Persistence and Interruption: Ontological Dynamics and Cultural Analysis

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Presenter:  Professor Stephen Muecke

Date: Apr 28, 2016

Time: 2:30pm to 3:30pm

Contact person:  The Northern Institute
T: 08 8946 7468

Location:  Northern Institute, Yellow Building 1, Level 2, Room 48 (Savanna Room)


Abstract : One might be forgiven the mild joke that Australian Aboriginal cultures are not existentialist. In an obvious way, this is marked by the usual absence of the verb ‘to be’. Being is not the question, making Hamlet’s speech very difficult to translate. Belonging is far more important, and this is often marked by a comitative suffix, like –tjara, meaning ‘having’ or ‘with’.

Early French sociologist Gabriel Tarde would have been interested in that difference, as elaborated by Bruno Latour: The verb “to be” cannot capture the grid. In his last book, Psychologie économique (1902), Gabriel Tarde… set us on the right path: everything changes if we agree to choose the verb “to have.” From the verb “to be,” Tarde says, we cannot draw anything interesting that would involve interests, except identity with the self, the “easy way out” of substance; but from the verb “to have,” we could get a whole alternative philosophy, for the good reason that avidity (unlike identity) defines in reversible fashion the being that possesses and the being that is possessed. There is no better definition of any existent whatsoever beyond this list of the other beings through which it must, it can, it seeks to pass… In this sense, we are altered, alienated. It is as though, here again, a philosophy of identity and essence—of being-as-being—had played a trick on us by concealing the avidity, the pleasure, the passion, the concupiscence, the hook, of having and had. This philosophy would have forced us never to confess our attachment to the things capable of giving us properties that we didn’t know we had. (Latour, Modes of Existence, 424-5)

Describing ontologies, modes of existence, in terms of their ‘avidities’ or ‘attachments’ could be very useful for ethnography, as units of social organisation, institutions, are busily keeping themselves alive by grabbing new attachments or shedding toxic ones. This dynamic—what it ‘has’ going for it—is as proper to an institution as its formal codification of what it ‘is’. One could even say that its truth is in its persistence, as we might study “the various ways in which the central institutions of our cultures produce truth” (Latour, The Making of Law, ix.).

This dynamic is crucial to my study of the Goolarabooloo people of NW Australia, whose world (composed of various institutions) is struggling to persist in the face of the aggression of multinational mining companies and the modernisation program of the State (also composed of various institutions). I want to describe how this group of about 100 people generated enough attachment to their cause to be able to interrupt the assemblage of modern institutions and call a halt to the mining plan. Activism, by definition, is the interruption of the usual organisational scripts. But for my ethnographic method, it is something I have found to be a risk factor, a deflection, a mistake, a breakdown, across a number of modes of organisation: I start filming a documentary (Sunset Ethnography, dir. Aaron Burton) with anthropologist Mick Taussig on Goolarabooloo land, only to find I have made a fieldwork blunder: I forgot to ask permission, and the matriarch Teresa sends someone over to interrupt us. It is through such interruptions that one gets a heightened sense of the real, and what is at stake for participants. These are moments when the normal order seems to break down, and the workings of the system become visible. As Taussig would say, the system is always ‘nervous’ anyway. Or the citizen scientists interrupt the environmental scientists working for the mining company with real data about turtle nesting. Or the State premier makes a political blunder that loses him votes…

I want to analyse persistence as belonging, and interruption as tactics that reconfigure attachments. The stakes are high, since worlds and ways of living in them are under threat. Existence, of course, is precarious, but never more so than when it is conceived of as being without attachments or belonging.

About Stephen Muecke : Stephen Muecke is Professor of Ethnography at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, where he is part of the Environmental Humanities program. He has written extensively on Indigenous Australia, especially in the Kimberley, and on the Indian Ocean. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. A forthcoming book is The Mother’s Day Protest and other Fictocritical Essays, Rowman and Littlefield International, 2016.
More of his work can be found at

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                        Presentation can be video-conferenced or streamed online by request by contacting Northern Institute directly 08 8946 7468