Stuck in time and space? Thinking through the Māori term ‘wā’

As a Māori Indigenous writer, I have found that one of the challenges of using such heavily loaded terms as ‘time’ or ‘space’ is their mismatch with a much more expansive worldview. Sometimes there is an overlap in meaning but not in ontology, in the sense that the Māori term has a different speculative backdrop that the English equivalent overlooks. Yet, those English terms are sometimes useful if they are somehow changed – undone, and then understood within that expansiveness. Chewed up and spat out, the mangled English term may now have lost its common meaning but is, at last, usable for the Indigenous writer.

Such is the case with both time and space which, due to their importance for how dominant Western thought and practice have progressed, are linear (Salmond, 2017) and hence severely restrictive concepts for most Indigenous thought. Time and space, however, need to be deconstructed from Indigenous perspectives because, currently, they are colonising devices which order the world in restrictive ways. From a Māori perspective, if past, present and future are indeed collapsed or one, then linearity is inappropriate. Further, if linearity is inappropriate then, since colonisation, our traditional modes of sequencing things in the world has been greatly undermined.

Again, then, ‘time’ and ‘space’ may be inappropriate terms to be thinking through the Māori equivalent – wā. We cannot completely avoid them in counter-colonial discussions, though. If necessary – as with many other encounters with the dominant Western worldview and its terms – we can dance between the usual ‘time’ and ‘space’ gloss, and other, more unorthodox ideas of presence and repletion to explain wā. This dance is a common one for Indigenous writers on philosophical concepts, and it is one I deliberately engage in to think about ‘wā’ both within and outside of time-space terminology.

The article is particularly speculative, as I want to briefly consider the philosophical extent of wā beyond current literature, yet with a definite acknowledgement of Māori colleagues who have written on the theme. The article addresses wā in both its metaphysical and existential forms, and I have structured it along the lines of both.

Being-repletion with the All

It is extremely important that Māori have sovereignty over how things in the world relate to each other. How they are ordered, presented and articulated is perhaps the fundamental keystone to wellbeing for Māori, as well as for our knowledge and ideas. There is a vast difference, for instance, between being taught that ‘I am immediately that thing’ on the one hand, and ‘there is distance between me and that thing, and because we manifest in different spaces, then there is a temporal distance between us as well’ on the other.

In that second version, which proposes a linear notion of time and space, presence is the cool, detached manifestation of a thing in its own special, certain properties. A thing is on its own. It is stuck in time and space with its particular identity, perhaps linking with other things only through human say-so – probably through science or analytic, rational thought. It is only ever what it is: a single entity. It is thanks to this original, colonising principle that we can be precise in a seemingly objective way, through the tongue of rationality. To speak in this way is apparently civilised; to speak otherwise is a sign of madness.

And we have been encouraged, since the beginning of colonisation, to be precise: we point at objects and describe them as if they are alone (Mika, 2017). And in the strict ordering of distance between things, time comes to the aid as a controlling device of when things will come into existence. Our relationship with things is damaged in this version, and damage is also done to ourselves.

The former version, however, indicates something else altogether. Whilst delving into literature around the Māori term for time/space – ‘wā’ – I encountered the following quote from Glavish (2018). It called for my attention because it posits that wā is an entity that is everywhere and throughout everything, as well as ancestral:

Do you know the boss of all of us – ko taua (that)? Tupuna rā ko Te Wā. Te wā me haere ki te kai. Te wā me noho kainga. Te wā me haere ki Pōneke. Te Wā, ko ia tērā ko te tupuna o ngā tūpuna. Ko Te Wā (Te Wā is The Ancestor. Time to go and eat. Time to stay home. Time to go to Wellington. Time and space, that is the ancestor of all ancestors) (p. 70).

Interestingly, Glavish translates wā as time and space. I, too, shall take up those terms later. For the time being, however, I am more concerned with their speculation that wā is an ancestor which dominates all matters simply because it incorporates with and dictates existence. It is an ancestral ‘boss’ that, from a Māori perspective, is therefore a full constitutive part of all things. Things are replete with wā. This notion of repletion is not foreign to Māori, with another key ancestor of ours, kukune, indicating a certain fullness. All things are replete with all others, with wā giving rise to their Being.

In terms that have linearity in their sight, Wolfgramm refers to the persistence of the enduring now: “[t]he holistic orientation of time—that is, not just being in the here and now—points to the notion of the perpetual present” (Spiller et al, 2007, p. 524). The present’s perpetuity is its established presence in the world and within all entities and possibilities. There is no space or time between one thing and another; all things occupy one space and talk of time is therefore irrelevant or even inappropriate. Therefore, one’s so-called ‘deceased’ ancestors occupy this perpetual present, as do those who are apparently to come. As Kidmanet al (2020) explain, “[w]ā is therefore the realm of connection between people (both living and dead), the land and the invisible and spiritual spheres that stretch across a vast, unbounded totality in which times past, present and future are coterminous” (p5). Indeed, the connection that Kidman et al talk of in relation to wā may signify the immediate oneness of all those things and so overwhelm humanity in its fullness.

Being-repletion and its repercussions for the human self

If any one thing carries the weight of the All, then surely humanity feels a provocation of some sort. If that is the case, wā in a more-than-human vein is one way of expressing an almost crushing facticity. Henri Bergson (2010) argued that time is a duration, where one experiences time rather than it being simply a product of mathematics – a linearity. I agree with him that time (but through ‘wā’, not ‘time’) heralds an experience, in that there is also a type of duration at play with the fullness of wā for humanity, although I would tend to call it an ‘enduring’ because of its almost burdensome quality. Wā is not only about the full within the one, as described above, but it is also full on. It presences the repletion of the All, and thus it also demands that we act in certain ways that we wouldn’t necessarily have acted in times past.

There is a hint of that ubiquity in Glavish’s quote, which lists (inexhaustively, I’m fairly certain) various sectors of life where wā comes to bear. The fact that it is everywhere places two burdens on us that I briefly want to address: an existential one; and a (for want of a better word) moral one.

Both have an eye towards colonisation and are thus not merely traditionalistic: parenthetically speaking, in any case I suspect that, even traditionally, wā may have been relevant as a counter-dominance concept that understood the need to take account of something undesirably overwhelming, as much as its automatic recognition that all things have a facticity that acts in unity on the human self.

In synchronicity with repletion through wā, we endure the fullness of the All at every step, but not as if that world were separate from ourselves. Instead we are forcefully reminded that we constitute an unknowable part of all other things. This act of seeing ourselves in all other things (but not in such a way that we limit those things to describing ourselves) is an awe-inspiring one, one that designates any solitary thing as mysterious (see e.g. Thrupp and Mika, 2012).

The present All in its total presencing (Mika and Stewart, 2015) defies certainty and evokes a sense of instability if we imagine that the non-human world also recognises us (in its own way) as a replete presencing. If the world looks back at us as replete, then we may be morally bound to consider the world in terms of our submission to it.  

Kidman et al continue that “[i]n Māori terms, territorial borders and boundaries … become more porous when they are conceptualised as part of Wā” (p8). This reconceptualising is a deliberately counter-colonial act, where wā becomes a verb of resistance.

What I suggest these authors are setting about is a conscious act of reprioritising the presencing I have mentioned above, whilst using the undesirably spatialising term ‘space’, in order to undo what are taken to be conventional notions of space. In other words, they are mindful of the problems of the term whilst converting it to their own use by subjecting it to the repletion of wā.

Possibilities  

Alongside perverting the notion of space, we can force time and wā to dance together and propose that if we must describe ‘times’ to do things, as Glavish has done, then they are only possible due to the fullness of wā as an ancestor of replete presencing. As Kidman et al have done, our aim will be to consign linear thinking – colonising, current notions of time and space – to wā. Linear, spatialized thinking is likely here to stay but, according to Glavish, so is wā.

Perhaps the enduring ‘wā’ offers us opportunities to undermine time/space, by letting it have its ancestral, primordial say. If so, then we have to act with responsibility towards those segments of the All we carve up – here referring back to Glavish, those times to go and eat, and so on – and re-embed them within wā. Thus, our perceptions of the single entity, occupying a stuck time/space, are only a step in a certain direction in which we not only experience the staggering, perpetual present but also acknowledge a phenomenon that both interacts with time and space but also sits outside of those colonising concepts.

References

Bergson, H. (2010). The creative mind: An introduction to metaphysics. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Ltd

Glavish, N. (2017). Whānau, hapū and iwi. In S. Katene & R. Taonui (Eds.), Conversations about Indigenous rights: The UN Declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples in Aotearoa New Zealand (pp. 67-74). Auckland, New Zealand: Massey University Press.

Kidman, J., MacDonald, L., Funaki, H., Ormond, A., Southon, P., & Tomlins-Jahnkne, H. (2020). ‘Native time’ in the white city: Indigenous youth temporalities in settler-colonial space. Children’s Geographies. doi:https://doi.org/10.1080/14733285.2020.1722312

Mika, C. & Stewart, G. (2015). Māori in the kingdom of the Gaze: Subjects or critics? Educational Philosophy and Theory, 48(3), 300-312.

Mika, C. (2017). Indigenous education and the metaphysics of presence: A worlded philosophy. Oxon, England: Routledge.

Salmond, A. (2017). Tears of Rangi: Experiments across worlds. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press.

Spiller, C., Wolfgramm, R., Henry, E., & Pouwhare, R. (2020). Paradigm warriors: Advancing a radical ecosystems view of collective leadership from an Indigenous Māori perspective. Human Relations, 73(4), 516-543.

Thrupp, M. & Mika, C. (2012). The politics of teacher development for an indigenous people: Colonising assumptions within Māori education in Aotearoa, New Zealand. In C. Day (Ed.). The Routledge International Handbook of Teacher and School Development (pp. 204-213). London, England: Routledge.

Carl Mika

Carl Mika es maorí de la tribu Tuhourangi y es profesor asociado en la División de Educación de la Universidad de Waikato, Nueva Zelanda. Anteriormente, trabajó como abogado criminal y del Tratado de Waitangi, bibliotecario y gerente de contratos de investigación. Completó su doctorado en 2013 en Estudios Alemanes en la Universidad de Waikato, Nueva Zelanda, explorando una noción maorí del Ser, con los fragmentos del poeta y filósofo romántico alemán temprano, Novalis, que informan gran parte de su trabajo. Ahora trabaja casi en su totalidad en el área del pensamiento / filosofía maorí, con un enfoque particular en su revitalización dentro de una realidad colonizada. Comprometido con la noción indígena de holismo, Carl está trabajando actualmente en los conceptos maoríes de la nada y la oscuridad en respuesta a un enfoque de la Ilustración sobre la claridad, y está especulando sobre cómo pueden formar el telón de fondo de la expresión académica. También tiene interés en los debates actuales sobre aparentes cruces entre el pensamiento / filosofía maorí y la ciencia. Es codirector del Centro de Estudios Globales de la Universidad de Waikato.

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