Category Archives: Culture

What it takes to tango

Opening of 'Make the Common Precious' in Santiago, 2006, showing links between art from everyday materials in Australia and the poetry of Pablo Neruda

Opening of 'Make the Common Precious' in Santiago, 2006, showing links between art from everyday materials in Australia and the poetry of Pablo Neruda

On 29-30 August 2012, the University of Melbourne hosted a two day event Melbourne-Latin America Dialogue which was designed as a ‘space for high-level exchange of ideas and experiences that brings together Latin American and Australian experts from scientific, technological, artistic, business and educational fields.’ It was indeed an intense series of events, with up to two hundred people, including the full contingent of Latin American ambassadors and many caped volunteers.

After welcome and opening remarks, the dialogue began with a focus on resources, including professors of mining and representatives of business. This marked the main theme of the dialogue – economic opportunities provided by the growth of Latin American countries. Of particular interest was the $65 billion privatisation process recently announced by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, offering a significant opening for foreign investment.

By the final session, ‘Opportunities and challenges for the Australia-Latin America relationship’, participants were very upbeat about future partnerships. But there were issues to overcome. Ronaldo Veirano, Honorary Consul of Australia to Rio de Janeiro and Executive Director of the Macquarie Funds Group, pointed out the obstacles in the way of realising these opportunities. For many Australian businesses, they still see Latin America as a politically unstable continent, while for Latin Americans Australia is barely visible.

Given that cultural stereotypes were raised as a major issue in development partnerships, it was odd that there was no session devoted to culture, arts or ideas in this dialogue. The more or less exclusive focus was on economic opportunity. While this is clearly a limited range of engagement in terms of broader international relations, it is also fraught within its own terms. If the aim is to expand business activity into Latin America, it seems critical to change these stereotypes through broader cultural exchange between Australia and Latin America.

In the final session, Jose Blanco, the Chairman of the Australia-Latin America Business Council, spoke about team Australia-Latin America in competition with team Australia-Asia. If this is indeed the scenario, then it is worth looking at how the competition have been building up their capacities. Ever since the Asian focus was elevated when Paul Keating was Prime Minister, it has been seen as important to develop our regional identity through cultural programs – sending a diverse range of Australian exhibitions and performances to Asia and hosting Asian artists here. Both the Asia Pacific Triennial and Asialink were established as necessary platforms to pave the way for future economic ties.

Much of the exchange currently is being handled by the Council of Australia Latin American Relations. This is largely a back-room body, supporting individual projects. Those businesses that are keen on Latin America could do worse than the Myer Foundation, who largely funded Asialink, and help establish a public body to foster cultural ties. Like Asialink, this could be done through a hosting of exchanges and visitors, publishing thought pieces, and nurturing a broader narrative about cultural partnership.

There are some obvious common interests across the Pacific:

  • the place of Indigenous cultures in a contemporary context
  • impact of globalisation, particularly on cultural diversity
  • intellectual property in the information age
  • impact of mining and development on communities
  • multiculturalism
  • relationship to nature
  • gender in society

There are immediate opportunities for business across the Pacific. But if these are to grow into long term partnerships, then an understanding of common interest would need to be developed.

It may take two to tango. But both have to learn how to dance first.

Kim Scott: “Language & Nation”

An important event not to miss if you are in Melbourne on 25 July:

Kim Scott: “Language & Nation”
Hosted by Australian Indigenous Studies, School of Culture and Communication, Faculty of Arts

Professor Kim Scott of Curtin University is  one of Australia’s most signi?cant authors.   His major works That Deadman Dance (2011),  Benang (1999) and True Country (1993) have  received a host of literary prizes including the Miles Franklin Literary Award, Victorian  Premier’s Literary Award, Commonwealth  Writers Prize, and Western Australian  Premier’s Book Award. Professor Scott has also been named West Australian of the Year  2012 for his work in Indigenous language regeneration as well as his contributions to Australian literature.

Professor Scott’s fiction is uncompromising in its identification and contestation of  reader expectations of Indigenous writing  and authorship. His command of Nyoongah,  Aboriginal, Australian and English literary forms produces complex narratives about  intimacy, identity and history in the Australian context. This combined with his work in the  area of Indigenous language revitalisation creates new possibilities for communication  and expression. Professor Scott’s masterful use of genre and social commentary calls  for a new type of reader who is willing to engage in breaking down existing codes of  representation, politics and repression that  continue to operate in contemporary Australian  society.

In a wide-ranging address Professor Scott will bring together his concerns with Indigenous cultural renewal though language revitalisation and the role of literature in an evolving vision of Australia in the twenty-first century. 

Wednesday, 25 July 2012
7.00pm – 8.00pm
The Basement Theatre
Spot Building
The University of Melbourne
Admission is free. Bookings are required. Seating is limited.
To register visit:

A Call for Silence in the Pacific

Since colonisation in the Pacific, there has been much talk about cultural differences. Those from European cultures profess a more individualist world view, where one should stand independently of family and social ties. By contrast, Pacific peoples are seen to place much emphasis on genealogy as determinate of selfhood. But behind all this talk, lies a more fundamental difference – silence.

As Unaisi Nabobo-Baba argues in her book Knowing and Learning: An indigenous Fijian approach (Suva: IPS Publications, 2006), the silent child in a Western classroom is seen as a problem. By contrast in many traditional Pacific communities, silence is seen as a culturally appropriate mode of behaviour. Nabobo-Baba goes further and develops a taxonomy of silence, which includes 18 different ways of being quiet, including ‘silence and the elements’ and ‘silence when in awe of custom’ (see here for an extract of her book).

The cultural meaning of silence poses some challenging questions:

  • How can silence be reconciled with modern democracy?
  • What is the role of silence in modern Western countries like Australia?
  • How can silence speak?
  • What is the positive role of silence in the classroom?

Would you be interested in being part of a further discussion about this issue? If you would like to be involved in the development of a colloquium on silence, you are invited to send in your details. This includes:

  • Name
  • Role
  • Area of interest
  • What you would like to contribute to this development

Contributions can include research, a specific perspective, a performance, a venue or a program context.
Please send an email to Responses are due 21 January 2012.

Unaisi Nabobo-Baba, University of Guam
Kevin Murray, Southern Perspectives

A taxonomy of silence

This is a brief extract from Unaisi Nabobo-Baba Knowing and Learning: An indigenous Fijian approach (Suva: IPS Publications, 2006 , pp. 94-98). Here she outlines different meanings that silence has in a traditional Fijian community. This complex reading of silence challenges a Western attitude which associates silence with lack of intelligence. Nabobo-Baba’s approach has particular relevance to educators.

Silence, Clan Boundary, Space and Gifting as Ways Of Knowing


In Vugalei epistemology, silence plays a major role, equal to that of verbalizing. Offering a taxonomy of silence and outlining appropriate examples, both questions and puts into context the importance of verbalized communication, and demonstrates the importance of the non-verbalized communication that is contained in silence. Silence, as explicated in the taxonomy, says as much about Vugalei epistemology and culture as does verbal language.

Silence as a way of knowing

Silence is pivotal to the Vugalei.1 It emits dignity, and summons a respect that transcends all in a vanua. It gives the vanua its value and its strength. The vanua is said to have mana when it is vakanomodi (encompassed in deep silence). When the vanua assembles, deep silence reflects how people regard their vanua, chief, god, ancestors, and relatives.There is eloquence in silence, and things important in a ceremony are best observed in silence. Silence is a pedagogy of deep engagement between participants.

In Vugalei the word for silence is noma. Increasingly, people use the word galu or vagagalu. Nomo is the base word for vakanomodi, which is the adjective that describes how quiet a place or an event is. The opposite of nomo is sosa or kosakosa\ both these words mean noise or disturbance and connote a situation that lacks peace.

Another antonym of vakanomodi is the word vakasausa (to deliberately make noise so as to offend and show disrespect).

Vugalei people believe all spaces are occupied, or taw a, hence the importance of observing silence in all places. Vugalei people perceive silence as indicative of high birth and an excellent upbringing. It is culturally desirable. However, in most schools and universities, silence, that is the absence of verbal replies, questions and comments from students, is interpreted by educators as a sign of stupidity or lack of participation, and is considered a problem.

Outlined below is a suggested cultural taxonomy of silence, which I developed from interview data and my observations of the Vugalei, as they live their lives.

A proposed cultural taxonomy of silence
  1. Silence and the vanua
  2. Ceremonial silence
  3. Silence and the Church
  4. Silence and the elements
  5. Silence and social class
  6. Silence and clan rights to public speaking
  7. Silence of women
  8. Age and silence
  9. Taukei and vulagi and related silences
  10. Silence and the supernatural
  11. Silence as resistance, disagreement and opposition
  12. Silence and relationships of avoidance
  13. Silence when in awe of custom
  14. Silence in death
  15. Silence of exclusion
  16. Silence of the land
  17. Silence in harvest
  18. Holy silence
Silence and the vanua

When the vanua assembles, there is silence; only a handful of persons are entitled to speak. The vanua dictates such behaviour and protocols. An example of silence and the vanua occurred at a meeting of representatives of the Tailevu Provincial Council Office and the men and chiefs of Vugalei, convened to discuss the how mahogany plantations in Vugalei were to be harvested and the returns would be distributed. The meeting was quiet save for the government committee members, who busied themselves trying to explain what appeared to be inexplicable. Then a momo, a wise, white- haired elder, a maternal uncle, knelt and spoke. He spoke with the dignity and authority of clan truth. It was his place to speak as well as his right and obligation to reprimand those that appeared to be ‘wronging’ the clan. After he spoke, all the elders of Vugalei present and the chiefs retreated into a silence that, often misinterpreted as acquiescence, signalled total opposition by the people to the government proposal.

In all vanua meetings I attended, there was a prevailing silence. When elders speak, all listen. A monologue by the chief, is heard by the meeting in silence. Any response, if verbal, will be done by the right people, at the right time. Silence does not necessarily suggest acceptance or agreement; it can suggest a continuum of reactions from total opposition on the one hand to complete support.

People have had a long training in silence. There is silence in all vanua or village meetings; talk is limited. As Sainimere Toalagi stated:

E nagauna ni bose vakoro, warai na vivosaki se vakasosa e colo. E ra vosa na na moro vosa. 0 ratou na qaravi yaqona e ratou dabe galugalu tu …. E bibi na bose vata na qaravi ni yaqona. In village meetings, there is no unnecessary talking in the upper part of the meeting house. Only those who are destined or born to talk, do the talking. Those that serve the yaqona do so quietly, they do not chat. The meeting is an impor­tant part of vanua life; it is respectcd, and so is the serving of th <t yaqona.

The Vugalei are often heard to say, ‘Na vagagalu e bibi kina ka dokai kina na vanua’ (‘Silence puts weight and respect on the vanua’). Noise, particularly disruptive noise, is considered i tovo ni kaisi (the manner of the common folk) and is not tolerated.

Extreme silence and respect is expected when crossing the village green. Aunt Ulamila Tuinakelo noted: ‘Na vakanomodi e bibi ni da lako tu e loma ni koro (‘Silence is important when one is walking through the village’). On a similar note, Ratu Tevita Tuinakelo commented:

E da dau vakarokoroko, e rokovi na vanua, na tamata, e da dau vakatabuya kina na kaikaila tu e loma ni koro. We respect the vanua, the people, this is why we forbid people from yelling or shouting in the village.

In Vugalei, silence is also observed in the presence of older people; we lower our voices to signify respect and allow only their voices to be heard. This is the same sort of silence given to a chief, which allows the voice and wisdom of the chief to be heard and acknowledged.

Ceremonial silence

Silence is observed in all important ceremonies. Only the voices of the appointed speakers are heard, and even these are highly controlled. This is what SainimereToalagi said with regards to silence during the sevusevu (the ceremony of welcome when a visitor arrives):

Na sevusevu e bibi. E rokovi, e tabu ni dua e curu mai, tabu ni dua na vosa e rogo. Ni sa coboti maka sara na yaqona, ni sa maca na yaqona vakaturaga sa rawa ni qui ia na curu mai vi ira se tu e tuba, na tama mai, vata na vivosaki e loma ni vale. Sevusevu is important. It is respected, no-one is allowed to enter the house or building while it is on, no-one is allowed to chat or be noisy. After the first mix is served, what we called the yaqona vakaturaga (grog for chiefs or leaders), the situation is more relaxed. The silence can be broken after the first bowl is empty and people have all clapped to acknowledge that that is so.

The value of silence is again demonstrated in the following report of a betrothal, in which silence was central to the display of respect between relatives and reflected the seriousness of the ceremony.

The day of the betrothal came. The visiting party (five or six relatives of the betrothed boy) approached the house to the sound of tama (customary cries of greeting) and, having being given affirmative replies from inside, slowly entered, heads bowed. Silence was the dominant ‘voice’, indicating the importance and seriousness of the occasion. Lilieta [the prospective bride] was then summoned … to come and sit in the sitting-room with an aunt, while the visiting party began their requests. The speech highlighted their intentions for Lilieta, their blood ties to the host, the importance of keeping blood ties and the vanua strong by way of the marriage, and their belief that the occasion would be blessed by God and their ancestors. The hosts then replied, the speaker affirming the visitors’ words and emphasizing how the marriage would unite related people and maintain blood ties.

Lilieta was then asked to declare her wishes with regard to the visiting party’s intentions. She maintained her silence for a while. She was asked three times before she spoke of her wishes. This silence was important, as a well-brought- up girl would be expected to show (by her silence) that she is not at all keen to leave her home. She finally agreed and a handful of whales’ teeth were presented to the hosts by the visitors in recognition of the agreement.

Na vakanomodi (deep silence) demonstrates deep respect for an occasion. It also denotes a common understanding and reverence for what is important to the vanua and to the ceremony. Relationships and the purposes of the ceremony are honoured by ceremonial silence.

Other Knowledges: Reflections on Recent Archaeology in South America by David Turnbull

To give you some sense of where I am coming from, I have always worked in what is now known as science studies, and in particular within the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK). My overarching interest has been with looking at the ways in which people, practices, and places are moved and assembled in differing local knowledge traditions. So I see my work and that which the Latin American historian Santiago Castro-Gomez has labelled ‘Coloniality of Power’ Group, as having a key question in common­– how to work with the multiplicity of knowledges without subordinating them in the panoptic archive of western science.[1]

A guiding principle of SSK has been ‘things could be other than they are’, accordingly that which seems self-evident, natural, true or authoritative requires examination and explanation. The historical understanding of South America, like the global south as a whole, Australia included, has been frequently enmeshed in the self-evident and naturalising assumptions of Eurocentric explanations of the emergence of complex societies and civilization, of what civilisation consists in and how it came to be. This is especially apparent in the méconnaissance and violent misrecognition surrounding knowledges, spaces and rationalities in the narratives of prehistory within which South America has been framed.[2] South America has been variously portrayed as the last continent to be ‘discovered’, a ‘New World’, a pristine wilderness, as inhabited by primitive natives without civilization, though with the acknowledged exception of the Incas. Not only has South America been continuously subjected to the most extreme forms of violent conquest and exploitation since Columbus chanced upon it, but our understandings of it have been shaped within a narrative of a universalizing knowledge tradition and an abstract space, perhaps the most egregious and disturbingly popular being Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel.[3]

However, such narratives have been substantially challenged from a number of directions. First and foremost have been the challenges from South American critics, authors, and indigenous activists including Jorge Luis Borges[4], Edmundo O’Gorman[5], Arturo Escobar[6], Walter Mignolo[7], Enrique Dussel[8], Eduardo Viveiros de Castro,[9] and the movements leading to the establishment of The Intercultural University “Amawtay Wasi” (UIAW) of the Indigenous Nationalities and People of Ecuador[10], all of whom, in various ways, aim to destabilise the dichotomies under which the hierarchical hegemony of a unifying and universalising western science is established. They pose differing oppositions of unity and multiplicity in their conceptions of ‘agonistic pluralism’, ‘transmodernity’, ‘diversality’, ‘interculturality’, ‘multinaturalism’. Other challenges have come from a rethinking of the peopling of the world, the origins of complexity, modernity and civilization, that have emerged along with the geneticisation of history and archaeological work in Africa and the Near East. But it is the debates and controversies surrounding recent archaeological and historical ecological research in Norte Chico and Amazonia, and their articulation in understanding the emergence of complex societies and what constitutes civilization that are the central concerns of this paper. Naturally this concern carries with it a reflexive corollary: can an explanation of complexity in terms of emergence avoid simply being an extension of a universalizing knowledge tradition on the one hand, while avoiding a vitiating proliferation of multiplicities on the other?

A number of assumptions have served to preset the narratives of prehistory. Among them are the assumption that early man had little agency and was subject to population and environmental pressures, climate change, resource supply and geography, and that agency was only fully achieved with settlement and the invention of agriculture. This ‘sedentarist’ metaphysics reinforces the dominant orthodoxy that the Neolithic revolution was the precondition of civilisation and modernity, and was largely a Mesopotamian phenomenon.[11] Though counterparts in the East were acknowledged, the natural supremacy of Europe was assumed, because, at least according to Diamond, Europeans were geographically advantaged by being able to spread their domesticated crops and animals latitudinally. They were also lucky enough to have a climate and environment that encouraged them to sleep with their animals and thereby acquire immunity to infectious diseases. All they needed was to invent steel and the world was theirs.

This narrative underpins a particular conception of modernity and rationality that ties it to being settled in place — particularly Europe — and to building cities, establishing the rule of law and creating hierarchical states. Fixity in space and place has become the foundation stone of western rationality and epistemology. Consequently unrestrained movement is equated with wandering, irrationality, placelessness and the primitive, something that needs to be controlled, located and set in logical, linear order.[12] It is now possible to pose a counter narrative in which movement is given greater salience, and in which the notion of revolutions, especially the European Neolithic revolution, as foundation of modernity are undermined by recent archaeological work in South Africa, Turkey, and South America.

Arguably one of the key components on which all forms of movement depend is a social technology of kinship – a network of relatedness, bonding, and obligations that enables the transmission of resource access and knowledge across generations through a classification of friends, enemies, and strangers. Such conceptions of kinship and relatedness are social and cultural constructs and do not necessarily map naturally onto genetic and biological relationships. However, the development of such complex forms of social cognition is, Clive Gamble suggests, a prerequisite for overcoming the limitations of co-presence and extending relationships in space and time. A view that is consonant with Robin Dunbar’s ‘social brain hypothesis’.[13] Dunbar argues that ‘Primate societies are implicit social contracts established to solve the ecological problems of survival and reproduction more effectively than they could do on their own. Primate societies work as effectively as they do in this respect because they are based on deep social bonding that is cognitively expensive. Thus it is the computational demands of managing complex interactions that has driven neocortical evolution.’ This conception of the dynamics of human neocortical evolution as social rather than simply technological or biological fits well with both the model proposed by Stanley Ambrose for the co-development of language, symbolisation, a larger brain, and compound tool-making that began in Africa around 300,000BP, and with Ben Marwick’s claim that language and symbolisation developed with the extension of exchange networks.[14] In large part the symbolisation and feedback essential to the development of such social networks depends on keeping track of relatedness and kinship through forms of telling – performing and representation, storytelling, singing, dancing, painting, building, and, importantly for my argument, weaving.[15]

The narrative of human dispersals around the world simply as mass migrations or demic diffusions, can now be countered with a more complex narrative. One in which human movements are seen a relatively fast and strategic, demonstrating great flexibility in a diversity of environments, necessitating complex information exchange systems that allow group decision making and feedback, but without the necessity for hierarchy or plans.[16] Such information-exchange systems typically exhibit forms of emergent complexity in which relationships, language, materials, genes, places, practices and people are co-produced in the process of human movement.[17]

Correspondingly there are at least two possible frameworks, with multiple dimensions, within which to understand the origins of social complexity, modernity, and the relationship of knowledge and space. In a heterarchical framework social order can be understood as an emergent effect of a complex adaptive system. While a hierarchical framework implies that systemic superstructural forces produce social order. In turn heterarchical models have a dynamic based in multiplicity and difference, while hierarchical models are totalizing. I would argue that the answer to how work with multiplicity is not to simply favour the heterarchical, but to hold these two frameworks in the kind of tension of agonistic pluralism advocated by Dussel, that would allow for emergent knowledges and spaces.

Python Rock, oldest religious site, Tsodilo Hills, Botswana, 77 kya

Python Rock, oldest religious site, Tsodilo Hills, Botswana, 77 kya

To date production of universalising scientific knowledge has been a narrative of dependency on a tightly demarcated organisation of abstract space and regularized movement. However, the naturalization of this narrative of space, time and knowledge subserving an account of European modernity is now countered by recent discoveries at the Blombos Cave and Pinnacle Point in Southern Africa which reveal that the behaviours that have been claimed to make humans ‘modern’ such as sourcing, combining, and storing materials that enhance technology or social practices, along with external symbolization and religion, occurred, not in Europe after a Neolithic revolution, but 100,000 years ago, before humans ever left Africa.[18]

Fig 2 Pierced shells Blombos Cave 75kya indicating external symbolisation and use of string

Fig 2 Pierced shells Blombos Cave 75kya indicating external symbolisation and use of string

Fig 3 Incised ochre with possible tally marks according to Ambrose

Fig 3 Incised ochre with possible tally marks according to Ambrose

Fig 4 Incised Ostrich shells

Fig 4 Incised Ostrich shells

Fig 5 Arrow heads

Fig 5 Arrow heads

While recent excavations in Turkey and Jordan suggest that the sequence of settle down, invent agriculture and only then are complex and hierarchical structures and societies possible is not the way things worked out in every case, rather there appear to have been a diversity of approaches to living and working together, including examples of building complex structures without agriculture or settling down.[19]

Fig 7 Community center for processing wild plants, and performances. Wadi Faynan 16 South Jordan 12,000BP

Fig 7 Community center for processing wild plants, and performances. Wadi Faynan 16 South Jordan 12,000BP

Fig 8 Gobekli Tepe 11.5kya pre-agricultural monumental architecture

Fig 8 Gobekli Tepe 11.5kya pre-agricultural monumental architecture

Fig 9 Çatalhöyük 9.5kya post-agriculture; all domestic spaces, no complex monumental architecture, the only public space being house roofs

Fig 9 Çatalhöyük 9.5kya post-agriculture; all domestic spaces, no complex monumental architecture, the only public space being house roofs

Fig replica of a Catal Hoyuk house, with everything public and domestic in one space:- a shrine, a hearth and ancestors under the bed

Fig replica of a Catal Hoyuk house, with everything public and domestic in one space:- a shrine, a hearth and ancestors under the bed

There is no time here to expand on the evidence for alternative paths to complex societies in the Near East, or on the evidence of human movements by sea in prehistory.

Fig 10 Possible Maritime Routes into South America- the ’kelp highway’

Fig 10 Possible Maritime Routes into South America- the ’kelp highway’

However, the revision of the view that human movement around the globe was largely by land, opens up the possibility of a much earlier time frame for the peopling of South America no longer constrained by an impassable barrier in eth Bering Straits. As early as 30,000BP people could have been coasting on the ‘kelp highway, with multiple groups overlapping each other along the coast and penetrating the interior simultaneously.[20]

It also lends strong support to Michael Moseley’s controversial ‘Maritime foundation of Andean civilization’ (MFAC) hypothesis, that is at the heart of the debate over Caral which, with its impressive size and massive pyramids and plazas, is now variously proclaimed the ‘oldest city’ or ‘oldest civilization in the Americas’, even ‘the oldest in the world’ and which is the main focus of this talk.[21]

Fig 11 Norte Chico

Fig 11 Norte Chico

The area of coastal Peru north of Lima, now known as Norte Chico, was first noted as significant in 1905. Aspero, the site at the mouth of the Supe river on which Caral stands, was excavated in 1941 by Willey and Corbett. Much to their subsequent embarrassment Willey and Corbett simply failed to recognise the existence of pyramids at the site, dismissing them as ‘natural eminences of sand’.[22] The site did not excite much attention because it was pre-ceramic, having no pottery or gold; it was also in an arid cold desert. It simply didn’t rate as a site of a possible civilization.

Fig 11 Aerial view Caral Complex

Fig 11 Aerial view Caral Complex

Fig 12 Ampitheatre Pyramid Caral

Fig 12 Ampitheatre Pyramid Caral

Fig 13 Caral Megalith

Fig 13 Caral Megalith

Fig 14 Main Plaza torch lit

Fig 14 Main Plaza torch lit

Fig 15 Caral Geoglyph Human Face

Fig 15 Caral Geoglyph Human Face

Fig 16 Shicra (woven) reed bags of differing sizes filled with stones

Fig 16 Shicra (woven) reed bags of differing sizes filled with stones



Fig 17 4000-year-old engraved gourd image reveals the fanged teeth and splayed feet of the

Fig 17 4000-year-old engraved gourd image reveals the fanged teeth and splayed feet of the

It was not until the late 1990s that the single-minded persistence of the Peruvian archaeologist Ruth Shady revealed its full complexity and extent with multiple, massive pyramids, temples, plazas and residences. Interest in Caral became intense when Shady published the dating results in Science in 2001 with the help of Jonathon Haas and Winifred Creamer from the Field Museum in Chicago.[23] At 2900 BCE it was declared ‘the oldest civilization in the Americas’, making Caral one of the oldest civilizations in the world. At this period the only other site with that degree of urban complexity was Sumer in Mesopotamia.

Haas and Creamer have turned their attention to revealing the complex of sites in adjacent valleys, and to articulating an alternative explanation to Ruth Shady’s for the emergence of this society, while Shady has continued to excavate Caral. Despite a growing rivalry and differing explanations, Shady and Haas/Creamer have taken each other’s work into account and have more in common than their apparent differences.[24] The importance of Caral lies in the fact that much of what has been found does not fit with the orthodox understanding of the emergence of a complex society, of civilization. The same can be said of recent work in Amazonia.

Much to everyone’s surprise historical ecologists, archaeologists and anthropologists, Anna Roosevelt, William Denevan, Clark Erickson, William Balée and Michael Heckenberger have found evidence of the fabled civilizations first reported by Francisco de Orellana in his extraordinary voyage down the Amazon in 1541. The region may have had a population of 4-5million, but who, in a wavefront of disease, possibly smallpox, disappeared ahead of full-scale Spanish invasion. Such large populations, it is claimed, were made possible by the total and deliberate transformation of what would be otherwise rather difficult and restricted ecosystems with very poor soil subject to severe flooding. The Amazon, on this account, is not a pristine wilderness, but an anthropogenic construct, a performative landscape with spatial, temporal and epistemological dimensions, a co-production of human agency, knowledge practices, movement and the environment. Until recently what has gone unnoticed, seemingly invisible in the dense rainforests, were the massive complexes of geometrical earthworks, mounds, causeways, canals, roads, fishtraps and terra preta.[25]

Fig 18 Prehispanic Raised fields Beni Region Bolivian Amazonia

Fig 18 Prehispanic Raised fields Beni Region Bolivian Amazonia

Fig Terra Preta mounds

Fig Terra Preta mounds

Fig 19 Xingu complex of villages

Fig 19 Xingu complex of villages

These earthworks and soil transformations enabled the proliferation of large interlinked urban settlements. Around the Amazon and its tributaries in the floodplains (varzea) the dark earth (terra preta) mounds, carefully and deliberately created out of soil mixed with charcoal, broken pottery, fish and food remains and human excreta, were superbly fertile, allowing the abundant growth of food crops.[26]

Fig 20 Fazenda Colorada Geoglyph Geometric Earthworks Upland Amazonia.

Fig 20 Fazenda Colorada Geoglyph Geometric Earthworks Upland Amazonia.

At the same time geometrical earthworks or geoglyphs are starting to become visible in upland areas of the Amazon (terra firme) as they are exposed by forest clearing and archaeology’s newest research technique Google Earth. These massive constructions are most likely to be performance spaces, though there is some possibility that they had defensive functions. Whatever their function the researchers anticipate finding thousands more such structures, revealing a completely unexpected degree of social complexity in a region held to have been only capable of supporting simple villages.[27]

Now that the first round of what Denevan calls the ‘Amazon archaeology wars’ has been won, and the presence of these vast complexes has largely been accepted, what remains at issue is how and why they could have been built. The critics argue that the massive earthworks would have required a correspondingly massive workforce, which in turn would have necessitated a hierarchical social structure and division of labour, typical of state-level societies, along with an augmented food supply, i.e. agriculture,

Erikson, Heckenberger and Roosevelt have shown that there is evidence of augmented food supply, but agree there is no historical or ethnographic evidence of such hierarchical social structures in Amazonia [28] They suggest the earthworks, were built by heterarchical societies: groups of communities, loosely bound by shifting horizontal links through kinship, alliances, and informal associations. For Heckenberger these were ‘self-organising autonomous polities in a distributed system’, for Erickson the result is ‘the accumulated landscape capital of generations of farmers who built it more or less on their own’. [29]

In my own work I have similarly argued that complex structures like the gothic cathedrals did not, in the first instance, require either a master architect or a plan, they were the result of the ‘ad hoc accumulation of the work of many men’.[30] However, I would also argue that these communal activities have to be understood performatively. These communities were creating knowledge spaces, enabling people, practices and places to be linked together. They socialised the landscape through performance of a collective social identity.[31]

At Norte Chico the evidence is more equivocal. Norte Chico is of great importance because of its special features, not just its surprising age. It is built in one the most arid environments on earth, which would seem to lend support to Moseley’s MFAC hypothesis based on the superabundance of anchovies, sardines and molluscs on the Peruvian coast. However, Shady’s discoveries at Caral and Haas and Creamer’s at other inland sites in Norte Chico reveal a complexity that caused Moseley to modify his claim that ‘it’s all based on fish’. All the sites are centered on irrigation utilising the seasonal floodwaters of the four main rivers coming down from the Andes. While some food crops were grown in these irrigation areas, the dominant crop was domesticated cotton. Despite Haas and Creamer’s claims that their inland sites are as old as, and outnumber the coastal ones, and[V1] that hence the maritime hypothesis cannot hold, it seems plausible to claim that the region displays a unique example of co-dependency.[32]

Fig 21 Buena Vista site of oldest calendar? 4.2kya

Fig 21 Buena Vista site of oldest calendar? 4.2kya

Fig 22 Sechin Baja Plaza near Casma 5.5kya

Fig 22 Sechin Baja Plaza near Casma 5.5kya

Fresh sites of greater age are being found, on the coast, inland, and in the mountains as attention has become focused on Norte Chico, at Sechin Baja at Casma, Buena Vista, Bandurria and Chankillo for example.[33] These sites suggest that initially they were autonomous, though right from the earliest stages they were linked in trading networks exchanging exotic goods up and down the coast, inland into the mountains, possibly even to the Amazon.

Fig 23 Bandurria 4.5kya

Fig 23 Bandurria 4.5kya

Fig 28 Found at Caral: 1. feather necklace 2. offering 3. basket 4. sandal

Fig 28 Found at Caral: 1. feather necklace 2. offering 3. basket 4. sandal

Fig 29 Whale vertebra seat unearthed at Caral

Fig 29 Whale vertebra seat unearthed at Caral

Fig 30 Caral Flutes with Incised Amazonian jungle monkey images

Fig 30 Caral Flutes with Incised Amazonian jungle monkey images

Fig 27 Spondylus shell

Fig 27 Spondylus shell

For example Spondylus shells from the warm water off the Ecuadorian coast have been found in the Andes, as have salt crystals from the Peruvian coast.[34] Feathers from the Amazon jungle along with Condor bones, the aphrodisiac achiote, and obsidian from the Andes have all been found in Norte Chico.[35] Michael Moseley suggests that there was an ancient coastal trading tradition with exchange specialists called mindala. [36] These traders sailed massive balsa rafts up to Mexico carrying Spondylus shells and other exotic materials, and would have been the kind of craft captured by the conquistador Pizarro in 1526.

Shady’s and Haas and Creamer’s attraction to a hierarchical explanation of social complexity may in part be rooted in their attempt to attribute a special iconic status to Norte Chico as a ‘mother civilisation’ on the grounds that, unlike any other, it grew in isolation from outside influence.[37] The trading networks and exchange systems which would have been established through the movements and interactions of the region’s earliest occupants, as a precursor to social complexity, make such miraculous births seem as unlikely as ‘neolithic revolutions’ and ‘pristine wildernesses’, whilst they also undermine the apparent corollary of seeming to have done it all by themselves, and that there must have been an elite to direct it.[38]

Autonomous communities and exchange networks aside, the evidence seems to show that the inland communities’ basic source of protein was fish, and for the coastal communities to supply that volume of food they had to have nets, nets made[V2] from cotton domesticated and grown in irrigated plots inland. Over time what may have developed was a relationship of co-dependence rather than dominance by one or the other. Equally problematic is the qustionof how the labour force was organised to build this massive complex of monuments[V3] ?

For Haas it’s straightforwardly obvious: The size of a structure is really an indication of power…People don’t just say, ‘Hey, let’s build a great big monument.’ They do it because they’re told to and because the consequences of not doing so are significant.[39] Shady is likewise in no doubt, it was a proto-state run by an elite in the service of a religious ideology: ‘Religion functioned as the instrument of cohesion and coercion, and it was very effective’[40] But her key claim for the necessary existence of an elite hierarchy dominated by religious and scientific experts is that Caral was laid out in a specific spatial plan based on astronomy and a calendar.

[t]he arrangement of architectural structures implies a spatial ordering that preceded construction and the elaboration of a planned design of the city, that recognised important social organisational criteria such as hierarchical social strata and symbolic divisions into halves- upper and lower, right and left…Supe society produced advanced scientific and technological knowledge; it constructed the first planned cities in the New World and laid down the foundations of what would become the Central Andean social system.[41]

Leaving aside the question of the evidence for accurate astronomical and calendrical alignments, which she does not provide, her argument depends on a self-evident understanding of knowledge and space. If a set of structures has a spatial ordering then there must have been a planner or group of planners. The apparent differentiation in the quality of domestic spaces may be evidence of social division, but it may also be interpreted as permanent and occasional accommodation. However, the claim of necessary hierarchy looks less cogent if the large geometric and spatially organised structures in the Amazon were built communally without an expert elite. Other archaeologists such as Richard Burger suggest that it was possible to mobilize the large labor force needed for such monumental architecture without state coercion. Like Shady he thinks religious ideology was the key innovation:

In motivating collective efforts, maintaining order and perpetuating the system… an ideology that held that the community not the individual owned and controlled critical resources… structured many of the productive activities and shaped social and economic dimensions. Consequently it would be misleading to think of religion – and particularly in these early ‘ceremonial centres’ – as somehow separate from the economic or political spheres.[42]

For Burger, unlike Shady, hierarchy is not self-evidently necessary nor is communal ideology inherently coercive.

Herrera proposes a ‘heterarchical framework that drives socio-spatial organization’ and: sketch[es] a picture of Andean social complexity as embedded in the history of deeply intertwined sacred and economic landscapes, held together by reciprocal relations about places, including sources of water, ultimately anchored in memory through the idiom of kinship.[43]

Burger’s and Herrera’s interpretive frameworks differ from that of Shady and Haas, not only in conceiving knowledge and space as an emergent effect of heterarchy, but also in being performative rather than representational, a framework which brings to the fore two key dimensions. The first gives the community active and engaged agency rather than reducing them to passivity and coercion. The second is the manifest spatial character of all the Norte Chico sites and especially Caral, where the central and most obvious characteristic is not the buildings or their layout, but the plazas and their associated performance spaces, spaces where the community enact their understandings of the world and the cosmos.[44] The cultural landscape and the community are the product of movement and social interaction, of people making connections. However, the performative and emergent character of an heterarchical, distributive system, framework cannot be assumed presumptively, it has to be held in tension with the top down structuralist character of an hierarchical one. But I also think we should treat the notion of tension as having more ontological significance than this epistemological point would suggest.

These reasons lie in the role of string and stories, textiles, khipu and narratives; other forms of connection which seem relatively slight, mundane and banal against the massive solidity of the pyramids and the vast plazas, but which were also central to the performance of knowledge and space at Caral.

Fig 31 Oldest Khipu Caral

Fig 31 Oldest Khipu Caral

Fig 32 Caral textile

Fig 32 Caral textile

In a sealed room in one of the pyramids in 2005 Shady and her team made the most exciting find at Caral – the earliest known example of a khipu, a proto-khipu consisting of a ladder-like assemblage of 12 cotton strings, some knotted, wrapped around sticks. Famously Khipu are the knotted string devices used for recoding and transmitting information in the Inca Empire. Along with the khipu many fragments of textiles have been which along with the landscape itself are held to be readable as narratives of social order and identity.

Fig 33 Andean textile

Fig 33 Andean textile

Heather Lechtman in her brilliant analysis of Andean technologies of power argues that solutions to the problem of productive management of the disparate and distributed systems in the Andes that were ‘uncoordinated spatially and temporally’, ‘had to be solutions of articulation, design and labour orchestration rather than through tools, artefacts, or machines’.[45] And it was textiles, string and Khipu that provided the means of orchestration.

‘Textiles were the primary visual medium for the expression of ideas, the fundamental art form of the Andean peoples’.[46] Their ‘weaving insists that messages be embodied in and expressed by structure’. [47] As Katherine Seibold puts it, ‘Textiles are art which reveals cosmologies.’[48] Inca landscapes were draped with textiles, as for example on the island of the sun in Lake Titicaca, and people’s clothing was designed to be read t reveal their status and their ethnicity.


Fig 34 Last Inca string bridge

Fig 34 Last Inca string bridge

‘Andean solutions to the most fundamental, physical and mechanical problems of daily life, as well as those of communication and ideology, were sought, conceived and executed through resource to technologies based on the engineering of fibres.’[49] According to William Conklin ‘tension was the Inca way. Textiles are held together by tension and they exploited that tension with amazing inventiveness and precision’.[50]

Fig 35 Ceque lines radiating out from Cuzco. According to Bauer

Fig 35 Ceque lines radiating out from Cuzco. According to Bauer

Fig 36 A khipu that may be a map of Ica Valley Ceque System

Fig 36 A khipu that may be a map of Ica Valley Ceque System

Fig Q’enqo Huaca near Cuzco. Maybe a map, a solar observatory, a shrine, an altar, a performance space, on, in, through and around.

Fig Q’enqo Huaca near Cuzco. Maybe a map, a solar observatory, a shrine, an altar, a performance space, on, in, through and around.

Likewise the landscape was marked by lines (ceques) radiating out from the capital Cuzco. These lines joining sacred shrines (huacas) formed an abstract social map projected onto the landscape as paths, which had their fabric and material analog in the knotted string khipu.[51] In their ‘discursive construction of the landscape…the ceque lines, and the khipu may be homologous forms: visible, tactile, and emotive, they each embody knowledge, produce history, and harness the memory’. [52] Khipu are knotted strings that hang off a main primary cord. Their spin, colour, size of knots and so on can record all kinds of knowledge. It has been known for some time that some of them are numerical ledger books recording llama flock numbers, labour tax records, tributes and food quantities in storage.[53] It is now hypothesised that there are many varieties of khipu and some may also encode narratives and histories.[54]

Fig 37 Khipu on display at civic plenum Peru 1995 (Salomon)

Fig 37 Khipu on display at civic plenum Peru 1995 (Salomon)

This understanding fits with that of the anthropologist Frank Salomon who has recently found khipus are still in use in some Peruvian villages.[55] Admittedly they have been undoubtedly transformed from those of their original Inca ancestors, nonetheless he finds khipu are markers of social obligation to the commons, and are also badges of office. They are used in pairs in dialogue with each other; one as sort of simulation of an agenda, the other a simulation of the results. The dialogue between the plan and the record generates the communally agreed rationality of the community and public acknowledgement of the labour obligations of its members. Basically Salomon finds khipu to be operational devices for trying out alternatives, for modelling and assembling a plan for the commons through being publicly performed in theatres or ceremonial plazas.

In Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, Elizabeth Barber made a delightful observation that she suspects string to be ‘the unseen weapon that allowed the human race to conquer the earth, that enabled us to move out into every econiche on the globe during the Upper Palaeolithic. We could call it the String Revolution’.[56] The recognition that the capacity to join things together through lashing, binding and knotting, with string or cordage, is what enabled people to move is of profound importance. Movements are performed by groups of people through the actions of their own bodies and are coordinated and motivated through ritual, music, dance and stories. Historically stories and string were very likely coproduced with one another; they certainly inform each other mythopoetically through the fundamental commonality of narrative and weaving. Weaving and storytelling reflect a common origin in the derivation of text and textile from the Latin verb texere to weave. What weaving, stories, and string share is the complex duality of tension and connection, difference and similarity. Stories join ideas, string joins things together, and both are dependent on tension.[57] String and cordage derive their connective capacity from tension in knots, binding, or twining. Weaving depends on the tension between the warp and the weft.

The “incredible fact,” in the view of William J. Conklin, architect, archaeologist and research associate at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C, is that “weaving was invented for what we might call ‘conceptual art’—to communicate meaning—and only afterward was it used for clothing. Textiles are important to every society. But their role in Andean societies as carriers of meaning and power is different from anything else that I know.”[58]

Just as khipu are not forms of writing Andean textiles are not representations.[59] Weaving and textiles like khipu are profoundly tactile coming alive in performance, which makes Andean knowledge traditions profoundly different ontologically and epistemologically from those underpinning Western conceptions of modernity. For the Inca ‘[t]he universe and the world are alive and this can be captured in weaving, the threads can have power, life and meaning are imparted by the weaver through rotation spinning and twisting’.[60] Tension is thus central to an Andean ontology, and to heterarchy and complex adaptive systems in the opposition of positive and negative feed back.[61] But, tension is also central to the agonistic pluralism and diversality that is vital to working with differing knowledge traditions, and to the possibility of emergent new knowledge.

The conditions for possibilities of there being other knowledges, other spaces, other rationalities’ lie, as Dussel suggested, in creating a space for transmodernity in which modernity and its negated alterity could co-realise themselves in a process of mutual creative fertilization. However, I would argue, along with Dussel, that in order to ground an anti-foundationalist position with its recognition of multiple incommensurable knowledge traditions you need to sustain critical reason in order to avoid the vitiation of simply celebrating difference.[62] Critical reason is best sustained through comparing the ways in which spatiality, temporality, knowledge and reason are coproduced in differing traditions. Such ontological dimensions are typically concealed and invisible behind a screen of self-evidence in any given tradition, bringing them to the fore and recognising them may best achieved through by putting them on a equitable footing, acknowledging that all knowledges whether they are indigenous, scientific or traditional, are local in that they are performed by people in places with specific practices. Holding them in tension can reveal the differing ways in which knowledge and space are co-produced. The linkings of people, practices and places and the production of knowledge spaces have messy, contingent, and only partly acknowledged dimensions: ontologies, systems of trust, reciprocity and obligation, technical devices, social strategies and spatial structures for moving, assembling, and performing the knowledge, along with narratives of spatiality and temporality that shape community and identity. In addition to being profoundly narratological and spatial, knowledges are also performative, they are based in embodied practices, in the movement of human bodies in engagement with each other, with the physical environment, and with their own artifacts, in the movement along cognitive trails through conceptual space in making linkages and connections.[63]

To make all these dimensions visible, to enable them to interact and to create the conditions for the possibility of the emergent knowledge, we need to experiment with ways to create third spaces, theatres of diversity in which differing knowledge traditions can not only be performed together, but can be critically compared in determining how best to proceed in sustaining diversity and the commons once we are aware of how things could be other than they are.[64] To that end I am working with Wade Chambers to develop Story Weaver at The Institute of American Indian Art (IAIA) and with Robin Boast at the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology in Cambridge and Ramesh Srinivasen at UCLA to develop a distributed knowledge system between museums. Both these projects sustain the commons by allowing differing knowledges to work together while holding them in tension rather than absorbing them into one dominant tradition, but that is a story for another day.

This paper was previously subtitled ‘Other Spaces, Other Rationalities: Heterarchy, Complexity and Tension, Norte Chico, Amazonia and Narratives of Prehistory in South America’. It was delivered at the Institute of Postcolonial Studies, Melbourne on 5 Nov 2011 as part of the Southern Perspectives series by David Turnbull from the Victoria Eco-Innovation Lab (VEIL), Architecture Faculty, University of Melbourne (email

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[34] Burger, Richard. 1992. Chavin and the Origins of Andean Civilization. London: Thames and Hudson, 32. See also

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[37] Mann, Charles C. 2005. Oldest Civilization in the Americas Revealed. Science 307 (5706):34-35.

[38] Marwick, Ben. 2003. Pleistocene Exchange Networks as Evidence for the Evolution of Language Cambridge Archaeological Journal 13 (1):67-81.Gamble, Clive. 2007. Origins and Revolutions: Human Identity in Earliest Prehistory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[39] na. 2001. Ancient Peruvian Metropolis Predates Other Known Cities. National Geographic News

[40] Solis, Ruth Shady. 2006. America’s First City? The Case of Late Archaic Caral. In Andean Archaeology 111: North and South, edited by W. Isbell and H. Silverman, 28-. New York: Springer, 58-9.

[41] Op cit 36, 62.

[42] Burger, 38.

[43] Herrera, 180

[44] Moore, Jerry. 2005. Cultural Landscapes in the Ancient Andes: Archaeologies of Place. Gainesville: University of Florida.

[45] Lechtman, Heather. "Technologies of Power: The Andean Case." In Configurations of Power: Holistic Anthropology in Theory and Practice, edited by John Henderson and Patricia Netherly, 244-81. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993, 246.

[46] Ibid 255

[47] Ibid 273

[48] Seibold, Katherine. "Textiles and Cosmology in Choquecancha, Cuzco, Peru." In Andean Cosmologies through Time: Persistence and Emergence, edited by Robert Dover, Katherine Seibold and John McDowell, 166-201. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

[49] Lechtman, 255.

[50] Mann, Charles. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2005, 83

[51] Abercrombie, 179

[52] Howard R, 2002, "Spinning A Yarn: Landscape, Memory, and Discourse Structure in Quechua Narratives", in Narrative Threads: Accounting and Recounting in Andean Khipu Eds J Quilter and G Urton (University of Texs Press, Austin) pp 26-52, 46. Frame M, 2001, "Beyond The Image: The Dimensions of Pattern in Ancient Andean Textiles", in Abstraction: The Amerindian Paradigm Ed C Paternosto (Societe des Expositions du Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelle, Brussells) pp 113-136.

[53] Urton, Gary. Signs of the Inka Khipu: Binary Coding in the Andean Knotted-String Records. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.

[54] anon. "Language Could Be Tied up in Inca Knots." Canberra Times, Aug 13th 2005, 15.Brokaw, Galen. "Toward Deciphering the Khipu." Journal of Interdisciplinary History xxxv, no. 4 (2005): 571-89.Conklin, Willliam. "A Khipu Information String Theory." In Narrative Threads: Accounting and Recounting in Andean Khipu, edited by J. Quilter and G. Urton, 53-86. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.Quilter, J., and G. Urton, eds. Narrative Threads: Accounting and Recounting in Andean Khipu. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.

[55] Salomon, Frank. The Cord Keepers: Khipus and Cultural Life in a Peruvian Village. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2004. See his khipu conservation project…/ peters-khipus/index.htm

[56] Barber, Elizabeth. Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years. New York: W.W, 45. See also Good, I. 2001, Archaeological Textiles: A Review of Current Research, Annual Review of Anthropology, 30, 209-226, 209.

[57] According to Webster’s Dictionary tension owes its etymology to the Sanskrit word for string. My thanks to Lesley Green for this point.

[58] Mann, Charles. 2005. Unraveling Khipu’s Secrets. Science 309 (5737):1008-1009.

[59] Mignolo, Walter. 1995. The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality and Colonization. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 86.

Boone, Elizabeth Hill. 1994. Introduction: Writing and Recording Knowledge. In Writing Without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes, edited by E. H. Boone and W. Mignolo, 3-26. Durham: Duke University Press.

[60] Conklin, William. 2008. The Culture of Chavin Textiles. In Chavin: Art, Architecture, and Culture, edited by W. Conklin and J. Quilter, 261-278. Los Angeles: Costen Institute of Archaeology, University of California.

[61] Turnbull, David. Working with Incommensurable Knowledge Traditions: Assemblage, Diversity, Emergent Knowledge, Narrativity, Performativity, Mobility and Synergy 2009 [cited. Available from

[62] Dussel, Enrique. 2000. Epilogue. In Thinking from the Underside of History: Enrique Dussel’s Philosophy of Liberation, edited by L. Alcoff and E. Mendieta, 269-290. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 276-7.Turnbull, David. 2005. Multiplicity, Criticism and Knowing What to Do Next: Way-finding in a Transmodern World’. Response to Meera Nanda’s Prophets Facing Backwards. Social Epistemology 19 (1):19-32.

[63] Cussins, Adrian. 1992. Content, Embodiment and Objectivity: The Theory of Cognitive Trails. Mind 101:651-688.

[64] Guardiola-Rivera, Oscar. 2010. What If Latin America Ruled the World? How the South Will Take the North into the 22nd Century. London: Bloomsbury Press, 48.

Escobar, Arturo. 2008. Territories of Difference: Place, Movements, Life, Redes. Durham: Duke University Press, 25.

A new optimism across the Pacific

Australian film-maker John Hughes reports on this year’s Pacific Documentary Film Festival finds new dialogues opening up between islands, languages and cultures.

Fortuitous circumstances (for me, not so much for Harriet) led to an invitation to Tahiti to join the jury of the Pacific Documentary Film Festival FIFO in late January 2011, standing in for the Australian Director’s Guild’s Harriet McKern. At short notice Harriet had to decline FIFO’s offer due to pressing work commitments with the fast approaching ADG Conference. My hesitation took about as long as it takes a falling coconut to hit the ground cracking.

FIFO is in its 8th year and is expanding its horizons. This year the festival hosted a pitch session (for the 2nd time), screenings of short films from the region, a (drama) script development workshop, and a conference on regional media and broadcasting. The short films screening included a number of Australian films. FIFO has developed a partnership with the French Cabourg International Film Festival, and this year screened Cabourg’s 2010 prize winning feature and short drama. Australian films have traditionally done well at FIFO; last year a major prize went to Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s Bastardy, and Charlie Hill-Smith’s Strange Birds in Paradise was among the films screened.

Poster for 'This Way of Life' directed by Thomas Burstyn

Poster for 'This Way of Life' directed by Thomas Burstyn

This year there were 15 documentaries selected for competition and around 30 screened out of competition. The screenings were very well attended, with most films screening on three or four occasions over the six days of the festival. Filmmakers from Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and elsewhere in the region attended. A number of Australian films were selected and two won major awards. The Jury’s Grand Prix went to Contact (Bentley Dean, Martin Butler, 78 minutes, 2009) and one of the three Special Jury Prizes went to Kuru: the Science and the Sorcery (Rob Bygott, 52 minutes, 2010). The other two Jury prize winners were New Zealand films. Trouble is My Business (Juliette Veber, 83 minutes, 2009), an observatory documentary dealing with the travails of an energetic vice-principal in an East Auckland school looking after Islander and Maori students and This Way of Life (Thomas Burstyn, 86 minutes, 2009), a sympathetic portrait of struggles and utopian life-style of Maori Christian couple Peter and Colleen Karena, their six kids and 50 horses, as they deal with family trauma in New Zealand’s idyllic Ruahine Mountains.

The People’s Choice audience award went to Lucien Kimitete (Dominique Agniel, 52 minutes, 2010), a Canal+ television account of the life and work of a much loved Marquesas politician and activist who disappeared along with his colleague Boris Léontieff and two associates when their small plane crashed into the sea in May 2002. No wreckage from the plane was ever found. The film acknowledges that many people in the region harbour suspicions about the plane’s disappearance, as Lucien Kimitete and Boris Léontieff were expected to assume power in immanent elections and their effective advocacy of local self-determination threatened the status quo. It is not an investigative film, but rather a wistful celebration of Lucien’s dedication that inspired a generation with the transformative power of traditional Marquesas culture.

FIFO is deeply engaged with these questions of culture and identity across Oceania and particularly alert to the role of documentary and other media forms to the future of French Polynesia. Environmental issues are urgent – last year’s Grand Prix went to a New Zealand film on global warming in the region There Once was an Island: Te Henua E Noho (Briar March, 80 minutes, 2010) – development, underdevelopment and social issues associated with economic uncertainty are balanced against the struggle to sustain a variety of Polynesian cultural identities. ‘Authenticity’, identity politics and self-determination across Oceania animate FIFO’s purpose. Take the Australian prize winners. Bentley Dean’s Contact is a beautifully realised cinematic essay reminding us that among the histories shared by the peoples of Oceania is the devastating encounter of Indigenous peoples with European culture, and in particular its weapons of mass destruction; themes clearly recognizable in French Polynesia.

Still from Kuru

Still from Kuru

Dealing in cannibalism, sorcery, scientific animal experimentation and ‘white man’s magic’ Rob Bygott’s Kuru boldly enters treacherous story territories of anthropology and colonialism in Papua New Guinea without a skerrick of vulnerability to accusations of ‘Orientalism’. The film delivers a deeply moving account of the value of meticulous ethnographic documentation and rigorous scientific curiosity that resulted in the discovery of a new mode of long gestation transmissible disease. The film works through conventions of the science and history specialist factual genre; but here the filmmaker has nourished the documentary content, transcending the tendency of specialist factual to flatten emotional engagement. Rob Bygott’s treatment has deployed shockingly confronting archival footage against warmly intimate testimony from the Fore people of New Guinea’s Eastern Highlands, and this combined with the persuasive humanitarianism and dedication of the film’s main protagonist Michael Alpers, offers an intellectually rich and intriguing narrative beyond both cultural and genre boundaries. The film becomes an exemplary instance of cross-cultural communications where an Indigenous community of Oceania are at the centre of the world.

New Zealanders or Australians made most of the films in competition this year, and were most prominent in the documentary program and short films screened. Much of the work originating locally owes a lot to magazine television. The Polynesian world is abundantly rich in powerful documentary stories. Local people may not yet have had an opportunity to gather together the resources necessary to articulate their own stories in their own documentary voices. Which brings me to the conferences.

The (3rd) ‘Digital Encounters Polynesia’ conference and (5th) Pacific Television Conference held in conjunction with FIFO delivered results. Digital broadcast has recently extended Polynesia’s television offerings, with the familiar attendant questions of ‘choice’ and cultural sovereignty. And a newly installed underwater cable (‘Honotua’) owned by the French Polynesian Telco offers potential for greater broadband communications. This is the context in which there was an agreement signed between France Televisions and the ABC that will allow, among other arrangements, the two biggest media organisations in the Pacific to share footage and content recorded in the field, which will allow for a much greater diversity of content. This will increase both English and French content in the Pacific and has been a long time coming. The deal will allow more stories from English language Pacific nations to make their way to French Polynesia and also provide mechanisms for more stories from the region to make their way back into Australia. Arrangements are in train to establish a syndicate, led by the ABC that will collate and share stories and raw footage from local and regional broadcasters. The conference also resolved to work toward a Pacific film fund to act as an incentive encouraging more independent film production from the diverse Pacific nations. This may take a little longer.

Carol Hirschfeld; Photo Phil Doyle

Carol Hirschfeld; Photo Phil Doyle

At FIFO this year the ABC was well represented by Radio Australia. Neither SBS nor ABC TV participated in the festival, conferences or the pitch environment. However New Zealand’s Maori TV provided an encouraging model of progressive television in the region. FIFO Jury member and Head of Programming at Maori TV Carol Hirschfeld is a strong supporter of documentary. She recognises the opportunities that creative documentary offers for informed dialogue across the region.

For Maori television documentaries are absolutely vital. Our two main free to air broadcasters in New Zealand are increasingly divesting themselves ­or choosing not to run documentaries – so this is an area (…) we can grow. We are the only free to air broadcaster that has a documentary slot for both local and international documentaries. So in the next five years I see our channel as being the dominant free to air broadcaster of documentaries in New Zealand; that is why a festival such as FIFO (…) will help us fulfil that in the next five years. (Carol Hirschfeld)

Australian documentary filmmakers may envy this commitment. Overall there is a sense of optimism as new networks of culturally diverse media production and distribution emerge across the region. These kinds of events are always eye-openers. We have tended to assume Australia as a kind of European outpost in the Asia-Pacific geography. There is another welcome perspective available in this Oceania imaginary so generously hosted by FIFO.

Apart from the warm and convivial hospitality from the festival, non-stop inspiring meetings with the like-minded from around the world and the region, and the exquisite tropical island environments, what’s a take-home message from FIFO? Don’t miss it, it will do you good. Thanks heaps Harriet; I owe you.

Originally written for the ADG (Australian Director’s Guild) newsletter

Southpaw–a literary left-hook from the Global South

Issue 1: displacement

Southpaw is a punchy new literary journal that will feature the voices and perspectives of writers from the South. Entering into dialogue with artistic communities across the South, it means to develop links, provoke conversation and share knowledge. Launching in 2011 from Melbourne Australia, it will feature fiction, creative-nonfiction, cultural commentary, essays, poetry, drawings and other graphics from writers and artists in the South.

Southpaw is currently looking for submissions in each of the above categories: short fiction, creative nonfiction, commentary, poetry, drawings, and essays up to 3000 words.

The first issue of Southpaw will be shaped by the experience and idea of ‘displacement’ – a theme with which Southern communities are especially familiar. But this is not necessarily to imply a negative encounter with change or trauma: displacement (in practice and thought) also suggests new possibilities and positive challenges that enliven thinking and burst into creative expression. Southpaw is looking for contemporary voices in all forms of writing. The energy of the South and the alternatives its many cultures and individual creativities offer today will be a challenge and antidote to the traditional sources of cultural influence and activity.

Please make your submission in Word by 30 April 2011.

Email your writing or drawing to:

Alison Caddick, for Southpaw editorial group

Fractals in Global Africa

Call For Papers: Critical Interventions Special Issue on Fractals in Global Africa – Spring 2012

Critical Interventions: Journal of African Art and History invites contributions for a special issue on Fractals in Global African Art to be published in Spring 2012.

As an arena for rethinking African arts and exploring the nature and value of African art/cultural knowledge, *Critical Interventions* is interested in how the recent work on fractal structures in African arts and culture can be extended, discussed, contested, and theorized in domains such as aesthetics, politics, philosophy and economics, as well as applied to practical matters such as education and design.

We are therefore interested in receiving proposals for substantial articles on all areas in which global African creativity–painting, sculpture, architecture, dance, film, and other cultural productions–intersects with fractals, networks, complexity, self-organization, and other nonlinear models. Locations could include any African-influenced culture around the globe as well as well as continental Africa.

Possible topics could include any of the following in relation to Africa or the African Diaspora:

  • Fractals in art
  • Fractals in design and education
  • Scaling and recursive patterns in the arts
  • Fractal routes/roots
  • Visual metaphors of branching (e.g. the Baobab, the arabesque)
  • Scaling or self-organization in traditional or contemporary architecture
  • Fractal social networks and the arts
  • Cycles within cycles in expressive media

We also welcome significant work by artists who work with fractals in classical formats or new media. We invite proposals to be submitted by February 28, 2011. The deadline for the final version of the paper is July 31, 2011. Articles should be based on original research, which has not been published before. Proposals should be no more than 500 words. Articles may be up to 7,500 words (not inclusive of the bibliography) and contain up to ten images. All rights for reproduction of images must be cleared in advance and submitted along with the article.

Proposals of no more than 500 words (or queries) should be sent to Audrey Bennett, Guest Co-Editor ( Associate Professor of Graphics Department of Language, Literature, and Communication School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 110 8th Street Troy, NY 12180-3590

Critical Interventions, a peer-reviewed journal, provides a forum for advanced research and writing on African and African Diaspora identities and cultural practices in the age of globalization.

Our Williams–Ross Gibson and Tony Birch

Tony Birch and Ross Gibson

Tony Birch and Ross Gibson

The recent dialogue between Ross Gibson and Tony Birch demonstrated the kind of thinking that might be revealed through a southern perspective.

At the opening of the series, Raewyn Connell laid down the challenge to broaden our theoretical references beyond the metropolitan centres. In the discussion that followed, there was a sense of concern in abandoning the reassuring authorities, particularly European theoretical figures. Would this be to forgo critical thought – to drift away from the main action in transatlantic universities? Connell countered with a democratic image of a thousand boats that would criss-cross the south-south axis.

Gibson and Birch pointed in an alternative direction. They both looked back to iconic figures in the early history of European colonisation. Gibson considered the life of William Dawes, a scientist who explored different ways of engaging with Indigenous hosts in Port Jackson at the time of the First Fleet. And Birch looked from the Victorian end at the biography of William Barak, a Wurundjeri leader who traversed the Indigenous and settler worlds. While Dawes and Barak would not be considered theoretical sources, their actions in their time provided models for ways of thinking today.

Gibson looked at Dawes’ attempts to understand the local language. His notebooks reveal that he moved away from a nominalist approach to an increasingly contextualised grasp of their language. This is in part thanks to his intimacy with a local woman, Patyegarang, who helped him appreciate the profoundly relational nature of Indigenous language. Gibson talked about Dawes as a ‘littoral’ person, a marine adept at working in the space between land and sea. His notebooks show a man navigating a shifting world, ‘always in conversation with oneself and other people.’

For Birch, Barak also negotiated between the white man (namatje) and Wurundjeri. Rather than a passive figure, Barak was always navigating a path as a political strategist. An important component of that was his relationship to the first manager of the Aboriginal mission in Coranderrk, John Green. Birch could see echoes here of his own collaborations with namatje such as the artist Tom Nicholson.

Other Australian writers have also recently depicted the first encounters between white and black worlds, such as Inge Clendenin and Kate Grenville. But it is not only in Australia that this interest has emerged. The Argentinean writer Walter Mignolo has written about the Inca historian Guaman Poma, who tried to tell his people’s side of the story in a book The First New Chronicle and Good Government (1615). Poma tried to identify how the best of European and Inca cultures might be combined. In doing this, he used a map dividing the world into four quarters, rich and poor, moral and barbaric.

In modern terminology, civilization and barbarism distinguished the inhabitants or the two upper quarters; while riches and poverty characterized the people living in the lower quarters. On the other hand, the poor but virtuous and the civilized are opposed to the rich and the barbarians. In a world divided in four parts, subdivided in two, binary oppositions arc replaced by a combinatorial game that organizes the cosmos and the society.
Walter Mignolo The Darker Side Of The Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality, And Colonization Anne Arbor: University of Michegan Press, 2003, p. 252

The next step would be to gather together scenes of first encounter as they are currently being rehearsed across the South. In these tentative experiences of contact, there is sometimes a brief flicker of dialogue before the full force of colonisation is finally applied. A glimpse of these proto-colonial scenes can speak to those countries where the tide of colonisation is now ebbing in the other direction.

Savage Europeans! Settler colonial studies call for papers

Call for Papers: What is Settler Colonialism?

Ye doubted at first whether the inhabitants
of the regions you had just discovered
were not animals which you might slay without remorse,
because they were black,
and you were white.
In order to repeople one part of the globe,
which you have laid waste,
you corrupt and depopulate another.

Presumably Diderot, ‘On the history of settlements and trade’
(from Abbe Raynal’s Philosophical and Political History, 1770).

Settler colonialism is a global and transnational phenomenon, and as much a thing of the past as a thing of the present. There is no such thing as neo-settler colonialism or post-settler colonialism because settler colonialism is a resilient formation that rarely ends. Not all migrants are settlers: they are founders of political orders who carry with them a distinct sovereign capacity. And settler colonialism is not colonialism: settlers want Indigenous people to vanish (but can make use of their labour before they are made to disappear). Sometimes settler colonial forms operate within colonial ones, sometimes they subvert them, sometimes they replace them. But even if colonialism and settler colonialism interpenetrate and overlap, they remain separate as they co-define each other.

settler colonial studies accepts articles that align with this theme (‘What is Settler Colonialism?’), but will consider articles that do not. Submissions for this theme must be received by October 30 2010. For further information on submission details, click here.