Johann Dieter Wassmann, Vorwarts! (Go Forward!), 1897. 57.5 x 31 x 9.5 cm.
Rather than pulling the shutters and closing shop as August approaches, I thought I’d revisit several of our more popular posts from these past three years. Last summer I devoted considerable time to airing the three leitmotifs posited by Documenta 12, most notably the first: Is modernity our antiquity? This summer I’ve been similarly perusing the themes Daniel Birnbaum has hinted at for his upcoming Torino Triennale, 50 Moons of Saturn.
The following is an extended version of a post that appeared on March 29, 2007 in the run-up to Documenta; the questions it raises are no less pertinent to Husserl’s phenomenology, which I anticipate will feature strongly in Birnbaum’s 50 Moons of Saturn:
On March 11, 1992 Anselm Kiefer gave a lecture in Adelaide that is still widely discussed in Australian intellectual circles. In it, he expressed intrigue that Aboriginals should possess such a deep-seated relationship with their art. He envied Aboriginal artists for what he saw as their ability to inhabit their work as deeply as they inhabited their land. He mourned Western art as a curtain descending into its own cultural morass, a no man’s land, a terra nullius of the soul. (He further asserted that the current state of decline in Western art commenced with the fall of Byzantium.)
Despite its quirky tales, its idiosyncratic logic and its apparently non-empirical structures, he argued the Aboriginal Dreaming offers us a far more valid user’s guide to the universe than any Western paradigm.
In bringing up the Dreaming in relation to antiquity and modernity alike, I may sound like a wayward musician wandering off-key mid-song -- stumbling with the present tense when it would seem more appropriate to speak of the Dreaming in the past, as Aboriginal antiquity -- but I have just cause for abiding in the hear-and-now. For one thing, these beliefs still dominate Aboriginal life, so to refer to them otherwise would be untowardly dismissive. But the more telling reason is that elders themselves are very specific in the syntax they use to describe their Dreamings -- always speaking in either the present or something close to the progressive present perfect tense when telling these stories. This progressive present perfect tense is the tense used for action that began in the past and continues into the present (e.g. I have been working on the railroad, all the live-long day; which is to say I was earlier and I continue to be working on the railroad).
It was as Aboriginal groups developed their own versions of Creole English in the 19th century that these thought processes became most apparent. Aboriginals stuck to the verb tenses that made sense to them, including the present, the past in referring to the recent past, the progressive present perfect in referring to the distant past, and similar progressive future tenses in referring to events linking the past and present to the future.
The use of this verb tense retains a core value in the Aboriginal world-view, which itself reaches back to Dreaming events, or to be more precise, their world-view reaches through to Dreaming events. Reaching back implies a reverse movement in time and history; reaching through expresses movement in space. And it is this very space -- the space of the Dreaming -- that they are cleverly describing in the present perfect.
But who’s been listening? Only a smattering of Westerners, such as Kiefer, have picked up on the possibility that a whole new wealth of philosophical puzzles and paradigms might rest in this linguistic clue -- a possibility the ancient Greeks had toyed with, and Western physicists inched toward from a different tack for the better part of the twentieth century.
The clue that lay unnoticed for so long in the present perfect is that the conceptual notions of time and history, past and present, have simply never entered into Aboriginal culture; that is, they never entered into Aboriginal culture until the arrival of Europeans. The anthropologist William Stanner remarked, “I have never been able to discover an Aboriginal word for time as an abstract comment... And the sense of history is wholly alien here.”
All clans naturally have a sense of the immediate past, or the past within one’s lifetime -- the known past -- but once a death occurs the soul is seen as returning to the land, not to be forgotten, but to rejoin the ancestors in an ongoing cycle of renewal. Talk of human lineage beyond living generations and the most recent to have passed away is rare, and even when referring to the recently departed there are elaborate taboos on how they can be discussed, if at all.
In the West, our belief in a linear sequence -- creation/past/present/future -- has, since the original sin, shaped and supported our notions of time, history, antiquity, modernity, progress and by inference, space. But among the Aboriginal people of Australia, the creation and the present aren’t linked in any linear sense by history; quite the contrary, they are defined in a purely spatial sense by the simple, direct and irrefutable existence of place.
And because the Dreaming defines place rather than history, the ancestors are just as much alive today as they were yesterday or they will be tomorrow, living as they do, in the realm of something close to what we in the West see as eternity. So by returning to one’s place in death, spatiality also imparts salvation, along with a measure of immortality, to the Aboriginal believer.
Among non-Aboriginals, the Dreaming has come to represent many things to many people. One who took a keen interest and whose influence was far-reaching was Mircea Eliade. Eliade was well respected for his views on a wide array of theological issues, but his conceit that ‘primitive’ creation stories, Dreamings included, were an effort to escape the parameters of time -- by means of retaining a continuous link to the mythical era of the ancestors -- shows the mark of his bias. As Eliade saw it, “spirituality introduced freedom into the cosmos. It allows the possibility of transcending the boundaries.”
Where Eliade ran afoul was in believing that the preponderance of place ascribed to by these cultures represented some sort of subconscious substitution, or ongoing rebellion, against the historical notion of time. How could they have? These people knew nothing about the historical notion of time. That was the West’s later doing (and our current undoing). So if time and history had never entered into their realm, where and how could they have come to replace or reject them? These boundaries requiring transcendence Eliade spoke of are constructs of Western culture, not universal boundaries and certainly not the Aboriginal’s.
In the first issue of the documenta 12 Magazine, the question "Is modernity our antiquity?" was broadened to ask, “Which modernity and whose antiquity?” but even this repositioning is problematic, for in the Aboriginal case it still suggests the Dreaming as an antiquity, imposing as it does linearity where there was none previously. If we take modernity as the late arrival the European, are we offering the Aboriginal anything more than an invitation to join our wretched terror of history?
By extension, we must ask ourselves if modernity has been anything more than a wolf in sheep’s clothing for the rest of us as well? Are not antiquity and modernity both simply the tormented march of History on its ill-begotten pursuit of Armageddon, and by implication salvation, as we await the Day of Judgment? God forbid.
To his credit, Eliade was one who saw it coming. He had once defined modern man by his ability to “consciously and voluntarily create history,” having as he did, “faith in an infinite progress.” Eliade went on to point out that modern man’s most adept means of creating history (and his own anxiety), from the seventeenth century onwards, was through the technology of war. This precocious new science took advantage of realignments in labor markets, and improvements in agricultural technologies, to create power alliances that made the Crusades look like a holiday in the Holy Land.
The sustenance for his faith in an infinite progress modern man drew from his belief in the constancy of a rapidly unfolding future -- a future-as-resource serving to fuel the military and economic dreams of the present. And only a conviction that the future was infinite could keep the prophesy self-fulfilling. Although, having said that, the prophesy was never wholly fulfilled, for as Kafka said, “To believe in progress is not to believe that progress has already taken place. That would be no belief.”
By the twentieth century, progress had become modern man’s beloved opiate, his one true religion. The faith that nourished his restless soul lay not in the memory of yesterday, or in the relief of today, but in the ill-begotten promise of a new tomorrow.