13th Gwangju Biennale — Minds Rising Spirits Tuning

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To the Bureau of Cultural Affairs, Municipality of a City in the USA: Giving, Taking, and Hiding in Plain Site

By Elizabeth A. Povinelli

To: Bureau of Cultural Affairs, Municipality of a City in the USA
Re: “Giving, taking, and hiding in plain sight.”
Fm: Elizabeth A. Povinelli

May 31, 2020

I am writing in response to your request for clarification as to why I mentioned Marcel Mauss’s classic 1930 essay, The Gift, when, after a screening of a Karrabing film, an audience member asked whether we care that some of what was being shown was not being understood, even with the generous subtitles, by non-Indigenous audiences. I do not know if you are familiar with Mauss’s text. Near the beginning of this essay, Mauss notes that the totality of social services has almost always “taken the form of the gift, the present generously given even when, in the gesture accompanying the transaction, there is only a polite fiction, formalism, and social deceit, and when really there is obligation and economic self-interest.”1 The gift offered to another is a demand—you must accept my offer and reciprocate, or you will become my enemy. In other words, rather than an act of generosity, the properly received and reciprocated gift is what guarantees social order. This guarantee contains a threat. So, why do you think an audience member’s query about translation and comprehension evoked memories of Mauss? What economies, social orders, and ongoing aggressions simmer within this simple question?

I am not sure if you were in the audience that evening, so let me first say a few things about the Karrabing Film Collective (KFC). The KFC began around 2010, three years after the 2007 Northern Territory National Emergency Response, commonly known as the “Intervention.” The Intervention refers to a set of policies that the Australian federal government implemented on the grounds of a fictitious conservative claim that the sexual abuse and neglect of children was rampant in rural Indigenous communities. On the basis of what quickly became a national sex panic, the federal government enacted broad new legislation that gave it heightened control over Aboriginal communities, including restrictions on alcohol consumption, mandatory child welfare inspections, and significantly increased levels of police surveillance and harassment. The Intervention coincided with the fallout from a riot within the rural Indigenous community, leaving approximately one quarter of the small community temporarily homeless. In extremely precarious conditions, the affected group of men, women and children decided to produce their own accounts of the issues affecting their communities. I joined these efforts; I had been living and working with the group since 1984. I think it crucial to mention these few decades’ experience of economic and social threat—part of an ongoing colonial war—if I am to more fully explain why Mauss sprung to mind.

Karrabing Film Collective, “Mermaids, or Aiden in Wonderland”, 2018

To be clear, I was not saying that Mauss provided an answer to the question of whether we cared that our films were completely comprehensible to non-Indigenous audiences. Rather, Mauss points to a set of crucial backstories. Mauss drew on an archive of settler and historical documents to make his case, flipping from the French Polynesian Islands, to Indigenous Australia, to Native America, back to the Romans and Germans and then into contemporary France. So rather than examining the accounts of gift-giving within these texts, let us look at the texts as the manifestation of the powers of giving, taking, and not-returning within the colonial world. Are you familiar, for instance, with the discursive field in which an “exchange” of words and goods occurred in the Arrernte lands in what is currently known as the Central Desert of Australia in 1896–1897?2 During this period the frontal force of the settler assault was in full swing—for example in the intentional poisoning of water holes; terraforming of Indigenous lands to make them fit for cattle, camels, sheep, and machinery; sexual assault and physical massacres. In this vortex Baldwin Spencer and Frank Gillen, a biologist and a telegraph operator respectively, offered Arrernte groups, and their neighbors, food and protection from settlers in exchange for demonstrations of their ceremonial life-worlds. Demonstrations that Spencer and Gillen expected to take a few weeks, but that the savvy Arrernte greatly prolonged. What better example of what Mauss called the implicit declaration of war within every gift?3 Accept our generosity or prepare to die. Spencer and Gillen demanded that Central Desert peoples provide them with reenactments, translations, and explanations of all their ritual knowledge in return for a few more months of protection from the ongoing assault of settler colonialism. 

This settler demand, not merely for land, but for Indigenous knowledge in exchange for bare life did not stop with Spencer and Gillen. A long line of settler ethnographic enthusiasts would set endless demands in exchange for food and other forms of rudimentary protection. Soon, the material goods and resources that Spencer and Gillen took began circulating in such a way that the value of Arrernte knowledge enhanced the power of social, psychoanalytic and critical theorists to demand more from those who had already had everything taken from them. Mauss, and later, one of his most storied interpreters, the structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, saw these forms of exchange as reflecting the history of mankind. Lévi-Strauss would end his 1969 study Elementary Structures of Kinship with this reflection: “mankind has always dreamed of seizing and fixing that fleeting moment when it was permissible to believe that the law of exchange could be evaded, that one could gain without losing, enjoy without sharing.”4 I think that this was not a history of humankind but a history of settler colonialism. At its core, this was a swindler’s game that used communication and comprehension as part of an attempt to “win”—give us more so we can understand you better; give us everything if you wish to continue to hold any value for us.

By the time late liberalism emerges with its politics of recognition, the mere acknowledgement of the worth of the colonized is deemed enough to for the colonizer to continue to demand even more. No amount of knowledge was sufficient and everything learned was held against those by whom it had been taught. “Tell us more about yourselves, how you are different, how you see the world differently.” The original theft is waved about in the background all this while, as a kind of archival threat. “Here is all we grabbed before slaughtering your ancestors. How do you measure up to the impossible task of knowing what we stole and then burned?” If the settler demand to understand was first wielded as a physical threat (tell us everything or we’ll let the police loose), it soon became a psychic one too. The settler state now uses the same archives created by Spencer, Gillen, and others, and these archives are now wielded an affective tool—mobilized as part of a discourse of melancholic loss.5 But you should also read Audra Simpson, who notes that, in trying to position the Indigenous within the field of loss, the settler state also becomes haunted by the temporal structure of its sovereignty. Every return to the source of the settler state’s difference is a return to the problem of its partial sovereignty, and its delayed reciprocity. Every return reminds the settler state of those who are still waiting for their turn or who have already turned away; there are those who in refusing the gift, declare their readiness to engage at last in war.

Karrabing Film Collective, “The Jealous One”, 2017

Hopefully you can see now that while I thought of Mauss, it wasn’t merely to say, every gift must be accepted and returned, but that the long violent history of settler colonialism contains within it demands to comprehend the Other that are always accompanied by the threat of greater violence not the desire for deeper communication. Perhaps it would be helpful to quote at some length the words of the great Martinican poet, politician, and theorist, Aimé Césaire:

That being settled, I admit that it is a good thing to place different civilizations in contact with each other; that it is an excellent thing to blend different worlds; that whatever its own particular genius may be, a civilization that withdraws into itself atrophies; that for civilizations, exchange is oxygen; that the great good fortune of Europe is to have been a crossroads, and that because it was the locus of all ideas, the receptacle of all philosophies, the meeting place of all sentiments, it was the best center for the redistribution of energy. But then I ask the following question: has colonization really placed civilizations in contact?6

The double bind of the settler gift does not then simply endure today; it has grown more complex as the bureaucratic offshoots, springing like so many tendrils from Spencer and Gillen’s legacy, have become intertwined with the elaboration of new forms of police surveillance. Perhaps, where you reside, my reference to police surveillance seems distant or abstract. But the above-described daily experience of rural Indigenous communities being followed and fined is comparable to what African American activists call “living while black.”7 The late liberal state allows Indigenous people to (re)claim8 some of their lands if they can demonstrate that they have retained a certain kind of knowledge; implying traditional knowledge whose value will only be recognized insofar as it may contribute to the archive of melancholic loss. The state acts as a gatekeeper, but once through this first gate, both the state and capital disregard the knowledge and the world practices that would keep it in living memory. This disregard is willful; it allows the state to excuse ongoing incursions made into Indigenous lands. All Indigenous people within the recognized group are treated equally, meaning corporations and state agencies are able to bypass those for whom knowledge is not in the head but in the differential relations among what Glen Coulthard calls the more-than-human relations of Native peoples.9 Meanwhile, corporations and their bureaucratic agents are unimpeded by land rights; state based rights provide corporations and states with the “certainty” that Indigenous people are denied. The state can rule that a native title no longer exists because the customs that subtend it are no longer sufficiently mimetic to warrant a place within the archive of melancholia.10 Or, the state can negate agreements and extinguish a title when convenient.11 Whether operating through state sanctioned native title procedures or lobbying for even these restricted sovereign bestowals to be abrogated, corporations do not ask who knows, cares, and feels most beholden to this land; they simply ask, do you count as someone I can seduce into relinquishing part of this land’s composition—will you give back what I allowed you to have even though it was already yours?

Perhaps at this point you can see why the question about the narrative comprehension of Karrabing films set me off? What are the dynamics of giving and receiving within Karrabing films as they circulate among local and international audiences? How do we understand a subterranean counter-current within the colonial history of the gift subtending the question—whether mere interest or deeper irritation—as to why the gift of interpretation isn’t entirely given? Imagine knowing that when you give water to open hands, much of it will trickle to the ground. How does one show without giving everything away for an uncertain pittance? And, how can one show in such a way that the primary beneficiaries are those who have been robbed by settler colonialism past and present? In other words, how does one show in such a way that the movement of the gift could be turned in a reparative direction? How does one acknowledge and confront the colonial function of the archive of melancholic loss? These questions, pertaining to the project of decolonization, ground the interpretive dynamics of Karrabing filmmaking—everything is shown, everything is audible, but only some people can understand what they are seeing and hearing because only some have the necessary metapragmatic background. This background is not merely presupposed by the films, but built into people as they make the films. Indeed, the purpose of the films is to extend and thicken a shared memory and orientation to Karrabing pasts and presents not merely as knowledge about that ancestral present but as an embodied predisposition toward it. The practice of making a film opens a space for the unexpected—finding someone who knows a part of an ancestral or historical story someone else doesn’t. Suddenly, not only might the plot, character, and setting alter, but, more importantly, the worlds of the Karrabing thicken, deepen. The effects of this process of performing for each other (and the other than human world, in performances undertaken with ancestors, totems, winds, rivers, seas, flora and fauna) don’t flow directly into the film, but flow instead against the endlessly disabling colonial discourse of Indigenous loss and settler gain.

Thus, Karrabing films register the re-accumulation of the ongoing creativity needed to maintain ancestral ties in the face of ongoing settler displacement. They counteract the toxic effects of settler sovereignty by showing without giving anything away. They place the settler recipient in the position of lack.

Does the Karrabing collective care that many parts of their films are unlikely to be understood by non-Indigenous people? I do not think of your question as naive or bad, but it is, I would argue, symptomatic of the expectations placed by non-Indigenous audiences on the films produced by colonized people. Maybe your question is also more generally symptomatic of the expectations of narrative film. The passive expectation of being given everything you had become accustomed to getting, simply for showing up. The Karrabing are not refusing your knowledge. They are not giving the middle finger to non-Indigenous viewers. Rather, the Karrabing have taken a position that insists on new relationships being formed around exchanges of knowledge. Knowledge is available. What can be learned is in full view. But to gain understanding requires greater effort of you; demands that you give back what you took and not on your terms; necessitates that you join their effort without leading. If you want the gift of knowledge you must transform yourself—become a carrier for them and not just a receiver from them. 

Karrabing Film Collective, “Wutharr, Saltwater Dreams”, 2016

1Marcell Mauss, The Gift, trans. W.D. Halls (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), 3.

2See Elizabeth A. Povinelli, “The Vulva Thieves (Atna Nylkna)” in The Cunning of Recognition: Australian Multiculturalism and Indigenous Alterity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), 71–110. Alison Petch, “Spencer and Gillen’s Work in Australia: The Interpretation of Power and Collecting in the Past,” Journal of Museum Ethnography (March 2003), 82–93.

3“To refuse to give, to fail to invite, just as to refuse to accept, is tantamount to declaring war; it is to reject the bond of alliance and commonality.” Mauss, The Gift, 13.

4Claude Lévi-Strauss, Elementary Structures of Kinship, trans. James Harle Bell, John Richard von Sturmer and Rodney Needham (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969).

5“In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself.” Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey, Volume XIV (1914–1916) (London: The Hogarth Press, 2001), 243–58.

6Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, trans. Joan Pinkham (New York: Monthly Press, 2000), 33.

7#livingwhileblack is a hashtag used to bring attention to racial bias and racist policing, in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement.

8The land claim should be land reclaim or lands never ceded.

9Glen Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).

10“When the tide of history has washed away any real acknowledgment of traditional law and any real observance of traditional customs, the foundation of native title has disappeared.” Mabo v Queensland (No 2) HCA 23 (1992) 175 CLR 1 (June 3, 1992), High Court.

11Thus, the Queensland state government extinguished native title over lands earmarked for the controversial Adani coalmine. See Ben Doherty, “Queensland extinguishes native title over Indigenous land to make way for Adani coalmine,” Guardian (August 31, 2019), https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/aug/31/queensland-extinguishes-native-title-over-indigenous-land-to-make-way-for-adani-coalmine. See also the documentary film, Undermined, Tales from the Kimberley, dir. Nicholas D. Wrathall (2018), or Rachel O’Reilly’s research project The Gas Imaginary (2011–ongoing).


Elizabeth A. Povinelli is an anthropologist and filmmaker. She is Franz Boas Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, New York; Corresponding Fellow of the Australian Academy for the Humanities; and one of the founding members of the Karrabing Film Collective. Povinelli’s writing has focused on developing a critical theory of late liberalism that would support an anthropology of the otherwise. This potential theory has unfolded primarily from within a sustained relationship with Indigenous colleagues in north Australia and across five books, numerous essays, and six films with the Karrabing Film Collective. Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism was the 2017 recipient of the Lionel Trilling Book Award. Karrabing films were awarded the 2015 Visible Award and the 2015 Cinema Nova Award Best Short Fiction Film, Melbourne International Film Festival and have shown internationally including in the Berlinale, Sydney Biennale; MIFF, the Tate Modern, documenta-14, the Contour Biennale; MoMA-PS and numerous others.