Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 8, No. 2, 1994
Critical Multiculturalism
Edited by Tom O'Regan

When Australia became modern

Toby Miller


Review of Graeme Turner,National Fictions: Literature, Film and the Construction of Australian Narrative, 2nd ed. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1993. 169 pp. +xiv 12 illustrations. ISBN 1 86373 504 6. $21.95.


When Australia became modern, it ceased to be interesting. I'll return to that in a moment. For now, let's ease into a slighter provocation: the oft-expressed concern about the institutionalisation of cultural studies (why is this a problem?) could be said to have taken a further step with the publication of a second edition of Graeme Turner's National Fictions. This event does not simply mean that the book has sold many copies over an extended period. It indicates a successful career shift from topic-book to textbook. And it permits a mild form of auto-revisionism, as Turner engages in some self-critique whilst holding to his basic precepts from ten years ago. This was the first book he published, and in many ways it stands out from the methods and markets engaged by the later work. His other output has been more synthetic, perhaps drawing together the thinking that he did to produce the first National Fictions and melding it with other objects to produce what have become definitive textbooks in three different areas. His British Cultural Studies is the best introduction to the field. Film as Social Practice - also now into a second edition - is the only credible entry-level film/cultural studies book. And his jointly authored Myths of Oz was a central strut of Australian cultural studies. The recent edited collections on media (Cunningham and Turner) and cultural studies (Turner Nation) may well circulate in similar ways. National Fictions has probably attracted less international attention than his other solo work, because it fixes its gaze specifically on Australian texts. This makes it apparently less interesting and useful to outsiders. But it is the book of his individually signed material that mounts a conceptual case rather than a series of pedagogic exemplications. Taking the long view, and in the context of Turner qua major international figures of cultural studies, why this neglect?

Australia ceased to be of academic interest in the Northern Hemisphere once it became modern. Read Durkheim, Mauss, Freud, Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, or Evans-Pritchard, and the country is never far away. There is a concept of "Australians" (for which read "Aborigines") that is quite dynamic as a route to producing a photographic negative of Europe. The truth of the North - obscured by clouds of smoke emitted from the engines and parliaments of the modern - can be found by a utopia inlaid in the prediamante realities of the Antipodean primordial, shining and gleaming without any artificial brilliance or deceptive facade. Here, Australians are Aborigines. But read Garfinkel, Giddens, Habermas, Walzer, Sennett, Daly, Fraser, Barry, Goffmann, Dinnerstein, or Donzelot, and Australia is absent (OK, it lived on in Parsons). In the seventy years between when the first and second set of writers come to publish, a link is lost in the empirics of theory, the groundedness of the space occupied by famous forebears that is easily forgotten by their exegetical and revisionist descendants. When Australia becomes a nation, and takes away the birthrights of citizenship from people of colour, "Australians" comes to signify something dull, obvious, and above all simply displaced in space (Europeanness) rather than in time (nature). Miraculously, when Australia is confirmed into its credulous postmodernity, it again becomes available to global social theory, reinforcing our suspicion that pomoprimitivism is the order of things. So Lawrence Grossberg cites Australia as the place to read cultural studies on the puff endorsing Stephen Muecke's Textual Spaces account of "Aboriginality and Cultural Studies". And National Fictions undergoes a visual transformation, from a K-Tel Happening '72 cover bursting with flags with a photo-montage of canonical masculinities, in edition one, to edition two's Magritte/Escher-like painting by Julia Ciccarone of a prost(r)ate man lying on his carefully chiselled floor, pulling a drape of mountainous style and origin over himself from across a window pane that itself seems to be part of the bush. This is a sign of movement from mo to pomo in the substitution of a supine, counter-realist figure for jingoistic kitsch. That shift signifies the conditions of possibility for "Australia" to return to the lists of groovy theory.

In the year of Australia's Federation, when in some sense the country ceased to be so valuable for social theory, Durkheim and Mauss were pouring over participant observations of Aboriginal life. I think they were looking for what I'd now call an interrogation of denotative codes in search of connotative messages. For denotation is revealed here as connotation made strange, and thence made available to re-connotation. Consider the following from one of their followers and interpreters:

When the ethnographer visits a strange people he carries with him such concepts as 'god', 'power', 'debt', 'family', 'gift', and so on, and however thorough his professional preparation he will tend at first to look for and identify what his own culture denotes by these words and to interpret the statements of the people in terms of them. But gradually he learns to see the world as it is constituted for the people themselves, to assimilate their distinctive categories. Typically, he may have to abandon the distinction between the natural and the supernatural, relocate the line between life and death, accept a common nature in mankind and animals. (Needham viii)

And all of this as an introduction to their essay proper, which commences with the following notorious statement: 'The most simple systems of classification known are those found among the tribes of Australia' (Durkheim and Mauss 10).

This sense of a laboratory for tinkering with others and reformatting oneself emerges very strongly from a rereading of National Fictions. When Turner takes us through his intricate and learned account of the self-society double declutching that which he finds to be characteristic of Australian fictional narratives and their interpretative history, he is playing out the classic sociological theories of the modern. I can think of no better guide to those debates! Hence perhaps the avant-garde nature of the former Australian Journal of Cultural Studies and Grossberg's recent commendation of Australian work as a new way-in to modernity ("Cultural"; "Introduction" 17-18). The focus on the country's carceral legacy and its implications for the interplay of person and community in Turner's meta-narration is exemplary material for thinking these issues through in new ways that I think are suggested by his own minor additions and by a form of interpretation that differs from the ways in which the book could be read when it first came out. For National Fictions acknowledged the nation as a productive, not necessarily a bad, object at a time when the fabulations of cultural studies were woven around a holier-than-thou anti-chauvinism that distinguished itself from such affiliations. Now the concept of the nation, whilst always up for grabs, is constantly being redeployed in work on cultural policy, queer theory, racial diasporas, and globalisation. It cannot be reflexively denounced. National Fictions was before its time.

Turner elects to add a footer and header to the first edition, rather than altering the main body of the text. So I knew when I was reading words that I had encountered them eight years earlier. What seemed new in both sets of parenthetical remarks was a restatement of the national question in Australian cultural studies, that great "what is to be done?" quandary that has appeared this past decade over the national-local relationship in debates over policy, theory, and cultural identity. Turner is often associated with a straightforward cultural nationalism. Why this should be I have never understood, since his support of that position is always conditional and careful, and posted in very open-ended terms. But perhaps those critiques have encouraged a topping and tailing that underscores the contingent nature of Second World nationalism, and why it can be democratising and enabling as well as exclusionary and repressive. Turner wants to know the morphology and the life-course of the Australian nation as it is realised in fictional narrative, a project that allows the rest of us to measure the nation's desirable qualities against its less appealing ones. So his new preface draws attention to the masculinist limits and utility of the bush ethos and to the way in which the increasing velocity of the global motions of culture brings into question the credibility of national identity in stories. But it restates his belief in the descriptive power, and perhaps the desirability, of an 'Australian accent'. This accent is not designated as an expressive totality that can encompass the demographics of Austraian life. It is not held up as a sign of organic harmony, forced or mystificatory as that claim always is. Rather, this is a metaphorised encapsulation, one where the passage of time finds Turner loose from his formalist self and keen to identify the tropes that encourage Australians to 'accept our social powerlesnness' or our 'inequities and divisions' as 'cause for concern' (xiii-xiv).

The basic elements of his orginal argument remains in place, however. The working assumptions underpinning most of the book shift between a structuralist assumption about narrative universalisms and the specificity of Australia as an axis of articulation and inflection, a national site of 'values and beliefs' that take a form eponymised in the book's title. It is this series of movements between the generic and the particular, the global and the local, the laws of narrative and their give-and-take, that provides a structural homology for the "individual and society" debates that were once conducted over the body of the Edenic form of Aboriginality in European social theory, where utopias were formed in a lost past rather than an imagined future. It is also the license for an additional industrial and intellectual movement, between literature and film, which are themselves characterised as struggles between anomic individuals and their hard lives. It is taken as read that 'thematic, formal and ideological' tropes recur across these types of text, encased as they are in other systems and sites of cultural signification, such as history, journalism, advertising, and sport (20-22).

Turner argues that film and literary criticism and history have extended these tropes into Australian binaries that encompass rurality and urbanism/nature and society as outcomes of invading settler peoples making their way in a landscape. But these binaries are again quite European. Turner rightly invokes Romanticism as a way of conceptualising them as problems in an artistic and social disharmony of the antipodean spheres of exile and discovery, of penury and pleasure. For just as the Edenic Primordiality of "the first Australians" exercised the cathectic extrapolations of nineteenth-century European social theory, so the lost innocence of "man" has been nostalgically positioned by local criticism in Australia's country world, an organicist metaphor of equality, honesty, and the coterminous ownership, control, and practice of production. This metaphor is favourably contrasted to the class-laden dross of city-life. The exotic is brought to bear on the definition and survival of the familiar, such that a true Australianness is centred in desert, not the south-eastern seaboard, and the hardship produced by the environment's 'callous indifference' is the authentic "local" (25, 28-29, 49). So, in some sense, Australian literary and screen criticism are doing identical work to that of modern social theory: seeking and finding truth and beauty in an exoticised innocence, in whiteness confronting the alterity of the land and its reminders of "clearances".

Ross Gibson's discussion of landscape and film is helpful here. He argues for a long tradition of trying to cope with and explain life in the most arid of continents that has recently given way to a less transformative and aestheticised discourse, where the country is more than a problem or a picture (64-65). It is overtly part of white Australia's problem of being a European society away from Europe, a fact confronted economically by a turn towards the Pacific Rim and emotionally by a deliberation on the environment by the most urbanised culture in the world. Being beyond the city is to be homeless, either as a sign of vagrancy or of liberty; the connotation changes with one's colour, but the signification depends on an outsider's alienation from the space of the land, an alienation that washes its hands in dry despair or waves them in romantic gesture.

This combines the denial of native title that generally characterised Australian law until the 1990s with the more pictorial and Arcadian side to doctrines of terra nullius. The refusal of adequate land rights to the original inhabitants of Australia assured newer arrivals an imaginary space of self-fashioning, where an inability to cope intellectually with the harsh new world permitted an association of Aboriginal people with a form of land-spirit harmony that simultaneously legitimised disowning them of that heritage (as it was less material than soulful) and utilising that spirit-place as a substitute for the developmentalist ethic of white capitalism. The latter move positions all Australians inside an ambivalent love for a land that cannot be domesticated. Instead, its wildness and nothingness combine as reasons to quarry - or marvel at - a grandeur that must be commodified and also elevated to a new lifeworld that is cultural, urban Australia's narrative other, a culturegraft of expressive feeling onto a ravaging invasion. In filmic terms, this produced the notorious period costume dramas of the decade from 1975, where Victorian lace and pictorial ruralism stood for a shared past and the difference between black society's myths of organic creation and its own, more secular narratives that relied for their coherence on a sense of being transplanted (Gibson 67-88, 72). This era led Pauline Kael to compare Australian films to 'reading an old-fashioned novel', where the energy from years without a national cinematic image was being misdirected into recreating the faulty realism of Victoriana. Both forms lack excitement and the capacity to break though 'academic barriers' to raw feeling (quoted in Hamilton and Mathews 21, 23).

This point has been nicely taken up by writers such as Stuart Cunningham and Tom O'Regan with reference to a range of Australian screen texts of the 1980s. The most developed site for the elaboration of this point is Crocodile Dundee (Peter Faiman 1986), Australia's most successful film export and the most popular imported film in US history. The Hollywood-style storyline and shooting might seem to disqualify the text as an Australian product. But Meaghan Morris distances herself from Australian critics who attack the film for merely mimicking Hollywood genres. Instead, she types the modernist question of unoriginality into three formats: firstly, as a negative critique occasioned by a faith in the new and the specific; secondly, as a positive and necessary outcome of making a national cinema work at an industrial level, given the nature of the industry and its impact on acceptable signification; and lastly, some combination of the aesthete and the financier as a postmodern combinatoire that makes unoriginality into a virtue. Genre is parodied as it is taken up, pirated, and puree in a joint assertion of Australian cultural nationalism and an underscoring of its unachievability as an absolute, for semiotic as well as monetary reasons (Pirate's 247-48).

The sign is truly detached from its referent via this positive unoriginality of a mediated diaspora. Crocodile Dundee I and II (Faiman and John Cornell 1988) and the Mad Max trilogy (George Miller 1979, 1982, 1985) were part of a new way of dealing with landscape, revisionist Westerns of a kind that problematised an earlier Romanticism and were fabulously successful. The environment remained an ineradicable centre to these stories, but it was both internationalised and turned into an aspect of local thought, with an intellectual history that is formed in dialogue with Hollywood fables and the inapplicability of manifest destiny in a country without enough river systems to make it work. Dundee is finally 'about succeeding through getting Americans to like us'. That involves making the landscape malleable and risable, a comparativist turn that displaces the more obvious 'template of a national identify' that it once provided. The celebration of the modern has become a parable of the postmodern. This helps us to understand Turner's observation that Australian cultural policy is characterised by the efforts of a 'small and economically weak nation...torn between adjusting what it does in order to compete internationally...or alternatively maintaining a close relation between its activities and a sense of national identity' ("Cultural Policy" 70). The critical point to make is that being aware of that binary, either as a textual determinant, an audience propensity, or a policy principle, is in some sense to subvert it.

National Fictions carefully traces the lineage of this pastoral:authetic :: urban:inauthentic divide, whilst avoiding any simplistic entrapment in it. Turner is dubious about a critical and authorial preference for the rural as a proper site for metaphysical speculation. He sees equally useful stories emerging from the urban or post-apocalyptic world, often connected to the carceral history of the state. That is the site for testing civilising influences and policies, in the eyes of most critics, on a slate of subjects, forced migrants, who are horrified by their testing-ground and conditions. The legacy of this history is a self-society dialectic that mythically endorses 'the inevitability of subjection' even as it signifies freedom from the baleful European past and present that birthed this escape/incarceration (31, 51, 54-55, 74-75).

When Rousseau asked why lions were born free but everywhere found in Hollywood, perhaps the answer lay in the necessity of the Enlightenment imprisoning some in order to liberate others; and once that process was under way in Australia as part of a new nation, rather than a colonial enterprise, the silencing and blancing of Aboriginality took away Australia's relevance for his philosophical descendants. Graeme Turner's tour de force redux helps to make it available once more.

Works Cited

Cunningham, Stuart. "Hollywood Genres, Australian Movies". An Australian film Reader. Moran and O'Regan. 235-41.

_______, and Graeme Turner, Eds. The Media in Australia: Industries, Texts, Audiences. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1993.

Durkheim, Emile and Marcel Mauss. Primitive Classification. Trans. Rodney Needham. London: Cohen and West, 1970.

Fiske, John, Bob Hodge and Graeme Turner. Myths of Oz: Reading Australian Popular Culture. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1987.

Gibson, Ross. South of the West: Postcolonialism and the Narrative Construction of Australia. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992.

Grossberg, Lawrence. "Cultural Studies and/in New Worlds". Race Identity and Representation in Education. Ed. Cameron McCarthy and Warren Crichlow. New York: Routledge, 1994. 89-105.

_______. "Introduction: Bringin' it all Back Home - Pedagogy and Cultural Studies". Between Borders: Pedagogy and the Politics of Cultural Studies. Ed. Henry A. Giroux and Peter McLaren. New York: Routledge, 1994. 1-25.

Hamilton, Peter and Sue Mathews. American Dreams: Australian Movies. Sydney: Currency P, 1986.

Moran, Albert and Tom O'Regan eds. An Australian Film Reader. Sydney: Currency P, 1985.

Morris, Meaghan. The Pirate's FinancĀ­e: Feminism, Reading, Postmodernism. London: Verso, 1988.

Muecke, Stephen. Textual Spaces: Aboriginality and Cultural Studies. Sydney: U of New South Wales P, 1992.

Needham, Rodney. "Introduction". Primitive Classification. Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss. Trans. R. Needham. London: Cohen and West, 1970. vii-xlviii.

O'Regan, Tom." The Man From Snowy River and Australian Popular Culture". Moran and O'Regan. 242-51.

Turner, Graeme. British Cultural Studies: An Introduction. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990.

_______. "Cultural Policy and National Culture". Turner Nation, Culture, Text. 67-71.

_______. Film as Social Practice. London: Routledge, 1988.

_______. Ed. Nation, Culture, Text: Australian Cultural and Media Studies. London: Routledge, 1993.


New: 4 March, 1996 | Now: 25 March, 2015