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borderlands of identity Arrow vol 3 no 3 contents
About borderlands Volume 3 Number 3, 2004


Confronting Borderlands of Identity and the
Abstraction of Social Relations

Paul James
RMIT University


1. Australia’s Ambivalence towards Asia is a searching, energetic and expansive book. It stands out amongst the many descriptive narratives documenting identity, racism and difference in postcolonial Australia as attempting to do much more. Drawing upon a novel methodological framework positing a psycho-cultural continuum from more concrete to more abstract ways of life, the book attempts to explain the patterns of insecurity, fear and superiority of mainstream Australia. Ashis Nandy’s ‘Forward’ to Australia’s Ambivalence points to one aspect of that ambivalence with rare force:

I have come to expect that Australia’s ambivalence towards Asia, around which this book is ostensibly organized, and Asia’s ambivalence toward Australia, which some of us could sense even in our childhood, are linked through Australia’s ambivalence towards itself. Indeed, partly defying the authors of this book, that tacit third ambivalence subtly frames the analysis of violence, racism and discrimination attempted in this book. Mainstream Australia has tried to tear off a part of its soul associated with intense abnegation and self-constriction during the formative years of the country. With an immense psychological effort, it has displaced its self-hatred onto others who symbolise Australia’s discarded self. White Australia has to look at the Asian and indigenous Australians as well as its Asian neighbours as inferior and fearsome, for it has itself felt inferior, and it has feared its own self—socially, culturally and morally. (3)

2. Despite the book’s title, however, it is this ambivalence that the body of Australia’s Ambivalence towards Asia does not consistently address. Instead Australia tends to be treated as a singular entity which is at once described as confidently racist and at other times as deeply insecure. In one passage, Vin D’Cruz and William Steele write that, ‘while non-Anglo migrants showed signs of being uncomfortably "split", or were ill at ease in the public civil domain, Anglo-ethnics exuded confidence while flaunting secure "unified" selves’ (55). The authors are not wrong to generalize. Generalization is an important aspect of analysis and interpretation. The problem is that the nature of the generalizations in Australia’s Ambivalence are rarely pinned down, and the qualifications made about those generalizations are not subsequently always drawn in a consistent way. The passage continues: ‘As time passes, and the migrant makes good in some fashion, the Anglos feel that they are losing ground, their confidence erodes, and they start to twitch, manifesting the insecurities that had been typical of the non-Anglo migrant, and resentment sets in’ (55). Who are the Anglos we are being told about? Are they all Anglo-Australians or just a cultural subgrouping?

3. These kinds of unsustainable generalizations about Anglo-Australia are not unusual in the literature. They are made even by those commentators—including D’Cruz and Steele—who recognize the depth and unevenness in Australia of ambivalence towards outsiders, refugees, migrants, Aboriginal peoples and others-in-general. Ghassan Hage’s White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society is a case in point. It thoroughly explores the foundations of how White Australia deals with its own ambivalence and insecurity, but then overstretches his psychoanalytic method to claim a generality for White-Nation fantasizing that is very hard to sustain. (By contrast, Hage’s later book, Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for Hope in a Shrinking World, is equally hard-hitting but does not replicate those problems.) The authors of Australia’s Ambivalence try to stop themselves, and pile up quote after quote from the literature attesting to the complexity of the ambivalence. However, despite the innovative subtlety of their approach, unsustainable overgeneralizations about the entity called ‘Anglo-Australia’ keep creeping back in. In this light, the narrow and limited task of this essay is to make a couple of steps towards working through this problem. The present essay is thus written in the spirit of the theoretical work done by D’Cruz and Steele, but with some divergent methodological emphases.

4. D’Cruz and Steele base their approach on a psycho-social continuum from the more concrete to the more abstract, saying that persons and communities can be characterized in terms of the dominance or otherwise of their ‘outlooks’—more concrete or more abstract. Cultures and persons towards the concrete end of the psycho-social continuum, our authors argue, tend to be oriented towards a common set of values and practices including ‘the privileging of the group over the individual … claims of kinship or blood relationship; reciprocity; respect for wisdom that arises out of experience rather than expert knowledge … problem resolution methods favouring face-to-face contact … and a preference for the near and the tangible in all areas of life’ (174). By comparison, cultures and persons towards the abstract end of the psycho-social spectrum tend to be characterized by privileging individualism and free choice, ‘autonomy, disengaged rationality, all-encompassing love, professionalism, direct communication styles and yet mediated relationships (often without face-to-face contact), and money (often in particularly intangible forms such as equities)’ (175). Anglo-Australia in general, they suggest, adding in numerous qualifications, can be characterized by being more abstract, while the person who comes here such as refugee or migrant, or Malaysian culture in general, ‘has a pronouncedly more concrete orientation’ (282). While the main thesis of the book is difficult to pin down, it runs something like the following: those who are more abstract tend to look down on those who are more concrete, devalue them, and stereotype them in terms of primordial passions and as lacking individual agency as well as the capacity for abstraction itself.

5. The first issue is how can we make this generalization in a way that is sustainable? It is both an empirical and a theoretical question. Is Australia an increasingly abstract society? If this judgement is not made on the basis of using psychological outlook as the measure, then Australia seems a messy mixture. If abstraction is defined in terms of processes such as rationalization, commodification, codification, mediation, objectification, and extension, processes changing the nature of social relations across time and space, then the answer I would argue is ‘yes’. The argument that I draw upon comes from writers associated with Arena Journal such as Geoff Sharp who talked of abstraction as a socially constitutive process rather than as a psychosocial continuum (eg. Sharp 2002). One of the unexplained ironies in the method put by D’Cruz and Steele is that one of the characteristics of our increasingly abstract Western societies is that we have seen concurrently an intensifying psychological emphasis on images of the ‘concrete’ and embodied. It is significant, for example, that recently George W. Bush had to defend Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for using a computer-simulated signature to sign letters of condolence to the families of more than 1,000 troops killed in Iraq. We all know that Donald Rumsfeld does not know the families personally, but it remains symbolically important in the social world of mediated relations that he attends to the death-letters with his own hand. ‘I know Secretary Rumsfeld’s heart’, George W Bush responds, ‘I know how much he cares about the troops’ (quoted in the Australian, 22 December 2004).

6. In the alternative abstraction thesis that I am putting, the question of whether Australia is an increasingly abstract society is taken to be a structural question of the patterns of social practice and subjectivity, not the psychological expressions of people that develop in response to those patterns. Moreover, I want to introduce a different analytical metaphor than that of ‘continuum’—the metaphor of ‘levels’; levels overlaying each other in tension. For example, when Marx takes commodification as the driving social force of modern capitalism, or Weber emphasises the processes of rationalization including bureaucratization of management and the secularization of religious life, we could say that the society is a more abstract society, but it is only to say that the dominant level of that society is increasingly abstract while more concrete levels of integration, for example face-to-face relations, continue on as subordinate but important levels of living and relating to others as social beings. People within that society live those various levels in different ways despite the dominance of the most abstract level of mediated, rationalized, commodified relations.

7. D’Cruz and Steele handle this in one way. For example, they want to draw a distinction between the those people in Australia who are part of the cosmopolitan abstract class and those who are part of the down-to-earth more concrete class: ‘As more abstract elements of Anglo culture swelled in their public role in Australian life, the more concrete elements of the underclass of Anglo-Celtic people were practised, "silently, angrily or with ribaldry" across rural (and urban) tracts nationwide’ (50). The problem with this ‘ends-of-a-continuum’ argument is that the Anglo-Celtic underclass and the cosmopolitans live in the same ontological layering of abstracting modernism. Put less theoretically, we all more or less rely upon the media, we all use money, and we all know what day it is in the Gregorian calendar. The content of their discussions might be different—some might spend more time talking about the weather or where their next meal might be coming from—but they are formed with similar constitutive overlaying of patterns of subjectivity and practice. We all (with a qualification that I will make in a moment), for example, live in abstract empty time, subject to the ontology that time moves in a linear fashion and can be ticked off on a calendar of events. The subjectivity of autonomy, for example, that D’Cruz and Steele associate with the more abstract class is just as rife in the bush. This is especially clear in the example they give of Les Murray as somehow archetypical of a more concrete person—‘tightly drawn, locally centred, and well anchored’. (51) In the terms that I want to argue, Les Murray is not a more concrete person. He is an abstracted intellectual—politically driven, reflexive about the nature of writing and how to make his point in the world—who from this vantage point has intensified his interest in ‘the concrete’ and lives in the bush thinking about how to best communicate it to an abstract community called ‘Australia. All this is not to say that it is impossible, despite the overwhelming dominance of increasing levels of abstraction, to live across the layers of other formations—tribal and traditional. Many Aboriginal peoples do so to the extent that they are tied in the various Dreamings, but their lives tend to be lived in difficult tension with those dominant forms. Some religiously inspired people do, but not usually as a way of life, although it must be said the abstraction of sociality has been driving people back to the certainties of neo-traditionalising religions including Pentecostal Christianity and radical Islam.

8. The second major point in a globalizing world this process this applies equally to the dominant cultures in Australia and countries such Malaysia in Southeast Asia. I would argue that they are not as D’Cruz and Steele tend to characterize them at opposing ends of the concrete-abstract continuum. Malaysia certainly has stronger and more generalized layers of tribalism and traditionalism than Australia, but in terms of the dominant structures, both subjective and objective, both societies have been thrown, or jumped, actively into a new world of abstracted relations.

9. If we take just one example to illustrate the abstraction process—money—the dominant cultures and economies of Australia and Southeast Asia can comfortably be described in the same narrative. Concomitant with the development of electronic codification as a new dominant means of communication, the overlaying of coinage and paper money by electronic exchange systems was fast, confusing and increasing integrated with the modes of production and organization. (While the electronic means of communication made a difference, again it depended upon an extensive development in the relations of exchange. Thomas Crump’s discussion of the ‘pure-money complex’, that is, of transactions performed ‘purely in terms of time and money’, goes too far to suggest that such complexes characterize all societies, but it is instructive.) It was something that a classical social theorist such as Marx could not envisage despite his understanding of money as a material abstraction. Although many of the developments had slow antecedents (within Southeast Asia the process remaining largely confined to the metropolitan centres), the changes multiplied quickly. The first globally linked credit and charge cards such as American Express, MasterCard, and Visa expanded across the 1960s. (Lewis Mandel shows, for example, how the credit card developed over the period from local bankcard experiments in the 1940s, but the shift really took off with the systematisation of computerized codification). Cheque-clearing systems were developed in the 1970s; electronic funds transfer systems (EFTPOS) and automatic teller machines (ATNs) consolidated in the 1980s. For example, in 1985 the Netherlands communications corporation Phillips and the British bank Lloyds announced a joint global funds transfer system called Sopho-net WAN, spanning countries from Peru to Papua New Guinea. Electronic banking through global browsers such as Netscape and Internet Explorer took hold in the 1990s, as did new schemes for electronic marketing, merchandizing, and computer-assisted share trading. For example, IBM made a corporate comeback across the late 1990s popularising the new concept of ‘e-business’ under its slogan ‘Solutions for a small planetTM’. This was the period during which the Southeast Asian governments were drawn in the electronic revolution and the conditions were set for the so-called ‘Asian crisis’.

10. Research into this electronic financial revolution—credit and debit cards, smart and loyalty cards, telephone and internet banking, let alone derivative exchanges, futures trading and the like—suggests that although it came with a whirlwind of hype about freedom and self-management, it also became a source of embodied (concrete) anxiety or unsustainable financial risk-taking for those with lower incomes (Pahl), and concerns about security and data protection for those who were affluent. These anxieties were well founded, even if the changes were barely understood. The phenomenal and embodied world of going into a shop and buying a bunch of bananas or a mobile phone in the capitalist centres from Sydney to Petaling Jaya had now been framed by a more abstract layer of the economy that operated beyond the legislation of nation-states and far beyond the reach of democratic influence. Traded derivatives — that is, ‘contracts specifying rights and obligations which are based upon, and thus derive their value from, the performance of some underlying instrument, investment, currency, commodity or service index, right or rate’ (Cornford in Strange, 1998, 30) — developed from the 1970s and grew exponentially from the mid-1980s. By the turn of the century, they amounted to an estimated US$70 trillion or eight times the annual GDP of the United States. Hedge-funds also increased significantly over the first years of the new century, growing at approximately 15-20 per year to an estimated US$1 trillion. The vagueness of the figures are testament to both the abstraction of the process and the leaving behind on older forms of institutionalisation: derivative exchanges are conducted ‘Over the Counter’ on private digital networks as the exchange of the temporally projected value of value-units that do not yet exist except as projections; hedge-funds effectively gamble on the future. Both abstract time into an eternal present and trade in fine calculations about what might happen.

11. That last sentence holds the clue to a further elaboration of an alternative approach to abstraction—the process of abstraction needs to worked through in terms of the basic categories of existence: time, space, embodiment, knowing, and so on. What I want to now argue is that these basic categories can be used to describe the dominant ontological formations of social life: tribalism, traditionalism, modernism and postmodernism. Even in modernism all those formations are layered across each other in contemporary Australia society. As D’Cruz and Steele recognize this process of abstraction is a very uneven one despite the process of domination. They are right to argue that an ‘abstract citizenship or an equally synthetically-generated common culture militates against the very notion of concrete group differences’ (53). In the context of countries such as Australia, arrivals were remade as modern citizens. With a couple of qualifications, D’Cruz and Steele put this strongly and well when they say that, ‘As immigrants walked off the ship or plane, now relabelled "New Australians", they were "renewed", cleansed of ethnic and other baggage and drastically made over into abstracted Australian "citizens" and hence "new Australians"’ (54). What was being made-over? For most immigrants this meant relegating traditionally-framed practices and subjectivities to the realm of the private and taking on the clothes of modern citizenry in public. If we take the category of embodiment most relevant to the themes of racism, ethnic identity and nationalism we can suggest a number of foundational propositions:

Proposition 1. Embodiment is lived across all forms of community as a deeply embedded social-relational category. It is an ontological category constituted as both the context and the outcome of patterns of social practice and meaning.

Proposition 2. Different social formations are framed in terms of fundamentally different dominant senses of embodiment. These dominant modes of corporeality may be dominant but that does not mean that nothing else lives in their shadows.

Proposition 3. Across history, more abstract modes of living our bodies have become layered across more concrete ways of doing so, reconstituting rather than replacing those ‘prior’ forms. That is, across world-time and world-space, bodies are constituted in differently intersecting levels of abstraction. This argument has the effect of substantially qualifying propositions that assume that bodies are just natural, as well as challenging the obverse—the counter-propositions that turn practices of corporeality into discursive formations. Social meanings are not just signs written on individual bodies.

Proposition 4. This reconstitution of embodiment has political consequences intimately connected to the abstraction of time and space. As the dominant ways in which we live have become more abstract our bodies have become more open to processes of rationalization, objectification, commodification and political-cultural management. The importance of bodily symbolism continues throughout this reconstitution, but it draws now for its subjective power on subordinate relations of embodied connection that have largely retreated into the realm of the privatised and personal. It is politically projected through the power of changing modes of communication

12. The emerging dominance of modernism has involved an increasingly self-conscious acculturation of the ‘excesses’ of the body as a natural symbol. In the broader sphere of the contemporary nation-state, changing one’s national identity still involves one’s own body. It requires a ceremony of symbolic boundary crossing. Ironically, however, it is a ceremony of naturalization which self-consciously subordinates the significance of birthplace to transform an ‘alien’ into a citizen. The ceremony treats the nationally naturalized body in a more abstracted way than the rituals of tribal boundary-crossing or identity transformation, which call for the bodies of the initiates to be physically and subjectively changed. National naturalization assumes, almost perfunctorily, an abstract overlay that has reconstituted the cultural meaning of birth. By contrast, for example, Aboriginal initiation ceremonies entail a bloody renaissance, a rebirth of the initiate’s actual body (Myers, 228-33). Analogical embodiment is not irrelevant to naturalization in the modern context but it is reworked metaphorically and abstracted. In any case actual bodies still have to be there. In most countries, any would-be citizen must attend the ceremony in person, swear an oath, and receive a document confirming his or her transition out of the old cultural inscription of what birth means to identity. Similarly, leaving one’s homeland is still not entirely straightforward. In Australia during its Bicentenary year, expatriates like the late Peter Allen as proud recipient of the Order in Australia and Rupert Murdoch, a little sheepish at becoming an American citizen, were confidently voicing that sentiment of postmodern nationalism, ‘I still call Australia home’. Notwithstanding this layer of sentimental attachment however, Rupert Murdoch is now an abstracted global citizen. The streets of New York serve as well as anywhere else for his constitutional walks.

13. The modern nation thus becomes an abstract community of strangers, but one that metaphorically (powerfully) draws on the subjectivities and ideologies of attachment to embodied others (blood-become-sacrifice) and actual places (soil-become-territory). Unlike Christianity where Jesus is simultaneously God the Spirit, God-Incarnate, and an embodied mortal man, no one actual person can stand in for the nation. National community, or more particularly each ‘ordinary person’ with in it, potentially carries that embodied connection. Certainly the nation throws up abstracted icons. Female figures lifted out of history were the most serious contenders for this role. Boadicea, Joan of Arc, Liberty or Marianne became iconic figures with their historical and particularized bodies left behind. However, contemporary figures do not stand in the same relation to the nation, even if body metaphors continue to be important.


14. The abstraction metaphor is a powerful and useful metaphor for describing the nature of different social formations and drawing distinctions between them. However, setting up a method that works on single-line continuum from the concrete to the abstract, runs the risk of being either misunderstood or unintentionally setting up a dualism between the more concrete and the more abstract. This is a dualism that goes against the spirit of the intended project that Vin D’Cruz and William Steele have embarked upon. The authors have an encyclopaedic sense of the complexity of the phenomena they are analysing. Unfortunately, the continuum methodology, at least for me, does not yet clarify that complexity.

Paul James is Director of the Globalism Institute at RMIT in Melbourne, an editor of Arena Journal and author and editor of number of books including most recently with Tom Nairn, Global Matrix: Nationalism, Globalism and State-Terrorism, Pluto Press, London, 2005. Email:


Crump. T. (1981) The Phenomenon of Money, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

D’Cruz, JV & W Steele. (2003) Australia’s Ambivalence towards Asia, Clayton: Monash Asia Institute.

Hage, G. (1998) White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society. Sydney: Pluto Press.

---- (2003). Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for Hope in a Shrinking World. Sydney: Pluto Press.

Mandel, L. (1990). The Credit Card Industry. Boston: Wayne Publishers.

Marx, K. (1887) Capital: Vol. 1 Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977.

Myers, F. (1991) Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self: Sentiment, Place and Politics among Western Desert Aborigines. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pahl, J. (1999) Invisible Money: Family Finances in the Electronic Economy. Bristol: Policy Press.

Sharp, G. (2002)‘The Idea of the Intellectual and After’, Arena Journal, 17-18, pp. 269-316.

Strange, S. (1998). Mad Money. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

© borderlands ejournal 2004


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