Thinking Race and Identity (Conference Review)
University of New South Wales, Sydney 31 July 2004
Danny Butt <firstname.lastname@example.org>
This conference was billed as “a forum for people interested or working in the area of contemporary French philosophy to discuss concepts of race and identity”, and despite not having any particular interest in French philosophy I had a great time and learnt a lot. Fanon had been creeping up my “must revisit” list recently so this conference seemed like a good opportunity to move toward that. Particular congratulations should go to the organisers – Danielle Davis (UNSW), Joshua Mullan (Macquarie) and Mark O’Neill (UNSW), all philosophy postgrads, for a programme that brought in a much more diverse audience (60ish? people) than you’d expect from a French philosophy conference! Undoubtedly the cheap registration (esp for unwaged people) was another contributing factor. These notes are a mixture of notes made during the day and reflections on some of the speakers/issues and are likely to contain many inaccuracies, so I’d appreciate any corrections / responses and you should take these representations with plenty of salt. Also apologies to anyone whose work I misrepresent here!
The day began with Marcia Langton and this was the second time I’ve heard her speak, and once again she would have to rate among my favourite conference speakers, with a passionate mixture of policy analysis, what I would call pragmatic theoretical reflection (though Langton prefaced this talk with “I’m not going to talk about theory”), historiography and personal experience. One of the most useful themes I find in Langton’s work is the consistent move away from abstractions in Aboriginal issues and through to specific situations, highlighting the experiential aspects of identity and reformulating many issues as simply about the white left’s lack of preparedness to engage with indigenous people’s experiences. However, these experiences are always located in the particular historical construction of the fundamentally (and constitutionally) racist Australian nation-state. One particular story I found enlightening was her linking of the legal status of Aboriginal people at Australian Federation to the distribution of Federal government financial support between Eastern and Western Australia. If Aboriginal people had been counted as citizens, South Australia and Western Australia would have had to be given more money than the eastern centres of colonial occupation. Couldn’t have that! Langton was also consistent in her linking of contemporary indigenous experience to larger media power dynamics, describing Redfern as “the Iraq in your backyard”, one whose day-to-day reality is mediated and marketed by the white media as a symbol for race relations, and so anything which doesn’t fit the story gets thrown out. Prof Langton is one of the real treasures of Australian public life and I’d encourage anyone interested in contemporary Australian issues and/or colonisation to hear her speak.
The next session was over to French philosophy. Danielle Davis began with a discussion of the black body as performed in the recent death of Redfern teenager TJ Hickey as he was chased by police. Drawing from Fanon and Merlau-Ponty, Davis outlined the various kinds of relations possible between white and black bodies, placed TJ’s pursuit in the context of a larger history/paradigm of black pursuit by white cops, and argued for a reformulation of these relationships that (I think?) rested on a way of physically relating in terms of openness, a turning toward, an acceptance of being in the same physical space in a mutually productive way. It reminded me of a great piece of stand-up from one of the Original Kings of Comedy, about the way white people move when they “walk along the street catch a bit of blackness in their periphery… They’re walking along nervously, I move to the left to walk by but the guy’s also moved to the left to try and let me pass on the right, so I change tack but he’s freaked out and quickly darts to the right blocking my way again… so in the end I had to rob him.” A suggestive paper even if I was a little troubled at the use of what is obviously a tragic and still-raw situation in service of a slightly abstracted discussion of bodily relations. Then again I don’t work in philosophy so maybe that’s just the nature of the discipline. The feeling was clarified by a question from the floor that asked whether Hickey’s distance from his own people’s support networks (my understanding was that few if any of his extended family lived in Redfern) may have played a role in his vulnerable position with the police. That seemed like a very clear question to ask from an Aboriginal cultural viewpoint that Davis did not seem to be able to account for within the framework proposed in her paper.
The other two papers in this panel were from white philosophers, and both of them were useful for exemplifying in different ways the perils of applying European academic speaking positions in relation to indigenous issues. Ros Diprose (UNSW) gave a reading of a passage from Ivan Sen’s excellent film “Beneath Clouds” [the scene where the older Aboriginal woman asks the white-identifying but possibly Aboriginal Lena "Where your people from girl?"] to discuss the importance of a place-bound model of community for Australia. Jean-Phillipe Deranty (Macquarie) gave a reading of “Blacklines – contemporary critical theory by Indigenous Australians”, in which he proposed to” give up a position of power” and relate what he’d learnt from this book as a French philosopher.
I’ve recently discussed elsewhere the usefulness of Spivak’s suggestion that “who speaks is less important than who will listen”, and the immediate consequence of that question in terms of this audience who were present is “what do these presentations offer an Indigenous audience”? Not much judging by the response from the floor, where questions emerged about the usefulness of a generic discussion of “community” for Aboriginal peoples, given their highly complex and culturally specific ways of managing relationships. Both speakers were careful to situate their papers in the non-indigenous space, but at this stage I’m just about ready to put the statement “I’m not speaking for Aboriginal people” in roughly the same category as “Some of my best friends are…” You know it’s going to be followed by some kind of generalisation that the speaker feels the need to qualify, and is therefore likely to be dodgy. Diprose and Deranty’s papers weren’t “bad”, and may have passed without comment at the usual white-dominated humanities conferences, but if we’re looking for some practical reconciliation I think it has to happen in our methods of communication more than the content we choose to study – i.e. we need to get past the space where white people talk to each other about Aboriginal issues using European theoretical terminology that excludes Aboriginal conceptions of the same phenomena.
A notable methodological contrast could be seen in the paper by Faye Brinsmead, a legal scholar who, without any performed anxieties around representation, gave a detailed and practical re-evaluation of the judgement by Justice Blackburn in 1971 that asserted that indigenous people have no property rights. Brinsmead’s contention – if I recall correctly – was that while Blackburn’s conclusion was decried as racist, the judgement itself contains a wide survey of commonwealth approaches to indigenous property rights, and performs an unintentional deconstruction of legal approaches to indigenous ownership that posits a “right of occupancy” rather than a “freehold property right.” If this occupancy-based approach was elaborated upon it could have far-reaching consequences that would dwarf Australia’s Mabo judgement, in that the right of occupancy may not have been extinguished by *any* state allocation of freehold property, and this would bring about a much-needed legal discussion about the incommensurability of these conceptions of property. It could possibly move beyond the dynamic Michael Mansell observed, where “the court gives an inch but takes another mile”. [Note: I've only recently familiarised myself with the legal dialogues on native title and I could have this argument totally wrong, but what was important was that everyone I talked to thought it was a great paper.]
Brinsmead followed Irene Watson (Flinders) on this panel, whose paper I mostly missed due to being caught up outside talking, but which seemed to be trying to reclaim the revolutionary aspirations of Fanon from the tamer academic recuperations we’ve become used to. She reminded us of Fanon’s contention that the end point of the colonial dynamic would be the “wrecking of colonial space”, and a destruction of this space, rather than any synthesis that might be hoped for among liberal white culture.
Rounding out the panel was Paul Patton (UNSW), who moved from his advertised title on “Indigenous Rights” to a discussion of difference in relation to Government-Indigenous relationships in Australia. I must admit to not being as familiar with Patton’s work as I should be, as I’ve probably just read the wrong things and not felt like pursuing his work. On the other hand, I’ve found Patton inspirational as a white Australian philosopher consistently returning to race issues, and facilitating interdisciplinary and intercultural relationships in the intellectual community in innovative ways. I’ll probably check out more of Patton’s work after this conference’s paper, because it was great. Patton performed a very clear exposition of Australia’s “pathological attachment to equality”, which is routinely mouthed by Prime Minister Howard and co despite the very obvious inequalities which continue to exist and be fostered by colonial government practices. While we tend to think of ourselves as moving forward on “reconciliation”, the previous ten years in Australia has seen a semi-dismantling of Native Title, no real process on native rights generally, and the disbanding of ATSIC, and its functions reabsorbed into “mainstream” government departments. What’s gone wrong? Patton outlined the lack of a public language for contemporary “differential rights”, even if this is seeking to restore “equality” by reversing the racist differential rights that have built the Australian nation-state. This lack of a public language allows Howard to say the most outrageous stuff like “We can’t have a Treaty with our own people, so a Treaty would deny Aboriginal people citizenship.” Patton called for academic and public intellectual work that elaborates on “terra nullius” and includes the depths of its racism and its role in contemporary interpretations of race relations.
Before the panel just discussed, Australian Senator Aden Ridgeway gave probably the best conference presentation by a politician that I’ve seen (I realise that may not be saying much, but it was great). He talked candidly about negotiating his responsibilities to government, to his community, and (as the only Aboriginal member of parliament) to Aboriginal people generally. His personal story as a high-school dropout from North Coast NSW, moving to becoming a welder then community activist and politician provided no shortage of vivid anecdotes to support his view that Australia’s failure to accept Aboriginal people as fully human is a loss to the entire country. Ridgeway also discussed the Australian perversion of the word “egalitarian” to generate some “plausible deniability” about the “real trauma behind the statistics in Aboriginal communities.” He finished with a call for greater investment in Indigenous languages, noting that “we spend more money on teaching French than we do teaching Aboriginal languages”, and highlighted the benefits of mainstreaming Aboriginal-controlled service provision in the outback – “the Miramar model” – where e.g. Indigenous health services treated Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
The keynote address came from Lewis Gordon, professor of philosophy at Temple University and author of a number of books on Fanon and African philosophy that I have to check out after his address! His paper “The Human in the Question of Race: A Philosophical Portrait” gave an expansive overview of the issue of race in philosophy. Gordon has a Barthesian style with a gift for “summing up” (“There are six kinds of decadence in philosophy…” “three approaches to racial domination…” “two options…” etc.) – my notes at the end of his paper read like a fully indented lecture outline. But his direct style in no way trivialised the complexity of the issues of race in philosophy, carefully distinguishing between the different logics of race discourses around colour (anxiety over “exponentiality”) and indigeneity (belief that indigenous people will disappear); or philosophical exclusion based on epistemic closure (removing oneself from engaging with questions) or “bad faith” (removing oneself from engaging with evidence). Gordon also brought his own experiences into the frame, describing an editorial in a former employers’ University Newspaper raising questions about the “proliferation of black faculty” on campus. It turned out that there were 9 out of 2200 black faculty members, but it was Lewis choosing to walk across the campus each day to his classes that had provoked a moral panic.
One of Gordon’s key points, drawing from Fanon’s dialectics of recognition, was to suggest that all kinds of racist assumptions have a simple form: “Tell me why you have the right to exist.” The object of the assumption then has to “use external things to justify yourself…. But the moment you’re caught seeking recognition by using these external things you’ve already lost.” The only real strategy is to find ways of inverting the assumption, in DuBois’s formulation to stop being the problem, but occupy the space of identifying problems. Because the racist logic is about the elimination of “problems”, racial others are invariably fighting for the end of the entire racist world-system (thus revolution/self-determination rather than liberal assimilation). Gordon also made a number of related points about the perils of disciplinarity, and the need for a radical study of “movement” among peoples due to the absence of “voluntary migration.” [I think]. Anyway, a thoroughly entertaining and insightful address that left me with a lot to think about and follow up.
Finally and importantly, the event had some of the best conference catering I’ve encountered. Plenty of vegetarian-vegan options at lunch, bearable coffee, sparkling mineral water in breaks is a great idea, tasty SE-Asian styled finger food and good wine/beer/juice selection at cocktails to finish. A real pleasure not to leave a day’s conferencing desperate for some good food :).