A Stanner Retrospective

In over a decade of intensive reading on Aboriginal art and culture, I have encountered a handful of books that have suddenly opened up vast new terrains of knowledge and understanding for me. Fred Myers’ Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self: settlement, place and politics among Western Desert Aborigines (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986) was the first and most fundamental of these for its insights into social organization and custom. Tim Rowse’s White Flour, White Power: from rations to citizenship in Central Australia(Cambridge University Press, 2002) revealed the territory of contact history to me; Gillian Cowlishaw’s Blackfellas, Whitefellas and the Hidden Injuries of Race (Blackwell, 2004) did the same for race relations; Deborah Bird Rose’s Reports from a Wild Country: ethics for decolonisation (UNSW Press, 2004) brought questions of colonialism and the environment to my consideration. (Truth, reading those last three in the space of a year was among the significant inspirations for starting this blog.) But no single book has knocked me on my ear quite the way that W. E. H. Stanner’s White Man Got No Dreaming: essays 1938-1973 (Australian National University Press, 1979) did. In part this was because of the sheer breadth of its subject matter; in part it was because of the extraordinary degree of sympathy Stanner evinced for the Aboriginal people and his uncanny ability to present the humanity, the aspirations and despair of Indigenous Australians. I remain convinced to this day that no one could read these essays and remain unmoved by them.

I had earlier read the famous ABC Boyer lectures, After the Dreaming (ABC Books, 1968), which was the only one of Stanner’s works still in print a decade ago, and been bowled over by the manner in which he placed Aboriginal affairs in the context of the broader Australian state. I had scavenged articles published over the years in Oceania and puzzled over On Aboriginal Religion (University of Sydney, 1966). But during the summer in which I finally put my hands on a copy of White Man Got No Dreaming and immersed myself in Stanner’s reflections on the Dreaming, on social change in the Daly River region, on the vast implications of the Yirrkala Land Rights Case, on justice and injustice in Aboriginal Australia, I felt myself emerging from a chrysalis of platitude and commonplace into a bright and altered vision that nothing has since quite equaled.

It is now thirty years since the publication of White Man Got No Dreaming, and time has clearly come for an assessment of Stanner’s contributions. Black Inc. Agenda has recently brought out The Dreaming and Other Essays, which I presume reprints the earlier collection; I haven’t seen a copy of it yet and the few reviews I’ve read have left it unclear what points of overlap exist between the two books. But whatever it contains, that new publication will bring Stanner’s elegant prose back into the limelight. Indeed, it is the eloquence of Stanner’s voice as much as the piercing quality of his insights that make him worth reading.

But there is even more rejoicing to be had in the appearance of a superb collection of critical essays on Stanner’s life and work, An Appreciation of Difference: WEH Stanner and Aboriginal Australia (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2008), edited by Melinda Hinkson and Jeremy Beckett. My appetite for a book of this sort had been whetted a few years back when I read Inga Clenndinen’s “The Power to Frustrate Good Intentions: or, the revenge of the Aborigines,” published in the journal Common Knowledge (vol. 11, no. 3, 2005, pp. 410-431), in which she examined Stanner’s famous biographical essay on “Durmugam: a Nangiomeri.” After having spent many years in a somewhat solitary communion with Stanner’s thought, I found having another’s perspective on a familiar piece of his writing both surprising and invigorating. 

How much richer, then, to have fifteen of the finest writers on Aboriginal issues address Stanner’s legacy in this current volume. The table of contents lists a vertiable who’s who of the finest scholars writing today. In addition to the estimable editors, contributors to An Appreciation of Difference include Geoffrey Gray, John Mulvaney, Barrie Dexter, Peter Sutton, Ian Keen, Howard Morphy, Alberto Furlan, Nicolas Peterson, Nancy Williams, John Taylor, Ann Curthoys, Tim Rowse, and Jon Altman! One could construct an entire semester’s university seminar on contemporary scholarship in Aboriginal studies from the newly republished essays, On Aboriginal Religion, and the essays in this volume. 

A particular strength of this collection is the variety of approaches that the authors bring to Stanner’s life and work. Following the editors’ excellent introductory essay, the first section of the book treats largely with the varied aspects of Stanner’s career: his multiple assignments during the Second World War, his post-war appointment to the London-based East African Institute of Social Research, his role in the founding of the Australian Institute for Aboriginal Studies, his tenure at the Australian National University, and his work with Nugget Coombs and Barrie Dexter on the Council for Aboriginal Affairs. 

What emerges from these essays on Stanner’s career in “Diverse Fields” is the picture of a complicated man, the details of whose life surprised me, as my chief impressions of him had been formed from his writings. To begin with, I hadn’t realized how little he had published over the course of this varied career, and how much of his work remains in manuscript form and as raw notes. The combination of rigorous attention to his civil career and responsibilities was partially the cause for this restricted output; equally, it seems, his high personal standards for his writing kept his work in progress perpetually in progress. The grace of his prose in print no doubt stems from that will to perfection.

The portrait of Stanner painted here also reveals a man of a surprisingly conservative political bent. A soldier who felt his highest distinction might be “a chance to be of some use to my country,” a servant of almost Victorian rectitude whose impeccable grooming might give a clue to his moral probity, the Stanner we meet in these pages seems to be an unlikely candidate to champion the rights of a people largely regarded as primitive and uncivilized. And yet, perhaps that sense of decorum and that high moral character is not so surprising after all, for it bespeaks a set of principles that the environment of thoughtless prejudice that often surrounded him could not compromise.

The second part of the collection is entitled “In Pursuit of Transcendent Value” and offers the most engaging and diverse set of essays in An Appreciation of Difference. It begins with a pair of essays by editors Beckett and Hinkson that examine some of Stanner’s fieldwork, focusing on his encounter with Durmugam and his explorations of rock art sites along the Fitzmaurice River. Beckett’s offering, incisevely subtitled “Stanner’s Durmugam,” suggests, as Clendinnen’s early piece on the subject did, how much of Stanner’s own personality is reflected in his portrait of the man from Daly River. Similarly, Hinkson’s tale of the grueling quest for the discovery of rock art reveals Stanner’s almost single-minded devotion to and absorption in the task; he pushes himself and his guides relentlessly and almost cruelly, absorbed as he is by the mystery he seeks to unveil.

Peter Sutton and Ian Keen next seek to deconstruct the mind that took the raw materials of these early fieldwork investigations and produced from them the startling insights onOn Aboriginal Religion. When I first read the essays that comprise that small monograph, I was awed by their ingenuity, by the synthetic mind that could discern a universal theme of sacrifice, a theme that resonated with Christian tradition, in the rituals of the Murrin-patha people. I was also slightly uneasy with the parallels, for although Stanner argued convincingly against the degrading characterization of such rituals as magic and superstition that had been the legacy of early scholars like Sir James Frazier, I felt that there might be too much of the author and too little of the Aboriginal in his exposition. Sutton and Keen probe these matters sensitively and demonstrate how Stanner’s conclusions were indeed an attempt to move beyond his own intellectual tradition and expose the intellect and the spirit behind Aboriginal practice: surely the most important contribution of this (or any) phase of Stanner’s work.

The last two essays in this section, by Howard Morphy and Alberto Furlan, move beyond Stanner’s writings to examine, respectively, Yolngu mortuary rituals and contemporary song-writing in Wadeye in light of Stanner’s work. These original essays demonstrate in themselves the profound impact that Stanner’s “appreciation of difference” have had on scholars who followed him, and provide exemplary proof of the importance of his intuitions and perceptions.

The importance of land and of people’s connections to it, in a variety of ways, is the thread that unites the essays in the third portion of An Appreciation of Difference. The essays of White Man Got No Dreaming are arranged in chronological order, and most of those that follow the publication of After the Dreaming build to a crescendo around the theme of land and land rights: “Industrial Justice in the Never-Never;” “No, no Sir James: Polyphemus, not Goliath;” “The Yirrkala Land Case: Dress-rehearsal;” “Fictions, Nettles and Freedoms.” The essays in this current critical collection gathered under the rubric “Land and People,” like those in the previous section, try to tease out some of the apparent contradictions between Stanner’s attitudes and methods and the conclusions presented in his writings. In particular, Nancy Williams’ essay on Stanner and the Yirrkala case illuminates a major and most important principle: “Stanner’s appreciation of Aborigines as intelligent and rational individuals” (p. 211). In all aspects of his analysis, whether or land tenure, social organization, or religious belief, that appreciation is at the core of Stanner’s thinking and his achievement.

The concluding section of the book treats of Stanner as “A Public Intellectual” and focuses on the philosophy revealed by After the Dreaming. Ann Curthoys looks, somewhat defensively, at Stanner’s assessments of historians in the Boyer Lectures. Tim Rowse reads the lectures to illuminate Stanner as social critic, and Jon Altman mines them for their impact of Stanner’s later career in Indigenous policy, primarily during the Whitlam era and beyond. Altman examines the implications of Stanner’s career in light of contemporary controversies leading up to and following the Howard government’s intervention into the Northern Territory, which is certainly the most devastating turn of events in the Territory since the excision of land for the Nabalco lease, the event that shaped the final decades of Stanner’s life.

One of the most important of the essays collected in White Man Got No Dreaming was the 1958 Presidential Address to Section F (Anthropology) of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, entitled “Continuity and Change among the Aborigines.” In this essay, Stanner wrote of a fundamental contrast between the white man’s teleological orientation and that of the black man “whose ‘future’ differentiates itself only as a kind of extended present, whose principle is to be continuously at one with the past” (Stanner, 1979, p. 58)–a theme that Deborah Bird Rose developed brilliantly in Reports from a Wild State. But more importantly, Stanner strove to demonstrate how the nineteenth-century vision of “primitives” and “tradition” as static entities was flawed, and how in fact Aboriginal society is characterized by both continuity and change. The achievement of the authors who have contributed to An Appreciation of Difference is to demonstrate how the principles of continuity and change apply equally to the life and work of this great public intellectual, W. E. H. Stanner, himself.

Postscript: Thanks to David Nash for pointing me to information on the Symposium to mark the centenary of the birth of W. E. H. Stanner, held at the Australian National University in 2005, which led to this book. My only regret now is the discovery that there are a few papers from that Symposium that didn’t make it into the pages of this volume!

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One Response to A Stanner Retrospective

  1. Pingback: Art at the ANU | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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