Anthropology Minor

We’ve all been told not to judge a book by its cover, but in the case of Geoffrey Gray’s A Cautious Silence: the politics of Australian anthropology(Aboriginal Studies Press, 2007), the cover design offers a somewhat more reliable insight into the book’s contents than its subtitle does.After reading lengthy and sometimes spirited debates in the online forums of the Australian Anthropological Society, I was expecting this new monograph to similarly engage with the roles that anthropologists are asked or employed to play in contemporary affairs, be they land rights claims or debates over philosophies of education. Gadfly or gofer, spectator or pot-stirrer?

The photograph on the cover, though suggests the historical nature of this scholarly investigation into the foundations of modern social anthropology in Australia. It depicts two men in profile, facing one another with a considerable empty space between them. To the left is the nearly naked, heavily cicatrised Aboriginal man; to the right, shadowy, half out of the frame of the picture, and wearing what looks remarkably like a pith helmet, is a figure identified on the verso of the title page as A. P. Elkin. And it is indeed the shadowy, slightly off-stage presence of Elkin that dominates the story told in this book.

I have to confess up front to my disappointment. While I’ve always been aware of Elkin’s stature in the field (and I now appreciate even better than before the enormous power he wielded), I have always found his work tedious to press through. Reading 150 pages of Aboriginal Men of High Degree (1945) seemed to require an infinitely longer time and vastly greater effort than 600 pages of W. L. Warner’s A Black Civilization (1937) and provided much less in the way of insight. So once I got started in A Cautious Silence, I was probably ill-inclined to appreciate it, despite what I did learn from its pages.

The first part of the book examines the government’s early attitude toward the utility of social anthropology, and makes clear that its emergence from the realms of museums into the halls of academe rested largely on the discipline’s capacity to prove its social utility. Whether it be in aid of controlling native populations in New Guinea or providing labor to enterprises in the Australian northwest, anthropology was valued and supported chiefly for its contributions to social control mechanisms. Elkin’s achievement was perhaps to understand and exploit this desire on government’s part in order to secure funding for research, funding which otherwise often relied on international sources like the Rockefeller Foundation.

The central section of the three that comprise A Cautious Silence is the part that I found at once the most fascinating and infuriating. It covers approximately two decades, from the mid-1920s through the conclusion of the Second World War, a period when Elkin’s control over research seems to have been largely uncontested, at least in the academic realm. His other contests, with a variety of political figures including A. O. Neville, form much of the narrative thread of this section.

Each of the chapters in this second part profiles one or more of the anthropologists who have truly written the discipline’s history in the decades following Spencer and Gillen. Here are R. F. Fortune and J. H. P. Murray, who along with S. D. Porteus and Phyllis Kaberry struggled to advance knowledge of tribal peoples in Western Australia at the time when Neville was doing his level best to engineer those very people out of existence.

Later chapters present sketches of Warner, Donald Thomson, Ursula McConnel, William Hart, W. E. H. Stanner, Olive Pink, and Ronald and Catherine Berndt (and look how many women feature in this story!) The fascination here stems from the opportunity to encounter these pioneers as individuals and as personalities, rather than as the authors of often revolutionary studies and staggering insights. The frustration is that each of them exists to some degree only as a refracted element in Elkin’s story. And since Elkin’s story is one of politics, both in government and in academics, it is hardly an uplifting or inspirational story. Rather it is one that, in this context, tends to diminish the inspiration that the work of Thomson or Stanner typically induces. Similarly, the anti-German cast to the Berndt’s story–historically truthful as I’m sure it is–leaves a bad taste at the conclusion of this second section.

The final chapters, comprising Part 3, investigate the aftermath of the War and its effects on the personalities involved with anthropological investigation and advocacy in Aboriginal affairs. The story is no less dispiriting as Elkin attempts to sabotage Mountford’s American-sponsored expedition through Arnhem Land in 1948 and battles with Thomson and Charles Duguid over the establishment of the Woomera Rocket Range and the exploration of the last untouched reserves of land in Western Australia. Especially in the wake of the stories told in Cleared Out and Colliding Worlds, these tales only succeed in further tarnishing the portrait of Elkin that is presented. For me, the low point comes with Elkin’s insinuation that Duguid’s well-founded concern for the welfare and the fate of Aboriginal people in flight path of the rockets was just so much Communist agitation, “Dr Duguid dressed in red” (p. 212).

Another, and much happier, work to straddle the ground between history and anthropology in Jill Stubington’s Singing the Land: the power of performance in Aboriginal life (Currency House, 2007). Based on her research and painstaking documentation of music recorded primarily in the period between 1960 and 1980, Stubington’s work is an appreciation (in a very old-fashioned sense, “to perceive the full force of”) of the fundamentals of Indigenous music across the continent. Although, happily, much of the music Stubington refers to in this monograph is available from Aboriginal Studies Press, and should be an essential complement to any reading, it is a measure of the book’s success that it informs and delights unaccompanied.

Singing the Land is also a tripartite work, encompassing “Living,” “Witnesing,” and “Examining” the Dreaming, and each section has its particular delights. Also like A Cautious Silence, its main focus spans two decades of research, in this case the period from roughly 1960 to 1980. This coincides with the time when much of the music Stubington worked on annotating and transcribing was originally recorded. She also considers this a golden period in research, when scholars like Trevor Jones and Alice Moyle first began to approach the study of Indigenous music in its own right, and not simply as an ancillary body of information to supplement studies of ritual, religion, or art. Stubington posits that after 1980 a significant change occurred in the character of music in many communities as modern technology spread and the influence of rock ‘n’ roll, electric guitars, and recording studios affected the fundamental character of music production in communities.

“Living the Dreaming: Music in Aboriginal Life” is both an elementary and a sophisticated introduction to the basics of Indigenous Australian music. Stubington provides an introduction to social organization, the place of music in ceremony, and the concept of song cycles. Another chapter details the variety of musical instruments that accompany the voice, which is in all cases the primary element of Indigenous music. The most fascinating and illuminating chapter in this first section focuses on “The Words of Songs” and explores different forms of composition, the use of special vocabularies, and the way words, pitch, instrumentation, and melody combine.

The final chapter in Part I, “Listening to the Fire,” is a plea for the importance of listening to Aboriginal music, and listening without preconceptions–or better, listening to eradicate preconceptions. Scholars who have tackled this music have often approached it with the only tools they can conceive of–notation, timbre, pitch, melody, structure. The problem is that all of these concepts derive from long Western traditions, and applying them to Indigenous music inevitably deforms the experience and introduces alien and inappropriate habits of understanding. The challenge is to hear the sounds for what they are before attempting an analysis.

In Part II, “Witnessing the Dreaming,” Stubington devotes four chapters to detailed studies of regional variations in musical composition and performance. Two chapters are devoted to Arnhem Land and elucidate the differences between Yolngu music in the Northeast, and the variety of traditions that have spread across Central and Western Arnhem Land and spilled over into the Kimberley. A third chapter examines music in Central Australia, while the fourth quickly surveys the remainder of the continent, including what can be gleaned from the southeast and Tasmania. Each chapter is replete with detailed description of representative songs, providing lyrics in the original language and in translation, notes on instrumentation and performance, and references to commercially available recordings and films wherein the music can he heard.

The final section, “Examining the Dreaming,” at last brings the tools of Western analysis into play for the musicologist. Stubington provides notations for many of the songs that have been discussed in Part II, scoring vocal and percussion parts in a manner that would allow a competent Western musician to approximate a performance. Of course, as Stubington has been at pains to point out all along, the subtleties of Indigenous vocalizations are not amenable to Western notation, and the sounds and techniques of the didjeridu are likewise nearly impossible to capture in a five-line musical staff (although she undertakes some clever adaptations of the convention to represent, for example, “a voiced tone of pharyngeal or guttural quality produced by the didjeridu player”).

Despite her obvious affection for the traditional music as captured on recordings in the middle years of the twentieth century, Stubington never allows the reader to forget that this music, like all musical traditions, is a living, changing art. The musical structures and stratagems that she examines have passed into the repertoire of more contemporary performers like Blekbala Mujik and the Warumpi Band. And I would love to read Stubington’s analysis of the sounds of a band like Nabarlek, who are adapting whole songs from the Central Arnhem Land tradition to the vocabulary of electric guitars and electronic keyboards and transforming the sonic qualities of the didjeridu to the service of rock ‘n’ roll. 

She defers this task, though to others, like Peter Dunbar-Hall and Chris Gibson in their monograph Deadly Songs, Deadly Places: contemporary Aboriginal music in Australia(UNSW Press, 2004). The latter, while a worthy examination of Indigenous rock styles, can not compare to the grace and intelligence that Jill Stubington brings to Singing the Land. The single paragraph Stubington devotes to the soundtrack of Wrong Side of the Road (Ned Landers’ 1981 film featuring the bands Us Mob and No Fixed Address), analyzing the social ills that give birth to musical protest (“Yet the music is for dancing,” she notes, p. 234) and linking it back to ceremonies captured in early documentaries of traditional life like The House-Opening and Waiting for Harry makes me yearn for another, updated exploration of the genres of Aboriginal music from her.


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