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The political iconography of aboriginality.


In 1753 the Academy of Dijon invited entries for an essay competition on the question 'What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorised by Natural Law?' (Cranston 1984:28). Jean-Jacques Rousseau's entry for that competition, A Discourse on Inequality, became arguably one of the most influential works of the French Enlightenment.(2) Rousseau begins his essay by positing that there are two types of inequality -- only one of which is 'natural' or innate and previous to sociality and is generated by differences in 'age, health, strength of the body and qualities of the mind or soul', the other 'moral or political inequality' is the result of the development of civil society or civilisation and 'derives from a sort of convention, and is established, or at least authorized, by the consent of men' (Rousseau (1755) 1984:77). Rousseau argues that the inequities which characterised contemporary French society were not authorised by Natural Law but rather marked the emergence of humankind from the 'state of nature' (which is truly governed by Natural Law) into the civil state (which is governed by the constraint of social relations and sociality). This transition is marked by a transformation in human relations with nature from a complacent satisfaction as an organic part of it to a proprietary dominance over it: 'The first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, thought of saying "This is mine" and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society' (Rousseau (1755) 1984:109). Rousseau's depiction of 'natural man' has of course become the stereotype of 'the noble savage'.

In his essay Rousseau (|1755~ 1984:87) makes the same kinds of a temporal elisions between some 'ideal' pre-civil human and contemporary indigenous people that have occurred constantly since 1755 and which have been noted in various current works (Beckett 1988; Cowlishaw 1987; Fabian 1983; Lattas 1990). The lengthy heritage of this habit and its manifestation in both learned works and popular imagery has empowered it with the authority of history itself.(3) 'The noble savage' has become part of a rhetoric of images, an iconic mnemonic by which the world is understood.

A stereotype is merely a definitive category, a notional container for a set of arbitrarily determined and privileged characteristics that are used to fix a reality and an identity for an object. It is through repetition that a stereotype gains cultural currency and authenticity. It may gain authority through its articulation by, or association with, significant or privileged people and institutions. It may also gain authority or legitimacy by its articulation or manifestation in common discourse. In both cases, 'after constant and consistent presentation of a relation between terms, such a link accrues |the~ status of a natural category' (Edmunds & James 1992:426). This paper examines the politics of stereotypes as representations of Aboriginality in cartoons during the Australian Bicentennial year, 1988. In doing so, it has two interrelated aims: one is to draw attention to the rhetorical power of images, and another is to highlight such images as part of the context in which Aboriginal people struggle for social and political egalite. As Weedon has pointed out even in, or especially in, democratic contexts:

It is possible for liberal discourses of equality to work against |marginal~ interests and it is only by looking at a discourse in operation, in a specific historical context, that it is possible to see whose interest it serves at a particular moment. (Weedon 1987:111 original emphasis)


One would be hard-pressed now as in the 1750s to find a specimen of Rousseau's (|1755~ 1984:57-66) Genevan utopia, as democratic states (like others) are characterised by a distinct competition between sovereign and people for preeminent political representation and/or discursive presence. The Bicentennial year, 1988, marked an historical moment in the life and times of Australian nationhood and discourses on an Australian national identity. Turner (1990:117) has noted that: 'As the national |identity~ is valorised, the discourses of nationalism therefore tend to become areas occupied by those interests seeking to centre themselves within the culture'. In 1988 three competing discourses concerning the indigenous Australian population vied for public discursive presence.

The 'official' theme for the year was 'celebration of a nation' and was reiterated time and time again at the various state-sponsored events which commemorated the moment. Reconciliation, in the form of a treaty which recognised Aboriginal sovereignty, between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal Australians was represented as the gesture which might mark 'authentic' Australian nationhood at the end of the twentieth century. Reflecting other notions of nationhood the theme of that year generated by the Federal Government Opposition leader of the time (John Howard) was 'Australia -- One Nation'. The theme reflected the Liberal Party's opposition to the notion of a treaty with Aboriginal people, as well as its position on multiculturalism, and embodied the assertion that 'a nation cannot make a treaty with itself' (Howard Daily Telegraph January 8, 1988). A third theme for the year which was articulated by Aboriginal people themselves, '1988 -- National Year of Mourning'(4), is in distinct contrast and opposition to those on either side of the official bicameral fence. This theme suggested that the violence which characterised the original colonial moment was not easily ameliorated by current promises of future egalite and unity. Nor had such violence necessarily ceased to be a feature of Aboriginal experiences of Australian race relations.

The interplay of these themes reaffirms that the construction of a national identity is a politicised process which reflects recognisable axes of opposition. Even though the existence and inevitability of discursive contest is accepted as appropriate in a heterogeneous democratic state, when that opposition concerns the nature of (national) identity, heterogeneity marks conflict as it marks difference. Heterogeneity prevents absolute categorical closure and conflict is generated by the friction between the imperative towards closure (or definition of an identity) and the impossibility of achieving it. The notions of unity inherent in the Labor Government's 'celebration of a nation' and the Federal Liberal Party leader's 'Australia -- One Nation', while in opposition to each other are, nevertheless, similar in their exclusion of any active Aboriginal presence. This is perhaps no more than a reflection of the custodial nature of representational democracy.

The Aboriginal construction of 1988 as a National Year of Mourning counterpoints this unity by refuting the basis for celebration and the legitimacy of any substantive claim to genuine national unity except perhaps that of its own opposition. However, that refutation compromises the acceptability of its resistance and confirms its marginality. In denying the legitimacy of the other discourses the Aboriginal National Year of Mourning refutes the institutionalised processes of Australian democratic representation even while utilising the democratic right to dissent.

From the very first days of 1988 the successful celebration of a nation was contingent on the way in which it mediated the National Year of Mourning. The struggle for legitimacy was both an issue of controlling the 'potentially anarchic polysemy' (Fiske 1987:283) of discursive representation and asserting or ensuring the right of 'presence' (Fabian 1990:755) within the discourses of nationalism.


Stereotypes of Aboriginality

The mass media remain formally outside |the State's~ orbit, but their treatment of Aboriginality almost invariably takes the form of a dialogue with the state, as the agency responsible for what happens to |Aboriginal people~. If there has never been complete agreement on the matter of Aboriginality, there has been a degree of consistency in the debates. (Beckett 1988:193)

Here Beckett raises the issue of public representation of Aboriginality in the media and the preeminence of 'the state' and politics in public discourse and in constructions of Aboriginality. A fundamental feature of the political iconography of Aboriginality and the central dialectic which marks 'consistency in the debates' (imbued with essentialisations) concerning the nature of Aboriginality is neatly demonstrated by a contemporary cartoon by Don Lindsay (West Australian January 4, 1988; Figure 1). In this cartoon Aboriginality is literally split into two distinct kinds and the relation between them can be read as a disjuncture, suggested by the framed hard surface of the mirror, rather than a continuity.

Active reflective Aboriginality is signalled by bandana, landrights insignia, apparent battle jacket and the Constitution -- this predominantly urban image of Aboriginality is being credited with agency (particularly political agency) and has acquired the euphemistic label of 'contemporary' Aboriginality. Inanimate reflected Aboriginality is signalled by near nudity, a spear and a boomerang (positioned as the equivalent artefact of the copy of the Constitution). This predominantly non-urban, sometimes rural, usually desert-dwelling Aboriginality is rarely credited with agency and has acquired a euphemistic label of 'traditional' Aboriginality, relative victim status and passivity. Disjunction between 'contemporary' and 'traditional' Aboriginality, marked by the intervention of history (colonialism and civil society), may be mediated by appeal to the unity of the constraints of the human condition (natural inequalities). But if metaphorical continuity is to be seen as the dominant message of the cartoon then it may be suggested that these two stereotypes, in this cartoon at least, represent a unified Aboriginality based in an (armed) opposition to non-Aboriginal colonisations or interventions.

While a continuity of resistance or opposition is suggested, the efficacy of historically later Aboriginal opposition to dominance is compromised because this image of Aboriginality can only remind viewers of the original colonial moment in which the boomerang and the spear failed to repel invasion -- thus calling into question the potential of Aboriginal resistance armed with the Constitution and 'civil' means of opposition to achieve a genuine autonomy or self-determination. In this cartoon 'civil man' is counterposed to 'natural man' -- civil/ised Aboriginality faces primordial Aboriginality in a way that is reminiscent of the Dijon question and harkens back to Rousseau's answer. There is a certain amount of containment effected by the juxtaposition of these two alternate images of Aboriginality. As a reflection of 'contemporary' Aboriginality, 'traditional' Aboriginality is also contained or somehow embodied within it. Rousseau's 'natural' inequalities are thus also part of the physiognomy of 'civil' man, so contemporary Aboriginality suffers both innate and civil disadvantages in the pursuit of socio-political, economic and representational egalite.

The representation of categories of 'contemporary' and 'traditional' also illustrates the basis for current confusion and certain hostility concerning the vexed question of (Aboriginal) 'authenticity' among the wider non-Aboriginal public. The adjective 'contemporary' (and its representational forms) like the phrase 'post-colonial' conflates apparent temporal or historical events and material conditions with ideologies. While 'Contemporary Aboriginality', as represented by the Constitution, is peculiar to Aboriginal ways of being after 1967, 'contemporary Aboriginality' is merely any way in which an Aboriginal person articulates their identity at the moment.

Ambiguities are masked by the profound simplifications of social realities common in standard representational conventions or stereotypes which in turn distort the complexities of Aboriginal lives. There is always the question of 'authentic' Aboriginality. The question of 'authentic' non-Aboriginality is never raised in the same way. Thus the stereotypes of contemporary and traditional Aboriginality, though different and opposed, both operate against the interests of Aboriginal people by highlighting the arbitrary nature of category construction in a non-reflexive manner.

Lindsay's cartoon illustrates an article by Sally Morgan on the designated Bicentennial funding of Aboriginal projects during 1988 and the debate in Aboriginal communities about whether or not the funding should be used or whether protest should extend to refusing to apply for the money (West Australian, January 4, 1988). The debate was presented in the media at the time as a schism between 'traditional' Aboriginal groups who opted to use the money and 'non-traditional', urban or south-eastern groups who did not. Contemporary Aboriginality is here being defined by its deliberate opposition to contemporary non-Aboriginal Australian society. In contrast 'traditional' Aboriginality is more acquiescent, opposed to 'contemporary' non-Aboriginal Australian society only in as much as its innate qualities make it substantially and identifiably distant and remote from it.(5)

As the cartoon appears in conjunction with an article by an Aboriginal person this dichotomy shares the authenticity of a representative indigenous view. But, as Beckett suggests, Aboriginality is not entirely a matter of Aboriginal self-determination, it is contained and mediated by socio-political relationships and structures, most particularly with the state as a legislative and political presence in Australian life. This relationship is active in the authentication of dualist representations of Aboriginality and plays some part in the repetition of certain icons (such as spears. landscapes and landrights flags) as signifiers of Aboriginality. Further, the semiotics of these icons are themselves at work in the relative representational positioning of Aboriginal people in Australian society and public discourse.

Personification and Representation

Politicians and agents of government are primary actors in the state of the nation, and their actions during the Bicentennial were a major focus of public representations of that moment. In Figures 2 and 3, icons of primordiality (landscape, loin cloth etc.) are used to comment on the issue of guilt, which was a persistent theme of race relations discourse and discourses of nationalism during the Bicentennial. The cartoons introduce and position the figure of Gerry Hand who was then the Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. Hand is out of place in the desert landscape and the schism between the world of the politician and the world of Aboriginal people is shown as a geo-political disjuncture marked by qualities of discomfort, aridity and heat. Guilt and empathy here belong in the realm of the primordial and remote. Appropriate guilt is depicted as having to do with inappropriate or immoral action towards some kind of Aboriginality which is helpless and passive. Resentment is generated by implicit or direct demands on non-Aboriginals for the same guilt-response from some kind of Aboriginality that is apparently aggressive, active and non-desert-dwelling. Guilt is the righteous due of the noble savage as an exchange good for the intervention of history and civil society.

Gerry Hand suffered copiously at the pen of cartoonists at the time. As Minister for Aboriginal Affairs he mediated relations between the state and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. He was continually depicted playing dress-ups. His apparent fancy for cultural cross-dressing both acknowledges the difficulties of anyone in a mediatory position (lack of clear allegiance and motive) and indicates the dubious status of anyone who displays either guilt or empathy whilst in metaphorical drag. Hand's position lacks integrity (and therefore the 'authenticity' of his actions is equivocal) in as much as it lacks clarity or categorical closure however much it is also institutionally necessary. Hand's lack of cultural or categorical closure operates in the same way as the binary categorisation of Aboriginality. The political consequences of representational ambiguity (social or textual) are part of the politics of essentialism. While it seems reasonable that all things contain within them the potential of their opposite, there is some tension over the acknowledgment of the appropriate intimacy of this relationship.

As Gerry Hand's purported sense of personal guilt is made preposterous in cartoons, equally preposterous is any sense of personal responsibility for the state of race relations held by people (viewers/readers) invited to fit themselves into his represented position. The necessity for race relations to be couched in terms of centrality and marginality are evident in the need for a mediatory presence. As Beckett says, the state mediates many relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Australia, and mostly by being the metaphorical archetypal Australian citizen. Hence any action by Hand that displays incompetence or ill-judgement can be metaphorically extended to other Australians that may be categorised as having the same interests and attitudes towards Aboriginal people and issues.

Implicit in this characterisation of race relations is the tacit assumption that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are not 'Australian'. This shadowy implication is quite commonplace and can be found in academic discourses on Australian national identity. Gibson's (1992) work on the semiotics of landscape in the construction of Australian national identity positions the arrival of civil society as the beginning of Australianness being defined as a heritage, and notes crisis in the landscape as a recurrent theme of Australian identity: 'The colony is a diverse collection of ethnic and interest groups, but it is also unified by its shared "rebirth" in the new environment' (Gibson 1992:69; see also Lattas 1990 for a more comprehensive treatment). A central reason for Aboriginal exclusion from the ideological category of 'Australian' may be in part due to priority and the semiotics of the noble savage, since, essentially speaking Australianness is about civil Australianness and Aboriginals are logically prior to the civil state. The ambiguous position of Aboriginal people in this sense provides for at least some of their efficacy in generating safe guilt as Frankel suggests. Cartoons dealing with the notion of guilt often utilise icons of 'traditional' Aboriginality as guilt is related to genuine injustice and genuine injustice is consigned to the politically marginal geography of the Australian interior as well as the no-man's-land of the past or the original colonial moment.

As can be seen in Figures 2 and 3 primordial Aboriginality is represented as being non-urban and Gerry Hand is to be seen as largely out of context in the pre-civil landscape of an undesignated Australian desert. The icons of civil society are the icons of 'modernity' and in these cartoons those icons are the ministerial mode of transport and the Aboriginal landrights flag. It need hardly be said that the primary satire is conveyed by the image of Hand, a state representative, wearing a loin cloth and holding an Aboriginal flag, a highly equivocal depiction in the light of the blunt binaries of racerelations iconography.

Interest groups and the politics of association

The general stereotype of an individual, and all that they are taken to represent, is added to the associated meanings of (an) issue. So that the constant association of people and issues comes to thematically define both ... (Edmunds & James 1992: 79)

Representatives of government are not the only non-Aboriginals represented as having an interest in Aboriginal issues. In Figures 4 and 5 non-Aboriginal Australia is represented by non-government political interests or lobby groups who regard themselves as relevant to Aboriginal political affairs and as representative of the wider Australian public. In early 1988 the Australian Teachers' Federation instructed its members not to participate in school Bicentennial activities which did not 'address the "Aboriginal perspective"' (The Australian January 7, 1988). This action partook of the infamous label 'boycott' (earlier extended to Jerry Hand's preference for his work calendar over a diary of Bicentennial engagements) and was treated in the press with the same scepticism as Hand's purported guilt. In Figure 4 the Federation is also linked to the recent discovery of Legionella in the water supply of the Aboriginal community at Jigalong in Western Australia. Figure 5 refers to contemporary suggestions from members of the Returned Services League (RSL) clubs that people claiming to be Aboriginal should be blood-tested to prove their Aboriginality so as to prevent inauthentic claimants (people without a suitable amount of Aboriginal blood) from abusing the welfare system.

These cartoons comment on the intervention of putatively left and right-wing actors in race relations discourse. Note their gender and their dress. Both are significantly out of context in the desert environments. Both are the agents for interaction. The left (Teachers Federation) is represented as tokenistic and patronising and the right (RSL) is represented as downright racist and high-handed. The polar ends of the political spectrum are represented as sorely misunderstanding the issues, if not as being utterly devoid of common sense. In this landscape Aboriginality is reactive whilst non-Aboriginality is represented as intrusively pro-active. Viewers are tacitly invited to reflect on how they relate politically to these representations and to place them on a scale between weak-knee-ed tokenism and hard-nosed facism, while the entire political spectrum is imbued with implied stupidity. No one is quite safe from ideological unsoundness and even heterogeneity has its problems. From these cartoons it would seem that the safest position on Aboriginal issues is not to have a position at all.

The interplay of various binary relationships constantly reiterates the complexity of issues surrounding the place of Aboriginal people in Australia while at the same time constraining possibilities for the transformation of Aboriginal situations because of the absence of any alternative Aboriginalities outside the categories of 'traditional' and 'contemporary' and satirical dismissal of personal responses and institutional political positions. The situation is represented as dire and the distance which reconciliation has to span (at least if it is initiated by non-Aboriginals) is great. Race relations are shown to be fraught with insurmountable obstacles. Frankel's comment rings true -- middle-class Australia (or any other class Australia) may well feel uncomfortable about the position of Aboriginal people in Australian society but the representations of that position make it impossible for any confident move to action to take place.

Aboriginal Agency

In the preceding cartoons depicting desert landscapes, primordiality has shared its meanings with welfare dependency and state-sponsorship. The categorisation of these things together is effective because they share the characteristic of passivity. It is non-Aboriginal Australia which is shown as active, but it is also shown as compromised in its actions. Reconciliation is ultimately represented as an awkward project if initiated by non-Aboriginal Australia. Cartoons representing Aboriginal agency indicate that reconciliation is not even on an Aboriginal agenda -- an urban contemporary Aboriginal agenda -- it is usurped by a bloody-minded and generalised opposition.

Figure 6 comments on Charles Perkins' infamous position on immigration during the Bicentennial, and it is one of the few cartoons appearing that year which indicated that not all Australians are designatedly white or black. As it represents the heterogeneity of non-Aboriginal Australia it also affirms that heterogeneity is a dangerous thing. Aboriginality represents the schism within, while migration and mutliculturalism represent the dilemma without. Depicted here, Aboriginality is the agent of disruption within the non-Aboriginal community. It is interesting to note that in the absence of designatedly white actors, all actors in the cartoon display active dissent or assert difference. Figure 7 comments on Aboriginal reaction to the Liberal Party's slogan of 'Australia -- One Nation'. In this cartoon two protests compete at street level, two competing political agendas meet in a generalised, equal and informal opposition to an unspecified and unclear absent dominant.

'Contemporary' or 'urban' Aboriginality is represented as adding fuel to the fire of already heated issues. In the case of the Teachers' Federation and the RSL, Aboriginality (traditional or remote) was merely a platform for established political agendas. In cartoons 6 and 7 Aboriginality is shown as a provocateur, colonising the political terrain of other interest groups. Active Aboriginal self-representation is shown to operate at the street-level but to do so in a self-defeating manner. In Figure 6 Perkins is shown to have over-simplified the immigration debate, while his presence within it embarrassed the government and compromised the integrity of the reconciliation project. As seen in earlier cartoons rapprochement is directed toward passive and well-behaved (discreet) Aboriginality. Perkins is not passive. In Figure 7, having made an act of defiance, anonymous urban Aboriginality is shown to walk swiftly and wordlessly away, avoiding further communication or confrontation. These are the tactics of guerilla warfare and are in contrast to the representation of Howard as peacefully exercising his democratic right to dissent. Both cartoons suggest the contingent nature of contemporary Aboriginal resistance. This contingency evokes the memory of failed or compromised resistances of the past.

Active Aboriginal presence in public discourse is shown as negative, either inappropriate or vandal-like. These representations of Aboriginality both inauthenticate or de-legitimate Aboriginal resistance and so disempower it by showing it to be contrary to certain notions of civil propriety. The cartoons recognise that the structures of well-behaved political opposition are not directly accessible to Aboriginal people, but their representation is such that doubts are created about Aboriginal capacities to behave appropriately anyway.

Representation and Resistance

I would have wished to be born in a country where the sovereign and the people could have only a single and identical interest ... Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1755

Rousseau wrote the above words with reference to his natal city-state of Geneva, and dedicated A Discourse on Inequality to it. Throughout his life Rousseau became increasingly disillusioned with Genevan socio-political inequalities. The words can be read as either praise or lament, their ambiguity furnishes their power to invoke either joy or misery. The same can be said of the political iconography of Aboriginality. If we ignore the heritages and polysemy of images and icons concerning Aborigines then most of the cartoons presented here can be seen as positive critiques of Australian race relations. But if those multiplicities are examined then the capacity of the satires to fully challenge or critique the status quo seems uncertain.

The rhetorical power of stereotypes is to invoke past meanings and to create the shape of the present from them. In this way stereotypes constitute an urge toward the status quo. The inflexibility of stereotypes based on binary or categorical oppositions mediates their efficacy as devices for any kind of transformation, even though they can be used for different purposes. The iconic split of Aboriginality into predominantly opposed categories clouds Aboriginal initiatives and issues in a fog of debate about authenticity, and obscures from view the diversity of Aboriginal ways of being. The opposing stereotypes can be seen to repudiate each other and thus to throw doubt on the validity of the category altogether which, rather than challenging the authority of the stereotypes, seems to generate greater urges towards categorical closure. (The RSL call for blood-testing is a case in point.) The inherent characteristics of each stereotype are, in the above cases, qualities which are negatively valued in the dominant society -- passivity, welfare dependency, aggression, overt and particular relation with the state.

No other marginal group in Australia has such a public relationship with the state and this alone separates Aboriginal people from the rest of the population. In 1988 this relationship was emphasised because of the differing Bicentennial themes of the opposing parliamentary parties. Aboriginality was thus associated with long-term political oppositions and conflicts between those people involved with the management of the national interest. Aboriginality became a significator of institutionalised opposition within the bicameral system. It was seen to bring out irrationalities in both the left and right, either guilt and paternalism or pomposity and myopia. The historical nature of Aboriginal relations with the state was characterised as a potential catalyst for guilt to which the left obligingly responded with guilt and the right belligerently responded with what amounted to terse 'Get over it'. Aboriginal self-representation or presence in public discourse through the theme of a National Year of Mourning encouraged the first response and dismissed the second. As an active presence in public discourse Aboriginality both invoked and challenged the concept of nationhood in a way which highlights the peculiarities of binary oppositions and illustrates not only the rhetorical power of stereotypes but the discursive and political significance of ambiguity.

The theme of a National Year of Mourning contains its own essentialisations. It marks out an emotional space which is categorically and universally Aboriginal. By doing so it specifies pain and loss as defining characteristics of Aboriginality. While not overtly appealing to either of the dominant stereotypes it invokes an image of emotional humanity. This invocation tacitly affirms the authenticity of stereotypes of Aboriginality based on the notion of the noble savage by directing attention towards an overwhelming colonial heritage and acknowledging its capacity to constrain contemporary Aboriginal initiatives. There is a certain irony here in that a theme which connotes passivity and insularity was the marker for a national mobilisation of Aboriginal networks in the organisation of the National Day of Mourning on January 26 and a sustained media presence throughout the year.6 Irony, or apparent contradiction, is a commonplace of the process of representation itself and this uncontroversial point merely underlines the need to examine discourse and context as constituents of each other.

Aboriginal resistance in all its forms confronts all understandings of Aboriginality articulated in 'the wider context of social interests and power within which challenges are made' (Weedon 1987:111). The dominant in this context is the political structure of the Australian state and at its apex in 1988 was the Hawke Labor government. In these cartoons the Labor minister for Aboriginal Affairs was shown in such a way as to authenticate a particular image of Aboriginality. The noble savage is alive and well in the lives of Aboriginal people whatever their personal feelings about it and this situation is predominantly due to the kinds of non-Aboriginal sense that the image makes. The icon of the noble savage is as much a legacy of Rousseau's work and a part of the heritage of democracy as it is of the heritage of colonial oppression. The complex and diverse history of this icon is a part of the context for Aboriginal resistance or challenge to the dominant.

While the above cartoons represent the dominant stereotypes of Aboriginality, as do the discourses that they satirise, their power to persuade stems from their exploitation of the ambiguous in human relations. Satire operates through irony, through a disjuncture between a reality and an appearance. Representation operates in much the same way. Aboriginal presence in public discourse during 1988 exploited discursive ambiguities. The relation between the Aboriginal theme for the year and how it came about and was brought into public discourse illustrates that the space for transformation or resistance, as with dominance, is located in the dynamic of the relationship between discursive presence and social reality.


1. This paper is the result of research conducted with Mary Edmunds between 1989 and 1992 on the role of the media in the creation of attitudes towards Aboriginal people. It is also very loosely based on a paper presented at the 1992 Australian Anthropological Society Conference in Canberra. I would like to thank both Mary Edmunds and Gillian Cowlishaw for their forbearance and support, without them this paper would never have happened.

2. 'In less than a hundred pages, Rousseau outlined a theory of the evolution of the human race which prefigured the discoveries of Darwin; revolutionized the study of anthropology and linguistics, and he made a seminal contribution to political and social thought' (Cranston 1984:29).

3. Repeated invocation of an image provides it with a distinct historical presence to which people respond. The image may be put to various uses by diverse interests, as White (1978:103-4) suggests, 'either in order to effect its transformation by showing how "unnatural" it is... or to reinforce its authority by showing how consonant it is with its context, how adequately it conforms to "the order of things". These possibilities are always present in any invocation of it. This multiplicity of interests and purposes for which an image may be used is the thing which generates its socio-political and cultural significance.

4. Earlier Aboriginal resistance to celebrations of national unity at the Australian sesqui-centennial in 1938 marked January 26 of that year as a 'Day of Mourning' (Markus 1988:17), and while setting a specific precedent it received nowhere near the same amount of media attention nor was it as nationally widespread as the events organised by Aboriginal people in 1988. While the National Year of Mourning is treated here as a discursive practice its prominence in 1988 was due to the organisational commitment of Aboriginal people as social and political actors.

5. Which is not to suggest that 'traditional' Aboriginality does not possess the rhetorical power to effectively challenge the dominant. The 'spirituality' of 'traditional' Aboriginality has played a significant role for various groups and their challenges to dominant structures and has been involved or co-opted precisely because of the inscrutability of the primordial. Such groups include, aside from Aboriginal people themselves, environmentalists and 'New Agers'.

6. Similar ambiguities or ironies are found in the relation between rhetoric and political imperative (or action) in both the themes of 'celebration of a nation' and 'Australia -- One Nation'. In the first instance and especially in the early part of 1988, the joyful acknowledgement of nationhood was introduced in Prime Ministerial speeches reflecting on crimes committed against Aboriginal people in the colonial past, so that the present is placed in a certain moral and attitudinal opposition to the past. In the second instance, the theme of 'Australia -- One Nation' was a strategic response by the Liberal Party to the political initiatives of the Labor Government. It was based on an opposition fundamental to the framework of the bicameral system as much as on any inherent discursive logic or genuine sentiment.


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