'Who knows the weather?': the memory of Greg Dening.
I expressed my indebtedness to:
Indigenous provenance, right up to the present moment.
I expressed my indebtedness to:
Joy Damousi and Ron Adams and everyone else associated with organising this important annual lecture.
Donna Dening, for her work, her friendship and the inspiration she has long provided.
As well as to:
The Teasdale family of the Wimmera District in northern Victoria, whose archive of films I will be using as exemplary material throughout this essayistic rendition of the lecture.
My collaborators on the Teasdale work--Malcolm McKinnon, Ben Speth, Annie Venables, Acey Teasdale and Chris Abrahams.
Finally, of course, I celebrated being immeasurably indebted to Greg Dening, whose brilliance and guidance continue unabated.
I emphasise that this account of debt and obligation is not only ceremonial. It is also thematic. This idea of mutual obligation is one of the main topics for my essay. I want to understand better how we are indebted to others for our knowledge; how all utterances made in the present moment owe their existence and impact to work done by others in the past, no matter if this past is recent or ancient.
For greater precision, I use a term that Greg used often: we are all 'bound-together' in mutual obligation. Subjects, objects, agents, apparatchiks--past and present--we are all bound-together in a quest to understand the larger world that encompasses everyone drawing from and acting upon each other. Everyone. Every entity. Animal, vegetable and mineral. Past and present. Here and there.
Defining CONNECTEDNESS, I contend that historical understanding is the quest to grasp how anyone's present experience is dynamically and bewilderingly related to everyone else's past experience. CONNECTEDNESS. Bound-togetherness. Or to borrow language from Greg again: 'Historical understanding is an overlaying of images one on the other ... it is cumulative and kaleidoscopic'. (2)
Extrapolating from this fundamental idea of Greg's, and enriching the thematic promise of my essay here, I can offer a list of cardinal notions that will guide my prose. I think of these cardinal notions as the 'Greg Dening Precepts', even though I know how wary Greg would have been not only of that word 'cardinal' but also of any suggestion that his precepts might set a template or a rigid model for thinking.
Anyway, here are the 'Greg Dening Precepts', which we will appreciate and utilise as we go:
We need to live by the constant possibility that the past will surprise us. The making of histories is an 'unclosed action'. Our assertions and our understandings of the past are never settled. The making of histories is an imaginative act. And imagination is not fantasy. Imagination is: finding a word that others will hear ... seeing what is absent ... hearing the silence as well as the noise. Imagination is reading and writing with the whole body and all its emotions, not just with the mind. We never learn truths by being told them. We learn truths by experiencing them in some way. We do this work in order to change the world in some way, to shake its lethargy, to disturb its bad faith.
These precepts are drawn mostly verbatim from one of Greg's last published essays, titled 'Performing Cross-Culturally'. (3) That essay is a great summary work, a kind of credo, and I recommend it enthusiastically, especially for its emphasis on the generative, performative work that one must do at that edge where the cultures of the past and the present mesh and mash. I recommend the essay for the way it stresses that wonderment, curiosity and startling questions, not conclusive assertions, are the most important historical quarries.
This is the cheering message that I take from Greg's work. I feel endorsed by him to concentrate on asking: 'What does the evidence make me wonder? What shift in my understanding, in my quests for knowledge, can I sense in the experience of encountering the liveliness issuing from the past?'
To thicken our thinking, I would like to supplement my selected 'Greg Dening Precepts' with an epigraph, whose key notions I will reprise at the end of the lecture. The epigraph, from the art historian Oleg Grober, need not make sense straight away. But it ought to mean something by the end of my talk:
There is a discourse about the arts, rarely written and at times unspoken, which is neither that of historians so deeply tied to time and space nor that of critics concentrating on ... contemporary judgements about whatever it is that they see. It is the discourse of sensibilities affected by the excitement of ... impressions, it is a discourse of love. (4)
Basically, I want to take seriously this idea that there must be artistry in our work and that love--a particular experience of self-altering intensity--is inherent to the work. Love of the world. Love of experience. Love of the entities in the past and present to whom, to quote Greg again, we 'owe the dignity of being able to be themselves in our representations of them'. (5)
So, thus far in this essay, we have had a ceremonial prelude, which has become a thematic declaration glossed by an epigraph that is tinted with romance. Now, I offer an overture, which I hope will take us into a symphony of ideas inspired by Greg.
I was asked to talk about some of my projects in a way that enhances an understanding of Greg Dening's lifelong project. I am thrilled to do this. I will talk about some work that a team of us--Malcolm, Ben, Annie, Chris, Acey, whom I have mentioned already--are doing with an archive of films and videos that have been recorded by the Teasdale family, on their farm at Rupanyup in the Wimmera district of northwest Victoria.
Since the 1930s, across three generations, the Teasdales have been making films that document the daily toils and rituals in and around their broad-acre farm. This is big-sky country, originally the domain of the Wotjobaluk people. Also it is the windy, radiant flatlands that were sung so memorably in the poems of John Shaw Neilson.
Over the decades, the Teasdales have built up a remarkable archive of films and videos detailing work-routines, local tales, personal and communal rituals, memory practices, technological and ergonomic innovation and intergenerational education. It all started before World War II with Relvy Teasdale, who began documenting the special qualities of his farm, which had already been in the family for three generations. After the War, Relvy's son John and daughter Acey took over the vocation of farming-and-filmmaking. While maintaining the crops all through the second half of the twentieth century, John wielded the camera and worked the edit-bench for almost sixty years, including a long period of time when he was an official 'stringer' for television news services and Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) regional magazine-style programs. For her part, Acey appeared as a character (indeed often she was a kind of muse) in many of her brother's films, until she left the farm during the 1960s to become an anthropologist and later a clinical psychologist.
John died a decade ago, and since then the wonderful archive that has been generated as a result of all his activity is maintained nowadays by John's wife Dawn and their children and in-laws. I should mention that an alluring portion of the archive is already available online, through the 'Culture Victoria' website of the State Government of Victoria. (6) I should mention too that, outside the family itself, Malcolm McKinnon has performed the bulk of preparatory and institutional work to amalgamate, conserve and interpret the Teasdale archive.
Now, because we are all bound-together with others who have represented the Wimmera already, the Teasdale archive resonates with previous renditions of that tract of country. In this essay I will call on the poetry of John Shaw Neilson, who lived and worked and sang around and about this country at the start of the twentieth century.
Here, then, in a bound-together or 'montaged' account, is a way to begin to be surprised by the records. Here is my overture introducing you to the Wimmera via some frame-grabs from the Teasdale archive embroidered, in the indented passage, with verbal evocations, or commentary, harvested from John Shaw Neilson's poems.
The Wimmera is a place defined, for a large portion of the year, by a dry and dispiriting heat. The tough summer wanes more slowly here than in most other parts of the land.
In the Wimmera, 'a cool wind must wait patiently for all the sun's delaying'. (7) The people yearn toward the horizon-lands where 'the far sky [is] wonderful and dim'. (8) Exhausted farmers crave 'the grey of even-time' and hanker for 'the cool earth and a sky delightsome mild'. (9) In the Wimmera, the late autumn bluster means 'the sky comes up with chronicles beyond the blue air blowing' and 'clouds play up above' until winter comes. (10) And as for the winter: it is bleak and buffeting, and the trees spend entire months dancing in 'white weather' unabated. (11)
This gives you a sense of some places in the Wimmera. Additionally, John Shaw Neilson and John Teasdale studied people too ... they studied the faces as well as the places of the Wimmera.
For example, to accompany some portraiture from John Teasdale's farming community, as shown above, here is Neilson's short poem, entitled 'Greeting':
Fill up! Fill up! Today we meet: What of the wind? Who knows the weather? Shall we be old men in the street? What of the wind? Who knows the weather? Fill up! Fill up! Today we meet! (12)
I mentioned the theme of connectedness a moment ago. It is everywhere in the Teasdale footage. Connectedness. Again and again, John Teasdale makes manifest his urge to show how someone or something connects to someone or something else. Imaginatively, John Teasdale finds the means--often via the manner with which he pans from one thing to another, or via the relationships amongst people and between people and things as they are put on display within a frame from foreground to background--he finds the means to help you know this connectivity by experiencing it in some way.
In the autobiography by the great Dutch documentary filmmaker, Joris Ivens, there is an illuminating passage where he recounts his experience working on a project about cooperative farming in Revolutionary Russia. Ivens describes how it took him several weeks in the field to understand how to convey the physical and cognitive duress that the workers were undergoing. Ivens explains that he learned slowly that it was not enough simply to record, at a discreet distance, the scenes and actions of the work squads. Instead he needed to find camera techniques, perspectives, rhythms and choreographies that helped the viewers feel in their nervous systems, in their musculature and in the flux of their moods ... to feel the work and to feel the transformations that were being wrought by the work. So Ivens developed a 'vocabulary' of camera-placements, perspectives, camera-moves and shot-durations which helped the viewer know, for example, the back-pain, the thirst and wilful endurance associated with forest-clearing or crop-planting. Ivens was seeking the cinematic equivalent of what Greg Dening sought when looking for the right word or phrase that could shift the reader into knowing a truth by experiencing it in some way.
John Teasdale did the same. For example, there is a marvellous sequence covering grain harvesting and bagging in the late 1960s.
Watching these images, you can sense the thirst, the dryness, the noise, the repetitive, back-bending labour; you can know something that feels like truth about the duress of dry-country farming and the sense of unstinting commitment required to maintain that culture of work in the place, generation after generation.
As I say, I think Relvy and John Teasdale's cinematography chimes with Greg Dening's determination to 'find the right word', to imagine the expression that gives the experience of a shift in understanding. To do something more than 'bearing witness'. To bring revelation and move it through you.
Or to borrow from another fine mind whom I find increasingly instructive--namely the Classicist and poet Anne Carson--we are always seeking expressive modes that perform something similar to what great drama can do. To quote Carson: '[effective dramatic staging] is simply a mirroring of the activity of the thought that you had at the time that you had it ... [it is] an attempt to make that activity happen again in the mind [of the reader or the viewer].' (13)
And here I think of Greg Dening again, of an assertion I heard him say often in the intellectual 'retreats' (entitled 'Challenges to Perform') that he and Donna Dening convened at the Australian National University throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s: he would say that the best writing enlivens your mind while the words are unfurling, until you arrive at the sudden moment where you pause reading, look up and are moved to exclaim, 'I was about to think that!' Once again: truth experienced rather than merely told.
With their intimate grasp of farmers' experience, the Teasdale films are deeply engaged like Greg's writing. Indeed, also like much of Greg's writing, the Teasdale films are devotional, I think. Devotional in their attentiveness to everyday experience in an agricultural community. And the main, knowledge-shifting force in the films is the way they grant us access to a suffusing, integrative urge--both social and natural--an urge that has enabled generations of settlers to apply themselves continuously to the task of teaching each other how to prevail in this place which is actually not especially congenial to farming economies.
What is this animus that I sense in the Teasdale films? It is a suffusing, integrative force encouraging rituals of attentiveness and education that help the filmmakers and the audience catch and convey knowledge intensified with a sense of allegiance. This knowledge flows through and out of the films, binding person to person to country in the Wimmera district, generation to generation. The knowledge connects people and places. It is knowledge about society and nature. It is a force that involves information, surely; but it also involves affection or powerful, animating emotions. Or to commandeer Raymond Williams' famous phrase, it is a force that sets up and derives from the 'structure of feeling' that holds a culture together over generations. (14)
In fact, having used this famous quote to cinch my point, I want to discard it immediately and replace it with a better but less-celebrated phrase from Raymond Williams. For cultures are more than structural; they are systematic. Williams came to understand this. Structures are too solid, too modelled. Instead, Williams changed his focus over time, to look for something definitive in all cultures, something he called 'social experiences in solution'. (15)
The phrase, 'social experiences in solution' describes a flowing, suffusing predisposition in a culture, a seeking urge to fuse people to places through rituals and aesthetic artefacts, an urge that is much more slippery than a structured feeling. For a solution seeps and subtly transforms itself at the same time as it alters environing matters. Within the Teasdale footage this solution is a kind of passion-something insistent that agitates all the time it prevails. It is emotional-something that moves. It is a yearning for generational continuity. It is a love of the world binding together all its immersed and interconnected inhabitants.
To exemplify this notion, there are some clips in the Teasdale collection, where John's voice can be heard speaking a commentary--truly he is chanting the commentary-naming places and people relative to one another as he pans around landscapes and ceremonies. John leans toward the microphone and intones quietly but with utter authority:
This is John Teasdale speaking. And I'm going to voice-over some of these old films ... This is down behind the dam, taken from the dam-bank ... you see Old Ned's place over there ... part of the Old Place away down there ... Frank Childs's place ... and straight down south is Cootes's ... where Jimmy Coote used to live ... there's the Black Range down there ... Stawell ... and as we come around you can see the Grampians coming into view ... that's a little seventeen-acre paddock divided by a channel ... a combination-drain down there that fills other peoples' dams ... and we're panning now over where Clarrie Sheridan lived ...
With this enchantment he is activating 'social experience in solution'. He is soaking the country in the extensive, seeping influence of the exactly identified people who have been devoted to specific plots of country distributed around the horizon-bound Wimmera plains. From the standpoint of the community that he knows and serves, John is binding particular people to particular places.
I am struck by the similarity between such sequences and scenes described by Eric Michaels in his studies of Central Australian Warlpiri Media videos, particularly the ground-breaking work of Francis Jupurrurla Kelly, where the sequence and tempo for panning the camera across country are governed by rules requiring the acknowledgement of ancestors and present custodians. (16) And while I know how easy it is to mistake mere correlation for real connection, I do think there is something striking in the way John Teasdale attends to generational husbandry and place-based responsibility in ways that are similar in their efficacy to the Indigenous systems. As we see again and again in rural Australia, there is a seepage between Indigenous and incursive cultures that manifests in a myriad of ways, not all of them benign of course; but not all of them simply malign either.
Which brings the right moment to consider the glimmers of Indigenous presence in the Teasdale archive. First point: they are the merest glimmers. But still they are discernible in this folk-ethnography devoted to settler culture. There are shots of Aboriginal men in crowd scenes and in aesthetically thrilling footage recorded at local football matches. There are shots of a handsome young black man working in a mechanic's shop. Each black figure is always isolated, never surrounded by black compadres. But, as is always the way with John Teasdale's portrait footage, these men appear comfortable, poised, suffering no evident indignity, receiving unequivocal respect during the moments John focused on them.
These glimmers hold open an archive that, because of John Teasdale's universally attested integrity, cannot help but be candid. It is indeed an archive that manages, with its glimmers, to show absences and hear silences.
In a parallel way, this was always a compelling concern for Greg Dening (who was similarly routinely characterised as the embodiment of respect and integrity). In doing his history, Greg always tried to set the conditions for the seeping-in and amplification of voices that have not been terminally silenced. Or, to paraphrase what he often proclaimed: we must make sure that we mute no other voices by expressing our own. We must set the conditions for amplifying other voices without ventriloquising them.
As I have worked with the people working on the Teasdale footage, it has become clear that the films are animated by an openness to sensation and sense-making; they are enlivened by a spirit of commitment to everyday experience which is more inclusive than exclusive of 'outsiders'. And with that spirit almost always luminous in the footage, working with the team of artists and scholars to bring the archive into popular awareness, we have been able to initiate consultations that have brought Indigenous voices and testimonies into dialogue with the Teasdale archive. Here in the settler-farmer community is Indigeneity--albeit glimpsed barely in passing-shown and held open as a portal to cause future, further testimony, further curiosity, further learning.
There is another batch of footage featuring John Teasdale's voice. The voiceover, in John's distinctive, quietly authoritative 'chant', bears witness this time to a connective urge seeping not from place to people, but from people to people:
Now we're at the Rupanyup Show ... There's Joan Newitt there ... Beverly Morgan ... Wendy Sprague and Norma Chapman there with the glasses on ... Wendy has a look at the camera ... 'Yes, it is running' ... Bernie Rooney ... aaaah ... Ned Valentine, I think ... That's Gwenda Johnson ... Pat Sheridan and her sister, I think ... Barbara Nunn ... Wendy Sprague and Norma Chapman ... Old Hughie Mathewson ... Reg Jackson ... Dick Dunn!
I am struck, in this sequence, by the genealogical incantation that John Teasdale performs. Such name-listing is a practice of memorial, intergenerational binding that governs the memory-keeping of cultures--especially Indigenous cultures--all around the world, all through the ages.
There is real value in dwelling on John Teasdale's portraiture a while. Here are some more frames from sequences that are as attentive as anything I have seen anywhere in the international genre of intimate ethnography.
Looking at this footage, I sense the candour and respect that flows in both directions between John Teasdale and his subjects. Note how the people appear as subjects, not objects; unvarnished, directly observed, never sentimentalised or criticised.
And I am reminded of a befuddling and thrilling passage from one of the all-time great exemplars of intimate ethnography, James Agee and Walker Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. About a quarter of the way through the book, Agee pauses to wonder what he is doing with and to the sharecropper families who have become the focus of his fascinations after he has taken up residency with them in the midst of their unstinting poverty. Each time he looks at a sharecropper he reminds himself:
Here at the center is a creature: it would be our business to show how through every instant of every day of every year of his existence alive he is from all sides streamed inward upon, bombarded, pierced, destroyed by that enormous sleeting of all objects forms and ghosts how great how small no matter, which surround and whom his senses take: in as great and perfect and exact particularity as we can name them: This would be our business, to show them each thus transfixed as between the stars' trillions of javelins and of each the transfixions: but it is beyond my human power to do so. The most I can do--the most I can hope to do--is to make a number of physical entities as plain and visible as possible and to make a few guesses, a few conjectures; and to leave to you much of the burden of realizing in each of them what I have wanted to make clear of them as a whole: how each is itself; and how each is a shapener. (17)
'Shapener' is not really a word. But it ought to be. I think it means 'someone who simultaneously shapes and is shaped by the external forces of the world'. Someone who alters when encountering an other. Someone who is simultaneously subject and object. A form-giver who is also a form-receiver.
I am reminded of one of my favourite English-language haikus, by William Higginson:
Holding the water, Held by it-- The dark mud. (18)
I am reminded too of David Abram's notion of the 'reciprocity of the senses', that everything we touch in order to make it known to us also touches us and somehow knows us. (19)
John Teasdale is less ecstatic, more pragmatic, than James Agee. And David Abrams. But even so, there is something galvanising and a little atavistic in the intimacy with ancestors that is evinced in John's footage. With his modestly devotional cinematography he shows how he understands that everyone can be streamed inward upon, how everyone must make a life while being bombarded by the enormous sleeting of objects, forms and ghosts.
This avidity, this devotedness, why not call it by its name? It is a kind of love. And it can be brought to the centre of the investigation. In doing so, I will call on two guides. The filmmaker, Roberto Rossellini. And the esteemed historian Donna Dening, Greg's widow, writing under the name of Donna Merwick.
Drawing from Donna's work first, in her enthralling book Stuyvesant Bound: an Essay on Loss across Time, she reminds us that people in the past have always 'lived with mysteries' and have habitually 'constructed representations of the supernatural', just as we citizens of late capitalism and globalisation do nowadays even if we rarely admit so. (20) Donna elaborates, explaining how people from the past--for example the earliest Dutch colonists on Manhattan--'seldom operated along strictly rational lines of procedure', for 'they were prey to swings of emotion--ambition, the desire to earn natives' approval and "engineer morality", working out feelings of inadequacy, disloyalty, indifference, or repugnance at their own cruelty'. (21) And if we are to know anything from examining the traces these people left, we need to think through those oozing affections.
This is a good moment to reprise Raymond Williams: we need to examine 'social experiences in solution'.
I can supplement Donna's insight with Rossellini's memoir entitled My Method, in which he tries to define what makes great realist art: '[You must follow] someone with love', says Rossellini, '[you must watch] all his discoveries and impressions ... What is important is the waiting ... and the love.' (22)
It is the same with traces from the past, I think. It is what leads us to the 'shapener' who is in and of the world. It is mud holding and held by water. It is Abrams touching the world and being touched by it. It is Greg Dening's conviction that history requires an extravagant slowness, a patient layering approach, and a trust in a kaleidoscopic, roundabout mode of apprehension. (23)
So we are back with 'Greg Dening Precept No. 3', exhorting us to seek and to know with the entire sensorium, emotionally and aesthetically as well as linguistically and rationally. I confess that I have just added that term 'aesthetically', but I trust Greg would permit me, especially if we insist on the original and the best connotation of 'aesthetic': 'that which is perceptible by the senses'. (24)
Which brings us back to Joris Ivens and to the theme of connectedness that John Teasdale lets us see and helps us feel in his footage. I hope it has been evident in all the imagery I have shown: this sense of an animating force of relatedness that brings real significance and vivacity to the world that human beings try to parse and tend.
As I conclude my remembrance of Greg Dening's legacy, I am reminded of an observation in one of Stephane Mallarme's letters, where the poet declares that because there are already enough objects in the world--there is no need to invent new things--all we need do is create new relationships among the things that already exist. (25)
This urge to relate--to move through a shifting, pulsing experience that delivers truth as an experience that is close and deeply felt: it is evident in John Teasdale's work. It is evident in Greg Dening's work too. The urge to relate is an attentiveness to the pulse of all experience. It is something felt like yearning, like a connection to some vital quality quickening the world.
So, to finish our archival imagining for now, I insist that this urge--this yearning to relate--is something intimate and motivating that can abide across time, across spaces, across cultures and across realms of being--across realms of being human, animal, vegetable and mineral. It is the reason for doing the work--this urge to show and know relationships across cultures, space and time. It is the obligation with which we are blessed when we work with the remnants of the past. And it is the most wonderful thing, extracted from the plenitude he offered, that I learned from Greg Dening.
Ross Gibson (1)
(1) University of Canberra.
(2) Greg Dening, 'Performing Cross-Culturally', Australasian Journal of American Studies 25(2) (2006), 5.
(3) Ibid., 2-9.
(4) Oleg Grober, The Mediation of Ornament (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 227.
(5) Dening, 'Performing Cross-Culturally', 2.
(6) 'John Teasdale--Chronicle of a Country Life,' Culture Victoria, http://www.cv.vic.gov.au/ stories/creative-life/john-teasdale-chronicle-of-a-country-life [accessed 27 November 2015].
(7) John Shaw Neilson, 'April Weather', in Collected Poems of John Shaw Neilson, ed. R. H. Croll (Melbourne: Lothian, 1934), 123.
(8) Neilson, 'The Sun is Up', in Collected Poems, 10.
(9) Neilson, 'Sheedy was Dying', in Collected Poems, 30.
(10) Neilson, 'The White Flowers Came', in Collected Poems, 73.
(11) Neilson, 'The Loving Tree', in Collected Poems, 58-60.
(12) Neilson, 'Greeting', in Collected Poems, 7.
(13) Kevin McNeilly, 'Gifts and Questions-An Interview with Anne Carson', Unsaid Magazine, http://unsaidmagazine.wordpress.com/2012/09/11 [accessed 20 September 2014].
(14) Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 132.
(15) Ibid., 133.
(16) See Eric Michaels, For a Cultural Future: Francis Jupurrurla Makes TV at Yuendumu (Melbourne: Artspace, 1987).
(17) James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988), 110.
(18) William Higginson in The Haiku Anthology, ed. Cor van den Heuvel (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986), 88.
(19) David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World (New York: Vintage Books, 1997).
(20) Donna Merwick, Stuyvesant Bound: An Essay on Loss Across Time (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 83.
(21) Ibid., 160.
(22) Roberto Rossellini, My Method: Writings and Interviews (Venice: Marsilio Editori, 1987), 63.
(23) Dening, 'Performing Cross-Culturally', 5.
(24) G. A. Wilkes and W. A. Krebs, eds., Collins English Dictionary, 3rd ed. (Sydney: HarperCollins, 1991), 24.
(25) Stephane Mallarme, 'Reponse a Jules Huret', Oeuvres Completes (Paris: Gallimard, 1961), 871.
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|Title Annotation:||Feature Article|
|Publication:||Melbourne Historical Journal|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
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