Singing the Land, Signing the Land

As an introduction to Western traditions of producing texts, consider this pictorial representation of a cycad printed early in the 19th century (ITEM 6.4). Imagine the context of its production. The plate in ITEM 6.4 is a reproduction of a sketch drawn by Ferdinand Bauer sometime during the years 1801-05, when he was acting as botanical draughtsman on the Investigator, captained by Matthew Flinders. Bauer attempts to present cycads as nature and not as culture. A separated, individuated, idealised tree has been foregrounded. It has been symbolically broken and reduced to what the author of the text considers to be its constitutent parts. We are expected to believe that this drawing presents nature as it really and properly is. Yet, in these extracts we get no clues about the connectedness of the tree: to other plants and animals, to the author, to us, or to its place and time. The text seems almost to deny that there is a connection. It is other than us, outside the social world. We can imagine Bauer, working with his botanist colleague, the Scotsman Robert Brown, in Arnhemland where Flinders recorded a meeting with Yolngu at Caledon Bay in 1803:

Sketch of cycad by ferdinand bauer


Reproduction of a sketch of a cycad made by Ferdinand Bauer as botanical draughtsperson on Flinders's boat, the lnvestigator, 1801-05.

Cycad grove


Cycad grove. Photograph by Neville White.

It does not accord with the usually timid character of the natives of Terra Australis, to suppose the Indians came over from the Isle Woodah for the purpose of making an attack; yet the circumstance of their being without women or children, – their following so briskly after Mr. Westall, – and advancing armed to the wooders, all imply that they rather sought than avoided a quarrel.

quoted in Nancy M. Williams, The Yolngu and their land, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1986, p. 143

Bauer and Brown would have set off from their boat, anchored in some convenient cove, with their notebooks, boxes and bags, tomahawks and knives. On returning, laden with items which had taken their fancy during their walk through the bush, they would have set about separating, recording and preserving their haul. Imagine their work cabin on the Investigator: a separate place for botanising; a highly structured and organised space within the boat, which was itself a floating, separate and organised place; an expeditionary field base; a microworld quite set apart from the world 'outside'-apart both from the life of the Yolngu and the ordinary life of the European colony in Terra Australis. This was a place for the making of meanings in the natural/non-social world. We need hardly add that, for these men, the Yolngu were seen as part of nature, and not of society.

The next text we consider (ITEM 6.5) is an extract from a paper concerning cycads, recently published in a journal of chemistry. Here we see the cycad palms reduced to even smaller constituent parts. This text focuses on just one part of the fruit-the seed coat. Here the nature of cycad palms is made meaningful for us in terms of molecules and their characteristics. Imagine the context of the practices and techniques which underlie this paper. The author of the text may well have never studied, perhaps not even seen, a cycad palm in its natural setting. The meanings in this text were conjured into life in a modern laboratory. In such a laboratory we find separated spaces, organised in complex ways, for grinding and washing, for doing chromatography and for viewing things with specific sorts of light. A laboratory is a highly structured microworld – a space set apart from ordinary life.


Phytochemistry: cycadales article

But laboratory arrangements do not stay in these microworlds, they are exported to the 'Outside'. Scientific practices and achievements impinge on us all in a number of different ways. Of course, the meanings which are constructed in the laboratory are intended to tell us about the world of nature in which we live. This is accomplished through the production of texts, imbued with the authority of science, which circulate outside the laboratory, informing our understandings of nature, of ourselves, and of our relationship to nature. Thus, these texts, like Yolngu texts, have direct impact on everyday life.

Not only are scientific texts translocated into the outside world but so also are the new materials, processes and devices from the laboratory context in which the text was produced. For one thing, thousands of chemical substances created in the laboratory are introduced into the environment every year. Then too, there is the increasing tendency to adopt practices of precise quantification in more and more aspects of everyday life. Also, the material isolations and separations which characterise laboratory life increasingly feature in domestic life. Bruno Latour goes so far as to refer to recent developments as 'the transformation of society into a vast laboratory' (B. Latour, 'Give me a laboratory and I will raise the world', in K. Knorr-Cetina & M. Mulkay (eds), Science observed, Sage, London, 1983, p. 166). Thus, the ensemble of texts, practices, skills, equipment and attitudes that constitute science might be said to remake our world in the image of the microworld which is the laboratory.

The laboratory ... represents a mature form, not the origin of the gradually emerging project of remaking the world to make it knowable.

J. Rouse, Knowledge and power: toward a political philosophy of science, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 1987, p. 229

This discussion is presented to confirm, and to go some distance toward understanding, the profound impact which we all know scientific practice to have had on modern life.

Next page