City Life

With The City’s Outback (UNSW Press, 2009), Gillian Cowlishaw has written a haunting book. Not only will the stories she tells here remain with you long after you have put it aside, the book is wraithlike in the way it seems to change shape from chapter to chapter, page to page. And like any revenant worth it’s name, it can pack a hard and unsuspected punch quite at odds with its transparent character. It works superbly at all of its many levels, as urban or suburban documentary, as anthropological investigation, both of Aboriginal culture and of race relations, as reflexive meditation on the practice of social science, or as instruction manual on the rigors and challenges of fieldwork.

None of this will come as a surprise to readers of Cowlishaw’s earlier books; indeed, the subtitle of Rednecks, Eggheads, and Blackfellas, her study of life on a cattle station in the far north, at Bulman, just south of Arnhem Land, might serve equally well for The City’s Outback: “a study of racial power and intimacy in Australia. The title of her more recent monograph, Blackfellas, Whitefellas, and the Hidden Injuries of Race (2004), is apt in the current context as well. The City’s Outback proceeds from the latter work, in that it picks up the story of people and family she worked with in rural Bourke, NSW. Only now, her locus of investigation is the western suburbs of Sydney, in Mt. Druitt. Here there is a substantial Aboriginal population, many of them connected to families Cowlishaw knew in Bourke, but the concept of an Aboriginal “community” remains more elusive. It lacks the geographical or social coherence of an isolated township, or of an cohesive community within a larger one. And so, in addition to being a locus for studying a suburban Aboriginal culture, it becomes a ground for questioning the very concept of Aboriginal culture itself.

Not that Cowlishaw denies that there is such a thing as Aboriginal culture, rather she wants to look at it from a new vantage point. When culture is often aligned with tradition, when community is defined by distance, and when both of those critical elements are lacking in the western suburbs of Sydney, what does it mean to be Aboriginal, and how does that state of affairs influence the people themselves, the Australian state, and the interactions between them?

This is but one of the goals that Cowlishaw pursues in a book whose clear-cut prose and straightforward narrative structure disguises the complexity of its intellectual agenda. Cowlishaw also seeks to illuminate the nature of fieldwork in such circumstances and, by extension, to cast light on the intricacies and problems of the classic anthropological role of participant-observer. The fieldworker must abandon even the pretense of strict objectivity in developing social relationships with the people she is working with; at the same time she must subject her own methodology and involvement to a degree of scrutiny that can withstand the objective assessment of her own intellect and those of her peers.

Cowlishaw manages to do this without floundering in a mess of theory. She makes reference to the “reflexive” nature of anthropological study and writing that has dominated the discipline for the last twenty-five years, but does so only to put her inquiry into context. She assumes that the reader has a basic understanding of the issues (or can pursue them via references in the extensive and excellent bibliography). She manages, rather, to portray the dilemma of the fieldworker by foregrounding her own reactions to what she sees and hears, and allowing herself and her readers to examine the feelings of both sympathy and repugnance, of curiosity and boredom that she experiences in the course of her conversations in Mt Druitt.

Her fieldwork in that suburb consisted largely of interviewing the friends and relatives of her main informant, Frank Doolan, a man she knew from the period of her research in Bourke that she wrote about in Blackfellas, Whitefellas, and the Hidden Injuries of Race. Frank is an articulate, passionate man, keenly aware of injustice and equally aware of the mistrust that continues to founder the cause of meaningful dialogue between the races or the communities. The closing paragraph of The City’s Outback sums up Frank’s position with an art that it seems impossible to improve upon.

On Police Remembrance Day in November 2006 he walked into the police station in Dubbo and asked the nervous young officer at the desk for ‘one of them ribbons’ that are worn on this day to mourn officers who have died in the line of duty. He wore the chequered ribbon all day saying, ‘If we want them to respect our pain and our rituals we have to show that we respect theirs’ (p. 228).

While Cowlishaw’s research project involved, at Frank’s urging, taping and transcribing the life stories of those he introduced her to, and returning those stories to their narrators as a means of assuring them that the stories had been heard and attended to, The City’s Outback is not a compilation of those stories, a publication of them for our edification, or as the subjects of academic analysis. Or, at least, it is not those things alone. Cowlishaw acknowledges that far more work needs to be done to extract the full meaning, to conduct the extensive evaluation of what she has been told. But the stories themselves are powerful and among the most moving and startling episodes in the narrative that Cowlishaw weaves.

The overwhelming theme that emerges from these stories is the trauma of separation. Here is the story of the Stolen Generations written on a personal scale: Annie, for instance, who feels the sharpness of never having known her mother’s love and thus finds herself ignorant of the ability to love her own children. She desperately wants Cowlishaw to arrange to have her imprisoned brother moved from Queensland to New South Wales where she can visit him, but cannot understand the love that such a desire demonstrates. She does not engage in blame, except possibly of herself: this is simply the life story she has been dealt. Tina’s children were taken away from her and Tina herself is confounded by the bureaucracy, by her poverty, and perhaps most of all by her inability to reconnect with those she has lost, even when they come back to her in Sydney. Vera and Gary, teenaged parents, know that there are courses that the state runs to provide them with the skills to survive in modern society, but lack all context in which to make sense of those skills.

Through all these stories the themes of misery, violence, incomprehension, and anger rumble like thunder. Mutual incomprehension threatens to strangle these lives and even threatens to overwhelm Cowlishaw herself. She is repulsed by the casual acceptance of violence, and understands that repulsion to stem from the very alien nature of a culture that accepts mayhem as an inevitable component of daily life. Her informants see the police as enemies, incapable of any action that is not inherently antagonistic. Even Frank, who understands the role the police must play, and wants to encourage tolerance and respect, is ground down by the apparent endlessness of the cycle everyone seems to be trapped in. And Cowlishaw knows that to the citizens of Mt Druitt, she is a figure equally alien and incomprehensible, a white woman from the university, privileged, intermittent in her presence, governed by a code that has no meaning in their daily lives.

The disjuncture between those lives and government policy, between Annie’s anguish over her self-perceived inability to love her children and the public’s growing appreciation of the fate of the “Stolen Generations” is the predicament Cowlishaw wants ultimately to address.

This fieldwork brought me to the heart of a dilemma that is not mine so much as that of the nation, the dilemma attendant upon being part of the hegemonic culture. The liberal impulse to solve problems through appeals to governments has led Aboriginal activist discourses into a trap. They have to identify specific social injustices linked to a specific set of grievances. We see that subaltern groups–immigrants, Aborigines, women, foreign-looking youth–have a subordinate position in the world and we take this to be immoral, unjust, ill-ordered, and lied about. Social scientists, whether or not they belong to such groups, put themselves on the subalterns’ side, trying to find the real source of their problems … which must have escaped others, particularly governments. But, if we bypass the spokespersons or representatives, who are the ones listened to because they speak the language of governments, and get close to these marginal people, their conditions become more complex and baffling. One reason is that some characteristic differences arouse distaste or pity. The ability to live with violence, to ignore contempt and to laugh at insult, or to display aggression towards elusive sources of injury, are disturbing to outsiders. But further, these problematic qualities that we want to explain as consequences of subordination, and therefore remediable, may be valued as elements of a normal environment, a familiar homely style of interaction, a habitus (pp. 213-214).

Cowlishaw’s encounters in Mt Druitt took place in 2000, in the days when the sting of Bringing Them Home was still fresh, and in the year when thousands marched across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Those were events that were acknowledged in Mt Druitt, but seem to have had little impact there. Cowlishaw is now writing in the shadow of the sex-and-violence media scandals that led to the Intervention in 2007, and in the shadow of the Intervention itself, again events that might cast a shadow in the suburbs without altering daily life. The City’s Outback is a guidebook, not to the depressed enclaves of the city and their dysfunctions, but to the habits of thought that keep the lives that are lived there in eclipse.


Google Map showing the location of Mt Druit (upper left)

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