Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 6, No. 1, 1992
Radio - Sound
Edited by Niall Lucy

Writing culture/writing anthropology

Toby Miller


Review of: Julie Marcus. Ed. Writing Australian Culture: Text, Society, and National Identity. Special Issue Series. Social Analysis: Journal of Cultural and Social Practice 27 (1990: 132pp. ISSN 0155-977 X. Available from Department of Anthropology, University of Adelaide, GPO Box 498, Adelaide, 5001, Australia. A$14 to Australian-based students. A$22 to other categories of person. A$36 to institutions.


These are not easy times for anthropology in Australia. A recent survey of higher education claims that there is a very marked trend towards its subsumption by sociology or its exclusion from the curriculum altogether (McCall and Pertierra). The discipline's masthead journal, Mankind, has been renamed, throwing to history its untimely and unwanted sexism. Its recent special issue of review articles can be read as an attempt to bring the area into the domain of epistemological politics (Maclean and Rhoads). For just as the uneasy adjacency of Australian anthropology to Australian racism is being brought into question, the discipline's very subject matter is undergoing a mixture of colonisation and appropriation. For every twenty litterateurs seeking new fields to read and ethnographies to imagine, there is a beleaguered anthropologist worried about inscription, the self and the other. Anthropology - always the discipline without an account of itself - has lost exclusive purchase on participant observation, its claim to methodological uniqueness. Put another way, Australian anthropology has been (simultaneously) institutionally devoured by social science and programmatically repossessed by the empire of the text. Its workers are become sociologists and its methods have been appropriated by cultural studies.

Clearly, this is something of a caricature. There continue to be jobs for anthropologists in government, in debates over landrights, and through Aboriginal community work, but university positions are scarce and disciplinary abjection plentiful. The volume under review evidences the colonisation by literary-mindedness that is underway across the discipline. The haven in textuality that is being forged in the United States is recreated here, if without any great awareness of the important critiques mounted of it from feminist, anti-relativistic or anti-autotelic writings (see Gordon and Stacey, Keesing and Lull and Roth respectively).

The remorseless drive towards problematising the self as researcher merges with problematising the self as collective memory in the ambiguity and ambivalence of this collection's treatment of Aboriginal questions. Now in many ways this is right and proper. Anthropologists and ethnographic film-makers have for far too long made institutional lives from colonising the life world of Aboriginal Australians in an effective homology of the broader project of white invasion. The papers included here arose from a self-critical Bicentennial conference, and show the marks of that lineage. But it is in the essays which deal with Aboriginal politics that we get both the fruits and the weeds of the trends I have identified. On the one hand, there are useful evocations of the incorporative alterity that sees certain white Australians account for black Australians via the safe tropes of Calibanism and environmental/musical utopias. Andrew Lattas' chapter, "Aborigines and Contemporary Australian Nationalism: Primordiality and the Cultural Politics of Otherness", is one of the best deployments of recent developments in the literature of self-fashioning that is available. But even the more valuable essays tend to be dogged by a form of rejection of their own strength: much of the ethnographic work along the way is subsumed by self-reflexivity, auto-critique and a worrying away at collective intellectual and racial guilt. This is necessary, but insufficient as a means of establishing the pre-conditions for cultural and social criticism. It bespeaks the power of the empire of the text, the way in which literary studies provides a template for exercising the aesthetic self in search of the international passport to the human subject. Ironically, what this reveals is the need for greater confidence about using evidence gathered in the field; not an increased public self-flagellation. The political effect of the trends in evidence here is, it seems to me, infinitely more to do with a technology of public confession and the drive towards forming new selves than any redemption for categories of wronged person. This is the birth of a new set of exercises for what used to be anthropology.

Away from that set of exercises, Writing Australian Culture does some valuable empirical and interpretative labour: Annette Hamilton's contribution on Australian beer drinking at home and abroad and its connexions to the good and bad Kleinian breast is witty and enlightening; and the issue of the public speech, whose neglect bears testimony to the radical separation of rhetoric from social science in Australia, is usefully brought into focus in Paul Gillen's account of a Prime Ministerial address. At the end of the day, though, this book/ journal issue represents another success for cultural criticism's extension of its hold on cultural analysis. That hold, relying as it does on inscribing ethical incompleteness onto the object analysed and the subject analysing, is a very specific technology of teaching and research. Its history suggests both providence and narrowness for those that follow it.

Works Cited

Gordon, Deborah. "Writing Culture, Writing Feminism: The Poetics and Politics of Experimental Ethnography." Inscriptions 3-4 (1988): 7-24.

Keesing, Roger. "Exotic Readings of Cultural Texts." Current Anthropology 30 (1989): 459-69.

Lull, James. "The Audience as Nuisance." Critical Studies in Mass Communication 5 (1988): 239-42.

McCall, Grant and Raul Pertierra. "Anthropology and Australian Institutions." Australian Anthropological Society Inc. Newsletter 41(1989): 40-41.

Maclean, Neil and James Rhoads. "Introduction." Mankind 19 (1989):1-4.

Roth, Paul A. "Ethnography Without Tears." Current Anthropology 30 (1989): 555-61.

Stacey, Judith. "Can There be a Feminist Ethnography?" Women's Studies International Forum 11 (1988) 21-27.


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