David Carter ‘Dispossession, Dreams and Diversity: Issues in Australian Studies’

Reviewed by Georgine Clarsen

© all rights reserved

Given that each university in Australia offers at least one first year level Australian Studies subject and that an increasing number of universities outside of Australia are beginning to do so as well, it is surprising that there are so few Australian Studies textbooks. There have been some recent edited volumes from specific disciplinary standpoints, such as Martin Lyons and Penny Russell’s Australia’s History: Themes and Debates (2005), Judith Ryan and Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s Imagining Australia: Literature and Culture in the New World (2004), or Tsu-Ming Teo and Richard White’s Cultural History in Australia (2003). And there are a growing number of documentary collections, most recently Martin Crotty and Erik Eklund’s Australia to 1901: Selected Readings in the Making of a Nation (2003). But when it comes to resources for undergraduate courses I suspect that, like me, most Australian Studies teachers compile reading material around an eclectic mix of book chapters, journal articles, historical documents, extracts from literary texts and journalism. The upside of that practice is that allows subject material to be varied and responsive to changing issues, but the downside, of course, is that constructing a ‘reading brick’ each year involves a tremendous amount of work. In Dispossession, Dreams and DiversityDavid Carter has put his years of teaching to good effect by producing the first single-authored, multidisciplinary textbook in the field.

Thematic, more than chronological, Dispossession Dreams and Diversity is a cultural history that brings together a range of debates in sociology, politics, cultural studies, human geography, literary studies, gender studies and Aboriginal studies to consider the forces shaping contemporary Australia. The ‘issues’ of the title are loosely organised into three sections: Histories and Identities, Cultures and Country, Politics and Institutions. But another order of ‘issues’ cuts across that three-part, broadly disciplinary, division. Indigenous issues, ethnic diversity, gender, colonialism and postcolonialism, war, popular culture, urbanisation, race, environment, landscape, modernity, nationalism, immigration, national celebrations, class, egalitarianism, multiculturalism, ‘Americanisation’ and globalisation – most of the usual suspects in Australian Studies courses – are worked through each of the categories of history, culture and politics, with varying degrees of emphasis. And while a thematic organization predominates, there is a loose chronological trajectory, from settlement to contemporary national concerns – especially the stalled reconciliation process.

The book wears its theoretical assumptions lightly. The multidisciplinary foundations of Australian studies are taken for granted, and Carter never directly addresses how historians go about bringing the past into the present or considering what is distinctive about cultural history as a particular form of historical knowledge. Throughout, however, he consistently emphasises complex histories in which categories of analysis are acknowledged to be constructed and contested, where representations of the past rather than the past itself are key, and where moral values are integral to the narratives historians relate. He employs an eclectic array of theoretical approaches to understanding the past and illustrates the ways that the resulting historical narratives imply different interpretations of the present and offer alternate versions of national identity. Many of the chapters highlight how the questions we ask about the past are inflected by contemporary concerns and entail judgements about what kinds of futures Australians should hope for.

Many of the students I encounter in my classes have an uneasy sense of the dubious morality and self-interested pragmatism of much of contemporary Australian political life. They have come to maturity, however, in a climate which encourages Australians to feel comfortable about the past, and where the epithets of ‘political correctness’ and ‘un-Australian’ have worked to close down critical debate. In this textbook Carter very effectively models or demonstrates a practice of critical thinking in which he cogently argues for his own point of view, while acknowledging, outlining and citing other interpretations.

In considering national histories as claims to legitimate possession of the land, an emphasis particular to recent ‘settler’ societies, Carter immediately places Indigenous issues at the forefront of his accounts of the Australian nation. He stresses the ways that comforting narratives of benign progress have been newly forced to respond to Indigenous counter-narratives of violence, dispossession, injustice and survival in all areas of national life. Each of the three sections of the book includes one chapter devoted to Aboriginal history, but most other chapters offer some critique of a ‘white blindfold’ view of national development. From the reassessment of the continent prior to invasion as wilderness untouched by the hand of man, the racial basis of the Australian Settlement and ongoing government policy, the resistance toward honouring the Aboriginal dead in frontier conflict, the sentimental appropriation of Aboriginality for a tourist economy, and national pride in a fantasy of egalitarianism, most chapters incorporate an Indigenous critique as a key theme or even organising principal. The book ends with a chapter on the stalled reconciliation process and prospects for its renewal. There are, however, some weaknesses in his account. Significantly ‘women’ remain white, queers have ‘disappeared’ and questions of immigration and multiculturalism have not been brought into engagement with Aboriginal claims. A discussion of Muslims in Australia in the light of the ‘war on terror’ would also have been welcome.

While some chapters are stronger than others, most offer a nuanced and readable account of major debates in the field. The chapter on Anzac Day commemoration, for example, nicely uses samples of newspaper reporting over ninety years to analyse how past military events have been taken up and constantly reinvented in national life. A chapter on contemporary Aboriginal cultural production offers a useful account of Indigenous self-representation and its role in re-narrating national stories, though the medium of film is a surprising omission. And in a climate where many Australian Studies subjects now have a large proportion of American students, a chapter on the Americanisation of Australian culture provides an interesting catalyst for classroom discussion. That transnational focus is also evident in a chapter on Australia as an Asia-Pacific nation. Perhaps best of all from a subject coordinator’s point of view, each chapter includes an extensive and up-to-date bibliography, divided into ‘Further Reading’ and ‘References’, as well as a set of key questions that are useful in structuring student reading and tutorial discussion.

This book will prove to be a valuable resource for all teachers of Australian studies at tertiary level. I will certainly order multiple copies of this text for my university library and set many of the chapters as background reading in the subjects I teach. Will I use this book as the primary text? I am very tempted. But in the end I suspect I will continue to require students to engage with a variety of texts and a multiplicity of voices.

David Carter Dispossession, Dreams and Diversity: Issues in Australian Studies was published by Pearson Education Australia in 2006. ISBN 174010966. RRP $54.95, 446pp

Georgine Clarsen teaches Australian Studies at the University of Wollongong.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]