The Dreamtime Is Real Places After All, Research Time, 27/02/2018

I said I wasn't going to talk much about the review I’m working on – for Bryan Van Norden’s polemic, his gauntlet throw-down, pistol-packing, Crip-walking graffiti on the university walls, Taking Back Philosophy. But I am a little bit.

There's one idea that I don’t quite have the room to fit into my review, but that actually converges with some of the research I was doing on Félix Guattari’s thinking. Barbara Glowczewski, an anthropologist and former colleague of Guattari’s, wrote an essay for The Guattari Effect volume about a disagreement they had over the ontology of the Warlpiri worldview.

The Pleiades, by Alma Nungarrayi
Van Norden’s book is a call to globalize university philosophy in a very literal sense – change the curriculum of degree programs to include thinkers in traditions other than the Western. Van Norden writes about the Chinese and Indian traditions in more detail because he knows them best.

But Indigenous philosophy is one – actually very, very many – traditions that need to be at the philosophical table. I feel lucky in Canada that my country’s universities host brilliant Indigenous thinkers – and that many other philosopher-activists thrive outside that system too.

The Warlpiri are an Indigenous Australian people. We often think of Indigenous Australians as all having one culture, or being one people. Generic Aboriginie. Or as they say less formally – Abos. Or the most awful one – Boong. As in, Bung. Australians call their continent’s Indigenous “Shit-people.” As in “people made of shit.” Literally.

So Australia makes me cry a little, but the Warlpiri ontology is very interesting. See, we typically think of Indigenous Australian spirituality as revolving around Dream Time – the entry into an eternal or literally time-less astral world.

The real concept is much more complicated. Not only are there many distinct Indigenous Australian cultures, languages, spiritualities, religions, and philosophies – even the Warlpiri Dream Time concept is different from this simple popular concept.

Dream Time isn’t a no-space, or an eternal reflection of the ordinary world kept mystically separate. Conceive of it more like a collapse of all space and time – past, present, future, everywhere at once – into a single location. It’s a totemic marking of territory. Northern Australia itself becomes a topographical map of totemically staked places.

Dreamtime Sisters, by Colleen Wallace Nungarrayi
When Glowczewski shared a concept she’d used to understand the Warlpiri totemic experience space with Guattari, he was less than pleased. Instead of attempting to understand the Warlpiri concepts on its own terms, she’d introduced a Western mathematical concept to them, to explain their totemic spaces.

A hypercube. Guattari was worried that Glowczewski’s topological mathematics was erasing the details of the Warlpiri concept. When they discussed and explored Dream Time, their mysticism was integrated with a complex web of ideas and practices, networked together into a multidimensional multiplicity of meanings and manifestations.

They argued over this for a while. But at the same time, the Warlpiri elders that Glowczewski had come to know had their own answer to the dispute.

That's really the best way to find your answer, honestly. When you’re arguing about some complicated philosophical issue in another culture, a thinker of roughly your own skill from that culture is the best to set you on the right course. At the least, they’ll let you know which of you is the most wrong.

It turned out to be Guattari. The Warlpiri elders and shamans were well ahead of Guattari’s own hesitation. I can see where he was coming from – the white person well aware of the eggshell walkways of post-colonial conversations. You don’t want to risk telling an Indigenous person what their worldview is “really about” because that’s exactly the kind of cultural and philosophical erasure they’ve been dealing with for centuries.

Those Warlpiri philosophers had a surprise for Guattari, at least in Glowczewski’s telling. They liked topological mathematics. They liked the hypercube concept. It worked really well to explain some important aspects of their spiritual thinking and its ontological connection with particular places and place in general.

It wasn’t complete, of course. Topological math couldn’t explain everything, but it was a useful tool to put in their own philosophical bundle. They used it well.

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