Philosophical Series “Culture is in fact a river of sand”

The Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir at the Desert Song Festival 2017 in Alice Springs.
The Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir at the Desert Song Festival 2017 in Alice Springs. | Photo: Andreas Weber

A philosophical tour group is travelling the Australian desert. Together with Philosophie Magazin, the Goethe-Institut Sydney invited four German philosophers and humanities scholars to Australia for ten days. They are dealing with the human identity in a world of increasing fragmentation and alienation, even from nature.

“Perhaps culture is in fact a river of sand, like the River Todd in Alice Springs, Australia. On the surface, we see the dry dunes that were formed by long-past flooding, while in the depths, fresh water flows unseen.” That is one of the insights that the philosopher and editor-in-chief of Berlin-based Philosophie Magazin, Wolfram Eilenberger, brought home from a ten-day journey through Australia.
 

  • Aborigines believe that rocks embody human identity. Photo: Andreas Weber Photo: Andreas Weber
    Aborigines believe that rocks embody human identity.
  • The first stop of the group's trip is in the desert of Alice Springs. Photo: Andreas Weber Photo: Andreas Weber
    The first stop of the group's trip is in the desert of Alice Springs.
  • A graffiti shows the history of Australian settlers. Photo: Andreas Weber Photo: Andreas Weber
    A graffiti shows the history of Australian settlers.
  • In Australia, humans and the natur have always been related. Photo: Andreas Weber Photo: Andreas Weber
    In Australia, humans and the natur have always been related.
  • At The Ethics Centre, the philosophers discuss on the topic Photo: Goethe-Institut Sydney
    At The Ethics Centre, the philosophers discuss on the topic "Culture and Identity".

 
Each of the four intellectuals who, after the nearly thirty-hour flight, finally breathed the dry air of the Australian semi-desert, do not formulate their theories from the mainstream of their respective disciplines, but instead offer them new interpretations from the periphery. This apparent disguisedness – the unexpected, the repressed and sometimes difficult to swallow – proved to be the key topic on their entire journey.

Seeking focal points of the present

Eilenberger, accompanied by the team from the Goethe-Institut Sydney, Sonja Griegoschweski and Jochen Gutsch, was joined on the journey by the Berlin art historian Charlotte Klonk, whose most recent book deals with how images are presently being employed as instruments of terror and who therefore sees art as a political device. Fritz Breithaupt is currently teaching in Bloomington, Indiana in the United States. The German scholar just wrote a bestseller on the “Dark Sides of Empathy” and also teaches students in cognition research. Andreas Weber from Berlin, originally a marine biologist, is drafting a new philosophy of life as a creative and expressive process.
 
The tour was the first officially sponsored exchange between German and Australian philosophers. It was not just a non-committal getting-to-know-you event; for Goethe director Sonja Griegoschweski, from the outset the objective was to identify common energy fields that articulate the focal points of the present both in Germany and in Australia. “The aim of this first journey is to make contacts that will lead to lasting connections,” explains Griegoschweski. She is hoping to start a system of regular guest researcher stays in Australia.

Discussion about responsibility and humanity

The title Responsibility & Humanity – Culture, Nature and Terror outlines the basic questions that were discussed at each of the three panels in Alice Springs, Sydney and Melbourne: What is human identity in a world of increasing fragmentation and alienation, even from nature? These are questions that were first asked in this breadth by the German philosophical tradition during the Romantic Era, but then often lagged behind the study of language and discourse in the history of philosophy, although they are centrally relevant to human life on earth.
 
In the audience talks with Australian intellectuals such as the ethicist Simon Longstaff, the legal historian Desmond Manderson, the musician and director of Alice Springs Desert Park Paul Ah Chee Ngala, who comes from the Arrernte aboriginal people, it became clear time and again that Germans can be inspired by the Australian continent. On the journey, it sometimes seemed to the Germans that they had to fly 14,000 kilometres around the world to see their own questions clearly.
 
This was not just because of the flourishing philosophical debate and participation in a vibrant metropolitan culture in Sydney and Melbourne, but actually because of problems that are also unresolved on the gigantic continent in the southern hemisphere. Among these, the situation of the “traditional guardians of the land,” as the aboriginal people are called here, was evident to all.
 
This became clear because the philosophers’ journey began in the desert – and thus approached the phenomenon of Australia from perhaps the most fruitful aspect. Many aboriginal descendants live precarious, marginalized lives in remote communities in the outback. But their culture in particular could help to answer the question of human identity not only in the coexistence of the differences among human beings but in relation to all that lives.

Nature and humankind could be one

For this 80,000-year-old civilisation never separated itself from nature as the West still does today; in Australia, humans and nature were always connected and related. Even today, rocks still have souls and embody human identity. “In many places, the land is still ritually brought to life in song by the aboriginal inhabitants,” says environmental philosopher Freya Mathews from Melbourne.
 
Hence, whoever wants to re-illuminate the relationship of humankind to the world, and above all to nature, and thus attempt to tie into the most fruitful driving force of German thought, could profit from a journey to the desert at the other end of the world. Under the river of sand that winds through Alice Springs this soul has not yet been lost.