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Essentialism, memory and resistance: aboriginality and the politics of authenticity.

INTRODUCTION In this paper I begin with some of the definitions of 'good politics' which are currently operating in Aboriginal Studies, where defining the political has itself become a politicised and contested domain. The work of Cowlishaw (1988) and Morris (1989, Morris and Cowlishaw 1990) with its focus on Aboriginal resistances to the norms and identity structures of white European culture has shaken up the definitional boundaries of what counts as power and resistance. Their work has been criticised by those concerned with reasserting a narrow definition of politics, resistance and hegemony. My argument is that defining the political and good politics is itself a social practice and a way by which our society polices the public-private dichotomy upon which it is predicated. In Aboriginal Studies, the policing of what counts as politics has recently been mediated by levelling the accusation of essentialism against those white academics and Aborigines who want to politicise the private sphere allocated to bodies, culture, memories and identity (Lattas 1992a). The first half of this paper analyses how the critique of essentialism has come to operate recently as a 'truth effect' in Aboriginal Studies; it has become a common way by which white intellectuals can morally authorise themselves despite coming from varied political positions.(1) I begin with the critiques which left-wing intellectuals have directed at what they have called the political essentialism in Cowlishaw's (1988) and Morris' (1989) analyses of Aboriginal cultures of resistance (1991); here I focus on the work of Rowse (1991) though his position has also been restated by others (Hollinsworth 1992, Pettman 1991).(2) I then analyse Keeffe's (1988) critique of the cultural essentialism which he detects in certain forms of Aboriginality produced by Aborigines and Europeans. I then look at Thiele (1991a, 1991b) who sees essentialism in everything which involves some consciousness of belonging and being Aboriginal. All of these critiques of essentialism seek to establish their truth-authority by claiming to be able to establish what counts as good politics. But more than this, 'good politics' here often provides a moral language which justifies the therapeutic intervention of white intellectuals in the production of Aboriginal identity and culture. Keeffe and Thiele, in particular, want to suggest formulas for what counts as good Aboriginality and bad Aboriginality; they in effect are suggesting to Aborigines what should count as their collective memories. At the end of this paper, I contrast the politics of this intellectual supervision of memories by white Europeans with the politics of memory and essentialism developed by the Aboriginal writer Mudrooroo Narogin in his book Writing from the Fringe. Mudrooroo is concerned with transforming art and identity into politicised cultural practices where a certain form of essentialism is allowed and indeed positively valued. Like Cowlishaw and Morris, Mudrooroo puts identity politics firmly on the agenda and calls upon us to think of domination as not only residing in property and official public forms of power. CRITIQUES OF THE RESISTANCE MODEL The publication of Gillian Cowlishaw's book sparked a number of reviews critical of her understanding of politics (cf. Moreton 1989). Hollinsworth (1992), Pettman (1991), Rowse (1990) and Trigger (1990) have criticised Cowlishaw for focusing on how swearing, drinking and unruliness amongst Aborigines forms part of an oppositional culture which remains defiant in the face of white cultural authority. Cowlishaw's critics claim that focusing on resistance detracts from an analysis of processes of assimilation and incorporation. There is a naive assumption here that resistance and incorporation are antithetical processes and that taking up one necessarily detracts from the other. Cowlishaw is also accused of romanticising oppositional practices by referring to them as resistances to white cultural hegemony. Her critics argue that these oppositional practices may not be political because they have negative, self-destructive effects on Aborigines and because they are not consciously directed towards realising change through formal political structures. Pettman, for example, warns against seeing some forms of oppositional culture as collective political actions on the grounds that heavy drinking and fighting 'may be highly destructive both to the participants and to those closest to them, and may have the effect of further disrupting and immobilising the powerless' (Pettman 1991:191).(3) The paradox here is that those who accuse Cowlishaw of romanticism have not questioned their own romantic utopian view that political action should be positively enhancing or be strategically coherent action directed towards realising a better future. Implicit here is a narrow definition of the political as rational, self-fulfilling, collective action. It seems to me that what these critics find disturbing is a new model of politics based on exploring all those micro forms of power and resistance which are organised around the disciplining and control of racialised bodies. These critics continuously reassert that power is embedded in wider economic and political inequalities. Even those critics who come from a Marxist- inspired tradition seem to be unaware of the old Marxist point that crime is often an atomised expression of the class struggle (Pashukanis [1929] 1978, Rusche & Kirchheimer 1939). The tendency to see politics as being only organised collective action renders apolitical all the spontaneous, more atomised resistances and individualised protests of everyday life which draw people into continuous conflicts with state power. Here Aborigines risk imprisonment, police bashing and death (cf. Carrington 1990, Cowlishaw 1991, Cunneen 1990, Goodall 1990, Hogg 1991, Marcus 1991).(4) I live in the over- policed battle zone of Redfern and often see Aborigines openly challenging state officials --verbally and physically. At great cost to themselves, they defiantly mark out the lack of total European control over Aboriginal existence (cf. Langton 1988:213-4, 216-20). Cowlishaw's point is that these atomised and individualised resistances to police power and white culture are in fact shared cultural experiences for Aborigines and as such can form the basis of their collective identity.(5) Rowse begins his review of Cowlishaw with the claim that there is a politics inscribed in European signifying practices. There is little to be gained (apart from confusion) in trying to distinguish a 'semiotic' from a 'political' sense of 'representation'. There are many actions of representing Aborigines, each of them simultaneously 'political' and 'semiotic.' (Rowse 1990:185) However, this sort of sophistication about the ambiguous nature of European cultural practices is not applied by Rowse to Aborigines' cultural practices. Like many of Cowlishaw's critics, he sees as non-political (in effect)(6) the fact that Aborigines are continuously arrested and imprisoned by the state for the small petty crimes of being drunk and disorderly, swearing, and resisting arrest. Indeed, for Rowse (1990:190), this is simply being a public embarrassment. Here white middle class academics, who themselves do not have the need or the political courage to tell a cop to 'go get stuffed' (which is often the cause of Aborigines being arrested), have the hide to claim that such Aborigines do not understand the real sources of their oppression, or how effectively to resist their own domination, and that they are eschewing the political process (as this is narrowly defined). Cowlishaw's critics fail to appreciate that it is the social context which creates and imposes individualising techniques of power on Aboriginal acts of noncompliance. They fail to see that the rendering of Aboriginal defiance and disorder as the non-political moral crimes of individuals, is itself a political act carried out by state agencies.(7) Rowse's paper delivered at the 1992 Australian Anthropological Association Conference called on fellow white intellectuals to define resistance 'in structural rather than "ethnic" terms'. Yet, Rowse does not ask whether there can be a structure outside that of 'ethnic' terms in the field of 'racial power', where white bodies are identified with the authority of European culture and state power in all its brutal official and unofficial policing forms. I prefer the word racism to ethnicity for it captures the way power and hatred are inscribed in bodies and in the policing of bodies.(8) For often it is the refusal of the Aboriginal body to observe the disciplinary regimes of white society (its notions of etiquette, quietness, and polite speech) which outrages those who require this body to show proper deference and respect to white culture and white bodies.(9) I see the charge of romanticism against Cowlishaw as being made by those who would like to retain their role as experts in the analysis of the political by narrowly defining it as encompassing only 'wider' economic and political structures. Rowse, in his contrived attempts to deny Aborigines the label of resistance, ends up narrowly defining and ultimately denying the importance of the concept of white hegemony. His definition of hegemony acknowledges the cultural element but sees it in a functional way as subordinate to the maintenance of property: 'hegemony refers to one group's control of resources secured by its political and ideological leadership' (Rowse 1990:190). I have no doubt that this may be an aspect of hegemony but it is necessary to also acknowledge the autonomy of the cultural sphere and the way a sphere of life becomes coercively dominant. Rowse's refusal to see politics in cultural terms is part of his privileging of the economy and institutionalised political structures as the sites of power and contestation. He writes: Has White proprietorship of land ever been in doubt in this region? Have political structures ever allowed Aborigines to articulate interests which might undermine the collective interests of Whites? No. Then where is the threat to 'hegemony'? (ibid.) Rowse claims that if the oppositional culture of Aborigines amounts only to being a threat to 'the gentility of the town's public culture' then it does not amount to too much resistance of hegemony. Such a claim can only be made by someone whose sees gentility as superficial rather than a 'civilising process' directed at producing a particular kind of committed and disciplined subject.(10) What Rowse ignores is the fact that certain forms of power require the production of certain forms of subjects (cf. Elias 1978, Foucault 1971). For Rowse 'true' resistance must be a resistance of property interests or an undermining of the collective interests of Whites. Dismissing Cowlishaw's position, he writes: 'It seems that all that Cowlishaw means by "hegemony" is value consensus.' This is a strange position for an old leftist like Rowse to assume given the importance of Gramsci's (1971) exploration of hegemony as a process by which a dominant group co-opts subordinate groups into its life-style and ethos (cf. Williams 1980:31-49). Though Aborigines in Brindleton do in fact undermine the cultural hegemony of European society, Rowse (1990:190) sees the subversion of a white value system as not very threatening: 'to be a pitied and despised public embarrassment because one violates value consensus is only in a very weak sense to be a threat.' The outrage felt by the white community to Aboriginal actions subversive of their established genteel order does not indicate that Whites see a weak threat. White moral outrage and fear underpins the over-policing of Aborigines which is occurring in small rural communities and in urban areas like Redfern (cf. Ernst & Morris n.d., Carrington 1991, Hogg 1991, Marcus 1991, Morris nd). The high arrest rates for Aborigines, for petty moral crimes, points not to a weak threat but to a sense of moral panic in the white community. Cowlishaw argues that it is in evoking this fear, outrage and shock that Aborigines discover a source of power over Whites and indeed it is one of the few forms of power which those at the bottom of any social system have. She explores this 'rebellious display of disreputable behaviour' as being part of 'their defiant reaction to rejection, and their haven from the indignities meted out to them' (Cowlishaw 1988:92, 232): in a hostile environment it is the shameless affirmation of values which are an affront to White propriety that are the positive face of Aboriginality (ibid.:241) Rowse also cites the above quote but as part of an agenda which dismisses these practices as being effective forms of resistance. I would like to ask on what terms are they not resistance, and what does Rowse reserve as being effective (i.e. true) resistance? Is proper resistance only that which threatens property relations in an organised revolutionary sense (why not crime as such a threat anyway)?(11) And even if we accept that these oppositional practices are not resistances proper -- so what? Are we then to dismiss them as trivial, as negative, as non-political? How intellectually honest are we in using the Marxist concept of hegemony to dismiss the radicality of these subversive practices and the threat they pose to an established order? For me, the challenge is how to think the political differently, such that such practices ('ineffective' -- in traditional political terms -- or not) are taken into account and are given a positive significance. Cowlishaw's work begins this challenging project. Rowse's critique works simply to close it down. Rowse emphasises the negative coded aspects of this oppositional culture: drunkenness, dole payments, and suicide. He offers this alternative characterisation (to that of discovering dignity in these oppositional practices): Perhaps the oppositional culture of Brindleton is a culture without interests, eschewing the political process to celebrate an Otherness without future, sustained economically by welfare cheques without end. It is as easy to be negative as positive about the politics of this 'opposition' (Rowse 1990:190). In the above quote, Rowse's 'perhaps' allows him to circulate views without putting his name and reputation behind them. This slippery tactic becomes stuck when Rowse goes on to claim that the assignment of values of negativity and positivity to Aboriginal practices is relatively easy. Yet if anything Cowlishaw's work effectively problematises the ease with which such judgments are made. Rowse seizes on the interpretive openness of establishing negativity and positivity to dismiss the project of exploring the positive value

and constitutive force which practices of resistance have for Aborigines despite their negative consequences. He wants to set up undecidability and the lack of an assured interpretative value (for establishing negativity and positivity) to question Cowlishaw's project when in fact this is the valuable point made by Cowlishaw. Rowse de-politicises the oppositional culture of Aborigines by equating politics with formal institutionalised political processes and by using inverted commas to refer to 'opposition' so as to imply that the normal meaning of the word has been suspended. Moreover, Rowse seizes on Cowlishaw's claim that 'the distinguishing features of contemporary Aboriginality are its oppositional, stubbornly autonomous practices' to accuse her of political essentialism, even though Rowse is well aware that Cowlishaw emphasises the historical and social constitution of Aboriginality. By labelling her analysis essentialism, Rowse hopes to criticise Cowlishaw from a position of greater moral authority where Cowlishaw's own critiques of essentialism can be used against her.(12) It seems to me that the charge of political essentialism works to distract readers from Rowse's own narrow, fixed views of hegemony, resistance and the political, and that Rowse may in effect be displacing his own essentialist view of politics onto Cowlishaw. EMBRACING THE RESISTANCE MODEL Whereas the Left-wing materialism of Rowse criticises the resistance model, an alternative Left-wing inspired approach is that of Keeffe who believes that Aborigines should focus on constructing their identity out of images of resistance. Like the right-wing Thiele (whom I will discuss later on), Keeffe criticises Aborigines when they construct their identity out of images of inheritance -- be they the inheritance of blood and body or even of a cultural past.(13) There is something disturbing about the self-confidence of some white academics who have assumed the role of offering critical advice to Aborigines about what sort of identity they should be producing.(14) It would be a scandal for an anthropologist working outside Australia to tell people that they should give up their silly narratives and myths about themselves for these are apolitical essentialist narratives which mystify their true consciousness. Yet in the realm of Aboriginal Studies there is often no such shame or sense of scandal. This greater self-confidence of white, Aboriginal Studies specialists in intervening into the narratives which people employ to formulate themselves is not accidental. It emerges from them dealing with a colonised population, whose souls and minds were traditionally under the pastoral responsibility of Europeans. The new paternalism in Aboriginal Studies has reformulated and redeployed the pastoral powers and techniques which a white intelligentsia has traditionally assumed in its relations with Aborigines. The spiritual paternalism of the reserve and of the assimilation period has been displaced and transformed into a new therapeutic form of paternalism which draws its moral authority and techniques of power from a mixture of sources -- from the spiritual caring techniques of the priest, psycho-therapist and political radical. These paternal figures, who in our culture are placed in charge of the moral health of souls and consciences, inform the new European gaze directed at Aboriginal subjectivity and culture. There is an evaluation of the moral health of the Aboriginal mind occurring which passes its judgment no longer simply in terms of whether the Aboriginal mind approaches Christianity but whether it is approaching the ascribed sophistication of certain brands of political and social theory. It is this tyranny of theory, this subjecting of Aboriginal identity to the moral demands of a certain theorised politics, which I find offensive especially when it condemns people's essentialisms and their memories (cf. Mudrooroo 1992). Keeffe's position is one example of this. He recommends that Aborigines embrace a resistance model of themselves rather than a 'persistence' model: 'Compared to the elements of persistence, Aboriginality-as-resistance is more active, conscious, dynamic, modern, and political' (Keeffe 1988:73). Leaving aside the problem of how one ideological theme can be more conscious than another, there is also the problem of what is the basis of Keeffe's judgment of the resistance model to be more active, dynamic and political given that Keeffe presents this decontextualised judgment based on no historical material.(15) Indeed, Keeffe seems to ignore the vast body of literature dealing with the active and dynamic production of a persistent past so as to fulfil the political needs of the present (Hobsbawn and Ranger 1983, Keesing and Tonkinson 1982). I see Keeffe's labelling of the persistence model as relatively conservative and the resistance model as relatively radical as a moral judgment which legitimatises the supervisory gaze of white academics in Aboriginal Studies. This supervisory gaze receives the novel justification of being an intervention to see whether Aboriginal ways of constructing their identities can be regarded as authentically radical and subversive of white hegemony. Radical politics here provides the moral terms for pastoral supervision. Those concerned with politically helping Aborigines have created their own custodial space where Aboriginal subjectivity and practices are morally required to realise the left's dream of politics as a total revolutionary enterprise. What has not been thought through in this process where academics take on the benevolent role of caring for the self of the marginalised is how do white people remove their own investments in the identity of the Other from the recommendations of self-constitution which they make to the Other (cf. Fabian 1983, Fanon 1968, Said 1978). Keeffe is aware that a sense of continuity with the past might be a way of resisting assimilation. Yet this is soon rejected for a position in which the desire to produce primordial truths for one's self is seen to promote conservative, immobile politics. Here, the image of continuity and stability implied in identifying with the primordiality of the land and one's body is denounced as producing political compromise with state agencies. The state, as Miles and Eipper (1985) have pointed out, deal [sic] with minorities by imposing essentialism on them. This essentialism, I would argue, has its own origins in the ideology of ethnicity, in which group identity is reduced to particular primordial ties. These ties have minimal active cultural or political significance, but are constructed from the residue of other social formations, located elsewhere in time or place. (Keeffe 1988:76) It is a mistake to see essentialism as exclusively something which the state imposes upon minorities. What this ignores is the cultural and political functioning of essentialist themes in resistance movements and the empowering role of essentialisms in identity politics. Keeffe opts for a purist, moral critique of essentialism, as though the politics of a concept was inherent in its form rather than in its use (Lattas 1992). It is nonsense for Keeffe to claim that primordial ties 'have minimal active cultural or political significance' because they are 'constructed from the residue of other formations, located elsewhere in time or place'. Cultural and political significance is always constituted through a past and indeed there can often be no political critique of the present except through positing another time and place as the grounds for surpassing and moving beyond the present. Keeffe is aware that people choose elements of the past but he claims that they do so unconsciously and therefore with less activity and relevance to the present: 'These processes of selection are not made consciously, and hence, the representation is one of pure cultural continuity' (Keeffe 1988:73). When Keeffe confronts the point that Aboriginality-as-persistence is an active process and Aboriginality-as-resistance often deals with a past history, he takes up the notion of the good, dynamic history of resistance versus the bad, static history of continuity: By contrast, Aboriginality-as-resistance is not only a specific set of ideological elements, drawn from a revision of the past rewritten to create victory out of defeat, but is also a living set of cultural practices which is explicitly interactive with contemporary white society. (Keeffe 1988:73)(my emphasis)

eKeeffe's undervaluing of the interactive and constitutive aspects of the primordial past in relation to the present is part of his undervaluing of culture in relation to political and economic inequalities. A diversion of energy into the realms of 'culture' and away from any campaign for social, economic or political equality, becomes a way of muting resistance by acknowledging the limited demands of racial and cultural heritage at the expense of greater demands. (Keeffe 1988:75) Here Keeffe is similar to Rowse in underplaying the realm of culture as an important site of contestation. Keeffe moves from the theoretical position that there are no pure forms of memory to demanding that Aborigines produce themselves outside of a notion of a primordial origin. For Keeffe, there can be no authentic reclaiming of oneself through memory because the primordial past is an essentialising prison controlled by Whites. Memory here is a conservative force which is created out of the state co-opting Aborigines to produce it. Thus Keeffe (1988:75) writes that: By mystifying the concept of 'culture', in the same way as ethnicity does, and representing it in the form of a unique inheritance, or 'primordial tie', every Aboriginal person is assumed to carry an equivalent amount of what is perceived as the body of knowledge, values and concepts that make up Aboriginal culture, enabling the easy incorporation of individuals into government cultural agencies. As a consequence, many Aboriginal leaders now channel their energies into structures established by the government. Instead of being in an autonomous position from which they can criticise, they now form a socially conservative group, embedded in the hierarchy, and dependent on the favours of government for social services.(16) I believe that notions of intellectual progress and enlightenment, which orient intellectuals to the future, render them intolerant of those political strategies which privilege the primordial past. The oppositional aspects of the past, which Keeffe acknowledged before, are soon forgotten and are undervalued. The emphasis on primordial ties is soon rendered into an illusion which distracts Aborigines from a knowledge of how they are presently encapsulated, dominated, and produced by the state. This illusion of purity in isolation ignores the active role the state plays in the construction of the categories 'ethnic group' and 'Aboriginal'. (Keeffe 1988:79) Keeffe assumes that Aborigines need the clever white intellectual to throw light on the self-mystification of their identities. He sets himself up to let in the daylight of the category of the state which supposedly Aborigines are unaware of despite their high imprisonment rates and the supervisory presence by welfare agencies. I believe that it is the recent theoretical discovery of the state by certain white intellectuals which is being projected onto others (as though they could ever have been unaware of its presence). Moreover, Keeffe tends to see the state as a unified, centralised, coherent totality which 'owns' the discourses of primordial Aboriginality. In effect, Keeffe wants to deny Aborigines the right to create a mythological identity alongside the structures of the state. He criticises their turning to the concept of a 'natural heritage', for this obscures and denies the fabricated nature of their identities. Aborigines here are expected to embrace themselves as pure simulacrums. They are to recognise themselves as an artifice, as a fabrication of the state, which employs Aborigines to produce pseudo truths of nature about themselves. It does not occur to Keeffe to ask whether this form of self-truth which constructs the Other into a mask can be empowering for Aborigines. Indeed, I would argue that this ideology of Aborigines simply miming what is around them has always been part of the ideological condition of their domination (Greenfield & Williams 1987, Lattas 1987; cf. Fanon 1968). An enormous amount of intellectual energy is currently directed at establishing Aboriginality as something that is invented through European involvement. What is often ignored is the sense of autonomy from the control of the 'Other' conferred by images of the past and by images of primordiality and indeed the necessity to have an image of the past if one is to have a sense of ownership of oneself. Yet when Aborigines seek to give a mythological content to, or to reclaim, a primordial past for themselves then they are accused of essentialism and of participating in their own domination. Aboriginal culture here is set up to be de-mythologised and rationalised by the white intellectuals working in Aboriginal Studies. It is to be stripped of its essentialising mythology and folklore and introduced to modern theoretical ideas which emphasise the contextual and relative nature of any identity. This is identity without content and without a primordial past; it is identity stripped to the bare logic of being simply a relation. The demand that Aborigines produce their popular consciousness along the lines of a social theory of identity is a request that they become conscious of themselves as purely relational identities; they are to be resisters without producing an essence for themselves. They are to situate themselves in opposition to Whites without fetishising themselves. They are to become a pure system of difference, an oppositional form that does not stabilise itself except through being a subversion of the other. There is no positivity and content in this form of Aboriginality, it is a relationship of opposition responding to the terms and agenda set yet again by white society. In effect, a white moral gaze refuses Aborigines an identity politics that is grounded in them taking up their bodies as an imaginary space. It would worry Keeffe, and others who want to question the authority of Aboriginal claims to specific forms of self-identity, to recognise what they have in common with that ideologue of right-wing politics -- Ron Brunton -- who has recently devoted himself to establishing the inauthenticity of Aboriginal claims to self-identity and memory. Brunton's unique contribution to anthropology is to have rendered modern theoretical claims about the social and fictional construction of identity and memory useful to mining companies. I am working on another paper on Ron Brunton which will analyse in more detail the structure of his ideological work.(17) For the time being, what I do want to point out is that despite being located on opposite sides of the political spectrum, what Keeffe and Brunton share is an intolerance to people's romantic fictions of their past, especially when these idealise and essentialise the core truths of their being. Both take up the negative aspects involved in Aborigines focusing on 'traditional culture'. Here right and left wing intellectuals join hands in the common goal of demystifying an oppressed minority and all in the name of that secular enlightenment which their social theories can provide. REVIEW OF THIELE'S RECONSIDERING ABORIGINALITY There is a disturbing trend in contemporary Aboriginal Studies to attack essentialism in its biological form and also, to quote Thiele, as 'an immutable cultural or social ... inheritance' (Thiele 1991a:157). Thiele writes that 'there is no room for the idea of an essence passed automatically from generation to generation by either a biological or a social mechanism' (ibid.). It is hard to see how people can have an identity let alone any sense of their authenticity if they are going to be denied descent and other ways of producing and transmitting cultural memories. For Thiele 'Essentialism produces writings which tend to be ahistorical and asociological' (ibid.).(18) He tells us that even to talk about Europeans being superior, or Europeans being guilty, or Aborigines having a special relationship to the land, is to engage in stereotypes and essentialism (cf. Thiele 1991a:158).(19) It seems that any generalised set of historical truths, or any discussion of the existence of a stable structure of power or persistent form of resistance, is liable to come under Thiele's charge of essentialism. Though Thiele is not a postmodernist, in his introduction he uses postmodernism to support his demand that Aboriginal Studies move away from an essentialist approach towards those aspects of postmodernism which involve pluralism and a social constructionist stance.(20) In his erroneous rendering and appropriation of the postmodernist critique of binary opposites, Thiele suggests that even to talk about Aborigines versus Europeans is to commit the error of using a binary opposite. I am suspicious of why Thiele directs to Aborigines and anthropologists his advice to give up binary opposites (and the stereotypes they are predicated upon) and not to more significant others who use them, such as members of the police force. He does not seem to be aware that many of the significant writers who are taken up in postmodernist discourse, like Derrida (1981), Foucault (1969) and Said (1978), do not deny the facticity of binary opposites but explore their historical functioning and the asymmetrical effects of power they produce. Thiele implies that Aborigines, who hold present Whites responsible for the sins of the previous generation, are engaging in descentism and therefore racism.(21) Thiele would deny Aborigines their right to remember their suffering and dispossession because this only leads to them being trapped in the binary opposite of blaming Europeans and to them engaging in stereotypes which essentialise Whites. Again theory is used to deny people their memories, rightful grievances and demands for compensation. Aborigines who have been subject to the racism of white society, which was organised around the positing of a hierarchical black-white opposition, are now told when they seek redress, that sbinary opposites are illegitimate ways of arguing and that it is essentialist to demand compensation from the group which has benefited from that binary opposition. Here a theorised notion of ethics becomes a way of criticising the demands of a popular culture which is said to be mistaken in seeing the body as the site of power and identity. Thiele's critique of essentialism is especially directed at those identities and relations which people create out of the body and out of folk biologies. His critique of descent, which would prevent people imagining their ancestors and creating shared forms of embodiment, is an attack upon those imaginary bodily schemes which provide people with a sense of their autonomy and solidarity. People make themselves part of each other's bodies through the shared embodied space created by ancestry. Stripping people of their right to see their bodies as part of what one generation has given to another is justified as a process of stopping people reading essences into themselves. What it amounts to is an attempt to disembody people, that is to remove them from one of the few possessions they would like to own with some certainty - -their bodies. In all cultures the body imaginatively links people to the past. The folk-biologies linking children to parents and grandparents work to ground people's authenticity and self-identity within a temporal framework. Aboriginality, as a category and an identity to be policed, is caught within the tyranny of a theoretical attitude which finds the mythic past a political burden and the body a horrifying essentialism. The ascribed function of our intellectual surgeons is to cut away at this primordial cultural and 'biological' past so as to free Aborigines towards a 'more active, conscious, dynamic, modern, and political' future (Keeffe 1988:73). These theoreticians and managers of the future (Hollinsworth, Keeffe and Thiele) cannot understand how people might find their primordial fictions and their bodies empowering. In their own mythology of time, these theorists celebrate a certain version of active politics as the means of realising a theorised utopia. Aborigines, when they celebrate the primordiality of their myths and bodies as utopia and the space of identity, are an anachronism for this theorised utopia which creates the political projects of humans as strategically directed towards a future which has no need of the primordial past through which to constitute itself. What Thiele and Keeffe do not recognise is what Marcuse was aware of, namely the liberating power of remembrance (Jay 1988, Marcuse 1972:33, 91, 163-4). Instead, they have a coercive view of the primordial past as a constraining prison. There is little appreciation of the need for myth and for the mythological possession of a sense of place, including the space of one's body. Instead we have under the banner of Reason a demand that Aborigines operate in a de-mythologised world where they would be subject to the Reality Principles of all the various forms of vulgar Australian materialism which have flirted with Marxism and more recently discourse analysis but which have never come to terms with the positive imaginary conditions for human sociality.(22) In characterising people's memories as the dead weight of an illusion, bthis form of theorising expresses not only its own ethnocentric hostility to myth but also becomes a means of dispossessing people of their ownership of space. In denying people their images of the past, it denies them not only the means of owning the present space around them but also the imaginary geography of the past, that is the cultural ideas through which people can symbolically place themselves outside the discourses and memories owned by Europeans. In Nineteen Eighty Four, George Orwell explored the fact that to control people's memories was to control them. The felt need by some Australian intellectuals to control people's attachment to the past also emerges out of a desire to reformulate people politically by attuning them to a better future which can only be realised through a better management of memories in the present. In this mythological space of European power, which is predicated on predicting the future, the primordial past is not appreciated as a space of empowerment or freedom, or as capable of providing the distance which allows people to see the present in a new light. This critical function of providing distance in the present is only given to the future and to the theoretical world of the social scientist. It is this oppressiveness of the theorised future which Mudrooroo (1992a:156) is responding to when he critiques Keeffe's protege Hollinsworth for ignoring that: 'People do not determine their identity according to scientific principles; but with social conventions and ideological constructs'. In Aboriginal Studies, some intellectuals have given themselves the redemptive function of curing an ascribed Aboriginal propensity to forget the real present world in favour of the fictitious primordial past. These intellectuals want to restore consciousness of present existence to its rightful place. Their forms of psychic doctoring are a 'therapeutic' intervention by Europeans into the collective memories of Aborigines; they are the new coercive moral treatments being recommended by political psychotherapists who have little existential or phenomenological knowledge about what it means to be human though this does not prevent them from making recommendations on how subjectivity should be constituted.(23) These moral therapists of the Aboriginal soul do not understand that the present is partly constituted through what it is not, and that this space of otherness which allows the present to be differentiated and interpreted can be partly provided through a mythic primordial past. The past provides the imaginary alternative ground from which human existence can reflexively grasp and constitute itself. Wyschogrod (1985:10) claims that this vantage point for viewing and interpreting present existence, which is provided by the space of the dead, allows us 'to view things from the vantage points so far outside the usual that we bypass the ordinary while at the same time extending its frontiers'. The past and the dead add another layer of meaning to the ordinary and in doing so introduce profoundness and the effect of depth into the constitution of the person: 'we redeem experience, render ourselves worthy of it, and it of us, by living up to the death in it'. The past is here a necessary fiction needed to render meaning to the present. Indeed, for Bergson (1991:133):(24) Perception is never a mere contact of the mind with the object present; it is impregnated with memory-images which complete it as they interpret it. The absurdity of contemporary social theorising (like that of Hollinsworth, Keeffe and Thiele) is that it assumes that because fictious essences dealing with the body and the primordial past are imaginary that they therefore have no necessity or are arbitrary and can be edited out of the human condition. This perspective fails to come to grips with the necessary imaginary structure of all human existence and the way this imaginary structure is of necessity tied to the production of memory which is in turn often tied to the production of particular kinds of bodies. To acknowledge that all human existence must involve an act of memory is partly to acknowledge that human existence is of necessity burdened with memory but it is also to acknowledge that memory is an imaginary horizon and thus a creative force in human affairs and that the body is part of that imaginary horizon. It is through memory images that we transform the various discrete aspects of our lives into synthetic meaningful totalities which have the effect of depth because they connect the present with something beyond it. Memory therefore is not a question of regression but part of those imaginary structures and synthesising techniques through which we produce the real. As Bergson (1991:67) points out: Our perceptions are undoubtedly interlaced with memories, and inversely, a memory ... only becomes actual by borrowing the body of some perception into which it slips. These two acts, perception and recollection, always interpenetrate each other, are always exchanging something of their substance as by a process of endosmosis. MUDROOROO NAROGIN'S WRITING FROM THE FRINGE I want to contrast the negative images of the primordial past and of bodily essentialism, which some white intellectuals have produced, with a much more sympathetic attempt to theorise these issues of Aboriginality in the work of Aboriginal writer Mudrooroo Narogin. His book Writing for the Fringe is a good attempt to theorise the necessity for Aborigines to create new imaginary mythologies for themselves.(25) Mudrooroo writes about how to create new memories in a context where people have often lost their language and myths. He advocates Aborigines poaching and re-writing the culture of those who dominate them so as to provide the language for formulating a distinctive imaginary geography and past which belongs to Aborigines. Writing from the Fringe is a treatise on the politics of writing as an Aborigine in a context where Whites constitute the readership and provide the discursive forms for expressing Aboriginality. This is a book about the politics of authenticity, about how to form a recognisable voice and a distinctive identity in relationship to the hegemonic power of white culture. Mudrooroo explores the discursive strategies for inserting one's voice and for appropriating the symbolic forms which the white Other provides. He explores the structures of alienation inscribed in the act of writing and the strategies whereby Aboriginal writers can overcome those alienating structures not only for themselves but for all Aborigines. For Mudrooroo, Aboriginal writing is caught in those same cultural structures of self-alienation which confront nearly all Aborigines. Mudrooroo treats his experience of alienation, which comes from writing his Aboriginality through the culture of those who dominate Aborigines, as part of that wider 'predicament which has resulted in many Aborigines becoming strangers in their own land, so alienated that sometimes they seem to have lost the will to survive' (Narogin 1990:1). Mudrooroo uses the experience of Aboriginal writers having their work devalued or compromised, as an example of that wider experience of being devalued and subjectively compromised which Aborigines confront in relationship to the dominating values of white society. He raises the problem of authenticity that emerges when those on the fringe have to write for a metropolitan centre which sets the canon for what is literature. Here European control over what is published and not published becomes part of the social production of value. Mudrooroo is not afraid to speak of alienation and subjectivity. In contrast to Rowse who continues to make property the proper centre of politics, Mudrooroo explores subjectivity as a contested space of power and resistance. I see Mudrooroo as working in the tradition of Fanon, whose brilliant existential analyses of self-alienation and racism are dismissed by Keeffe (1992:94 ff.) as 'anti-racism racism'. Both Fanon and Mudrooroo explore the dividing practices through which white culture distances people from themselves. Mudrooroo explores what it means to be culturally removed from a full ownership and possession of one's self, that is to be 'a people without visible means of support' (Narogin 1990:1). In contrast to those parts of modern philosophy which deny that there is a subject and which question its authenticity and reality, Mudrooroo speaks about the cries which come from the heart and he quotes Kevin Gilbert saying that modern Aboriginal existential being resides in a 'rape of the soul' (Narogin 1990:2). Mudrooroo also talks about the 'decay' of Aboriginal society and he ascribes redemptive and healing functions to that Aboriginal writing which acknowledges this as part of its context (cf. Neumann 1992). He praises writers like Kevin Gilbert and Archie Weller for: 'They do not romanticise this culture of poverty in which drunkenness plays too great a part, in which pensioners are robbed of their pensions by youngsters, in which cruel revenge is taken, in which parents gamble the day away while their children stumble around brain-damaged from sniffing petrol' (Narogin 1990:2). In contrast to Hollinsworth and Rowse, who are simply content to assert the morally negative consequences of alcohol drinking, Mudrooroo explores the existential structures of racial domination which partly produce and frame alcohol drinking in Aboriginal communities. He analyses drunkenness as emerging out of self-alienation; where self-hatred creates a hidden desire to fit the image of depowerment which Whites impose on Aborigines. The existential being of the Aborigine in Australia has been seen by some writers to be akin to that of a child, but it is Aboriginal writers who seek to explain this result as stemming from a paternalist attitude which forced the Aborigine into the attitude o iginchild asking for help from a benign white person. Under the gaze of 'the other', the Aborigine became as a child. Unable to help himself, he sat waiting for the kind adult to offer succour, and this was often forthcoming. But for all his assumed being of child, he was not a child, but an adult and his act of continuing bad faith led him into self-hatred. An adult gazed into a mirror and saw not the face of a child smiling back, but the scowling face of an adult. This instead of leading to action, often led to confusion and a passivity which was strengthened through alcohol. Drunk and stumbling bleary-eyed through life, he indeed could pretend to be a child. This state of abjection is protrayed in the play, The Cake Man by the character of Sweet William living a childlike existence on a reserve. (Narogin 1990:1) Unlike Black, White or Brindle, Writing from the Fringe does not explore the active images of defiance which drunkenness can embody and how it can represent a subversion of the norms of ordered behaviour into which Whites seek to incorporate Aborigines. Symbols of disorderliness can become symbols of resistance to an order which is experienced as oppressive in its attention to regulating the minute aspects of one's body and being. This is not to romanticise drunkenness but to explore the meanings it assumes in the embodied context of Aborigine-European relations. Mudrooroo does write about Aborigines who have become completely institutionalised: 'They could exist nowhere else but in an institution and the outer world was a frightening place to be deadened by grog until the inevitable happened and they found themselves safely inside again' (Narogin 1990:13). You have here an analysis of how racial power is inscribed in the way subjects relate to themselves. In particular, for Mudrooroo, the self-destructive and community-destructive acts of Aborigines emerge out of a distinctive kind of existential being where people are denied a past and a sense of belonging to something worthwhile. The redemptive healing function of writers and their narratives is to officially acknowledge both the traditional past and the colonial past of Aborigines. Mudrooroo rejects seeing the problems confronting Aborigines only in terms of unemployment, housing and health, as though once you correct these things everything will be all right. He advocates a new form of Aboriginality which would heal the rape of the Aboriginal soul and the wound of being removed from one's mother tongue. Aboriginality would become the emergence of an original voice 'to sing of the sad wounds of a whole people, of hundreds of mouths forced into shaping the harsh sounds of an alien speech' (Narogin 1990:51). The specific problem of the writer's redemptive task is one of how to write as an Aborigine in a context where traditional myths, legends, songs and even the original language which might constitute a basis for authenticity have been replaced by 'an English of varying degrees of standardisation' (Narogin 1990:7). Mudrooroo also points to 'a strong current of Christianity running through much of Aboriginal writing' (Narogin 1990:9). He argues that incorporation into white culture has not been a simple process of accepting the cultural conditions of one's domination but of transforming one's domination into memories and voices of resistance which are distinctively one's own. Indeed, one paradoxical effect of the assimilation policy was to produce Aboriginal writers who used the English language to attack the assimilation policy. Mudrooroo criticises Aboriginal writers who search as individuals for equal opportunity in a multi-cultural society. He points to the conservative forces inherent in writing for predominantly white readers. One danger is that the Aboriginal writer becomes a vehicle not for the Aboriginal community but rather a vehicle for an ideology of individualism which Europeans claim as a virtue of their culture. There is a danger of producing a literature which uses biography and autobiography as its method and which looks only to the past and 'is not concerned with the future aims and aspirations of the Aboriginal people' but instead speaks of being 'equal in one human Race!' (Narogin 1990:15). For Mudrooroo, Aboriginal writing ought to be based on a refusal to be completely individualised by the dominant white structures. It involves a sense of responsibility for creating an identity not simply for oneself but for that indigenous minority which lives on the fringes of the majority community. Mudrooroo is seeking to produce a moral charter for being an Aboriginal writer. This is a book about the ethics of fiction (cf. Booth 1988). It demands a form of writing not simply for oneself but for and on behalf of the experiences of a community. This is an attempt to formulate an alternative position for the artist apart from the avant-guarde, non-conformist, individualist position which modern white artists celebrate as the space of their creativity. Mudrooroo attempts to develop a modern Aboriginal aesthetic which is still connected to the past of traditional Aboriginal culture. He refuses to take up what he sees as a western anti-social positioning of the artist. That is, he rejects the individualising strategies through which western artists proclaim the authenticity of their work. Aboriginal artists are socially committed, and therefore have this commitment firmly in mind when they write. It is part of the tradition of Aboriginal culture to perceive the artist not as an isolated individual, alienated from his or her society and interested in only extending the bounds of his or her own private vision, but as a value creator and integrator. Scratch an Aborigine and beneath his or her apparent modern skin, or the persona he or she shows to the white world, you will find the old hunter or gatherer. (Narogin 1990:24). On first reading this statement I actually disliked it, mainly because I saw Mudrooroo as attempting to essentialise Aboriginal being by characterising it as always grounded in the community values and identities of a hunting and gathering society. On further reflection, I see Mudrooroo as using images of the past in a poetic and metaphorical way to extend the identity structures and values of the 'past' into the present. Within his attempt to reclaim an authentic Aboriginal identity a certain essentialism emerges where the hunting and gathering skills of Aborigines are celebrated as the means of surviving in an urban context. What does one do with this sort of essentialism? Does one reject it as dangerous or as a false fixing and stabilising of Aboriginal identity, or does one regard it as the creation of a mythic space and a primordial identity capable of providing a community with a sense of continuity and a sense of groundedness? As Mudrooroo puts it: 'the past is there only to explain the present and postulate ideals for the future ... the past is of the utmost importance in that it is there that true Aboriginality resides' (Narogin 1990:25). For Mudrooroo this ought to be not simply an idealised past, but can also be a history 'in which Aborigines were butchered, buggared and beaten wherever they made a stand, or attempted to retreat' (Narogin 1990:25). The past here is not to be rejected but must be acknowledged as a continuing living part of the present, for Aborigines are the living survivors of this past in the sense that their subjectivity is formed out of that past. This need to produce a tradition for one's people apart from the culture of the assimilation policy is a desire to bring the culture of one's dead ancestors back to life by giving the past new meaning and by recreating this past as a way of formulating an uncolonised space to inhabit. The dream of one's thoughts and voices inhabiting a decolonised space is a utopian, political vision which seeks to regain some control over the conceptual terrain from which one speaks and where this can be provided by the images of the past which one claims as one's own and as one's truth. Mudrooroo argues that the search for the essence of one's being can never be removed from the past; the past and the dead are ways of integrating one's self; they provide the alternative space from which to reflect upon the terms of present existence. If one is to repossess oneself then one has to do so through repossessing the landscape of the past. Mudrooroo's search for an authentic Aboriginal voice or language through which to speak leads him to express reservations about some of the voices of fellow Aboriginal poets, like Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Jack Davis who rely on a western metred poetic voice. Mudrooroo is sarcastic and elitist in rejecting what he terms 'a primary school implanted appreciation of poetry'. Whilst accepting that western rhyme allowed these Aboriginal voices and meanings to become popular and that these poets appropriated the literary style of their conquerors to get across Aboriginal meanings, Mudrooroo believes there is too much accommodation in such works. He favours more the work of Lionel Fogarty which attempts to tap the dreaming life.(26) He sees an alternative writing style as able to convey better the form and content of Aboriginality, even though there is the danger that a sign system rooted in Aboriginal culture might not be readily accessible to white readers who may be put off by its strangeness. What Mudrooroo appreciates about Lionel Fogarty's poetry is that it takes people inside an Aboriginal culture and to a reality different from that of the European. Indeed, Mudrooroo believes that certain European aesthetic styles, like surrealism, can be used to evoke and recapture a more authentic sense of Aboriginality. Surrealist art used the unconscious and dreams to position the truth of its images. This creation of art out of dreams is also a feature of traditional Aboriginal art. It is precisely in surrealism, or the reliance on dreaming techniques to bring forth literary works, a traditional method of creation, that Aboriginal poetry may retreat from the assimilation situation of the primary school and into an authentic Aboriginality, opposed to assimilation and foreign formats (Narogin 1990:38). It would be easy to point out that one of the dangers in turning to surrealism, with its notion of the aesthetic unconscious, is that of confirming western stereotypes which construct Aborigines as primitive people who have a closer relationship to the unconscious. In the West's semiology of power, Whites are constructed as that act of reflection which supervises undisciplined instincts (Lattas 1990, 1992b). What surrealism and other intellectual movements within art discourse did was to reverse this semiology of power by giving a positive liberatory value to the primitive and to the unconscious; these were to provide an alternative imaginary form of existence to the coercive repressive demands of a rationalised consciousness (Lattas 1989a, 1989b, 1991). In taking up the primitivism of surrealism, Mudrooroo moves beyond advocating a straightforward return to ancient Aboriginal dreaming techniques (and also surrealism). He recognises that there can never be any pure return. What he takes up is the surrealists' political interpretation of unconscious processes like dreams, for he sees this making of dreams politically relevant as the best way of mediating the gap between traditional authentic Aboriginal culture and the political needs of present Aborigines. It is here a question of the need to carry forward a past, not for the sake of carrying forward a dead monument, but in order to reformulate it so as to have some control of the mirror through which one reflects upon one's self and one's community. The past is a set of narratives for reflecting upon one's identity and to this extent it allows people to mirror themselves back to themselves. It is this control of the mirror function of narrative which is part of the politics of identity going on in Mudrooroo's writings. Under the gaze of the 'white other' they [Aboriginal people] wilt, or revolt and die, or seek for some understanding by using the techniques of the white culture which oppresses them. By using these techniques, by giving them a legitimacy in the Aboriginal world, we affirm them. (Narogin 1990:49) Though sympathetic to Oodgeroo's poetry, Mudrooroo claims that 'there may be more substance in the criticism that if Aboriginal creative writing is to thrive as a separate entity it must be independent as much as possible from white Australian influence, and that Oodgeroo's poetry owing to its reliance on the bush ballad format is betraying its Aboriginality' (Narogin 1990:42). Mudrooroo partly undercuts this criticism when he says that such an accusation privileges form over message, whereas for him Aboriginality is in the message and in the content of the speaking position. There is in Writing from the Fringe an unresolved tension about whether the politics of Aboriginal writing ought to lie in its style or in the content. In opposition to what he sees as a European aesthetic emphasis on form, Mudrooroo takes up the alternative position of emphasising content. However though downplaying the significance of form for Aboriginality, Mudrooroo is aware that there is a politics in the medium; it can never be neutral. For this reason his book is also an attempt to find stylistic languages that Aborigines can call their own and whose ownership would confer a means of self-possession and of being at home with themselves. These languages would allow Aborigines to escape the alienating experience of looking at themselves through white eyes. Mudrooroo explores different writing styles not in terms of whether they are good or bad in formal aesthetic terms but more whether in writing in a certain style one becomes an accomplice. Here it is a question of being compromised when one speaks and of having an invisible partner who is really doing the speaking. It is here a question of the company a writer keeps in his or her words and of whether there is not a presence there apart from his or her own 'authenticity'. It is a question of whether there is not another voice which structures, controls, subverts and imposes itself upon his or her own Aboriginality. In all writing there is always another presence apart from the writer and this is the audience which is invoked and created as soon as one speaks. Even to speak as an I is a precarious compromising act for Mudrooroo, since it is at the expense of speaking as a representative of a community or culture. It is here a question of how the audience invades one's being, shaping and compromising it, and making one's being speak the audience's concerns (cf. Fanon 1968, Sartre 1975). Mudrooroo is exploring the existential appropriations of one's being by the Other which in Aboriginal writing becomes the white audience which silently assimilates and robs Aborigines of the possibility of developing their own contemporary, distinctive cultural voices. Mudrooroo wants an Aboriginality which can resist and subvert the cultural genocide posed by European hegemony. ... cultural genocide is still a potent force in Australia ... if we choose to use white forms we are in effect 'thinking white'... by using these white forms we are leaving ourselves open to be judged purely by white standards. (Narogin 1990:45) Aboriginal writers are in the bind of not being able to get their message across unless they take up European literary forms and yet in doing so Aboriginal writing is opened up to be judged not in terms of its message but in terms of a notion that there is some pure aesthetic style or value which is inherent in the literary forms being used. Mudrooroo documents the way white reviewers acknowledge the content of Aboriginal writing but then dismiss it as formally deficient and therefore as not being art but more something in the field of social protest.(27) For Mudrooroo, the form-content distinction is part of a hegemonic process through which white culture polices and depoliticises aesthetic discourses. He urges Aboriginal artists to escape the supervisory gaze of Whites and their definition of what constitutes a beautiful consciousness -- namely an authentic artistic vision which is true to itself. Questioning whether you can have a beautiful poem outside the meanings and social relationships it conveys, Mudrooroo favours an Aboriginal aesthetic 'in which the message is dominant and the aesthetic function is subordina ific(Narogin 1990:35). This is an aesthetic that does not claim to be disembodied or transcendental but which is instead grounded in the artist's community: in its sufferings, needs, desires and aspirations. Opposing the theory of self-contained, disembodied art which has its own pure internal principles and standards, Mudrooroo wants Aboriginal artists to offer a vision of identity capable of healing the wounds of alienation and assimilation. Aboriginal art should be: a lifeline by which dissociated individuals may be pulled back to their material essence. It is the promise of a coming-into-being of not only an Aboriginal aesthetics, but of new social entities which will reflect the underlying humaneness of Aboriginal being. Though talking about material essence, Mudrooroo is not urging Aboriginality to remain static or fixed in traditional ways of cultural expression. What he wants is Aborigines remoulding the past with political meanings which connect and direct it towards present existence. It is not here a question of becoming increasingly surreal or of making the past an aesthetic form in its own right so as to explore the internal complexity of its images. Indeed, Mudrooroo at one point advocates a simple verse structure which privileges the message and which he sees as more authentically part of a folk tradition even though it has moved beyond it.

the coming to terms with one's blackness, the discovery of one's

Aboriginality and the rebellion against a life of oppression -- all these

result in the formation of a writer with a message to get across. Message

determines form, and this results in a straight forward verse structure.

This is what is needed, not the repetitions and symbolism of traditional

Aboriginal verse. (Narogin 1990:136)

Notwithstanding his emphasis on the writer's moral duty to create and safeguard the values identified with Aboriginality, Mudrooroo believes there should also be some stripping away of the `myths' that Aborigines have developed about themselves, such as that they have a strong feeling of community, that they care greatly for children and are generous and non-materialistic. Along with Archie Weller, he believes poverty has created in Aboriginal communities `tension and duplicity in life which is nasty to say the least' (Narogin 1990:116). Though he wants ugly existing situations portrayed, Mudrooroo does not want to produce an Aboriginality of despair, he believes it is necessary to end on a positive note of hope.

We Aboriginal people are a great race of survivors and this comes across in

our literature.

Such statements essentialise Aboriginality, creating a continuity between the modern strategies of surviving in white Australia and the ancient strategies of surviving in the environment. This ideological essentialism is part of Aboriginal writing being something more than a realist need to report real Aboriginal conditions in contemporary Australia. For Mudrooroo, Aboriginal writing needs to confront the loss of a cultural reality and the need to create new mythic narratives for regaining and healing the lost side of one's being. Mudrooroo is critical of the fact that in many Aboriginal plays:

There is no movement towards going and getting or retrieving that reality,

no thought that to capture or recapture that reality involves a mythical

heroic quest into Aboriginal reality ... There is the absence of a hero able

to descend into the mythic earth of Aboriginality, regain the tjuringas

(sacred symbols) of his community and bring these cultural treasures back

into the modern Aboriginal theatre. (Narogin 1990:129)

Images of renewal and rebirth are here being sought. Indeed Mudrooroo's (1990) short story `Struggling' in the collection Paperbark ends with two urban Aborigines leaving the city and entering a cave where they make love inside the womb of a maternal earth. In Mudrooroo's poetry (Narogin 1992), images of female sexuality and fertility are often identified with the landscape. Here the feminine earth becomes a means of giving birth to one's sense of Aboriginal being; the procreative powers of the primordial earth become married to the creative powers of the imagination which are to form the core of one's being. This is an attempt to rewrite the spiritual place of the land in `traditional' Aboriginal culture so as to make this an ongoing part of the landscape of one's interiority.


In opposition to the approach of Thiele, Keeffe and Hollinsworth, Mudrooroo has recently defended people's right to the folk biologies through which they imaginatively create their subjectivity out of the essences that they project onto their bodies. He defends the right of Aborigines to culturally create themselves through images of primordiality rather than through embracing the image of the white revolutionary as the only template of politics and resistance. Criticising Hollinsworth and Keeffe's rejection of Aboriginality-as-persistence, Mudrooroo (1992a:156-7) writes:

I know, from my discussions, that Aboriginal thought does strongly incline

towards the essentialist position: the template of the Dreaming ancestors

being the guide to the present and future, that is conservation rather than

revolution. The conservative stance in Aboriginal thought is strengthened by

references to `strong blood', `purest genes', or even the `Aboriginal souls'

postulated by some Aborigines I have been conversing with.

... to suggest that an important Aboriginal theory of identity, an important

social reality, may be weighed against European theories of identity, and

then dismissed for being politically dangerous and a useful tool for racists

seems almost pernicious, especially when for many Aborigines, Black, Brown,

or Brindle, it is the Aboriginal `essence' which makes an Aborigine and it

is this essence which states, restates, informs and reforms his/her and our

culture and social reality.

In Mudrooroo's work, memory and essentialism are part of an identity politics which struggles to find images of self-possession so as to ward off the threat of total assimilation and cultural genocide. This is a position which stands opposed to those white intellectuals in Aboriginal Studies who denounce primitivism and forms of essentialism amongst Aborigines as uncreative and not politically relevant to their lives (cf. Hollinsworth 1992; Keeffe 1988, Thiele 1991a, 1991b). When Thiele (1991b:194-5) dismisses the Aboriginal search for an `appropriate culture or identity' as being essentialist, it is because he is horrified by the idea that people would be so `mistaken' as to locate their culture in their bodies; and that they would search for something positive and distinctively their own in the very oppressed body which is the condition of their domination.

What academics often have difficulty with is people imaginatively embracing their bodies -- the horror and censure which such academics voice is part of a hegemonic process which is predicated on dividing people from themselves and especially from their bodies. There is a too ready tendency by some white intellectuals to seize upon what are seen to be examples of Aboriginal racism. In the collection Being Black, Peter Sutton claims that when Aborigines expound views about `racially inherited ability' then this `resembles genetic determinism and, therefore, racism' (Sutton 1988:262). Gone here is any sense of racism being a system of domination employing hatred. Instead anything that privileges the body as the site of self-possession and value is said to be like racism. Thus, Sutton believes it is racist when: `Some Aboriginal people in urban Australia believe that non-Aborigines are inherently incapable of understanding Aboriginal history and, therefore, should leave the field' (ibid.). His specific example of Aboriginal racism concerns an urban Aboriginal woman who told him: `You just wouldn't know or understand [traditional culture] because you're not Aboriginal' (ibid.). I see Sutton's accusation of racism as the angry response of a white intellectual to an attempt to exclude and to question his professional integrity. His example of black racism is people trying to embody the knowledge which is the basis of their identity so as not to have themselves and their culture totally appropriated and colonised by Whites. Like Thiele, Hollinsworth and Keeffe, Sutton negatively construes any politics of identity which involves the body. He ignores the way essentialism operates as a strategy of resistance in a context where what the colonising Other cannot appropriate from you is your own body and where therefore the internalisation of your culture into your body becomes a means of preserving and owning the basis of your own identity. Confronted with this strategy of Aborigines securing their culture and their identities through their bodies, the response of the white intellectual is to accuse Aborigines of racism -- as though the negative act was totally on their side and there was only abstract neutrality in the secular gaze of white knowledge. In making the body the site which allows them to own their perspective on the world, Aborigines are not mistaken but are partly pointing to the fact that in a racialised society the body creates one's experiences. Here, the determinate role of the body in folk biologies reflects and is reinforced by the determinate role the body plays in the racial structure of Australian society.(28)

The attempt by Whites to determine what is good, moral politics keeps alive the pastoral powers of European culture, transferring this role now onto secular social theorists who want to morally distance people from their bodies. Europeans remain reluctant to give up their paternal custody and their production of disembodied Aboriginal souls; and what is remarkable is the way left wing intellectuals and the search for `good politics' have helped perpetuate this form of internal colonialism. Though it is now difficult for political radicals to talk about the working class as being unaware of its suffering and of the class structure, many white intellectuals continue to use this discursive strategy of enlightening a presumed false consciousness in the field of Aboriginal Studies. I do not believe the use of this enlightenment discourse is accidental or that it can be disentangled from its moral empowerment of white intellectuals. For this reason, the European authors, whom I have analysed, cannot be dismissed simply as being marginal and naive individuals. A whole set of conceptual and institutional structures has employed these authors and has accepted and published their statements.(29) In their naivety, these authors articulate many of the core assumptions underpinning the contemporary moral power of white intellectuals. For me, it is not a question of intellectual mistakes by individuals, but of a conceptual structure invested with power relations; it is a question of how knowledge articulates a field of power.

My argument here is not that Whites have produced comfortable lifestyles for themselves through analysing the suffering of others, though, as Rowse points out, this is a major criticism which Aborigines make. Instead I am arguing that a certain view of political correctness (which is currently organised around a critique of essentialism) provides the moral authority for intervening in the production of people's subjectivities and that this pastoral supervision is part of the continuing cultural domination of people.(30) I am not arguing for the abandonment of politically correct positions but for a political analysis which recognises the way moral discourses work to divide subjects from themselves (in this case Aborigines from their bodies) and the way those dividing practices have been secularised and now operate as part of the social sciences (Foucault 1979, 1982). It is not a question of giving up morality and politics but of recognising that one's use of a moral-political code is not neutral. There needs to be a moral-political analysis of moral-political discourses and of the way they operate as a gaze for policing the constitution of subjects and subjectivities. This would involve a Foucauldian analysis of Aboriginal Studies which would treat it as one of the social sciences which has proliferated around the bodies and souls of the marginalised.

I see the current theoretical fear of essentialism as a fear of difference and a fear of subordinate others producing and claiming some essential autonomous otherness. This fear of essentialism is also a fear by Whites of themselves and of the monstrous acts of murder and imprisonment which they have historically perpetuated in the name of essential differences.(31) Believing himself to have transcended his history and his own culture of violence, the white man cannot stand to listen to people asserting their essential otherness. He accuses them of inviting their own murder and of threatening to call down a holocaust on themselves. He projects his own fear of himself onto the Other and denounces them for threatening to call up the monstrous part of himself. In this discourse, the white man does not abandon his culture of violence but reformulates his terror into a history lesson which he gives to black people when they seek some positive value in their bodies and in their past. Essentialism has become the terrifying word which condenses all the brutal treatments of Europeans towards indigenous groups. Holding up the prospect of repeating these holocausts has become the new culture of terror which Whites have created around black bodies so as to prevent people identifying with the images of autonomous difference which bodies can objectify. This difference is what the white man finds horrifying because it invokes the history of his own intolerance towards it.

The management of the future is where the white man situates his management of the present and he uses his ability to predict the terror of the future to police the identity formation processes operating in the present. Here the white man has his own investment in the memory of the holocaust, for in the name of not repeating that holocaust all sorts of moral recommendations about identity can be made. Those moral recommendations are often directed at preventing people affirming their bodies as the positive site of value; their effect is to police people's imaginary relationships with their bodies -- thus preventing them forming new imaginary morphologies which would revalue the corporeal conditions of their domination (Lattas 1992a). Under the label of rejecting biologism, Aborigines are to produce themselves as disembodied minds. Some white intellectuals like Thiele, Keeffe and Hollinsworth even want Aborigines to abandon the positing of cultural essences for they see images of a primordial past or being as capturing a stability and permanent difference which they find politically dangerous and irrelevant.(32) This policing of images of Aboriginal authenticity by Whites participates in the very processes of cultural hegemony and cultural genocide which Mudrooroo denounces.


In this paper I have not sought to simply dismiss as wrong these definitions of good and bad politics but have argued that defining the political and good politics is itself a political act. The attempt by white intellectuals to narrowly define the political so that it does not encompass gentility, morality, crime, primordiality or the body has to be contrasted with the way excluded marginal groups seek to get the moral, legal and disciplinary structures which engage their bodies, identities and memories defined as political. For them the personal is political and they have an interest in demanding that civil society be not treated as the sphere of a natural or private realm which is outside the legitimate public political sphere. Aboriginal writers, like Mudrooroo, are helping to bring the micro-structures of racial oppression to public visibility and in making the private become part of a public moral gaze they extend and redefine our notion of the political. This is also what Cowlishaw and Morris have sought to do in their academic focus on the disciplinary forms of power and on the everyday resistances which constitute the structure of racialised encounters in Australia. I believe that definitions of the political should not be prefigured by narrow theoretical constraints or naive visions of `good politics' and that what is needed is an academic practice which extends Aboriginal attempts to politicise the policing structures which alienate and dominate. Needed here is an academic practice which is sympathetic to the identity politics involved when Aborigines revalue their bodies rather than an academic practice which is an extension of those pastoral powers which in the West have morally problematised people's identities by problematising their relationship to their bodies.

The contemporary political scene is characterised by the instability of the political, as social movements (like feminism, multiculturalism, and anti-racism) make the definition of what is political into a contested category. These movements challenge the so-called natural sphere of civil society and expose it as an artifice created by those who control and monopolise the public sphere. In the sphere of race relations, a narrow definition of the political is bound up with white power and with defining as non-political, private and individualistic, the resistances of minorities to the cultural structures and surveillance apparatuses which oppress them. Writers and artists are in a good position to make the personal become political and the private become public; they can use the interiority of a text or art work to make statements about their own interiority or that of the group they represent or speak on behalf of. This is what Mudrooroo has done. It is not accidental that he has produced a more subtle and sympathetic reading of the identity politics of Aboriginality than many white intellectuals who are often trapped by the moral culture of disembodied politics which they help to produce and police.


This paper is indebted to discussions and insights provided by Jeremy Beckett, Gill Cowlishaw, Tom Ernst, Annette Hamilton, Barry Morris and Kerry Zubrinick. I want to also thank two anonymous referees for their comments and to especially thank Judy Lattas for her subtle, careful thoughts on the politics of identity and representation.


(1.) Some readers might object to my reference to `white intellectuals' for its racially loaded coding. For me, this is precisely its intended effect: to introduce the bodies of authors and their subjects back into the field of power relations from which they have been so carefully excluded. Norms of impartiality and objectivity have helped create white academics as a disembodied eye which supposedly has no investments in its corporeal identity when it passes judgment on the identities of others who are similarly expected to conceive of themselves as disembodied persons.

(2.) I have criticised Hollinsworth's arguments in another paper (Lattas 1992) so I will focus in this paper on the work of Rowse and Keeffe from whom Hollinsworth derives his ideas.

(3.) Pettman cites Cowlishaw's work, though she avoids naming Cowlishaw outright as the person she is accusing of `romanticising the oppressed' by focusing on their oppositional culture. This has not however prevented Cowlishaw from recognising the `anonymous' critique as being directed at her work (see Cowlishaw in this volume).

(4.) Aboriginal resistance can also take a more organised collective form which goes beyond the individualised form which the state apparatus would like to contain it within. Aboriginal anger at the injustices which they suffer can become the basis for riots like at Brewarrina (cf. Ernst & Morris n.d.; Goodall 1990).

It is a curious fact of Aboriginal Studies that though much time has gone into recording oral historical accounts of massacres and other injustices sufficiently in the (safe) distant past, very few white intellectuals want to take up the narratives of injustice which contemporary Aborigines use to mark out their solidarity to each other. Though many white intellectuals are aware of police `harassment' in the Aboriginal communities they work with, few want to take on the state by incorporating and analysing that material in their ethnographies.

(5.) Carter (1988:71) points to how Aboriginal children are socialised into a culture of cheeky assertiveness where: `Adults tease children to challenge authority figures, principally their parents and, in play-dramas, the police.'

(6.) It seems to me that Rowse treats Aboriginal oppositional practices as being outside the narrow Marxist political model of hegemony and what threatens it. Nowhere does he acknowledge, let alone take up, the challenge of expounding an alternative view of the political capable of taking into account the various individualised skirmishes that Cowlishaw addresses and that she seeks to recognise in an affirmative discourse which allies itself with `disruptive' Aborigines.

(7.) Marx (1963) pointed out that the distinction between the private sphere of civil society and the public sphere of the state was itself a crucial political distinction which helped to depoliticise those structures of everyday life and of private property which were instrumental to the reproduction of social inequalities. A historical materialist perspective treats the category of the political as emerging out of social practices (Gramsci 1971, Pashukanis 1978). Indeed, contemporary movements (like feminism, multiculturalism, and anti-racism) are changing the structure of the modern state by challenging its definition of what is public and private and by thus making the very definition of what is political into a contested terrain. As someone from a migrant background I too have an interest in politicising the sphere of the `private' and in rendering the personal as political, for racism and ethnocentrism are more than private attitudes and beliefs, they are part of the structure of Australian society.

(8.) Academics like to use the term ethnicity because it carries the connotation of culture detached from bodies and biologies, even though popular culture is often made up of processes of embodying ideas, rights and values.

(9.) Many of Cowlishaw's critics position their radicalness as coming from a Leftist school which challenges class relations and state power. A curious feature of much of the left in Australian Anthropology and Aboriginal Studies is that it missed out on the impact of existentialism, phenomenology and psychoanalysis on Marxism. Their Marxism is without the influence of Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and more recently Castoriadis. That part of Althusser which some of them embraced was the structuralist aspect without the influence of Lacan's thinking on the constitution of the subject and the role which the state plays in mirroring back identity.

(10.) Though Rowse cites Foucault's Discipline and Punish, he seems to miss some of the major points that Foucault makes about the role of hygiene and discipline in the production of an ordered subject capable of accepting the new rhythms of the school, workplace, hospital, asylum and prison (cf. Ignatieff 1978). In contrast to Rowse, who tends to dismiss culture as a domain of politics, Larbalestier (1990) in her review wrote: `Cowlishaw argues convincingly ... that race and class conflicts are expressed in terms of cultural differences so that culture becomes a sphere of political struggle'.

(11.) When Rowse (1990:190) raises the issue of property relations, he does so by narrowly referring only to whether `White proprietorship of land has ever been in doubt'. He thus carefully sidesteps the continual attacks of Aborigines on moveable white property and how a sense of injustice and of being dispossessed of one's land underpins and renders moral these individualised attacks upon institutionalised forms of economic inequality. In opposition to John Moreton (1989), I would argue that one of the virtues of Cowlishaw's analysis is that she does take up the way race can become the idiom for working out class inequalities.

(12.) To help produce this charge of essentialism, Rowse misrepresents Cowlishaw as arguing that middle class Aborigines `are aberrations from Aboriginality's basic historical trajectory', something she does not argue. Hollinsworth (1992) has gone further in distorting things by claiming that Cowlishaw is accusing middle class Aborigines of being inauthentic. It is disturbing to watch the ungenerous readings made of Cowlishaw's work by a circle of writers who cite, mutually support and expand on each other's misreadings.

(13.) Hollinsworth (1992) has tried to render the cultural and biological views of the past as being separate discourses, even though his ethnographic evidence does not support this view nor does his theoretical mentor -- Keeffe -- who treats them as `Aboriginality-as-persistence'.

(14.) Criticising Hollinsworth's participation in this search for the right way of being an Aboriginal, Mudrooroo (1992:156) writes: `I believe that such a search and any conclusions reached must come from us, ourselves. We must determine our identity within the parameters established by us.'

(15.) Hollinsworth and Keeffe ignore the fact that many forms of nationalism can build themselves out of images of resistance and revolution or even out of the suffering and oppression of the indigenous population (cf. Lattas 1990, 1992b).

(16.) Keeffe presents no evidence for his statements which seem to express the general ambivalence which Europeans feel over the formation of an Aboriginal middle class. Though Keeffe is employed by the government, he does not feel himself to be politically compromised when he writes and teaches yet Aborigines are. Ignoring people's attempts to empower themselves through European structures, Keeffe sees the state as homogeneous and a totality in charge -- as it in effect pretends to be.

(17.) Brunton has set himself up as the great de-mystifier and destroyer of academic icons. He also wants to attack Aborigines' romanticisation of their tradition and their past. What is at stake in Brunton's work is the way anthropology's own demystification of itself can be appropriated to become a new discourse of oppression and a new discourse for rationalising the dispossession of Aborigines from their culture. Instead of the icons of a stable peace-loving society, Brunton invokes the image of a brutal murderous society at war with itself. Instead of Aborigines living in harmony with the land we have the image of a group of people who wiped out many species, changed the environment and whose access to guns, cars and outboard motors threatens the ecology of their environment. Though Brunton spends a lot of time contextualising and criticising Aboriginal images of themselves and the images produced by other anthropologists, he never contextualises his own images or identifies those who might have an interest in the production and circulation of those images of traditional Aboriginal violence and oppression.

(18.) Despite criticising essentialism, in a footnote Thiele acknowledges that it might be desirable to incorporate a notion of essence into social enquiry: `Just as many accept the distinction between science and scientism, where the former is regarded as authentic and the latter as the appropriation of the former, so might the distinction between essence and essentialism be treated as worthy of consideration' (ibid.:157). Thiele does not consider how this point might in fact subvert the whole of his theoretical critique of descentism which he develops both in its biological and cultural form.

(19.) Thiele gives the following as an example of biological reductionism where you have `an unmediated conceptual jump from the level of biological inheritance or descent to that of social inheritance':

It is, for example, now often asserted or implied that `Aborigines' are

the true owners of Australia, innate conservationists, highly spiritual and

peace loving, group and consensus oriented, or that they have a special

relationship with the land. There are parallel anti-colonial stereotypes

about `Europeans' such as: they stole the land they now occupy; they are

guilty of colonial domination and are responsible for its consequences; and

they are inherently individualistic, barbaric and coldly rational. (Thiele


In attacking popular notions of inheritance and descent what Thiele attacks is the transmission of moral obligations and identity which are part of folk notions of biology: `Individuals are also assumed to have socio-cultural capacities, needs, qualities, rights, responsibilities or duties, solely on the grounds of biological parentage' (ibid.:180). The charge of biological reductionism is here used to dismiss claims for compensation on the basis of what one group did to another in the past.

(20.) For Thiele, postmodernism overlaps with pluralism in that both share a critique of essentialism. Thiele does acknowledge that this may involve minimal overlap (ibid.:158 ff.).

(21.) Contemporary conservative intellectuals like Thiele do not posit biological and cultural essences but use a social constructionist stance to assert the arbitrariness of imposing some sort of collective moral responsibility onto Europeans. Indeed, Thiele (1991b:186) claims that apart from colonial racism: `The other form of white racism is linked to feelings of responsibility and guilt for white colonial racism.' Thiele also employs discourse analysis as part of a conservative attempt to get rid of the moral connotations invoked by the notion of agency. He probably believes he is being even-handed when he denies agency to both Europeans and Aborigines:

If individuals are constituted by discourses, then there is nothing which

can be said to choose discourses, or do anything else for that matter,

except discourses. In other words, there is no human essence, for example a

rational free will, which can control or freely choose which discourses

inscribe themselves on individuals ... The, now common, statement:

`Aborigines are taking control of their own identity', is a sociological

grotesquery at a number of levels. Of course the same applies to similar

statements which invoke the idea of a `Europeans' grouping.

(Thiele 1991b:191)

(22.) I want to emphasise that I am not criticising discourse analysis which I am committed to, but am acknowledging and attacking the transformation that it can undergo in the work of right-wing conservatives, like Thiele.

(23.) This problem has arisen partly because of the hostility of many Australian academics to theoretical approaches which draw on the Continental philosophies of existentialism and phenomenology. The alliance of many Aboriginal Studies specialists to state agencies to which they provide information has also helped to produce a strong stream of positivism in Aboriginal Studies (Eric Michaels, John Moreton, Nancy Munn, Fred Myers, and Deborah Rose are the exceptions).

(24.) Bergson (1991:64-5) also argues that `if there be memory, that is, the survival of past images, these images must constantly mingle with our perception of the present and may even take its place'.

(25.) Mudrooroo Narogin was previously known as Colin Johnson and now as Mudrooroo Nyoongah. In this paper, I refer to him in the text as Mudrooroo. I have, however, cited all references in Writing from the Fringe under the name Narogin which seems to function as a surname, for example in the cover and bibliography of the book.

(26.) See Neumann (1992) for a good analysis of the relationship between Aboriginality, healing and dreams in Mudrooroo's work.

(27.) In Writing from the Fringe, Mudrooroo documents the way white reviewers see Aboriginal writers as living in a cultural aesthetic vacuum. Characterised as suspended between worlds of meaning, they are treated as not belonging or possessing any meaning of their own.

(28.) Sutton needs a more subtle appreciation of the politics of identity concerning Aboriginality. As it is, he is horrified to find not only Aborigines essentialising themselves but also mythologically reformulating Aboriginal culture by linking it up with New age and other counterculture movements: `Between some of the urban Aboriginal modern mystics and the counterculture movement, cultural appropriation seems to have been mutual (ibid.:262). Sutton talks sarcastically about `the hippie paparazzi grooving on Dreamtime vibes' and the `descent into kitsch'. No doubt, Sutton sees himself as more real, authentic and less kitsch than those who are experimenting with new existential boundaries for their social being. Judgments like `kitsch' are part of an academic policing of subjectivity which denounces people for their essentialisms but also for their attempts to forge new ideological alliances using rejuvenated images of primordiality. It seems that what annoys Sutton is Aborigines poaching on cultural images of marginality employed by Europeans to restate and reassert their own difference. It is not accidental that Aborigines are borrowing from New age and other counterculture movements which have for a long time sought to make subjectivity into a site of political struggle.

(29.) It is necessary to explore those institutional structures of power which allow some ideas to be circulated whilst policing out other ideas. Keeffe's work was done as an honours thesis at the Australian National University, it was then published as an article and as a book by the Institute of Aboriginal Studies. Rowse's critique of the resistance model was published twice -- in Oceania and in Australian Left Review -- a revised form of it was also read out at the 1992 Australian Anthropological Association Conference in Canberra. Thiele circulated his reactionary views in a collection of papers which he edited for the major Australian journal TAJA. All of this indicates widely circulating ideas which have some currency and acceptance.

(30.) I would want to distance myself from the conservative campaigns against political correctness which are currently being waged against feminism, anti-racism, and left wing causes. It is a feature of current conservative discourses to use the word political as a derogatory accusation against opponents whilst presenting their own position as based on ethics.

(31.) Writing about the theme of Aboriginality in white intellectual discourse, Beckett (1988) points to the difficulty which essentialist themes experience in the aftermath of the holocaust. At the 1992 Australian Anthropological Association conference, a number of speakers pointed to the holocaust as the danger which threatens to repeat itself should we sanction the right of people to create themselves out of bodily imagery.

(32.) As part of his project of undermining scholarly analyses of the role of the body in human sociality, Thiele unfairly insinuates that Myrna Tonkinson's (1990) analysis of the role of bodily imagery in the construction of Aboriginal identity is anti-sociological. Thiele often makes `Clayton' critiques of people, which are the critiques you make when you do not want to be held responsible for making them. For example, he writes with characteristic evasiveness: `I am not attributing descentism of any gross kind to Tonkinson (1990) ... though it is not clear that she has fully avoided descentism' (Thiele 1991b:181)


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