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Civilization as a Self-Terminating Algorithm: Tyson Yunkaporta on PYP 436

Tyson Yunkaporta is an Australian Aboriginal artist, philosopher, and researcher who lectures on Indigenous Knowledge at Deakin University in Melbourne. He's also the author of Sand Talk, a book that has influenced my thinking more profoundly than any other.

Basically, Yunkaporta turns the lens of anthropology around and puts Western civilization under the microscope, showing us how insane and unsustainable the entire project is.

The usual “cross-cultural” pattern involves Western academics explaining “primitive” cultures whose land settlers have stolen, while science plunders their plant knowledge and pop culture appropriates the trinkets and baubles ripped out of the context of their deep traditions.

In Sand Talk, Yunkaporta surveys the last 10,000 years of civilization from an Indigenous perspective, and shares Indigenous thinking that, he claims and I agree, can “save the world.” Rather than focusing on the content of Aboriginal culture, he urges us to become familiar with the knowledge processes that generated that content. Because those knowledge processes are alive, and vibrant, and critically relevant to the crises that humanity faces today.

I heard about Sand Talk from frequent podcast guest Glenn Murphy, who had to tell me to read it far too many times. Once I did (technically, I listened to Yunkaporta reading the audiobook, which he does brilliantly, and which compelled me to buy the hardcover edition as soon as I was done), I reached out to the author requesting an interview with me and Glenn.

It turns out that Yunkaporta has been fascinated by the martial art that Glenn and I practice, a Russian form called Systema. (Glenn's my instructor, and host of the Systema for Life podcast.) A lot of the conversation includes the two of them yarning (or yarning-adjacent) about the similarities in their two worldviews on topics such as energy, flow, community, haptic cognition, as well as violence and its necessity, and humane approaches to harm reduction.)
In the conversation, Yunkaporta exploded several myths that I've lived by. We discussed:

  • the mistaken view of the centrality of “fight-or-flight” in the human experience
  • the futility of “self-improvement”
  • the central mistake of Western civilization
  • the roots of narcissism and why they're so hard to escape in our culture
  • the myth of the selfish human, and where it comes from
  • the biased data set that underlies junk anthropology about violent cavemen
  • our entire culture as a “self-terminating algorithm”
  • what happens when violence is made opaque and driven from the commons
  • how the education system domesticates humans in order to foster obedience
  • the centrality of conflict to human existence, and why it must be spread around like manure to grow new things
  • the false choice of all binaries
  • and much more…

Links

Sand Talk, by Tyson Yunkaporta

Yunkaporta's professional page at Deakin University

A fun Systema video montage

Glenn's Systema for Life podcast

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