by Ian McLean
© all rights reserved
‘Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being — like a worm.’
Jean-Paul Sartre 1
There he is again, waving to us on the flyer for the latest exhibition at the Museum of Sydney.2 Bungaree’s bare footed rehearsals have gone centre stage. The court jester has become king. But let us not confuse art with life or present desires with past intentions: this is a painting by Augustus Earle, an itinerant artist of Empire whose intent, surely, was to parody Bungaree’s antics in order to affirm colonialism’s moral legitimacy. But the larrikin presence of Bungaree in the poster belies this historical reading. Who then do we side with: Earle or Bungaree? Do we make an historical reading which gives precedence to Earle’s intent, or follow our postcolonial intuition which sees, in Earle’s parody, Bungaree’s parody of colonial ritual?
Perhaps it doesn’t really matter, for in Earle’s parody we necessarily hear Bungaree’s voice, even if Earle is speaking for him. Parody, Mikhail Bakhtin reminds us, is ‘double-voiced,’3 because it implicitly mimics and so includes the voice of its subject. Thus Earle’s parodic mode projects the theatre of Bungaree into the painting. Has, then, Bungaree leapt unawares through Earle’s fingers and into this iconic image of colonial Australia, making it as much Bungaree’s as Earle’s; or do we dismiss it as just another picture by a white colonist of a black man drowning, a picture of the ‘Aboriginal’ sinking into oblivion? Maybe it is both. Maybe Bungaree is speaking to us through this image, but his postcolonial gesture does not escape Earle’s intentions, just as his theatre did not escape its colonial stage.
Bungaree’s wave is both a goodbye and a hello, and it continues to haunt our imagination because, in it, the trace of colonial repression, its erasures and repetitions, its goodbyes and hellos, keeps coming around. Here we already witness an unexpected alliance between nothing and being still playing out in Australia’s politics of identity. We know how everything designated ‘Aboriginal’ was silenced, othered and excluded. But here something else also happened. Here a nothing, named as the origin of origin, the ab-origin, and silenced with the words terra nullius, forced its way back into the very texts which spoke these words, to become, today, the source of meaning and being of this place called Australia. This alone should caution us: the current fanfare of Aboriginality, in which things Aboriginal have become an emblem of the being and identity of Australia, is as ominous as their former silencing in colonial discourses.
The apparent elevation of Aborigines from nothingness to being is part of a world wide fashion for the postcolonial. Ten years ago the British critic, Paul Gilroy, made what he then considered ‘the heretical suggestion that white audiences may be becoming more significant in the development of British black art than any black ones.’4 The same could have been said of Australia at the time — and it is truer now than ever before. But in Australia the desire by non-indigenous Australians for things Aboriginal has a particular history. Here the Aboriginalising of Australian discourses of identity first occurred over 60 years ago. At a time when a Streetonian vision dominated the Australian imagination, and the desert and Aborigines had been vilified for the previous century, many Australians suddenly developed a life-long fascination for the desert and its indigenous inhabitants. However, if Aborigines now returned as icons of an Australian identity, here the postcolonial is more clearly the return of the colonial.
Throughout the colonial period most Australians considered themselves English; and the English also considered them English. The colonials were not othered by the home country, but enjoyed a type of minority status. They did have a voice, even if it was circumscribed. It was Aborigines who were othered and silenced into an official nothingness. Aborigines were of no apparent consequence to the colonial sense of self because they were perceived as an ancient foreign race doomed to extinction — about as far removed from an Englishman as could be imagined. They were not even the aborigines of England. ‘Who were the aborigines of England?’ asked the colonial educator, James Bonwick, in 1881. It wasn’t the Celts, he declared, but ‘Primitive Englishmen’ whose ancestors have long since disappeared, and who were much like ‘the lower races at the present time.’5 This too was considered the fate of the aborigines of Australia; and Bonwick chronicled it in his book The Last of the Tasmanians.
The fate of the Aborigines caused little anxiety amongst the colonials. Not that they weren’t anxious. Being very few within a populous region of alien cultures, and a minority voice within a larger empire, the colonists’ discourses were anxious and, like most minority voices, dialogical in mode. That is, they were double-voiced, finding in the local not a new independent indigenous voice, but one which resonated with familiar metaphors of English identities; different but the same. This ambivalence was not easy to live with. The only thing that reassured the colonials, it seems, was the colour of their skin. Indeed, the colour white became a justification for empire and colonisation. In short, the colonists suffered what the British critic, Kobena Mercer, called a ‘burden of representation’ — better known as the white man’s burden. ‘Among the Australians’, Keith Hancock wrote, ‘pride of race counted far more than love of country.’6
Hancock was Australia’s most respected historian of the mid-twentieth century. His history of Australia, simply titled Australia, and published in 1930, was widely read. It is a classic example of a history that de-aboriginalises the place in order to make it available for Europeanisation. It is not a matter of just ignoring the vast history of Aboriginal contact — of the violent and bloody annexation of Aboriginal land in a 150 year long war across a huge front — but of writing an alternative history of occupation that is complete in itself. Hancock’s solution was not original. He merely substituted Aborigines for land — after all, land is what it was all about. His first chapter, ‘The Invasion of Australia’, did not chronicle the clash of armies, but a battle with the land. The writing up of nature became the means of forgetting the history of Aboriginal contact. Here the land was not a resource, but an enemy to be defeated as in any other invasion. Thus, he writes:
The explorers were scouts thrown out by the advancing army of pastoralists … Far away on the fringes . . . adventurous pastoralists skirmished with drought and raided the desert. … The story of these brave assaults upon the interior of Australia … that adventurous race of men who first dared, with their flocks and herds, to invade the unknown interior of the continent.7
If Hancock does not exactly subscribe to a terra nullius, he does assent to an equally familiar one of conquest and rites of passage, and in terms which silence any Aboriginal rights to the land. His was a defacto terra nullius. His personification of the land is a necessary consequence of his imperial as opposed to settler vision. In Hancock’s mind, Australia will never be a nation if it is merely a terra nullius to be passively settled, as if given gratis by God. Rather it must be conquered and taken. But it was the land and not the Aborigines who were defeated. The Aborigines were not conquered because they had never conquered the land.
‘The Australian aborigines’, wrote Hancock, ‘fitted themselves to the soil’, rather than became ‘masters of the soil.’ The Aborigines were not defeated but dispossessed – which is why his opening sentence, ‘the British peoples have alone possessed her’, immediately writes Aboriginal texts out of the picture without even needing to name or account for them. The making of Australia is entirely a white man’s burden. The Aborigines had no role — that is, they have the role of oblivion. Thus in Hancock’s Australia Aborigines are not absent, but absented.
Yet when Australia was published in 1930, the burden of representing or performing ‘Australia’ was rapidly shifting from white to black Australians. Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, things Aboriginal entered the consciousness of the Australian colonial in significant ways. Here history, or at least Hancock’s history, seems to fail us. How does nothing come from oblivion to not just haunt but consciously underwrite Australian identity? How did the white man’s burden become, overnight, the black man’s burden?
The title of Hancock’s book, Australia, betrays none of this historical moment, or the double-voiced anxiety and ambivalence of colonial identities. It is reassuringly direct, as if Australia is a given. However Hancock was constrained by his English publishers. His book was part of a series in which all the titles had one name — ‘Germany’, ‘India’, ‘Russia’, ‘England’ etc., as if each was a monological identity, in and for itself. Hancock’s analysis did not fit into the editor’s scheme, for to him Australia was not yet a nation; its subject was not secure. Hancock’s analysis of a bifurcated Australia belies the singularity of his title. Being not yet a place in its own right, he pictured Australia with a double horizon, one local the other global.
Against those republicans who wanted a ‘complete severance from the British Empire’, a truly singular indigenous identity, Hancock argued for a re-tying — what might be called, after Stephen Melville, a ‘de-severance.’8 While Australians were no longer colonials, Hancock argued that they nevertheless continually folded or laced themselves back into Britain. Australians, he concluded, are ‘in love with two soils.’ Hancock described this lace as ‘the crimson thread of kinship which ran through them all’ — that is race. Australians, he said, were ‘independent Australian Britons’;9 and this ill-fitting mongrel phrasing would have been more appropriate than the title prescribed by the editor.
If Hancock sought to appease colonial anxiety through locating it within an English diaspora, in the inter-war years a new generation discovered an indigenous identity for themselves — a white aboriginality. If, in Hancock’s bifurcated Australia, pride of race necessarily counted far more than love of country, because race joined them to another more secure place, and alienated them from a local landscape which served as a repressed substitute for the Aboriginal enemy, Australians suddenly learned to love their enemy, that is, their country, and in doing so, exposed a hidden affinity with the indigenous populations.
No longer speaking as a minority within a larger empire, but as independent Australians, they claimed the Aboriginal as their own other, and articulated it in their discourses of identity. Hancock was the first to admit that his book had quickly dated.10 It summed up the end of an era rather than sketched the dawning Aboriginalist Australia which is still with us — though this does not mean that the great silence was lifted. In academia, that is in the official histories of Australia, the silence remained into the 1960s. However at an everyday level, in newspapers, in journals such as Walkabout, and in numerous novels and books which went through many editions, Aboriginalism was triumphant.
Aboriginalism can be defined as an attempt to understand what it means to be a white Australian through metaphors of Aboriginality rather than ones of empire. Aboriginalism proposes a hybrid Australian who is part Aboriginal and part European — though this overstates a model which arguably was assimilationist rather than genuinely hybrid. It incorporated rather than engaged in a meaningful dialogue with Aborigines. Hancock was not unaware of these very recent shifts in identity politics. He mentions, for example, Hans Heysen’s new desert paintings, but does not foresee their significance. In a prophetic moment, he even recounts a parable about the future of Australia which includes a typical Aboriginalist, that is, hybrid structure. In sketching out a possible model for a new Australian people, and for Hancock this presumably meant a new race, he used the example of the kelpie, bred from the ‘smooth haired Scots collie (with a slight strain of fox) and the native dingo.’
‘In the evolution of the Australian cattle dog,’ writes Hancock, ‘the native dingo strain has been decisive’; and he even characterises the kelpie in terms of the Australian type: ‘a big, silent, tractable, clean-biting dog’. But Hancock, realising what he is saying, retreats from his analogy: ‘The story of the dogs can be no more than a parable; it is not an analogy. When it suits them, men may take control and play fine tricks and hustle Nature.’11 Thus he returns to his monological vision of empire.
Intellectuals, eg Hancock, it seems, are condemned to always arrive late, even when the rest of the population are already there. Compare Hancock to the journalists Robert Croll and Ernestine Hill. Both travelled through Aboriginal Australia in the 1930s and, along with many other like minded individuals, developed passionate feelings for the place and its people, and subsequently published their impressions in widely read books about a new polyglot indigenous outback Australia. In Aboriginalising their nationalisms, Croll and Hill caught the emerging mood of the nation. This is not to say that they had escaped the imperial legacy; that the era of the white man’s burden had passed. While Croll wrote movingly about the pitiful treatment of Aborigines, and the need to make amends, he could only imagine this happening in terms of white expertise and paternalism.12
In the same spirit, Hill, whose admiration and sympathy for Aborigines was as deep as Croll’s, dedicated her book ‘to all who take up the white man’s burden in the lonely places.’ If this seems little different to Hancock, Croll’s and Hill’s books are about a completely different Australia. In their books Aborigines are the very centre of Australian consciousness. Hill even extended her Aboriginalism to a multi-culturalism. No matter how racist she was at times, Hill celebrated and romanticised this ‘purely British country, [in which] I have attended Japanese Feasts of Lanterns, Chinese banquets, blackfellow burials and Greek weddings, and turned to the west with the Mussulmans when they knelt on their prayer mats.’13 Once considered signs of a past primitivism, Aborigines now appeared as a noble people who were emblems of a new Australian identity. They became ‘our’ Aborigines; compulsively incorporated into, rather than expelled from, white Australia. The legacy of Aboriginalism is still with us: not just in the stolen generation, but also in the burden of representation borne by Aboriginal artists.
The story of Aboriginalism in Australian art, from Margaret Preston to Tony Tuckson, is too well known to repeat here. Aboriginalism had so penetrated the fabric of Australia by the 1950s, that the significance of Aboriginal culture to an Australian identity was incontestable. The future of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians was linked to a common fate, even though the consequences for each was radically different. No one phenomenon epitomised this more than that of Albert Namatjira. He was the first Aboriginal artist to receive the honour and burden of representing white Australia. With him, ‘Australia’s desire to know itself through Aboriginal culture,’ became conscious and transparent.
Namatjira was tutored and promoted by a group of people who included Croll and the artist Rex Battarbee. Unmoved by modernist appeals to authenticity and at ease with strategies of appropriation, they saw in Namatjira’s work the promise of a new Australian culture. Perhaps, mused Battarbee,
we can learn something from our Aboriginal artists. At present there are several white artists trying to show us an Australian aboriginal form of art which is too forced to be of much value. . . . The Arunta artists are painting in our medium . . . [and] may be nearer [to] a real Australian art than anyone has ever been in the past.14
Namatjira’s legacy is the Aboriginal art movement and the current fanfare of the indigenous. But whose identity is being pictured? Why are a tiny proportion of the community who, a short time ago were either vilified or forgotten, now the measure of what it means to be Australian? The answer, it seems to me, is in the structure of identity formation rather than historical circumstances.
Identities parade as truth, as origin; they appear to voice our being, to be in the realm of the sacred, to be worth the ultimate sacrifice. It is, however, a truism of poststructuralist theory that this is just their effect, for identities are discursive in form, and as such are cultural artefacts not a natural condition, not a given. Indeed, poststructuralist theory goes further, arguing that identities are a type of oppression — a process of othering or exclusion, whether it be ethnocentric or exotic, in which one gains a voice through silencing others.
Discourses of identity are discourses of power, so that in all such discourses there are winners and losers. Who gets to speak wins; the losers must shut up. But this is not a permanent situation. Rather, like power itself, it is inherently unstable. Those othered and silenced in the discursive arrangements of knowledge and power invariably speak back. But how and on whose terms?
There are two very different answers to this question. Maybe only one is correct, or perhaps there is truth in both of them. The first is that the othered get to speak through the very discursive logic of their exclusion. The second is that they get to speak through their own will and resistance. The first I have already touched on in my earlier discussion of the strange alliance between being and nothing in the figure of Aborigines in Australia’s politics of identity. If the alliance seems a paradox, it is no stranger to philosophy.
Being and nothing, says Heidegger (after Hegel) are the same.15 Likewise, Derrida describes being in the same terms as nothing: as ‘silent, mute, insonorous, wordless.’16 But this does not mean that being and nothing are equivalent.17 Rather each is a substitute of the other, and it is the anxiety caused by this ambivalent relation which, according to Heidegger, compels the originary question of philosophy: ‘why are there beings at all, and why not rather nothing?’.18 Here, ‘in anxiety the nothing is encountered at one with beings’, and even as a ‘revelation’ or ‘ground’ which opens beings to Being.19 This is not to say that ‘nothingness is an original abyss from which being arose.'(Sartre).20 Rather it is a logic of negation produced by the anxiety of consciousness.
At least two quite different conclusions have been drawn from Heideggers’ a proposition — the existential and the textual. Accepting the argument that nothingness is a logic of negation produced by the anxiety of consciousness, Sartre adds that this anxiety is not just the result of philosophical reflection, but lived in the anxieties of everyday encounters with others who are outside me. The anxiety, he says, is caused by the look of the other shaming me. Even though, for Sartre, these anxious encounters with others occur in the everyday, in history, he describes an a-historical logic at work — a logic of negation which functions in all encounters with others, and which simultaneously works to exclude them as nothing and incorporate them as the ground of being. Sartre concludes: ‘the other has not only revealed to me what I was; he has established me in a new type of being which . . . was not in me potentially before the appearance of the Other’.21
If Sartre’s Heideggerean account provides a positive gloss on the fanfare of Aboriginality in the postcolonial reconstruction of Australian identity, Derrida’s does not. Derrida’s caution against the outsideness implicit in Sartre’s theory of the other. ‘There is nothing’, Derrida famously said, ‘outside the text.’ Derrida was not here arguing against Sartre, but for critical readings that stayed inside the text under analysis. ‘Our reading must be intrinsic and remain within the text.’22
Derrida’s concern was not the dubious credentials of an unmediated access to what might be outside the text — as in biography or commentary -, but that this outside only opens in the text, and that all that text is is this opening. In a sense this is also Sartre’s point, except that Derrida insists on the textual rather than existential nature of the revelation of the other. Applied to discourses of Australian identity, it means that the colonial texts of Australian identity open from the outsideness or exclusion of Aboriginality; but this outsideness is not an anthropological or empirical reality, not an Aboriginal presence looking back at and shaming the colonial, but a structural part of colonialism’s textual productions. In other words, Derrida does not anchor the anxiety of colonial texts in the anxiety of their authors, but in the structural characteristics of their production.
According to Derrida, the conceptual opposition of outside and inside, of silence and speech, is not the static classical binary of logical opposition, of inclusion and exclusion, but a dynamic one of deferral and repetition.23 Drawing on Freud, Derrida argued that while the effects of discourse, say the discourses of Australian history, might be an exclusion or silencing, say the forgetting of Aboriginalities, its structure was that of a repression — that is, a memory machine whose economy of repetitions and erasures continually perform this scene of deferral.
In other words, the silence of nothing/outside/other/aboriginal is, prior to being an exclusion in the field of discourse, an erasure in the scene of repression. Derrida emphasises that this repression is not a translation of another original text, or a displacement or representation of another original meaning, but an origin in itself, a production of meaning.24
Repression is not what happens to something, but is an economy which produces certain effects, and this interlacing economy of repetition and erasure always leaves its track or trace in these effects. Hence what was excluded by certain discourses returns, not as a presence but as a trace; and not as a trace of some thing or idea, but as a tracing of the economy of repression. This trace is not a lost or repressed Aboriginality, not the look of an Aboriginal other, but the economy of repression itself. Hence the return of the silenced nothing called Aboriginal as the being and truth of the place, is not the turn-around it might seem, because it does not reinstate an original Aboriginality, but reiterates the discourses of colonialism.
Derrida’s account takes away agency from Aborigines in the current Aboriginalising of Australian identity — or, more accurately, he locates agency in the discursive arrangements of colonialist discourse which, in the case of Earle’s painting of Bungaree, are a complex matrix of voices. However, the second reason why Aboriginal voices are now being heard — that they have won the right to speak through their own will and resistance — promises to exceed rather than reiterate the discourses of colonialism, and in ways which squarely place agency in Aboriginal hands. That is, in contravention of Derrida’s scheme, the Aboriginalising of Australian identity seems to come from outside the text — as, for example, from indigenous and black subjectivities. Here history is more useful than philosophy, because it has taught us that the more a people are silenced and oppressed, the louder they get.
Empowerment, not survival, becomes the goal; and this is achieved through developing a powerful politics of identity. These new identities, in this case black subjectivities, were based on either a subversive inversion of dominant norms (eg. ‘black is beautiful’25), or the reassertion of indigenous identities. The former were characteristic of urban diasporas, especially in the USA and Britain, and to some extent in Australia. However in Australia an indigenous subjectivity has prevailed. While the differences between these two positions have been important in the development of Aboriginal politics at all levels, both have sought salvation through an identity discourse; and each has, in time, enjoyed the spoils of speech.
So to the spoils of speech. By the mid-eighties black and indigenous subjectivities were no longer transgressive; they had become another category in official discourses of ethnicity and multi-culturalism — they had crossed what Mercer called ‘the threshold of enunciation’,26 and so, it would seem, exceeded the discourses of colonialism. Or had they? Did a seat at the table, a microphone on the podium, mean the end of racism? Did a new dialogical mode of multi-culturalism now reign? No, the ‘black man’s’ burden had shifted from being a figure of oblivion to that of a minority voice.
Black subjectivities, like all identities, are ideologies of origin. When cast in strictly indigenous terms, they can be as monological as any ideology of origin. However, because black subjectivities are also minority identities, they are invariably caught between languages and cultures, and as such have all the characteristics of Bahktin’s dialogic hybrid mode. Aimed ‘against the official languages of its given time,’ 27 and working with the diversity of other voices, minority texts have been envisaged as zones of liberation in which, to use bell hooks celebratory phrase, ‘marginality is a site of transformation.’28
However, have black subjectivities exceeded the logic of Derridean repression, that is, the logic of the trace? Have these post or anti-colonial identities repulsed the return of coloniality? Their very minority status suggests not, especially when one considers the role of minority discourses which are simultaneously marginalised and occupy an important place in majority texts. Minority artists are not left alone on the periphery of dominant discourse. Indeed, they are required to be representatives of, or speak for, a particular marginalised community; and because of this, their speech is severely circumscribed. They bear a ‘burden of representation’.
Women and gay artists, for example, are required to address issues of gender and sexuality, and Aboriginal artists must address issues of race, and all on the stage of an identity politics. Black artists, it seems, can perform only if they perform blackness. Reduced to gestures of revolt, they only reinforce the scene of repression played out in majority discourses of identity and otherness. Allowed to enter the field of majority language as divergent and hence transgressive discourses which police as much as they subvert the boundaries of this field, they work to extend certain boundaries necessary to Western identity formations, but which its traditions have repressed. In other words, minority discourses are complicit with majority texts.29 As Mercer says, ‘the oppressor and oppressed inhabit the same discursive universe.’30
Australia’s desire to know itself through Aboriginal culture is not anti-colonial, but the fulfilment of colonialism. As such it is part of a wider scene: the Westernisation of the world. In this respect the fate of Aborigines is analogous to those other others discussed by Foucault — the incarcerated bodies of the criminal, the mad and the sick. Hence, like these others, Aborigines have become, in modern times, at once transgressive, creative, and necessary to whatever is decisive or truthful for the modern world.
The new found affiliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, then, is like the impossible alliance Foucault discerned between art and madness in the modern period. Impossible, because in the monological discourses of Western identity, ‘where there is a work of art, there is no madness’, just as where there is white there is no black, each being the limit of the other. An alliance, because in the modern period, at the abyss of this limit, each plunged into the other. Thus Foucault’s ironic conclusion: ‘the world that thought to measure and justify madness through psychology must justify itself before madness, since in its struggles and agonies it measures itself by the excess of works like those of Nietzsche, of Van Gogh, of Artaud.’31 Can we likewise say:the Australia that thought to measure and justify Aboriginality — say through anthropology — now justifies itself before Aboriginality, since in its struggles and agonies it measures itself by the excess of Aboriginal art.
To reiterate Foucault: at the moment when reason believed it had finally mastered madness, interned and silenced it, the same moment when reason had mastered and enslaved the whole world, the chains were removed from madman and slave alike, and unreason and slave again given voice32 – though Foucault prefers to call this speech a ‘broken dialogue, even an ‘absolute silence’. ‘The combat’, said Foucault, ‘was always decided beforehand.’33 The language of delirium, like the language of modern art and now Aboriginal art, ‘is not a language at all; it refers, in an ultimately silent awareness, only to transgression.’ Foucault asks:
When Freud, in psychoanalysis, cautiously reinstitutes exchange, or rather begins once again to listen to this language [of the other], . . . should we be astonished that the formulations he hears are always those of transgression? In this inveterate silence, transgression has taken over the very sources of speech.34
This too has been the fate of the colonised, in Australia at least. In the art most valued for picturing an Australian identity, that of the impressionists, Aborigines are absent, as if interned and silent in its pictures of golden summers. Yet, from ‘this inveterate silence’, the transgressive suddenly emerged to, in the 1930s and 40s, take ‘over the very sources of speech.’ How then do we proceed? Is Aboriginality to remain a transgressive discourse? And who will speak for Aboriginality, and how?
In a critique of Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation, Derrida argues that Foucault takes his departure from a critique of speaking positions — of how to represent the other without speaking for them -, and that the success and failure of his critique hinges on issues of agency and resistance. Derrida cautions that while the silence of the other might seem to oppose the talk of reason, and in its muteness preserve a space and agency for itself, it is, in fact, the effect of this reason. The history and archaeology of this silence is also the history and archaeology of reason. This conundrum, that each is the history of the other, that each finds its subjectivity in the other, points for Derrida to an interminable ‘economy’ which can not be erased, only deconstructed from within. That is, there is no historical point at which reason silenced otherness, as if it was once free unto itself; rather an economy of repression brought each into existence; and this economy, while excessive, can not be exceeded.
‘One can’, he wrote, ‘protest it only from within it; and within its domain. Reason leaves only the recourse of stratagems and strategies.’ The revolution can only aspire to a ‘disturbance‘.35
The application of such analysis to identity politics has been well rehearsed by Judith Butler. ‘The question of locating ÒagencyÓ’, she writes, ‘is usually associated with the viability of the ÒsubjectÓ, where the subject is understood to have some stable existence prior to the cultural field that it negotiates.’36 However, like Derrida, she insists that subjectivity is not an origin in itself, but an effect of ‘a regulated process of repetition.’37
These psychic ‘injunctions’ enforce and naturalise themselves in their repetition through cultural production. Writing from the perspective of gender politics, she calls this repetition ‘compulsory heterosexuality’. We can, from other perspectives, equally call it ‘compulsory reason’, or ‘compulsory Westernisation’. How, then, can we escape such a hegemonic scene? Agency, she proposes, is not a matter of reclaiming a lost identity. Nor is it a matter of claiming a speaking position from which to obstruct or even overthrow the economy of repetition — for without this economy there is no subjectivity. Even transgression and subversion might be too strong. Equally, concepts of constructing an identity, or of forging another type of psychic politics, are too utopian. Rather, argues Butler, the repetition can only be disturbed, repeated differently, eccentrically.
Some Aboriginal artists, such as Gordon Bennett and Tracey Moffatt, acutely aware of the aporia of black, indigenous and minority identities, have resisted the category ‘Aboriginal’. Their success, however, is limited. The category ‘Aboriginal’ is too overdetermined to be escaped. Even as unwilling Aboriginal artists they are expected to address Aboriginal issues only, and to picture identities that are reductively marshalled under the sign of minority discourse. Whether they like it or not, they bear a burden of representation. This burden is triply inscribed. First, they can only enter the field of representation or art as a disruptive force. Second, their speaking position is rigidly circumscribed: they are made to speak as representatives of a particular, that is, Aboriginal community. Third, this speaking is today made an essential component of the main game, the formation of Australian identity – what Philip Batty called ‘Australia’s desire to know itself through Aboriginal culture.’38
Both Bennett and Moffatt attempt to attempt to exceed this logic of colonialism along the lines proposed by Butler — namely that this logic can not be overthrown, only disturbed, repeated differently, eccentrically. In the case of Bennett, such is his burden of representation that, for many, his art embodies a pent up Aboriginal anger and frustration about racism in Australia today. He has become a minority voice of distinction. His strategy for refusing the position of minority artist is to put his own subjectivity, and the very notion of black subjectivity in question. The gaze felt before Bennett’s art is not his or a collective Aboriginal rage, but the ‘evil eye’ of our own making, of our own coloniality. He paints the historical economy of Australian subjectivity, not his own subject position. His art is not a politics of identity: he refuses a black subjectivity.
In order to make this point, Bennett prefers a performative to an expressionist style — that is, one that transparently acts out various roles rather than reclaims some inner centre or original lost identity. Bennett’s key aesthetic strategy for achieving this is appropriation. What we literally see in his art is not his authentic voice, but the frozen gestures of other voices, fragments cut from the screen of Western art. He repeats their aesthetic postures, but eccentrically, in different and unexpected ways. In his recent series, Home Decor (Preston + De Stijl = John Citizen, Margaret Preston jives to the syncopated beat of Mondrian grids, creating a new and rich dialogical moment in which Australian meets European, and modernist utopianism meets modernist primitivism. In this respect his work is dialogical. By activating the multiple languages of modernity, Bennett is, to use Bakhtin’s words, able ‘to distance’ himself from and ‘complicate still further his relationship to the [dominant] language of his time.’39 The dialogic mode allows him to refract and fragment rather then reflect and focus his authorial voice, and so mitigate or disperse the burden of representation.
Bakhtin’s description of what he calls the ‘hybrid’ style of dialogic discourse aptly summarises Bennett’s methodology: ‘it is stylised through and through, thoroughly premeditated, achieved, distanced,’ and presumes ‘a verbal and semantic decentring of the ideological world, a certain linguistic homelessness of literary consciousness, which no longer possesses a sacrosanct and unitary linguistic medium for containing ideological thought.’ However, if Bakhtin insists that this decentring liberates language from myth ‘as an absolute form of thought’,40 Bennett’s art does not. Rather his work has a deconstructive turn; it re-stages various historical aesthetics within a logic of repression: the failing and dismembering of Australia’s colonialist and modernist discourses of identity41 so that their monological certainties are dispersed into fluid, fragmented, anxious identities. If this returns us to Hancock’s sense of an unformed and even dialogical Australian subjecthood, Bennett replaces Hancock’s imperial stage for a deconstructive one — ie one which echoes with the repetitions of coloniality. The crimson ribbon holding these fragments together is still race, or more properly racism, and it remains as slippery as blood.
To further emphasise that his art is not about reclaiming a lost identity, or even of claiming a speaking position, Bennett refuses to speak about it, for this would stage him as the authentic producer of his own intentionality, thus giving his work the very role he paints or performs out of it. Who then speaks about his art? Obviously people like myself do — but this is a poor or impoverished answer. Bennett’s refusal to speak about his work leaves an open space for interpretation, but it does not gives his critics and audience a free run, as if he has no voice, as if he has absented himself, just as Hancock absented Aborigines from his Australia. His refusal to speak is a gesture, a tactic, not a doctrine, and not without irony. Indeed Bennett monitors the scene closely and occasionally writes semi-manifestoes and even explanatory letters to critics. He wants a dialogic relation with his critics. If this puts him in a difficult position, it puts those who speak about his work in an even more difficult one.
The most important lesson I have learnt in writing and speaking about Bennett’s work over the previous five years is not to pass on to him that burden of representation which Mercer spoke of — of not, for example, reading his work in too autobiographical a fashion, as if here speaks the Aborigine of his identity problems, as if the problems he pictures are Aboriginal ones. Yet I have, in the past, invested in the argument that Bennett’s work pictures all the conundrums and aporias of Australian identity. Such a weight of meaning, as if everything must be told, along with an elision of aesthetic values is, according to Mercer, the principle symptoms of the burden of representation borne by minority artists.
Every time I speak or write about Bennett and his work, I feel in an impossible position. I felt this particularly strongly at a recent conference, in which several artists spoke about their work, and then I, the WASP academic, spoke about Bennett’s art. This was accentuated by the theme of the conference, trauma and memory. Here that politics of representation which Mercer wrote of were all too obvious, as was the aporia of identity and speaking positions. On the other hand, why is my discourse on Bennett any more troubling than my discourse on a non-aboriginal artist?
One obvious answer is the burden of representation placed on Aboriginal artists. Maybe this burden must be borne, and to its limit, until it eventually fails. And maybe Bennett is already doing this, because while his work draws me into its field of representation, it is a field which refuses to represent, or at least in any clear or singular way. The viewer is always caught between voices, between positions, and so acutely aware of his or her own positionality. And the more Bennett refuses to talk about his work, the more he leaves it as a text without origin, the more I feel that the burden of representation is mine — as if the politics of representation has been exposed as one of desire. And a desire which Bennett, in his pictures, returns to its origin, returns to its sender.
Ian McLean is a senior lecturer in art history and theory at the School of Art, University of Tasmania. This essay was delivered as the Hancock lecture at the University of Sydney on 11.11.1998 as part of the annual conference of the Australian Academy of Humanities which had as its theme: ‘First Peoples Second Chance Australia In Between Cultures’. Ian McLean is the author of The Art of Gordon Bennett (with Gordon Bennett, 1996); and White Aborigines,Cambridge University Press, 1998. An excerpt from White Aborigines is reproduced in the May 1998 edition of Australian Humanities Review.
1. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, translated Hazel E. Barnes, Philosophical Library, New York, n.d., p 22.
2. Flesh and Blood A Sydney Story 1788-1998, Museum of Sydney, 28 November 1998- 14 February 1999.
3. M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, translated Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, University of Texas, Austin, 1990, p. 324.
4. Paul Gilroy, ‘Cruciality and the Frog’s Perspective: An Agenda of Difficulties for the Black Arts Movement in Britain’, 1989, quoted in Kobena Mercer,Welcome to the Jungle, Routledge, New York, 1994,, p. 241.
5. James Bonwick, Who Are the English?, David Bogue, London, 1881, pp. 2, 9-10.
6. Keith Hancock, Australia, Ernest Benn Limited, London, 1930, pp. 56-58.
7. Ibid., pp 13, 15, 20.
8. Stephen Melville, ‘Attachment of Art History’, lecture, Getty Summer Institute in Visual and Cultural Studies, University of Rochester, 2.7.98, p. 8.
9. Hancock, pp. 56-58.
10. Ibid., Preface.
11. Ibid., p 239.
12. See R. H. Croll, Wide Horizons, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1937, pp. 157-158.
13. Ernestine Hill, The Great Australian Loneliness, Robertson and Mullens, Melbourne, 1943, pp. 8, 7.
14. Rex Battarbee, Modern Australian Aboriginal Art, Angus and Roberston, Sydney, 1951, p. 19.
15. Martin Heidegger, ‘What is Metaphysics?’, Basic Writings, ed. David Krell, Routledge, London, 1994, p. 108.
16. Ibid., p. 22.
17. See also Sartre pp. 14-15
18. Heidegger, p. 110.
19. Ibid., pp. 102-104.
20. See Sartre, p. 15.
21. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, translated Hazel E. Barnes, Philosophical Library, New York, n.d., p. 222.
22. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, translated Gayatri Spivak, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, Delhi, 1994, pp. 158-159.
23. Ibid., pp. 66-67.
24. Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, translated Alan Bass, Chicago University Press, Chicago, 1978, p. 213.
25. Or in Mercer’s words, ‘the rearticulation of /black/ as an empowering signifier . . . a counter-hegemonic discourse of black community resistance.’ (Mercer, p. 256.)
26. Ibid., p. 234.
27. Bakhtin, p. 272.
28. bell hooks, Yearning race gender and cultural politics, South End Press, Boston, 1990, p. 22.
29. This, of course, is a characteristic of Bakhtin’s dialogic mode.
30. Mercer, p. 255.
31. Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilisation, translated Richard Howard, Vintage, New York, 1973, p. 289.
32. Ibid., p. 242.
33. Ibid., p. 252.
34. Ibid., p. 262.
35. Derrida, Of Grammatology, p. 36.
36. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, Routledge, London, 1990, pp. 142-143.
37. Ibid., p. 245.
38. Philip Batty, ‘Saluting the dot spangled banner Aboriginal Culture, National Identity and the Australian Republic‘, Art Link, Vol. 17 No.3, 1997.
39. Bakhtin, p. 309.
40. Ibid., pp. 366-367.
41. Mercer, p. 249.