Debate Magazine

Aboriginal Dandyism

By Cris

Traditional Australian Aborigine societies were, from a material and technological standpoint, relatively simple. This relative simplicity has blinded many to the fact that traditional Aboriginal worldviews were (and are) exceedingly complex. Indeed, these are so complex that it is tempting to posit an inverse relationship between level of technology and creativity of worldview. Those not familiar with these worldviews, and their manifold complexities, should put Tony Swain’s book at the top of their reading list. Swain is not alone in judging Aboriginal worldviews to be deeply profound. In The Savage Mind (1962), Claude Lévi-Strauss comments:

In spite of the contact and inter-change with the outside world which has also taken place in Australia, Australian societies have probably developed in isolation more than appears to have been the case elsewhere. Moreover, this development was not undergone passively.

It was desired and conceptualized, for few civilizations seem to equal the Australians in their taste for erudition and speculation and what sometimes looks like intellectual dandyism, odd as this expression may appear when it is applied to people with so rudimentary a level of material life. [They] were, in various [intellectual] respects, real snobs.

Granting that Australia has been turned in on itself for [tens] of thousands of years, that theorizing and discussion was all the rage in this closed world and the influence of fashion often paramount, it is easy to understand the emergence of a sort of common philosophical and sociological style along with methodically studied variations on it[,] of constantly elaborating themes only the general outlines of which were fixed by tradition and custom.

It is therefore conceivable that the favourable historical and geographical conditions outlined have led to Australian cultures standing in a relation of transformation to each other, possibly more completely and systematically than those of other regions of the world. (pp. 89-90)

Gaining access to, or intellectually glimpsing, Aboriginal worldviews is not particularly easy. It requires considerable mental and imaginative effort. Those who expend such effort will be richly rewarded with different ways of thinking about being. In this photo, we have the inverse relationship expressed in all its Australian irony:


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