I’d been curious about Dreamtime just for the word. It wasn’t something I could learn about from osmosis. The most culture-altering thing I learned from going to an Australian school was that it’s a “rubbish bin” not a “trash can”. So, to start with the first ethnography I could get my hands on isn’t the recommended beginning. Definitely, it gave me a lot more to consider about one’s relationship to the land than the usual sentiment to just have that relationship and figure out how to keep it up from there.

But there was barely any connection to the hallucinations people get during sleep.

I finally figured out why. Lucien Levy-Bruhl was a French scholar who wrote Primitive Mythology: The Mythic World of the Australian and Papuan Natives, among other titles. Many of his observations influenced ideological lineages that I adopt heavily, such as Jungian psychology.

This work also influenced the translations of one William Edward Hanley Stanner, an anachronistically conscientious journalist, soldier, and political advisor. He was one of the first to speak out against a “naive search for uncontaminated cultures” and posited that anthropologists had a responsibility to see to the welfare of contacted and colonized peoples. Stanner counseled against racist policies in Australian law of his time.

For all those good things, Stanner glossed alcheringa as Dreaming and then Dreamtime. This was a mistranslation, or a misinterpretation. It got popular. So, Dreaming continues to be the gloss of wingara, mungai, poaradju, and everything in all the Aborigines languages that might be something sort of maybe like alcheringa. None of these, evidently, can be accurately Romanized because half the sounds in Arrernte are absent in English. Other Aboriginal languages might be very slightly more compatible.

There may have never been any such thing as Dreamtime.


So…does that mean I can use the word for Poesy stuff? Nah, I don’t think so. I’m a little bit reminded of a short story collection, The Toughest Indian in the World by Sherman Alexie, where one character snarks to another, “You might be Native American, but you’re not Indian.” The connotations being that Indian is more authentic a descriptor of…now I don’t know how to say it…surviving descendants of pre-colonial Americans? And Native American, to the speaker, was a politically-correct term that was a band aid to a broken bone, deserving of contempt for trying to help but not really helping, because it was just a couple of words.

Except that I live right beside actual South Asian India, and there will almost always be someone from South Asian India sharing the public space with me, and being demographic, and generating public holidays, and making food and fashion better in this town so part of me was about to give the same outraged, “Heeey…incorrect…” that I’d been giving the colonial ignoramuses who decided that Americans were Indians in the first place.

But, sometimes this happens. Words mean things, but something else than one thinks.


Earlier this week I attended a lecture on Ibn Khaldun, “the father of Islamic anthropology”. The speaker was a Muslim woman, a classmate of Cecilia’s. Khaldun had characterized the stages of civilizations on the rise and fall, articulated a way to be critical without being reductionist, criticized discrepancies in historical texts caused by “partisanship, overconfidence in the sources, the inability to read for intention, and the ignorance of laws that govern a culture” (the last one apparently not really being in existence until he wrote his observations on the laws that govern a culture), among other fascinatingly lucid concepts.

The Q & A portion from the rest of the class, fortunately or unfortunately, were more like requests for the basics of Islam, especially framed as a comparison to Christianity. The class would have needed to know more than they did about Islam before being able to delve into questions of anthropology from an Islamic perspective…which took more time than had been given. Cecilia said later that she would have liked it if the questions were more on the anthropology of the thing, because having a non-Western anthropologist from more than six hundred years ago still have a voice in this discipline was so refreshing. I learned more about Islam than I had from osmosis, at least, especially the history of it that even a short explanation contained some serious political complexities.

The follow-up to that was a talk on the work of Clifford Geertz, who analyzed cultures as a text in the way of literature. That talk was far more vague and conceptual, but one line quoted from Geertz caught my interest, which is that “culture is public because meaning is”. The anthropological studies of appropriation might observe a different dynamic, but as far as Geertz’s purpose went, to impart meaning to any act or symbol, there is nothing else to work with but the world.

My question to the second speaker then was about a comparison between the patterns of Javanese and Balinese batik. (Geertz specialized in the anthropological study of Indonesia. And Morocco, for some reason.) Abstract patterns characterize Javanese batik due to religious restrictions against portraying living things, considered an attempt at competition with the creator-god. Balinese batik patterns include flowers and Garuda birds with no such problem: rather than an act of hubris, I think the art becomes a platform from which to disseminate the mythos and generate reminders of it. The act of creating batik cloth is the same in both islands, waxing and dying. What creates those dynamics of meaning?

The speaker answered that it was up to the people who actually made the patterns, that what practitioners said it was, as “insiders” to the purpose and structure and social context of the act, would be the dynamics of meaning defined. Understanding a culture, Geertz said, would normalize it. This is not necessarily a process of removing the particularities of a culture, only contextualizing them.