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Non-fiction review: Culture Crisis: Anthropology and Politics in Aboriginal Australia

' Culture Crisis: Anthropology and Politics in Aboriginal Australia'Culture Crisis: Anthropology and Politics in Aboriginal Australia
Jon Altman and Melinda Hinkson (eds)
UNSW Press

Labelling something to be ‘in crisis’ can be a fraught activity; when the motivation is to create a rethinking of the issue at hand, it often leads to bandaid solutions to quickly fix the crisis. In this collection of essays, Altman and Hinkson have chosen this approach – divided into four parts: the problem of recognition, the problem of violence, counting culture, imagining futures – to bring many of the discussions that have been taking place among Australian anthropologists to a wider audience. It’s a job well done.

The problem of recognition begins with Elizabeth A. Povinelli discussing how culture has transformed under late liberalism/neoliberalism from arguments of difference to arguments of care. The Intervention is one form of this argument, where to critique the announced policy was ‘to not care about the children’. She argues that this shift to care fits alongside new attempts to create the good day in Indigenous communities: a day which will never happen because ‘late liberalism never allows the present to occur. The good day never comes. It s only a near event, or a tardy event – never in the moment; a manner of being always in lag time and distended; delayed and deferred.’

Jeremy Beckett’s essay outlines the history of Australian anthropology starting with the early, state-based research, moving onto Stanner and then towards the modern day. It arcs a movement from government-based work to work independent of government and now, a little worringly, a return to the government sector. It’s an essay that provides background to the Gillian Cowlishaw exploration of ‘the role of the helping anthropologists’. She writes of the role in which anthropologists can help communities: ‘instead of trying to explain Aboriginal people to the state, we need to understand the social engineering the state is involved in, and our own part it.’

‘The problem of recognition’ ends with an essay by Andrew Lattas and Barry Morris exploring the connections with Peter Sutton’s The Politics of Suffering. Having not read the book, it’s hard to engage in the textual critiques of the book although it does make some interesting points regarding the shift in focus from the collective to a more individualistic approach, as exemplified by neoliberalism.

The problem of violence begins with an essay by Marcia Langton on the shock of the new. Langton makes an interesting argument about anthropology’s failure to account for the changes over the last 30 years or so in Aboriginal communities. This failure, she contends, is that it doesn’t fit into the role of the anthropologist of documenting traditional culture and assisting in native claims. It’s a contentious point on several levels, when you consider some of the work that comes out of ANU and CAPER, but one with a certain validity.

The book then goes onto an essay by Francis Merlan on the problems surrounding child abuse figures. Using the Little Children are Sacred report, the impetus for the Intervention, Merlan argues for the need for more community engagement in dealing with the issue of child abuse in communities.

This is followed by an essay by Diane Austin-Broos on how anthropology quarantines violence from the wider society. This, she says, is down to a failure to account for some existing violence, and a focus on holism and consultancy, the latter being the native title. This is not to underplay the fact that violence exists, or that there is not a personal component to it, just that anthropology has overlooked some components that need more focus.

Counting culture starts off with Tim Rowse taking a look at the statistical conditions of social exclusion. Through maps and statistical analysis he argues for a rethinking of the parameters and markers in which comparisons are made. Instead of Indigenous people being compared broadly across the whole to non-Indigenous people, Rowse argues for a region-by-region comparison.

From this, we move on to essays by Emma Kowal and Tess Lea on Outstation Health and Training. Using Samson and Deliah as well as personal stories and experiences as examples, Kowal looks at the white anti-racist emphasis on outstation health as a new form of Orientalism: seeing the Other through the sphere of fears and desires. Lea’s essay looks at the difficulty of education, and the complicated nature of non-educationalist perspectives, noting the difficulties of change occurring in this field.

The final essay in this section works with the front and back roads between Yuendumu and Wari Wari (Yulemula) as a metaphor, painting a picture of a policy that has not worked. Yasmine Musharbash recounts witnessing the GBM and other Government workers in Yuendumu not even bothering to leave their compounds to engage with the community. She writes:

For the NT Emergency Response to be anything less than a disaster, it would have needed to be conceptualised, planned and co-designed as a road travelled together- something the Howard government never envisioned and the Rudd Government grandly missed.

Imagining futures is, I guess, the solution. Melinda Hinkson looks at they way in which the Walpiri community of Yuendumu portrays itself through mainstream media. She does this by closely examining the special on Remote voices in Australia. She analyses the ways in which the Warlpiri self present, and consider the ease in which they shift from the first person to the collective, and how this emphasises their complex nature to community, country and language.

The following essay, by Nicholas Peterson, addresses the charge of silence laid on anthropologists post Intervention. Peterson sees this as an illustration of the complex nature of commenting on policy that have such impact on the personal lives of individuals. He contends that this part of the policy makes it difficult to be objective. He backs this claim by referring to Raymond Williams’s comments on culture as being difficult to define as a case in point.

The final essay is by Jon Altman on his Economic Hybridity model, and focuses on some of the ranger work in Indigenous Protected Areas. For those not aware, Altman hybridity theory argues for a reevaluation of how remote communities are economically assessed. Forgoing the dichotomy of viable/unviable, Altman argues for a new approach which looks at work on a social and cultural means, which ranger work exemplifies. It helps the state in its tracking of animals and custom work it performs; it helps the commercial sector in protecting livelihood; culturally, it means that people are being paid to look after country and meet kinship relations.

Altman sees this as a new approach that breaks from the state project, the aim of which:

is to homogenise communities and discourage small dispersed settlements and mobile population that are hard and expensive to govern. Such small dispersed communities do provide opportunity for alternative lifeworlds and livelihoods. But the state looks to eliminate non-state spaces and to meet the labour and resource needs of mature capitalism, especially in labour power poor and mining-dependent situations as in Australia.

Altman goes onto say: ‘The challenge we all face as anthropologists is getting beyond the dominance of discourse that focuses only on capitalist economy and statistics so we can reintegrate people and different cultural systems into our analyses and interpretations.’

So, after reading, is the call of crisis going to bring forward any agreed upon solutions? It’s hard to say. What this selection shows is that Australian anthropology is emerging into a more public debate, something that can only make anthropology more relevant, something Cowlishaw demands. It’s a debate certainly worth following.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Scott Foyster lives in Mpartnwe/Alice Springs where he writes and collects stories to share. He is one of the editors of Wai, an independent quarterly national newspaper on social jusice and environmental issues around the country/region, and is also one half of Black Kite Press, an independent press that is currently working on it's first publication.

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