Review of ‘Landscapes, Rock Art and the Dreaming: An Archaeology of Preunderstanding’ by Bruno David

01st June 2008

Murray book review cover AA66Landscapes, Rock Art and the Dreaming: An Archaeology of Preunderstanding by Bruno David, Leicester University Press, London, 2002, xiii+235 pp., ISBN 07185-0243-4.

Tim Murray

Archaeology Program, School of Historical and European Studies, La Trobe University, Bundoora Vic. 3086, Australia

Landscapes, Rock-Art and the Dreaming: An Archaeology of Preunderstanding (LRD) seeks to encapsulate David’s views about the social archaeology of Holocene pre-European Australia, while situating itself within a stream of discourse about history, anthropology and the Other. In seeking to undertake an archaeology of the Dreaming, David gives us his take on a range of issues that were core to post-processualism during the late 1990s when that approach began to morph into more generalised post-colonialist (as distinct from generally post-modern) discourse. Along the way LRD imparts information about rock art (especially arguments about its regionalisation in Cape York), the archaeology of Ngarrabullgan and adjacent sites, the archaeology of Dreaming rituals among the Arrente, the antiquity of seed-grinding in Australia, and a rehearsal of now quite conventional arguments for the development of more complex social relations in late Holocene Australia that span the scalar gamut from the pan-continental to the micro-regional.

All of this adds up to an ambitious agenda, made all the more so by David’s attempts to move discussion of core aspects of how Aboriginal people and their lives are understood away from timeless essences towards conceptual frameworks that stress dynamism, contingency, heterogeneity, and agency. Calls for ‘history’ and attacks on essentialism in Australian archaeology are not novel, but the linking of such perspectives with arguments about trends towards social complexity in late Holocene Australia is a new twist. The bulk of the conceptual apparatus is derived from standard post-processual positions of the 1990s with a few idiosyncratic elaborations, especially Gadamer’s reading of ‘preunderstanding’.

LRD is not an easy read. It is densely written: repetitive, discursive, and much concerned with self-conscious ‘internal’ dialogue. Its philosophical and methodological apparatus (especially its focus on landscapes) is expounded with more passion than clarity, and there is a strong tendency to discuss complex conceptual matters in terms of big monolithic blocks of discourse as if they are philosophically unambiguous – when precisely the opposite is the case. When linked with David’s method of working from present to past, and seeking in the past states that explain the present (by virtue of their being antecedent to it), this leads to a strong logical circularity, especially the fallacy of affirming the consequent. Nowhere is this more apparent than in David’s discussion of the Dreaming.

For David, LRD is about using the archaeology of the Dreaming as a vehicle for exploring Western constructions of Aboriginality, and of continuing arguments against what he (and others) has identified as a damaging focus in Australian archaeology on matters environmental and ecological. Broadening focus to a concern with the lives of people in all their complexity has the potential to consider archaeological phenomena not just as evidence of subsistence or of environmental change, but as key documents for writing social history. Another element of the story is an attack on the ‘timeless Aborigine’, of the ethnographic present being retrodicted millennia into the human history of Australia, so that social archaeologists might populate its past with ‘real’ people. The pitfalls of this type of analogical reasoning have been as widely canvassed as its potential to enhance understanding.

David is at pains to stress his desire to tell a different story, one of heterogeneity and dynamism. Of course, ever since Mulvaney, even archaeologists of a positivist or environmental bent have accepted the reality of change during the human history of Australia, whether it be in technological or environmental contexts, or geographical distribution. By the same token they have also had to grapple with the power of the present as setting the exemplar of how the Aboriginal past is to be understood, thereby establishing the inferential power of the ‘timeless Aborigine’. Significantly, creating an image of what pre-European Aboriginal societies were like that does not privilege those images created by ethnography in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, poses very difficult problems for Australian archaeologists of whatever persuasion. The reality of dynamism and transformation, of heterogeneity as distinct from homogeneity, and of change resulting from a wide range of variables (whether or not they are classed as social or environmental), requires us to develop plausible frameworks for demonstrating the social history of pre-European Australia that embrace the instability of the concepts and categories we use to understand the present.

LRD, despite its constant hype about undermining of ways of looking at the world, does not succeed in doing this. Of course making an argument that everything (even the Dreamtime), has a history requires more than simple assertion. While we might be sympathetic to the idea that worldviews change and that those in any part of Australia were not homogenous at contact, nor were they unchanging since the first settlement of Sahul tens of millennia ago, developing this perspective into something we can get our theoretical teeth into requires more than frankly risible notions of preunderstanding. This entirely begs the question of the archaeological content of a concept like the Dreaming (or indeed of ‘preunderstanding’), which is most assuredly not answered by comments such as: ‘Aboriginal knowledge was always founded on a prior truth steeped in the Dreaming’ (p.4).

In David’s hands, the Dreaming begins to look like it has all the archaeological virtues and vices of a concept like culture, perhaps the grand-daddy of all usefully ambiguous concepts. David has this to say: ‘Because things are meaningful, people engage with their world in culturally patterned ways. Objects are engaged through historically and culturally ordered behaviour, resulting in an ordered archaeological signature that is the mark of preunderstanding’ (p.7).

But if all is in flux, what can be identified, what can be analysed? David appreciates that there is a significant problem here:

The way in which interpretation and understanding are mediated by preunderstanding is thus an expression of specific relations between the engaging object in an already meaningful world, and the interpreting subject. These relations are never fixed; they are continuously in a state of becoming. As human identity is constructed through engagement, so too is human identity in a continual state of change. As a result, both interpretation and preunderstanding are in constant state of flux, being redefined by the co-engagement of experiencing and communicating agents and objects through time. It is in the nature of such relations between people and their engaged material world that an archaeology of preunderstanding, ‘mind’ and human identity can take place (p.8).

Though this is tricked up as habitus in David’s exposition, it is still culture, and it still requires us to freeze a dynamic set of interactions between people, things and the world in which they live into something that can be observed and analysed in cultural terms.

Thus the goal of capturing dynamism in this way requires David to make things static. And we haven’t even got to the point of discussing the ways in which this kind of approach can be plausibly operationalised archaeologically, where significant issues related to the structural properties of archaeological records as records of human action exist. If archaeological sites (especially those of the pre-European past in Australia) are frequently palimpsests of aggregations of samples of human action, then it requires us to be properly sceptical of approaches that read back from an ethnographic present as if this warranted the assumption of there being pretty straightforward correspondences between archaeological and ethnographic observables.

Thus establishing the antiquity of the Dreaming is a far more problematic business than asserting that all cultural data of the last 1500 years or so were the product of a cultural context glossed as ‘the Dreaming’, and that cultural data from periods antecedent to that were the products of ‘preunderstanding’. I don’t want to labour this point for too much longer, but the circularity (and inherent instability) of this kind of reasoning should at least be recognised. But this does not seem to concern David:

Sometimes the Dreaming as we know it today will be implicated in the material products of past human behaviour in Australia; at other times it will not be. Whether or not the Dreaming we know from ethnography will be implicated in more ancient times will depend on whether or not past behavioural conventions and their operative contexts are recognized to have been akin to those of recent times. My objective is not to retrieve the experience of past meaningful landscapes, but to track back in time the antiquity of the recent Dreaming’s ordered material expressions to identify its historical emergence (p.8-9, original emphasis).

I have no doubt that that there will be archaeologists, anthropologists and historians who will be attracted by LRD and its attempts to historicise a conceptual will-o-the-wisp like the Dreaming. Certainly the notion that the Aboriginal world of the ethnographies cannot be assumed to have been the product of timeless, unchanging, essences is worth rehearsing again. But dealing with the consequences of this invocation of dynamism and change (both for archaeology and anthropology) requires a great deal more theoretical development and philosophical clarity than we see here. The proposal that we track back from present to past is as old as the earliest prehistories of Lubbock and John Evans. The fear that by doing this we run the risk of making the past an eternal ethnographic present is of similar antiquity. In this sense it does not advance us by simply asserting that the Dreaming was a conceptual milieu that ordered the material things recovered by archaeologists. While this might have some limited validity in the analysis of rock art, it is highly dubious when applied to other archaeological manifestations.

Tim Murray
Review of ‘Landscapes, Rock Art and the Dreaming: An Archaeology of Preunderstanding’ by Bruno David
June 2008
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