Failures of Imagination

Culture Crisis Altman & HinksonI love a good book of essays, varied in argument around a central theme, and Culture Crisis: anthropology and politics in Aboriginal Australia (edited by John Altman and Melissa Hinkson, UNSW Press, 2010), certainly fills the bill.  To a lesser extent than the editors’ Coercive Reconciliation: stabilise, normalise, exit Aboriginal Australia (Arena Publications, 2007), this book is a response to the Intervention, the Northern Territory Emergency Response.  More directly, its essays derive from a conference that was held at Macquarie University in December 2009.  In turn, the conference was inspired by an extended and sometimes acrimonious debate on AASNet, the email discussion list of the Australian Anthropological Society that in its turn was occasioned by the publication of Peter Sutton’s The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the end of the liberal consensus (Melbourne University Press, 2009).  In this respect, Culture Crisis, like Coercive Reconciliation before it, had a very short gestation period, barely six months from the initiating event to the delivery of the manuscript to the publisher.  Both books are therefore full of passionate argument seared by shock and outrage; but both also reflect abiding and unresolved questions and concerns.

In addition to the central theme of the conditions and fate of Aboriginal Australians, Culture Crisis reflects an ongoing debate within the discipline of anthropology about the proper role of the anthropologist.  In vexed circumstances like those surrounding these culture wars, where should anthropologists position themselves on the spectrum from engagement and activism to objectivity and description?  Is it possible to be both passionate and objective?  Is it desirable or appropriate to be one or the other?  In an era when “applied anthropology” has led many practitioners out of the university and into the domain of native title courts (or among Americans, to the Human Terrain System and Iraq), these are not entirely theoretical questions.  Given the book’s genesis in an academic discussion list, that such inquires arise shouldn’t be surprising.  What is remarkable about the essays in the current volume is that for all the self-examination involved in this very self-reflexive discipline, the investigations are actually refreshing and provocative in themselves.

The question of the anthropological perspective permeates the book, beginning immediately in Part I, “The Problem of Recognition.”  Elizabeth Povinelli, whose similarly titled monograph The Cunning of Recognition (Duke University Press, 2002) skewered the ways in which Aboriginal identity is defined by an alien white man’s legal structures, leads off with an essay that explores neoliberalism’s exaltation of the marketplace and the individual and the problems that result when an unquestioning acceptance of individualism and classical economics confront and conquer the communal values of Indigenous culture.  Jeremy Beckett discusses the dilemma of the Fourth World as indigenous peoples negotiate with their colonizers from a position of inherent disadvantage in his contribution, “National anthropologies and their problems.”  Gillian Cowlishaw’s essay “Helping anthropologist, still,” turns the problems upside down by suggesting that the troubled domain of indigenous-settler relations could be helped by investing more in an anthropology of the whitefella.  The notion that the unexamined and unstudied prejudices of the dominant class are pathologizing if not pathological in themselves is another persistent undercurrent in Culture Crisis.

The first part of the volume concludes with an extended essay by Andrew Lattas and Barry Morris entitled “The politics of suffering and the politics of anthropology,” which ties up all these threads.  Their contribution is a striking critique of Sutton’s book as well as of the Intervention and its neoliberal underpinnings.  The following paragraph captures the thrust of many of the arguments of Culture Crisis as a whole and is worth quoting for its effective summary of them.

Historically forms of violence and coercion that could not be used against the white working class could be deployed legitimately against Indigenous populations.  After an initial period of physical violence, disease and dislocation, Aboriginal people were progressively institutionalised.  They were turned into a captured population upon which paternalistic structures of care could experiment with technologies for breaking and remaking the self so as to civilise, modernise and assimilate Aborigines into more ordered forms of humanity.  Today, in the Northern Territory, what seems like a return to old disciplinary and paternalistic racial regimes can be understood as experiments in neoliberal forms of governmentality, which deny their racist character by formulating themselves as economical, necessary forms of practical care in exceptional circumstances.  It is the rationalism of a certain utilitarian humanitarianism that dominates the Intervention as an experiment in the disciplining of welfare, in the disciplining of consumption and racial desires, with the governmental power of welfare being used to police and restructure kinship and gender relations (p. 60).

Part II of Culture Crisis opens with a shift in perspective on the current state of anthropological investigations as Marcia Langton ruminates on “The shock of the new: a postcolonial dilemma for Australianist anthropology.”  Langton is one of the few anthropologists whose point of view has consistently been more closely aligned with Sutton’s condemnation of pathologies in Indigenous communities and, with Noel Pearson, one of the relatively few Indigenous scholars to support the aims of the Intervention.  Here she argues that Australian anthropology’s perspective is skewed by an outdated conception of Aboriginal society, one that is based on fieldwork conducted among populations and in periods when the gerontocratic traditions still maintained the capacity to organize and modulate social order.  She excoriates the discipline for its unwillingness to discuss violence and substance abuse and for maintaining silence in an era whose guiding principles of Indigenous self-determination and the pursuit of land rights have failed the populations they were meant to serve.

Francesca Merlan follows up by acknowledging that problems do exist and are indeed severe in her examination of “Child sexual abuse: the Intervention trigger.”  Merlan, however, remains critical of the methodologies of the Intervention and of Sutton’s arguments that locate a maladaptive Indigenous culture as the root of the evils that must be addressed.  Here again, as in Diane Austin-Broos’s subsequent essay, the state’s agency in creating pathologies is fingered as a central and misunderstood cause of contemporary dysfunction.

The third section of the book, “Counting Culture,” straddles the line between anthropology and sociology, beginning with Tim Rowse’s “Re-figuring ‘Indigenous culture,'” which examines the ways in which statistical measures of well-being and equality can muddy perceptions of Aboriginal disadvantage.  Emma Kowal addresses quality of life and health on outstations, while Tess Lea investigates the impact of training and education on Indigenous futures.  Kowal’s essay is a fine exploration of the dilemma of remedialism versus orientalism: the urge of the state to fix social ills as opposed to the willingness to postulate a self-sufficient alterity that needs only to be left alone.  Lea’s essay recasts Kowal’s dilemma in the context of anthropological rather than governmental action and provides the volume’s definitive examination of the discipline’s struggles with engaged activism versus detached description.  Yasmine Musharbash concludes Part III with an essay on the Intervention as seen from the Warlpiri perspective and concludes that the “great tragedy is that we are not, however, dealing with two populations who live parallel lives, simply avoiding each other” (p. 223) but who are instead locked into a struggle suffused with an almost fatal power differential.

The final quartile of essays has the hopeful sounding title “Imagining Futures,” but despite the promise implied, these essays focus rather on failures of imagination that perpetuate the struggles of Indigenous people to assume control of their destiny.  Melinda Hinkson examines media representations of Indigenous lives and documents the persistent failure to conceptualize, let alone represent, Aboriginal perspectives.  This is a theme that Jon Altman pursues in looking at the “complexity lineage” of recent shifts in government policy away from self-determination and toward social control.  Altman critiques the mainstream view that economic marginalization is at the root of contemporary violence and bemoans the “excessive influence” of neoliberal attitudes that equate the pursuit of individual economic “progress” and the promise of western educational systems with solutions to Indigenous problems.  Altman argues that “the Australian state has become technically adept at delivering welfare support to individuals, thus rendering them dependent, while being far less adept at delivering public services and development assistance to remote communities on an equitable needs basis” (p. 267).

Nicolas Peterson points to the crux of the dilemma in his contribution, “Other People’s Lives,” echoing,although not entirely agreeing with, Lattas and Morris.  Peterson invokes the concept of “secular assimilation” which he defines as the “proposition that it is possible to change people’s daily practices and materiel circumstances without it having consequences for their culture” (p. 251).  Focusing on the role of the discipline in addressing these issues, he offers an explanation of why anthropologists have been reluctant to articulate strategies for alleviating Indigenous misery.

To formulate effective policy interventions in other people’s lives, in these circumstances, means going beyond the normal role of the state, because in order to eliminate the social indicator problems, substantive changes are required of Aboriginal people in their everyday practices, and not just of government practice and policy (p. 256).

Peterson argues that in its implementation of the Intervention’s policies without consultation and consent, the government has squandered what little moral authority it may have possessed in the wake of the release of Little Children are Sacred.  It tried to enter the “ungovernable space” of private life through the management of welfare payments and the imposition of codes to control personal behavior.  In taking these shortcuts, as Peterson characterizes them, in ignoring the fundamental hard work that Noel Pearson proposed in the Cape York Agenda, and (I would add) in ignoring the recommendations of Little Children are Sacred itself, the government has lost it chance to effect change of any sort.  The crisis will persist: the question remains whether anthropology can find the proper balance between remedialism and orientalism, between intervention and detachment, and between activism and detached analysis, to move beyond the present stalemate.

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