Ghost twitter in Indigenous Australia: Sentience, agency, and ontological difference

Francesca Merlan


By distinguishing between attributions of sentience and agency we begin to take crucial analytical steps to consider ontological and cosmological differences between groups. Scholars in New Animist and Actor-Network Theory camps sometimes expound broadly generalized notions of agency, thus overlooking the ways in which characterizations of different kinds of beings—and the implications of these characterizations—may apply to aspects of environment and change historically. In Australia there has been debate about the “sentience” of the country as understood by Indigenous Australians. In a broader Australian public culture, there has come about in the last four decades or so an “etherealized” apprehension of Indigenous relations to landscape, which has privileged attention to certain kinds of cosmogenic being (that is, “Dreamings” as world founding agencies). Considering Australian Aboriginal practices and descriptions of spirit, human, other-than-human figures, and sacralized countryside, I take the view that there is incommensurability between Indigenous and non-Indigenous experiences of environment as sentient. Drawing on both my field experience with Indigenous people in North Australia and the broader Australianist ethnographic record, I discuss the many other kinds of being that populate and animate the countryside, showing a wide range of beings and forces. Three themes of continental distribution stand out: continuities between life and death; human-animal ambiguity; and communicative connectivities among life-forms. All these were elaborated in a way of life integral with its surroundings. The article considers change over time to such understandings, reduction in the range of life-forms, and what this may involve.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/707641