The Contemporary Pacific 14.2 (2002) 521-523
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Space, Narrative, and Knowledge in Aboriginal Australia and Papua New Guinea
Emplaced Myth: Space, Narrative, and Knowledge in Aboriginal Australia and Papua New Guinea, edited by Alan Rumsey and James F Weiner. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2001.ISBN0-8248-2389-3; vii + 281 pages, maps, tables, figures, photographs, bibliography, index. US$27.95.
The papers in this collection (and a forthcoming companion volume) were originally presented at an Australian National University conference on the effects of industrial mining on the cultures of indigenous peoples. This, the first volume, specifically concerns the confrontation between traditional indigenous cosmologies of self and place and the forces of change, historification, and modernity. The papers are focused particularly around issues of cosmological geography, especially those landscapes commonly found in Australia and New Guinea that were believed to be created by wandering mythological beings or ancestors whose movements and deeds created or gave form to the countryside. The pairing of Australia and New Guinea in relation to these founder-journeying myths is intended to reveal the two-way relationship between knowledge of places and emplacement of knowledge in ways that allow comparison between the two regions.While the papers follow this format in a general way they have widely divergent agendas. Among these, we may discern four main ones.
The first is the scholarly use of ethnographic material to contest or reconfigure some theoretical issue of importance in anthropology. Rumsey, for example, draws on Aboriginal and Melanesian modes of constructing landscape to critique Deleuze and Guatari's contrast between arborescent and rhizomatic models for thought.
Wagner, in a highly speculative paper, argues for the existence of primal myths. Instead of considering the process of knowledge whereby "the world's geography is foldedinto myth" and the process of diffusion whereby "myth is moved across the world," he takes the perspective that the world is diffused across the myth. Thus if mythic content is grafted onto features of the terrain and defines the terrain, as myths diffuse across the world the resulting cosmological landscape can be seen as shaping itself to the primal myth and diffusing through it.
Redmond critiques the widespread view that Aboriginal people inhabit an unchanging cosmological landscape. Arguing that space and place have meaning only in relation to the positioned, mobile, intentional human body, he pictures Aboriginal relations to landscape as a constant product of imaginative encounter wherein people work out central cultural issues and concerns through landscape in a way that slowly alters both over time.
Lattas applies a loosely Marxist approach to a New Britain cargo cult in which the members run a moderately successful copra production company by making capitalism into a kind of religion.
Another set of papers in the collection focuses on the issue of secret knowledge. Weiner argues that what is kept secret is less interesting than the fact that something is kept secret. Thus, to understand what secret knowledge is really about, the focus of investigation must fall not so much on [End Page 521] its content as on the social construction of the regime of communicative practice.
Wassman does this for Iatmul knowledge of secret names linked to myths that govern access to social and political entitlements. To assert or defend these entitlements, senior men are compelled to reveal some of their knowledge of the names, thus dissipating their power over them. Wassman contends that this process will never result in the final dissipation of all secret knowledge because it is bound up with a practice of formal debating so complex that new secret names may be invented and introduced into the system by any debater sufficiently skilled in convincing others of their validity.
Two papers are strongly comparative in focus. Stewart and Strathern argue for a distinction between myths concerned with "origins" (seen as original events that lay down once-for-all a permanent state of affairs) and stories that deal with "creations" (events considered to initiate a new state of affairs in an existing [mytho...