More Indigenous Writing

This past month I came across another anthology that I felt deserved its own review: Blacklines: contemporary critical writing by indigenous Australians (Melbourne University Press, 2003), edited by Michele Grossman. In her general introduction to the volume, Grossman notes that the “Aboriginal Renaissance” of the late 80s and early 90s brought about the appearance of more work by Aboriginal authors in both the mainstream publishing world and through specialized presses like Magabala Books and the Fremantle Arts Centre Press. This movement had called into question long-standing definitions of Aboriginality, fostered an awareness of the diversity of Aboriginal cultures, and raised political awareness of numerous issues of critical importance to the indigenous communities across the nation. What was lacking, however, and what Grossman set out to provide with this volume was

a collection of Indigenous Australian writing that engaged with modes of cultural inquiry and intervention beyond those genres identified primarily with creative or aesthetic production. Where, for example, was the book that made available at least a portion of the theoretically informed and critically focused writing produced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander intellectuals?

The result is a book that is both critically engaging and enraging and should on both counts be considered important and successful. It tackles anthropology and history, biological and cultural racism, language and art. I was profoundly disturbed and angered by some of the assertions of an unthinking and almost universal racism put forward by the authors, and forced to admit that some of them were true. I was sometimes maddened by the claims to a unique Aboriginal ontology expounded in the language and logic of the white academy, but frequently persuaded of the essential truth of such claims.

Part of my frustration arose, ultimately, not so much from the content of the essays as from the construction of the book itself: most of the work included here was written a good decade or more before the anthology’s publication. This isn’t immediately obvious. When dates of original composition or publication are provided, they are given in passing in the introductions to each of the three sections of the book. For good or ill, much has changed in the landscape of Australian politics and Aboriginal studies both since the early 90s. Many of the essays were written within a year or two of the High Court’s Mabo decision, and whether one believes that anthropological work done in support of Native Title claims is a boon, a curse, or a mixed blessing, it cannot be denied that those investigations and the lawsuits they have supported have had a profound effect, necessarily unspoken of here, on white Australia’s perceptions and understanding of indigenous affairs. Similarly, such a survey that represents critical thought in the days before the rise of Pauline Hanson, Keith Windschuttle, and John Howard seems today to be incomplete and dated. I raise the point not to fault Grossman or the authors, but to set the context. The business of publishing moves slowly these days, and academic publishing slowest of all. But if one approaches Blacklines expecting a truly contemporary take on the subjects discussed, frustration and even misunderstanding is likely to result.

Blacklines is divided into three parts. The first of these, “Critical discourses: identities, histories, knowledges,” sets out what I would call the theoretical underpinnings of the book in a way that is meant to provide context for its other essays., It also establishes a point of view that can serve as a model for future critical thinking about Aboriginal issues from an Aboriginal standpoint. The first two essays, by Mick Dodson and Ian Anderson, lay out the essential problem and conflict: that Aboriginality has always, in some way, been defined by non-Aboriginal people. The ensnaring irony, of course, is that Aboriginal responses today are just that: responses, rather than first-order definitions. This is the legacy of two hundred years. Reduced to a minority in terms of both numbers and power, Aboriginal people are forced to confront a dominant sector that by its very nature sets the terms of the debate. Speaking specifically of language, Dodson nonetheless makes a broader point: “In making our self-representations public, we are aware that our different voices may be heard once again only in the language of the alien tongue” (p. 39).

At a fundamental level, there is always the problem of definition, and the definitions usually proceed from some “scientific”–that is non-Aboriginal–logic, whether it be in terms of supposed evolutionary biology, cultural (usually meaning more narrowly technological) development, or the bugbear of “blood.” Indeed, this pre-occupation with quantifying the admixture of vital fluids–half-caste, quarter, one-sixty-fourth–is rung repeatedly in these essays and in the repetition comes to be revealed in all its repugnance. Anderson is particularly and appropriately vicious in attacking anthropologists of the middle of the 20th century who, despite ostensible sympathy for indigenous Australians, fall into this trap of quantifying bloodlines. The “pure” Aboriginal was often held up as somehow less debased than the half-caste, and thus worthier of protection. Once again, the killing irony is that protection, like the self-determination of a later era, is defined by the dominant sector without necessary regard for the wishes of the “protected.”

These questions of who has the right to define Aboriginality and to speak for Aboriginal people are particularized in the two final essays of Part I where the indigenous historian Jackie Huggins is at the center of the debates. Huggins herself contributes an essay on the controversy over Sally Morgan’s My Place, the question of its popularity among white Australians, and the non-indigenous historian Bain Attwood’s critique of the memoir. This is followed by Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s summary of Huggins’s challenge to anthropologist Diane Bell who presumed–in Huggins’s view–to be able to speak on behalf of Aboriginal women against violence and rape in their communities. Huggins rejects Bell’s assertion that feminist issues trump those of identity and knowledge. She sees Bell as once more representative of the arrogance of the white outsider who believes in her ability, indeed her right, to define the arena of discourse. The fact that Bell is widely respected, generally thought to be an advocate for indigenous women, and co-authored the offending article, “Speaking up about rape is everyone’s business” (Women’s Studies International Forum, v. 12, no. 4, 1989 pp. 403-416), with Topsy Napurrula Nelson do not excuse the presumption.

Moreton-Robinson’s essay, which concludes the first part of the volume, helps to bring the issues into focus, although I can’t say that it provides easy conclusions. It does penetrate to the heart of the conflicts. It seems hard to deny that violence against women should be condemned, and at some level who is condemning it would seem to be of secondary importance. On the other hand, it is equally hard to deny that Bell’s feminism has its roots in a society and in an intellectual tradition that is far removed from the “life on the ground” in Aboriginal communities. Bell herself may indeed have spent much time in those communities and may have deep acceptance within them, but it does seem clear to me that her attitudes would have been shaped by an intellectual tradition that has widely divergent sources. Especially following on Ian Anderson’s earlier deconstruction of Marie Reay and Ruth Fink’s unwittingly racist assumptions in their fieldwork, Moreton-Robinson’s (and Huggin’s) arguments resist easy dismissal.

Part II of Blacklines is devoted to the visual arts, primarily painting, but also film in Marcia Langton’s contribution, “Aboriginal art and film: the politics of representation.” It seems appropriate that the central section of the book should be devoted to the sphere in which indigenous Australians have in recent history most actively taken up the expression of indigenous culture. Given the polemical nature of the essays in the first part, I found it surprising that relatively little attention was given to the sort of arguments that were mapped out in Tony Fry and Anne-Marie Willis’s July 1989 article in Art in America, “Aboriginal Art: symptom or success?” and reprinted in Art and its Significance: an anthology of aesthetic theory (State University of New York Press, 1994, third edition, pp.643-654). In it the authors argue that “the contemporary political and economic drift towards cultural pluralism (multiculturalism) can be seen not so much as enlightened accommodation of other world views, but as a violent ripping of signs from the sites of their primary significance” (p. 643). They go further to state that “‘Aboriginal culture’ is something manufactured within the parameters of the professional norms of … careerists; it becomes a culture from which Aboriginal people are excluded either literally or by having to assume subject positions made available only by ‘the oppressor'” (p. 651). (Fry and Willis’s article receives only a passing mention in a footnote to Langton’s essay.)

Perhaps it is here that the age of these essays shows the shifting of concerns over the years, or perhaps it is the position of the authors (Lin Onus, Hetti Perkins, Margo Neale, in addition to Langton) on the borderline between black and white communities that dictates the concerns addressed in them. As it is, much of the content of this section is devoted to the dichotomy between “traditional” and “urban” artists, and the difficulties of the latter group in achieving recognition, understanding, and appropriate representation in the larger world of cultural affairs. For both Onus and Perkins, the question of authenticity is paramount, and echoes the themes of the essays in Part I of this volume: who gets to decide what is “authentic” Aboriginality? Today, ten or fifteen years after these essays were written, the question of authenticity is both more and less bedeviling. The focus has shifted away from what constitutes an authentic Aboriginal style in art–no one seriously disputes the “Aboriginality” of artists working outside the traditions of rarrk or dotted line-and-circle motifs. Rather the key question has become who benefits economically from the work of indigenous artists. Similarly, Neale’s essay on the presentation of Aboriginal art in large galleries like Yiribana is concerned with the ability of artists like Gordon Bennett and H. J. Wedge to in some way control that presentation, or at least to keep it from being distorted by the gallery’s own vision of the proper didactic role of the curator.

Such issues of control and authenticity are also critical to the authors presented in Part III of this anthology, “Knowledge in action: politics, policies, practices.” The essays in this section focus on a broader range of instances wherein problems control and authenticity manifest themselves. Tony Birch examines the debates over renaming geographical features in the Grampians–or is it Gariwerd?–National Park; Jeanie Bell addresses the survival of indigenous languages; and Martin Nakata takes on the status of Torres Strait Islanders and the questions of Aboriginal participation in the mainstream education system. Fabienne Bayet-Charlton tackles the paradoxes of “wilderness” and the ecological movement, neatly exposing how the Green perspective on maintaining the environment depends to a great extent on denying the presence of human (i.e. Aboriginal) actors in the landscape. 

In her introduction to this section, Aileen Moreton-Robinson offers the following summation that applies well to the entire volume.

Taken together, these writings offer an implicit challenge to many of the truth claims made in fields currently dominated by non-Indigenous ‘experts’ such as anthropology, cultural studies, history, political theory and literature. In so doing, they highlight the relationship of interdependence between Indigenous resistance and white race privilege in contemporary Australian society (p. 131).

Blacklines is an important and challenging collection of critical writing, and I hope that even now a successor is being assembled by an indigenous scholar. The assault on land rights and the renewed arguments over assimilation in the guise of economic development certainly demand it. Noel Pearson and Larissa Behrnedt contribute to the dialogue in the national press on a regular basis. Indigenous curators have won their place in major galleries and indigenous film makers have made important new contributions to the telling of Aboriginal stories in the past decade. A new and timely update to Blacklines would be more than welcome; it is required.

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