We often hear today that colonial history should not be used as an excuse for all the ills that mar Aboriginal society, or to promote the passivity of Aboriginal people in the face of the problems that they are facing. That is true.
But it is also true that calls for Aboriginal people to do something about the state they are in should not be used as a mode of denying that the colonial relation continues to exist and to affect both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal lives. What’s more, it should be stressed that while there might be a currency to the view that it is "all history’s fault" within Australia’s relatively small left liberal circles, the view that "colonialism has nothing to do with it" is by far the most dominant throughout Australian society. It is also the view that is most important in its social effect. This is because colonialism towards Aboriginal people has never been primarily a colonialism of exploitation as much as a colonialism of appropriation, pacification, negligence and abandonment.
Consequently, it is through the denial of the colonial relation that the colonial relation perpetuates itself. Even today, the very idea that there is a relation between the wealth and well-being of non-Aboriginal Australia and the poverty, dislocation, misery and ill-being that thrives in Aboriginal spaces, is socially and psychologically made invisible and driven to the deepest parts of our social unconscious.
For most non-Aboriginal people in Australia, Aboriginal lives are encountered as a media issue where a complex and diverse Aboriginality connected in its ups and downs to the ups and downs of non-Aboriginal society gets repressed by substituting for it a simpler Aboriginal presence that is imagined to be self-contained and self-generating. Either a "good" presence in the form of quaint cultural groups that embellish our lives with ancient mysticism, dance and paintings, or a "bad" presence in a shocking pathological social form where drugs, drunkenness and rape pervade dysfunctional social lives.
The least that can be said about Gillian Cowlishaw’s book The City’s Outback is that it offers the reader none of these simple narratives of substitution. Through the relatively simple narrative device of allowing Aboriginal people to tell their stories, doubled with the story of herself trying to get their stories taped and transcribed, Cowlishaw offers the reader a portrait of her encounter with what she calls "everyday Aboriginality" in Western Sydney’s Mt Druitt.
Here, a relatively large number of Aboriginal people are struggling to live "ordinary" lives while stumbling from one drama to another and from one ordinary but heroic act of survival against the odds to another. For non-Indigenous people, it is nothing short of a challenging invitation to enter our Aboriginal social unconscious with all the emotions, uncertainties, ambivalences, limitations, but also rewards, that such a difficult encounter generates.
What makes the trip less daunting but perhaps more alluring is that Cowlishaw gets the help of some Mt Druitt Aboriginal insiders who help us along the way with their reported commentary. Particular mention should be made here of Cowlishaw’s main informant, Frank, a man endowed with an exceptional social sharpness and acumen who urged Cowlishaw to embark on the project. The result is probably one of the most important books yet written about urban Aboriginal life.
The book’s power does not only lie in giving us a sense of what it is like to live in a colonially marked space. Even more so, the book offers all of us, non-Aboriginal people, an ethics: a mode of approaching and interacting with Aboriginal people and Aboriginal issues while minimising the chances of falling into the many pitfalls of everyday white discourse "about" them, whether of the racist or the "well-meaning" variety.
Indeed, because it is constantly aiming to avoid these pitfalls, there is a considerable degree of anxiety that pervades the book. It is a healthy kind of anxiety that comes, first, from a constant and relentless questioning of one’s right as a non-Aboriginal person to record and examine the lives of Aboriginal people. It is also an anxiety that emanates from a constant desire to avoid rushing to conclusions, to glorify or disparage. But most of all it is an anxiety to do justice to the lives unfolding before our eyes by taking them as they present themselves, with as few pre-packaged views of Aboriginality as possible.
This capacity to open oneself to otherness in all its uncertainty without a desire to fix its meaning and domesticate it is what Keats has called "negative capability". It is what the best ethnographers should always have. Anthropologists are increasingly insecure about what their ethnographies can offer in the modern world. They ask questions such as: Is it worthwhile spending so much time, often years, with a group or in a social milieu to end up producing a text or even a film that so few end up seeing? And this, while, at the same time, you have journalists, such as foreign or special correspondents, who can come to that very same milieu and produce very catchy textual or filmic accounts in a relatively short period of time that many more people end up reading or seeing?
Reading Cowlishaw, one glimpses the possibility of a redeeming ethnography that only someone who has taken a very long time trying to know and be intimate with informants, and an equally long time reflecting on the limits of what they know — as well as on the limits of intimacy.
Cowlishaw manages a unique form of intimacy with her Aboriginal story tellers that allows her not to simply idealise or diabolise them. She shows us that one needs to take one’s time to build such an intimacy, but also one needs to take the time to reflect on its limits: intimacy is not something we non-Aboriginal people can demand, acquire on our own or take for granted. In the process she shows that anthropology still owes its specificity to the time it takes for its products to mature. In anthropology’s very slowness, it stands to quicker mediatic accounts the way "slow food" stands to the supermarket products that are rushed into maturing.
An ethnography of a disjointed, disorderly space with unruly, unpredictable subjects such as Mt Druitt’s Aboriginal society is no easy task. Colonial racism shatters people, shatters social relations and shatters cultures: a lot of effort goes into picking up the pieces to try and reconstitute those spaces of the self and society left smashed to smithereens by colonialism. And this is precisely how an endless history of invasion, dispossession, dislocation, and brutal discarding have left their mark on Aboriginal society and the Aboriginal psyche: the social milieu is disorganised and fragmented, the psyche is in pieces, and sometimes even people’s bodies look disjointed. How does one study such a space? How does one make sense of speech when it reflects in its very lack of structure and continuity the shattering that it embodies?
To make things even harder — and because of the fragmentation and the shattering — we are talking about a space where social relations, from friendship to family to work relations, are always slipping, being continually in a state of doing and undoing. Sometimes these states of fragmentation and flow appear in the form of absence. Just like the speech of an Aboriginal woman recounting her tragic life in a language full of holes: empty spaces waiting to be filled by connecting words that are not there. The social is also full of holes: relations and people that disappear or are simply not there when they ought to be.
On a number of occasions Cowlishaw writes something like: "We went to visit so and so and she wasn’t there". Some of those who aren’t there never return, some do. Even some of her research assistants and some of her tapes disappear: one day they are there and the next not there; and even more on the wild side, sometimes they might be there. It is refreshing to read an ethnography where the people one is seeking are not necessarily there. In most anthropological accounts people somehow always manage to be around, waiting for the anthropologist to come.
Consequently, like the colonial relation itself that is there by constantly not being experienced by non-Aboriginal Australians, the above state of fragmentation and flow means that social relations are continuously in what we can call a state of escape. They are hard to catch. Commenting on the work of the well-known French philosopher Jacques Derrida, his equally famous colleague, Alain Badiou, said that Derrida had set himself the impossible task of capturing the escape of meaning: not capturing meaning as it is escaping, which is relatively easy, but capturing the very escape itself, hence the impossibility of the task.
One can say the same about Cowlishaw’s attempt to capture social relations that are constantly in a state of fragmentation, escape and flow. And it is here that the full power of her work comes into view. One feels that almost unconsciously, she adapts to her moving subject by developing a mode of writing that moves along it as it is escaping. Her work ends up coming across as an ethnography with rather than about Aboriginal people. Here method and ethics fuse. To do an ethnography about is often about "capturing" and "fixing" people in order to portray them in an understandable way. But to write an ethnography with is more than to give up on the idea of capturing. It is also to give force, to empower and to propel. It is to offer in one’s writing a mode of "accompanying", strengthening and infusing life in those one is writing about.
This is where the ethical component of Cowlishaw’s "writing with" emerges, for it seems to me as the very definition of what non-Aboriginal people should aim for in a "symbolic reconciliation" with Aboriginal people.
In Australia’s colonial history and up until today, we non-Aboriginal people have largely been to Aboriginal people like the Dementors of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. Our very presence continuously sucks the life out of them. To offer reconciliation is to offer a relation whereby we can both infuse life into each other. This is the nature of Cowlishaw’s ethical offering. This, to be clear, should not be mistaken for some kind of "optimistic" writing that idealises and provides a "positive picture" of Aboriginal society. Cowlishaw’s work is anything but that.
A while ago now I was interviewing a Lebanese youth from Western Sydney who was telling me about a fight he had with an Anglo friend. He told me indignantly that after a punch up his Anglo friend started screaming racist abuse at him, saying: "You’re fucked! Your people are fucked! And you’re fucked!" Having developed a friendly relation with the youth concerned I couldn’t help but say jokingly: "But mate, let’s face it. You are fucked. And we Lebanese are not doing so well either!" Laughing, he said to me: "That is absolutely right! But you can tell that to someone in order to destroy them, and you can say it to them to show that you care and you love them!"
Cowlishaw does not use such a flowery language, but in the way she fuses the voices of people telling their own often heartrending stories with a clinical analytical language that unrepentantly and unemotionally takes us into the heart of Aboriginal dislocation, she manages to convey a strong sense of what we might call a "critical love". It is the core of her ethical offering.
We are a long way from those who want to "celebrate" Aboriginality. But we are even more so a very long way from those who cold-heartedly and self-servingly want to convince us that there is actually no need for symbolic reconciliation and that somehow it stands in opposition to practical reconciliation. Cowlishaw is telling us that anything less than both is not good enough.
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