Chorography and Toute-eau in the Waters of Lower Murray Country

By | 1 May 2019

I acknowledge the Kaurna Nation as the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which the University of Adelaide is located; and I acknowledge the Ngarrindjeri Nation as the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which this research bears – lands which were never ceded. I respect and acknowledge their respective ongoing relationships with these lands and their connected bodies of water.

The unity is submarine
breathing air, our problem is how to study the fragments

Edward Kamau Brathwaite (‘Caribbean Man in Space and Time’ 1)

The first line of this fragment by poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite opens philosopher Édouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation. ‘The unity is submarine’. This phrase summarises the orientation of Glissant’s lifework: waters, as the pivot around which to wrap our breathing bodies and imagine a shimmering totality; waters, where the world perpetually swirls and flows together as currents – both aerial and aquatic – carry its many different manifestations from one state to the other. Waters transform. They exchange through collision with others, and yet, they always retain their unicity – their (molecular) structure – even if invisible, buried, quietened, (over)pumped. They remain waters, in their irreducible unity-diversity.

For Glissant, waters are more than simply an abstraction: they give him his raison d’être. Despite the broad reach and implications of his theories in global post/decolonial discourses, he indeed never loses sight of his geographical positioning. He remains firmly anchored in the Caribbean archipelago at all times. And constantly, repeatedly, these archipelagic roots and routes surround him and his words with waters.1 His work stretches around waters, across waters, within waters: it is full of waters. It is itself watery: fluid, malleable, opaque: boundless. It perfectly illustrates philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s statement: ‘(l)iquidity is a principle of language; the language must be swollen with waters’ (258). Glissant’s poetics can thus be equated to a methodology of waters – an aqueous methodology – designed to support and allow for (to respect) textual manifestations or restorations of watery movements. As such, his work underpins my research – it is pivotal to generate a framework of academic deconstruction2 which permits me to weave syntax creation within the text and effectively design an essay that is cognisant of waters’ movements and behaviours: their geo-temporal fluidity and porosity destabilise the text and speak through both form and content.

The unity is submarine
breathing air, our problem is how to study the fragments

This essay is concerned with this submarine unity: a unity which is to be found underwater – within the waters. It aims to intertwine fragments – to study them (as) whole – by using the rhythms of waters (both intrinsic and human-produced) to shift in between (that is, disrupt) states, perspectives and chronologies. More precisely, this essay consists of hearing the echoes of Glissant’s Tout-monde within the waters of Lower Murray Country; or even more precisely, it aims to articulate these waters as Toute-eau (Whole-water or All-water3) themselves: an imaginary realm of creativity emerging from the forever-expanding totality of all waters, in both space and time.

The fragments under scrutiny are disparate: I move in between (within) bodies of waters. I move in between (within) Lower Murray Country, the Pacific and the Atlantic – through my Glissantian all-connector. These fragments belong to the sonic realm: I explore the unity to be found in watery depth through sound and forms of sonority. I discuss Ngarrindjeri and settler music, collaborative music that crosses ethno- and anthropocentric boundaries; the silence of Murrundi / Murray River’s dried mouth with its brace-barrages, and the compensating loudness of atmospheric rivers – rivers in the sky.

This essay is both associative and cumulative. I approach it as a journey: I follow relationships and passages defined and informed by watery rhythms. I travel from the human to the more-than-human, from the micro to the macro, from the local to the global, from the sky to the earth, from me to (my) others. Glissant says: ‘(t)o write is to speak: the world’ (‘From The Whole-World Treatise’ 32). Relinquishing former absolutes, I slip inside and underneath sound to draw together a series of antagonisms which are progressively brought into collaboration to create, not a synthesis, but a mosaic where each constituent of a pair carries within itself the totality of its counterpart, and of the world; a mosaic where each constituent pays attention to, and composes with, the other.

This journey is unrevised – I retrace my steps (I repeat myself); it does not follow a linear progression but records twists and turns, unlike explorers’ expunged accounts. As spatial historian Paul Carter argues: ‘(t)o describe a country is not to stand back, as if one were not there, but to travel it again. … history and the making of history are one and the same thing’ (The Road 346). This essay is therefore an exercise in imagination. The totality that I speak of is never totalising: this is precisely what imagination prevents. The silences of/in the text are due to its incomplete, partial and fragmentary nature; they are not reducing or essentialising. They leave the text open (to interpretation, to rewriting, to disintegration); open to become another text already. It is a text-in-becoming.

This essay is conceived (built) as a chant to Lower Murray Country’s waters. It rolls over these waters and sings them into textual being.4 This is my contribution, and I wish it to account for a ‘horizon of possibilities’5 that is not happily cradled in environmental degradation, but fights to spring again from the ruins of colonisation. I am ‘breathing air’ as I sing-write. Breath translates as pneuma (πνεῦμα) in Ancient Greek. It also means soul, spirit or creative life force. My breath carries my voice. Exhalations and inhalations give its rhythm to my strokes on the keyboard. My breathing is cyclical; it is tidal. The gestational power of waters6 contributes to my state of mind. Waters run through my veins. With each breath I take, I feel them under my skin. I am pregnant with hopes. Waters show me how to hope. They imprint my body with their rhythms. There is an affective dimension to ‘breathing air’. Breathing implies feeling. I am not alone. My body-as-affect (my affective body) connects to others. Cultural studies scholar Anna Gibbs writes: ‘(r)hythm traverses individual bodies, linking them in affectivity or responsiveness to the world’ (229). ‘(B)reathing air’ generates fertile terrains of affective cross-pollination. It has the potential to transform through connections. This is why explorations of watery sound can be used to (re)create emplaced dialogues. ‘The unity is submarine’: the rhythms of waters intertwine the fragments. They are un-fragmenting.

  1. This centrality of waters for / in both the man and the oeuvre is reinforced by a violent history of movements over waters for his home-island of Martinique: it is a place defined and constructed by waters; where waters represent the lost cemeteries of memories, the removal from the African motherland; where waters carry both the sunken slave ships and the colonial ideal, the ‘here-now’ and the ‘there-then’, forever joined in the tumults of the aqueous abyss, and yet never truly meeting on the flattened land.
  2. This deconstruction of the ‘storehouse’ is always limited, as postcolonial concepts are themselves academic constructs, and it is hard to free them from imposed frameworks (Tuhiwai Smith).
  3. I have chosen to coin the term in French so that my reference to the Glissantian Tout-monde never fades away.
  4. I like this notion of chant. Glissant writes: ‘(l)iving relation is thus for each to yell the chant of the earth, and sing at length the dawn where it appears and, already, melts’ (L’Intention 209). Philosopher Gaston Bachelard concurs: ‘imagination is … the capacity to form images that exceed reality, that sing reality’ (23).
  5. This phrase, used by historian Yuval Harari, encompasses ‘the entire spectrum of beliefs, practices and experiences open to each society’ (61).
  6. This gestational power has been described as a constant source of (re)creation (Neimanis; Chen et al.).
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