1. bookVolume 21 (2022): Issue 2 (December 2022)
Journal Details
First Published
05 May 2002
Publication timeframe
2 times per year
Open Access

Fieldwork in Discomfort

Published Online: 22 Dec 2022
Volume & Issue: Volume 21 (2022) - Issue 2 (December 2022)
Page range: 175 - 198
Journal Details
First Published
05 May 2002
Publication timeframe
2 times per year

Discomfort is an uneasy feeling: dis-quietening. Discomfort is an irritant to unencumbered movement. It slows things down. If you take heed, it nags and needles, asks questions. Of course, one can try to contain the doubt it brings by seeking refuge in the certainty of knowing. However, if you give it some time and space, discomfort bewilders and makes the familiar strange. Theorists working in the field of social justice education argue discomfort is a ‘necessary catalyst for growth and learning’ (Applebaum, 2017, p. 863). Megan Boler argues for a ‘pedagogy of discomfort’ that invites students and educators to critique their beliefs and habitual social practices, which in turn invites the possibility of individual and social transformation (cited in Applebaum, 2017, p. 863). Yet, in general, discomfort has a bad reputation as something to be avoided and overcome. In academia at least, it’s sort of shaming. Speaking of non-Indigenous people who want to support First Nations’ sovereignties, Wiradjuri scholar Robynne Quiggin says, ‘I think non-Indigenous people need to accept discomfort as a norm, and welcome it’ (cited in de Souza and Dreher, 2021, np). Arguably, this is even more true of settler colonial scholars, such as me, who undertake community-engaged research with Aboriginal communities.

1In this article I am defining community as within a geographical location. Notably, community is a much broader concept and there is diversity of communities. For example, there are communities of Aboriginal scholars, or Wiradjuri community who reside in different locations across Australia.

I am a settler colonial Australian academic who lives and works in Wollongong, on the south coast of New South Wales, on Dharawal Country. My conceptualisations of the world are not necessarily shared by my Aboriginal colleagues. Discomfort is an embodied reminder that I am encountering difference (Verran, 2013, p. 144). Discomfort makes me doubt my taken-for-granted accounts of reality. I feel unanchored, less sure of who I am and how to proceed. Discomfort can create a sense of uselessness; however, if it makes me less certain of what I know then it is methodologically and ethically useful. Thus, in this article, I am tuning in to my own discomfort to track its generative potential to disrupt my knowledge practices.

How research problems are defined, methods devised, data collected, and findings presented are exercises in ontological and epistemological power.

2I want to thank Tanya Howard for her insights and giving her time and expertise to help us think about the project’s methods and approach.

Numerous First Nations scholars have demonstrated how research reproduces colonial relations (see for example Rigney, 1999; Smith, 1999). Kim Tallbear asks scholars to think more expansively about what counts as the benefits and risks of research (2014). For Indigenous people, ontological harm is a significant risk. Settler colonial knowledge-making practices can render Indigenous legal-political and social orders invisible and invalid, which are forms of ontological violence (Slater, 2021). Tallbear calls upon scholars to re-consider research as a process of relationship building, and to be willing to be altered and revise one’s stake in knowledge production (Tallbear, 2014, p. 2). In particular, she is referring to research in which non-Indigenous researchers work with First Nations people, communities or groups. Again, work such as mine. To do so, I will reflect upon moments of discomfort during a collaborative project with the Wolgalu and Wiradjuri First Nations community in Brungle-Tumut (New South Wales, Australia), the Local Aboriginal Land Council, scientists from the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE), and academics from the University of Wollongong. The research began with the objective of revitalising the Wolgalu/Wiradjuri community’s connection to a species of ecological and cultural importance: the corroboree frog (Pseudophryne pengilleyi)—a critically endangered species, whom the Wolgalu nation call Gyack (Williams, 2019, p. 268). Over the past 18 months, the project has developed and deepened and, in the words of my Wolgalu/Wiradjuri colleague Shane Herrington, the corroboree frog is just one (important) piece of the puzzle in revitalising Wolgalu/Wiradjuri knowledges and working to put culture at the centre of land management practices (Shane Herrington, 2021, personal communication, 12 March).

Our project speaks to movements for Indigenous sovereignty and the regeneration of Indigenous knowledges (Hokowhitu, 2020, p. 3). Here lies a significant conundrum. As I have noted elsewhere, the social world I am embedded in is not the same as my Aboriginal colleagues (Slater, 2021). Therefore, if settler scholars are to take seriously the risk of ontological harm, and revise our stake in knowledge production, as Tallbear advocates (2014, p. 2), then I/we need to be alert to how Indigenous knowledge practices are sub-ordinated through the imposition of settler ontology-epistemologies (Blaser and de la Cadena, 2017). My particular concern is how Indigenous concepts of balance, relationality or reciprocity can be made invisible within research through colonial practices of equivalence (Blaser and de la Cadena, 2017). What drives my discomfort is not only the risk of appropriation, but also of assuming that a shared word, for example relationality, has a shared meaning. Making difference the same, and thus compromising Indigenous people’s obligations to land and ancestors (Kwaymullina, 2020, p. 7). How do I participate in and work to create a genuinely collaborative project, which regenerates Wolgalu and Wiradjuri knowledges, when I only have the concepts that are available to me? It is a discomforting proposition—and so it should be.

In documenting my scholarly discomfort, my aim is not simply to record my disquiet. Rather, I want to harness my discomfort as method to revise my stake in knowledge production. To do so, I am experimenting with what Lisa Stevenson conceptualises as a fieldwork in uncertainty:

a mode of anthropological listening that makes room for hesitation—a way of listening for that which persistently disrupts the security of what is known for sure. This entails taking the uncertain, the confused—that which is not clearly understood—as a legitimate ethnographic object (2014, p. 2).

Improvising with Stevenson’s ideas—a fieldwork in discomfort—‘would be less about collecting facts’ than about paying attention to the moments when the facts falter, to moments of doubt and hesitation (2014, p. 2). In her case, it is paying attention to when her subjects are thrown into uncertainty. Rather, I am proposing to make room for my own hesitation, to be arrested by my discomfort, uncertainty and doubt. I want to pay attention to when my concepts falter and I butt up against my epistemological limits. In so doing, my intention is to deploy my scholarly discomfort to interrupt the security of what I ‘think’ I know for sure. A collaborative project involving people from different knowledge traditions demands of me an attentiveness to when my epistemic comfort is disrupted (Verran, 2013, p. 146).

3Verran refers to this as ‘epistemic disconcertment’. She explains it as ‘the type of experience that alerts us to the tensions of the relations that exist within what we ‘feel’ as epistemic rightness, something which we are generally unaware of, until that is, it is rent asunder (2013, p. 146).

Getting to know and unknow

In the development of any new research project, discomfort is often a close companion. I readily feel at sea. However, as a settler colonial humanities scholar who entered this project without established relationships with the community or most of the research team, and little to no knowledge of frogs or the NSW High country (Alpine region), I was enthusiastic and uncomfortable. Ours is essentially a cultural revitalisation project: to protect Gyack necessitates reclaiming the Wolgalu/Wiradjuri’s web of relationships that are mediated through Country (Emma Lee, cited in Tynan, 2021, p. 601). Clearly the project works across different cultural and knowledge practices, social worlds, identities, and historical and contemporary experiences. I entered the project completely reliant on my colleagues’ longstanding relationships with each other and the community, their expertise, and their enthusiasm for the project. Since September 2020, I have been building my own relationships with Country, community and the research team, which has been deeply fulfilling and nourishing. Research projects—people, places, problems, teeny frogs—can beguile and captivate. The corroboree frog project, as we call it, is one such endeavour. No research, I would argue, works without a sense of attachment, which in turn ushers one into relations of obligation and responsibility to place, people and the more-than-human.

I first met the corroboree frog through images. You might have seen photos of this tiny frog, majestic in its yellow/green and black markings. The first time I saw Gyack in the flesh was at the Tumut visitors’ centre, where they house a number of southern corroboree frogs in a moss terrarium.

4There are northern and southern corroboree frogs. Both live in montane and sub-alpine woodlands, healthlands, sphagnum bogs and grassland that range from the high country of southern NSW to northern Victoria.

Each frog has a name, which encourages visitors to try to identify individual frogs by their distinct markings. What struck me was how tiny they are: 25–35 mm. I found them mesmerizing because of their colourful stripes but also, like many critters, they stare back, drawing one in and dismissing one at the same time. After a visit to the frogs in the enclosure, our colleague Dave Hunter, a threatened species officer with DPIE and expert in frog conservation, took the research team to a key breeding ground of the northern corroboree frog at Micalong Swamp on Wolgalu country, in Buccleuch State Forest, east of Tumut. It was September and the frogs were in ‘torpor’, hidden under logs and in thick vegetation. There were no frogs to see, but the expansive wetland was captivating. We made a fire and shared a cup of tea, biscuits and banter, doing the work of connecting and building relationships.

Let me impinge upon the ease of the above reflection. The frog is a species? However limited my scientific knowledge is I am drawing upon a particular epistemic tradition—one might say a tradition I unknowingly know. However, Gyack is not (only) a species. According to my Wolgalu/Wiradjuri colleague Shane Herrington, in Wolgalu there are two names that describe frogs. Gyack—because of its call—best describes the corroboree frog (Shane Herrington, 2021, personal communication, 21 Sept). Significantly, the northern corroboree frog was connected to Wolgalu/Wiradjuri annual ceremonies in the NSW High Country (Williams, 2019, p. 268). Gyack has long called people to ceremony. Thus, Gyack has an important role to play in maintaining the connections between the human and the more-than-human and is located within a web of interconnected relationships of reciprocal responsibility. Wolgalu/Wiradjuri knowledge throws me into uncertainty. I feel my facts falter. When projects involve participants with different epistemic resources, as Helen Verran argues, one needs to cultivate a sensitivity to such bodily disconcertedness (2013, p. 146). My discomfort warns me of the invisibility (to myself) of my taken-for-granted knowledge of ‘species’. Gyack is not simply another name for the corroboree frog. In the context of our project, Gyack is conceptually multiple.

5I want to thank the anonymous reviewers for this significant insight.

Thus, Gyack calls ‘us’ (the project team) to make differences visible. To take care of Gyack requires taking care of, and with, divergent knowledge practices.

Staying with Discomfort

Discomfort is an awkward emotion. An in-between emotion that can activate anxiety or just leave one with niggling doubts. Following Sianne Ngai, I think of discomfort as a minor affect or ugly feeling. Unlike powerful emotions such as anger, minor affects are ambiguous feelings that are non-cathartic. These feeling states are important because they are ambivalent and confusing, which obstructs action or suspends agency (Ngai, 2005, p. 7). Weaker, petty categories of feelings call attention to ‘real social experience and a certain kind of historical truth’ (Ngai, 2005, p. 5). For many settler Australians, facing the historical truth of colonialism is deeply discomforting. However, as Tanganekald Meintangk Boandik scholar Irene Watson asks:

Can we move from places where whitefellas feel truly uncomfortable into what I call ‘a meditation on discomfort’—to places where the settler society is made to answer these questions: what brings them to a place of lawfulness? Or how lawful is their sovereign status? (2007, p. 30)

Watson diagnoses the problem as whitefellas feeling ‘truly uncomfortable’, which blocks or limits the potential to be answerable to Indigenous sovereignty. Recent scholarship in critical whiteness studies and critical race pedagogy emphasises that when whites are asked to confront their white privilege they deploy emotions—anger, fear, denial, anxiety and guilt—to defend against and evade the truths of racial privilege (Zembylas, 2018; Wekker, 2016; Hamad, 2019; Slater, 2019). In turn, Michalinos Zembylas argues that these ‘discomforting emotions’ become insurmountable obstacles toward racial understanding and the undoing of racism (2018, p. 86). Such emotional strategies have been variously diagnosed as white fragility, innocence and ignorance—which illuminates how dis-ease is converted into familiar and strangely comforting emotions (Slater, 2020; Wekker, 2016; Mills, 1997; Hamad, 2019; DiAngelo, 2019). Indeed, Barbara Applebaum reasons that white fragility ‘is not a weakness but an active performance of invulnerability’ (2017, p. 862). Reflecting upon Watson’s concern, I wonder if the problem isn’t that there is too much discomfort, but rather how white discomfort is deployed. Discomfort is utilised to protect and defend when it could be a bodily signal to attend to historical truths and social and cultural experiences. In my work examining settler Australian anxiety, I explore how Indigenous political will and sovereignty continues to be experienced as a threat to settler belonging and authority (Slater, 2019). Yet discomfort, uncertainty and disease are necessary for (un)learning. Like anxiety, discomfort can be employed as a defence against facing up to white privilege, the ongoing impact of colonialism, and structural racism. White discomfort also asks questions of settler lawfulness, the dis-quietening impossibility of white innocence and goodness.

Feminist scholars of emotion and affect emphasise that emotions are political and learned—what Lauren Berlant and others have termed ‘public feelings’ (2004). Feeling states are part of shared and communal experiences, rather than personal or private sensations (Stephens, 2015). Zembylas posits that despite the important work undertaken by critical whiteness studies and critical race pedagogy scholars, white discomfort is too often individualised:

White discomfort has been primarily explained in terms of Whites’ unwillingness to scrutinize their personal advantages and privileges, demanding that race dialogue takes place in a ‘safe space’ (2018, p. 87).

However, as he contends, urging white people to ‘deal with’ their ‘discomforting feelings’ does not necessarily lead to an interrogation of what triggers such uncomfortable feelings in the first place: the broader structures and practices of race, racism and whiteness. Thus, where there could be learning, instead there is a failure to address racism and white privilege (Zembylas, 2018, p. 87). Rather, he argues for ‘pedagogies of discomfort’ which offer ‘a framework through which educators may provide a relatively safe space to challenge individuals’ comfort zones and transform the emotionality of Whites’ (Zembylas, 2018, p. 87). To do so requires conceptualising white discomfort not as a personal feeling, but rather recognising—indeed feeling—how white settlers are embedded within ‘broader affective, material and discursive assemblages of race, racism and whiteness’ (Zembylas, 2018, p. 88). Thus, white discomfort is a social and political affect which is ‘part of the reproduction and maintenance of white colonial structures and practices’ (Zembylas, 2018, p. 88). For white setters, arguably, it is a world in which sovereignty and authority are common sense. Thus, it is not a matter of ‘educating’ the individual but reconceptualising white discomfort, as Zembylas reasons, within the decolonising project, to unveil and disrupt white colonial structures and practices (2018, p. 88).

Revising my stake in knowledge production

Research can reproduce or interrupt colonial power relations. Knowledges, as Marisol de la Cadena and Mario Blaser assert, ‘are world-making practices, they tend to make the worlds they know’ and thus reinstate and re-validate themselves (2018, p. 6). Much of the western academy could be seen as an exercise in the restoration and re-validation of a particular world. Indeed, as Brendan Hokowhitu explains, the ‘taxonomies that normalise Western knowledge enable the conditions for the Western academy to lay claim to knowledge itself’ (2020, p. 2). The imposition of settler ontology-epistemologies upon Indigenous knowledge practices not only takes possession of and sub-ordinates Indigenous epistemologies, but also reinstates colonial ‘reality’. In so doing, colonial knowledge-making practices, Blaser and de la Cadena write, make Indigenous legal-political and social orders invisible or invalid, or create absences. They argue:

on rendering itself and its objects intelligible, scholarly knowledge performs itself. In other words, knowledge is recursive: knowledge reveals itself by making its objects (conceptual or material) through procedures that need to be recognizable (as knowledge) by the community that practices it. What the community of knowers does not recognize as knowledge is displaced along with its reality-making possibilities (2018, pp. 6–7).

As numerous First Nations scholars and activists have argued, their epistemologies and ontologies are alive and embody legal obligations though which they are fighting for self-determination, sovereignty and cultural-political existence (e.g., Watson, 2015; Watts, 2013; Kwaymullina, 2020; Simpson, 2014; Graham, 2014). There is a wealth of ways that research can make Indigenous knowledges invisible. For example, Indigenous knowledges can be extracted and appropriated as if they are resources available to everyone. Another way, Blaser and de la Cadena contend, is through the practice of equivalence. A concept or a term is taken to have a shared meaning. They use the example of the ‘naturalisation’ of the distinction between human and non-human, which Indigenous peoples don’t necessarily make themselves. An equivalence—nature/culture—is proclaimed, Blaser and de la Cadena propose, where a divergence is operating. A consequence of ongoing colonialism is that dominant practices can eventually operate as if the subordinate ones were irrelevant to the constitution of the common (2017, p. 189). Divergence disappears, thus Indigenous knowledges are rendered invisible. My belief in the frog as a species, makes invisible (at least to myself) the conceptual multiplicity of Gyack. However, despite the dominance of colonial equivalence, much exists that exceeds these distinctions, which in turn is a challenge to settler colonialism (Blaser and de la Cadena, 2017, p. 186). Notably, as a settler colonial scholar I am embedded within colonial structures and practices. How then do I revise my stake in knowledge production, to support movements for Indigenous sovereignty and the regeneration of flourishing, nourishing and diverse worlds, without assuming equivalence? Academics, after all, are trained to move from doubt to certainty, proposition to expertise.

One cannot assume just because we are using the same word that there are shared concepts and practices. Shane and I are driving out of Tumut, heading over to the town of Gundagai, when the conversation turns to the health and sustainability of the waterways. Shane says it is all about balance; you can’t fix the river systems without first looking at the health of the land. He tells a story about fishing in the river as a kid, when the fish were abundant, and the Country was healthy. I am pondering the term balance. He is asking me if I know what he means, I say, I don’t think so, but keep talking. I don’t want my puzzlement, my inability to companion his thinking, to stop the conversation. My rising sense of disconcertment leaves me feeling out of joint; more so, displaced, unmoored. What I don’t want to do is smooth over (or sooth) the tensions of difference by plugging my gap in understanding with concepts that are readily available to me (Blaser and de la Cadena 2017, p. 191; Verran, 2013, p. 144). My discomfort alerts me to my epistemic limits. However, something more is happening than a lack of understanding, which over time might be remedied by listening closer, asking questions: learning. I am wondering if my idea of balance is a crude, simplistic concept of scales. The dictionary definition: a state of equilibrium or equipoise; equal distribution of weight, amount, etc.; something used to produce equilibrium; counterpoise (Dictionary.com, 2022). In a sense, there is a shared definition, but it seems so far from what Shane is saying. I want to stay with my discomfort to burrow a little deeper into this experience of difference: what provoked such discomfort, what is it telling me and how to make good use of it (Verran, 2013, p. 154).

At the time, the project had been going for over a year. Relationships were deepening and thus community priorities more evident. As a community leader and part of the project team, Shane had become central. For my part I continued to feel like the learner, and grateful for colleagues’ patience and generosity. Perhaps out of habit, I had been keeping my eye on the ‘research project’: what are the research questions, what is it that we want to ‘find’ out and why? What direction should it be going, what is my role and, well, what should I be doing, ‘capturing’? What knowledge, what learning, and why? I was unsure how to answer these questions. If I did know, it would likely have been the wrong answer. More so, I was feeling a conflict between university imperatives (real or imagined) and letting things unfold in their own time, and responsibilities and role/s emerging from interconnected relationships to human and more-than-human. As my settler colonial knowledge practice was being impinged upon, I felt its grip tighten. Knowledge practices are a way of knowing the self, holding one in time and place (Verran, 2013).

It was December—after four months of lockdowns and the cautionary month or so that followed, we could finally travel again. When it was deemed safe, I drove to Tumut for a week of community engagement, to undertake interviews, meet with the team and, importantly, reconnect with each other and place. After only a few days at home, I was back in Tumut, invited to spend a few days with researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) who are also involved in a project with the Brungle-Tumut Wolgalu/Wiradjuri community.

6I wish to thank Brenda Croft and the Murrudha: Sovereign walks project and team for the generous invitation and collegiality.

Extended lockdowns had compressed fieldwork opportunities to the few weeks before the Christmas break. Over these ten days or so, I spent time on Country, talking to Elders and community about what they wanted from the project and, more broadly, their aspirations to manage and care for their own Country. The busyness and demands of everyday university life were supplanted by a slower pace: one thing at a time. Over the three days with our ANU colleagues, Shane took us to various sites, telling us stories of place, their cultural and ecological significance, and colonial histories, and we shared ideas and connected. We were a small convoy of 4WDs. I was the passenger in Shane’s vehicle: an opportunity for extended conversation, to ask the questions that came late to mind or to think through an idea, to rearticulate a thought, for the back and forth that can lead to understanding or at least greater connection. One of the great pleasures of a driving companion. It was during one of these drives that Shane spoke about the need for balance. And I felt off kilter.

My conceptualisation of balance felt not only insubstantial—barely considered— but out of place, which in turn produced in me a sense of being unanchored: ontologically and epistemologically flimsy. Mine was a concept without a practice. I was feeling, borrowing again from Verran, a ‘sharply felt encounter with difference’ (2013, p. 144). What she calls ‘epistemic disconcertment’: one’s ‘taken-for-granted account of what knowledge is has somehow been upset or impinged upon, so we begin to doubt or become less certain’ (2013, pp. 144–5). These moments of epistemic discomfort are felt in the body, she writes, and although they are personal, they do not only concern individuals and their responsibilities. Rather, they are an ‘expression of our solidified collective institutional habits’ (2013, p. 145). ‘We’ become comfortable with our common-sense ways of ordering and understanding the world, so much so that they do not feel like categories but reality itself (Verran, 2013, p. 145). Thus, other knowledge traditions are perceived as not reality, as such, but rather as beliefs. A key point is that we need to recognise our inherited knowledge practices as particular traditions, which take great collective effort to maintain (Verran 2013, p.146).

In my case, I was unaware of my own scientific categorisation that the frog is a species. My discomfort should, or could, alert me to how de-sensitised I was to my own epistemic comfort (Verran 2013, p. 146)—arguably, a form of white privilege and possessive logic (Moreton-Robinson, 2015). Verran advocates for applying such collective effort in alternative ways; to do something other than re-substantiate one’s tradition. Rather than dismissing, denying or overriding one’s discomfort, she advocates for becoming sensitised; indeed, for collectively cultivating epistemic disconcertedness as an analytical and methodological tool. She is calling for going deeper inside encounters with difference. Notably it is not a mode of translating difference—making equivalences—but a deliberative process of mutual interrogation to ‘reveal “our” traditions to ourselves’, and thus each other (Verran 2013, p. 146). A genuine encounter with different epistemic practices requires an interest in, for example, how ‘I’ and, in this case, my Wolgalu/Wiradjuri colleagues come to know. Verran refers to her method as ‘burrowing’ (2013, p. 154). Conspicuously, my knowledge practices felt like an imposition: holding me in a place that prevented movement and connection. I want to harness my discomfort as a method to disrupt the security of what I know and my desire to know and understand. A more just future requires keeping alive the generative tension of difference and ‘contingently going on together’ (Verran, 2013, p. 146).

The temporality of discomfort

Discomfort bewilders, and such minor affects are important, Ngai theorises, because they are ambivalent and confusing. Ambivalence obstructs or suspends agency; it is the sudden, however momentary, realisation of powerlessness and uselessness. Such negative emotions can evoke pain or displeasure, make you feel passive in the face of something significant, or what Ngai refers to as ‘powerful powerlessness’ (2005, p. 1; also see Slater 2020). Thus, minor affects are ‘explicitly amoral and noncathartic, offering no satisfactions of virtue, however oblique, nor any therapeutic or purifying release’ (Ngai, 2005, p. 6). Lingering in discomfort does not feel good. Discomfort does not reflect back at white settlers their/our own goodness. If one sticks with discomfort, there is little room for white righteousness, innocence, and ignorance. Such ‘comforting emotions’ afford a sense of self-mastery, familiarity, and virtue. In contrast, staying with discomfort is unsettling, which potentially opens a space for progressive settlers to question and meditate upon our complicity and enmeshment in practices that reproduce colonialism (Mackey, 2014; Macoun, 2016; Regan, 2010; Slater, 2019). Building on the work of Julietta Singh, Poppy de Souza and Tanja Dreher argue that ‘cultivating discomfort is a vital decolonial and feminist practice’; however, they advocate for ‘inhabiting discomfort—dwelling rather than simply cultivating’. They continue:

The sustained engagement of dwelling in discomfort describes the necessary, difficult and durational work of sticking with what is uncomfortable and unsettling as Indigenous–settler relations are renegotiated—with justice as the shared goal, even when the form and shape of justice is not yet known (2021, n.p.).

They propose that it is the durational, ongoing commitment to be in the space of discomfort that affords potential relational adjustments. Dwelling or inhabitation ‘press us to resist both the impulse to quickly move through or retreat from discomfort’ (de Souza and Dreher, 2021, n.p.).

The academic impulse to know is a mode of making a quick retreat from the realisation of one’s powerlessness and uselessness. This might appear to be a contradictory statement in the context of arguing for how colonial power is reproduced through research. My claim is that the colonial practice of ‘possessive logic’ (Moreton-Robinson, 2015) that lays claim to knowledge itself—by re-instating and revalidating ‘western’ knowledge and invalidating and making invisible Indigenous knowledges—performs two key roles (Blaser and de la Cadena, 2017, Hokowhitu, 2020, Moreton-Robinson, 2015). One, it ‘protects’ settlers from feeling how small and vulnerable we are in the world by anchoring us in the time and place of sovereignty and authority. Secondly, it avoids a confrontation with how we are implicated in ongoing ontological violence by normalising the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous people (Rifkin, 2014). In this case, through investments in settler colonial knowledge production. The renegotiation of Indigenous–settler relations with justice as a shared goal calls upon settlers to validate and make visible Indigenous knowledges—yet not make equivalence from divergence. Discomfort’s capacity to bewilder, suspend agency and create a sense of uselessness makes it a productive emotion for interrupting white settler privilege.

Conceptual discomfort

Shane’s concept of balance recalls for me Aboriginal scholars’ theorisation of relationality and reciprocity. Back at my desk, I want to continue to think along with Shane, not so much to understand but to push up against my epistemic limits. To learn without the end game of knowing. There are different categories operating between myself and Shane: we don’t share the same divisions between the human and more-than-human. My dis-ease is not only because I can’t comprehend my colleague’s concepts and I feel the constraint of my own epistemic practices. The intensity of my discomfort is driven by trying to ‘go on together’—to learn, connect, alter my thinking—whilst not rendering our discussion intelligible to me by reinstating settler colonial epistemologies. To revise my stake in knowledge production seems to involve a triple move: a reaching for understanding, while being uncertain if I understand, and getting to know my own taken-for-granted knowledge practices. Given that certainty is central to the reproduction of settler colonial authority, to re-state Quiggin, settlers need to accept and welcome discomfort. Thus, I want to continue to pay attention to my moments of doubt and uncertainty as a mode of unsettling my theories of the world.

My mind returns to trawlwulwuy scholar Lauren Tynan’s article on relationality (2021). To burrow deeper into different knowledge practices, I will attend to Tynan’s thinking. Tynan is advocating for research that is driven by a relational ethos. She writes that to ‘work with a relational ethos means responding to and listening to Country, and her timeframes…’ (2021, p. 599). To elucidate on the concept of Country, she writes:

Country inhabits all relationality and is used widely across Australia to describe how all land is Aboriginal land, Aboriginal Country; Country is agentic and encompasses everything from ants, memories, humans, fire, tides and research. Country sits at the heart of coming to know and understand relationality as it is the web that connects humans to a system of Lore/Law and knowledge that can never be human-centric (2021, p. 597).

Many settler Australians are familiar with the Aboriginal term Country; nonetheless, this does not mean there is shared understanding. Same word, different concept. Within settler colonialism there is a common-sense division between the natural and the social world. However, as Bruno Latour argues, scholars should not assume to know what constitutes ‘society’ and what constitutes ‘nature’. Rather, he cautions that we need to proceed by thinking of categories as the consequence of complex negotiations between people and things (and of course, as highly political) (Latour, 2005). Or perhaps more so in the case of settler colonial Australia, a refusal to recognise and negotiate with different epistemic traditions. We are all embedded in particular worlds and hence our perspectives derive from and are inseparable from those worlds.

Relationality, Tynan emphases, is ‘learnt from stories and watching our Old People yarn or sitting with Country’ (2021, p. 597). A different social world than mine. As I fumble along, feeling a resonance but not comprehending, I am uneasy that I risk drawing equivalences where there are differences. Relationality, she writes is ‘bound with responsibilities to kin and Country’ (Tynan, 2021, p. 598). Kin includes the more-than-human. As I ponder these relational practices, I grow aware of how I attribute responsibility to human agency, or more so to individuals. Even as I reflect upon a bird feeding its chicks, I imagine an individual parent responsible for its chicks. I am not suggesting that I haven’t thought about the bird’s role in maintaining its species, and how species are in reciprocal relations with other more-than-humans (again species). Although dwelling in discomfort, I am made starkly aware of my epistemic and ontological limits and ignorance of my own knowledge traditions. Drawing upon a depth of Indigenous scholarship, Tynan writes:

Dudgeon and Bray explain that ‘Indigenous relationality is recognized as the life force, and that which supports and nourishes life’. Relationality is a central concept within Indigenous worlds, Alfred and Corntassel suggest that relationships ‘are the spiritual and cultural foundations of Indigenous peoples’. As a foundation, relationality is how the world is known and how we, as Peoples, Country, entities, stories and more-than-human kin know ourselves and our responsibilities to one another. Wilson notes that ‘relationships do not merely shape reality, they are reality’ (2021, pp. 599–600).

I doubt I understand, but there are other forms of sense-making. As I feel my way, I am less certain of my ideas of responsibility and connection. Tynan explains that relationality unites different entities. The river that wends through a mountain range is in relationship with the mountains. They are connected and in reciprocal relations. The health of the river is dependent on the health of the mountains. They are kin and bound together in responsibility. I blunder along, trying to think with these concepts with what feels like an empty mind. I don’t know the world as kin. Nor can I conceptualise the agency of the river or mountain, or their thoughtfulness, how they might communicate, and know and feel for one another. My discomfort reveals that my concepts are not enough: other ways of knowing, doing and being are needed for such relational practices.

If I pay attention to when my facts falter, it is disconcerting to see so clearly the framing of my world; it is human-centred and privileges certain ways of being in and knowing the world. Of course, one might rightly ask of a critical Indigenous studies scholar, didn’t you already know? Yes, intellectually. However, to paraphrase Stevenson, discomfort is not something that can be simply ‘catalogued by the intellect’ it needs to be experienced—deeply felt—it stays with you (2014). In such a feeling state, I lose a grip on my common-sense: it registers as uncommon. I am referring to Blaser and de la Cadena’s theorisation of ‘uncommoning’. As noted, a colonial practice is to render alterity—difference and divergence—the same. One such method is by ‘subordinating one set of practices to the other’ and claiming equivalence (Blaser and de la Cadena, 2017, p. 189). White settler scholars have a responsibility to de-centre their knowledge practices. Of course the challenge is how to do so when all that is at one’s disposal is one’s own concepts (Blaser and de la Cadena, 2017, p. 191). The impulse is to make sense by rendering alterity comprehensible within the terms available, thus reproducing colonial knowledge. The ‘uncommons’ disrupts the idea that there is a shared, common world, which only requires ‘us’ to make it legible to one another (Blaser and de la Cadena, 2017, p. 191). Legibility or translation renders diverse ontologies and epistemologies invisible or invalid. A decolonising practice calls upon settler scholars to dwell in the discomfort of incomprehensibility, to not make sense or invoke other forms of sense-making.

Discomfort begs questions, for which I have few answers. Sarah Wright asks, ‘What if the ways our engagement with others are beyond what we say or write, are embodied, are affective, take place through smell and song, are generated through circulation of emotions?’ (2018, p. 129). What can be felt but not comprehended, and thus falls outside the logics of scholarly conventions? Uncertainty, discomfort and doubt restrain my settler knowingness—the academic drive for authority. Revising my stake in knowledge production is uncomfortable but it invites new connections and relationships. Dudgeon and Bray explain that ‘understanding Indigenous “relationality” requires attention to the process of connection’ (cited in Tynan, p. 602, italics original). To illuminate, Tynan writes:

which in the case of cultural burning is about connection between myself as a human, the fire on the ground and all entities present in this practice. As a relational practice, cultural burning enables Peoples (or birds, lightening and other entities) to bring their relationship with fire together so that the two (or multiple) entities are more unified as one (2021, p. 602).

I want to pay attention to our project team’s process of connection. Gyack enables the human and more-than-human to come together. For us, this tiny frog facilitates people—Wolgalu/Wiradjuri, researchers, scientists, local Natural resource managers—to be in relationship with each other, and Micalong swamp, other frog species, the seasons, different knowledge practices, cultures, experiences, hopes and aspirations. The relationships, connections, are the project. We are not simply individuals learning from one another, but rather Gyack brings us together into relations of reciprocity and responsibility. Our more-than-human collective is more than the sum of our parts, yet each entity remains distinct. When we are talking frog, on Country observing Gyack’s habitat, or listening to stories, my human-centrism is momentarily disrupted. I think differently. But I cannot think the same. More so, I feel differently.


I am stumbling along, trying to revise my stake in knowledge production.

7Using such language risks re-inscribing ableist norms. My feeling of dis-ease and debilitation comes with un-learning, being confronted with my epistemic limits and trying to un-do the hierarchies and authority of western knowledge production, which are also ableist. I thank the anonymous reviewer for their insights on this point.

My writing falters. I doubt I’m making much sense. I listen in to Mary Graham’s theorisation of what she calls Aboriginal Peoples’ custodial ethic, which is an obligatory, relational system for caring for Country. All people are placed on land, and even if different peoples assume that there is ‘only one absolute answer to the question of existence’, there is a shared constant: land. Common and uncommon. She continues this is:

why the custodial ethic, based on and expressed through Aboriginal Law, is so essential not only to Aboriginal society but to any society that intends to continue for millennia and wants to regard itself as mature (2008, p. 189).

Tynan, Graham and Shane (and many others) expose that I do not understand their concepts of balance, reciprocity, relationality. They bring me closer to not-knowing (Cadena, 2019). To paraphrase de la Cadena, if ‘my “understanding” transpires through (modern epistemic) knowledge, I don’t understand’—in my case, Shane’s practices. I don’t understand his concept of balance because it is beyond my epistemic limits. However, if my ‘understanding is to feel what he does, to be moved by it from my not-knowing, and it makes me think’, then I get Shane (Cadena, 2019, n.p.). Dwelling in my discomfort, something shifts, from grasping for comprehension to wanting to companion his thinking. Not to know, but rather his epistemic practice troubles my taken-for-granted reality. There is an arising sense that my thinking/feeling is being altered.

8I wish to thank Katrina Schlunke for helping me to formulate these ideas and feelings, and for her thoughtful feedback on this article.

Discomfort drags along with it doubt and uncertainty, which can sensitise one to divergence and multiplicity. Our project team’s custodial ethic necessitates a commitment to finding ways to stay in relation to other epistemic practices.

Discomfort does not have to induce dis-ease, which is felt as a threat to be defended against. As Watson proposes, settlers need to move from deep discomfort to a meditation on discomfort: to ask ‘what brings them to a place of lawfulness’ (2007, p. 30). Discomfort induces doubt—a hesitation that presses me to question my taken-for-granted world, to feel other modes of connection, be moved, and become attentive to different ways of knowing and being. To ask, what are my/our responsibilities and obligations to Country? What would it mean for me/us to develop a custodial ethic? For settler scholars, such as myself, responding to these questions requires ‘disrupting the security of what is known for sure’ (Stevenson, 2014, p. 2). Doing so brings with it discomfort and doubt, especially for the ‘knowing academic subject’. Notably, this article remains too comfortable. However, the trouble of discomfort tells of different social worlds and reminds me not to lose sight of what is not shared. It unsettles my common-sense categories and warns that my analytical tools are not enough. Thus, to borrow from de la Cadena, to work from not understanding. She advocates for suspending ‘knowingness’ to allow the emergence of different arrangements of relationships and value (2019, n.p.). To do so, I must slow down and not simply recognise I do not understand, but also to pay attention to when my facts falter. Discomfort is a method for coming to know I do not know and a bodily reminder to become aware of my own epistemic traditions. As a project team we are reliant on other forms of knowing and being—human and more-than-human—which emplaces us within relations of reciprocity, responsibility and divergence. Gyack reminds us that what brings us together is an ‘interest in common that is not the same interest’ (Blaser and de la Cadena, 2017, p. 191). This tiny frog calls the project team to make visible our epistemic differences as practices of care, co-learning and reciprocity.

9Again, I would like to thank the anonymous reviewer for asking me to reflect upon Gyack’s conceptual multiplicity and how this shapes and grounds the teams collaborative epistemic practice?

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