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approprations Arrow vol 6 no 3 contents
About borderlands volume 6 number 3, 2007


'Customary' Appropriations

Fiona McAllan
Macquarie University


In June 2006 the Australian media supposedly 'unmasked' unchecked paedophile crime in Indigenous communities, claiming this to be directly related to customary law (Brough 2006), and returned a conception of primitivism to a national debate invoked in the interests of national security. In June 2007 the media engaged in further graphic reportage, detailing an emergency intervention into unchecked communal violence, suggesting that it was inherent in Indigeneity.These situations have unfolded within a complex interplay of countervailing forces, discursively operating and intersecting across and through racialised and politicised discourses, where morality-imbued and white paternalist notions of self-determinism and re-articulations of legitimised histories, entwined with neoliberalist ideologies, had been paving the way for a 'crisis' at the heart of the nation. The stage had been set for spectacular re-enactments of Australian sovereignty and territorialism. While exploring these animations at length is beyond the scope of this paper, they will be signalled throughout it, with a focus on teasing out the practices and perspectives that continue colonising relations with Indigenous peoples and rely upon particular constructions of Indigeneity for this purpose.


1. Colonialist perspectives and practices at contact - considering who gets to live significantly and possess land (i.e. the self- and life-centred position) - left Indigenous perspectives and practices unengaged. In contrast, I find that poststructuralism's non-foundationalism resonates with how Indigenous theorists explain a relational ontology, in that self-significance is tempered by the iterating structural relation at the heart of life; that is, life's finite/infinite parameters. Relational epistemologies and ontologies acknowledge fluid and dynamic processes and ways of being that are both situated and situating, and incorportate the ateleological, which 'helps us focus our attention on our inter-relatedness, and our interdependence with each other and our greater surroundings' (Martin 2007: 6; Pualani Louis 2007: 133). Contextualising perspectives and practices can help to reveal the shared production of meaning that inter-subjective relations share. This article argues that Australia has refused Indigenous ways of engaging law and the world both culturally and philosophically, and that this re-presents itself through a continuation of colonising practices. While there has been some progress through the judiciary system to allow for customary laws and land relations, the Howard years have largely compromised these opportunities. On this basis, I interrogate the self-privileging centralising perspective in colonising practices during recent years, and posit a deconstructing 'perspectivism' that explores the processes of perceiving.

2. Perspectivism, in this sense, can be sketched as an attempt to recognise the location, or place of the observer in the practice of observing, while acknowledging that the observer is always also the observed in subject-to-subject relations. Therefore the notion of the centre can only be located in relation to a specific point of view, always embodied and situated in time/place. John Lechte sees perspectivism 'not [as] an ideology - or at least ... not inevitably so', nor can it be grasped simply as a 'technology of symbolism' (Lechte 1998: 49). Perspectivism rather takes place in the heterogeneity of looking positions, in the inherently risky engagements involved in inter-subjectively shared 'ways of looking'. Perspectivism, as such, constructs different epistemologies within and beyond colonising relations. So in signalling ways of perceiving I am also meaning to connect perception with practices and conditions that animate denial, self-privileging, ignorance, etc, or open awareness, humility, inquiry, etc.

3. To illustrate, a self-privileging perspective will fix the other subject as object, denying this necessarily different perspective. As the centre relates to a specific view, it has been argued that racism in Australia operates within and through an 'imaginary moral centre', where the desire for 'concealing the past and its consequences in the present' preserves 'the imagined morality of the dominant group' (Sheehan 2001). What this means is that all schemas of evaluation become skewed to reflect the assumed superiority of the dominant group back to itself, rather than the effects of their continuing dominance. This insight reveals a strong element of denial in self-privilege that becomes bound up with, and fed by, repression of the deeds that brought about the state of dominance. Sheehan points to how Indigenous peoples have become trapped as objects in the dominant discourse as it continues to construct them in predetermined inferior categories, part of the ongoing concealment of the dominant group's culpability.

4. Indigenous theorists have written of Indigenous peoples' experiences regarding being subjected to colonising and racialising practices in Australia (Dodson 2003; Smith 2005), practices that become reified in governmental policies, in representations in media and within the dominant societal gaze: 'Colonial ways of knowing ... are actively reproduced within contemporary dynamics of colonial power' (Anderson 2003: 24). So colonising relations continue regardless of whether or not Australia can now be considered a colonial power, formally speaking. An unproblematised Eurocentrism (Downey & Hart 2005), fuelled by the denial mentioned above, thus remains unexamined by those in privileged positions of white power, as their assumed objectivity remains unquestioned. Sheehan argues that this unexamined past feeds this imaginary moral centre, where constructions of unworthiness in Aboriginal people are imagined. With a dominance of these objectifying practices effecting ways of being, a generalising normativity, or seamlessness, can take hold in conceptualisation, violently collapsing and conflating difference in subject-to-subject relations.

5. Yet, ways of conceptualising in an embodied sense - that is, where one bodily and sensorially engages with the world, as Oliver (2001) has argued - will always exceed the possibilities of recognition, as the perceiving subject is never fixed in identity, but always engaged in its perceptual processes. As subjective perception is necessarily limited, Oliver finds witnessing is therefore beyond these limits. Subjects are brought into cognition and identification culturally/racially through their relations with others and the world. So, to avoid generalising objectivism, for example, I do not here propose a coherent and fixed practice that would be an essential component of white subjects who have descended from colonialists. It would be more accurate to suggest that the encounter with objectification is with the force that takes effect in the processes of abstraction that subjects can engage in, in the transient processes of their identification. Sheehan notes 'arguments concerning the "other" are constructed as categorisational evaluations ... discursive leaps become possible between images held in common and the actual events of "others" lives, actions and beliefs. Common beliefs override and subvert actual causal analysis' (2001: 32).

Colonising Customary Law

6. To illustrate continuing colonising relations that continue to have significant impact upon many Indigenous communities, I will explore recent incidents in Australia in which conceptual collapsing and repression of causal analysis in the national imaginary took place. In June 2006, for example, the media aired embellished stories of paedophile rings, drug scams and prostitution in Indigenous communities (although it was later revealed that these stories had been strategically co-ordinated around a particular incident of rape in a particular community, Mutitjulu). The Federal government's connection with this community was also later revealed, as an Office of Indigenous Policy Commission employee had posed as an anonymous youth worker to deliver the distorted reportage (Graham 2006). Nonetheless, Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Brough, in the flurry of media spectacle, represented this particular crime as an example of a customary law practice and asked for tough legislation so that Indigenous offenders could not 'use what they would claim to be a culturally sensitive practice ... as a defence' (Brough 2006). Mutitjulu's funding was frozen, community health services were cut back, and external management was imposed through a claim of incompetence (later overthrown after a twelve month legal battle eventually revealed its falsity) (ABC online: Nov 7 2006, June 15 2007). After the fraudulent connections were exposed, female elders of Mutitjulu called the Federal Minister to account for the misrepresentations and distortions regarding their situation (NIT 2006: 3). Funding and health services were not restored however.

7. This collapsing of customary law with paedophilia powerfully diverted attention from the actual situation and any respective connections to colonising relations. That is, the distortions provided an ideological focus upon an assumed 'primitivism' in customary law as the problem, directing attention away from culpability. Certainly there were voices arguing that the situations in Indigenous communities needed to be considered in regard to the prevention of Indigenous cultural systems through colonising practices (Clarke 2006; Rigney 2006). There had been recommendations to government that customary laws be recognised in the Territory, following the success of its recognition in other states (Calma 2001: 33). Mandatory sentencing had been shown to be overtly racist in the Territory, as most Indigenous crimes were minor, and suicide rates high. Despite this, no legislative recognition of customary law actually exists in this state's criminal system, though minimums were eventually introduced in mandatory sentencing and some diversionary schemes for juveniles put in place some communities, including Mutitjulu (Calma 2001: 33-35).

8. In summation, although westernised moral codes have disavowed criminal applications of customary laws, deeming them brutally uncivilised (for instance, banishment from the community for the crime of rape), there is no reflection on the brutality of the current colonial penal system, or the continuing legacies of deprivation from en masse dispossession and the invalidation of Indigenous laws. In addition, despite the distortion in presenting rape as an act of customary law, the media focus on this distortion was spectacularly played out to 'middle Australia', positioning the imaginary moral centre to focus on a manufactured 'primitivism' in customary law. This diverted attention from the effects of colonising relations, inter-subjectively lived with by Indigenous peoples, and from delivering any adequate response to the actual suffering of children.

Colonising Contemporariness

9. Invoking this construction of primitivism in the moral imaginary centre recreates a temporal illusion that Indigenous peoples are caught teleologically in an 'uncivilised' past and unable to participate in 'modernity'. With this categorisation, explanations of depravity construct Indigeneity as the problem, despite the fact that 'any causal evaluations will reveal the history of [colonisations'] culpability' (Sheehan 2001: 31). Native title cases are fraught within this ideological quagmire in which entitlement has been dependent on evidencing this problematically constructed antiquity.

10. Muecke conversely deconstructs practices that organise Indigenous ways of looking, being and doing as being frozen in time. He points to Indigenous forms of modernity already in place at Kurnell, in the capacity for adaptation and change, resistance and openness to difference, and preparedness to teach and influence the visitor. By contrast, it was the colonialist's objectifying practices that prevented them from acknowledging that Indigenous peoples were at least as inventive as they were (2004: 5-8). Muecke reveals Indigenous ways of looking, being and doing that exceed the myopia of objectivist perspectives to demonstrate pronounced capacity for innovation. He also argues that atemporal cumulative time emphasises place over the passage of time. That is, cumulative time exceeds the continuity of objectivist narrative in which a linear progression of past-present-future teleology is reinforced. He finds that places are ontologically singular, while objective science in contrast - utilising spatial technologies - creates abstracted spaces (a disembodying act) (15). Indigenous peoples become viewed as a primitive counterpoint to a progressive modernity which defines them by this contrast (5). This distorts the imaginative capacity to consider how ongoing Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations are inter-subjectively and interdependently constituted as the past animates and reinvigorates in the present.

11. As Irene Watson notes, the politically mediatised conflation of customary law with a criminal offence imaginatively positioned public perception of Indigenous peoples and their laws in these communities, in that a stereotyped pan-Indigeneity becomes reinscribed as 'uncivilised other' to a 'progressive Australian society'. This conceptualisation is then fed into economic rationalist discourses such as self-determinism, and entrepreneurial land development. A racialised imaginary moral centre avoids acknowledging how all law for Indigenous peoples (whether it applies to criminal matters or otherwise) comes from relationships in land, a view deeply confronting to Eurocentric territorial objectives. Watson notes 'Aboriginal laws were never deemed sovereign, but rather a bundle of primitive customary practices, that "real" Australian law could deem in and out of existence' (2007: 25). It requires a very different imaginary to consider these laws lived as inter-subjective and embedded relations, and therefore, particularly located, inter-related and necessarily connected in a symbiotic relation with the land, based in cycles of renewal. Here finitude can be understood as both limit and limitlessness. It is a relatedness that allows for perspectival limits to be encountered and perspectival limitlessness to be acknowledged.

Since country endures, is always already there, place becomes the horizon of temporality against which finitude finds a rhythm. Country can hold several moments simultaneously, just as an Ancestor may be present at many places simultaneously. (Muecke 2004: 16).

These relations exceed the abstracting or objectifying conflations that objective practices assume, in their being lived, perspectivally, as both substantive and infinite.

Situating Laws

12. As I risk talking of these law relations as a fixed body of law, Indigenous theorists have explained these law relations as always specific to locales and to peoples in the transience of their subjectification. Bayet-Charlton writes of the dreaming: 'Aboriginal land and the meaning behind it passes on information about the environment to each generation' (2003: 173). The relations allow for inter-subjective awareness, as these relations in their embeddedness are accepted and culturally recognised as necessarily situated (Martin 2007; Youngblood Henderson 2000). Encountering and allowing for situated difference - limited and limitless - better allows for difference in other communities also. Unlike the centralising and abstracting processes that practices of objectifying rely upon (where laws are determined by what can be inside and what will remain outside a centralised perspective), customary law relations appear geared to remain fundamentally situated, while also as relations taking place in the liminal space between the singular and the collective. This resonates with the doubled relation of subjectivity that Derrida refers to when gesturing towards the straddling that subjects do to engage with two orders of temporality, the now and a limitless atemporality ­where the past and future exceed each moment (Sallis 1992: 133). Lawyer, Irene Watson, writes of law from a similar perspective regarding the dreaming:

Our laws ... are ancient. They come from a time the old ones called Kaldownyeri - the dreaming. A place of lawfulness, a time before, a time now, and a time yet coming to us ... Our laws are lived as a way of life; they are not written down as the knowledge of the law comes through the living of it. Law is lived, sung, danced ... law lives in all things ... It has no inner or outer, for one is all, all is one. Law is what holds this world together.   (Watson 2006: 16, 17).

13. Considering the limits of perspectives and the limitlessness of perspectivism can suggest how these law relations become constituted. Watson signals the indistinction in law relations between law and lawlessness (no inner or outer), which suggests this as the place of possibility for an affirming relation. She signals a trans-immanent relation that can be constituted as law being sung. Trans-immanence doesn't therefore suggest an a priori immanence in these laws but rather considers the indistinction between law and lawlessness as the paradoxical aporetic place for generative transformation. This is not therefore either a substantial determinacy or insubstantial indeterminacy, but rather an affirmative relation with the concretising determinacy in these laws.

14. Other theorists have written about how customary law relations reveal a constitutional and unconditional responsibility, acknowledged in these finite/infinite relations with Country. Rose, for instance, describes Country as personal pronoun, verb and noun, evoking an interrelatedness that extends beyond anthropomorphist conceptions of objective knowledge regarding the land. She sketches Country as not abstract but a nourishing terrain that gives and receives life. It is not just imagined, but lived in and lived with as a living conscious entity, with a past, present and tomorrow (Rose 2006; see also Martin 2007). Hume, in Ancestral Power, also sketches Indigenous ways of looking, being and doing that extend beyond the objectivist accounts of science, law, humanities etc. She outlines a multiplicity of reality that reveals how finite relations also participate in the atemporal 'everywhen' of ancestral presence and power (Hume 2002: 83). Muecke, writing on objectivist narratives, explains how deeper narratives obey an atemporal logic and that it takes a sense of excess and imagination to discern them (2004a: 12). Finally, Moreton-Robinson explains Indigenous sovereignty as invoking different sets of relations and belonging grounded in a different epistemology to patriarchal white sovereignty (Moreton-Robinson 2004a: 12, 24).

15. These relations, with regard to limited perspectives and the limitlessness of perspectivism, make more allowance for difference in ways of looking, being and doing, which may or may not have immediate effects inter-subjectively. Yet the limitlessness of perspectivism also shows up the necessity of constitutional ateleological effects that are beyond the capacity of limited and situated perspectives. Nancy's work regarding the gravity of thought may be helpful here to think through the joint production of inter-subjectively produced meaning (Nancy 1997). He suggests that what becomes weighed in this frame is indeterminately affirming relations, which cannot be measured in any substantive or quantifiable way.

Crisis of Denial

16. Despite all this, denial within the moral imaginary centre maintains a naivety to inter-subjectivity through reliance on progressive and ideological objectifying practices that 'cover over or consign to forgetting their historical and subjective origin' (Derrida 2005: 127). Derrida sketches this as autoimmunity, as reason attempting to prevent its crises of hyper-rationalising. Indigenous communities have continued to be subjected to hyper-politicising, hyper-managerial forces operating within and through this centre that determinably denies the violence of subject-to-object colonising relations. Perera describes these relations as operating through an 'essentialising calculus' and 'numeric biopolitics' that 'drowns out narratives of coexistence' (Perera 2006: 5-6). The crisis of reason, then, is produced through a hyper-objectifying of subject-to-subject relations yet becomes represented as the objectified's failure to reason.

17. To illustrate this, in June 2007 the Prime Minister declared a 'state of emergency' regarding Indigenous communities, claiming a Northern Territory report on child sexual abuse justified him overriding 'constitutional niceties' to install troops in Mutitjulu, the first of over seventy compulsorily-acquired communities. This was in order to deploy a three-phased militarised exercise (stabilise, normalise, exit) to be carried out in the name of protecting the innocence of children from 'squalid' conditions (see ABC: June 21, 22, 25 2007). Further the federal government blamed the state government for inaction, although previous reports on sexual abuse had been available to the federal government (Robertson 1999) and a paucity of funds had just been allocated in the preceding health budget. This contradictorily evidenced an indifference to the drastic statistics in Indigenous health. The Mutitjulu community had had no doctor and its health programs had been cut since the time of the paedophilia hoax, despite the federal government's supposed focus on children's needs (Mutitjulu community 2007). Yet the intervention involved seizing Indigenous land, the taking control of Indigenous peoples' private funds, and compulsory medical examinations on children.

18. While the health checks failed to produce any convictions, discursive leaps between the distorted paedophilia campaign and this onslaught of colonising appropriations meant that actual circumstances in Mutitjulu were repressed. Various forces that had been coalescing and captivating the moral imaginary centre were now contributing to a spectacular enactment of a sovereign rescue mission; the intervention was presented as a rescuing of Indigenous people from themselves. This enactment matched Perera's sketch of foreign policy in Australia: the 'Australian state ... [performatively reconstitutes] itself as a nation of saviours in blue' (Perera 2007: 124). Perera's sketch had teased out the ideological representations of Australia as the sovereign 'action hero' of the Asia Pacific (124) who - amidst visual images of ruination and chaos and a 'doctrine of pre-emptive intervention' (127) - has been good-neighbourly salvaging surrounding 'failing states' including PNG, the Solomons, and now its colonised trouble within (ABC June 21). A focus on threats to internal and external security has thus predominated, obscuring the marginalising effects of colonialism.

19. In the Territory, then, coalescing in force was the morality-imbued concept of self-determination, reifying neoliberalist discourses of economic development. (Discourses on privatising communal lands and voluntary 99-year town leases had been operating for some time.) Coordinated voices such as Noel Pearson's and those of the National Indigenous Council became appropriated in these discourses. Critique of the intervention was then held up against the 'legitimacy' of their endorsements, and thereby represented as if arguing against the 'sanctioned' logic of rescuing people from their own mismanagement (see Pearson 2007). This construction of Indigenous failure and the associated determined refusal to examine colonising domination thus prevented questions of how the intervention's plan to assume control of lands would increase children's security. The sending in of troops and sweeping legislation to control peoples' lives thus spectacularly re-enacted the colonial sovereign event and the crucial dispossessing of land integral to it.

Re-legitimising Colonising Relations

20. Indigenous dispossession remains integral to the possession of Australian sovereignty. Colonising binaries continue to position active coloniser to passive colonised, yet the reversibility of these binaries means Indigenous voices can unsettle and uncannily 'marginalise' the settled self-possession of colonising practices. For instance, Indigenous voices (for example Dodson; Moreton-Robinson; Watson) are increasingly critiquing possessive relations with Country, with non-Indigenous academics joining this critique. Conversely, disturbance to the self-authorising perspective can in turn increase objectifying practices as a hyper-controlling of Indigenous voices to render them mute (Gelder & Jacobs 1998: 86). Thus, leading up to the intervention, some historians had been engaging in the objectivism crucial to the 'knowledge-producing institutions' of the 'culture and history wars' that represent a 'politically powerful configuration of contemporary nationalism' (Perera 2006: 29). In 2005, for instance, Conner constructed a polemic against academics critiquing the colonial past and advocating Indigenous perspectives. Throughout his book, Conner reinscribed recent academic material back into a colonialist perspective, arguing that annexation was the justification for colonial occupation. For Conner, this allowed for assimilationist reconciliation because this recognition should quash all the divisiveness about native land (2005: 203). As such, he claimed that annexation justifies the continuing colonial mission of 'leading them [the Native inhabitants] ... into the paths of civilisation', a mission which he says is 'unfinished' (270). Conner's argument relies on predetermined objectivist representations of 'primitivism' (91), determinedly denying the pre-existence of Indigenous laws.

21. Conner's account belies no conceptual capacity for the Indigenous position and, as Grieves has said of Windschuttle, 'reinvokes the populist racist ideology of a constituency that shares ignorance and denial' (Grieves 2003). Conner thus reinscribes the defence of Indigenous lands as savagery, and the taking of settler sheep to prevent starvation as primitive indulgence, completely a-reflexive to these interrelations in light of the brutality of colonial domination. The social Darwinist ideology that animates the tide of history metaphor, manifesting in native title cases, is strongly operative in Conner's support of annexation. Further, central to Conner's argument is the seamless concept of a unified sovereignty, the overarching homogenising governance of assimilation. This is also the colonial sovereignty that Howard invoked in his addresses to 'my fellow Australians' (Howard 2007). Identification with the sovereign, to see as the sovereign sees, is required by those within sovereign borders. Yet when the colonialists came to set up the continuation of an assumed sovereignty in an assumed unsettled land, they did not simply render Indigenous relations to Country non-existent. These relations were never acquiesced. Sovereignty, nation, capital, and land-possession were not concepts in existence here until colonialist practices began to acquire 'Indigeneity' as 'other' in constructing 'Australian' versions of these terms (Verdery 1996).

22. As Nancy (2000) and Motha (2003) have argued, however, sovereignty is not One. Furthermore, in deconstructing the sovereign relation, these arguments resonate with those of Watson and other Indigenous theorists regarding customary relations with law. This is not to present Indigenous and non-Indigenous thinkers as interchangeable, as it is the relations between that constitute them as one or the other. Nonetheless, these theorists argue that immanent sovereignty is not a priori or self-determining, and that (Australian) sovereignty establishes itself in the non-recognition of its inter-subjective relation. Sovereignty can be perceived as an indeterminate relation, trans-immanently constituting itself, as Watson (2002), Fitzpatrick (2002) and Motha (2006) have illustrated with reference to the indistinction between law and lawlessness and the iterative structure of sovereign relations. This would therefore mean that the indeterminacy of sovereignty in this land is, and has been, fundamentally and constitutively shared prior to and exceeding Australia's unified conception of sovereignty. Agamben and Derrida have further argued that such a relation - taking place in the zone of indistinction between the finite and infinite - is where affirmative life can be constituted (Agamben 2003; Derrida 1985). This heterogeneous relation of sovereignty is thereby a crucial and ongoing threat to the assumed foundations of the Australian nation. Sovereignty constitutes itself within a lived relation with law, indeterminately generative.

23. Conner's book, however, relies on binarised morality-imbued senses of primitivism and contemporary colonial legitimacy. As Perera notes, the Australian state is premised on erasure of Indigenous ownership within its foundation, and taxonomies and categories are reworked from 'European raciologies of the 18th and 19th centuries' and continue to inform and shape public discussion (2006: 9-10). These raciologies foreground Anglo-Australian achievement and whitewash Australian history (30) so that the levels of barbarism in colonialist massacres and dispossession of lands remain unmeasured and un-interrogated in the dominant 'moral' imaginary. The focus remains on subordinating categorisations of Indigenous peoples. The threatening knowledge of originary occupation becomes repressed with a racial violence at the heart of Australian sovereignty (46), reproducing a-reflexive guilt projection. Documentation of the trauma that this colonialist/Indigenous interrelation produced for Indigenous peoples, through a level of conflationary violence devastating in its results, can unsettle the repressed guilt, fear and denial that accumulates as an effect of practising customary colonial appropriations. Hence, critique of the colonial past was attacked to the extent that Howard proposed to legislate for a doctrinal form of Australian history (Howard 2007).

24. When the news of the intervention broke, many questioned the pronounced disconnect between child abuse and taking land. Central Land Council chair, David Ross, stated: 'Under the smoke screen of helping children, the Federal government is taking the opportunity to impose its ideological agenda in relation to Aboriginal land' (Ross 2007). In the lead-up to this 'state of emergency' Virginia Watson had argued that

Government at once both produces a narrative account of a 'crisis' unfolding across remote communities as though this term describes what is really taking place and, at the same time, through policy and programs, actively reproduces the circumstances and conditions of daily life in remote communities that evidence this 'crisis'. (Watson, V. 2007: 3).

As Perera had done in relation to foreign policy, Watson traced the narratives that had been discursively operating to reform state welfare systems into a focus on citizen responsibility, so that the constructed 'crisis' provided assumed 'proof' of Indigenous citizens' 'failure' to the state. In the months before the intervention she wrote: 'This idea of crisis as narrated by the federal political leadership has naturalised a people and their circumstances as the product of moral deficit, deviance, and even degeneracy' (Watson 2007: 16). The spectacular focus, suddenly presented as communal breakdown and assumed justification for control of communal lands, had been easily constructed through objectifying visual images of Indigenous bodies and sensationalised headlines, where imagination could become one with the effects of recolonising.

Contradictory Possessiveness

25. In current entrepreneurial scenarios regarding the development of the sovereign nation, and its land, the complexities of past circumstances are avoided in the spectacular debate regarding citizen responsibility and Indigenous peoples' 'lack' of self-determinism. Media attention focussed on managerial discourses - which included glossed, valorised versions of Pearson's economic and moral reform rhetoric (Pearson 2000) - accompanied by images of communal breakdown, constructing a failing dark continent within. There is intense irony regarding the requirement to entrepreneurially develop land in light of the colonising relations that dispossess in the assumption of possession. Yet this colonising continues to emerge within the forces that impose a unified and fixed sovereignty.

26. Moreton-Robinson has argued that possessiveness has been a 'precondition of whiteness' (Moreton-Robinson 2006). She points to how the tenure narrative, pre-formulated in England, was continued in 'Australia' through constructions of 'white possessor' and a 'will-less Indigeneity', in the dual processes of nation-building and dispossession. Colonising relations position those without possession at the borders, assumedly lacking the will to possess. 'Will-lessness' is utilised in the narrative of nation-building, as it becomes the object of media debate. Communal land relations in Country thus threaten sovereign and possessive relations that intersect with reified notions of entrepreneurial development. When the media, in June 2006, constructed a sense of communal violence in Indigenous communities, a driving logic of entrepreneurialism, which focused on individual ownership and 99-year leases of Indigenous land, was then pitted against Indigenous peoples who were constructed as 'will-less'. Howard had stated in 2005 'we need to create a more entrepreneurial Indigenous culture ... having title to something is the key to your sense of individuality ... your capacity to achieve and to care for your family' (Howard 2005). Radio host and columnist Michael Duffy had written in 2004 'Breaking the link with the land is the best thing that could happen to Aborigines' (Duffy 2004). Federal Health Minister Abbot claimed in June 2006 that a culture of 'directionlessness' in Indigenous communities was the root of all the problems and that 'a form of paternalism ... based on competence rather than race is really unavoidable if ... places are to be well run' (cited in Metheral 2006). This racialised paternalism continues to be utilised in a nation-building that continually profits from the exploitation of Indigenous land never acceded.

27. In the focus on land development, Indigenous peoples were marked out as incompetent underachievers in need of the governmental management of 99-year leasing contracts. Yet this entrepreneurial individualism has developed through an inter-subjective dependence on the 'cultural processes of racialised domination' (Brewster 2005: 8). In an ABC broadcast for World Today, Jon Altman questioned this entrepreneurial logic:

It seems to me highly unlikely that 99-year leases in some of these very remote localities will in fact encourage banks to lend Indigenous people loans ... these 99-year leases, often in very remote places with no real estate market, will have limited value as collateral. (Roy 2006).

In response, Brough clearly articulated the government's economic objectives:

There will be a quicker process for exploration and mining on Aboriginal land, and current ministerial powers will be delegated to the Northern Territory Government. Entire townships will now be leased to Indigenous or non-Indigenous people, or to commercial partnerships, in exchange for annual rental payments that will be capped at five per cent of the land's value. (Roy 2006).

The issue here then is economic development in relation to land, with an indifference that avoids any acknowledgement of how the nation was founded through 'the suffering, dispossession and genocidal destruction of Indigenous peoples and their cultures' (Brewster 2005: 9). Community title was to be contradictorily appropriated by a singular form of 'corporate' collectivism. In the rush of legislation that followed the Territory intervention, however, these leases became less important as community townships were compulsorily acquired with no security for community title in the future (Brown 2007).

Challenging Perspectives

28. It is evident that a spectacularly centralising white privilege manifests as an exclusionary violence, policing borders at the intersections of criminal law, history and land relations, through continuing colonising practices. Media debate circulates around and through but not with Indigenous communities, utilising constructions of them as failing Australia's national development. Phillips finds the narrative of nationalism can come to appear 'un-challengeable, not because it is beyond question', but because of its reinforcement in controlled spaces over the centuries:

These supposed 'perspectives' do not have their roots in a mere difference of opinion, but in a cultural inheritance that confirms particular relational positions ... Individuals do not necessarily have to actively engage in [the] contemporary domination of Indigenous peoples because the narratives which support it have already been formed and entrenched in the 'commonsense' national identity. (Phillips 2005: 18).

Objectifying the other misses the constitutive structure of the subject-to-subject relation. It is to partake in an illusory practice affected with denial about the observer also being the observed. Subjectification continues within the materiality of existence inherently, iteratively, always contextually specific. Following the understanding that all experience is textually mediated (Derrida 1976), perspectivism, as an acknowledgment of the particular and embodied substantiveness experienced in these inter-subjective relations, is also an acknowledgment that instrumental language always fails (Lechte 1998: 49). To comprehend how these relations were affectively experienced from the perspective of life, land and people (Watson 2005) is beyond all instrumental interpretation. Yet in the unambiguous separation of Indigenous subjects into fixed objects, caught in a temporal and uncivilised archaism, the contextualising and consideration of inter-subjective relations and the heterogeneity of perspectivism is little invoked.

29. Phillips goes on to suggest that to begin to ask questions about 'how' a person sees rather than 'who' that person sees, is the beginning of learning new ways of looking. The challenge then is to bring about a process of reconceptualisation by focusing on the subject-to-subject relations beyond colonising boundaries, a reconceptualisation which would reveal the joint impact on events that subjects share. If the focus can shift to the processes of subjectification in these interrelations, a space can open up to reveal the ideological mechanisms at play in representation. There can also be opportunity to begin a refocusing on how Indigenous peoples have continued to resist policies of assimilation, despite the relentless positioning from objectifying practices. This revealing and resistance can interrupt the effects in ongoing colonising relations. If whiteness can be interrupted in this way a shift can begin within the centralising focus that fixes in ideological spectacles. From a non-Indigenous perspective, Nicoll has written on reconceiving perspectives from within rather than 'presuming to know from some point outside' and of 'coming to know' difference through losing a prior claim to perspective/knowledge (Nicoll 2004). Brewster, like Gelder and Jacobs, writes on the reversibility of the binary in racialising intersubjective relations where recognition of colonial violence can cause a white defamiliarising which offers potential for refiguring whiteness. She argues that the intertwining of this reversibility, with continuity and immediacy, can break down these binaries, not to call for some utopia beyond race but to locate white subjective perspectives in racialising relations (Brewster 2005). And while it is also clear that unsettling repression can stir up reactionary forces, Gelder and Jacobs explore the uncanny reversibility that appears in the relation of taking possession of the land and then becoming possessed by it (1998: 84).

Decolonising Relations

30. To reflect through an embodied perspectivism would require acknowledging awareness of relatedness and how subjectification is always a simultaneous subjecting and subject-ed process (Riggs 2005), the observer is always also observed. Yet to fully recognise is not something that the always-reconstituting subject can achieve, as unfolding processes of subjectification are ontologically prior to any sense of autonomous subject. Indeed inter-subjective dependence demonstrates that neither the self, nor the other can ever be fully known. To know the other is always a reduction within the terms of the self's interpretation. The self/other relation is never finished, never realised, never interpreted. This highlights the vulnerability of inter-subjective conflationary violence through the appropriations of difference that objectifying practices produce. Subjective perspective is necessarily different and yet this incommensurable difference is mutually shared constitutively. Perhaps this can engender inter- and intra-responsibility in inter-subjective relatedness. For instance, political activation here is the affirmation of difference that resists these conflationary forces deconstructively, only able to be carried out by finite subjects in the processes of subjectification as they resist conflationary violence and attempt this affirmative 'overcoming' relation.

31. On this basis, the critical gesture, regarding colonising practices, is to continue to interrupt the narrativisation of a dominant whiteness and the focus of self-privileged ways of looking, being and doing. To focus on the shared production of meaning is to keep the focus on its reproduction in embodied inter-subjective relatedness. I'm suggesting that this would be an attempt to continue to resist the current assimilatory mechanisms, but I'm not meaning that there is some place that we are heading where critical awareness will mean that we are finished with this. As difference in perspective is constitutively necessary, Gayatri Spivak has suggested the process of unlearning one's privilege can never finish (Spivak 1990). Moustakas has also posed that individual experience, in light of this relatedness, is not an explanation or an analysis; rather, it is rooted in questions which further awaken interest, as 'what I see is interwoven with how I see, with whom I see it, and with whom I am' (Moustakas 1987). With a non-Indigenous upbringing in Australia, I relate to this dilemma as a researcher when it comes to writing on Indigenous relations.


32. As the troops started their operations in the Mutitjulu community, another binary began to operate at the borders, with a focus centre stage, inter-subjectively re-producing a violent conflation of difference that marginalised those at its periphery. Yet, when the observer comes to perceive how they are also the observed, the opportunity for awareness of inter-subjective relatedness presents itself. As these events were unfolding I attended a screening of Kanyini, made as a joint-production between Mutitjulu elder Bob Randall, and non-Indigenous filmmaker Melanie Hogan. Hogan confessed to being confronted when someone questioned her preconceptions regarding Indigeneity, and, appalled by her unrecognised privilege, sought guidance in relationships with Indigenous peoples in community. Kanyini, in language, describes a way of living with unconditional responsibility, which is felt, experienced. The film is a passionate and powerful personal story that unfolds as Randall witnesses what occurred in his land near Uluru before and since being taken from his family at age seven. As the past folds with the present, providing overlapping perspectives on kinship, spirituality, Country, the affective specificity of this story and its evocative atemporal multiplicity places the current situation in Mutitjulu into a complex context and multilayered understanding of the living world that can powerfully interrupt the objectifying abstractions of a disconnected 'observer'.

33. Randall was in attendance and when asked after the screening 'what can open up our relations?', his response was to 'meet each other' and learn 'oursness' in place of 'mineness' as 'we share this land together' (Randall 2007). Mineness is an abstractedness that disembodies what are always specific and embedded moments lived finitely/infinitely with Country. Karen Martin, at an all Indigenous academic symposium at Queensland University of Technology last year, explained a similar ethos when talking about Indigenous methodologies for researchers:

it is a mistake to leave someone unrelated, we need to respect and protect our relatedness, to be embracing change, expanding our relatedness, never reducing, immersed continually in enfoldments, evolvements, coming amongst and coming alongside, in relatedness, its like kneading in ... the question is how to relate, what baggage are you bringing in that might be useless? work back within to the ancestors for centring, if you are not critiquing you may be perpetuating, we are caught in the existential place, with responsibility in deconstructing, reconstructing, finding our way home again. (Martin 2006).

34. This existential place is a site of resistance, both finite and infinite, where other knowledges become mobilised to promote a decolonised approach to the coexistence of Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations (Simpson 2004: 374). This decolonising approach, ateleologically empowered ancestrally, resists the discursive regimes enabled through the intersecting discourses of whiteness, visuality, political sovereignty, economic practices and law that 'attempt to disconnect and fragment events and their effects' (Osuri 2006: 7). Considering intersubjectivity, this requires being reflexive about how we focus our efforts, connecting these events and effects, exploring historical connections in their relatedness, and reflecting always on our own location and the baggage we are carrying. Sovereignty, then, is not the province of the domain of whiteness, secured through colonising relations to decide who lives significantly within the territories of Australia. Sovereignty is rather a shared relation that takes place at the iterating heart of life, affirmatively weighed in the atemporal relation between law and lawlessness, indeterminately generative, as we make our way home.

Fiona McAllan is currently researching Indigenous/settler interrelations with regard to law, language, ethics, and belonging, at Macquarie University. Recent p ublications are 'Rites of Passage' in Law, Text, Culture, 'Bound for More of the Same' in Transforming Cultures ejournal.


I would like to acknowledge John Lechte, Jane Mummery and my anonymous referees for their insightful remarks with regard to the preparation of this paper, as well as those theorists whose work I engage with here.


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