24 September 2010

The State, Anthropology, and the Recolonization of Australia's Aboriginals

Embedded Anthropology and the Intervention,” in the September 2010 issue of Arena, is an important article by Barry Morris and Andrew Lattas “on cultural determinism and neo-liberal forms of racial governance,” in broad terms (thanks to Uriohau for this excellent recommendation). The article focuses on what was effectively a new colonization of Australia’s Northern Territory, the militarization of Aboriginal policy, and a liberal interventionist doctrine that exploited fears of pedophilia. As Morris and Lattas point out, few of the measures taken had anything to do with pedophilia—the measures imposed included:
“the appointment of managers to oversee seventy-three prescribed communities; additional restrictions on alcohol and kava; quarantining of a proportion of welfare income; the introduction of an electronic card to monitor and restrict everyday purchases to licensed stores; suspension of the need for permits for entry to prescribed Indigenous areas; the abolition of the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP); the compulsory acquisition of townships through five year leases; and the removal of traditional cultural considerations from judicial-criminal proceedings.”
Morris and Lattas rightly argue that this project is about racial governance, aiming at disciplining and assimilating Aboriginal communities, and attacking indigenous self-determination by denying that Aboriginals have the ability to self-govern. However, what is also critical about their article is the focus on anthropologists serving the state in this effort:
“Some anthropologists have actively embraced the public limelight to articulate cultural determinist arguments which criticize both customary and contemporary Indigenous culture as the true, hidden source of Indigenous problems. Whereas culture, especially ‘traditional’ culture, was previously seen as the salvation of Indigenous remote communities, the focus now is on uncovering and eliminating the dysfunctional aspects of Indigenous culture. Under the Intervention, the rise of cultural determinist arguments has operated as a form of psychological reductionism that allows for the internalisation of moral fault. Cultural determinism has worked to relocate the internalised sources of racial dysfunctionality from the realm of inherited biology to the realm of inherited culture. In terms of the history of anthropology, this is paradoxical for cultural analyses were once embraced and used to escape the reductionisms of biology and psychoanalysis, which posited their own internalised forms of dysfunctionality.”
The authors specifically criticize anthropology professors Peter Sutton (resident in my department at the time I was doing my PhD) and Francesca Merlan. As with the Human Terrain System, vast areas of anthropological knowledge have been dismissed, in favour of a revival of the colonizers’ theory of choice: functionalism. Morris and Lattas explain how the realignment of academics with state interests has taken place in Australia, in what should be a warning (or reminder) to the rest of us.
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