Aboriginal Dandyism

Traditional Australian Aborigine societies were, from a material and technological standpoint, relatively simple. This relative simplicity has blinded many to the fact that traditional Aboriginal worldviews were (and are) exceedingly complex. Indeed, these are so complex that it is tempting to posit an inverse relationship between level of technology and creativity of worldview. Those not familiar with these worldviews, and their manifold complexities, should put Tony Swain’s book at the top of their reading list. Swain is not alone in judging Aboriginal worldviews to be deeply profound. In The Savage Mind (1962), Claude Lévi-Strauss comments:

In spite of the contact and inter-change with the outside world which has also taken place in Australia, Australian societies have probably developed in isolation more than appears to have been the case elsewhere. Moreover, this development was not undergone passively. It was desired and conceptualized, for few civilizations seem to equal the Australians in their taste for erudition and speculation and what sometimes looks like intellectual dandyism, odd as this expression may appear when it is applied to people with so rudimentary a level of material life. [They] were, in various [intellectual] respects, real snobs.

Granting that Australia has been turned in on itself for [tens] of thousands of years, that theorizing and discussion was all the rage in this closed world and the influence of fashion often paramount, it is easy to understand the emergence of a sort of common philosophical and sociological style along with methodically studied variations on it[,] of constantly elaborating themes only the general outlines of which were fixed by tradition and custom.

It is therefore conceivable that the favourable historical and geographical conditions outlined have led to Australian cultures standing in a relation of transformation to each other, possibly more completely and systematically than those of other regions of the world. (pp. 89-90)

Gaining access to, or intellectually glimpsing, Aboriginal worldviews is not particularly easy. It requires considerable mental and imaginative effort. Those who expend such effort will be richly rewarded with different ways of thinking about being. In this photo, we have my hypothesized inverse relationship expressed in all its Australian irony:


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13 thoughts on “Aboriginal Dandyism

  1. Sabio Lantz

    Ah darn, I guess we just have to take your, Levi-Strauss’ and Swain’s opinion for it. I was hoping to have at least a few examples of it here. But you tell us it takes large mental and imaginary effort to see their complexity. Oh well.

  2. Cris Post author

    It took about 400 books and 1,000 articles for me to (partially) pierce Native American worldviews, and I’ve only gotten started with Aboriginal materials. There are of course scholars, such as Swain and Levi-Strauss, who have spent most of their lives studying these kinds of materials, so when they say something along these cognitive lines, it might be a reasonable prompt for further exploration.

    It’s really not something that can be reduced to a soundbite or diagram, though if you would work your way through Swain’s book and then compare what he is saying to Kant’s model of the perceptual manifold (which forms the theoretical basis of modern neuroscience) then you will begin to glimpse the importance of these radically different, and disorienting, worldviews.

    If you don’t want to accept others’ opinions on these matters, then dive right in and learn for yourself.

  3. Sabio Lantz

    Right, so you recommended Swain’s book, so only 399 to go and 1000 articles and maybe I will partially pierce those worldviews — yeah, right. So for the time being, the only choice I have is to trust yet another author’s opinion. Darn.

    You see, scholars who have all “spent most of their lives studying these kind of materials” can come up with very different views, can’t they.

    Even one or two concrete examples is better to me than just an opinion expecting my trust. I may get back to Swain, but that is what lost me there too — lots of claims.

    But trust me, I know how hard it is to transmit very different ideas.

  4. Cris Post author

    I do know that all scholars who have seriously studied Aboriginal materials are more or less awestruck by the complexity, creativity, and profundity of the worldviews; they may differ in how they try to explain those or how they interpret them, but there is no disagreement about complexity.

    Entering other peoples’ thought worlds is of course a difficult task, and it’s not something that can be done in short order or casually. That’s just the way it is. We are talking about some radically different ways of being and perceiving, so that’s why I say it is not easy.

    Having said that, I’ll give one example, though there are many.

    In my first post about Swain, I discussed how Aboriginal conceptions of time differ, dramatically, from our own. For them, time is subordinated to space. Indeed, time for them is a mere property of space. This has radical implications for how life and the world is perceived.

    If space or place (rather than time) is the primary existential, ontological, and phenomenological axis, this ramifies throughout the entire system of thought or worldview. One such ramification is that time is neither linear nor cyclical. The past, present, and future, by this conception, exist simultaneously.

    If this idea sounds familiar, it should, because modern physicists argue these very issues, and often do so in ways that are strangely similar to Aboriginal ideas. Are they similar? Is it a coincidence?

    I don’t know because I’m just beginning to become familiar with the Aboriginal ethnographic record. But my initial forays into the subject have caused me to question several cognitive categories that I previously thought were settled, or which I (along with most western scientists) conceive as being “natural” or “biological.”

  5. Sabio Lantz

    My studies of cultures shows complexity in every culture. That is the first waking up I did. Also complexity in every language — similar phenomena. So that there is complexity is no surprise. But sophistication would be fun to see — and deep challenging insights would be fun to see.

    Yes, remember, like you, I have entered a few different worldviews other than that I was born in — I know the task. Many ex-pats share this amazing trip.

    But to claim RADICALLY DIFFERENT without concrete example to try and tease the experience, is asking a bit much.

    Japan and India, for me, offered very different experiences. Spending time training with Aboriginal Indians music and teacher then visiting in his home land and drumming together was eye opening too. But if I spent time, I could share concrete examples of different experiences.

    I have read about the time claim and its amazingness in your posts and in Swain. But I need concrete stories and examples, not just claims.

    It all sounds very exciting, of course, but we need folks to give real examples to bring our ontological/epistemological mindspace a little closer to theirs — either through art, stories or music. What ever works other than mere claims. That is my desire.

  6. Cris Post author

    The art, stories, music, etc. are all in the ethnographic records, and these are immense. This is why deep and extended reading in those records is required. The thousands of examples required to bring this stuff to life is there but takes lots of reading time.

    For instance, I might have read 20-30 theoretical or interpretive books on Native American worldviews, but it took reading 400 ethnohistories filled with stories, songs, myths, etc. to bring it to life.

    I will admit to having difficulty simply trying to imagine what Aboriginal space-primacy might entail, or how the world might present to perception if viewed this way.

    These lifeways do seem to be intimately related to hunting and gathering lifeways, so recovering them or living them may be impossible. But we can at least try, and no summaries can do this for us.

    If you don’t want to accept that these worldviews are radically different, that’s fine by me. I’m not trying to persuade you. I’m taking notes here and hoping perhaps to encourage a few people to dive in with an open mind. I know that the assertion of Aboriginal worldview complexity is foreign to many, if not most. It is certainly foreign to most of my students.

    But it seems rather odd for you to continually resist the conclusion reached by those who have studied these kinds of materials and then compared them favorably and disjunctively to formal western philosophy.

    If Swain was too much for you, try reading Rane Willerslev’s “Soul Hunters” book on the Yukaghir. That might assist in opening your mind to all this. Alternatively, you might dig into Tim Ingold’s work on animist worldviews.

  7. Sabio Lantz

    Thanx Cris
    Reading stories after stories and movie after movie. Living with several families in India and learning the language. Learning to cook and drum. All that shift my perception over 10 years. It does take work.

    It is not that I don’t believe your claim of radical difference. I just find it unsatisfactory to read the claim without examples — a mini ethnograph, for instance. So maybe I will read these. I always hope your quotes with be such a mini story. Fed slowly overtime with theoretical short explanation would help.

    Thanx for those sources — maybe someday. For now, I have your blog.

    As for learning their view point — dropping out of our culture and into theirs and living as a hunter gather is one way but I doubt few do it, eh?

  8. Cris Post author

    In another life, I might have a blog called “Animist Worldviews” in which I would do nothing but address these. But alas, I have only one life and two jobs and one blog devoted to a larger subject. As I mentioned in another post, the animist worldview angle constitutes but a single chapter of my project and book, so I can’t devote nearly as much time or blog space to them as I might like.

    I will say that all my “pleasure” reading comes from hunter-gatherer ethnohistory, so it’s often on my mind and makes occasional, albeit brief, appearances here on the blog. I apologize for the summary nature of these, and just will have to hope that my summary and dissatisfying assertions about these might prompt a few people to discover them.

    Having said that, and apropos to your earlier comment about all cultures being complex, the vast majority of people think that hunter-gatherer lifeways and worldviews were simple, non-complex, and “primitive.” No one (except perhaps American exceptionalists or idiots) thinks that China, Japan, or India is or was the same.

    One of the huge distinctions between those cultures and foraging cultures revolves around orality and literacy. These are not mere differences of form: the differences have pronounced cognitive effects. I just finished reading Walter Ong’s “Orality and Literacy,” which is just brilliant and you should most definitely read. He compares and contrasts these two modes in ways that really bring home just how different they are, and what effects they have.

  9. Sabio Lantz

    @ Chris:
    I did not understand this sentence: “No one (except perhaps American exceptionalists or idiots) thinks that China, Japan, or India is or was the same.”

    I downloaded Ong’s book.
    I am reading my third re-write of the Mahabharata and wondering about what it was like prior to being recorded — in its Orality days — and if the text shows those origins. Especially since the different versions of the Mahabharata are different exactly because of local oralities then captured in text.

    The Munda tribal person I studied with, btw, grew up in aboriginal India.

  10. Cris Post author

    That suggestion simply meant that every intelligent and/or academic person accepts Chinese, Indian, and Japanese cultures as being some combination of: civilized, advanced, modern, complex, etc.

    Only idiots, like American evangelicals or exceptionalists (often the same thing) assert that these cultures are something other than “advanced.” Those same idiots sometimes call them “backwards” or “primitive.”

    This goes to my issue of contrasts, between foraging societies and agricultural-industrial societies.

    Does that help?

  11. Sabio Lantz

    Yes, but oralicy exists in non-foraging cultures. So I don’t get what you are talking about.
    Foraging cultures have a very different perspective mainly because of means of production. Much like purely agricultural cultures and industrial cultures are different. As too are management cultures, entrepreneur cultures and wage earner cultures. And the very poor in any of these cultures have more in common with each other than with others in their culture.
    Lots of factors.
    Nah, so I guess I don’t see what you are getting at — was it in relations to something I said?

  12. Cris Post author

    I simply mean that in stringently traditional societies, literacy does not exist in any way, shape, form, or influence. Everything is oral, pure and not so simple.

    In literate societies, some residual or even predominance of orality may exist but the mere surrounding presence and influence of literacy has a major impact. This changes things in a rather dramatic way.

    All I’m saying, and what Ong (along with Eric Havelock and Jack Goody) is eruditely saying, is that there are major cognitive differences between the two.

  13. jayarava

    According to Michael Witzel the Australian Aboriginal system of mythology has similarities to systems of mythology in New Guinea, the Andaman Islands and Sub-Saharan Africa.

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