The Other Side of Us: Australian National Identity and Constructions of the Aboriginal

Therese-M. Caiter responds to Philip Batty

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In his Saluting the dot-spangled banner: Aboriginal Culture, National Identity and the Australian Republic, Philip Batty argues that Australia has apparently developed a desire to “know itself through Aboriginal culture”1. Batty cites all sorts of examples of Aboriginal art which are utilised as representations of Australia. While Olympic TV spots, Quantas jet tails and post office uniforms boast Aboriginal dots and/or dances, Batty stops to question the motif behind such a representation: “So how did we get from the ‘dying race’, or ‘the most backward and wretched’ race on earth, or the ‘evolutionary relic’ to the performance at the Atlanta Olympics?” There seems to be no answer to his question and the article moves on to point out that at any rate this is “yet another reinvention of Aboriginal culture.”

It is disconcerting to find such a question remaining without even an attempted, possible reply.

The development of the modernist representation of Aboriginal culture, that wretched other side of Australian society, is traced quite clearly by Batty, as is the fact that white Australian identity first and foremost had to set itself off from indigenous culture as the opposite “other” in order to come to terms with itself. Hidden in this development, however, in the history of the modernist construction of Aboriginality, there is the seed of what has now become the “new” representation of Aboriginality. Indeed, I would venture the argument that this “new” construction of Aboriginal culture is a lot less new than it might seem.

Batty himself notes that at the very beginning of the northern European attention for so-called ‘primitive’ tribes of Australia there is the longing for the pristine that shaped much of European attention to indigenous cultures — as opposed to European economic interest in indigenous resources. Going back to Rousseau and the “noble savage” (a term which Rousseau himself didn’t coin but that remains linked to his theory) Europeans liked to regard their culture’s shortcomings as corruption of a really quite good idea, an idea which could be found incarnated in the relationship of “primitive” people to nature.

Nature, the greatest opposite ‘other,’ became the centre of attention in Romantic poetry and theory alike, and comprised not merely the benevolent, all-powerful, and divine Other of (European) human society, but also the deepest recesses of human nature as well.2 That this human nature extended to primitive people alike, few attempted to question, though some, of course, did. With indigenous people, at any rate, the natural seemed to increase in proportion to a decreasing level of civilisation, the scale for which had been set by evolutionary theoretical concepts abounding for instance in 19th c. Historicism.

The Aborigines, however, having been placed by Darwin as the lowest of the low together with the South American tribes of Patagonia, and doomed to extinction, didn’t stand much of a chance in a competition with indigenous cultures labelled superior by European scientists and artists alike. Polynesian culture is a prominent example for admired primitivism, the term itself serving as a double-edged sword. The construction of the category ‘primitive’ allowed imperialistic abuse, but it also served to subtly criticise it.

Two world wars interrupted this European navel-gazing on a global scale and there seemed no chance of a resurrection of Romantic ideas from such disillusionment in human nature. Even back in the 30ies, this disillusion was complete: Joseph W. Beach carefully noted a tendency of romanticising the primitive, while holding that these ideas had really died out with the beginning of the 20th century.3 If they did die out, they were quickly resurrected in the shape of ecological theories.

At this point, a quick look at the ecological world-view is helpful.4 In ecological thinking, Nature occupies a god-like position, being endowed with almighty powers and creating and shaping its signifier, the environment, through the natural forces. Environment’s function is to sustain human society. Society owes such a concept of Nature constant reverence, as it owes its representative, the environment, protection and moderate use.

The signifier in this concept is much weaker than the signified; the environment represents the vulnerable and fragile side of Nature. Nature, in its turn, guards the norm of ecological behaviour by punishing society for abuses of the environment: floods, climate shifts and all manners of natural catastrophies thus become a permanent warning to human civilisation. An ecological improvement of society, constantly to be strived for, is therefore imperative and ultimately serves to ensure the survival of the human species, which reveals the true centre of an ecological world view: not nature, but man. From here derives the ethic of bettering individual ecological behaviour in order to better the whole of society: Every individual’s co-operation is required in separating waste, decreasing the use of natural resources and thus living by the rule of Nature. Like all religions, this system of ecological thought is thoroughly anthropocentric. Also like all religions, ecological thought needs not only the purgatory of civilisation and the apocalyptic visions of a world without trees but a role model, a vision of paradise, a vision to come.

The eschatological dimension of this vision requires much idealistic improvement on the present condition of “primitive people,” which thus find themselves resurrected in Western thought. Regrettably somewhat corrupted by western society, the few remaining indigenous cultures become the centre of attention again. In an inversion of evolutionary thought, just the formerly most despised feature of the ultra-primitive, not-to-be-saved Aboriginal culture now reaches the proportion of a role-model: its perceived closeness to Nature, its defined distance to anything remotely familiar, European, civilised. The evolutionary scale, interestingly enough, is maintained and simply turned on its head; western culture, the former pinnacle of civilisation, is at the bottom of the scale while indigenous cultures emerge in their “new,” “primitive” and “natural” glory.

Not much is left of the counterpart of Aboriginal culture, the Patagonian Indians. Aboriginal culture, however, offers now just the requisites of a new role-model by being in constant contrast to the present white Australian (corrupted) civilisation, and by being the former underdog of anthropology and historiography. The sudden shift of stress in the construction of Aboriginal primitivism joins neatly with the white Australian urge to come to terms with the old classic “other,” hostile Australian nature. In this, the Aborigines also become role-models, living peacefully in tune with the spirit of the soil and preserving their ancient, “natural” wisdom. As part of Australian nature they can safely be admired while the “actual referents of these representational manoeuvres”, as Batty acutely observes the present position of Aborigines, can be just as safely ignored.

This leads to the folkloristic aspects of the new discovery of Aboriginal art, to the dots on post office uniforms made to look like Central Australian bark paintings, to the permanent display of Uluru photos and didgeridoo sounds, and to other, stranger manifestations. It does, however, also confine Aboriginal culture in a new racism, a limbo of eternal pristine primitivity and permanent opposition to civilisation.5 In this ecological construction of the “real Australians” (yet again), there is little space for Aboriginal reality in the 20th century, or for a discussion of the role the Aboriginal population of Australia should play in the construction of a future Australian republic.

Therese-M. Caiter is a Ph.D. student at the University of Tuebingen, Germany.

Footnotes and References

1. Batty, Philip (1997) “Saluting the dot-spangled banner: Aboriginal Culture, National Identity and the Australian Republic“. AHR Sept.-Oct. 1998

2. See for instance Goethe, Johann Wolfgang v., “Die Natur.” (“Nature.” 1782) and “Erlaeuterungen zum AufsatzDie Natur.'” (“Comments on the essay ‘Nature.'” 1828)Schriften ueber die Natur. (Writings about Nature.) Gunther Ipsen (ed.) Stuttgart, 1945. 15-19.

3. “The general notion of nature in the romantic period was greatly affected by the disposition, early manifest in European literature, to associate the word nature with a state of life untouched by human arts and institutions. […] This legend of the Golden Age readily joined with the notion that the savage, or primitive, man is in many ways superior to the sophisticated product of a corrupt civilisation, and that many of our ills may be cured by a return to something like the savage state.” Joseph W. Bach. The Concept of Nature in the 19th Century English Poetry. New York, 1936. 17.

4. I have drawn from Geertz’s idea of religion as a cultural function in Thick Description (Frankfurt, 1983. 44-95.) as well as from the theories put forth in an ecological anthology published in Germany by Peter Mayer-Tasch (ed.) Natur denken (Thinking Nature) 2 vols., Frankfurt, 1991. This anthology attempts to construct a philosophical history of ecological thought by placing partly well known philosophical texts into new context. If offers excellent material… for an analysis of ecological rhetoric!

5. The racist element, incidentally, gains huge momentum in demands that Mudrooroo Narogin, for instance should prove his right to speak on behalf of the black Australian community, by undergoing a genetic test to show his racial purity (Courier-Mail, 30.03.1998, p.4). Similar attitudes have been voiced in the recent public debate over Roberta Sykes authobiography. Such a development into racism was anticipated as early as 1986 by Shiva Naipaul in his essay “Flight into Blackness.” An Unfinished Journey. London, 1986. 11-22.

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