Multidirectional eco-memory in an era of extinction

Colonial whaling and indigenous dispossession in Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance

Authored by: Rosanne Kennedy

The Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities

Print publication date:  January  2017
Online publication date:  January  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138786745
eBook ISBN: 9781315766355
Adobe ISBN: 9781317660194




That great America on the other side of the sphere, Australia, was given to the enlightened world by the whaleman … The whale-ship … the true mother of that now mighty colony … cleared the way for the missionary and the merchant.

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Multidirectional eco-memory in an era of extinction

That great America on the other side of the sphere, Australia, was given to the enlightened world by the whaleman … The whale-ship … the true mother of that now mighty colony … cleared the way for the missionary and the merchant.

—Hermann Melville, Moby-Dick

Literary remembrance: the environments of cultural memory

In this chapter, I aim to demonstrate that cultural memory studies can contribute to postcolonial environmental humanities by introducing concepts, approaches, and texts that bring histories of the decline and resilience of human and animal populations into an expanded commemorative frame. Remembering these intertwined histories may, I argue, enable us to think more fruitfully about connections between animal suffering and human suffering, and between extinction and genocide today. Building on Michael Rothberg’s (2009) concept of “multidirectional memory,” I introduce the concept of “multidirectional eco-memory,” which has particular relevance in an era of extinction. He proposes multidirectional memory as an alternative to competitive conceptions of memory in which, for instance, commemorating the Holocaust is seen as obscuring memories of other atrocities such as slavery (3). Memory need not be viewed as competitive in a zero-sum game, he argues; rather, “[w]hen the productive, intercultural dynamic of multidirectional memory is explicitly claimed … it has the potential to create new forms of solidarity and new visions of justice” (5). Rothberg is concerned with how social groups articulate histories of victimization, and the dynamic transfers between public memories in a multicultural, transnational world (2). Multidirectional eco-memory, as I conceive it, would link human and nonhuman animals and their histories of harm, suffering, and vulnerability in an expanded multispecies frame of remembrance.

What I am calling “eco-memory,” I should stress, encompasses but differs from the memory of place, which is typically associated with the anthropocentric concept of collective identity. In contrast, I propose eco-memory as grounded in a deep memory of a habitat, conceived as an ecological assemblage in which all elements, human and nonhuman, are mobile, connected, and interactive. Eco-memory, as I elaborate it, is not tied to the usual local or national landscapes of personal or collective memory; rather, it is compatible with an indigenous conception of “country.” Eco-memory requires critics to expand outwards to a multispecies horizon that includes the oceans and their creatures, and to examine how events, actions, and processes affect elements in the assemblage. Multidirectional eco-memory places memories of the violence against and dispossession of particular human populations in complex, nuanced relation to memories of the suffering, slaughter, and endangerment of animal populations. It means seeing ecological vulnerability neither exclusively in human animal nor in nonhuman animal terms but as interconnected.

I illustrate the productivity of multidirectional eco-memory through a reading of Kim Scott’s novel That Deadman Dance (2010). Writing in the wake of Moby-Dick, which haunts all later fictions on whaling, Scott takes the largely forgotten history of the whale-ship as a “machine of empire” and an “engine of commerce” (Russell 19) as the vehicle for his historical narrative of cross-cultural and cross-species encounters on the Western Australia maritime frontier. His novel imaginatively remembers, within the settler colonial framework of a narrative of first contact, the contribution of commercial whaling to the “becoming precarious” of both indigenous and whale populations. An act of literary remembrance that creates “new structures of cultural perception” (Goodbody 58) through its representation of human and animal suffering and survival, the novel mediates how we remember the past in the present. The novel, I argue, offers an expansive “multidirectional” alternative to environmental activist memories of the near extinction of the whale, which tend to ignore the ways in which whaling also facilitated the dispossession of indigenous peoples and the destruction of their country.

Although acts of remembrance commemorate past events, they intervene in the present and shape understandings of contemporary issues. As an interdisciplinary field spanning humanities and social sciences, cultural memory studies is concerned with how societies remember their past, and how those memories shape identities, issues, and discourses in the present (Erll and Nunning). Cultural memory studies analyzes the cultural forms and media—literature, film, photography, museums, memorials, and commemorative rituals—through which public memory is produced and shared on local, national, and global scales. A concern in the field is the backward orientation of memory, at a time when the planetary challenges identified under the rubric of the Anthropocene demand attention (Huyssen; Crownshaw et al.). While memory scholars have recently begun to address these issues—for instance, in critical analyses of fiction and film that address climate change, carbon emissions, oil futures, and ruined landscapes—they have not yet engaged extensively with the extinction crisis, for instance through memories of the destruction of species and their habitats (for exceptions, see Rose; Kennedy).

To date, the few scholars forging connections between ecocriticism and cultural memory studies have tended to conceptualize the environment in terms of place understood as land or landscape. For instance, Lawrence Buell values literature as a crucial archive for articulating an “environmental memory” of landscapes such as gardens. As Stephanie LeMenager and Stephanie Foote observe, “without the environmental memory that literary archives provide, we might never know what places looked or felt like before their injury, the extent of habitat destruction or the baseline of ecological health” (575). It is precisely the felt dimension of place that Axel Goodbody foregrounds in considering how the insights of cultural memory scholarship can enrich ecocriticism. He argues that literature conveys the affective investments that individuals and local communities have in “real places” and can thereby provide a vital resource for developing a counter-memory of place. Attention to local geographies and places of memory provides a means of challenging the collective memory of dominant social groups, which often coalesces as national memory and excludes the collective memories of small or marginalized communities. That Deadman Dance is set in a real physical and affective environment, the remote south coast of Western Australia near Albany, home to the Noongar people. Drawing on archives, archaeological sites and oral storytelling traditions, the novel activates a regional indigenous memory to address a national and transnational audience. Emerging from an indigenous understanding of “country,” the novel extends the concept of place offshore, to include islands, the sea, and its creatures.

Remembering whaling in the settler colonial present

That Deadman Dance spans the twenty years from 1826 to 1844, a period during which British settlers arrived in Western Australia, claimed land, and made the region their home. Scott, of mixed Noongar and British heritage, affirms that the novel “is inspired by the history of early contact between Aboriginal people—the Noongar—and Europeans in the area of my hometown of Albany, Western Australia, a place known by some historians as the ‘friendly frontier’” (397). In the nineteenth century, Yankee and other international whaling ships regularly hunted sperm whales in King George Sound, with its whale-friendly bay, and King George Town (now Albany) developed to service the industry. In 1840, there were over six hundred whaling ships in the Pacific, and many sailed on to the Southern Ocean (Russell). Whaling contributed to colonial settlement, as whaling ships brought settlers out to Australia and left with whale oil. Settler colonialism led to high rates of indigenous death through introduced diseases, starvation, and violence and irrevocably altered the ways of life of the Noongar. It also depleted the sperm whale population.

Although the story Scott tells ends in the 1840s, whaling in Albany continued into the twentieth century. After World War II, whaling began again in earnest in the 1950s, when Norwegian factory ships were used to kill and process thousands of whales (see Frost). In the 1950s, the International Whaling Commission set a quota on the size and number of whales that could be caught, and in the 1970s, Albany whalers killed around eight hundred whales a year. The town adopted the whale as an icon, with tourists invited to “have a whale of a time” in a “whale of a town.” By the 1950s, there were alternatives to whale oil, and whaling could no longer be justified. The industry argued that whaling was sustainable, but in practice prioritized its own profits and the economic livelihood of Albany over the fate of the whales. With the whale population on the brink of extinction, whaling in the 1960s and 1970s was an unfolding ecological catastrophe. Whale biologists extolled the “unique” characteristics of the whale, such as their song, intelligence, enjoyment of life, attachment to their young, and signs of grieving when a calf was killed. Conservation groups such as Project Jonah built on these discoveries and, through education campaigns, encouraged the public to see whales as in some ways “like us” (see Frost).

As the last site of commercial whaling in the Western world, Albany had transnational symbolic value. (The other nations still whaling were Japan and Russia.) In 1977, when Kim Scott was twenty years old, Albany was the site of a protest to end whaling. An Australian anti-whaling campaign enlisted the help of Canadian Greenpeace activists, who went into shark-infested waters in rubber dinghies (Pash; Zelko). Placing themselves as human shields between whales and whale-ships, they created a global media spectacle. Anti-whaling activism in Albany gave birth to Greenpeace in Australia, which is today active in the fight against Japanese whaling. In response to these events, Malcolm Fraser, then prime minister, appointed an independent inquiry to determine whether whaling should be banned in Australia.

The inquiry’s attention to the inhumane methods of killing whales signals the emergence of a cross-species imaginary. Peter Singer, then a young philosopher at Monash University in Melbourne, considered as unusually cruel and morally problematic the gruesome procedure known as “flensing”—tearing the whale’s blubber away from its body to boil it down and render it into profitable oil—which appeared to inflict extreme suffering. He identified the whale’s capacity for suffering as morally relevant: “If a being is capable of suffering, any suffering it might experience as a result of our actions must count in our ethical deliberations irrespective of whether the being is a human or non-human animal” (183). The inquiry’s final report records a shift in Australian attitudes toward whales, as observed by the former chairman of Marine Mammals Commission, Dr. Scheffer: “If I understand what men and women are saying today about the whales it is ‘Let them be’” (189). (This phrase is echoed in That Deadman Dance, when Menak, an indigenous elder, reflects: “Be the whale.”) The Inquiry recommended that Australia outlaw whaling and oppose whaling internationally, thereby shifting whales from the category of animals that could be killed with impunity to the category of accountable killing.

Today, in the Australian settler colonial present (Hinkson), the agency of the white, middle-class environmental movement in ending whaling is remembered as a heroic confrontation to combat and reverse the looming disaster of extinction (see also Pash; Zelko). This public remembrance of the history of whaling—in the museum, in popular nonfiction, on blogs—often fails to acknowledge colonial whaling both as an economic industry in which indigenous people worked and as part of a colonial regime which dispossessed them of their traditional “country.” For instance, in Chris Pash’s The Last Whale (2008), indigenous people are valued for their spiritual ties to dolphins and whales, but do not otherwise feature. Pash narrates the aftermath of the end of whaling as a story of reconciliation between anti-whaling activists and whalers, without considering how this story might be expanded to facilitate reconciliation between indigenous people and the descendants of British settlers. (The Last Whale and Pash’s website have both received significant media attention.) Settler colonial environmental fictions such as Tim Winton’s The Shallows have also advanced the memory of the campaign to save the whale as a “white issue,” displacing indigenous people from this history (Helff). An exception is Danielle Clode’s history of the killer whales of Eden. In this rare case of interspecies collaboration, killer whales worked with humans to hunt baleen whales. While acknowledging that whaling contributed to indigenous dispossession, she documents the significant role indigenous whalers played in the industry and the benefits their special understanding of whales brought to the whaling enterprise. She argues that their practices—for instance, letting the killer whales eat their fill before harvesting the whale—contributed to the collaborative relationship that developed between the killer whales and whalers.

Emerging from an indigenous conception of country, That Deadman Dance introduces an expanded multispecies frame of remembrance. Crucial to its vision, I argue, is the novel’s juxtaposition of an indigenous imaginary of interspecies kinship with an Anglo-European hierarchical view, in which animals (and some humans) are viewed as lesser beings available for exploitation. The concept of the “creaturely” is productive for identifying the novel’s critique of the way in which this Western hierarchy positions whales and certain humans as creatures that may be killed with impunity.

Figurations of memory: whaling as allegory

That Deadman Dance opens with Bobby Wabalanginy, a child on a hill looking out for whales for his British settler patron, Chaine. The opening contrasts a Judeo-Christian cultural memory of human–animal relations as conveyed through the story of “Jonah and the Whale” with a Noongar story. In the former, God punishes Jonah by having a whale swallow him whole. That Deadman Dance remediates the Jonah story with a Noongar story that Bobby’s uncle Menak, the tribal leader, hands down to him “wrapped around the memory of a fiery, pulsing whale heart” (2). Whereas the Jonah story inspires fear of the whale, the Noongar story tells of a human playfully slipping inside the whale’s body through its spout and merging with it:

Two steps more and you are sliding, slide deep into a dark and breathing cave that resonates with whale song. Beside you beats a blood-filled heart so warm it could be fire. Plunge your hands into that whale heart, lean into it and squeeze and let your voice join the whale’s roar. Sing that song your father taught you as the whale dives, down, deep … look through the whale’s eyes and you see bubbles slide past you.

(Scott 2–3)

Menak’s story from the Dreamtime is an example of what Jan Assmann calls a “communicative memory” that is passed down orally, from one generation to the next, to describe relations of connection and accountability.

The merging and collaboration of human and animal, conveyed in Menak’s Dreamtime story of the whale, is a feature of indigenous kinship systems. As Deborah Bird Rose explains, the “Dreaming or totemic way of being in the world is a form of animism which recognizes that ‘the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others’” (18, quoting Graham Harvey). Bobby and his kin, who come “from ocean and whale,” are descendants of and “brothers” with the whale (Scott 33), and there is historical evidence for a whale totem amongst the Noongar. For British settlers, animals and land are exploitable resources rather than kin. Noongar views of “country” also differ from British understandings of “land” and “landscape.” As historian Steve Kinnane explains, “The concept of country does not allow for a separation of people, land and waters. In an Indigenous vision of country, economy, spirituality, knowledge and kin are all interrelated” (25). Deborah Bird Rose observes that in an indigenous worldview, “‘country’ is not just the homeland for humans, but … for all the living things that are there, and care is circulated through country in cross-species relationships of responsibilities and accountability” (86). One of the central themes of the novel is the settlers’ greed and their disregard for country and the obligations it entails, which compromise the “friendly” relations between Noongar and the settlers.

The difference in Western and Noongar approaches to “country” and its human and nonhuman inhabitants is conveyed by a juxtaposition of scenes at the heart of the novel. These scenes contrast Menak’s attentive regard for a beached whale as it lay dying with the suffering inflicted by whalers (Scott 243). Noticing the firelight from a campfire reflected in the whale’s eye, Menak merges with the whale, and feels “himself dissolving there” (245). By contrast Bobby, on board a whale-ship for the first time, witnesses the cruel slaughter of a mother and her calf:

Harpooned … the mother was returning to her calf. The silver spear at the bow of the boat stabbed again and again … The mother whale’s tail repeatedly rose and struck the water close to her dead calf … The boat’s lifted oars were a row of spikes, and the man at the bow drove and twisted his steel spear into the whale.


Identifying with the whale’s suffering, “Bobby groaned, thinking he heard a whale groan, too … The young whale, the mother: each had a flag flying from its spout, and the boat which killed them was already after another pod” (251). Bobby painfully witnesses the effects of the capitalist logic of whaling, in which the whale figures as a commodity harvested for profit rather than as kin to whom certain obligations are owed.

The counter-scene represents Menak’s horrified response to the whale slaughter. Standing near the stranded whale, Menak is “deep in the whale story of this place” when he notices that “[f]urther around the beach something was being savaged by sharks and seagulls. A whale carcass, the inner part of a whale, but still fresh.” He sees the evidence of “flensing”—the whale has been decapitated and skinned to extract its valuable oil. Shortly after, Menak notices “young [Bobby], rowing from that ship to shore along with the horizon men” (254). His gaze implicates Bobby, who optimistically embraced the new opportunities whaling brought and used his special gift for spotting whales to aid the whalers. As an older man, Bobby realizes that his generous friendship with the “pale men” has been betrayed, and recognizes his own complicity in the demise of the whale population and, by extension, his own people and culture: “Once he was a whale and men from all points of the ocean horizon lured him close and chased and speared and would not let him rest until … Bobby led them to the ones he loved, and soon he was the only one swimming” (160). The status of the whales in a colonial economy is an allegory for Noongar people: while the whales are hunted, the people die of diseases brought by the settlers, starve, are pushed off their land, and are killed.

Creaturely life and multidirectional eco-memory

Considering the relationship between the killing of humans and the killing of animals—and by extension, the relationship between the extinction of species and human genocide—Deborah Bird Rose foregrounds the issue of accountability. Heidegger, she observes, has provided philosophers with a strong endorsement of the idea that an animal death is a “mere death” and animal life is a “mere life” (Rose 22). Acknowledging that humans are animalized so as to be more easily killed, she argues that the relevant dividing line is not between human and animal per se, but rather between those creatures that can be “killed with impunity” and those whose deaths must be answered for. Rose recounts a powerful episode from the 1940s, recorded by an anthropologist working in central Australia, to illustrate how settlers have killed animals without fear of legal or moral reprisal and how the assumed “right to kill” animals has functioned as a threat to indigenous survival. As she retells it, a white Australian policeman went into an Aboriginal camp and massacred a number of dogs, while the people watched in terror and wailed in grief: “For people who had already been subjected to massacres, the dog shooting was a clear message of the [white] right to kill with impunity. The power and terror show us a darker porosity to the West’s human-animal boundary: one in which humans are animalized so as to be killed with impunity” (25). This logic was used, most notoriously, in the Nazi depiction of Jews as “vermin,” but indigenous people in Australia have also, at times, been depicted as animals and massacred. Rose argues that challenging the view that it is acceptable to kill animals with impunity is an ethical imperative necessary for countering human genocide and extinction. She advocates that ethical considerations of care and accountability be extended to animals and humans.

A scene from the middle of That Deadman Dance powerfully conveys the terrorizing logic of the settlers’ assumption of the “right to kill with impunity.” When Bobby is on an expedition with Chaine—the British entrepreneur who runs the shore whaling company and who “adopts” Bobby until he is no longer useful—Chaine murders two Aboriginal youths. Significantly, the murder takes place in the bush, figured as a “state of exception” or space outside the law (Agamben). Eric Santner’s concept of the creaturely is useful for identifying the biopolitical connotations of this scene. In a Western philosophical and literary imaginary, the human is typically opposed to the “creaturely.” For Santner, “creaturely life is just life abandoned to the state of exception/emergency, that paradoxical domain in which law has been suspended in the name of preserving law” (22); as Hal Foster explains, “this is close to Agamben on bare life, yet … Santner imagines this condition from the position of homo sacer, from the place of the beast, as it were” (“Human Beasts” 121). In the scene above, the indigenous youths, reduced to “bare life” through starvation and thirst, take on “the cringed posture of the creature” (Santner 35). They are described in nonhuman terms as “two pale vertical objects shimmering on the otherwise featureless plain” (Scott 229) and compared to animals—their heads above the bushes like “seals in the water” and “calling out like wild dingoes … their voices … plaintive and wailing” (231). “Caught between human and nonhuman states, or stranded in the vertiginous space of exile” (Foster, “Decider”), the youths are in a state in which “life takes on its specific biopolitical intensity” (Santner 35). The scene of murder can be read as an allegory of the paradox of settler colonial law (Derrida), which is founded on an illegal act of violence that is “forgotten.”

The message conveyed by Chaine’s murder is not lost on Bobby, who has witnessed the slaughter of whales. The full critical significance of the scene only becomes clear, however, at the end of the novel, when Bobby is punished for stealing sheep and stores to feed his people. Bobby and his Noongar kin see their “theft” as a quid pro quo, in exchange for the settlers’ hunting of whales and kangaroo. Bobby is jailed, an act through which British sovereignty in the new colony is asserted. He is only released when he threatens to expose Chaine’s murder and thereby make visible the foundational paradox of sovereign law. In threatening to expose the exclusions and illegality of settler colonial law, the novel draws readers into recognizing the shifting boundary in the category of the human—between bios (citizen) and zoe (“bare life” or homo sacer, to use Agamben’s terms)—as it has operated in Western philosophy and cultural imaginaries. Only those whom the colonial regime recognizes as citizens are granted the protections of settler law; those reduced to bare life, such as the youths, can be killed with impunity. After his confrontation with settler law, Bobby is suspended in an in between space—neither citizen nor “creature”—and lives out his days on the margins of the colony.

That Deadman Dance is self-reflexive about the construction of memory, and thus invites us to read it as an intervention into public memory today. The compartmentalization of memory in the public sphere—which separates indigenous rights from animal rights, collective memory from eco-memory—is destabilized by the novel’s multispecies imaginary of decline and resilience. As a lonely old man marginalized in the new British colony, Bobby asserts: “my country is here, and belonged to my father, and his father, and his father before him, too” (106). These words resonate in the settler colonial present, in which a land claims settlement has recently been negotiated between Noongar people and the West Australian government, nearly two hundred years after British settlement. Rather than isolate memories of indigenous dispossession, Scott links this colonial history to whaling. When considered in this expanded multispecies frame, settler colonialism’s effects on indigenous peoples and their ways of life also productively remembers colonialism’s effects on whale populations. This multidirectional memory of the linked fates of the whale and of indigenous people could, I propose, productively re-shape the emergent activist memory culture of the end of whaling and enable it to include promoting justice for indigenous people.


What does this case study—concerned with whaling in a remote corner of the world—deliver, and what is its conceptual significance, for the environmental humanities? To date, scholarship in cultural memory studies has focused almost exclusively on man-made disasters that inflict violence and suffering on human populations, with the Holocaust serving as both paradigm and trope. In Humanity’s Footprint, a science book written for a popular audience, Walter Dodd describes the current extinction crisis, in which thousands of species will be lost, as an “ecological holocaust.” While “holocaust” literally means “destruction or slaughter on a mass scale, especially caused by fire or nuclear war,” in common parlance it invokes the mass killing of Jews under the Nazi regime. Dodd’s idiom extends the moral imperative associated with the Holocaust, with its mantra of “never again,” to the extinction crisis. Although he takes a multidirectional approach, many may reject his yoking together of genocide and extinction, human suffering and animal suffering, and his figuration of humans as “executioners,” as simplistic and crude. Thus, his implied analogy may alienate readers from the urgent issues he addresses. While Dodd’s rhetoric may lack sensitivity and nuance, the issue he raises—human responses to the mass extinction of species—merits ethical as well as scientific consideration.

The ongoing extinction event compels us to recognize that anthropogenic changes to the planet are forms of “slow violence” (Nixon) that have disastrous effects for humans as well as nonhumans. Rather than heavy-handed analogies between extinction and genocide, narrative and literary imagination may prove more successful in conveying the ways in which human and animal pasts and futures are intertwined. That Deadman Dance, I have argued, draws our attention to the slow violence that colonial whaling and settlement inflicted on indigenous and whale populations, but it also conveys the survival and resilience of both. The novel transmits a deep indigenous eco-memory of “country” as a multispecies habitat, thereby bringing memories of human and animal vulnerability and survival into a single frame. By representing “the more-than-human and multispecies world, while at the same time identifying the hierarchical processes that led certain humans to be reduced to ‘nature’ (or other species)” (DeLoughrey et al. 11), the novel invites readers to connect social justice and environmental justice, human suffering and animal suffering, dispossession and extinction. These insights have been facilitated by a hermeneutics informed by the concept of multidirectional eco-memory. In articulating the mutually imbricated histories of human and animal precarity, multidirectional eco-memory extends cultural memory studies beyond the human and foregrounds the development of a multispecies approach to ethical issues of suffering and harm as vital for the environmental humanities.


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