated for me with formative intellectual experiences of my undergraduate and graduate education: virtue ethics, the later Wittgenstein and even Buddhism.
When the elder said "this is where we stop," I heard Aristotle's practical wisdom, the hard-won virtue without which none of the other virtues can be lived. Phroneisis is a virtue acquired - like every virtue - through doing, not just thinking. Discerning the morally salient qualities of a situation and moving directly to appropriate action, it cannot be fully understood except from the inside. It can't be explained to the less experienced, but they (we!) can recognize and emulate it. It can take a lifetime to acquire, and not everyone gets there.
As a student I drank deeply of the revival of "virtue ethics" rooted in a rereading of Aristotle (but also of Hegel). Human moral life is more complicated and rich (and perhaps tragic) than the simplified moral systems of modern philosophy can recognize, I learned. But in the language of the virtues - everyday language as well as philosophical - we have resources for navigating this rich and complicated world. Moral vocabularies should be studied in all their breadth and depth and even contradiction. They record a culture's efforts to do right by a reality more profound than any theoretical account of it. This is why I bring the gnomic anti-enlightenment ideas of J. G. Hamann into most of my classes. It is why I recommend that students study abroad. It is why the loss of indigenous languages - richer and finer-grained than the lean mean colonial languages - is such a tragedy for all of humanity. Reality demands all the wisdom we can muster, in all the languages which have proved themselves valuable.
If Birrinbirrin was a phronimos demonstrating the way of wisdom out of a knotty particular situation, I also heard in his words Ludwig Wittgenstein's famous claim that "justification comes to an end." Sometimes misconstrued as a refusal to do philosophy, Wittgenstein's claim is really a descriptive one. Concerns about why things are a certain way eventually end. Not because we have reached certifiable "bedrock," or have hit the wall of an authority or an obscurity. Those aren't the situations Wittgenstein is talking about. At a certain point (probably not knowable in advance) the need for further justification simply falls away. Things just make sense. Further questions seem frivolous, silly or dogmatic. Inquiry ends (for now, at least) in what I would want to call an attunement with reality. Now I see. Now I get it.
I imagine those with practical wisdom are better at getting us to this point, or to realize when we're at it. That's what I heard in Birrinbirrin's words and their effect in the story of "Ten Canoes." But there is still a gap between what the phronimos understands in the particular case, and the rest of us. We don't understand the particular case, but are swayed (sometimes, not always) by his words because they come from him. His practical wisdom probably also extends to knowing what to say to us, and when.
Aboriginal youths aren't supposed to ask questions, but to trust that their elders are telling them as much as they need to know at any given point. If you think the old no likelier to be wise than the young, this sounds like what Peter Sutton has called gerontocratic totalitarianism, but I was prepared to see it differently. The wisdom of a truly wise person (at least some of them) is recognizable to the young, the way a phronimos is. You can't yet see what she sees, but you trust that she sees farther than you do. And you trust that she knows the way to guide you eventually to see that far too. The progressive disclosure of knowledge is not designed to maintain a restrictive monopoly but, to the contrary, to ensure that all will arrive at full understanding of it.
In thinking about Aboriginal elders as teachers, I was importing ideas not just from Aristotle and Wittgenstein but from Mahayana Buddhism, whose concept of upaya has fascinated me since graduate school. Often translated as "skillful means" upaya designates the way an enlightened being breaks through the ignorance of a deluded, suffering being by saying just the right thing or taking just the right form to effect change. To borrow another famous Wittgensteinian phrase, the bodhisattva knows how to let the fly out of the fly bottle.
The bodhisattvas know our ignorance so well they know how to free us from it – something we can, being mired in ignorance, never do on our own. Ignorant efforts at self-liberation are ever self-defeating. The most interesting thing about upaya, as it is discussed in the Lotus and the Vimalakirti Sutras, is that the saving intervention of the bodhisattva is not bound by what is true. That’s not the point. The point is to save suffering beings. Wisdom isn't just knowing what's true but being able to communicate this understanding to another - always a particular someone with a particular profile of knowledge and ignorance. It's practical wisdom again. And it's not just bodhisattvas whose practical wisdom includes a pedagogical commitment, but any and all of us as we share knowledge. If we really care about conveying it, we have to know who our interlocutors are.
As a growing teacher learning his chops, upaya is an intoxicating idea. Not that you would lie exactly. You might strategically simplify, or present only one side of an issue for a time. But you’d be willing and able to lie, if that were the only way to get someone to understand something - so great is your commitment to getting the student to grasp the saving truth. (Once they understood, the ruse could be be revealed. The ladder is kicked away, the raft left behind. Bodhisattvas often fall in the line of duty: if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.)
Birrinbirrin not just a phronimos but a bodhisattva? For what the film presents as an often foolish old man, I certainly have him carrying a lot of my baggage! (Among the many virtues of "Ten Canoes" is its refusal to present Mingyululu and Birrinbirrin as sages. They make mistakes, as people always do.) I didn't bring any of this up in class. Indeed it's only in retrospect that I see that I was giving him an Aristotelian-Wittgensteinian-Mahayana nimbus! But I persist in feeling that this wasn't just projection. Even as I didn't understand the knowledge in question, I recognize in Aboriginal economies of knowledge the virtues and practices of wise traditions. But there's also something here I didn't learn from Aristotle or Wittgenstein or Vimalakirti. To see it you have to look beyond the sage.
Although clearly entranced by the romantic images of old sages common in our representation of other cultures, I was more interested in the stance demanded of the young. It's something like the patience the story of "Ten Canoes" taught Dayindi, and its narrator offered us viewers. And it's something like trust: the young trust older people to tell them what they need to know when they need it. But I sensed that is was a quality demanded all the time in the Aboriginal economy of knowledge. The old, too, recognize that others possess knowledge which will never be theirs. This is different and in its way deeper than waiting your turn to be full possessor of knowledge. It's accepting that you neither can possess all knowledge nor need to.
This is a point where I feel I may have learned something new from Aboriginal traditions - it's not like anything I knew before. But it also doesn't appear in this form in anything I read about Aboriginal religion. It's more like, well, the pluralism - I sometimes think of it as a polytheism - which is my own experience of cultural and religious difference. My schema of ownership-distribution-protocol could be an ethos for interreligious coexistence. There is no consensus on the real because it's too rich for any one way of responding to it, even as these responses are each a precious inheritance. The way of the wise might be recognizing how much they can't know and don't need to - especially as there are other human communities holding up other ends of our engagement with it. The phronimos attends to what he knows and is responsible for. But does it make any sense to think of Aboriginal people as pluralist? Or have I just pulled an Eliade of my own?
[The next installment of this essay is here.]