Neuenfeldt Article

The following is an extract from an article by Karl Neuenfeldt. The whole originally appeared in Social Analysis 1998 42(2) pp73-102.

The Quest for a “Magical Island”
The Convergence of the Didjeridu, Aboriginal Culture, Healing and Cultural Politics in New Age Discourse

By Karl Neuenfeldt

The final example of New Age discourse is Marlo Morgan’s Mutant Message Down Under (1991). It is important for two reasons. First, it is probably the most commercially successful New Age book referring solely to Aborigines, although only fleetingly to the didjeridu and music. Second, it has sparked intense debate about the cultural politics of appropriation and representation. What it has done, by its widespread popularity rather than its veracity, is present and further solidify racialised, disparaging views of Aborigines as primitive, other-worldly and unable to compete in the “modern” world, as well as polarising opinions over the nature of appropriation and control of representations. These results in turn impact on how the didjeridu, Aboriginal culture, healing and cultural politics are perceived in New Age discourse because they are routinely linked in consumers’ imaginations and purchasing practices. Although the book is a financial success, it is arguably an ethical and certainly an ethnographic failure. It holds the dubious literary distinction of having gone from being sold as fact, to belated admittance it is fiction, and finally to allegations by some Aborigines and others it is at best farce and at worst profanity.

The book recounts the Arcadian adventures of an “average American female” who is mysteriously chosen by a tribe of Aborigines called the Real People who lead her, barefoot and nearly naked, on a “four month walkabout”. While traversing trackless deserts, they reveal to her their secrets. She has been selected (inexplicably) as the only person in the world fit to carry their message to the world. They have decided to die out by not reproducing because of the dystopian state of the planet. The book’s notes on the author say Morgan “shares the experience of [her nomadic teachers’] healing, relationship to the environment, and a new perception of spirituality”. The didjeridu is only one of numerous Aboriginal artefacts and cultural practices which are incongruously introduced into the narrative in a hodge podge of gratuitous caricatures and disjointed stereotypes. In a chapter titled “Medicine of Music”, the following passages appear:

Several people in the group possessed the medicine of music. Medicine was the word used in the translation sometimes … We carried no instruments in our meager possessions, but I had long ago ceased to question how and where things would appear … We stopped for the night, and while the vegetable and insect meal was being prepared, the musicians set up their stage.

An old dead tree lay nearby, several of the limbs covered with termites. One was broken off and the insects knocked off. The termites had eaten the center out of the branch, and it was filed with sawdust. By using a stick in a ramming motion and then blowing out the dead crumbly core, they soon had a hollow tube. I felt I was seeing Gabriel’s trumpet constructed. I found out later, this is what the Australians commonly refer to as a didjeridu. It makes a low musical sound when you blow into it.

… I realized some of the songs were as old as time. These people repeat chants created here in the desert before the invention of our calendar. But I also experienced new compositions, music being composed just because I was there. I was told, `Just as a musician seeks musical expression, so the music in the Universe seeks to be expressed’.

What I really witnessed, however was how these people live life to the fullest without material attachments … [After the concert] the [clap] sticks, [didjeridu] limb, and [percussive] rocks were released by the musicians, yet the joy of creative composition, and the talent remained as a confirmation of each person’s worth and self esteem. A musician carries the music within him. He needs no specific instrument. He is the music.

… These people say they have been here for all time. Scientists know they have inhabited Australia for at least 50,000 years. It is truly amazing that after 50,000 years they have destroyed no forests, polluted no water, endangered no species, caused no contamination, and all the while they have received abundant food and shelter. They have laughed a lot and cried very little. They live long, productive, healthy lives and leave spiritually confident (Morgan 1991:95-97).

The inaccuracies and inanities in the passages are too numerous to detail here; however, the general tenor of the discourse fits readily within Ross’ (1992) and Sherwood’s (1997) frameworks. The overall effect of the hyper-spectacularisation and hyper-spiritualisation of Aboriginal culture is to deny history, agency and the genocide and ethnocide experienced by many Aboriginal people in the past. In the present, it denies diminished life chances, higher rates of debilitating diseases and infant mortality, and lower life expectancy for Aborigines compared to the general population (Johnston 1991). It also ignores the realpolitik demagoguery of the anti-Aboriginal industry and the divisive policies, rhetoric and actions of conservative (and in some instances blatantly racist) politicians set on overriding or emasculating High Court decisions recognising Native Title in Common Law. Specifically with the didjeridu: they are cut from living trees (not dead ones); the lips, lungs and diaphragm are all used to play (you do not simply blow into it); there is a dearth of suitable trees or termites in the “desert” (nor was it commonly a desert region instrument); termites are found on the inside not on the outside (they die in heat and light); they do not make “sawdust” (they digest wood); and the use of the didjeridu in “traditional” Aboriginal ceremony is quite prescribed (and neither improvisational nor usually dedicated to “honoured” guests) (Knopoff 1997).

The cultural politics of media and academic debates over the book are also an instructive part of New Age discourse. In order to counter claims made in the book and Morgan’s presumption to speak on behalf of Aborigines, an Aboriginal community organisation in Perth Western Australia, the Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation, contacted Aboriginal communities across the area where her adventures had supposedly taken place. They were unable to establish any record of her or the Real People with whom she supposedly shared the adventures. A concerted media campaign was launched in Australia against the book. With support from the peak indigenous governmental agency in Australia (The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission), an Aboriginal delegation headed by Dumbartung coordinator Robert Eggington then travelled to North America. There they reiterated their view the book is deceitful and degrading. At one stage even gaining support from actor Steven Segal, the San Francisco Chronicle’s influential columnist Jon Carroll, and other media commentators and book reviewers.

The book has also sparked heated academic debate, often quite acrimonious, concerning the book’s content, its reception and stakeholders’ roles and reactions (Hiatt 1997, Eggington 1996, Griffiths 1996, Shoemaker 1995, Hawthorne 1994). The majority of reviews and critiques were broadly sympathetic to Dumbartung’s agenda of questioning the representations of Aborigines and vetting who has the authority to make them. However, Dumbartung, its findings, media campaign and key individuals were not above criticism; a predictable development in the polarised (and racialised) cultural politics of Australia.

As an example of this sub-discourse operating within a wider discourse, one experienced anthropologist, John Stanton, curator at the Berndt Museum of Anthropology, critiqued the book for Dumbartung and pointed out three major flaws. These were its claim to be factual, its reliance on imagination rather than first-hand experience, and its insults to the religious beliefs of some Aborigines. He summarised his criticism as: “It is condescending in the extreme, devoid of any detailed appreciation of Aboriginality, and reflects more of the author’s personal preoccupations and experiences within the North American context than those of Australia” (Stanton in Dumbartung 1995:41).

Another experienced anthropologist, Les Hiatt (1997), proposed a somewhat different view, one highly critical of Dumbartung and its supporters. Writing in the conservative magazine Quadrant, while a Visiting Fellow at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Hiatt does not disagree with the substance of Stanton’s criticisms. Rather, he disagrees with Dumbartung’s agenda and methods in the context of what he characterises as “a developing mood in Aboriginal politics on the definition and control of cultural property” (Hiatt 1997:38), an issue at the core of cultural politics in Australia. Hiatt saves his main (and personalised) opprobrium for a non-anthropologist, literary scholar Gareth Griffith, whose musings on the conundrum that some indigenous North Americans actually identified with Morgan’s book are dismissed as: “to be understood wholly in terms of political correctness” (1997:38).

Hiatt acknowledges Mutant Message Down Under is romantic and factually problematic but cautions against siding with its critics: “who treat it as an opportunity to advocate parochialism and thought control” (1997:40). By trotting out the analytically meaningless and ideologically compromised mantras of “political correctness”, “parochialism” and “thought control”, Hiatt highlights the kind of acrimonious cultural politics New Age discourse encourages but usually ignores or elides because of its innate instability and variegation (Pfeil 1995). Notwithstanding the pointless attacks on Morgan’s Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal critics, Hiatt does identify several points particularly relevant to this analysis: the difficulty of differentiating cultural appropriation from the free exchange of ideas and differentiating custodianship from censorship (1997:38); and, the reality that exchanges between New Age and indigenous peoples are not always uni-directional or negative, a point made above by Gulash and elsewhere by other researchers (Cuthbert and Grossman 1997a).

The didjeridu is admittedly peripheral to Mutant Message Down Under. However, Morgan’s depictions of Aborigines are symptomatic of the tendency towards commodification, mystification, and essentialisation in New Age discourse, constructing Aborigines, Aboriginal culture and practices, and the didjeridu as the kinds of exotica New Age consumers obviously desire. Morgan is reputed to have made considerable profit from the sale of the book, tapes, videos, movie rights, and lecture tours. What is perturbing, but perhaps not surprising, is the book crossed over from the somewhat limited New Age market into the larger mainstream market. Obviously, a dishonest and discredited quest for a “magical island” can make money even if it fails to make sense. Mutant Message Down Under and the examples drawn from magazines, recordings’ cover-notes and promotional materials, and song and album titles are quintessential examples of “imperialist nostalgia” (Rosaldo 1989), the pining after of what one has helped to destroy. They are also good examples of abjection in Kristeva’s sense of “the mourning for an object that had already been lost” (1982:13). Morgan in particular has objectified Aborigines as “savages” so “noble” they even willingly commit a form of collective suicide, rendering themselves mute and her the only messenger capable of conveying to the world their secrets for planetary survival. The overwhelming ethos of New Age discourse is that the messages (whether mutant or well-meaning, whether cynically calculated or ignorantly accidental) are basically commodities for sale in the marketplace and not enlightenment circulating for free. They are too often mercenary, nostalgic mourning which masquerades as celebration.

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