Category Archives: Theory

Going in

Carol joined our group on the Saturday night during our sharing of reflections from our time on Gulaga. It wasn’t until the end of our whale dreaming ceremony on Sunday that we spoke and all of a sudden, the connections and synergies burst into our conversation. She understood what I meant when I spoke of being with as a placemaking. Then finding out about her own work with Uncle Max and Gulaga (see: Birrell, CL 2006, ‘Meeting country : deep engagement with place and indigenous culture’, Doctor of Philosophy thesis, University of Western Sydney, <>) filled me with a sense of kinship to the people who are trying to articulate these connections we feel, but may not know how to tell stories about.
In her essay Slipping beneath the Kimberley skin Carol questions whether non-Indigenous folk can become insiders:
“Elder Bob Randall asks if white Australians could go beyond the conceptual to an experience of an ‘inner eye’ where one could ‘feel our situation, to read people, to talk to country.’ Uncle Max Dulumunmun Harrison speaks of ‘goin’ in [to sacred sites] with whitefellas eyes and comin’ out with blackfellas mind.’ Stanner called it ‘thinking black’.
And I think back to my walk up the mountain…
Almost invisible threads connecting branches to logs. Strings of raindrops and mist hanging…
I’m drawn to different parts of the country; rocks, trees, kookaburras, and then a sound drifts up from the gully below. Crystal clear, the sound of one, two, three different bird calls is close succession. A lyrebird. What is country trying to show me? Clearing my mind of the songs that are on repeat and presencing to take in everything that is happening around me. 
An unlikely entrance into sacred places. A clarity there although we are shrouded in fog. Stillness. Timelessness. Is this some kind of dreaming? I’m losing time, so be here now, be here now. I put shift uncomfortably from foot to foot. I place my hand on Creation Rock. I fall in (and my reasoning mind tells me another story). Later I find out that this happens – being drawn in or pushed out – and what does that mean?
Later that night in our reflections someone says that we are surrounded by sacred sites and don’t even realise it. Surrounded by the sacred… I pause to let this sink in, to realise the meaning of being surrounded by sacredness. Then I think about our friends walk up Mount Erica. Were we supposed to be there? Where is it safe and respectful to be? 
Uncle Max said that we could come back to this place. I don’t know if I can do that without him or his family. Or maybe it would be ok, but not the same.

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Part 1: Exploring body / place connection

I’ve been going back over Somerville’s writing in her Body / Landscape Journals (1999). My main question is why does Somerville frame her relationships as ‘body/place connections’? Is this the same as what others have framed as people-place? Is she responding to a dualism by not ‘perpetuating the Cartesian split between mind and body’? (Liz Ferrier, 1990: 182). S suggested that it might be a reaction to the dominant focus society has on the mind. A coming back to a different way of knowing that is not purely intellectual.

At one point Somerville (1999: 14) writes ‘I become so flat I am the rock, body blends into its surface, tufts of soft green moss around my edges and voices of children playing over me. I am the surface of the earth and they are playing on my edges.’ Not only does Somerville reflect on the experiences of her body, but she suggests through metaphor that body (her body) is landscape, drawing close the idea of expressing being through a non-Western metaphysics.

Somerville (1999: 5) draws on the work of Liz Ferrier (1990) who suggests that ‘Postcolonial transformations require new ways of understanding and representing ourselves in space… [these] involve, in part, inscribing the body in place.’ Ferrier (1990) seems to be pushing for the possibility of
‘body knowledge‘ which I interpret as a whole/integrated way of knowing which is intuitive.

Somerville raises some questions that have been dwelling in my mind space for a while:

‘What stories does mine make space for and which ones does it displace? There is still an overarching sense that all landscape is marked by Aboriginal stories and there has been no resolution to the questions whose land? and whose story can be told?… Does my story write out another story? Does it make room for multiple stories? Can your story be written in here? Is it a postcolonial space?’ (Somerville, 1999: 5).

There are some important questions that arise for me out of reading this, the first is about representation and the post-colonial politics/process of doing this with other people’s stories. Another centers on how I conceptualise the existence of multiple stories and how they interact; and/or whether I focus on stories that are created through collective acts. Also, I am not sure why Somerville has chosen to use the term landscape instead of country / place / land. I have a negative reaction to the use of the word landscape when talking about connection. Perhaps it is because I feel like the word itself detaches me from place – I look at landscapes, I am an observer, not necessarily a participant. I am aware that Somerville has tried to inscribe her body into the landscapes that she writes about, so she must have a more intimate relationship with this word/idea.

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Hope, interstices and transformation

I’ve come back to a discussion about hope between Belgium philosopher Isabelle Stengers and Mary Zournazi. There are some key ideas in this conversation that I’d like to unpack and explore, as they might open up my thinking on generative acts of being with.

Stengers (2002: 245) refers to Alfred North Whitehead’s idea of interstices (spaces between…):

‘life is always lurking in the interstices, in what usually escapes description because our words refer to stabilised identities and functioning.’

I often feel like there are palpable connections in places, but that language of the material (body- country) doesn’t adequately describe what I am feeling/sensing. Maybe there are some special glasses out there that I can put on which will make all of these felt things visible!

I like that Stengers (2002: 247) validates feeling in this next quote. Integration of thought and feeling, an intuitive knowing perhaps, seems to be a way of being similar to what Scharmer (2007) speaks about when he uses the term presencing:

‘You cannot have true thinking without feeling – and what that means is that true thinking is about transforming yourself. But the very fact that we can be transformed by what we encounter, or what we participate in, is a matter of hope.’

I’m still not sure of what Stengers’ definition of hope is though and I’m not too sure on what mine is either; something to contemplate. I want to really explore the idea of transformation and how it emerges. If I were to look more specifically at the transformation of a worldview, my worldview, I guess this whole process of exploration through ‘research’ (along with the ideas, experiences, events, places, relationships, …. which I’m interacting with) is facilitating some kind of Nia Evolution!

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Verran on metaphor

I’ve just been reading through Singing the land, singing the land and came across some great stuff on metaphors. I’d put my reading on metaphor aside, but something keeps calling me back to it.

Verran (1987: 7) writes about the ‘transparency of metaphors’ in the English language and suggests that the significance of their use is more profound than realised:

‘The English word ‘metaphor’ is derived from ancient roots: meta meaning change or transformation; phor meaning to carry. By carrying meaning into a changed context, we may construct new knowledge, think new thoughts.’

I would really like to explore this idea of metaphor being a vehicle for transforming thought… and does this extend to transformation of worldview and ways of being in the world?

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Surrendering into deep listening

I wrote this a few weeks ago, but forgot to publish it…

A deep resonance felt in my bones since coming back home.
The Island is full of conversation,
the ocean invites me to sit and watch through the cycles of sun and moon.
The surrender I feel here in the place is deep,
a safety to unfold, unfurl and listen.   

A beautiful ABC radio documentary on listening to country… deep listening.

Yorta Yorta woman Lou Bennett talks about, “Retrieving, reclaiming, regenerating,” Indigenous languages and what they represent, a unique cultural way of listening and speaking the world into being.

“When I speak in my language, it tastes like honey…” Lou Bennett

This all takes me back to earlier exploration into how language shapes our worldview our way of being in the world.

“Language is what connects us to country…” Doris Paton

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I want to talk about discourse

Yesterday I came back to look at the agency of language, the spoken word, and how it ‘performs’ in a collective. I was thinking about the idea of discourses and how these are enacted; questioning, do they speak a worldview into existence and/or maintain it? I have been tousling with this notion of language/discourse and their agency to shape ways of being and relating for a while. Which precedes which, the culture or the language? Perhaps neither. 
Dryzek (2005: 9) offers this as his definition of discourse:
‘A discourse is a shared way of apprehending the world. Embedded in the language, it enables those who subscribe to it to interpret bits of information and put them together into coherent stories or accounts. Discourses construct meanings and relationships, helping to define common sense and legitimate knowledge. Each discourse rests upon assumptions, judgements, and contentions, that provide the basic terms for analysis, debates, agreements, and disagreements.
Is it the emerging collective stories about acts of being with country that I want to explore in my thesis? Would the idea of a discourse have anything to offer my research? 
Then these quotes (below) from Maratja and Yingiya come to mind and call into question my whole approach towards all of the aforementioned relationships between language/discourse and culture and brings people-place into the frame:
‘It’s the land which holds the sound, and then after that, we Yolŋu people. What we are talking about, is how that sound emerges‘ (Maratja in Christie, 2010: 67). 
‘The land and the language are both talking togetherLand needs its own language… If I can use the word ‘country’ this way I’m talking about the land, water cloud, wind, rain, animals, people and more. Example, wind is blowing and the waves are crashing, making a loud roar. What’s really happening there, is they are communicatingand they are singing and dancing in own clans’ language. When I sing, sing about its behaviour, swirling around and during turn of the tides, it reaches out communicating with other clans country and shares songs and dances with them’ (Guyula, 2010: personal comms.).
I thought it might be a good idea to look at what Latour (1996: online) has to say about discourses:

‘… from semiotics is kept the crucial practice to grant texts and discourses the ability to define also their context, their authors -in the text-, their readers -in fabula- and even their own demarcation and metalangage. All the problems of the analyst are shifted to the “text itself” without ever being allowed to escape into the context.’ 

Help!!! I either need to sit and contemplate this state for a while longer and have someone translate it for me. Calling all those who view with an ANT perspective!!!

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Gravitating towards the act

I’m at a point in which I am questioning more deeply what it is I want to do in terms of my work. Still (and by necessity) feeling uncomfortable about wanting to work with Indigenous research participants/co-researcher. I am very conscious about the ethics of working with Indigenous people and engaging with their knowledge and beliefs… fears of unwittingly  appropriating ideas and perpetuating colonial practices. I want to find a way of collaborating with Indigenous people that comes from a place of shared possibility, respect and deep listening, where IP is maintained. I want to help conceive a narrative that is shared, that speaks about collective generative practices on being with country. 

The more I read about the ‘space between’ Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge systems I realise that this concept may not be the space I need to be working within. As much as I initially resisted engaging with Addelson’s ideas on Collectivist Moral Theory, I am now gravitating toward her question of ‘how do we live?’ What are we or can we be co-creating that isn’t necessarily ‘a place that lies between’? I know that M would tell me to focus on the act itself, not the time and space that presuppose the acts themselves. When I put myself in this concept now I feel like I am on the crest of a wave about to break. I can feel the power of the wave and sense the possibilities of where the wave could take me – down the face, dive under, bomb out. But the essential thing is that there is momentum, something is happening and transformation is inevitable.  

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Revisiting deep listening

I’m not sure when I first heard about Dadirri (deep listening) as described by Miriam Rose Ungunmarr (1999), maybe it was in a conversation with B when we were talking about how to facilitate the kind of education for young people which creates a space for this experience. In the past few blogs I have tried to seek out and write about a space in which being with occurs… I think that my thoughts have been quite conceptual and have lacked the grounding that comes with actual experience. So I am back to revisiting deep listening and feel like I should dwell in this space, one which I have a tangible and lived experience of. In her exploration of deep listening, Brearley (2009: 43) refers to the work of Scharmer (2009) and talks about it as, ‘a generative form of listening, which opens a space for something new to be created.’ 

Are generative spaces like deep listening the fertile soil in which cultural transformations take shape? Something to explore… There are so many contexts in which deep listening could potentially influence process and the quality of relationships/dynamics.

Whilst I was reluctant at the beginning of my Masters to acknowledge deep listening as a research method, it seems like I can’t move forward without this critical practice: 

‘Taking the time to invest in relationships lies at the heart of deep listening… [it] is underpinned by the concepts of community and reciprocity’ (Brearley, 2009: 44).

For me the relationships I cultivate and nurture with research collaborators/participants are paramount. In the past when I have spoken about remaining objective in my research, I have interpreted that to mean that I need to create a separation between myself and that which I am exploring. Brearley (2009) makes reference to Bishop (1996: 23-24) who attempts to address this issue of distance:

“As researchers ‘we need to acknowledge our participatory connectedness with the other research participants and promote a sense of knowing in a way, which denies distance and separation and promotes commitment and engagement.”

I would love to hear from people who have used the practice of dadirri/deep listening to create a collaborative research space.


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The ‘third space’: an introduction to Bhabha

J’s neighbour stopped by today and soon into the conversation she asked me about my Masters research. In my haphazard way I was trying to describe the cross-cultural space that is generated on the Lurujarri Heritage Trail and during the Arnhem Weaving Workshops, and how I wanted to explore experiences of ‘being with’ (people/county) from the perspectives of those participating/creating/performing (???) in this space. K jumped straight in and began to ask me if I had read any Bharba or Bourdieu… “no, not yet.” This week I’ve been attempting to comprehend the ideas of Addleson, Stengers, Whitehead, Latour, Muecke and others, but not Bharba and Bourdieu. Lucky for me K is very good at giving an applied interpretation of theory and very quickly I realised that this Bharbha fellow might be onto something.
Enter, ‘the third space’, a place (?) in which people from multiple cultures engage and co-create a cultural reality that is somehow ‘new’. I have only just lightly scratched the surface of Bharbha’s ideas on hybridity and a third space. Has anyone out there applied or critiqued his theory???
K used Bharbha’s idea of a ‘third space’ as a theoretical platform for her PhD and in the end disagreed with his ideas. In her research with Indigenous people and miners at the Argyle Mine in W.A. she found that Indigenous people were, “‘incorporating’ Miners and the mine into their cultural ‘reality’ in order to engage with the Miners and mine is ways that are consistent with, and indeed reinforce, their own laws and customs” (Doohan, 2006:78). Straight away the practice of adopting non-Indigenous people, so that they are incorporated into a kinship system and have a place in an Indigenous universe, came to mind.  In reference to her quote above, K resists that idea that there is any cultural enmeshing that happens in this space.
As for Bourdieu, Doohan (2006: 79) writes of the various intellectual tools for social research, ‘habitus,’ ‘fields,’ and ‘social and cultural capital’, which he offers as a ways of,  “reconciling the sometimes contradictory and always-complex data regarding peoples lived lives… His analysis of fields of engagement and the inevitable transformative effects of social science practice has influenced my own practice in the field and in writing about Aborigines and Miners” (Doohan, 2006: 79). I am interested in questioning the whether there are any transformations that happen in my research space… what’s happening? For whom? What is catalysing the transformation? Needs? Maintenance of a social order?


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Defining a research space

For months now I have been struggling to define a research space, one that is challenging, ethical, culturally sensitive and transformative (both personally and socially). My initial thoughts of working only with Yolŋu women as participants felt very uncomfortable, as it should; questioning, would I be able to hear, comprehend, or even glimpse the philosophy that underpins concepts which are uniquely Yolŋu? Coming from a western world view, was it possible for me to present Yolŋu ideas without changing/simplifying their meaning? 

Verran (2010) and Christie (2010) both write about the challenging task faced by the translator, particularly when they are approaching a language and culture rooted in a different epistemology. With my current level of understanding of Yolŋu languages and cultural concepts, I have felt more inhibited than excited by the prospect of dwelling in this research space. On the flip side, Christie (2010: 69) reminds me of the epiphanies that can explode into my consciousness when leaning about a Yolŋu concept for the first time: 

‘Transcription and translation are for me, mostly enjoyable activities… beautiful new ideas and interesting ways of rendering them in English, and sudden flashes of insight into connections never seen before, now blindingly obvious.’
The idea of writing up a story that is not my own makes me feel like an outsider, a voyeur, a spectator. Something has been tugging at me from deep within to open up my research space, to claim it as my own and share it with others. I imagine this space to be one of shared experience, something we have lived through/performed/created together. Ahhh… I truly feel a deep sense of grounding and relief in even just writing those words. A shift in defining the research space translates my role, my relationality (Wilson, 2008: 80) to participants, place, purpose, into something that I feel more comfortable to claim (maybe a co-participant?).
The space that is generated when non-Indigenous and Indigenous participants create/perform knowledge by being with each other and country is emerging as a context that I feel attracted to explore. Epistemologies and ontologies interacting, are there transformations occurring that are being perceived by participants? Two influential lived experiences in my life, where I have dwelt in this space between/enmeshment of epistemologies and ontologies, are the Lurujarri Dreaming Trail (walking the songline that extends north from Broome with Goolarabooloo) and weaving with Yolŋu women in the Mäpuru homelands. I feel that there is much to write about these experiences, from a number of perspectives, to illuminate the philosophical work that goes on in these spaces. But how to adequately define this space?
Whilst referring to work of Victor Turner, Somerville (2007: 232) discusses the concept of the liminal, ‘the space of becoming’:
‘The liminal period is that time and space betwixt and between one context of meaning and action and another. It is when the initiand is neither what [s]he has been nor what [s]he will be’ (Turner, 1982: 113).
Somerville considers this idea of liminal time/space as fertile ground for emergence. She sees emergence as something that is inherently creative and in referring to the work of Trinh (1989: 59) talks about the ‘undoing, redoing and modifying’ that happens in this space.
So, where do I go from here? There are some key questions surfacing that I am keen to pursue:
Do I conceptualise the philosophical work that is being done as occurring in a space between or an enmeshed space?
Do I relate to being with as acts that are performed in a defined space? If so, do I become an observer/performer in this space? Or, do I look at representations of being with, oral/written stories, art and other modes of expression that have been inspired by experiences in the space?


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