The secret sacred myths of Tomanwendiji

Issue 

The Royal Commission into the conflict over the Hindmarsh Island Bridge is currently under way in South Australia. Although an enormous amount of attention has been devoted to the beliefs of the Ngarrindjeri women, there has been no corresponding interest in the beliefs of the developers. This commentary by ADE PEACE rectifies the imbalance.

In the preface to his collection Mythologies, Roland Barthes argues that he was driven by impatience at seeing how a combination of media presentation and common sense simplistically dresses up social reality as natural when, without doubt, it is a complex product of historical circumstance.

His motivation was to unmask "the ideological abuse" which thus transformed the specifics of petty bourgeois thought into uncontestable universal propositions. Subsequently Barthes was run over by a bread van on the streets of Paris. But were the grand old semiotician still alive today, he would revel in the war over Kumarangk.

As the deeply tribal Tomanwendiji find themselves in dispute with ethnic rivals the Ngarrindjeri, the secret sacred character of their most profound myths has spilled into the public arena. The entrails are there — exposed for anyone to pore over before the contents become naturalised to the point of total unassailability.

The initial proposition which informs all others in Tomanwendiji cosmology is that nature is incomplete and partial. On the whole, it is not a bad effort — but it's a job which has been done inadequately, and it falls to the more imaginative and innovative members of the tribe to take the process further.

This does not apply to all nature, mind: but it assuredly applies to that which lies within striking distance of the civilised urban world. This includes The Island. Inasmuch as this contentious plot is (to those inclined to do such things, anyway) describable as arid, bare, desolate, a rather rough-and-ready corner of creation, so it is the obligation of responsible and conscientious folk to change it. To work on nature and transform it regardless is a perfectly natural thing to do.

Not only quite natural, but also most laudable when it can be done under the rubric of Development. Development is the key symbol in the Tomanwendiji belief system, one to which sacred places belonging to other ethnic groups are frequently sacrificed once captured.

More than any other cosmological element, Development is a good thing, a fine thing, an admirable thing, not least because it can assume so many tangible shrine-like forms. These give meaning to work which wouldn't have any otherwise, lend direction to career routes which would dissolve into anomie without them and accord purpose to existence in general — notwithstanding the occasional questioning by a few tribal sceptics.

When faced with an environment, whatever you do — true Tomanwendijis insist — do not leave it alone: that would be sacrilege, an invitation to be mauled monthly in that holiest of tabloids, the Adelaide Review.

Tomanwendijis practise what they preach: without its fleet of boats, without a marina, without some townhouses, without a few delis and restaurants, this place called The Island will remain a wasted wilderness. Therein lies the fault of previous inhabitants, therein lies the weakness of rival claimants: they are content to look, to listen, to merely contemplate. They have refused to recognise the hallowed markers of PFD (Potential For Development) and so have been overrun by the wheels of progress.

Why must progress come to pass on The Island, as surely as night follows day? For the same reason which informs all Development in Tomanwendiji thinking: the greater good will be realised by harnessing, and then unleashing, the power of Capital.

Although its possession may be the privilege of a few and its distribution in the hands of even fewer, the magic of Capital is always to benefit the society in its entirety, and this by the most natural of all forces: "the trickle down effect" which follows from Capital producing wealth. On this issue, at least, the philosophical sceptics have been roundly ousted by the economists of modern times.

To believe, incorrigibly, that people generate wealth, to suggest that labour is the source of value, to claim that men and women provision profit, is to remain wedded to beliefs that have been consigned to the dustbins of history. It is Capital which produces prosperity, and it does so magically, without oppression, without exploitation, without the exercise of power. From Capital, wealth flows effortlessly, unproblematically and naturally, eventually to reach even the barren wasteland of The Island once The Bridge as its conduit is finally in place, once the idlers and the innocents who want merely to contemplate are firmly and decisively removed from view.

Considering the logical force of these arguments, it is surprising that some Tomanwendiji clans are less wedded to these beliefs than others. In some cases, their disbelief is a product of their never having been told about the intricate mechanics of Capital's productivity. This is a scandal, in the eyes of Tomanwendiji's leaders, for they have over the years been assiduous in building shrines to Classical Economy throughout the urban fabric. That the belief system remains unknown and unappreciated by the minor clans of the Unemployed, the Underclass and the Unconnected (in each instance the "U" signalling that they are ranked near last) is clearly something to be integrated into the next Grand Plan.

On the other hand, such disbelief (which may be fabricated, or genuine, or some combination of both, for since these clans are all "U"s and therefore Usually Untrustworthy, who is to say?) remains difficult to comprehend when the arbiters of truth were so effectively mobilised in the territorial war waged over The Island.

Through the not-quite-global-yet net of Channel Nine, the Advertiser, and the Adelaide Review, regionally known in non-Tomanwendiji circles by the shorthand NAARC, the unrolling phalanx of journos proved assiduous in their search for truth. And they used their tools of trade with inventiveness and ingenuity to rank the rational and logical character of Tomanwendiji thought well above the dubious, not to say fabricated, quality of rival beliefs.

Thus static photographs of the Ngarrindjeri placed them firmly in the barren wasteland of nature, merely contemplating The Island so transparently crying out for Development. By contrast, on the small screen Tomanwendiji tribal leaders recurrently emerged from their suburban bungalow, unassailable symbol of cultural respectability and propriety. And they always carried between them a vast map — arch-product of rational thought, always the means to technological progress, commonsensically the inscription genre with which to validate Development.

Yet despite their sterling work, the journos' collective rallying proved inadequate to the task, making it necessary to turn finally from the little myths constructed on the small screen to the vast myths available to the big inquiry. For in the mythological order of Tomanwendijiism, no myth is more potent than the belief that the truth can be uncovered by A Royal Commissioner.

Here truly is the link between the cosmology of contemporary Tomanwendiji and other primitive belief systems: that in the presence and through the perspicacity of a single being truth will ultimately be revealed. To be sure, this is no ordinary single being. For those who are Royal Commissioners have always been removed by their backgrounds, their training, their occupations and their professional networks from the everyday worlds of ordinary folk in order that they will better understand whether such folk are capable of telling the truth or not.

All this is sensible and proper enough, and it is reinforced by many rituals: a special place set aside, a special time reserved, a special language to separate insiders from outsiders. Finally, and most important of all, a special occasion at which the truth will be revealed in the form of a special document, The Findings.

It is possible that not all members of the Tomanwendiji tribe will find The Findings wholly convincing; it is certain that many non-Tomanwendiji will reject them outright.

But the fault lies not so much in the ignorance of the latter as in occasional weaknesses displayed by the former. The Tomanwendiji tribe, or at least some of its more wayward (which is to say liberal) members, have failed to colonise the minds of ethnic rivals with the same effectiveness that it colonised their lands.

The great gods of Capital and Development have yet to be sold to these cultural Others with the assiduity and zeal with which they have been promulgated elsewhere. This is the immediate objective for Kumarangk: to ensure that it ceases to be an object for contemplation and that it is properly recognised as a PFD. Today Kumarangk, tomorrow everywhere else. What could possibly be contentious about something as natural and commonsensical as that?