Interview with DB from Contested Commons/Trespassing Publics Conference, Sarai-CSDS, Delhi

Danny Butt, Independent Consultant In Conversation with Anand Taneja, Sarai-CSDS , January 2005. See the conference website for a downloadable copy of the excellent book that this appears in.

AT: You grew up in Australia and moved to New Zealand; your work focuses a lot on Indigenous conceptions and what these can say to Western academia and Western modes of thinking about identity and about property, among other things. Could you map that trajectory for us, in more detail?

DB: I’m from Newcastle, on the east coast of Australia. I spent my first nine years there. Meaghan Morris, the renowned Australian cultural studies scholar, is also from that region, and so is the Marxist theorist McKenzie Wark, who is attending this conference – I would feel honoured to have a place in this tradition!

My teenage years were spent on Australia’s Gold Coast, a kind of tourist resort modelled on Miami Beach. It’s interesting, I think, to grow up in a place where there is no sense of authenticity available to you in your immediate environment. So when I moved from Australia to New Zealand, one of the things I was thinking about a lot was how to make sense of the difference between those two spaces.

On the one hand they’re very similar, because I can move to New Zealand without any trouble, I can operate culturally there, even though there are these nationalistic discourses that proclaim difference through sporting teams, cultural jokes, etc. But what is extremely different is New Zealand being settled by Maori/Polynesian peoples, and Australia having Indigenous people with a very different social structure and relationship to the land for many tens of thousands of years.

This seemed a significant difference to me, and it led me to wonder why no one told me about those differences when I was growing up; why as a white settler, I was not expected to engage with Indigenous people. I had no idea at all who they were as people rather than as figures of history, not that I was even given much of that. There was a single class at school on those issues, and it was for Aboriginal students.

I learned some of it through Australian cultural studies, but I was discovering it on my own, I had dropped out of the academy to play punk rock music in Sydney, and it was the music community that eventually took me to New Zealand. So there were a lot of factors, but it was the move and the constant shuttling between Australia and New Zealand that led me to think about the relationship between these two white settler colonies – which brought up for me the question of what happened, historically, in each of these places.

What I’ve discovered through my engagement and work with Indigenous peoples, their political struggles, and their ways of life is a real sense of place and location, and I think these have a lot to offer Western thought, essentially…The struggle of Indigenous people for their rights has focused around issues like the natural environment, cultural rights; their issues address the blind spots in Western political theory that are nevertheless popular areas of political and social tension. One of the things I noticed when I started working in the academy was how few Australian and New Zealand scholars took this work seriously, how few familiarised themselves with Indigenous people, their cultures and aspirations, as something to be learnt from, rather than something to be studied and that knowledge trafficked back out to European academia, which has been the dominant anthropological mode. That encounter has led me to much deeper questions – about cultural practice, about the limits of language, about how we learn from each other, our engagements with each other – that are very central to the whole information society and economy debates, for example, and debates on cultural industries, cultural economies…My work in relation to Indigenous issues has been very useful for framing those questions in my own thinking. In general, most such discussions have been framed within what seems to me to be a useful but very limited set of political discourses within Western political theory. The struggle of Indigenous peoples is one of the most important struggles emerging…it talks about cultural processes and rights outside of the sphere of nation states. That’s very important. I grew up in an ideology of cultural nationalism; and the more I learn about the world, the idea of the nation-state defining the boundaries of cultural and social practices seems to me to be a pernicious force in so many ways that I can’t believe no one ever told me.

AT: At this conference, you gave a critique of “disembodied knowledge”, and of the Western conception of property that is largely about the transfer of property. Is there a tension here, of these ideas in relation to ideas about the global free flow of information that’s also being discussed at the conference?

DB: The global free flow of information versus embodied knowledge…? Yes, that’s a tension, and I think Rosemary Coombe’s work addresses that tension quite well. She makes the point that the assertion of Indigeneity into global forums, or the assertion of intellectual property rights over Indigenous knowledge, are absolutely defensive mechanisms. They’re not necessarily things that Indigenous groups feel they need to do, they don’t want to sit around in international forums advocating for their rights, but they’ve been subjected to those global flows and are seeking to divert them.

It’s also a tension for people who have very strong connections to particular locations, to do this defensive work in the global information sphere, seeking to protect the rights of others in analogous situations. It’s a productive tension, also an unavoidable one that we need to think through.

If we are going to be critical of the flows of global institutionalised capital and what it’s doing to the world, we need to have a very clear understanding of our own investment in that process, and how we are located in relation to that process, and how that location constrains our ability to think “the global”. Otherwise our critique maps itself onto the same territory as global information capital; it has no base, it gets caught into a logic of assimilation. You see this sometimes at conferences on intellectual property – it moves into a game of words, where people promote their competing visions of the “global”, each claiming to be more able to accommodate a wider variety of situations, attempting to find synthesis across disparate areas. And there are limitations to that.

If we look at the movements that actually inspire people towards political action, they’re embodied; they’re about things that we feel in ourselves. There’s no such thing as knowledge that isn’t embodied. The information economies discussion, for example, or the globalisation discussion as it’s articulated through Western political theory, is embodied in a particular way, unselfconsciously, that prevents access of people into that discussion.

We were talking at the conference about the free software movement and the threat it poses to information exploitation. However, the empirical studies of the free software movement show that 98% of the respondents to the studies are male! To me, that’s not a marginal statistic. It is something that makes a point about the ability of the free software movement’s claims to liberate the entire world – we’re missing half of the world, there. But we can have a language that says, “Well, in time we’ll eventually be able to include the missing; we’ll work on our deficiencies, and improve them.” If we don’t do this, if we assume that this lack of representation is some accident of history, we can’t renovate it into the global movement it could be.

It’s the same issue with global modernity and development capitalism, which says, “Well, eventually the developing world will gain part of this bounty.” In fact, if we look at it, global capital is constituted on this divisioning, this subalternisation of the rural developing world. And I’d say the same thing about some of the rhetorics of global capitalism and the information economy. They are constituted in what they exclude from that discussion. That’s the lesson one learns from feminist theory, where an analysis of these kinds of exclusions has been repeated for a long time.

AT: Some of your research that I’ve read seems to have an angry punk rock energy…What are the Maori saying to the punk rocker, in your work?

DB: Usually, “Chill out and relax…!”

AT: You’ve been in the music publishing industry, which also deals with embodying property, in a sense. Now you’re looking at both embodiment and property from a different angle. What are the Maori telling the punk rocker, in this regard…?

DB: The encounter with Indigenous knowledge provides me with a number of things that are important to me. One is a way of imagining another world in a very embodied and concrete manner…as much as I always attempt to deconstruct a romantic figuring of the Indigenous as primitive or non-modern, I don’t want to disavow the romantic aspect of it in my own desire to learn more about other knowledge systems. Peter Linebaugh’s presentation at the conference brought that out: the romance of a particular historical narrative. It’s about the engagement with the ‘other’ that has driven a lot of my own work and that of many people in various fields.

But very concretely, Maori epistemology brings in a textual relationship that allows me to feel grounded and in place where I am – perversely, this happens by undermining any latent feelings of “rights” over the land where I live. In the two countries where I have lived, Indigenous empistemologies provide examples of social relationships that rely on situated knowledge. The fantasy of white liberal egalitarianism that I was brought up on completely lacked that sense of location, of subjectivity…the history I was given was literally science fiction.

And the Indigenous political struggle is a very important one. It is anti-colonial, an interdisciplinary political activity that is not limited to spheres of economics, or racism, or issues of environment – it brings all of these things in together. That seems to me to be very important for the Euro-US left, consumed with single-issues, to come to terms with.

The other thing is that my engagement with the Indigenous people where I am gives me a very strong sense of history, and of the importance of time and the value of time. James Clifford tells a story of an Indigenous woman from Alaska, who said that what was happening since the Russians came was just a storm that would eventually pass. She wasn’t even worried about the US occupation! This is a long-term perspective of cultural survival that is very humbling for someone like me, who grew up believing not only that you can change the world if you try hard enough, but that would be a good thing. Far from true.

So I don’t know if I would consider myself a punk rocker these days! That moment and that politicisation were very important. Of the people that I know who are working in the Western epistemological tradition, a lot of the ones that I really like have this sense of being involved in something – whether it’s civil rights, or punk rock, or hip hop, or some politically charged social movement. That’s the work I’m interested in.

The question I turn over a lot is, “What do I bring that is useful, into an Indigenous environment?” It’s a vexed question. For the Maori, most of their engagement with white culture has had very negative effects. Why would my input be any different? It’s a very different space to negotiate, and one in which I am not always sure I’m doing the right thing. But I go into those spaces and try to be honest about what I’m doing, and try and make sure my work is being evaluated by people with expertise. James Ritchie, who has done a lot of work supporting Maori aspirations in New Zealand, had two rules: one, don’t do anything unless asked; and two, always have a guide.

They’re good rules and surprisingly easy to forget.

Indigenous groups are very significantly affected by global flows of capital, but those flows of capital are the source of my culture. I’ve worked in the largest advertising agency in New Zealand, for instance. I’ve been given all of the tools to understand how these flows of capital work, how these inequalities are generated. Luckily I’ve also been given a sensibility, somehow, and I’m trying to use that understanding in response to the aspirations of people who are most excluded from these global flows. The sensibility is about shared languages, building trust and shared senses of what is important.

AT: Could you clarify the comment you made about Malcolm X during one of the conference sessions?

DB: If you take Peter Linebaugh’s story of the commons in English history: I’ve heard that story many times, including good, critical versions. But the concepts themselves seem to be articulated and put forward as solutions. It’s not clear to me at all how advocating for a return to the commons is a solution in the contemporary environment.

However, if you look at these stories through the lens of Malcolm X, for example, think about what he would find interesting in the stories, then suddenly they become vibrant again. That’s what I think Linebaugh’s doing.

And I think Indigenous epistemology is something like that. If we look at issues of globalisation through various Indigenous epistemologies, or through the perspective of the developing world, or through the perspective of Public Enemy or hip hop – these are frames that we can use to open up new questions of cultural material.

AT: What are you taking back from this conference?

DB: I’ll take back a great deal of pleasure about returning to Sarai, for one thing. I always feel, from the first time I came here, and also keeping track via the various publications and the Reader- list, that this a space where numerous diverse practices are being brought together in very interesting ways, with a real openness and generosity. So the discussions here are always very stimulating. I always go back thinking new things I hadn’t thought about before. Seeing the range of practices people are involved in here, and how Sarai considers what’s important about their work: I think that’s the key thing.

I learn most from people who frame what’s important in a certain way that affects my own thinking about it. When I come into meetings like this conference, my set of priorities feels like it’s being transformed, in ways I can’t describe. It’s a crucial process, one that is often unfairly contrasted to more ‘pragmatic’ concerns. The day my priorities stop being transformed through these relationships with others, is when I’ll fall over…

And I see this as the big question for me: how do we put in place structures that allow us to continually have our ways of thinking and our ways of life and our priorities transformed through relationships with others?

Hopefully, that’s what the networks that are starting to emerge will achieve.