The year 2006, which marked the tenth anniversary of John Howard’s Coalition Government, was peculiarly bracketed by two interrelated sets of events (and corresponding media flurries) both problematising the symbolism of the national flag: the Cronulla riots of December 2005, and the nation-wide debate in the media over the ‘banning’ of the Australian flag at the hugely popular travelling music festival Big Day Out. The year between these two events saw cracks appear in the Coalition government’s confidence, with continuing protest at its industrial relations reforms, its refugee policies and its refusal to bring David Hicks home. The on-going drought and national water crisis forced the government into an about turn on its policy on climate change, though its subsequent valorisation of nuclear power elicited a new wave of public outcry. In a year that ended with Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard’s dramatic charge on the Australian Labor Party leadership, and with the Government on the back foot, it is reasonable to suggest that Prime Minister John Howard might be cautious at the prospect of the Federal elections at the end of 2007.
These political shifts, social conflicts and cultural contestations of 2006 are symbolised by the following two stories involving the flag. In December 2005, the Australian public was mortified as the Cronulla Riots in Sydney grabbed international headlines. Exposing the myth of the ‘lucky country’, land of the ‘fair go’, the Australian public was confronted with the spectre of racism in the form of Anti-Muslim, Anti-Middle Eastern rioting that reopened simmering racial tension in Sydney’s West following the Bankstown Gang Rapes in 2001 and reignited national debates on the ‘failure’ of multiculturalism. This rhetoric has been used by the Right to deny entry to asylum seekers and anti-war activists, and to force into law a raft of draconian ‘Anti-Terror’ legislation, with almost Byzantine ‘sedition’ clauses. The flag-waving, southern-cross tattooed white supremacists of Cronulla have perhaps re-signified the national flag, leaving an almost indelible mark of racism on this national symbol.
This new signification of racism was underlined in the national controversy that erupted when the organisers of the Big Day Out, fearing thuggery, requested patrons not to bring the Australian flag to the festival. Both the leader of the opposition and the Prime Minister united to ‘condemn … the organisers … for asking people not to bring the Australian flag to the Sydney concert’. The organisers rapidly backed down but not before a storm of media debate around the signification of this quintessential national symbol had been elicited.
We propose that, in these stories, the Australian national flag has become the surface upon which the battle is being staged to contain and control the Other in an ongoing contestation of the meaning of ‘Australian-ness’. It is because ‘Australian-ness’ is under scrutiny as a fractured and fraught notion, that the national flag no longer simply and unproblematically signifies a unitary concept. This issue of New Talents focuses on the power of the (often phantasmal) Other to deconstruct narratives of nation, home and selfhood.
It is a principle of existence (and not a peculiarity of a select group of culturally specific modes of belonging) that we would preserve the other’s unique sense by building a meaningful world in which it would better survive rather than negating or killing it off.
Uses of the Other in politics are rarely intended to have a negligible effect. Before Australia’s federal government could back US led ‘pre-emptive strikes against strangers’ in other lands and exclude foreigners in leaky boats from ever reaching our ‘nation’s blurry edges’, a re-imagining of the Other needed to be sufficiently underway to curb voter backlash during the late 2001 Federal elections, and to foreclose potential public outcry in the future. Both new and very well-worn national myths about the Other were trotted out in a litany of alarmism: ‘inhumane’, ‘children overboard’, ‘economic refugees’, ‘queue-jumpers’, ‘a just war’, ‘war on terror’, ‘if you want a Taliban for a neighbour, vote Labor’, ‘a pipeline for terrorists’. Being ‘alert but not alarmed’, the threshold of personal responsibility that the Australian public might otherwise have felt towards those who had been politically persecuted and those who had lived under oppressive regimes was lowered by politicians. No longer welcomed as intimate strangers, the Other represented dangers that could ‘come home’.
Like effigies of undesirable community values, the Other was made by persons in power to bear ‘all those moral, racial, sexual … characteristics one would exclude from oneself or from one’s community’. Thus abjected, the Other was essentialised as ‘un-Australian’ – that elastic catch phrase of sedimented, nationalist rhetoric which readily elicits a shared sense of defilement. The language used might collectively be called a ‘strategic redeployment of a traditional “us” and “them” dichotomy’ (though, to adopt a more radical reading, it might be suggested Australia was caught up in a wider ‘US’ and ‘them’ dichotomy). In a move that exploited xenophobic tendencies underlying the notion of ‘un-Australian’, it was claimed that the refugee could threaten the modern Australian city. Within a highly-charged atmosphere, mainstream meanings of ‘the refugee’ were re-shaped as the nomad, the barbarian, the unwanted body from the periphery. In this way, ‘sentiments that had existed under the surface acquired a tangible form’, crystallising latent nationwide anxiety and fear.
It was also represented two Western urban centres sharing our ‘way of life’ had been attacked by this monolithic Other. It was argued that our own densely-populated urban spaces, which are filled daily with the traffick of ‘ordinary Australians’ exercising somewhat diffusely defined ‘Australian values’ via civilised, energetic, family-orientated and hardworking endeavours, should be protected from potential similar atrocities. Such a view is committed, perhaps, to maintaining lifestyles and modes of consumption rather than communities and ethics, and though the links made between the ‘subjective perception and the actuality of danger’ served only to highlight Australia’s subordinated status to other urban centres in the world, from this point onwards the Other would become increasingly associated with some ‘undefinable [sic] quality of danger’, particularly when matched up with quite specific racial, ethnic or religious attributes.
So in Australia we read the newspapers and were advised by our broadcast media that we wanted so much to see the installation of democratic governance in some Other Middle Eastern territories that we were prepared to provide military support in a ‘long drawn-out’ war ‘that could take … decades’. Indeed, one needs only to tune into contemporary commercial television programmes to see how deeply embedded this containing response to the Other has become in the Western imagination, where the Other is routinised as a locus of suspicion via shows such as NCIS, Threat Matrix (with ‘stories ripped from the headlines’), 24 and, more locally, Border Patrol. The leap then (as now) to a perpetual distant conflict with an evil Other has been in some sense legitimised and mobilised by programmes like these.
Yet, surprisingly, ‘relaxed and comfortable’ in our lounge chairs that the threat represented by the Other was being contained ‘somewhere else a safe distance over the horizon’, we did not seem to be too worried that the nation was becoming weighed down with values which had the power to turn people against each other. At their most extreme, these values have found expression in violent outbursts over racially or religiously essentialised differences, and there has slowly appeared, it would seem, a ‘glaring contradiction between the egalitarian, humanitarian, democratic … values said to hold this community together, and the means [it continues to advocate] … for protecting these values’.
Other Contact Zones challenges this contradiction of a lucky country sustained by processes of forgetting and, even more importantly, the processes of silencing. The only contradiction that Australia as a country should cherish and preserve is the contradiction embedded in the antithetical landscape – the vast mythopoetic space inscribed with the sense of cultural belonging – the place we call or would like to call home. The only silence Australia should welcome is the silence of the bush. But the silence that Australia should not tolerate is the silence of politically manipulated discourse which has crystallised to the point where much of the outside world (for the outside world does observe Australia) sees this country as tucked snugly into a comfortably affluent world of sunbathing, surfing, barbies, footy and white picket fences around one-acre blocks. Insiders might observe that our fences are getting taller and our pickets are getting sharper.
Hence, the critical journey proposed by young scholars from within and without the sunburnt country is one triggered by the construction and acknowledgment of responsibility towards the Other. Levinasian ethics applied to a scenario where the immediate physical presence of another human asks us to account for our enjoyment of life, lies at the heart of Angela Hirst’s essay ‘Avoiding Guilt in City Space: The Story of Levinas in My Life’. This is followed by a series of papers exploring mechanisms of responsibility and avoidance, with a particular emphasis on the politics of gender representation. In the paper ‘Reading the Convict Body: “Deviant” Sex and the Medical Gaze in Colonial Australia’, Catie Gilchrist exposes mechanisms for disciplining the male convict body centred around the notion that the signs of sexual deviances are written on the criminal body. The topic of constructing masculinities in Australian culture is also treated by Kathryn James’s paper ‘ANZACs Bushrangers and Convicts: An ABC of Dead Heroes in Contemporary Historical Fiction for Australian Adolescents’, in which the author traces and deconstructs the ‘acceptable’ notion of male honour, bravery and altruism in Australian contemporary historical fiction for adolescents. A corresponding issue – the invention of the white woman as an object of fantasy in captivity narratives of early colonial Australia – is exposed by Kate Foord in the article ‘Still Seeing the Captive White Woman: The Necessity of White Deprivation in Australia’.
Still in the field of questioning acceptable representations of gender, Elaine Rabbitt’s article ‘Isolation: A State of Mind’ focuses on the women of the unique community of Broome and the ways in which they contest and create multicultural senses of belonging. The ‘socially acceptable’ presentation of women in the modern corporate world is critically analysed by Geraldine Neal in ‘Madonnas, Seductresses, Pets and Iron Maidens: Are Lawyers Managing Badly?’, in which the author warns us of lingering patriarchal stereotypes in corporate cultures. Another paper focusing primarily on the notion of womanhood is ‘Experimenting with Change: Experiences of Miscarriage, Stillbirth and Neonatal Death in Australia in the 1980s’, by Susannah Thompson. She investigates the other side of the ideal of pregnancy and childbirth as satisfying and fulfilling events in Australian women’s lives by considering changing paradigms of stillbirth or neonatal death.
The next group of papers questions established concepts and policies regarding other Australians by exposing the complexities of identity construction in the face of mechanisms of silence and misrecognition. Jessie Mitchell’s paper ‘The Social and Spiritual Impact of Disease on the First Aboriginal Missions and Protectorate Stations in NSW and Port Phillip Between 1825 to 1850’ discusses intersections between missionary expertise, Aboriginal agency and colonial struggles within the history of illness in order to show to what extent sickness shaped the nineteenth century material and cultural relations between Aboriginal people and missionaries. Amanda Kearney’s, ‘Place Spirit and Intangible Cultural Heritage in a Contested Land’, explicates a rarely analysed topic of intangible cultural heritage, the mechanism which, if adopted by the Australian Government, would enable Aboriginal peoples to prove their continuous connection to the land more easily. In ‘Looking “Blak” in Anger: The Re-interpretation of Australian Colonial and Recent History: Indigenous Australian Photographic Art in Intercultural Contact Zones’, Elisabeth Gigler analyses photographs by Indigenous artist Destiny Deacon to show the potential of Indigenous artworks in creating intercultural dialogues. Exploring the role of photographic presentation in constituting cultural identity is also the topos of Marita Bullock’s ‘China China: Autoethnography and Ah Xian’s Porcelain Forms’ to which this issue of New Talents owes its cover. Bullock engages Xian’s porcelain busts to defamiliarise the basis of Western ethnography used for Orientalising the Other. The ambiguity of evading the space of the Other is also problematised in Hamish Morgan’s ‘Representation, the Photograph and the Performativity of the Pose, or, How to Try and Write About Living in an Aboriginal Community’ in which the author challenges the photographic capturing of Western selves within Aboriginal space. Othering the acceptable notion of the picturesque when applied to the Other landscape forms the focus of Jane Davis’s ‘Colonists in Southern Western Australia and the Picturesque: A Mode of Viewing or a Political Tool?’. Davis argues that the early colonial appropriation of the picturesque was an aesthetic and phenomenological, rather than colonial, reaction to the new landscape.
The paper ‘Are They Hitting the Target? Climate Change Messages and Strategies by Australian NGOs’, by Nina Lansbury Hall and Cassandra Star, changes the theme from the politics of representation to the politics of the environment. By examining climate change campaigns conducted by NGOs, the authors warn that social and policy change which do not follow agenda can only be achieved by strengthening the legitimacy of such organisations on the national level. In the same vein, Kristen Henderson’s ‘Water Myths and Water Reforms’ warns about the impact of persistent myths that water in Australia can be manipulated at will in contemporary political moves to manage water. Changing to the theme of political praxis, Andrew Herd’s ‘Devaluing Refugees and Refugee Activists’ lays bare the double standards of the government’s measures against asylum seekers which precipitate continuous public outcry and reactions from activist groups. Keeping the focus on activism, Eugene Sebastian’s paper ‘Protest from the Fringe: Opposing Australia’s Education and Reform’ reveals how a group of international students located outside the framework of citizenry managed to influence public policy from a supposedly disempowered position.
Nicole Asquith’s ‘Contemporary Australian Vilification Law and Non-State based Intervention in Hate Speech’ interrogates the breach of freedom revealed in everyday discourse, and calls for an authorised redistribution of linguistic justice to include marginalised subjects. Louise Curtis’s paper, ‘A Case for Suppression: An Examination of WWI Censorship Reportage on the Russian Workers Association’ discusses the misrepresentation and censoring of the Russian Worker’s Association during the first world war in Australia. Misrepresentation and over-reading are also the focal points of Elissa Goodrich’s ‘The Liminal-Norm? A Critique of Recent News Media Responses to Australian Theatre’ in which the author draws attention to mainstream media responses to contemporary Australian theatre which devalue its potential for expressing new ideas and values.
The issue closes with John Power’s ‘Unsolicited Manuscripts Unwelcome: The Commercial Implications’, which explores the consequences of the policy of large publishing houses in Australia declining to view unsolicited works of fiction from previously unpublished authors. According to Power, this policy not only wantonly neglects local talent, but could cost established publishing houses significant market share in the future.
New Talents 21 2006 is proud to present the work of emerging authors and early career researchers. We hope that the stereotypical view of anodyne Australia as presented by its politicians to the outside world is challenged by this often daring and always intellectually rigorous selection of work by young Australian intellectuals flying the flag of critical academic engagement.
EXTRACT: Ensor, J & Polak, I & Van Der Merwe, P (eds) 2007, ‘Introduction’, Other Contact Zones, Curtin University of Technology, Perth, 269pp.