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Culture Crisis

Culture Crisis: Anthropology and Politics in Aboriginal Australia

Jon Altman
Melinda Hinkson
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: UNSW Press
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Culture Crisis
    Book Description:

    In 2007 the Australian Government recognised that the health, safety and education of the nation’s remote Aboriginal citizens were in a state of crisis. Its response was what became known as the Northern Territory Intervention, which sparked a heated national debate about Indigenous disadvantage and autonomy. Moreover, it caused Australian anthropologists to question the contribution of their own discipline. Anthropology has always informed and provoked policy change, and has a tradition of confirming difference. So why did the government assume that Aboriginal culture must be interrupted, reshaped and developed, in order to be successful? In Culture Crisis, some of Australia’s leading anthropologists put the ‘Culture Wars’ under the microscope, dissecting the notion of difference and asking whether this is a useful way of looking at the problems remote Indigenous Australians face. An urgently needed dialogue, this book unflinchingly confronts the policies that have failed these communities and shows how the discipline of anthropology can still provide hope.

    eISBN: 978-1-74223-226-3
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Contributors
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. A short note on terms used
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    Jon Altman and Melinda Hinkson
  6. Introduction: Anthropology and the culture wars
    (pp. 1-14)
    Melinda Hinkson

    The title of this collection,Culture Crisis, refers to a series of debates occurring simultaneously in two arenas: in public attention to the circumstances of Aboriginal people living in areas of Australia described as ‘remote’, and in scholarly disagreement among anthropologists over how we should interpret and respond to these circumstances. Over the past decade an increasingly critical public perspective on remote Aboriginal Australia has emerged that identifies a broad social situation in crisis and takes aim at the previous bipartisan policy approach of self-determination. The ‘culture wars’, as we might refer to the wide-ranging disagreements over policy directions for...


    • 1 Indigenous politics in late liberalism
      (pp. 17-31)
      Elizabeth A. Povinelli

      ‘The Crisis of Culture: Anthropology and the Politics of Engagement on Aboriginal Australia’. The title of the 2009 Australian Anthropological Society plenary initially made me back away from the invitation. In general, it is never a pretty scene when anthropologists are in a crisis about one of their flagship concepts. The cultural studies wars were bad enough. This crisis had all the earmarks of a bloodbath. I had heard rumours about acrimonious conversations on the Australia Anthropological Society email list. And from the snippets sent to me, ‘conversations’ was really the wrong word, hardly able to capture the vitriol furiously...

    • 2 National anthropologies and their problems
      (pp. 32-44)
      Jeremy Beckett

      This book’s subtitle, ‘Anthropology and politics in Aboriginal Australia’, leaves us with the question: what kind of anthropology are we talking about? Anthropology is a sufficiently long established, widespread and diverse discipline for this question to deserve an answer. I shall suggest in what follows that the anthropology fostered in European settler societies which focuses on their indigenous peoples tends to take the form of what Claudio Lomnitz has described, with Mexico mainly in mind, as ‘national anthropology’. Generalising, he writes, ‘By “national anthropologies” I mean anthropological traditions that have been fostered by educational and cultural institutions for the development...

    • 3 Helping anthropologists, still
      (pp. 45-60)
      Gillian Cowlishaw

      Twenty years ago, in an article titled, ‘Helping anthropologists’, I reflected on thesine qua nonof Australian anthropology, that we are, in some fundamental sense, helping Aborigines, and on the fact that we are, inevitably, also helping ourselves.¹ But let me stress that this is observation rather than accusation; being rewarded professionally for doing one’s work is not a matter of shame unless the work itself is shameful. I suggested further that the political effects or implications of an anthropological paradigm (such as confining the term ‘Aborigines’ to those least affected by colonial history) may be damaging, independently of...

    • 4 The politics of suffering and the politics of anthropology
      (pp. 61-88)
      Andrew Lattas and Barry Morris

      This essay begins by analysing the ideological structure of Peter Sutton’s recent bookThe Politics of Sufferingand its use of anthropology to support the federal government’s Intervention into Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory.¹ Later, the work of Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben is drawn upon to offer an alternative anthropological analysis of the Intervention as part of the incorporation of ‘culture’ into neoliberal forms of racial governance, which seek to depoliticise racial power by reframing it as part of the state’s sovereign obligation to deliver care and biosecurity. Recently, Agamben has applied Carl Schmitt’s definition of sovereignty to...


    • 5 The shock of the new: A postcolonial dilemma for Australianist anthropology
      (pp. 91-115)
      Marcia Langton

      Australian anthropologists have been debating with increasing acrimony the Emergency Intervention in the Northern Territory, with the moread hominemattacks aimed at the director of the Cape York Institute for policy and leadership, Noel Pearson,² and at fellow anthropologist Peter Sutton. Attacks on the latter follow the publication of his book,The Politics of Suffering,³ an account of, among other matters, the deep-rooted Aboriginal cultural practices that contribute to the escalating rates of alcohol and drug abuse, violence against women and children, and child neglect. Sutton’s book has drawn angry responses in large part because he refutes misconceptions and...

    • 6 Child sexual abuse: The Intervention trigger
      (pp. 116-135)
      Francesca Merlan

      The Northern Territory Intervention was declared as a national emergency in response to increasingly urgent allegations of child sexual abuse and widespread severe neglect in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. Declaration was based primarily on the Report of the Northern territory board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse (Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle, ‘Little Children are Sacred’(hereafter shortened to ‘the Report’ in this chapter).²

      Certain high-profile media events preceded and gave rise to the inquiry and its Report. In February 2006 there had been widespread national reporting³ about the gang rape and bashing death...

    • 7 Quarantining violence: How anthropology does it
      (pp. 136-150)
      Diane Austin-Broos

      Let me begin with a puzzle: What should we make of two ostensibly conflicting claims made by anthropologists about violence in remote Indigenous Australia? David Martin remarks on the discipline’s silence and writes:

      I am convinced that our … collective (anthropological) failure … has played its part in creating … sensationalized representation. … We KNEW what was happening … But in our complicity with and subtle enforcement of the code of silence, we left the space of analysis of many of the realities of Aboriginal life vacated … and it has been colonized by the likes of the journalists and...


    • 8 Re-figuring ‘Indigenous culture’
      (pp. 153-178)
      Tim Rowse

      Governments and social scientists possess a growing capacity to represent social phenomena in quantitative terms. ‘Indigenous culture’ is no exception to our willingness to measure everything.

      Here is an interesting example of the measurement of ‘culture’ leading to conclusions that governments and op-ed writers should consider. The Curtin Business School’s Alfred Michael Dockery has used official statistics to develop a numerical index that measures ‘adherence to indigenous culture’. He includes the following variables: language (main language spoken in one’s home, and whether one speaks an Indigenous language); whether one identifies with a tribal group, language group or clan; whether one...

    • 9 Is culture the problem or the solution? Outstation health and the politics of remoteness
      (pp. 179-194)
      Emma Kowal

      In the world of Australian cinema, 2009 will be remembered as the year ofSamson and Delilah, Indigenous filmmaker Warwick Thornton’s first feature. In the year after Baz Lurhmann’s much-anticipated epicAustraliaflopped,Samson and Delilahquietly soared. It has won awards around the world and has been hailed by critics as possibly the best Australian film ever made. The film depicts the harsh reality of life for Aboriginal residents of many remote communities in Central Australia. It opens in a tiny community a few hours from Alice Springs: we see a dozen houses, a shop and a rudimentary clinic,...

    • 10 Indigenous education and training: What are we here for?
      (pp. 195-211)
      Tess Lea

      In his 2009 essay on Indigenous education, theorist, reformer, lawyer and community advocate Noel Pearson opens with a cross-reference to a book by an American philosopher and psychoanalyst, Jonathan Lear.² Using historical texts, Lear had imaginatively inserted himself into an ethical encounter with Chief Plenty Coups, the great leader of the Crow nation, who helped his people adjust to a new way of life as sedentarism and the encroachments of settlement took hold of the Crow’s ancestral way of being. From the plains of Montana we shift to the famous Australian anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner, who did not have to imagine...

    • 11 ‘Only whitefella take that road’: Culture seen through the intervention at Yuendumu
      (pp. 212-226)
      Yasmine Musharbash

      This essay is based on my experiences of the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) Intervention at Yuendumu, a Warlpiri community, in particular, and on observations from spending time more widely in Central Australia since the Intervention. I was in Yuendumu on 21 June 2007, when the NTER, or, as it is called at Yuendumu, ‘the Intervention’ was first announced. At the time, I was undertaking research into metaphors of Warlpiri fears, expressed in stories I collected like the one aboutkurdaitchadriving black Toyotas and staying at Lake Sarah Hotel in Alice Springs. A year or so into the Intervention,...


    • 12 Media images and the politics of hope
      (pp. 229-247)
      Melinda Hinkson

      Historically Australians have tended to imagine remote living Aboriginal people via two broad types of representation. The first pictures cultural difference in positive terms – hunter-gatherers with robust ceremonial and artistic traditions, who speak distinct languages and live off the land. The second views cultural difference negatively – it sees repugnant and savage practices, anti-modern tendencies, impoverished social outcasts. Both sets of stereotypes assert and assume remote Aboriginal people’s separation from wider Australia. While both have co-existed across the history of the nation, by and large it is the case that one kind of image has dominated in any particular era and...

    • 13 Other people’s lives: Secular assimilation, culture and ungovernability
      (pp. 248-258)
      Nicolas Peterson

      There has been criticism, both within the discipline and in public forums of anthropologists, for not having spoken out more strongly and clearly about the Northern Territory Intervention. Many academics in cognate disciplines, and members of the general public, have been surprised and, indeed, even mystified by this silence. It is made more puzzling because anthropology as a discipline has historically demonstrated widely recognised, useful and distinctive insights into contemporary Aboriginal social life, present socioeconomic conditions, their origins and their regional variation. There have been some exceptions to this silence but usually the pronouncements have been only partial solutions, formulated...

    • 14 What future for remote Indigenous Australia? Economic hybridity and the neoliberal turn
      (pp. 259-280)
      Jon Altman

      I want to begin with three vignettes from recent work with Aboriginal people that move from the corridors of power in Parliament House, Canberra, to remote Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory.

      Vignette 1: On 8 September 2009 I was in a committee room in Parliament House in Canberra accompanying a delegation of Yolngu and Bininj from western and eastern Arnhem Land. They were passionately pleading with development bureaucrats and ministerial advisers for policies that were more supportive of homelands and outstations, and in particular for the reinstatement of a community development program called the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP)....

  11. Index
    (pp. 281-288)