Thursday, May 28, 2009

Dreamtime Identity As Virtual World

Far off in Dreamtime, there were only people, no animals or birds, no trees or bushes, no hills or mountains.
The country was flat. Goorialla, the great Rainbow Serpent, stirred and set off to look for his own tribe. He travelled across Australia from South to North. He reached Cape York where he stopped and made a big red mountain called Naralullgan. He listened to the wind and heard only voices speaking strange languages.

This is not my country, the people here speak a different tongue. I must look for my own people. Goorialla left Naralullgan and his huge body made a deep gorge where he came down. He travelled North for many days and his tracks made the creeks and rivers as he journeyed North. Goorialla made two more mountains, one of the Naradunga was long made of granite, the other had sharp peaks and five caves and was called, Minalinha. One day Goorialla heard singing and said, "Those are my people, they are holding a big Bora." At the meeting place of the two rivers, Goorialla found his own people singing and dancing. He watched for a long time, then he came out and was welcomed by his people. He showed the men how to dress properly and taught them to dance. A big storm was gathering, so all the people built humpies for shelter.

Two young men, the bil-bil or Rainbow Lorikeet brothers came looking for shelter but no one had any room. They asked their grandmother, the Star Woman but she had too many dogs and couldn't help them. the Bil-bil brothers went to Goorialla who was snoring in his humpy but he had no room. The rain got heavier and the boys went back to Goorialla and called out that the rain was heavy. Goorialla said, "All right come in now." The Bil-bil bothers ran into Goorialla's mouth and he swallowed them. Then he began to worry about what the people would say when they found the boys missing. He decided to travel North to Bora-bunaru, the only great natural mountain in the land. Next morning the people found that the boys were gone and saw the tracks of Goorialla and knew that he had swallowed them.

You may never see these lakes or mountains, but after the rain you will see his spirit in the sky , which is the rainbow. This is the reason why he is called Goorialla the Rainbow Serpent.

The Dreamtime Identity

The "Dreamtime" of the indigenous Australians is a virtual world. Since there is no commonly accepted definition, we are still in the range of analogy. However, the most crucial point is that Dreamtime is recognized as a different time from real time. Dreamtime has its own properties and its own rules. The state of virtuality is maintained by Derridaidian play. Something becomes part of Dreamtime the way a twitter topic rises: people accept it and use it. A hill gains a song line, when people recognize the hill, and use the song line. Dreamtime also has correspondence in that object in Dreamtime have real equivalents, hills, events, people. (Archaeology of the Dreamtime Josephine Flood, Yale University Press 1983, rev 1990)

The time aspect of Dreamtime cannot be understated, the time structure of Dreamtime is that it has an infinite past which set the state of the world, a past where actions happened that are reduced to songs and stories, a present which is the telling and the observing of Dreamtime, not the doing. Finally the future is part of the present, in that prophecy, and return are incorporated into stories, including stories of the removal of the Europeans. As a time structure, where eternal past, perfective past, imperfect past, and unrealized future all cohabitate, essentially differentiates Dreamtime from the real time world. 
Flood draws a picture of how complex the Dreamtime apparatus was, with trade networks, ceremonies and gatherings forming the crucial core of the maintaining of the integrity of the stories, and paintings and other objects used to make physical and visual the concepts. A virtual world turns principle into to visible and audible, and this the dreamtime did.

No single individual was the arbiter of Dreamtime, instead, Dreamtime, the collective, was seen as the arbiter of human morals. Meggit in 1964 summarized the situation of the Dreamtime thus:
this was balanced by thecomplexity of their religious ideas and the elaboration of their ritualactivities, which the people themselves regarded as intrinsically signi-ifcant techniques for ensuring productivity of man and nature. Thesestemmed from, and were important features of, the pan-Australian totemic philosophy — the view of the universe that regarded man, society and nature as interlocking and interacting elements in a larger,functionally integrated totality. According to Aboriginal belief, each variable in the system had an eternal, moral commitment to maintain itself unchanged for the benefit of the others and to contribute to the proper functioning of the system as a whole. As the mythical ancestors and culture heroes of the long past Dreamtime had defined the characteristics of the totality once and for all when they had participated in its creation and shaping, any subsequent change in any variable would inevitably affect the whole — and that for the worse. Thus it was the duty of every man to ensure, mainly by magico-religious means, that the status quo be preserved, an obligation that obviously ruled out most possibilities of cultural innovation, whether in the sphere of technology or of law.

This kind of world-view emerged clearly in the Aborigines' attitudes to their homeland, be it the narrowly bounded habitation of a coastal fishing group or the vast domain of wandering desert dwellers.

The territory was of course the main, if not the sole, source of food for the local unit. Even if, as was sometimes the case, the group hunted and foraged freely in the districts of similar neighbouring units, it had unequivocal title only to its own land, to the land with which it had spiritual bonds. That is to say, tribesmen did not acquire or inherit only the right to exploit the material resources of the tribal country; they also received the double privilege and obligation of maintaining the sacred tracks and sites of the ancestral and heroic beings who created the land and all its inhabitants. Here maintenance did not mean mere protection from trespass or desecration but rather that certain groups, associations, or lodges oft ribesmen were also expected to preserve and transmit unchanged the detailed myths and songs that recounted the exploits of the Dreamtimecreatures and to perform regularly the quasi-historical and religiousrituals that re-enacted the events of the Dreamtime.

In short, the Dreamtime was not unlike a large computer system, which ran somewhat without reference to the people using it, but which had to be maintained, by symbolic means. Maintaining the land was done by maintaining the stories. The stories represented the true virtual land, which present activities represented deviations from.

In modern times, we would call them "malfunctions."

Meggit's interest was in whether the aboriginals exercised self-government. Early observers from Eyre forward did not see what the natives did as "government," in that there was no command and control system where orders where given and followed. But this is a rather narrow view of government, because while commands are one way of multiply power, they are not the only way. Economic power is another, but the aboriginals did not use much in the way of economic power. A third kind, which they possessed, was cultural power, and despite there being hundreds of languages and dialects, among only a few hundred thousand people, the system was continent wide. This means it covered a larger area for a longer time than any other stable religious system before writing.

The argument for Dreamtime being a virtual world then rests on the following points:

Separation the first and most obvious pillar is that it was seen as separate in time and space and mode of participation from the real world. The story above begins with this assertion. Note that serpent is not an animal but a person.

Correspondence Never the less, the Dreamtime is the real world, in that every object and event of importance has a corresponding piece in both worlds. Even pieces that do not exist, such as describing the still towering barrier reefs that the first people crossed to come to Australia. Stone artifacts are found under the sea, where these reefs are now. In the story above, the territory of the rainbow serpent people is defined by the mountains that he makes as boundaries, the gorges and the rivers that are their sustenance. However, it is not a simple demarcation of area: there is the story of unification of the wandering serpent, who then swallows the two boys. This means that there was a union of groups in this area. The serpent sacrifices the two boys, and is an outcast as a result, in a very old pattern. Since the world snake is creating this entire region, it is the boundaries of Australia, and his people came from over the sea. This myth then represents events of as long as 70,000 years ago, and at least 50,000 years ago. That it does so comes from it's description of geography, which is not that of the present, but of the time when Australia was drying out.

Interactivity People can change the Dreamtime by adding stories, as stories were added after the European invasion, and these changes resist and accept. Not all new stories spread. In another version of the myth, the boys are cut out of the serpent, and have become rainbow colored birds, Goorilla then flees and instead of being a rainbow, is a shooting star. That there are different versions is interactivity, but the interactivity is also affirmed in the myth: people can over turn the decision of a spiritual god. 

Another indication of cultural evolution is the evolution of paintings, from the first period which depicts extinct animals, to the land period where hunting animals are show in the "polychrome x-ray style" which shows spines and internal organs, to the estuarine period which focuses on fish, to the contact period. First they lived off of the native life, then they hunted the animals that were too swift to easily fall, then they fished, then they were conquered. 

Impersonality No individual is in control. This point is also made by the paintings: the changing of the world was not something the natives could control. They could slow change, and you can see why from the long history why they saw change as bad: from a wet fertile continent, to a dry and difficult one, to an invasion. Change means change for the worse in their long context. 

But these are traits of a virtual world, not a definition. The definition is found in the ability of individuals to absorb themselves in the "world" and for it to react back. It must have "worldness." As the name implies, dreams have while they last, the seemingness of wordness, but it fades, it does not have persistence, which is an attribute of impersonality. Games have interactivity, but they are only forward interactive. I mean this in the broader sense of a game. Thus I can read a novel, but I cannot change that novel. I can only change how other people read that novel by writing in turn. Games are forward interactive,  virtual worlds are two way interactive. This creates a range, from pure games, to the worlds. However, since the real world has aspects of both, there is no collapse into one form. Instead, both have  degenerate form. A world or game that loses its players, or becomes completely idiosyncratic, ceases to have the features of a world or a game

This in turn highlights an important conflict that will be detailed later in the quest for virtual identity: that of optimal against anti-pessimal strategies. An optimal strategy is one that has the highest mean return, an anti-pessimal strategy is one which avoids the worst unacceptable outcomes. As the story shows, the pessimal result for the boys was being swallowed, having too few huts was culturally optimal, but not anti-pessimal.

The Australian Dreamtime then, shows us what a virtual world without electronics, or even paper, looks like. It as a separateness which none the less produces a correspondence, it is interactive both with words and actions, and it runs independently from any individual desire, rather than being arbitrarily changeable.

What does this mean for virtual identity, to do that, we need to look at the Shaman as a figure and why he represents a virtual identity.


Arden, H. 1994 Dreamkeepers: A Spirit-Journey into Aboriginal Australia

Flood, J. 1983 rev 1990 The Archeology of Dreamtime, Yale University Press

Meggitt,M. J, 1962 Desert People, Aboriginal food-gatherers of tropical Australia, Proceedings 9th Technical Meeting, International Union for Conservation of Nature

Meggitt, M. J, 1964, Indigenous forms of government among the Australian Aborigine

M. K. Organ, 1994 Australian Aboriginal Dreaming Stories: A Chronological Bibliography of Published Works 1789-1991

Povinelli, E.A., 1993, 'Might Be Something': The Language of Indeterminacy in Australian Aboriginal Land Use, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.

Wolfe, P., 1991, On Being Woken Up: The Dreamtime in Anthropology and in Australian Settler Culture, Society for Comparative Studies in Society and History.

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