Playing on both minds and emotions, this academically innovative book reveals the resourceful and often poignant ways that Indigenous Australians involved themselves in the colonists’ paper culture.
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Writing Never Arrives Naked
Early Aboriginal Cultures of Writing in Australia
By Penny van Toorn
Aboriginal Studies PressCopyright © 2006 Penny van Toorn
All rights reserved.
Encountering the alphabet
Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought on what happened when Indigenous societies around the world encountered the cultures of literacy imported by Europe's imperial powers from late 15th century onwards. On one side are cultural historians and theorists such as Jack Goody, Walter J Ong and Marshall McLuhan who, beginning in the 1960s, argued that writing in itself has played a determining role in the biological and cultural advancement of humankind. Such ideas were initially articulated by Renaissance and Enlightenment philosophers, before acquiring authority in the late 19th century in the work of 'scientists' such as Edward Burnett Tylor, who took up the first Chair of Anthropology at Oxford University in 1895. In his influential book Anthropology (1881), Tylor had asserted that:
The invention of writing was the great movement by which mankind rose from barbarism to civilization. How vast its effect was may be best measured by looking at the low condition of tribes still living without it, dependent on memory for their traditions and rules of life, and unable to amass knowledge as we do by keeping records of events, and storing up new observations for the use of future generations. Thus it is no doubt right to draw the line between barbarian and civilized where the art of writing comes in, for this gives permanence to history, law and science.
Tylor's theories about 'primitive peoples' grew out of and fed back into field research carried out by correspondents in Australia and other parts of the British empire. Like most anthropologists of his day, Tylor viewed writing as a primary criterion of civilisation, and looked to Indigenous Australians to see primitivity personified. Present-day theorists, such as Ong and Goody, are far more aware than was Tylor of the complexity and sophistication of 'oral' cultures. They nonetheless follow his lead in believing writing to be an autonomous engine of cultural advancement. This 'autonomous' model, as it is often called, assumes that writing's impact is inherent in the nature of alphabetic script and 'literacy itself'. In doing so, it takes insufficient account of contextual matters such as ideology, institutions and socio-political relations; in other words, it overlooks the effects of the specific circumstances and contexts in which writing and literacy enter Indigenous life-worlds. The autonomous model also remains blind to its own ethnocentricity, viewing modes of literacy that deviate from Western norms as a stage on the way to full literacy, as though the passage from Indigenous orality to European literacy were an invariable law of cultural evolution.
The central question addressed by adherents to the autonomous model is: how does alphabetic literacy shape the cultural, cognitive and socio-political history of human societies? The connection between literacy and cultural 'advancement' is embedded in the English language in terms such as 'illiterate' and 'pre-literate'. Words such as these keep alive the assumption that 'humankind is characterised by "a will to writing", that writing is a universal cultural goal, and that all cultures are somewhere along the road to writing.' The autonomous model is thus central to grand, Eurocentric narratives of cultural progress.
The second, and in my view the more valid, way of understanding Indigenous literacy in Australia and other colonial settings derives from studies carried out by Brian Street, Ruth Finnegan, and other anthropologists and ethno-linguists. Beginning in the 1980s, they challenged the idea that there is a single, canonical set of skills and practices that amount to literacy proper. While conceding that literacy is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition of certain kinds of change, they refuted the notion that literacy is in itself an autonomous force in human history. Instead, believing that writing and literacy are never practised in a vacuum, they focused on the impact of particular conceptions or ideologies of literacy, and on the specific purposes, means and institutions through which those conceptions were introduced and enforced. Their research indicated that there is no such singular thing as 'literacy itself', no single set of reading and writing practices that are inherently and invariably correct, but instead a multitude of ways to practise literacy. Literacy can therefore only be validly examined in context, at particular sites, rather than in abstract general terms.
Finnegan and others who shared her view dismantled the theoretical foundations of the orality/literacy divide. Instead of viewing orality and literacy as successive stages of cultural development, they highlighted the ongoing interplay between text and talk, and the multiplicity of reading and writing systems apart from the alphabet. Even within the empire of the alphabet, they urged that the focus should be on literacies in the plural, rather then a single normative literacy. Literacy is always culturally situated. Each act of reading and writing is carried out in a particular political and historical context in which the powerful decide which practices are to be counted as correct and normal, and which will be declared erroneous and insignificant.
The model holds that people's actual reading and writing practices are determined less by the nature of the particular script they use than by the political, social and institutional circumstances under which they have acquired and employed that script, as well as by the specific beliefs, attitudes, values and desires they bring to particular tasks of reading and writing. Hence their approach is referred to as 'the ideological model'. As James Collins and Richard Blot put it:
Literate practices are not merely technical means transportable unchanged across socio-cultural contexts. They are specific practices manifested in different ways in differing contexts, whose meanings are more dependent on the processes by which they were acquired than on the specific skills applied.
For those who adhere to the idea that literacy can only be understood within its specific cultural and political contexts, the key question is not How has literacy in itself shaped this or that society? but rather, How and why has this individual, or this group of people, at this particular point in their history, acquired, conceptualised, organised and used their particular reading and writing practices in the manner they have? It is this question that underlies each of the case studies presented in this book, and affords a rationale for the case-study approach itself.
* * *
Weighing up the pros and cons of these two models of literacy — the autonomous and the ideological — it may initially appear that colonial and post-colonial experiences offer little evidence to support the latter. In theory, according to the ideological model, literacy should not necessarily supersede Indigenous oral cultural traditions; however, in practice such 'replacement' seems very often to have been the case. If, as Street and others argue, literacy in itself does not change societies in consistent, predictable ways, why is it that in so many colonial contexts, traditional Indigenous worldviews, languages and modes of socio-political organisation have been seriously undermined by the introduction of literacy?
In addressing this question it is important to acknowledge at the outset that the 'loss' of Indigenous oral culture can be difficult to quantify. On the one hand, non-Indigenous people have failed to perceive the extent of Indigenous cultural loss and understand its dire ramifications. On the other, it is sometimes the case that 'losses' are actually adaptations or transformations of traditional Indigenous practices — transformations that are not recognised as such by non-Indigenous people, who underestimate the normal dynamism and exposure to otherness that so-called 'traditional' cultures are accustomed to. How can something as complex as cultural loss be measured? Where should the line be drawn between cultural loss and cultural transformation? Indigenous people the world over celebrate the survival of their cultures, as well as mourning what has been lost.
The chapters that follow offer evidence that, contrary to the predictions of the autonomous model, certain traditional orally grounded Indigenous Australian practices have survived the onset of literacy, and may in fact have been secured and reinforced through it. Traditionally based Indigenous practices of alphabetic literacy that emerged over 200 years ago in the late 18th century continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and are still manifest in the authorial practices of Aboriginal writers today. The persistence of these practices suggests that they are not part of an insignificant, transitory adjustment process on a path that leads to 'literacy proper'. Instead, they are evidence that reading and writing have been reinvented, and that under certain conditions Aboriginal communities have been able to develop and adapt their own new and distinct cultures of literacy in a manner that perpetuates traditional, orally grounded social structures and values.
That said, there is no denying that in many parts of Australia important traditional Indigenous life-ways have not survived the introduction of literacy. Does such erosion attest to the destructive powers of literacy itself, as proponents of the autonomous model would have us believe? Or has cultural change been caused instead, as the ideological model suggests, by the impact of particular conceptions of literacy, and the ways in which they were enforced? Ideas about literacy can have serious, tangible, historical ramifications when they form a basis for action. Such has been the case with the autonomous model of literacy. Mistaken as it is, it looks like a self-fulfilling prophecy because it has formed the basis for assimilationist educational and cultural policies. But by examining diverse sites of writing, including 'untutored' engagements with alphabetic script, it becomes possible to see that, left to their own devices, Aboriginal people conceptualised and used alphabetic signs, paper and books in ways that differed radically from European norms.
Throughout the colonial period, and indeed until the 1980s, government policy-makers invariably assumed that literacy itself shaped societies — an assumption that went hand in hand with the belief that oral and literate cultures were successive, mutually exclusive stages in a single, unavoidable path of cultural evolution towards modernity. This mode of thinking has a long genealogy that extends at least as far back as the Renaissance. Western philosophers and ethnologists imagined that contemporary Indigenous societies were relics of a bygone age, and were thus similar to ancient pre-literate European societies. This positioning of Indigenous peoples as 'where Europeans once were' made the assimilation of Aboriginal people look like a historical shortcut, a mere speeding up of an allegedly natural, inevitable evolutionary process. In Australia, this belief justified the introduction of policies designed to transform Indigenous people, culturally and biologically, into whites. Colonial government and church authorities viewed literacy as a tool of assimilation, an effective means of hastening the 'inevitable' progress of 'primitive' peoples into the modern white Western world. Writing and literacy thus entered Indigenous Australian life-worlds most often as part of a colonialist Christian agenda.
What did Aboriginal people themselves make of writing and literacy, as these new texts and practices were integrated into their worldviews and day-to-day lives? At one extreme, in traditional Aboriginal societies, people assimilated writing and books into their own categories of objects and cultural practices. At the other extreme, in mission and reserve schools, people were taught to read and write in classrooms where they were required to participate in rituals such as copying lines and spelling out loud. In every one of the diverse contexts in which Aboriginal people engaged with the alphabetic script, reading and writing were imbued with attitudes, ideas and feelings. It was these contextual and ideological elements that primarily shaped Indigenous reading and writing in colonial Australia. The radical historical force lay not in writing or literacy per se, but in the colonists' firm belief that literacy would inevitably 'advance' Indigenous Australians, and in the means by which that belief was put into effect. The belief that literacy itself triggers certain kinds of changes is thus not only manifestly erroneous, it also obscures its own historical influence as a basis of the 'native policies' and assimilationist practices that shaped how most Indigenous peoples learned to read and write in the colonial period.
This paradox of the erroneous yet self-fulfilling prophecy explains why the autonomous model of literacy appears to have been borne out in practice in many colonial contexts. Indigenous peoples in Australia, North America and elsewhere are today living with the damaging legacies of the autonomous model of literacy, having seen their cultures undermined by missionaries and schoolteachers who prohibited traditional languages and ceremonies, and by welfare officers and assimilation policies that obstructed traditional oral channels of cultural transmission by separating children from their families. In Australia, as in many other parts of the colonised world, the autonomous model of literacy was institutionalised in ways that, paradoxically, annulled literacy's putative autonomy. In the regimented, poorly resourced, under-staffed mission and reserve schools that Aboriginal children attended, literacy did not in fact work as a historical force in its own right.
The chapters that follow offer evidence that it was not literacy in itself that set in train the cultural assimilation of Indigenous peoples into Euro-Australian society. It was not reading and writing per se that eroded traditional Indigenous cultures, but rather the particular circumstances under which Indigenous peoples acquired literacy and engaged with the material artefacts of literate Western culture.
What writing brings with it
Alphabetic literacy and written texts did not arrive in Indigenous Australian life-worlds naked and alone. Writing arrived, in fact, wearing several layers of clothing. Most important but least tangible were the ideologies that enveloped alphabetic script, books, and the practices of reading and writing. The nature of these ideological vestments depended on whether they were formed within Indigenous cultural settings, or through direct contact with the settler society, or both. If Indigenous Australians encountered alphabetic characters without white guidance or modelling, they assimilated them into their own understandings of the universe, perceiving and evaluating whatever novel graphic marks they saw in terms of their own traditional frames of reference, and conceiving them in ways potentially different from European ideas of writing. However, in settings where Indigenous Australians were schooled in European cultures of literacy, or were familiar with written texts through close acquaintance with whites, they may instead (or in addition) have adopted Western ideas about literacy and written texts.
Second, writing arrived in Indigenous life-worlds in the form of tangible objects that were part and parcel of the material culture and technology of the colonisers. Aboriginal people saw writing on objects as diverse as Bibles and flour-bags; not only on paper, but on things like coins, milestones and merchandise. The materiality of writing played an important part in Indigenous perceptions and uses of alphabetic script.
Third, writing almost invariably encoded a particular language: English. Except in South Australia, where the German missionaries knew very little English, and in isolated cases where missionaries recorded Indigenous languages on paper, Aboriginal people on missions and reserves encountered alphabetic writing as a code for the English language. Literacy and English language acquisition were thus almost inextricable, and both were high on colonial government and mission agendas.
Excerpted from Writing Never Arrives Naked by Penny van Toorn. Copyright © 2006 Penny van Toorn. Excerpted by permission of Aboriginal Studies Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction Sites of writing,
1. Encountering the alphabet,
2. Sky gods and stolen children,
3. Bennelong's letter,
4. Borderlands of Aboriginal writing,
5. Textual battlegrounds in Van Diemen's Land,
6. Literacy, land and power: the Coranderrk petitions,
7. Hidden transcripts at Lake Condah Mission Station,
8. Early writings by Aboriginal women,
9. A book by any other name ...?,
Conclusion The past is not another country,