Institute for Social Justice

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Learning to be at home together in democratic holding spaces: A Winnicottian reading of the Warlpiri documentary, Milpirri Event category: public-lecture

Simon A. Dougherty, PhD candidate

When: 27 October 2017, 2pm-4pm

Where: Level 12, 25B, Tenison Woods House, North Sydney

In this talk, I explore how two concepts and two thinkers from very different places and cultures speak to a shared social and political question: How do we learn to live together with deep differences and deal with some of democracy’s ambivalences? More specifically, how might Steven Jampijinpa Patrick’s concept of “milpirri” and Donald Woods Winnicott’s concept of the “holding environment” speak to each other in ways which help us improve democratic politics in conditions of social pluralism? What in their thinking can help us conceive and build upon a concept I’m developing called a “democratic holding space” so that we can better address the social and political concerns of the time and place in which we live?

It felt like I found part of the answer to these questions when I watched the documentary film, Milpirri, at a 2014 festival called Commonground. With a group of people from across Australia, including some of the filmmakers, we learned about this Warlpiri idea and practice. “Milpirri” is several things at once: a concept, a natural phenomenon, a story, a cultural practice, and a festival that is now represented on film. In the film, Jampijinpa Patrick explores the multiplicity of ways milpirri “is about bringing difference together,” and how “it’s not about changing each other, [but] about adjusting to each other.”

Every time I re-visit the film, Winnicott’s idea of “good enough” provision in a “holding environment” serves as a touchstone for me to deepen my understanding of milpirri and re-think questions of cross-cultural solidarity in democratic and pluralist societies. The “holding environment” is a concept Winnicott developed to account for the initial disclosive space between caregiver and child. He studied how we learn mutual practices of vulnerability, care, and trust in the physical and emotional space between people; a space which facilitates the conditions of subject formation and political agency. These formative relations of care set-up a life-long journey of discovering the mystery of others, the worldly things we become concerned about, and how to creatively navigate the affectual and material world which is shared in the space between us. Winnicott went so far as to call these early relationships between self, other, and world the “basis for society, and the only factory for the democratic tendency in a country’s social system.”

In my talk, I read Jampijinpa Patrick’s film Milpirri through a Winnicottian lens to put these two thinkers in conversation with one another, and to tease out some related sociopolitical content of their practice-based concepts of milpirri and the holding environment. In doing so, I invite further rumination on why we need, and how we might develop, more “democratic holding spaces.” Following the examples set out by Jampijinpa Patrick and Winnicott, I’d like to open a discussion on what it could look like to build facilitating environments and civic associations which enable the expression of frustration, fear, vulnerability, and anger at the same time as they provide outlets for creative and constructive political action. My hope is that, together with the help of these thinkers, we can co-develop capacities for acknowledging democracy’s traumatic failures and pursuing its ideal promises in which subjects with different levels of trust creatively learn how to re/build a trustworthy world that’s worth sharing together—a home that is “good enough” to live in.


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