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Public Culture 12.2 (2000) 501-528

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Consuming Geist:
Popontology and the Spirit of Capital in Indigenous Australia

Elizabeth A. Povinelli

On 16 August 1998, several people from Belyuen and I drove to Wadeye (Port Keats) and ran into the ark of a covenant, a building underway aimed at housing an indigenous spirituality. This building has several aspects, modalities, and scales--physical, subjective, textual. It is dispersed across multiple social fields--law, business, and public life--and the purpose it serves goes by several names: cultural tourism, ecotourism. In this essay, I seek to understand the sources and limits of this built environment and its social, subjective, and economic implications for indigenous Australians.

David Harvey (1989: 339) has noted that post-Fordist capitalism seems to be dominated by "fiction, fantasy, the immaterial (particularly money), fictitious capital, images, ephemerality"; the stock market and various financial instruments being well cited examples. Herein, I examine a related market--the market in the uncanny, the mystery (rather than the mysterious), the fourfold (morphe) as it operates in northern Australia. I will propose that one of the operations of this market is to hold certain groups of people accountable for manifesting for certain other groups a Heideggerian form (morphe). It will also emerge that the market itself relies upon a complex set of textual mediations generating both an object for and a limit to capital forms of commodification. What might these particular modalities of capital and textuality tell us about the dynamic relation among text, subject, and economic practice at the end of the millennium? More specifically: How do we understand the textual sources of the indigenous Spirit that capital commodifies? Note: I will seek the answer to these questions not in [End Page 501] analysis of the representation of the Spirit of commodity capital, but rather in an interrogation of how the building of various sorts of capital infrastructures is mediated by various sorts of textual architectures and by the subjective inhabitation of both. In short, the logic and timing of the subject are not equivalent to the logic and timing of capital.

Regimes of the Spiritual

We had not gone to Wadeye to chase the market of the Spirit. We had planned to spend the week mapping the coastal region historically associated with the Marriamu and Marritjaben Aborginal people with other men and women living at Wadeye in preparation for a sea claim to be lodged under the Native Title Act of 1993. The map would help demonstrate the continuing existence of the traditional laws, customs, beliefs, and practices of the Marriamu and Marritjaben. It is such traditional customs that give their native title its legal efficacy in Australian statutory and common law. Most jurists loosely agree with Justice Olney's understanding of traditional customs as a set of laws, customs, practices, and traditions that are "integral to a distinctive culture" rather than a mere "description of how people live" or a description of how their ancestors once lived (Hayes v. Northern Territory 1999: 20). It is not required by the national law that these customary laws be demonstrated to be "spiritual" in nature, although in the common sense and common parlance of national courts, parliaments (federal, state, and territory), and public spheres, Aboriginal customary law is considered to be saturated and fully comprehended by the cosmogonic myth-ritual of the Dreamtime. What is required of applicants--before their native title claim can be registered--is that they acknowledge their native title rights and interests to be subject to all valid and current laws of the Commonwealth and the Northern Territory. According to the current phrasing of native title applications in the Northern Territory, they also must further acknowledge that the exercise of these rights and interests might be regulated, controlled, curtailed, restricted, suspended, or postponed by reason of the existence of valid concurrent rights and interests by or under such laws. This acknowledgment is a formal textual act: the statutorily mandated form and content of a native title application. Because applications are usually prepared by non-Aboriginal lawyers and anthropologists...


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