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Culture Crisis, Anthropology and Politics in Aboriginal Australia, co-edited by Jon Altman and Melinda Hinkson | Martin Préaud - 2 November 2011

Review of the book co-edited by Jon Altman and Melinda Hinkson, Culture Crisis, Anthropology and Politics in Aboriginal Australia, Sydney, University of New South Wales Press, 2010 (288 pages).

This collective book brings together the contribution of fifteen australianist anthropologists confronted to a crisis of their disciplinary culture as of their key concepts which has become in the last twenty years the object a highly controversial subject in the public and political arenas. Hinkson clearly introduces these Australian ‘culture wars’ by replacing them in their historical and political context that sees the reversal of the prevailing consensus since the 1970s that saw respect for Aboriginal cultural difference as a means towards their social progress as well as the nation’s. The trigger for this publication was the release of Peter Sutton’s The Politics of Suffering : Indigenous Australia and the end of the liberal consensus (Melbourne University Press) in 2009, in the aftermath and in support of the Northern Territory Emergency Response (1). In this book, Sutton argues that Aboriginal culture is a key factor in accounting for the situations of violence and poverty that confronts most remote Aboriginal communities in northern and central Australia, thereby justifying their dramatic take over by the federal Government in the Northern Territory.

The contributions are distributed in four main thematic sections – the problem of recognition, the problem of violence, counting culture, imagining futures – and address two order of questions throughout the book: why have anthropologists been largely silent on the situations of violence and suffering they encountered in their field? How can anthropologists renew their subjects and practice in order to address the challenges created by the political and media use of the concept of culture? This double interrogation illustrates the “postcolonial dilemma” confronted by anthropologist, a subject that Kowal explores in detail in her chapter, based on research with Northern Territory health workers: how can social progress and cultural maintenance be reconciled when the dominant idea is that remote communities and outstations (that were supposed to solve this conundrum) have failed? An important quality of the book is to offer various, sometimes opposed, perspectives and propositions to overcome this tension.

As to the silence of anthropologists on the situations of suffering they entered, several authors (Langton, Austin-Broos, Beckett) point to an incapacity to acknowledge and work with the social and demographic transformations that have dramatically changed indigenous societies since the 1970s and the inception of politics of recognition. For Peterson, anthropologists’ silence is linked to their reluctance to see the State promote the kind of transformations he gathers under the notion of “secular assimilation” while for Langton, the demographic changes in the fabric of Aboriginal communities calls for the kind of sophisticated policy reforms that Noel Pearson has been developing in the Cape York peninsula. These authors also understand this silence to be linked with anthropologists’ involvement in Indigenous struggles, especially land rights claims that, because of the very legislations, focus on cultural continuities rather than historical changes. Another strand of explanation is given through the historical anthropological (Austin-Broos, Cowlishaw), media (Hikson) and even statistical (Rowse) construction of northern and central Australian remote Aboriginal communities as separate from the remainder of Australian society. Australianist anthropology would have thus failed to represent Aboriginal people as co-nationals (Beckett) with important policy and cultural consequences).

Several pathways are envisaged for anthropology to overcome these shortcomings, with a critical analysis of State practices emerging as one of the strongest themes throughout the book. Lattas and Morris purport to deconstruct neoliberal reforms of the State (and of Sutton’s argument that seemingly supports them) through a foucauldian framework of governmentality, denouncing the manner in which « the dominant White community has firmly reaffirmed its sovereign right to organise Indigenous people’s lives to overcome their own collective and personal inability to govern and care for themselves » (p. 81). In the opening chapter, Povinelli develops a fine-grained analysis of the transformations of liberalism, arguing that the Intervention is not so much a change of paradigm than a reversal of polarities within the framework of late liberalism challenged by new social movements. At the other end of the book, Altman pursues his model of a “hybrid “economy” arguing for an alternative model of economic based on the productive overlaps between the State, market and customary sectors.

Cowlishaw calls for a change in ethnographic focus and a revalorization of anthropology as a discipline that is “valuable for providing evidence, analysis and critique of social processes with particular sensitivity to the cultural dimensions of power. I am proposing that under present conditions, a mirror to examine ourselves and our society and culture would be a more useful ethnographic tool than tropes explaining their cultural difference” (p.48). The rare articles with ethnographic content seem to realize her wishes, with Musharbash exploring the relationships between the Warlpiri people of Yuendumu and state agents brought by the Intervention, Lea’s interrogation from the inside of teaching practices in remote Australia and Kowal’s analysis of the postcolonial dilemma among Northern Territory health researchers, workers and bureaucrats. Merlan and Austin-Broos demonstrate the interest of taking some distance with political contingencies to develop a critical anthropological analysis, respectively of child sexual abuse in their link with other social transformations and of violence, through a long-term historical study of the conflict arising between different regimes of economic and cultural value.

One can regret that the concept of culture is not discussed in these pages but the diversity of perspectives builds here a rich and complex mosaic. One of the most interesting aspects of this mosaic lies in the reflexive quality of many contributions made by senior researchers, painfully aware that their discipline has not lost any of its ambivalence through its postcolonial turn. If Musharbash’s essay explores how “the Northern Territory, in the here and now, becoming two worlds, populated by two peoples, who travel different roads, not only metaphorically but also literally” (p. 223), a similar issue is confronted by anthropologists in their fraught relationship with Australian Indigenous policies. Can they travel the same road towards a complex understanding of the relationship named Indigeneity and anchor it in an acknowledgement of their shared history and necessarily intertwined future? Although the book does not provide with any easy answer, it does raise relevant questions.

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