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Feeling, Motion, and Attention in the Display of Emotions in Yolngu Law, Song, and Dance Performance

Franca Tamisari

The dance is not sacrificed to what it represents. The spectator grasps its movements and figures as obedient to another logic, which may be inspired by the music but belongs no more to the music than to the narrative subject. (Dufrenne 1973: 76)

In art, and in painting as in music, it is not a matter of reproducing or inventing forms, but of capturing forces . . . [n]ot to render the visible, but to render visible. (Deleuze 2003 [1981]: 56)

This paper examines ceremonial dances performed by the Yolngu people of Northeast Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia. I here foreground affect, emotions, and attention as the main principles of Yolngu cosmogony, cosmology and epistemology1 that, with some notable exceptions, have been neglected in the anthropological literature.2

     Affect as a way of knowing through which an agent encounters and relates to another agent, both animate and inanimate, is central to many contexts of Yolngu life. For example, in kinship relationships that are established and continuously negotiated in everyday life around the residential group's fire-ashes (ganu' or lirrwi) (Tamisari 2006: 29; Myers 1986: 103ff); in the consubstantial3 connection between a person and a place; in the urges that motivate ancestral cosmogonic actions, and, in particular, in the reactualization of these ancestral actions through the performance of songs, dances, and paintings.

     In what follows, I consider affective dimensions that emerge from the song narratives I gathered while working on the transcriptions of a Yolngu song cycle. Turning my attention to the ways in which dancing brings affect to the fore when encountering others, both human and nonhuman, I argue that, for the Yolngu, the Law (rom) must be felt in order to be respected and applied.

     In dance performances, the centrality of affect is also encapsulated in the complex Yolngu notion of ma:rr, a feeling that encompasses both knowledge and experience, intellect and perception, the dead and the living, the ordinary and the extraordinary, the everyday and the numinous, the self and the other. In drawing attention to this, I join several authors who argue against interpretations that polarize movement and experience (for example, Best 1978: 137) or symbol and sentiment (Langer 1953: 183) or text and structure (Kapferer 1986: 192). I also insist on the necessity to consider Yolngu ritual in its totality, that is, in all its political, religious, and aesthetic dimensions. By "aesthetic dimensions," I refer specifically to affect within participation.

     As I have argued elsewhere (Tamisari 2005: 182), if we focus solely on the referential or representational meaning of movements, we miss not only the danced expressions of feelings such as anger, compassion, belonging, and love for kin and country but also the inventiveness and creativity brought to bear in regenerating the social through ceremony. If, as Yolngu say, there is no law without participation in ritual performance, it is necessary to explore the nature of this participation. From this perspective, I propose that, while the song texts suggestively evoke perceptions and emotions in the process of knowing everything in the environment, it is the dance that generates a surplus of meaning by which what is expressed overflows that which is represented.

     Indigenous Australian dancing, I shall argue, is a modality by which performer and spectator enter into a reciprocal commerce, a mutual resonance, both with the supernatural world and each other, where they affect and are affected by a dimension that "can be analyzed insofar as it escapes analysis" (Dufrenne 1973: 329). While, as in the case of a work of art, the expression of a ritual performance is usually grasped in a single act and in its totality (ibid., 26), "analysis can seek the elements which. . . are particularly expressive" (ibid., 327) in themselves or which constitute a setting to expression. Building on von Sturmer's (1987: 71) insightful observations on the power of songs and dances, I suggest that, while the song invokes and summons the ancestral being's power, the dance not only "demonstrates its presence" but also, through the enacting of specific emotions, brings both performers and spectators to an uplifting and uplifted mode of attention. Avoiding the problematic term 'expression', von Sturmer concludes by pointing out that we should start investigating how the techniques and content of songs and dances "come together for the creation of . . . [an] intense meaning, overflowing with conviction" (ibid., 74).

     In Yolngu ceremonies (bunggul), emotions are evoked in the songs and displayed in gender-specific ways in the dances. Together these performative modes constitute two crucial elements that make ritual work. The term "work" here is apposite, as Yolngu spoken discourse refers to singing and dancing as work, as in the expressions "song work" (manikay dja:ma) and "dance work" (bunggul dja:ma). It also points to the specific physical quality of this work. The term for 'song' (manikay) indicates the production of "throat noise" (literally mani and kay, respectively) while the term for 'dancing' (bunngul) refers to the movement of the knees and derives from the terms for 'knee' (bon and bunkumu).

The Law

The term 'law' in English or rom in Yolngu languages is often used to refer to a body of juridical, social, and moral rules as well as appropriate practices deriving from the cosmogonic actions performed by ancestral beings in their travels as they crisscrossed the region. As in other parts of Indigenous Australia, in Yolngu cosmology, land has always existed, but it was originally empty, shapeless, and nameless. The landscape people inhabit was shaped into its present form by ancestral beings (wangarr) who roamed through the sky, above and below and on the surface of the earth, and in the depths and shallows of the sea and along the rivers. They, thus, shaped everything into existence in the geographic and climatic environment through processes that fuse corporeal transformation and the act of naming—act and word, event and language. This is not a creation ex nihilo but a process of morphopoiesis, a generation of forms that are brought to presence, a doing through shaping and movement, a form that manifests itself (Tamisari 1998 and 2004).

     Along their travels, ancestral beings also gave life to humans to whom they assigned specific territories and taught the correct everyday and ceremonial practices (rom). All these rules established by ancestral actions—as well as the reenactment of these ancestral events in songs, dances, and designs—constitute the secret/sacred Law (rom or madayin), as well as an affirmation and evidence of land ownership. Each group must observe this Law and land ownership, having the right and duty to take care of it as well as manage and transfer it to the next generation.4

     Yolngu people say that the ancestral beings have "established the Law" (rom nhirrpan, the latter term literally means 'to plant' or 'to pierce'), a process in which the Law is manifested in visible marks (djalkiri) and also provides a frame within which each person, group, and object acquires a specific position and role, purpose, use, and function within the intricate network of sociopolitical relationships. Djalkiri or luku, literally 'foot' and, by extension, 'footprint' and 'step'—also translated into English as "foundation of Law and Culture"—refers to all visible marks left by the ancestral beings. This includes named places and landscape features (wa:nga); kinship relationships among groups derived from their positioning across the land (gurrurtu); language, as narratives which recount the actions and journeys of ancestral beings (dha:wu), and personal (ya:ku) as well as bone names (bundurr and likan).5

     In addition, djalkiri also refers to the correct manner of doing things: hunting and gathering techniques, processing food, the making and using tools, marriage rules, and the performance of paintings (dhulang), songs, and dances (manikay and bunggul, respectively) (Marika-Mununguritj 1991). Yolngu people thus talk of "kinship Law" (gurrutu rom), "song Law" (manikay rom), "dance/ceremony Law" (bunggul rom), "death Law" (mokuy rom), and "circumcision Law" (dhapi rom). They also talk, for example, of "the Law of the seagull" (djarrak rom), indicating how the seagull deposits its eggs and how these must be gathered ("the seagull's eggs gathering Law," djarrak mapu maram rom), and, in general, how each place, shaped by an ancestral being and owned by a group, must be approached and accessed by people ("the Law of place," wa:nga rom).6

     The image of ancestral journeys that dominates Yolngu cosmogony implies two types of connections contained in the notion of footprint. On the one hand, each place where an ancestral being stopped along his/her trajectory established a "bodily connection" (Stanner 1979 [1962]: 135), a consubstantiality, or "interanimation" (Basso 1996: 55) between ancestral and human body, land, person, and name at both egocentric and sociocentric levels. On the other hand, the definition and singularity of each 'foot' (luku) or 'footprint' (djalkiri) as a unique, unrepeatable interanimation of these elements can only be considered in relation to other visible marks, footprints, and steps (places, names, actions, land-owning groups) that trace the ancestral beings' temporal and spatial trajectory across the land. Each footprint thus constitutes a phase or stage of a journey that identifies at once the uniqueness and autonomy of each place, its "action-feature" (Mundine 2000: 100) and group or person. Yet, it also draws a connection among them; it renders them part of the same entity and dependent on each other.7 The image of the journey is here better rendered as a "site-path flux" (Munn 1973: 137) or a rhythmic cadence marking pauses and movement that, in connecting everything along its trajectory, unifies yet differentiates each group's ownership of and responsibility for the land and associated sacra.

     As Yolngu people often state, each group's land, language, names, songs, dances, and paintings are connected, and similar in that they refer to the actions performed by a single ancestral being along its journey. However, they are also distinct as each place is characterized by unique actions, names, and events. In other words, ancestral journeying establishes an open-ended network of relationships among groups and territories that can be navigated in everyday and ritual contexts, bringing to the fore and privileging some connections over others according to the needs and demands of specific sociopolitical circumstances. In the execution of songs, dances, and paintings, each group and individual can stress their unity or plurality, their closeness or distance, magnifying or eliminating differences in melody, language, song texts, dance movements, and choreographies. Referring to these differences within the unitary frame of an ancestral journey, Yolngu people often said to me, "we are together," "on the same line," (dha:mapanmirr), "we share" (da:manarr) the same songs, dance, and sacred objects; however "we are different," "we are separate" (ga:na ga:na). All groups whose territories are placed along the same ancestral journey, or "string," are "the same but different," literally "one and many" (wangany ga dharrwa), "together but alone" (rrambangi ga ga:na), "close but far apart" (galki ga barrkuwatj) (cf. Keen 1994: 44ff; Rudder 1993: 30-31).

     In addition to the distribution, connection to, and the negotiation of land ownership among groups, the image of the footprint brings to the fore another crucial aspect of Yolngu Law. As I argued elsewhere (Tamisari 1998 and 2014), djalkiri stresses that the efficacy of each ancestral and human manifestation resides in its "visibility": a becoming world and form that can be known only by being seen, heard, smelled, touched, experienced, and lived. Visibility must, therefore, be intended in terms of human perception and affect: a modality of knowledge that goes beyond the prosaic or profane sense of vision and speaks of one's bodily participation in the world.8 Following Merleau-Ponty, I suggest that visibility is a "being-there," the intertwining of body and world; a complex reciprocal experiential relationship; a sensual participation of people with the sentient ancestral bodies who are in and on the land and with everything else in the environment. Each place constituting Yolngu sentient country can, thus, best be described as an "event" or a "happening" that requires participation and activation, both through being there and through performance, in order to be known, understood, and reproduced. As Casey succinctly puts it,

[a] place is something for which we continually have to discover or invent new forms of understanding, new concepts in the literal way of "grasping-together." A place is more an event than a thing to be assimilated to known categories. . . . Rather than being a definite sort of thing—for example, physical, spiritual, cultural, social—a given place takes on the qualities of its occupants in its own constitution and description and expressing them in its occurrence as an event: places not only are but they happen. (And it is because they happen that they lend themselves so well to narration, whether as history or a story). (1996: 26-27, original emphasis)

From this perspective, the Yolngu song texts do not simply retrace ancestral journeys that connect groups and territories along their trajectories, nor do dance movements merely represent ancestral actions in and on the land. In addition to the interplay of the senses clearly expressed in Yolngu languages, kinesthesia, or "movement itself as a way of knowing" or "dimension of movement knowledge" (Sklar 2000: 70) is central to Yolngu Law and ritual.9 In the song texts and especially the execution of the dances, the interanimation of people with place is most powerfully evoked, made present, and lived in (cf. Grau 2005).

     Participation in ceremony is an activity that demonstrates people's acknowledgment and respect of the Law. Nonparticipation is often noted and condemned as not "having any Law," as in the following warning pronounced by the man responsible for the funerary ceremony (djungaya ZS of the deceased) to a few people belonging to the deceased's patrilineal group who were not dancing: "What's the matter with those people? Haven't they got any Law?" (Bayngu bunggul walalang, rommirriw ga ninha).

Along the Song Routes

Yolngu songs retrace the trajectory (dhukarr) of ancestral beings' journeys and recount their cosmogonic actions that belong to each group. During a funerary ceremony, for instance, the songs retrace a journey transporting the deceased's "bone-soul" (birrinbir), the ancestral part of the person, to her "bone land" (ngaraka), that is, her patrilineal territory from which she originated before birth (see Morphy 1984).

     In what follows, I will summarize the transcribed content of a song owned by a Djambarrpuyngu group of the dhuwa moiety performed on the occasion of a funeral. The song traces a journey along the Flinders Peninsula coast by recounting ancestral beings' sequential meetings and interactions. My summary of the ancestral events described in the song texts highlights the feelings that motivate the actions of the ancestral beings and specifies how these feelings mark specific ceremonial phases determining their efficacy. The precision of the trajectory retraced in the song text is ensured by the repetition of the place names where each event happened.10

     Yolngu songs are constituted by short units of music and text from one to three minutes in length interrupted by a short pause. According to context, every unit can be repeated several times, elaborating some of the elements and details of the ancestral action described. The duration of a song retracing an ancestral journey from beginning to end can vary from forty to sixty minutes on average, depending on a series of circumstantial factors: the coordination with other ancestral paths retraced in the songs of other groups participating in the ceremony; the requirements of some ceremonial phases that may need to advance faster or slower along the journey, and the need to highlight and elaborate the details of one specific ancestral action rather than others.

     Yolngu musicians and people distinguish two forms of song: a main or "big" song (yindi or ringgitj, literally, 'body') and a "small" one (wana, literally, 'arm'). The former is accompanied by a "big" (yindi) or "dangerous" (madakarritj) dance, while the latter is performed for a "small" (nyumukuniny) and "compassionate" (gurrupurungu) dance. The italics in the eleven numbered song unit summarised below highlight all the spoken words referring to feelings and sense perception that characterize each ancestral event. The summary of each song unit is followed by a brief comment on the onomatopoeic and kinesiopoeic features of sound, words, and the corresponding dance movements. I use the term 'kinesiopoeic' to refer to spoken expressions that evoke the type of movement associated with the thing or action designated (Tamisari 2002: 96-98).

     With the exception of a few group dances, men and women perform in separate groups, the men usually in front of the singers and the women on the singers' left or right sides. Men and women perform the same arm movements, but steps differ. Men "stamp" the ground (baldhurr'yun) with energy and leap (wapthun) considerable heights, while women perform more modest stepping movements and are said to "hop along" (wap'wapthun) to the faster music rhythms. These women's steps are characterized by "throwing sand" (munatha' djalkthun), so named because one foot is dragged toward the other with an inward movement, thereby kicking sand over it. I observed and documented most dances described below during mortuary ceremonies held in Northeast Arnhem Land from 1990 to 2005.

Given the general secret/sacred nature of the different types of Yolngu names, the association they evoke, the power they summon, the authority they confer, and the emotive response they might arouse when they are pronounced, throughout this paper I omit them, inserting instead generic terms or the initials followed by an asterisk (*) or, whenever necessary, by glossing them in English. The names of ancestral actors interacting in the songs are capitalized.

The Djambarrpuyngu Song along the Coast of Flinders Peninsula, Dhuwa Moiety

Summary of Narrative divided in Song Unit

1. Clouds (wukun, generic, Bulunu proper name): rising from the east over Ng*, the land of the Djambarrpuyngu people, a menacing cloud looms on the horizon and talks to the people who are observing it from the coast. The dark line underneath the cloud is full of rain, wind, and arrowroots.

     Music and Dance: Emitting long sounds increasing in intensity and volume, the didgeridoo evokes the slow, threatening, and inexorable approach of the clouds announcing the monsoon season.11 The text chanted in this opening song at the start of this journey includes the place names where this event happened and the proper names of the cloud and arrowroot. Usually, there is no public dance accompanying this song.

2. Rain (waltjan, generic): Rain starts falling far away on the small choppy waves and into the sea. Out in the open sea, Rain changes its direction and, approaching the coast, finally pours inland. Advancing in a compact line, the heavy Rain changes the color of the sea surface and brings a chilly breeze that makes one cold.

     Music and Dance: Rain is perceived through its threatening advance that obscures the light and the chill it brings to one's skin. However, this is a sign that announces the return of the monsoon season when the Polynesian arrowroot and other food resources will grow again. This is a small song that is performed mostly by women moving to a fast tempo. The arms are bent with hands in front of the face, one opposite the other. The fingers repeatedly bend up and down to represent the relentless falling of the rain.

3. Due to the strong winds and the heavy Rain, the seawater starts rising, forming big and violent waves crowned by white foam. The waves run after and hit each other in the middle of a raging storm, breaking off pieces of driftwood that keep spinning around. The ancestral being Stone (gunda, generic) stands firm, impassive, and tenacious against their strength.

     Music and Dance: The violence of the waves is evoked through the execution of the big song that accompanies the chanting of the most sacred Yolngu toponyms and group names (likan and bundurr). This song is usually not danced, by either women or men in public contexts. The proper names of the Stone ancestor, which refer to its determination and bravery in facing and resisting the assault from the waves, are chanted at the end of this song unit. Toward the end of the song text, the pieces of driftwood are briefly mentioned as they appear in the waves. This ancestral being will be the subject of a later song unit (see number 9 below).

4. Calm water (mutitj and wappurar gapu, generic): Slowly receding, the seawater becomes calm, and the waves start dancing happily as they reach the coast (dhalirr girritjinan or bongwangan). The water is now lying flat at Ba*,Way*, and Ng*. The water becomes calm also in the open sea. When the water is calm, several mollusks come up to the Stone and change its color.

     Music and Dance: The waves are dancing because they are happy to reach the coast. Here the Indigenous word for 'dancing' is interesting as it compares the little waves to "talking knees" (bonwangan). This expression is used to praise the skillful execution of a performer who has finally embodied the knowledge of an ancestral event through dancing (Tamisari 2000: 278). The song form is secondary and is accompanied by a small dance performed mainly by women. The fast tempo of the dance expresses the waves' happiness, and the movements in the dance present their bobbing up and down: the hands, cupped upward at waist level, are raised and lowered following the fast beat.

5. Porpoise (guykarri, generic): lapped by water in the open sea, the shiny black skin of Porpoise emerges to the surface, and she starts throwing herself on her side, crying her sadness and homesickness for the homeland she has left behind. She comes up to the water surface, and she talks through her "mouth."

     Music and Dance: The ancestral being Porpoise is crying because she is worried and homesick (warrguyun) for the place from whence she comes. When she finds herself in the calm waters, she carries on, but she would like to go back to where she started her journey. The sounds and several onomatopoetic words evoke her throwing movements and her sobbing. In addition, a particular use of the drone pipe reproduces the sound of the spurting of water, namely, her "talking" from her nostrils. This is a big song whose significance and emotional impact is performed by women who, from a kneeling or standing position, throw themselves onto the ground on both sides for the entire duration of the song to express their distress (warrguyun), pain, and loss in mourning.

6. Seagull (djarrak, generic) flies flapping its wings (burrurrun burrurrunba) far away in the open sea. It is looking up at the dark clouds rising over Djambarrpuyngu land over May*. Its breast wet with rain, its flight as powerful as the rain (ganydjarr waltjanmirr), it glides over the water while carrying some grass in its beak. Seagull is following Porpoise, but, arriving too late, it only dips its beak into the water. It sings "Brr, djrrk, djrrk" and talks; it dives into the water and gets wet.

     Music and Dance: This song describing Seagull in flight through the rain can be executed in both the big and small song forms. The impersonal pronoun "it" is used to reflect the fact that, according to context, Seagull can be either male or female. In the small song version, men and women perform the dance separately. A piece of wood—held with both hands in front of the hips and moved up and down perpendicular to the ground—represents the beak of the seagull holding the grass to take back to its nest, as well as diving into the water.

     It is interesting to note that, as it was explained to me, the term "burrurrun burrurrunba" does not reproduce the sound of the seagull's flapping wings but evokes the seagull's powerful linear flight. Here, as with other many words used in Yolngu songs, it would be more appropriate to talk about kinesiopoeic nouns and names because these evoke the quality of ancestral movement, either linear, as in this case, or a particular gesture or bodily position. In the big song version, during the most important ceremonial phases, this dance is performed within a larger choreography (see below) and focuses on the feeding and nurturing role of the mother Seagull. Often performed by the members of the deceased's mother group (ngandipulu or yindi, literally, "big"), the men dancers crouch down and, arm raised, emit the sounds of the baby seagulls in the nest.12 One dancer evokes mother Seagull's love and care by running back and forth to the nest to feed her babies with her beak and eventually lead them on to their first flight. The baby seagull/dancers stand up and follow mother Seagull around the dance ground.

     It is said that, at this point, the ancestral route retraced by the song can take alternative courses either toward the land or toward the sea. In this version, the song continues recounting several ancestral beings' interactions along the way, leading to the open sea, toward the Wessel Islands.

7. Diamond Fish (milika', generic, Diamond Trevally, Alectis indicata). The fish jumps happily (girritjirr) over and across (budapthun) the calm seawater. Inside the water, he is lying flat on his side next to Stone (see above). He keeps on lying flat in the water and jumping out of the water (manbilmanbil, lurrulurru, budapbudap). The shining Long Tom (linydjingu or marrawa', generic) is following Diamond Fish cutting through the current inside the shimmering, calm, and clear water. The Long Tom is a troublemaker (marimonuk).

     Music and Dance: This song has a small song form with a very fast tempo. Despite this, however, the dance reenacting the fight between the Diamond Fish and Long Tom transforms this song into a "dangerous dance." The dancers hold a twenty-centimeter-long twig in the right hand and move it up and down on the inside of the left forearm. Both men and women, dancing in two separate groups, use this gesture to represent the fish jumping energetically up over the water. The aggression and rage leading to the fight are represented by a dance performed only by men, however. Divided into two lines, facing each other, the male dancers swap places, jumping and "crossing over" the space between them, as the verb budapthun indicates. In the refrain of the song, Diamond Fish is described as a "jumping" and "swerving fish" (respectively, budap guya and mambil guya) and "he who knocks down" (daltal guya). The fight with Long Tom is apparently caused by Long Tom's aggressive character (marimonuk).

     Today, men holding spear throwers perform this dance, but, in the past, men used to throw spears at each other. Acting in turn, the dancer playing Long Tom would throw a spear, and the other man dancing as Diamond Fish would avoid it by swerving or breaking it with his upper arm. The root of the term daltal (that is, dal), in fact means "to knock down" and "to break." This used to be a "dangerous dance" (madakarritj bunggul) that sometimes ended in men suffering from minor wounds if the spears were not avoided. Clearly, the dance emphasizes not only men's skills in hunting and fighting but traits viewed as characteristic of male identity, such as aggression and fearlessness.

8. Flatback turtle (garriwa, generic): Turtle comes up to the sea surface with the bulunu cloud over her back. She feels the rain over her back, and she dives under against the clear current toward the open sea. She talks to her shadow who is following her; she cries and worries (warrguyun) about where to go. She is carrying a dillybag and leaves the trace of her trajectory behind her (wayawu).

     Music and Dance: This small song form describes all actions of the Flatback Turtle. The drone pipe sounds reproduce her lament expressing her distress as she worries about where she can reach the coast to deposit her eggs. Several kinesiopoeic terms reproduce the wake Turtle leaves on the surface of the sea. Turtle carries a dillybag, an object typical of women's gathering activities. Turtle's shadow represents the presence of the deceased person; it is for her that the women mourn. Performed mainly by women, the dance reproduces the swimming actions and the wake the turtle leaves behind. The dancers' hands are facing down at the level of the hips; they move up and down while the dancer advances with shuffling steps so as to leave a track that reproduces the fin marks the turtle leaves on the ground between the water and her nest. Shuffling becomes good dancing when each forward-moving foot "throws sand" (munatha djalkthun) over the other, and, by displacing it, a trail of marks is imprinted in the ground (Tamisari 2000: 277). By "stamping" or "imprinting" the ground (dhurrparam), the dancers contribute to transforming the ceremonial space into the ancestral landscape. It is interesting to note that the term referring to men's different stepping (baldhurr'yun) derives from baldhurr (footprint) and is used to mean "to leave a mark with the foot" (ibid.).

9. Driftwood (wuduku, generic): spun around and transported by the calm water, Driftwood passes many places along the coast. Covered in salt, they float aimlessly on the water, dancing up and down in the waves. The water hits them and makes them jump (dawu pudat). They keep on floating and become tired and silent (dha:ngultji, literally, mouth dark) because they have become waterlogged. Transported by the current, they transform themselves into canoes. Up and down the waves, they talk to each other: "Look, another piece of wood/canoe that hits the waves."

     Music and Dance: Pieces of Driftwood are floating on the waves at many places along the coast, and, as canoes, they talk to each other about the places they have left behind and the places ahead, but without ever stopping. As in other cases, each time a place name is mentioned by an ancestral being along her journey, it usually becomes her destination. Driftwood's endless motion, without a destination, aim, or pause, is the central theme of this song. Pushed incessantly by the waves, Driftwood becomes tired, silent, and distressed. This is a small song characterized by a very fast tempo, and the dance, performed by both men and women in two separate groups, is "compassionate" (gurrupurungu). The onomatopoeic and kinesiopoeic expression dawu pudat, in the refrain, well captures the incessant bobbing movement of Driftwood being struck and transported by the waves. The term dawu reproduces the sound of the water hitting the pieces of wood, while the term pudat as the song text explains, reproduces "its floating dance on the surface of the calm waters" (wayngali mutitjkurr). In the dance, a twig is held and moved up and down at hip level, horizontal to the ground, just as the pieces of driftwood float on the waves.

10. Sooty Oyster Catcher (gadaka, generic) is flying over the sea, crying in a loud and piercing call. Its voice is so loud that it is carried for a long way. The bird disappears, but through his sobbing, its voice continues by itself until it reaches the clouds. The Oyster Catcher worries (warrguyun) and cries (ngathi) for the pieces of Driftwood as, pushed relentlessly by the waves, they cannot find a place to stop. The bird's language is sent toward and becomes the clouds.

     Music and Dance: The Oyster Catcher worries and cries, feeling compassion for Driftwood's predicament. The image of words being contained and thus forming the clouds is a recurrent one in all dhuwa and yirritja songs. In turns, these words/clouds keep on travelling to the end of the song trajectory (see below). This is a small song characterized by a tempo that becomes increasingly fast. In two separate groups, men and women dancers reproduce the bird's flight: bent at the elbow, both arms are moved "as a wing" in and out on both sides of the body.

11. The clouds separate (wukun malawukthuna or manddinan): Clouds separate, and the words transformed into clouds think and worry about reaching all the places owned by each subgroup composing the Djambarrpuyngu group. The clouds/words gather together on the territory of each subgroup, and, from each place, they separate to return to where they originated and belong.

     Music and Dance: The song text mentions all the public names (likan and bundurr), literally, "elbow names" and "knee names" of the subgroups that are united in the larger Djambarrpuyngu group, yet are different and distinct. The song focuses on the way in which Oyster Catcher is anxious that his words, now transformed into clouds, can reach all Djambarrpuyngu people, a powerful image to stress the connection and similarity yet the autonomy and difference between all Djambarrpuyngu subgroups. The Djambarrpuyngu language comes from the Oyster Catcher, but the names distributed by the ancestral beings are distinct for each subgroup. Just as the clouds gather and separate, the Djambarrpuyngu language is conceived as a single entity that contains different names and words belonging to each subgroup. Rita G* explained this song text to me this way:

The Djambarrpuyngu language is one, but their words, through this bird, are different (wangany matha Djambarrpuyngu ga dhiyang walalang dha:ruk ga barrkuwatj). It was the bird who taught them. Now it is the Yolngu people who talk to each other across the clouds. They are all close (galki), they are on one line.13

Men and women dancing in separate groups perform this dance. The Oyster Catcher's call going up to the clouds is represented by an action of the right hand, palm down, moving up and down from the dancer's mouth to slightly above her head.

     Several points emerge from the narrative of this song. The texts describe how ancestral beings have shaped everything animate and inanimate, but, more than this, in fusing bodily transformations with the act of naming, they also make such shapings visible through processes of morphopoiesis. Songs retrace the path (dhukarr) that ancestral beings have travelled, thereby establishing connections between groups, individuals, and land articulating rights and duties in land ownership. In addition, however, the onomatopoeic words and sounds, and especially the several kinesiopoeic terms that evoke and describe the quality of ancestral movement, emphasize a wide range of feelings, sense perceptions, and sentiments. They characterize and often motivate actions related to homesickness, compassion, aggression, physical exhaustion, care, love, and happiness. Explaining and driving ancestral beings' cosmogonic actions, such feeling and emotions express a humanity that allows us to "extract further meanings" (Berndt 1987: 170).

To Feel the Law

Songs and dances that express compassion, distress, fatigue, or joy are often contrasted to feelings of energy, strength, rage, or courage. In these songs, for instance, the joy of Diamond Fish who is light-heartedly darting in and out of the waves is counterpoised to Long Tom's aggressive nature. The violence and roar of the waves in the storm are placed against the firmness, fearlessness, and obstinacy of Stone, who resists them. The disorientation and listlessness of Driftwood adrift in the sea are opposed to the energy and determination of Seagull's flight, who challenges the storm to take some grass to his/her nest. The stillness of the calm sea water is shattered by the Oyster Catcher's loud call who, deeply moved, cries for Driftwood's endless and aimless wandering. The mourning sadness of Turtle and the homesickness of Porpoise are played out against the thinking clouds-turned-into-words on their way to the territory of each Djambarrpuyngu subgroup where they belong. Reproducing similar contrasts, other songs of both moieties, describe, for instance, the rage, the courage but also the impotence and pain of the Shark Ancestor who, fatally wounded and drained of blood, wants revenge; cunning Mouse who tells lies and brings Barramundi and Dog to fight each other in a deadly struggle. Many songs also elaborate the malice of seduction, the eagerness and lust of sexual desire (Berndt 1952).

     In addition, the song texts describe in detail how the environment is perceived through all the senses: the rain that makes one cold and its sound on Turtle's carapace; the sea water lapping Porpoise's shiny black skin; the first monsoon rain that obscures the sky and changes the color of the sea; the shimmering of Diamond Fish through the transparent water; the changing colors of Stone being covered by mollusks; Seagull's nourishing beak; the roar of the waves and their bright white foam. Other recurrent senses through which the world is perceived in song include the whistling of the wind through the casuarina trees, the taste of turtle blood, the enfolding reddish light of the sunset, the lightness of a butterfly's wings, the flash of lightning, the rumble of thunder, but also the smell of decomposition and the appearance of festering boils. Songs describe a world that is known through sensory experience and feelings, a way of knowing that changes the observer and the observed, the subject and the object, the sentient and the sensible, the dancers and the spectator. It implies an epistemology that does not separate cognition and affect, language and body, content and performance, representation and expression (Tamisari 2005: 177).

     It is significant that, in the song texts as well as in everyday language, the verbs "to think" (guyanga) and "to worry about" (liya wanddirr, literally, "head run" and also warrguyun) are used interchangeably to indicate the indivisibility of feeling and thinking (Wikan 1991: 285 and 1992: 463). Ancestral beings "think" and "worry about" the place they have just left, about the place they will reach and the actions that they will perform along their journeys. In the open sea, Turtle thinks about the place where she will deposit her eggs, and, having nominated it in her lament, she arrives there. Seagull cries aloud her apprehension for her babies, and Sooty Oyster Catcher is moved by compassion toward the pieces of Driftwood/Canoes being relentlessly driven by the waves.14 In another song of the yirritja moiety, the text recounts how Barramundi, swimming downstream, "thinks" of the dam that he will build at the estuary. The "cleverness" of ancestral beings is referred to as "dalatj," a term that derives from "dal" meaning strong, hard, difficult, and "djambatj," meaning expert, sharp, smart, and crafty. It implies an awareness, intention, and sensibility that preexists the performing of an action. The cleverness of Ancestral Beings is not limited to their knowledge and wisdom but also includes their desire and determination. The term djambatj, for instance, is used to refer to the skills of a good hunter, someone who is always successful, someone who is not only able "to see and follow the traces" (dhinthun wayawu) of a wounded animal but possesses qualities such as decisiveness, dexterity, discipline, and great determination or drive to catch the animal (Tamisari and Milmilany 2003: 7).

The Notion of Ma:rr: Feeling, Desire

The "Law of the Dance" (bunggul rom) and "the Law of the Songs" (manikay rom) reside in the act of "holding the Law" (rom ngayatham), namely, the very act of performance, both in the distribution of rights and duties, in the negotiation of authority through competition, and in the way the Law is reenacted correctly and, most importantly, experienced. While what is represented and manifested brings the ancestral events to presence in a unique sociopolitical synthesis, it is how these representations are performed and, in particular, the feelings they convey and the attention they demand of the performers and participants alike that give form and life to that presence. As Dufrenne (1973: 338) puts it, "On the level of presence everything is given but nothing is known"; and, for this reason, the meaning of the dance-events in this case cannot be limited to "the body" or the "embodiment" of ancestral presence, despite the immediacy and potency of its appearing.

     For the Yolngu, a higher meaning is produced that goes beyond the immediate symbolism of the gestures and the limits of the physical body. This is evident in the Yolngu concept of ma:rr and in particular in the practice of wama:rrkanhe that I have discussed at some length elsewhere (Tamisari 2000: 280ff). Ma:rr refers not only to "ancestral power" but is first and foremost a "feeling of affection," a "desiring" or "yearning" that refers to people's innermost feelings of love, care, and compassion for their country and relatives (cf. Thomson 1975: 5). It also refers to concealed desires that are not expressed verbally but are felt and met, silent wishes that, as I was told, "make things happen" (in English). Equivalent in meaning to ngayangu (from ngoy, meaning "inside" and "underneath"), the seat of emotions located in the stomach, ma:rr "is the living, pulsating part of man" (ibid: 6 n16).

     In the context of a performance, this concept, embedded in the expression "wa-ma:r-kanhe" (you have ma:rr), is pronounced by a spectator in appreciation of an unexpectedly spectacular dance performance through which a dancer "saw" the inner feelings of the spectator (ma:rr nhama). As the dancer dared to "see" and affect the innermost feelings of the spectator, the spectator responds to this invasion by proffering a "compliment" (the expression wama:rkanhe) which, in turn, has the capacity to affect the dancer by challenging his/her own well-being. If the dancer does not satisfy the requests for money or objects that go with the compliment, she or he might fall ill or even die.

     Clearly, what such a performance expresses goes beyond representation, presence, and the body: it establishes a "secret commerce" or even a "mutual possession" between the performer and the spectator (Dufrenne 1973: 56). In Yolngu terms, it is an encounter between the inner feelings (ma:rr) of the dancer and of the person who pays the "compliment."

     It is important to clarify that what transforms a dance into a spectacular performance that has the power to affect others—and, in turn, opens the performer to being affected—is more than a skillful and technically flawless execution that meets the many aesthetic criteria of Yolngu dancing (such as the rhythm and energy of the stepping, the inclination of the body, and the marks a dancer leaves on the ground). As Dufrenne (1973: 478-79) notes for art generally, aesthetic criteria and overall technique are general qualities, and, although they are indispensable, it is how technique is surpassed and put to use in a singular way by an artist or performer that "surprises and possesses us." What I want to argue is that, in Yolngu dancing, it is not a question of excelling in dance technique per se but a matter of how such technique "serves expression": that is, how a dancer uses technique to display his/her own interiority (ma:rr) and demand total attention.

     This leads me back to the nature of sense perception and feeling that characterizes participation in Yolngu ritual performance. Both the song texts, as illustrated above, and the representation of specific feelings in the dance performance serve a poetic function aimed at making "sense as immanent to sound" (Dufrenne 1987: 121; see also Barthes 1985: 271, 259) and "imitat[ing] the object they refer to and conjuring up its presence instead of being merely representational" (Dufrenne 1987: 123). In other words, drawing from Barthes (1985: 271), it is through the "voluptuous pleasure of the signifier-sounds"—the "shimmering" (ibid: 259) of language, or the pathic quality of words (Straus 1966: 4) together with the kinesthetic aspects of the dance that the Law is experienced and particular effects reached in ritual performance.

     Here the kinesthetic aspects of Yolngu dancing and language use are somatic modes of attention intended as "culturally elaborated ways of attending to and with one's body in surroundings that include the embodied presence of others" (Csordas 1993: 138). More than this however, as Sklar suggests, "to attend in a somatic mode is to apprehend, as felt experience, the kinetic dynamics inherent in movements, images and sounds" (2000: 72; see also Potter 2008: 449-50). Significantly, through the dynamics inherent in movement, images, and sound, Yolngu dance and song performances produce a "surplus of meaning by which the expressed overflows the represented" (Dufrenne 1973: 141 and 189-90). I maintain that one of the ways in which this surplus of meaning is produced beyond embodiment and presence is through the expression of feelings in dance performance.

The Display of the Self: The Division of Emotional Labor

As the song texts above clearly show, in Yolngu cosmogonies male ancestors are often described as dangerous, aggressive, and fierce, while female ancestors are nurturing, anxious, and compassionate. Yolngu dance performances reflect this emotional division of labor in gendered ways that are performative (Magowan 2007: 71).

     Crucial to understanding in this case are neither the referential meanings of the movements (which are often so subtle as to be almost imperceptible) nor the ancestral actions described in the songs, but rather the emotional meanings of kinesthetic features such as the tension of the gestures, the contraction of the muscles, or the stillness of a posture and the intensity of concentration. For example, in dancing, immobility is often more expressive than motion: it is a "movement towards" (Dufrenne 1973: 280). Immobility demands total attention, and, as a promise of self, it signifies beyond representation and presence:

We could almost say that immobility magnifies this movement by fixing and suspending it. . . . Similarly, the plastic tableau formed for an instant by a dancer is also the apotheosis of a movement, the summation of a movement which has just unfolded, and the call to another movement which will be pursued until a perfect cadence is achieved. Immobility is an unfolding of meaning . . . it is an affirmation of the self, it is a "movement [which] strives towards the other and yet is constitutive of the self." (Dufrenne 1973: 280-81)

Aspects such as stillness can make the execution of a dance particularly powerful both for the dancer and the spectator. In the context of Yolngu funerary rituals, such aspects characterize climaxes of a ceremony thereby determining its efficacy and success.

     However, it is the nature of the participation that is crucial: the 'how' not the 'what' of performance. What counts is the way in which meaning is "created during the performanIt is through feeling,ce, evoked . . . in the negotiation between the principal performers and the participants," and especially when "they share its action and intensity" (Schieffelin 1985: 722).

     It is the intensity of a Yolngu dancer rather than physical technique alone that is greatly valued and recognized by all. Such intensity also legitimizes the performer's supremacy in the political arena (von Sturmer 1987: 73). For example, it is the expression of women's care, love, pain, and compassion, as in the Porpoise self-injury/dance, and of men's anger, courage, and fierceness in mourning, as in the Long Tom fight/dance, that allows the performer to show his/her interiority. In reaching the spectator's inner being, one takes a performance to a different level of intensity.     

     In her detailed ethnography of Yolngu funeral rituals, Magowan (2007: 71 n2) uses the expression "performative emotions" to show "how Yolngu are affected by performance and how they structure their performances in order to achieve particular effects." Performative emotions are considered "a key structuring device in ritual since they are very real consequences of emotional transformation and experience for participants." As Magowan rightly points out, however, the ways in which emotions are "channeled in gendered-performative ways . . . do not simply describe emotive states of being but [how] feelings are manifest and transformed in their display." Through the expression of emotions and their transformation in performance, both men and women can, in demanding full attention, render a ritual successful and efficacious.    

     Note that the division of emotional labor in the ritualization of emotions is not equivalent to saying that women do not feel anger and men do not feel compassion, care, and love for their deceased and living relatives. The self-injury of women involves a desperate rage that is often unleashed against any person who tries to restrain their acts. Similarly, men may often be brought to tears and self-injury at several stages of the ceremony. In addition, it is often the initial suggestive and austere ringing of the clap-sticks in the men's big songs that move and make everybody "worry."

     The ritual transformation of these emotions offers a field, or a setting, that allows male and female performers to display their selves and, through the attention they demand, affect others and take the performance to a different level of uplifting and uplifted intensity. In performance, this feeling (ma:rr) is a mode of attention and not a mere sentiment; as such, it is a form of transformation that constitutes self and other. In Dufrenne's (1973: 377) words, "I must make myself conform to what feeling reveals to me and thus match its depth with my own. That is why, through feeling, I myself am put into question."

     While actual anger and grief are no doubt contagious and indeed completely dominate particular phases of funeral ceremonies, they are also contained. Women's self-injury does not lead to self-destruction, and male anger does not often—though it does occur—escalate into a fight. It is crucial to show one's grief, a sense of loss and love for the deceased and his/her living relatives through the distress displayed in acts of self-injury and in the rage of anger. But people are expected to participate in a mortuary ceremony in many other ways too, and the success of a ceremony does not depend on the representation of the emotions staged in this way. The actual emotions of grief and anger are means and not ends to expression, and the ritualization of particular emotions "signifies beyond the represented" (Dufrenne 1973: 315).

     Feeling (ma:rr) is the participation, "the secret commerce" established among ancestral being, performer, and spectator through dance and song. It is ma:rr that establishes an inner communication, a mutual resonance between the depths of the dancer, the ancestral being she is dancing, and the inner being of the spectator. In this way, feeling opens up the self and makes one receptive not only to emotions but also to knowledge. As far as ma:rr changes the quality of one's attention, it constitutes a real subjection of the self both to ancestral presence and to the other participants with all the sociophysical transformations and consequences this submission implies (Tamisari 2000). This feeling is intelligent and intellectual, a way of learning, of transferring and negotiating the Law through perception and experience. The learning of the Law is an intellectual process, which must, nevertheless, literally be absorbed through one's body. In this way, "feeling revives this knowledge which in turn renders feeling intelligent" (Dufrenne 1973: 471). In Yolngu terms, we can say that feeling (ma:rr) activates knowledge and, in turn, produces knowledge that is grounded in the experience, engagement, and commitment of the self through the other, both ancestral and human. Rather than emotion itself, ma:rr is a process of affecting and being affected by others—an "interanimation" changing the knower and the known—that should be understood as a particular modality of knowledge generating meaning.

     It is clear that the concept of ma:rr in performance emphasizes feeling as a mode of attention as the basis of Yolngu intersubjectivity: not only in the sense that the other exists in relation to a person's aims or intentions but also in terms of the transformation of one's self (Dufrenne 1973: 394ff). On a larger scale, it is in art and in ritual more broadly perhaps that 'intentionality' is not merely 'being conscious of' something but a 'being subjected to', not an 'intention towards' but a 'participation and association with', a "being alongside," an "intersubjective mutuality of being" (Stasch 2009: 132): an intimacy that strengthens as well as makes one vulnerable (cf. von Sturmer 2001: 104; de Monticelli 1998: 181-82; Jackson 1998: 10).

    It is through feeling, and in particular its way of affecting others and being affected by, that Yolngu political statements of authority are asserted and legitimated. Knowledgeable men and women have the prerogative of being the conduit for this knowledge, and they exercise this by being able to express it through a display of their unique interiority: knowledge and feeling. The singularity of a dancer's affiliations, real or potential (as in the case of a claim to authority), is accompanied by the execution of songs and dances but can only be matched and fully realized politically and socially by the imposing singularity of one's display of inner self, more than the self, a depth that acquires/projects an extraordinary quality.     

    This singularity, the essential individuality of the performer, produces several effects by means of affecting or uplifting others and being, in turn, affected or uplifted by others. This singularity does not stop at bringing to life the uniqueness of the knowledge implicit in the symbolic representation that, in funerary ceremonies, discloses the social world of the deceased and reassesses the political identities that revolve around him/her. Neither is it limited to embodying cosmogonic events through recomposing their visual, musical, and the kinetic dimensions at ceremonial climaxes. In putting both symbolic representations and skilled technique in the service of a higher meaning, the singularity radiating from displays of the self in performance does more than "render the visible" (Deleuze 2003 [1981]: 56). It utilizes "the logic of sensation" to create meaning by rendering "invisible forces visible" (ibid., 58).


I want to thank my Yolngu kin who continuously teach me how knowledge must be felt and acted out in all small and big occasions. In particular, I want to remember my adoptive sister, the late Rita G*, who explained to me these song texts. I am also grateful to John von Sturmer for allowing me to think aloud and for his suggestions on the text and to Jennifer Deger for her comments. All the weaknesses and shortcomings are my own.


1 "Cosmogony" refers to the origin of the universe (or part of it); "cosmology" refers to explanations of the nature of the universe; "epistemology" refers to the study of the nature of human knowledge, its foundation and validity [editor].

2 See Magowan 2007; Deger 2006; De Donatis 2010. Some of the authors who have dedicated attention to affect and emotion in Australian Indigenous everyday life and ritual are Myers 1979 and 1986; von Sturmer 1987; Rose 2000; Biddle 1997; Samson 2002; Bradley 2010.

3 "Consubstantial" here refers to person and place 'being of the same substance' [editor].

4 Yolngu society is divided in two patrimoieties (dhuwa and yirritja) comprising several patrilineal groups who own well-defined territories and share the same language.

5 For these group names known as "elbow names" (likan) and "knee names" (bundurr, from bon, knee), I propose the collective gloss of "bone names." As major articulations of the body, elbow and knee names express the sharing of bony substance between people, place, and ancestral bodies transformed into landscape features and constitute one of the title deeds to their land (Tamisari 2002; Morphy 1991: 187-89; Keen 1994: 71).

6 Yolngu people do not stress an opposition between living and nonliving things, although these terms are used and this distinction is made, but talk of places, plants, animals, and other people in terms of having law (rommirr) and not having Law (rommirriw), having or not having a mutual relationship to them as kin through affect as well as in terms sharing essence and identity. The attribution of the qualities of law, mainly recognized through names and naming and articulated by moral and aesthetic criteria, is context-dependent and continuously negotiated according to circumstances. To capture the flexibility of this form of classification that cross-cuts other forms of ethno classifications, I suggest that the passage between 'having' and 'not having law' (romirr) would be better understood as an oscillation between the "vital" and the "supervital." This expression does not set up binary oppositions, but it aims to capture how boundaries between humans and nonhumans, living and nonliving things, being inside and outside the social, within and beyond morality, are blurred and yet can be endlessly (re)drawn according to context, a process that stresses the extent to which the relationships among people, places, and animals are negotiated (Tamisari and Bradley 2005: 426ff).

7 Djon Mundine (2000) uses "action-feature" to refer to the visual embodiment of ancestral events in Yolngu bark paintings.

8 I adopt the term of "visibility" that Merleau-Ponty (1964: 166) elaborates in referring to paintings: painting as celebration of visibility "gives visible existence to what profane vision believes to be invisible; thanks to it we do not need a 'muscular sense' in order to possess the voluminosity of the world."

9 The Yolngu terms for the five senses disclose an interplay and interesting synesthesia in the Yolngu verb 'to experience.' While the terms 'to see' (nha:ma), 'to hear' (nga:ma), 'to smell' (nhuman), 'to touch' (ngayathama), and 'to taste' (dha:kay—ngamngamdhun, literally, dha:-kay, 'mouth-noise,' ngamngamdhun, 'hear') suggest they are etymologically related, more significantly, 'to experience' is rendered with an expression that links taste with hearing (dha:kay nga:ma, literally 'to hear a taste'). The term dha:kay-ngama can also refer to visceral feelings and is used to describe a woman's physical symptoms just before and during labor.

10 Yolngu toponyms refer directly to specific bodily transformation (metamorphosis, imprinting, and externalization) that have shaped specific landscape features (Tamisari 1998 and 2002).

11 Known with the Yolngu term yidaki, the didgeridoo—a musical wind instrument made of a branch of eucalyptus that has been naturally emptied by termites—originates from the Arnhem Land region and is associated with ancestral cosmogonic action of a few groups belonging to the yirritja moiety.

12 The expression yothu-yindi (literally, "child-big one"—that is, mother) refers to the M-ZS (i.e. mother's sister's son) relationship between groups, which articulates the management and negotiation of property rights and duties in land and sacra.

13 It is interesting to note that the term for 'different' means, literally, 'far away' or 'distant' (barrkuwatj). Other terms for different are 'one' (wangany) and 'alone' (gana). See above section on 'The Law.'

14 Women songs called "crying" (ngathi) and "tears" (milkarri) are the most complex expression of loss, pain, and distress (warrguyun) in mourning. See Magowan 2007: 84ff for a detailed ethnography and interpretation of this practice.

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