The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism.
This is a monster of a book. It is packed with original ideas and is written by one of the most interesting thinkers in contemporary anthropology. Beth Povinelli is like a breath of fresh air in Australian Aboriginal anthropology which can often give the impression of being somewhat insular, self-referential and cut off from the flow of ideas in the humanities and social sciences. Well read in philosophy, gender studies, cultural studies and politics, Povinelli applies contemporary theoretical discussions from a wide range of sources to ethnography in subtle and informative ways.
Povinelli is difficult but rewarding to read. I especially enjoyed the first two and the last two chapters of this book. Part of the difficulty of reading Povinelli is that she is trying to develop and apply a new language for thinking about the way state power interpellates Aboriginal subjects; how it 'hails' of recognises them and in the process mirrors them back to themselves. She also explores the way state power 'hails' or recognises the identity of white subjects in a multicultural society as they establish and negotiate the limits of alterity and as they seek a sanitised otherness to confirm their liberal forms of tolerance. These are white subjects who try to make amends for a tarnished history so as to reclaim the nation as worthy of identification. More than just undertaking another application of discourse analysis, Povinelli is concerned with forms of moral sensibility and with feelings of being obliged not just to another group or one's own group but having a sense of obligation to a feeling, practice of idea. I would have liked more exploration by Povinelli of the white anger at being made to feel obliged, the white anger directed at a 'guilt industry' that is seen to exploit one's humanitarian feelings and philanthropic obligations. This produces a certain stiffening of white resolve and a perception of Aborigines as cunning actors who exploit a history of failed humanitarian projects.
Povinelli sees the debates and policy changes around Aborigines as underpinned by the emergence of a new ethics operating within national and international social life. Australian liberal multiculturalism is treated not just as a legitimising ideology but also as a practice of governance. It is a form of domination built around idealising certain 'customary' ways of being an indigenous subject and it correspondingly problematises the identity of all those who appear as non-traditional. Here Australian multiculturalism is criticised for generating and sustaining impossible desires to be a certain kind of authentic subject and it creates compromised investments by indigenous groups in those desires and projects. Within Australian anthropology, Jeremy Beckett originally raised these issues in a powerful way. However, his and many Australian anthropologists' opposition to anything seemingly tainted by post-modernism or what E.P Thompson called the 'French Flu' has hampered any systematic use of existentialism, phenomenology of discourse analysis to analyse further the identity politics of Australian Aborigines.
Povinelli takes the powerful phenomenological approach introduced into Aboriginal anthropology by Nancy Munn and politicises it. She merges it with a Lacanian-derived, Althusserian concern with how subjects are partly constituted by processes of being hailed of recognised through state forms. Here Povinelli articulates a powerful critique of native title as the state's effacement of processes of historical transformation 'in the context of legally mandated customary continuity'. The cultural creativity of subjects is caught within a law of recognition that defines and fixes their cultural being. Multiculturalism is analysed as a subtle form of domination that operates 'by inspiring subaltern and minority subjects to identify with their colonizers.... indigenous subjects are called on to perform an authentic difference in exchange for the good feeling of the nation and the reparative legislation of the state' (:6). Povinelli does what Australian academics have largely failed to do and that is take the analyses and discourses of multiculturalism which have been largely kept separate from the study of Aborigines and apply it to them through the notion of the liberal state. Instead of the cunning of reason being the hidden organising power of this state, today it is the recognition of differences, the mirroring of subjects back to themselves through reifying processes that celebrate 'their culture'; processes that subtly transform people through determining what is to be valued as authentic.
The power of this book comes from Povinelli's sympathetic portrayal of Aboriginal people's compromised negotiations with images of authenticity often derived from the dominant European culture. In the last chapter she analyses land claims by Larrakia Aborigines who moved into the urban areas of Darwin and how some now understand their Aboriginal identity and authenticity through a New Age mysticism and articulate their political resistance through an environmental spiritualism, Indeed, some talk of their relationship to the land as a form of 'telecommunicating' and as ESP.
Povinelli is at her best when analysing the paradoxes historically produced by the colonial encounter. She powerfully exposes the changing alliances and divisions between Aboriginal groups as some move onto other people's lands where they create new forms of home and belonging. In particular, at the end of the book, she explores how the Larrakia have come into legal conflict with the Belyuen who have moved onto Larrakia land which they have incorporated into themselves through their conception beliefs. This takes up the powerful analysis offered in Povinelli's previous book Labor's Lot where she explores how the everyday hunting and gathering activities of Aborigines produces ways of participating and being owned by the land. In this new book, Povinelli shows how the use of traditional Aboriginal cosmology to remediate colonial dislocation tests the limits of established anthropological understandings of descent and of the legal system that employs those understandings.
Part of the originality of this book is that it exposes the limits of anthropological advocacy in the courtroom where anthropologists are there to document custom and not the creativity that was customarily employed by Aborigines. In particular, Povinelli exposes the limits of some anthropological understandings of kinship and how these can become aligned with conservative notions of an Aboriginal subject enshrined in native title. For example, in his legal evidence about kinship and land, Peter Sutton juxtaposes 'spiritual descent' against the 'ancient type' that he was discussing and could not conceive of Aboriginal subjects who might employ both simultaneously on an ongoing basis.
Povinelli deals with the culture of law and what is being negotiated within rules of evidence, legal arguments and judicial decisions. Law it analysed as a domain of national identity as where the nation seeks to realise and recognise its values, where it celebrates and establishes the limits of liberal multi-cultural tolerance. Povinelli relocates the arena of anthropological debate by treating law not as a given but something to be analysed as producing social relations, subjects, subjectivities. She offers a powerful re-analysis of law as a form of disciplinary power, where what is being produced is ways of being a subject. Drawing on Foucauldian notions of governance and pastoral power, Povinelli studies not just Aborigines but the development of new regimes of pastoral power directed not just at Aborigines but also at how to be a good coloniser, how to redeem the nation from the failed history of its good intentions. Law negotiates the nation's identity within an international legal field, within an international gaze that can no longer accept the sham decisions of the past.
This is a difficult book to read. It is full of insights and packed with powerful prose. In fact it is packed with too many poetic punches. There is too much emphasis on the minute refinement of sentences and not enough on unfolding the structure of an argument for a reader. Along with powerful perceptive insights, this book contains some confusing boggy language; phrases like 'deontological differences' and confusing distinctions are made 'between moral sensibility (deontology) and critical rational knowledge (epistemology)' that are never really pursued. Another distracting part of the book was the early use of Peirce and the attempts to use algebra and geometry to make sense of social relations. These I consider to be small blemishes and I am reluctant to criticise an important book when I know that the established forces in Australian Aboriginal anthropology are already mobilising to marginalise and dismiss its insights and forms of analyses.
University of Newcastle
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2003|
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