the Mvet epic to illustrate
how themes that preoccupied colonial-era ethnographers for a century
have been appropriated and reconfigured in Fang autoethnography. The
goal is to illustrate how, in specific ways, colonialanthropology
has both inherited and constructed its object over time.
While all four ethnographers examined here both contended
with and contributed to the
Translations is a personal history written at the intersection of colonial anthropology, creative practice and migrant ethnography. Renowned postcolonial scholar, public artist and radio maker, UK-born Paul Carter documents and discusses a prodigiously varied and original trajectory of writing, sound installation and public space dramaturgy produced in Australia to present the phenomenon of contemporary migration in an entirely new light. Rejecting linear conceptualisations of migrant space–time, Carter describes a distinctively migrant psychic topology, turbulent, vortical and opportunistic. He shows that the experience of self-becoming at that place mediated through a creative practice that places the enigma of communication at the heart of its praxis produces a coherent critique of colonial regimes still dominant in discourses of belonging. One expression of this is a radical reappraisal of the ‘mirror state’ relationship between England and Australia, whose structurally symmetrical histories of land theft and internal colonisation repress the appearance of new subjects and subject relations. Another is to embrace the precarity of the stranger–host relationship shaping migrant destiny, to break down art’s aesthetic conventions and elide creative practice with the poetics (and politics) of social production – what Carter calls ‘dirty art’. Carter tackles the argument that immigrants to Australia recapitulate the original invasion. Reflecting on collaborations with Aboriginal artists, he frames an argument for navigating incommensurable realities that profoundly reframes the discourse on sovereignty. Translations is a passionately eloquent argument for reframing borders as crossing-places: framing less murderous exchange rates, symbolic literacy, creative courage and, above all, the emergence of a resilient migrant poetics will be essential.
If migration recapitulates colonisation, migrants live like the rest of white Australia in a dream world where Aboriginal sovereignty is denied: across the divide of incommensurable realities, belonging is ethically impossible. Learning how to belong involves a critical reinterpretation of colonial anthropology (and its non-relations). It demands a creative migrant ethnography able to embrace coming from elsewhere as the foundation of arrival. But it also requires a symbolic literacy, a capacity to think relationally, to communicate mythopoetically (through constantly reinvented stories able to navigate turbulent counter-realities and find in them the common ground of mutual recognition). To illustrate these points, I introduce another personal story. It concerns the multiple meanings ascribed to a ‘dragon’ figure during the implementation of a ‘creative template’ in Western Australia. The cross-cultural ‘passages’ opened in this metaphorical exchange are compared to the opening in public space created by the public artwork Passenger at Yagan Square, Perth.
This is a personal history of the intersection of colonial anthropology, creative practice and migrant ethnography. By way of setting the scene, I refer to Vincenzo Volentieri, a hoax ‘genius’ I invented for the 200th anniversary of Australia’s white colonisation: Volentieri is a parody of migrant precarity and creative resourcefulness, uniting mishearing, mimicry, multiple role-play and a constitutional reluctance to settle down (and in) to suggest a new world concealed inside appearances. It is an easy-to-read introduction to the experience that lies behind the creative encounters discussed in Translations. After a non-allegorical summary of the following chapters, two contrasting mythological frames are presented: a creation narrative told by Kulin Nations of the Melbourne region; a re-interpretation of Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy. The conjunction of stories from different cultural matrices typifies the self-division/self-doubling nature of migrant place-finding and storytelling: both have in common the idea of the journey as a continuous, ever unfinished, creative translation.
The ’native informant’ is an essential figure in colonial anthropology. My radio work The Native Informant gives a migrant twist to this ideal translator, showing, in a different context, that she or he is a projection of the host’s narcissism. In a number of high-profile art commissions, I have been cast as ‘native informant’ to the Australian public. My poetic responses restage the enigma of communication where the parties have nothing in common, deriving from the culture of guesswork a migrant poetics. James Dawson, whose 1881 publication Australian Aborigines, is rich evidence of this differential power politics (and perhaps incommensurable expectations) in action, is introduced. As a colonial ethnographer and linguist, Dawson is unusual in laying bare the dialogical dynamics of language-getting. He establishes what every migrant also finds, that improvising rules of communication precedes any intellectual exchange: externalising the desire of communication exposes fundamental presuppositions about the other and the enigma of mutual encounter opens up the possibility of a new poetics able to escape the native informant double-bind.
development of those places,
such as the privileged areas where Mapuche women have worked as
nannies and housekeepers for decades. To do this, we used history,
cartography and performance. We reproduced part of the
anthropological photographic collection of Mapuche in Santiago;
unmasking it, we tried to penetrate the violence of anonymity so
typical of colonialanthropology. We also made maps with fabrics and
remains of various items of clothing as well as collages of images
of the city. We discussed poetry and
held some element of empirical reality. David Omissi supports this by
highlighting the ‘customs and self-image of Indian communities who
had a martial tradition quite independent of the colonial
encounter’. 35 In many instances, the people documented in
colonial, anthropological and military surveys believed in their own
martiality, having been personally involved in combat or had that group
ethnographers. Thus, one shift that can be discerned is a critique
of the elementary aspects of colonialanthropology that had earlier located
caste in Indian society as something ‘traditional’, as opposed to the ‘modern’
world of Europe. Seen from this perspective, caste had been essentialised as a
given fact that was static and a part of an imagined, unchanging Indian reality.
Consequently, historicising caste has been a serious project that has led to
unravelling the shifts, changes and the interactions generated.8 Thus, ideas
about caste were not carried in suitcases from
and changeable synthesis/
anti-synthesis of renewable pre-colonial and colonial legacies.6 With
such assimilation and hybridity potentially come acquiescence or
resistance to state power, or indeed both, in specific sociopolitical
Given Bayart’s stress on the longue durée, it would be mistaken
to read into his argument the implication that political hybridity is
distinctively postcolonial. This false contrast between the colonialAnthropology and the postcolonial
and the postcolonial is rejected by most anthropologists who prefer
to accept Bayart
Anthropology after Gluckman places the intimate circle around Max Gluckman, his Manchester School, in the vanguard of modern social anthropology. The book discloses the School’s intense, argument-rich collaborations, developing beyond an original focus in south and central Africa. Where outsiders have seen dominating leadership by Gluckman, a common stock of problems, and much about conflict, Richard Werbner highlights how insiders were drawn to explore many new frontiers in fieldwork and in-depth, reflexive ethnography, because they themselves, in class and gender, ethnicity and national origins, were remarkably inclusive. Characteristically different anthropologists, their careers met the challenges of being a public intellectual, an international celebrity, an institutional good citizen, a social and political activist, an advocate of legal justice. Their living legacies are shown, for the first time, through interlinked social biography and intellectual history to reach broadly across politics, law, ritual, semiotics, development studies, comparative urbanism, social network analysis and mathematical sociology. Innovation – in research methods and techniques, in documenting people’s changing praxis and social relations, in comparative analysis and a destabilizing strategy of re-analysis within ethnography – became the School’s hallmark. Much of this exploration confronted troubling times in Africa, colonial and postcolonial, which put the anthropologists and their anthropological knowledge at risk. The resurgence of debate about decolonization makes the accounts of fierce, End of Empire argument and recent postcolonial anthropology all the more topical. The lessons, even in activism, for social scientists, teachers as well as graduate and undergraduate students are compelling for our own troubled times.