Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Material Resonance: Knowing before Meaning

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Material Resonance: Knowing before Meaning

Article excerpt

What is it to know what we know? I want to talk about what we can know about the other in the interstices of cultures, in that contact zone in which subjects are mutually transformed. In particular I want to talk about the space that lies just beyond interpretation, beyond the boundary of that product we call 'meaning' to see how we might know the unknowable, might 'know' the Indigenous experience of the world, a form of knowledge outside, perhaps, the boundaries of our epistemology. I say 'beyond' but it may be better understood as a communication that occurs before the interpretation of meaning, in a non-hermeneutic engagement with the materiality of the text.

A beautiful demonstration of this form of 'knowing' occurs in David Malouf s Remembering Babylon when a group of dour Scottish farmers are confronted by Gemmy, a white boy brought up by Aborigines, whose presence destroys the comfortable boundaries of their fenced and farmed world. Trying to discover Gemmy's story, the farmers are reminded of the presence of something just beyond understanding, a form of knowing they can't put into words:

Occasionally, in the dead light of a paddock, all bandaged stumps and bone white antlers, there would come a flash of colour, red or blue or yellow, and it would strike a man, but in a disconcerting way, as his heart lifted, that a country that was mostly devilish could also at times be playful, that there might be doors hidden here, hidden as yet, into some lighter world.1

Malouf s novel is about the failure of settler society to enter this lighter world, about a society that might have been if the colonizers had given themselves to the place rather than refashion it into a simulacrum of a rural Britain. The doors to this world are not so hidden, for they exist in the boundaries erected by the settlers themselves, but they remain stolidly closed. For his part, Gemmy also finds it impossible to bridge the gap, to cross the cultural boundary tiie settlers have erected, and he ponders the difficulty of explaining the nature of the place to the farmers who press him for explanations about the 'Absolute Dark' they see lying out beyond their fences.

And in fact a good deal of what they were after he could not have told, even if he had wanted to, for the simple reason that there were no words for it in their tongue; yet when, as sometimes happened, he fell back on the native word, the only one that could express it, their eyes went hard, as if the mere existence of a language they did not know was a provocation, a way of making them helpless. He did not intend it that way, but he too saw that it might be true. (65)

Such knowledge seems to lie beyond language. In particular, it may lie quite outside written language, for language that inscribes itself in writing fails, because of its very power of representation, to take in the knowledge of place that exists beyond representation.

Nevertheless, it lies in the power of literary language to suggest the presence of this lighter world, a presence sometimes glimpsed without understanding by these early settlers. Jock Mclvor, the father of the family that takes Gemmy in, reaches a point at which he might have broken through to a form of knowing the country, a knowledge beyond words:

Wading through the waist high grass, he was surprised to see all the tips beaded with green, as if some new growth had come into the world that till now he had never seen or heard of.

When he looked closer it was hundreds of wee bright insects, each the size of his little fingernail, metallic, iridescent, and the discovery of them, the new light they brought into the scene, was a lightness in him - that was what surprised him - like a form of knowledge he had broken through to. It was unnameable, which disturbed him but was also exhilarating; for a moment he was entirely happy. (107)

Remembering Babylon is a brilliant allegory of settler society: of its refusal to countenance the unknown, its refusal to harvest the bounty the earth already provides, its unthinking importation of the familiar. …

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