Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 2, No. 1, 1987
Asian Cinema
Edited by Brian Shoesmith & Tom O'Regan

Cultural futures

Tom O'Regan

Eric Michaels, For a Cultural Future: Francis Jupurrurla Makes TV at Yuendumu (Sydney: Artspace, Art & Criticism Monograph Series, v. 3, 1988), 80pp. ISSN 0819 0062. Distributed by Manic Ex-Poseur, PO Box 39 World Trade Centre, Melbourne, 3005, Australia, $7.50.

It is easy to be enthusiastic about Eric Michaels' work. Hard to be critical. For a Cultural Future is no exception. Just why this is so is interesting. Like the central Australian Aboriginal video productions of Francis Jupurrurla that this monograph deals with, Michaels' work comes "out of the blue". It has no recognisable Australian precedent. Both transgress boundaries. Michaels of discipline, readership and register. Jupurrurla of broadcasting regulation, norms of video practice, and of audience engagement.

Michaels' work cuts across anthropology, the study of communication media, visual arts and policy studies. It has a readership in all these sites but is not centrally within any one of them. Jupurrurla's video work in the Warlpiri Aboriginal community is sensible in relation to Warlpiri protocols and understandings, and its organisation of production is consonant with Warlpiri law. And it was the cultural imperatives of this video work that led to low power community TV transmission without a licence. Furthermore Jupurrurla can be seen as:

... a sophisticated cultural broker who employs videotape and electronic technology to express and resolve political, theological and aesthetic contradictions hat arise in uniquely contemporary circumstances.' [1]

For a Cultural Future, a liberally illustrated monograph, explores the differences between Warlpiri Aboriginal and European video practice. Its focus on Jupurrurla's Warlpiri use of video indicates larger cultural differences in creative practice. These are differences, Michaels argues "which need to be admitted and understood if the distinctiveness and contribution of Warlpiri creativity is to be evaluated critically in a contemporary climate.' [2] Michaels describes these differences in terms of Warlpiri cultural characteristics. These include: its "ideological sources and access to inspiration"; its "cultural constraints on invention and imagination"; its "epistemological bases for representation and actuality"; its "indistinctiveness of boundaries between authorship and oeuvre"; and its "restrictions on who makes or views expressive acts'. [3] The "future" of the title For a Cultural Future relates to the extent to which Francis Jupurrurla's work maintains in both its form and its means of dissemination traditional Warlpiri information systems.

Of most interest for Michaels is the way that video was incorporated into traditional Warlpiri models by Jupurrurla and thus came to serve traditional objectives. Michaels demonstrates that production was organised to take into account kinship relations and ceremonial divisions of labor. Aboriginal views of landscape were able to be accommodated by video - thus permitting the development of genres which served not only to preserve Warlpiri culture but also to meet the community's broader political and educational objectives. Video and the Aboriginal management of TV transmission also permitted traditional rules of association, avoidance and authority to be respected. Further Michaels notes that the Warlpiri viewers' interpretations of their video work (and to an extent European video) work tended to conform to traditional narrative and storytelling conventions rather than to European fictional templates. Finally, for Michaels, the circulation of Aboriginal tapes conformed to the traditional informational networks such that dispersed through traditionally related Warlpiri communities could exercise their ceremonial ties through these tapes.

Jupurrurla's video work such as Coniston Story and Warlukurlangu (Fire Ceremony and Michaels' interpretation of them is difficult for Australian academic culture generally and media studies specifically to deal with. Media studies has neither the competence to deal with the object of study - central Australian Aboriginal communities (knowledge of that object is the province of anthropologists, Aborigines, policy makers and some committed communications specialists) nor has it taken on board the kind of communications/information network perspective that Michaels employs. Communications media scholars are thus faced with ignoring his work, uncritically embracing its analyses, or quibbling churlishly with its generalisations about culture and communication.

(Given this situation Michaels' importance to the study of communication media in Australia has tended to lack a public registration outside of his publications and public profile. Thus his importance not just for our constituency but for anthropology, the visual arts and policy making is evidenced more in his work and its diverse placements. This work has found an uneasy resting place in anthropological publications, in Media Information Australia, in studies of TV audiences, in visual arts catalogues, and more lately in the critical visual arts publication Art & Text. [4]

The transgressive nature of this work is explained in part by the conjunction of anthropology and communication studies it represents. It is outside the province of this review to comment on its anthropology. It can however focus on its discussion of communications and the media.

Michaels' argument is premised on an informational definition of culture. In his other major work, the policy study: The Aboriginal Invention of Television he says so explicitly: "Culture can be described as information - symbols and meanings - and the ways in which these are communicated and shared."' [5] Culture is thus communication networks, information systems. This perspective biases Michaels ' analysis of the impact of European/Western media ensembles (such as satellite TV, video and telephone) upon remote Aboriginal communities such as the Warlpiri in certain ways. He is thus prone to ask "How do these media ensembles as information systems differ from the information system observed - and described for Aboriginal cultures?"' [6]

These emphases place Michaels' work in the context of North American critical studies of communication media. Like the work of H.A. Innis, James Carey, Marshall McLuhan, and Daniel Czitrom, [7] Michaels' work emphasises the containers (rather than the contents) of culture. It stresses the material informational networks involved in particular communications technologies like TV, video, even bureaucracy. There is consequently an attention to their structural functions, their forms of organisation, their inherent spatial (geographic) and ideological biases. Thus Michaels can write: "The bias of mass broadcasting is concentration and unification; the bias of Aboriginal culture is diversity and autonomy."' [8] To discuss direct broadcasting by satellite is to stress it as involving particular information flows which must necessarily bias forms of social organisation and thought. This kind of approach is yet to have any significant impact in the Australian context. Michaels' work shows how it can.

Let's elaborate on these conceptions of bias in communications technology in relation to both the locally based video work in For a Cultural Future and to the satellite broadcasting to central Australian Aboriginal communities that threatens it To do so I will need to draw upon arguments taken from The Aboriginal Invention of Television - a book which is, in many ways, For a Cultural Future's complement. Invention explicitly deals with policy issues. It is designed to report to a governmental constituency. As such it provides both models for the introduction of broadcasting services and arguments for them. It is an argument "from above" whilst For a Cultural Future with its concern for the local video work is an argument "from below".

Framing both monographs is the advent of Australia's domestic satellite system which was touted as a means of bringing TV and radio to remote Australia. To accommodate time differences, state boundaries and perceived communities of interest the satellite's Australian coverage was divided up into a number of footprints: Western, central, north-eastern, and south eastern. The concern of both Michaels' books is with the central footprint: the footprint which most affects traditional Aboriginal communities and their cultures.

To begin then with Michaels' marking off of the differences between the Warlpiri community and their informational flows and the broader European community's informational networks and flows as developed in Invention with regard to TV.

TV information is equally accessible throughout the society of viewers; Aboriginal knowledge is highly restricted to identified classes of people (eg. initiated men or senior women. TV information is widely dispersed geographically through satellites; Aboriginal knowledge is highly localised. TV (or any mediated storage/ retrieval system) creates an external archival, impersonal authority; Aboriginal knowledge is personal (mentally stored), with face-to-face retrieval and transmission, and not subject to contradiction by an external, impersonal authority.' [9]

On this basis he comes to see "costs" to Aboriginal tradition involved un introducing satellite TV if no special provisions are made. He contends that it will: "usurp the prerogatives of senior people"; will "challenge the localism of knowledge that is the basis of autonomy and of the exchange system"; will challenge the authority of the dreaming (the law)"; and will violate "mortuary rules which prohibit recalling the names, images or property of deceased persons." [10]

In For a Cultural Future Michaels graphically makes the point about the impossibility of a single satellite footprint being able to mesh with existing Aboriginal information structures. He cites the 22 Aboriginal languages spoken in the central footprint area and the fact that these languages represent not simply different dialects but different cultural formations (particularly in relation to the northern coastal and southern desert communities)." [11] Video with its dispersed and loosely coordinated distribution and dissemination system when used in conjunction with low powered community TV transmission of the kind employed by Francis Jupurrurla represents a contemporary accommodation of tradition to the "electronic" age. In contrast the direct broadcast satellite with its single point to multi-point transmission (centre to periphery) broadcasts the same message throughout the footprint. Consequently it will not only tend to broadcast in a common lingua franca but will seek generalised forms of address. A consequence of this must be to diminish the power and the importance of the communities, their languages and rituals within the footprint area.

Broadly then Michaels schematises Aboriginal and contemporary mass communications systems. Modem mass media, particularly satellite TV is centralised, homogenised, archival, impersonal; whereas Aboriginal media is dispersed, heterogenous, personal. Herein lies both the strength and weakness of Michaels' work. To some extent Michaels is a technological determinist. He does emphasise the containers of culture over and above the contents. He does assert the importance of the forms of organisation of message dissemination in terms of their space and time binding characteristics.

A twofold argument can be levelled against this standpoint. First it is based on an overly schematic rendering of the nature of relations in contemporary and, presumably, traditional culture. It tends to read contemporary Western information networks as necessarily being homogenised and lacking diversity. It tends to inflate the position of media technologies in contemporary ensembles - and consequently of the information and entertainment that they provide for "audiences". This is to downplay other spheres of cultural transmission/information networks: work, family, the playground which must necessarily inform "audience" activity. Indeed the homogeneity, impersonality and archival nature that Michaels finds in Western TV can be plausibly contradicted. For Joshua Meyrowitz, for example, TV appears not only as an "oral medium" but also as a necessarily personalising one that tends to evacuate impersonal, formal and archival authority. [12] A second criticism is that this approach, in privileging the container over the "contents", erases the importance of the polysemic nature of audience responses to "the same" image whenever TV goes to different demographies and cultural communities.

These are forceful arguments against Michaels' work. But they need not contradict it. Both arguments might well provide the complementary argument to, rather than a vehement argument against, the kind of media container argument advanced by Michaels. Indeed the fact of that homogeneity, that archival work, that relative impersonalisation in the sense of removal from face to face interaction, is the ground rules upon which the personalisation of the medium, the televisual mediated forms of communication between audience and screen takes place in particular cultural locations.

To show some of the stakes involved for media studies here let's develop a comparison with cinema studies' conceptions. Under the influence of Metz and the psychoanalytic turn it also spoke of the apparatus and its effects and was concerned to place the cine-apparatus historically. But the communications as informational networks approach bears only a superficial resemblance to this approach. It stresses the practically exigent norms, flows, which do not so much engage the "subject" in a narrative of constitution and restitution but engage a distinct and intrinsically material set of cultural apparati. The investigable nature of this work shows that it is not necessary to forsake the broader forms of relations enacted in a particular media technology (and that medium's relation to the overall ensemble of media and social relations).

To claim Michaels for the study of communication media in Australia is to project this larger unify as a site of practical investigation. It is to move towards the study of something that we might call "cultural technologies". Here the object of study would not only be a medium's form of organisation - its spatial and time biases, it would also be to draw out the interconnections between a medium and other media - both the entertainment and information media on the one hand and those informational and interpersonal networks in work, leisure and the home on the other.

The Aboriginal Complex

So far the most politically contentious and culturally important dimension of For a Cultural Future has been left out. This is a discussion of the book in terms of the Aboriginal question(s) in Australia's bicentennial year. If so much of what has been written by educated whites in Australia about Aborigines has been characterised by an at times useless righteousness For a Cultural Future's politics, voice, and writing entails something of a practical departure positioned to provide an outlet for Aboriginal voices.

It has been a familiar rhetorical ploy, whether by John Pilger, or before him Tom Haydon (The Last Tasmanian) to assume a position of commentary and to write a history of racism and the history of Aboriginal Australia as elegy and tragedy. Michaels work draws attention to the fact that so many of these white voices speaking of Aboriginal Australia have tended to be welfarist and not culturalist voices. Theirs has been a concern, Michaels contends, with ethnicising Aboriginal communities, with constructing a pan-Aboriginality in the context of multiple and dispersed cultures and languages. This is to construct a fundamentally equivalent Aboriginal community across the face of Aboriginal Australia: to turn a Thursday Islander into a western dessert Aboriginal. This work can be summarised as a concern with "The Aboriginal Question" - as if in a continent such as Australia it would need to be the same question, and have the same answer. The extent to which forms of centrally administered bureaucracy, centrally enacted politics is complicit with producing a tactics with regards to Aboriginal communities commensurate with its spatially administrative objectives is drawn out in Michaels' writings. This kind of larger administrative rhetoric has also informed the study of "racial representations" and has worked to buttress and help construct the Aboriginal as ethnic.

The extent we (white Australia) are necessarily imprisoned in these forms of discourse is evident in the extensive and persuasive nature of the moral statistics of appalling figures of Aboriginal imprisonment, health, poverty, These become part of what Eric Michaels sees as the publicity effort on the part of Aboriginals: a tactic to raise their standing in the eyes of the broader white community, to naturalise governmental forms of welfarist actions in the context of perceived diminishing public support for Aborigines in "banana republic" Australia. It has been the singular intervention of Michaels in this context to place the concerns of the Aboriginal groups themselves, to insist upon their different sites of activity, and to develop a fundamentally un-welfarist perspective commensurate with the local perspectives of the Warlpiri at Yuendumu.

Certainly anthropological work in Australia has envisaged the devastating effects of the introduction of Western TV into Aboriginal communities in Central Australia; so too it has insisted upon the differences between Aboriginal societies. But anthropologists have not been able to voice those concerns in the public arena quite so effectively as Michaels. What is so special is Eric Michaels as broker, as facilitator, not director. His is the more routine, even mundane function of communicator (not commentator). That this position has been difficult to occupy is obvious. It has led to charges being levelled against him that he lacks a proper concern with the health and welfare of the communities that he is dealing with.

The stakes involved in "ethnicisation" can be addressed with reference to "multiculturalism". Aboriginality becomes just another one of those cultures supplanted to Australia. There is a fundamental unreasonableness to this multiculturalist assertion besides its assumption of immigration and cultural transplantation which erases the indigenous claim. This is that a centrally delivered SBS, the TV vehicle for multiculturalism, is singularly inappropriate for Aboriginal communities as Michaels points out - entailing as it does forms of "radical" de-contextualisation that are still relatively unknown in commercial TV.


The central problem that For a Cultural Future poses is neither the clarity of Francis Jupurrurla's projects, nor Michaels' own. Their polities, their strategies and preferences - are too clear, too well articulated. Instead the problem lies on our side, and in two directions. The first relates to the need to re-envisage the larger social continuum in which contemporary Australian media functions. This is a continuum which needs to incorporate the gamut of communication networks and their interrelatedness whether in data flows, computers, TV programs, telephone conversations, advertising etc. The problem then is one of how to study the Australian media as containers for informational networks. In this task Michaels' work provides clues, suggestions - but barely (since it is not really what he is looking at) any answers.

The second direction that Eric Michaels poses for film and media studies practitioners has to do with his praxis, particularly his position as broker and facilitator rather than (distanced) commentator. This is a position he occupies with both inventiveness and without compromise of theoretical rigour. This is suggestive then of a modus operandi in which engagement returns - not so much along the traditional fault-line of politics, and constructions in dominance like that of "labor" or "the Aboriginal", but along the piecemeal contours through which material approaches to communication and culture like that of Michaels work.

Finally Michaels' work points to the necessary incorporation of anthropological models within the study of communication media and vice versa - the incorporation of communications models and emphases within anthropology. This process is clearly signposted not only in Eric Michaels' work but also in Diane Austin-Broos' recent book Creating Cultures. [13]


1. Eric Michaels, For a Cultural Future (Sydney: Artspace, 1988), p. 26

2. Ibid, p. 14.

3. Ibid, p. 24.

4. See for example Eric Michaels "Aboriginal Air Rights" Media Information Australia, n.34, pp. 51-61; "Constraints on Knowledge in an Economy of Oral Information", Current Anthropology. v. 26, no 4, pp. 505-510; "Hollywood Iconography, A Warlpiri Reading" in P. Drummond and R. Patterson (eds) Television and its Audiences: International Research Perspectives, (London, BFI, 1987); "Western Desert Sandpainting and Postmodernism" in Warlukurlangu Artists Association, Kuruwarri Yuendumu Doors (Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1987) and "Bad Aboriginal Art", Art & Text, n. 28 (March-May) 1988, n. 59-72.

5. Eric Michaels, The Aboriginal Invention of Television in Central Australia 1982-1986. (Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1987)

6. Ibid, p. 129.

7. See for example H. A. Innis, The Bias of Communication (1951. Reprint Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972); James Carey, "Culture, Geography, and Communication: The Work of Harold Innis in an American Context" in W. Melody & L. Salter eds. Culture, Communication and Dependency: The tradition of H. A. Innis (Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1981), pp. 73-91; Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962); Daniel Czitrom, Media and the American Mind: From Morse to McLuhan (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982).

8. For a Cultural Future, p.13.

9. The Aboriginal Invention of Television, p. 130.

10. Ibid, p. 130.

11. For a Cultural Future, p.13.

12. Joshua Meyrowitz, No Sense of Place (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

13. Diane J. Austin-Broos ed. Creating Cultures (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1987).

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