On violence, reality, and the parameters of social existence: A comment on Graeber’s essay.




I’ve been reading David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules: on technology, stupidity, and the secret joys of bureaucracy lately. Slowly I should say – I’ve been reading it slowly. I’ve only just finished the second essay, ‘Dead Zones of the Imagination,’ which I found particularly ‘great for thought’. The ideas in the essay are great to ‘think through other thoughts with,’ if that makes sense. I guess that’s theory, huh. Anyway, this is a comment on one of the key theoretical contrasts that Graeber draws between the political ontology of the right and the political ontology of the left vis-à-vis’ reality and the parameters of social existence. I want to cast a gender[ed] light on it. Continue reading


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Dhuŋgur’-yun-nha: a short poem and comment on stuff


Yes, I know I'm always on about social order as affect. This is an image from the British Museum.

Yes, I know I’m always on about social order as affect. This is an image from the British Museum.


Today I was reflecting on the fact that I don’t write poetry as often as I used to, and when I do it tends to ‘come out’ half in English, half in Yolŋu-matha. This makes it quite a different task to write-up and share – to make it sound right in translation (or at least do justice to the way that it sounds in my head). This is true of even short and comparatively ‘literal’ pieces. And as with any translation work it is difficult to know how much contextual information the reader needs to understand it as you’d like them to.

Anyhow, I’ve been thinking about all this because a) there quite a few little poems in my notebook that I’ve neglected over the last many few months, and; b) it’s almost time for me to start writing a serious post-doctoral project proposal and the project that I have in mind is a collaborative project (with my Yolŋu family), collecting, collating, translating – and hopefully publishing – a contemporary, bilingual volume of Yolŋu song-poetry.

Yurru more on that later; for now I thought I should start by revisiting my own little neglected pieces, of which the following is one. (This was the shortest and most simple to translate.)


On a day


like today,


when one word


mak yurru




(set everything)


warpam –





I noted this poem down only a few weeks ago. It was hot and dry and I was sitting on the back step with a cup of tea. I’m not sure exactly why it came to mind but the following may offer some context or sense:

The idea of setting one’s surrounding environment alight is not as one might expect on the Homelands (which is the immediate association or context for my use of term dhuŋgur’-yun). Rather than the ‘arsonist’ or ‘firebug’ type connotations people have a responsibility to manage their Country with fire. It is not only a responsibility, in fact, but a loving and nurturing act in many ways; not to do so is neglectful and ‘not looking after Country’ if that makes more sense. One of my favourite, early memories of foot-walking Country was with my close, older sister. We were walking back from our Mother’s Country at dusk and as we walked she started to set the tall, dry grass on fire on one side of the track (with a lighter from her skirt pocket.) I was not only nervous but a bit terrified. She laughed at my balanda (white person, European) concern and handed me a lighter. “Dhuŋgur’-yun-nha!” (set [it] alight!) she said, pointing to the grass on the other side of the track. “Yuwalk!?” (Truly?! [or more like ‘Are you fucking serious!?’ in this case]). She laughed and instructed me to ‘get on with it’. By the time the sun had set we were leading a huge corridor of fire, burning in our wake. I kept turning back to check on it nervously and yapa kept catching my eye with a knowing and amused smile.

This responsibility to set Country alight is in dramatic contrast to the [human] social environment, ‘words,’ and ŋayaŋu (state or sense of feeling [among and between people]). People are hyper-aware of the power of words and are very careful with how they use or deploy them. It is the norm and etiquette to speak in an indirect manner as possible, for example, to avoid excluding or upsetting others or ‘putting them on the spot’ (for want of a better description) – such that Ian Keen refers to a ‘pervasive obliquity’ in Yolŋu languages and language use.

In closing, I should also note that there are idioms or expressions in Yolŋu-matha that bring these two things together – such as ŋoydhuŋgur’-yun (literally ‘seat of emotions-set alight’), which is the transitive verb ‘to make someone angry, irate’. Perhaps I was thinking about the importance of being careful with words? Dhuŋa ŋarra (I don’t know).




Ahh-men anyway, and happy new yearra-whatever.





this is not a literal or ‘direct’ translation. Warpam, for example, means ‘everything, all’ but I’ve placed the translation of the term elsewhere because this structure or flow is more ‘true’ to the original.



Filed under Poetry turnstile, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

A pluralistic approach to the anthropology of morality: Yolŋu reverse role-play

‘The array of distinct assumptions about issues regarding moral variability, the nature of the moral domain, and how individual freedom factors into moral action can all result in the study of different theoretical ideas that end up being cast as if they were the same topic.’

– Cassaniti & Hickman 2014:252.


I read Cassaniti and Hickman’s New Directions in the Anthropology of Morality the other day and really enjoyed it. The authors put forward some great points, chief among which is their argument for a pluralistic approach to moral variation – one which seeks to ‘reconcile humanity’s propensity toward moral realism with overwhelming ethnographic evidence of moral variability’ (253). I also found merit in the argument for better defining the moral domain – figuring out what counts as moral, ‘what kinds of thing are uniquely moral in each ethnographic setting’ (257) and identifying domains of experience that are ‘morally saturated’ in each ethnographic context (with an understanding that domains of experience that become heavily moralised will necessarily vary cross-culturally). The points I found most interesting and compelling, however, were also those that I found myself critically mulling over days later.

This is all well and good, I found myself thinking, but Yolŋu people have been advocating for a pluralistic approach to morality and law since balanda (white people, Europeans) would listen.’† When is anthropology going to start taking Indigenous theories seriously instead of subjecting them to their own analyses and theorising about them? (I’m sure it’s not just Yolŋu people who have been advocating for such an approach or stance.) Beyond advocacy, in fact, Yolŋu have been doggedly persistent in their attempt to educate balanda about the necessity of such a stance – not only how it is possible, but why it is both necessary and just. And they continue to do so in good humour despite our blunt, closed ears. The video below is but one example of this. Continue reading

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Government Time, Mission Time, and the nature and violence of alienation


Proud to feature in the first issue of the new Upswell Magazine with an archival/ethnographic piece on alienation – GOVERNMENT TIME, MISSION TIME, AND THE NATURE AND VIOLENCE OF ALIENATION.



Congratulations to the Upswell collective and best wishes for the future of the project. x




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Rest in Peace Amala.


Bree Blakeman Preexam Thesis Sep9 2013_V2


Rest in Peace amala, my old Mummy, who always told me that I didn’t treat my husband right, whose company I adored. (If one could explain the art of witty, acerbic conversation in Yolŋu-matha, and the skilful play on words, switching across and back between languages.) Countless hours together in company under the mango tree, weaving, talking, smoking and drinking tea (and amala would often break into song, so quietly, half facing away). She taught my dhuway what it meant to be a son-in-law and he duly avoided her as his mokul, sending gifts and care through his galay, my brothers and sisters. She was my amala and I was her waku.

It was amala’s Mother’s country that I came to call my own. It was her father’s country that we footwalked to, to scour the rocks for oysters. To stop in the dry and rest. I was never the most adept hunter, or gatherer, for that matter, and so often stayed behind to look after amala (her brain already slightly gapu-mirri). Chattering away even when I dozed off. Sometimes amala mistook the shower for a toilet and sometimes I’d wake up just in time to catch her trying to light a fire inside to keep the sandflies from biting me as I slept. One could only half sleep, but I so loved this time that we spent together.

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Filed under General personal writings, Incidental

Marrtji yukurra wetlands-kurru






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Nhulunbuy and the future of a remote township: an open letter to State Capitalism




Dear State Capitalism,

You are sneaky and very shit. I knew this already, of course, but have recently learned it anew in my concern for the future of a certain remote township in north east Arnhem Land. It is everywhere and always implied that the State imposes taxes on citizens so that the government might provide them with services. This is a catchy tune. The Australian constitution certainly implies this – that people pay taxes so that the government can ‘perform all of its functions’, or something to that effect. However, this is not – and has never been – the case. I want to tell you a bit about the history and import of Nhulunbuy.

The historical relationship between Yolŋu people and mining in north east Arnhem Land has been of National significance and formative in terms of the nature of such intercultural engagement, policy and legislation. It was the excision of land from the then Aboriginal Reserve for the purposes of a mining lease and the subsequent Gove Land Rights Case (Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd, (1971)), instigated by the Yirrkala Bark Petition, which eventually laid the foundation for the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976 (as a result of the Woodward Commission). More specifically, it was the Yolŋu response to the excision and the decisive action taken by Yolŋu people which forged new and innovative intercultural possibilities in their engagement with their ‘supporters’ (predominantly Methodist Missionaries), as well as the Federal Government and the Courts, in their determination to have their system of land tenure and rights over their estate recognised by the State and Federal Governments and the Australian legal system.[1]

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Filed under Current social issues, Indigenous Rights

An incidental post-it note








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Bin thinking.





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A fieldnote from home



Charles Blackman


This evening I nearly saw a man drown. I run the same route most afternoons, over the bridge and along the foreshore. This evening I was about to cross over the bridge when I saw something or someone splashing in the water. I stopped. It was a man, only a few metres from the banks of the river, and he was drowning. He kept trying to stand up before falling over, his head going under the water for a longer period of time each time he fell.

As soon as I realised what was going on I ran to the shore. I called out to him but didn’t get any response. His head went under again. I waded in and instinctively grabbed his chin to hold his head above the water. I told him it was going to be okay. I asked him to sit down. The water was shallow enough that I could hold his head above the water while he was sitting. He coughed and spluttered and struggled to reclaim and regulate his breathing. I asked him if he could stand up. He shook his head. Ma (ok, I understand). I told him that I was going to try and help him, to drag him out of the water. Yo (ok, yes, agreed). Standing behind him I hooked my arms under both of his armpits and in quick lift-and-drag motions we slowly edged our way to shore.

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Filed under Current social issues, Indigenous Australia