Singing the Land, Signing the Land

Let us now stand back and compare the practices in the two traditions of producing texts about cycads – one in Yolngu life, the other in Western life. In both cases we can recognise that 'microworlds', separated from ordinary life, are involved in the productive processes which underlie these texts. On the one hand, we have a microworld constituted primarily by creating specialised and structured time: buŋgul, or ceremony. On the other, we have microworlds mainly constituted by specialised and structured space: laboratories of various sorts. The practices and techniques through which groves of cycad trees are reduced to, on the one hand, ŋathu, dances and paintings on rock faces, and on the other, a print off an engraved plate, and a page in a chemistry journal, constitute quite different activities, both structurally and procedurally. But, in both cases, the essence of the enterprise is negotiated manipulation and interpretation of material stuff in the context of an organised and separated microworld. In these practices and techniques, signs are elicited and interpreted and recorded in texts: cycads are made to reveal themselves in meaningful ways.

Cycad fruit


Cycad fruit. Photograph by Neville White.

Because the context of their production is so different, we are nor surprised to find that the meanings which become encapsulated in the two kinds of text are also very different. The important thing to note here is that, contrary to some philosophical accounts of science, the context of the production of texts is as central to the understanding of science as it is to the understanding of Yolngu knowledge. In some respects, the most important issue relating to text production in the microworld is the process of negotiation that goes on, especially the identification of all significant parties to the negotiation. In the case of science, negotiations constantly Occur relating to what questions will be posed, which techniques and procedures will be employed, the interpretation of experimental results, and the decision as to which results will be made into texts for general circulation. The participants in these negotiations include a hierarchy of highly trained and highly socialised individuals, mostly men. Entirely excluded from these proceedings are, of course, all people who are not members of the professional team. All those low in the hierarchy, such as laboratory technicians, research assistants, and even junior colleagues, are generally excluded from the most significant decisions. It is an interesting, and in no way trivial, question to ask whether in our example the cycads have also been excluded from the negotiations. Scientists have cycads revealing themselves, but do not construe cycads as having a vested interest in what is revealed. Yet cycads as a species do have a vested interest in the fate of individual trees, and in the survival of the species. It is the business of cycads to stay in business, so to speak.

Participation in Yolngu buŋgul is a matter for the men, women and children of all clans. The first negotiations concern who will play what role. Then negotiations continue more or less in accord with the procedures outlined in ITEM 6.3. Thus, it seems possible to characterise Yolngu negotiations over text production as a democratic procedure, which manifestly cannot be said for the production of scientific texts. Such a state of affairs seems entirely right and proper to most Westerners, who do not expect the laws of physics to be decided by majority rule. But this seemingly obvious response becomes much more problematic and difficult when viewed in the context described above, in which the world is being remade in the image of the laboratory. If our world is being so changed by science (by its social products as well as by its material products), then the question of participation by the general citizen at some stage in these processes should not be ruled out. Perhaps too we must start to consider whether it is only humans who are citizens.

Furthermore, as we have seen, in Yolngu culture all nature is said to be involved in the negotiation over text production. Westerners deny cycads as social entities. Yolngu give full standing to cycads as social entities. It may be that explicit recognition of cycads as partners in negotiation is possible only when metaphor is celebrated as an element in epistemology, and not when the metaphorical basis of scientific theories is denied. In this exhibit we have briefly reviewed the workings of two knowledge-power networks by considering the ways that meanings are incorporated into texts. Below we briefly summarise what has been drawn out in this review:

  1. Microworlds are important in knowledge production. Here negotiations with the material world are possible in separated circumstances, away from the confusing irregularities of the everyday world. We have seen that in the traditions meeting in ganma, it is predominantly time that is organised and differentiated on the one hand, and space on the other.

  2. Arrangements within the microworlds are exported to the world 'outside'. Yolngu make this explicit by drawing an analogy between a process properly carried out in buŋgul and non-buŋgul procedures. The reason for doing so is to help Westerners understand appropriate ways to proceed in Yolngu society. Australians of the Western tradition often issue similar advice to Yolngu, but they are unlikely to see the explicit connections which may be made between laboratory life and daily life.

  3. In microworlds, human and non-human interact in the elicitation and interpretation of signs through which meaning is made. Knowledge results from engaging practical techniques of manipulation; its production is a joint enterprise between the human and non-human. This is true in a deep sense even in the scientific laboratory where the non-human has no standing. In conclusion, we have seen Westerners and Yolngu negotiating in microworlds in order to render the land meaningful, and we have seen the profound difference in the ways Westerners and Yolngu represent this process to themselves. Yolngu celebrate negotiation with the non-human by accepting it as kin. Westerners deny any intimate negotiation with the non-human; nature is 'other' for Westerners. Here we have a case of seeing ourselves anew in seeing each other; this is one way in which the promise of ganma may be fulfilled. In this analysis there is much to be learned by both Aboriginal and European Australians. For a statement of what Europeans may learn, we refer to Bruno Latour who has noted that it is time for Westerners to

reconsider the boundary between the social and natural sciences ... to abandon the dichotomy: society-nature ... [which is] paralysing all efforts at understanding and modifying our world.

B. Latour, 'The political constitution of truth', Ashworth Lecture, University of Melbourne, Carlton, Vic., 1988

In this lecture Latour notes that in the dichotomy between human political representation and non-human scientific representation, nature has been attributed constitutional rights only to be mute: to behave meaningfully but unwittingly. Nature, he notes, has no recognised delegates, while citizens, on the other hand, are allowed to speak and to have recognised delegates. When considered seriously (and not fantastically), the suggestion that nature or parts of nature might 'speak' to us – that we might 'converse' with cycad trees or March flies – can be taken to mean a number of interesting things. Deborah Bird Rose, who studied with the Yarralin people of the Northern Territory, reported their belief that 'human life exists within the broader context of a living and conscious cosmos' and that all animals and some natural phenomena such as rain 'are spoken of and treated as moral agents' which send out messages telling about the state of the basic ecological systems which sustain life. She concludes that 'in order to act responsibly, humans and others must be constantly alert to the state of the systems of which they are a part. Awareness is achieved by learning basic sets of messages, and by continually observing and assessing what is happening around them' (D. B. Rose, 'Exploring an Aboriginal land ethic', Meanjin, vol. 47, no.3, 1988, pp. 379, 381, 382-3).

Mute nature is a historical construct; theoretically it can be changed. In a profound sense we must learn to hear what nature is saying. The power to stop the degradation of the continent, which supports and nurtures life both physically and culturally, today lies in the hands of non-Aboriginal Australians, who must now find ways to recognise nature as kin within their own traditions.


M. Beaton, 'Fire and water: aspects of Australian Aboriginal management of cycads', Archaeology in Oceania, vol. 17, no. II, 1982, pp. 51-8.

Wendy Beck, Richard Fullagar & Neville White, 'Archaeology from ethnography: the Aboriginal use of cycads as an example', in B. Meehan & R. Jones (eds), Archaeology with ethnography: an Australian perspective, Department of Prehistory, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University, Canberra, 1988.

A. Harvey, 'Food preservation among Australian tribes',* Mankind* 3, 1945, pp. 191-2.

M. Hill & N. McLeod, From the ochres of Mungo: Aboriginal art today, Dorr/McLeod Publishing, Melbourne, 1984.

Bruno Latour, Science in action: how to follow scientists and engineers through society, Open University Press, Milton Keynes, 1987.

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

P. Sutton, Dreamings: art from Aboriginal Australia, Viking, Sydney, 1988.

R. N. Wesley-Smith, 'Cycads and cattle in the Northern Territory', Journal of Australian Institute of Agricultural Science, vol. 39, 1973, pp.233-6.

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