"What Matter Who's Speaking?"[1]
Authenticity and Identity in Discourses
of Aboriginality in Australia


Carolyn D'Cruz

LaTrobe University, Australia

Copyright © 2001 by Carolyn D'Cruz, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

    Rhetorical question: A question to which no answer is expected
    -- The American Heritage Dictionary

    Rhetorical questions: asked not for information but to produce effect, as who cares? For nobody cares.

    --The Concise Oxford Dictionary

  1. The matter of who speaks for and about whom is possibly the most sensitive and impassioned issue circulating within discourses of identity politics. More often than not, before confronting any other qualifying prerequisite to speak, a speaker must satisfy the criteria of bearing the marker of identity that one is speaking about. For example, only women are qualified to speak about women's issues. This paper addresses the particular protocol of speaking rights by way of examining a specific debate about Aboriginal[2] identities in Australia. The debate took place in the late 1992 and early 1993 issues of Oceania -- a journal identifying itself with the 'field of social and cultural anthropology [whose] primary regional orientation is to the indigenous peoples of Australia, Melanesia, Polynesia, Micronesia, and South East Asia'.[3] It was ignited after a self-identified non-Aboriginal teacher of Aboriginal Studies, David Hollinsworth, attempted to evaluate various 'discourses of Aboriginality . . . in terms of their apparent implications for Aboriginal political struggles.' Unsurprisingly, many participants in the debate question the legitimacy of Hollinsworth's right to speak about such issues. At the same time, however, most participants are seemingly intent on articulating a position regarding the merits of different definitions of Aboriginal identity and claims to authenticity. In various public spaces in Australia, both issues -- the right to speak and the question concerning what constitutes authentic Aboriginal identity -- are debated with burning regularity. More recently public attention has turned to the issue of determining the authenticity of Aboriginal art. Another form of the debate arises when negotiating representations of Aboriginal people to various publics, whether that be portrayals of Aboriginal people in the media, film, museums, education curriculums and other aspects of cultural life. And as Aboriginal people are forced to negotiate with "official" governmental definitions of their identity for bureaucratic purposes, there is no shortage of public opinion -- particularly on talk-back radio -- pronouncing criterion for determining what ought to constitute Aboriginal authenticity.

  2. Now in all forms of this debate, there is a tendency to reduce the complexity of the issues at stake, firstly, to a choice between two polarised political positions: either it does matter who speaks or it does not. Of course, this matter is important, but there is an unfortunate proclivity to become stuck in the rut of reducing all argument to the identity of the subject doing the speaking. Thus before any further discussion can take place it is worthwhile considering more closely the problems and issues effecting the legitimacy of the speaking subject. The Oceania debate provides a fertile ground from which to do so, as the issues raised are as relevant to today's media scandals as they are to examining everyday negotiations of Aboriginal identity in past, present and future discussions. Importantly, it cannot be overstated that the present paper reviews the Oceania debate by not taking up an either/or position over the matter of speaking. Rather it explores various positions from which subjects are constrained and enabled to speak when negotiating what Foucault calls the "formidable materiality of discourse" ("The Order of Discourse" 52). In doing so, the debate on the matter of speaking and the related problem of authenticity will not be resolved, but possibilities for political interventions can perhaps be multiplied and become more specified.

  3. Some participants' comments in the Oceania discussion suggest that the politics of speaking positions is, in fact, self-evident. Not surprisingly, a large point of contention centres on the right of non-Aboriginal people to speak about Aboriginal identities and issues. This effectively sets the frame from which to discuss the matter of speaking in terms that must privilege the space that ostensibly connects the identity of the investigating subject with the identity of the object/subject in question. Put more simply, we cannot view the speaker as a disinterested or impartial observer of the issues in question. Accordingly, each speaker presumably enters some kind of power relationship with the investigated identity in the act of participating in the debate. Now this might seem obvious. Such recognition is evident in the widespread compulsion for speakers and writers to declare a list of their own identity markers -- such as skin colour, gender, race, sexuality, political allegiance and so on -- as some kind of shorthand signal for situating themselves and their knowledge claims in relation to others. (For instance, film theorist E. Ann Kaplan asks "How can I enter or approach the culture of Aborigines, as a white Anglo-Celt who has lived long in North America?" (qtd. In Langton 24).

  4. Sometimes the declaration is used to problematise the speaking subject's 'right' to speak about the particular identity in question (such as a non-Aboriginal person speaking about issues pertaining to Aboriginal identity); at other times, the declaration acts as some kind of verifier of what is being said. The former use of the declaration emphasises the desire not to speak on behalf of, or with authority about, another culture, and to recognise the imbalance of power relations in an encounter between dominant and marginalised identities. The latter use seemingly encourages the view that knowledge claims are reducible to, and locatable within, the 'authenticity' of a particular identity's subjective experience. An extreme version of the latter use occurs when a speaking subject's knowledge claims, concerning an alleged constitution of social reality, are evaluated on the basis of his or her identity markers. Unfortunately, these three issues concerning the speaking subject -- the problem of speaking on behalf of, and about, others; the claim that knowledge can be reduced to a subject's experience; and the claim that knowledge can be legitimated with recourse to the mere marker of an identity -- are often left undifferentiated when debating the matter of representation within discourses of identity politics. This paper aims to open ways for disentangling the conflation of these three positions.

  5. In one form or another, each participant in the Oceania debate abides by the practice of 'situating' his or her knowledges by disclosing their own markers of identity, or at least their own perceived qualifications to contribute to, or refrain from, discussing Aboriginal identity. It seems that if the investigating subject's identity coincides with the identity of the subject in question, then the perspective from which one speaks is considered more legitimate. The following is a list of the forms in which participants disclose their identities:
    As a non-Aboriginal person who has taught Aboriginal Studies to both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal tertiary students, these arguments are of intense significance, professionally, personally, and politically. (Hollinsworth, "Discourses" 137)

    I believe that such a search and any conclusions reached must come from us, ourselves. We must determine our own identity within the parameters established by us. (Nyoongah 156)

    I could also question in itself the politics of a white person (like Hollinsworth) seeking to police the collective memories through which Aborigines invent and reclaim a measure of their authenticity. (Lattas, "Blood" 160)

    In calling upon Aborigines to undertake thoroughly the work of historicising themselves . . . it is axiomatic that in the production of their history Aborigines do not embrace the generalised and one-dimensional history created by non-Aboriginal historians or anthropologists but instead follow the practice of those Aboriginal autobiographers who have more ably engaged with the complex specificity of their pasts. (Atwood 159)

    For my part, I shall not presume to advise Aboriginal people about how to articulate an identity. . . . (Beckett 165)

    I do not consider my position as an educated white bourgeois woman, sharing more of the experiences of the do-gooders and blow-ins than of the Blacks in Bourke, Katherine, Redfern, or Arnhem Land, as a disabling analytical perspective, especially in relation to issues of racism. (Cowlishaw 183)

    These declarations -- though quite varied -- supposedly situate each author's qualifications, or political 'suitability,' for entering the matter concerning "the means of claiming, contesting and authenticating Aboriginal identity" (Hollinsworth, "Discourses" 137).

  6. Ironically, for Hollinsworth, the very category that is seen to legitimise one's speaking position ('Aboriginality') is investigated for its possible exclusionary boundaries. Importantly, however, the exclusions to which the debate directs its attention concern Aboriginal inscriptions of identity only; some Aboriginal identities are perceived to bear greater claims to authenticity than other Aboriginal identities. It is this issue that seems to have prompted Hollinsworth to open the discussion. His aim is to question various 'discourses' that attempt to define what constitutes a person's Aboriginality, as he believes that some definitions in circulation have a tendency to create a hierarchy of Aboriginal authenticity. For example, he claims that many urban Aborigines have experienced instances in which their own identities are considered less authentic than rural Aborigines. Of course contesting the authenticity of Aboriginal identity is not only a problem for some of the students Hollinsworth engages with as a teacher in Aboriginal studies. Such contestations are repeatedly aired on talkback radio and published as letters to the editor in the popular press. Needless to say, refutations of authenticity help fuel the racist rhetoric of the One Nation party's mission to abolish welfare provisions for Aboriginal people whom they do not consider to be 'real' Aborigines. As Hollinsworth remarks, "the means of claiming, contesting and authenticating Aboriginal identity are central to both the future of Aboriginal Studies as an academic area of study and to political and ideological struggles over Australian nationalism and the position of indigenous peoples within it" ("Discourses" 137). For Hollinsworth, then, his professional, personal and political stakes regarding the issue compel him to speak. In suspending a verdict over whether Hollinsworth had the right to do so -- that is the right to speak about definitions of Aboriginal identity -- let us first see if we can shift the terms of the debate by employing Foucault's tools for archaeological analysis of discourse.[4] Only then will we be in a better position to reconsider the status of the speaking subject.

  7. For over two decades now, the problem of essentialism has plagued most discourses of identity politics. Foucault's positioning of the (speaking) subject as an effect of discourse has unfortunately become confused with the erroneous idea that there is no materiality to subjectivity. For Foucault, it is not that subjectivity has no materiality, but that alongside the social conditions of existence that constitute a person's identity (such as race, economic status, sex, nation, education and so on), one ought to include the 'formidable materiality of discourse'.

  8. While Hollinsworth situates his paper in terms of a discussion of 'discourses of Aboriginality,' he does not take 'discourse' to exert a materiality in the Foucauldian sense. For Foucault, "discourse belongs to the order of laws." where a place is made ready for a subject to speak ("Order" 52). As he explains: '[w]e know quite well that we do not have the right to say everything, that we cannot speak of just anything in any circumstances whatever, and that not everyone has the right to speak of anything whatever.'16 Consequently, to examine discourses of Aboriginal identity politics in Australia in the Foucauldian sense, we would be interested in describing the rules and procedures that regulate what constrains and enables what can be spoken of, how the speaking must take place, and who can do the speaking. In turning to the rules and procedures regulating discursive practices, Foucault's archaeological analysis aims to avoid reducing the history of ideas and history proper to either a transcendental or an empirical subject of consciousness. With the emphasis shifted from these two models of subjectivity, Foucault argues that attendance to the materiality of discourse is not concerned with interpreting the intentions behind meaning by referring to the concrete speaking subject. Rather, he proposes to subvert the conventional role assigned to the founding and creative subject.

  9. Accordingly, an archaeological approach is less concerned with the right for a concrete subject to speak, than it is with the place made ready -- within a specific institutional site and discursive practice -- for a variety of concrete subjects to occupy the very same position. Thus in an academic journal, in which the issue of identity politics is raised, all participants in the Oceania debate have varied identities, but each appears compelled to follow the protocol of situating his or her own identity markers as they speak. Alternatively, the same concrete subject can occupy a variety of different speaking positions depending on the institutional site and discursive practice in which that speaking takes place. Thus, if Hollinsworth were presenting his case to talk-back radio instead of an academic journal he would have had to articulate his arguments in lay person's terms. He would also need to account for the probability of speaking to a racist audience, and he would need to be aware of the editing processes that affect and effect his speech on live to air radio.[5] In such a context, footnotes and academic evidence to support his argument are not relevant. And as there are institutional variations effecting the site of the speaking subject, so are there such variations effecting definitions of identity. Hollinsworth aims to evaluate different definitions in terms of the political efficacy, as is outlined below. But for an archaeological analysis, the issue is not so much concerned with adjudicating between better denotations of identities as it is with mapping different circulations in which identities are claimed. Hence examining the speaking subject in terms of discourse is not to deny a materiality to subjectivity, but to show that the materiality of subjectivity has no fixed essence.

  10. When Hollinsworth tackles the problem of essentialism, he argues that identifying an Aboriginal essence in terms of 'biological descent,' for instance, can unintentionally lend itself to right-wing populism, which creates a hierarchy of authenticity based on racist assumptions about categorisations such as full blood, half caste, and so on. This effectively derides some Aboriginal people with 'mixed ancestry.' He argues that there are similar problems of creating a hierarchy of authenticity with definitions of identity that situate an Aboriginal essence in terms of 'cultural continuity' (cultural commonalities in terms of heritage, and ways of doing things). While Hollinsworth does show an awareness that the means of defining Aboriginality is seeped in Australia's racist history, he curiously acts as if it were possible to simply choose the most appropriate way for authenticating identity, by rejecting the above classifications for what he calls 'Aboriginality as resistance.' This latter category professedly describes an 'oppositional culture' to common experiences of dispossession and racism. Though he warns against the tendency to essentialise this 'discourse' of resistance, Hollinsworth contends that 'Aboriginality as resistance' is "the most inclusive, dynamic and least readily domesticated by state co-option" ("Discourses" 151). Yet his choice to settle on a preferred category begs the question as to how such a selection can disentangle itself from its complicity with state co-option, as it is such domestication of identity that has produced such resistance and opposition in the first place. We will return to this issue later. For now, let us engage with the question of essentialism as it is effected in the debate.

  11. As already stated, this paper is not intent on evaluating each of Hollinsworth's classifications. Instead its major concerns are to observe some of the ethico-political consequences of not interrogating protocols for speaking subjects within discourses of identity politics, and to point to what kinds of costs might be involved when we attempt to settle definitions of identity once and for all. In returning to the debate, we can see that other authors question Hollinsworth's preferred classification, but they leave unquestioned the need to settle on a definition of identity per se. For instance, while another participant, Lattas, stresses the importance of accounting for context, and differences in meaning as a consequence, he exhibits a lack of attention to context when making his own bid for the use of strategic essentialism. His claims respond to Hollinsworth's critique of essentialism in biological and cultural models of Aboriginal identity:
    A discourse is always informed by relations of power and the way whites essentialise Aborigines cannot be rendered equivalent to the way Aborigines essentialise themselves for the simple reason that our ['white'] essentialism, which is part of a structure of domination, is not the same as the essentialism operating in a structure of resistance. Essentialism should not be essentialised, rendered inert and pregiven as . . . Hollinsworth do[es], but needs to be historicised and contextualised. Essentialism operates and means different things in different contexts. ("Blood" 162)
    There is no doubt that constructions of identity are tied to structures of domination, and Lattas is right to differentiate between an essentialism tied to structures of domination and to structures of resistance. But in doing so, what context -- other than supplying the categories of 'whites' and 'Aborigines' -- does he assign to the ideas and meanings of domination and resistance? Are they, themselves, homogeneous and continuous unities? How does he account for Hollinsworth's observation that there are Aboriginal people who articulate themselves as being excluded or suppressed within prevalent categories of Aboriginality? Lattas's bid for strategic essentialism cannot account for the specific ways in which the diversity of Aboriginal identities might be expressed. It seems that for Lattas, context is defined according to whether participants within certain discourses are 'white' or 'Aborigines'; he does little to indicate otherwise. Notwithstanding his own emphasis on context, Lattas gives the impression that the inscription of one's identity, and the relation one's identity has to knowledge, remain constant -- if only strategically -- no matter what the context. The criticisms leveled at Hollinsworth, therefore, fall short of acknowledging the materiality of discursive practices that produces diversity among Aboriginal people. Marcia Langton raises this point when she stresses the need to acknowledge cultural variation between Aboriginal people in terms of "history, gender, sexual preference and so on" (27). Correspondingly, it might not always be strategic to evoke an essentialist identity; sometimes identities might be crying out to be heard in their dispersion.

  12. So while it might be argued that presupposing a unity for a speaking subject, or a specific marker of identity, is strategically essential for effecting political transformations (a position that circulates within other orders of identity politics),[6] Foucault argues that it is crucial that such unities are not seen to develop as if they come into existence through their own accord:
    Should we regard them as illusions, illegitimate constructions, or ill-acquired results? Should we never make use of them, even as a temporary support, and never provide them with a definition? What we must do, in fact, is to tear away from them their virtual self-evidence, and to free the problems that they pose; to recognize that they are not the tranquil locus on the basis of which other questions (concerning their structure, coherence, systematicity, transformations) may be posed, but that they themselves pose a whole cluster of questions (What are they? How can they be defined or limited? What distinct types of laws can they obey? What articulation are they capable of? What sub-groups can they give rise to? What specific phenomena do they reveal in the field of discourse?). We must recognize that they may not, in the last resort, be what they seem at first sight. In short, that they require a theory, and that this theory cannot be constructed unless the field of the facts of discourse on the basis of which those facts are built up appears in its non-synthetic purity. (Archaeology 26)
    An archaeological analysis deploys its 'negative work' (as Foucault terms it) by focussing primarily on the rules and procedures that come into play when specific issues are made an object of inquiry: in this case, the status of the speaking subject, and the (dis)unity within the definition of an identity. As such, our major concern is to reflect upon the parameters in which the Oceania debate finds itself constituted. But rather than assessing the 'truth value' of claims made within the debate, archaeologies try to identify what factors must be at work for such claims to be assigned any truth value at all. By Foucault's account, it is only within the complex space of discourse that the rules for forming what is sayable, and what will count as legitimate knowledge, can be analysed: a space that initially accepts 'the groupings that history suggests only to . . . break them up and then to see whether they can be legitimately reformed; or whether other groupings should be made" (Archaeology 26).

  13. Consequently, before an archaeological analysis considers the uses of strategic essentialisms against dominant discourses it is concerned with what rules and procedures identities must become complicit with when staking a claim that involves the identity in question. Here, context is tied to institutional sites and specific discursive practices. This suggests that an identity that carries the same linguistic signifier from one context to another can still occupy a different signified in each of the contexts in which it is effected. The discursive practices inhering in, for example, government bureaucracies, departments of Aboriginal Studies, newspaper articles, academic journals, talk-back radio shows, community development programs, school yards, and international conventions all adhere to their own sets of rules and procedures that condition the space made available for a subject to speak about that identity, before the speaking subject occupies that position concretely. This does not mean that there is absolutely no regularity inhering in the same signifier of identity in all these spaces; on the contrary, identities as objects are tied to their own sets of discursive practices. For example, before any of Hollinsworth's students can choose a preferred way of identifying themselves, they are compelled to engage with the bureaucratic discursive practices of Centrelink (government department for social security) if they want to receive ABSTUDY (government-sponsored living allowance for indigenous students). That is, they are forced to obtain a "reference from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples organisation which shows full details of [their] referee and length of time the referee has known [them]". Verifying one's identity through an organisation and not one's own family might appear odd, if not insulting. Yet, students are positioned to situate their identity in this way for Centrelink's purposes. The very same students might otherwise identify themselves through biological descent, cultural contintuity or resistance. They might identify through all three categories or none at all. But to be eligible for ABSTUDY their identity must be verified by an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples organisation. Hence, the institutional site of Centrelink governs students to articulate their identity in a certain discursive way, even though their identities might be articulated differently in their own family and community contexts, when responding to media representations, or when engaged in political activism. In other words, when various discursive practices intersect -- as they do in the Oceania discussion -- the object in question (Aboriginal identities) cannot be thought of as solely outside of, or prior to the various discursive practices from which it acquires its meanings.

  14. It is perhaps more politically astute to situate differences between discursive sites in which Aboriginal identities are given meaning -- the academy, the popular press, government policies, the family -- than it is to reduce the meanings of identity to an assumed unitary (speaking or observed) subject. As Foucault explains:
    In the proposed analysis, instead of referring back to the synthesis or the unifying function of a subject, the various enunciative modalities manifest [the subject's] dispersion. To the various positions that he can occupy or be given when making a discourse. To the discontinuity of the planes from which he speaks. And if these planes are linked by a system of relations, this system is not established by the synthetic activity of a consciousness identical with itself, dumb and anterior to all speech, but by the specificity of a discursive practice. (Archaeology 54-55)
    The specificity of the discursive practice is derived from the operational field of what Foucualt calls the enunciative function (the place effecting any speaking subject that enters a particular discursive fellowship). Foucault further describes the discursive practice as "a body of anonymous, historical rules, always determined in the time and space that have defined a given period, and for a given social, economic, geographical, or linguistic area, the conditions of operation of the enunciative function" (Archaeology 117) Without precluding the need to intervene in processes that produce under-representation and marginalisation, an archaeological analysis suggests that when engaging with political struggles aiming to correct discrimination and oppression inflicted upon Aboriginal peoples there is a need to account for the ways in which speaking positions and subject positions are already effected in an order of discourse. And this is why it becomes important not to group those inscribed with an Aboriginal identity as having an automatic ontological and epistemological standpoint for articulating a united front in politics, or univocal views of social reality, that can remain constant through all institutional sites and discursive practices.

  15. As mentioned earlier, the desire not to speak on behalf of another identity is sometimes conflated with the belief that marginalised identities inhabit a privileged epistemological and ontological standpoint for transforming social relations. The generality of this conflation can be inferred from instantiations of the materialism associated with certain Marxist positions, which have informed what has come to be known as feminist standpoint theory.[7]

  16. Borrowing from Marx's materialist conception of history, feminist standpoint theory finds its point of departure by criticising the privilege accorded to the category of (male) labour, claiming that the position of women in relations of reproduction and production is ontologically 'better' situated to analyse social and political inequalities. Without giving a detailed description of standpoint theorists, it is sufficient to note, for present purposes, that proponents of standpoint theory, such as Sandra Harding, claim that the experiences of the subjugated not only expose the theoretical biases and effects of power exerted by the 'master position' (usually identified as white, capitalist and male), but also can provide the grounds for providing a better account of the world (The Science Question 191). Taken to an extreme form, standpoint theory suggests that a subject with the most markers of oppressed identities would be the best situated to ground a theory of knowing! Notwithstanding the failure to account for the 'formidable materiality' of discourse mediating the formation of such knowledges, there is an obvious practical impossibility in trying to establish a collective singular subject to ground such an epistemology, as the list of possible subjugated identities would be endless and there would be no way of occupying the position of 'God's eye' -- as Donna Haraway puts it -- to see from all positions at once.[8] Furthermore, standpoint theory's idea of privileged perspective becomes ironically dependent on the continued subjugation of oppressed identities in order to be maintained.

  17. This very brief summary of standpoint theory exposes a prevelant problem within discourses of identity politics in general -- the propensity to speak about an identity's experiences of oppression in ways that unwittingly promote the view that truth claims are reducible to the standpoints of subjugated identities. It also draws attention to the need to differentiate between orders of analysis. That is, it might often be appropriate to draw from the perspectives of subjugated identities for some forms of social criticism, but this is not to be confused with drawing upon the same perspectives as a means for grounding an ontology. That is, social criticism and ontology do not belong to the same order of analysis, and therefore should not be permitted to be so easily conflated. While the positions in the Oceania debate are by no means as extreme in making such conflations, it is worth considering the way in which the issues raised by standpoint positions impinge upon that debate.

  18. Of the six people participating in the Oceania debate, only one participant identifies with an Aboriginal identity - Mudrooroo Nyoongah. [9] According to the rules and procedures surrounding the rituals of speaking in the debate -- although not unanimously claimed -- Mudrooroo is situated with the most legitimate perspective from which to speak on such issues. That there is only one participant who speaks as an Aboriginal person in the debate is perhaps reflective of the rituals of exclusion effected by the rules and procedures surrounding academic discourses, a discursive space from which Aboriginal voices have no doubt been excluded and impeded (historically and institutionally) from entry. The lack of Aboriginal people speaking within academic discourses certainly needs redressing, but this issue cannot guarantee -- and nor should it have to -- that all Aboriginal people participating in such discourses would have a univocal perspective and unitary politics on issues of identities. The arguments for strategic essentialism, as well as Mudrooroo's argument for an Aboriginal essence, however, would seem to suggest otherwise. As Mudrooroo remarks,
    In this response, I have no wish to weight (European) theory against (European) theory, and then declare that this or that type of identity has more value; but see [sic] only to crystallize an Aboriginal (individual, though based on the views of many individuals and thus having a degree of commonality) response to the paper. It is thought provoking; but to suggest that an important Aboriginal theory of identity, an important social reality, may be weighed against European theories of identity, and then dismissed for being politically dangerous and a useful tool for racists seems almost pernicious, especially when for many Aborigines, Black, Brown, or Brindle, it is the Aboriginal 'essence' which makes an Aborigine and it is this essence which states, restates, informs and reforms his/her and our culture and social reality. (Nyoongah 157)

  19. There is a certain danger involved in the positioning of the enunciative-function assigned to Mudrooroo -- not Mudrooroo the concrete subject -- from within the discursive practices effecting the debate. Because Mudrooroo speaks as an Aboriginal person, and can therefore fulfil the qualifications to speak legitimately within the debate, there is a danger that statements in his article might have the effect of quelling the diversity of other Aboriginal voices that might not share the same perspective. If Mudrooroo's claim to an essence is taken as self-evident on the grounds that he is positioned with legitimate qualifications to speak, then it becomes more difficult to give legitimacy to Hollinsworth's claim that he hears some Aboriginal people claiming they feel excluded from or repressed by current claims of what constitutes an Aboriginal essence.[10] A benefit in applying the negative work of an archaeological analysis to these issues in the debate is that the question of essence is measured by the way it functions in discourse, without committing itself to having to settle on a univocal and universal conception. For the problem with essentialism is not so much that an essence per se is invoked -- there is no way around this -- but that certain Aboriginal identities are suppressed or excluded from the kinds of essences that do currently circulate in attempts to define, once and for all, Aboriginal identity.

  20. However, to further complicate matters pertaining to the Oceania debate, shortly after the debate was published it was reported in The Weekend Australian newspaper that an investigation had been underway for some time concerning the 'authenticity' of Mudrooroo's Aboriginal identity. The investigation was issued by the 'Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation, a Perth-based organisation to promote and protect Aboriginal cultural activity.'[11] Like the Oceania debate itself, the newspaper articles concerning Mudrooroo's identity raise a question over authenticating Aboriginal identity. (It ought to be noted in passing, that journalists are apparently not as attached to the protocol of situating their knowledges by listing their identity markers in their writing -- after all, their discursive practice of reporting the 'truth' is supposedly protected from personal partiality) The journalist responsible for the reports, Victoria Laurie, quotes a definition of Aboriginal identity from the chairman of the Perth-based Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Board of the Australia Council, Richard Walley, and cites the concurrence of opinion held by the coordinator of Dumbartung, Robert Eggington, and the director, Lynette Narkle, of the Aboriginal youth theatre company, Yirra Yaakin: "someone of Aboriginal descent who identifies as such and is recognised by their Aboriginal community to be so." Laurie goes on to say that "both Eggington and Walley are emphatic that 'Aboriginal blood' is essential" ("Identity" 32) -- the definition that Hollinsworth rejects, but the grounds upon which Mudrooroo's identity is contested. Pertaining to the present discussion, the concern over the status of Mudrooroo's identity cannot help but prompt the Oceania debate to confront certain complexities, as complexities and not as being resolvable in black and white terms, as it were. Such complexities are always at work when speaking positions are reduced to the definition of an identity, regardless of whether the bearer of that identity can be authenticated.

  21. If there are members of the Aboriginal community who advocate a definition of Aboriginal identity in terms of blood, and if these members of the community denounce the Aboriginal identity of Mudrooroo in such terms, then where does this leave the status of Mudrooroo's own identification or connections with Aboriginal experiences, his identity as an Aboriginal writer, and his legitimacy in providing an Aboriginal speaking position within the Oceania debate? What happens to the status of those arguments that invest their own positions with recourse to Mudrooroo's authenticity? In effect if an argument is dependent on the authenticity of an identity and that identity turns out to be "inauthentic," then what critical leverage remains to further political transformations? Even if Mudrooroo's identity was not disputed, what could guarantee one Aboriginal voice as representative of the diversity of others? Once again, Marcia Langton's point that the call for self-representation is often based on the "assumption of an undifferentiated Other" puts into question any simple solution to the issue (27). We can now see that the matter of speaking calls for answers far more stratified and complex than a simple "it does so (matter)/does not (matter) alternative.

  22. An archaeological analysis cannot provide definitive answers to the matter of speaking and claiming and contesting authenticity, but it can draw attention to the rules and procedures that come into play when such questions are at issue. Focussing on discursive practices rather than on markers of identity cannot relieve all anxieties about speaking positions, or make the matter irrelevant, but it can help to avoid conflating the legitimacy of a speaking position with a fixed definition of what constitutes an authentic identity for all circumstances and contexts. In stressing the importance of context, an archaeological analysis would remain attentive to differences between those definitions of identity that circulate through the structures of bureaucratic authorities, through avenues of representation by proxy, and through different communities and media that articulate self-representation. Such an analysis would be concerned with how all these differences might intersect or disperse within the same discursive formation.

  23. To reiterate: when Foucault remarks that it matters little who's speaking, this is not to propose that subjugated voices should not be given more space to speak on their own behalf. Quite the contrary, as suggested by Foucault's discussion with Gilles Deleuze on the relations between intellectuals and power.[12] In intimating that it matters little who's speaking, Foucault turns specifically to accounting for the rules and procedures inhering in regimes of truth within specific contexts, which position what can be said, and who is deemed the most qualified to speak, before any speaking actually takes place. So with regard to the Oceania discussion, an archaeology would be interested in examining what regimes of truth are already in play, before a subject actually occupies a position that speaks about the construction of Aboriginal identities. If the voices of Aboriginal peoples have been subjugated in the process, and if the marks of authenticity are contestable -- as has become the case with Mudrooroo -- the question must then turn to what constraints on speaking already inscribe what is uttered; what constraints condition the authentication of an identity; and what possibilities are available for resurrecting the silence of its exclusions. Investigating such questions cannot avoid confronting the violence of the past. And here we return to the issue of complicity between discourses of resistance and discourses of power in the struggle over naming and contesting identity.

  24. There is no doubt that narratives of (White) Australian history are riddled with the exclusion and suppression of Aboriginal voices; there is also no doubt that constructions of Aboriginality in Australia are saturated with the legacy of European invasion. This is clearly illustrated through tracing the conception of Australian Aborigines in discourses of European colonial administrations:
    The concept 'the Aborigines' has been generally used as though such a self-consciously identified group had existed at first contact with Europeans, but this is to prescribe, retrospectively, a definition to the aboriginal peoples at a period when they had no such sense of themselves. Before 1788 or even much later, they did not conceive of themselves as 'Aborigines' any more than the European invaders thought of themselves as 'Australians.'[13]
    The categorisation of 'Aborigines' in this way produces two related problems for current discourses concerning constructions of Aboriginal identities. First, such categorisation has had the effect of homogenising the diversity of peoples articulated through indigenous regional terms such as Nyoongahs, Kooris, Wongis, and Murris, to name a few -- a point raised in a footnote by Hollinsworth ("Discourses 152n2), and brought to attention by Mudrooroo in his article (Nyoongah 156). Second, these diverse voices are forced to present themselves within Eurocentric discourses. On this point, Foucault's work on subjugated knowledges can be seen to concur with the political goal of wanting to trace the silences and exclusions of Aboriginal voices in the construction of their own identities. That is, while Foucault's exposition of archaeology might be seen as a critique of certain principles conditioning the elaboration of identity politics, it is equally important to not lose sight of the 'political' advantages of examining the speaking subject and subject (object) of inquiry, as functions of discourse.

  25. As is clear from the rituals of speaking surrounding and infusing the Oceania discussion, there is an underlying imperative to situate the speaking subject's knowledges by referring to his or her own markers of identity. This particular rule of speaking is one of the regulating principles that operates within the discursive formation of identity politics in general, and the politics of Aboriginal identities in particular. Foucault introduces the concept of the discursive formation to avoid referring to bodies of knowledges and practices "as 'science,' 'ideology,' 'theory,' or 'domain of objectivity'" (Archaeology 38). The crucial difference between these organising concepts and the discursive formation is that the latter is more concerned with the 'system of dispersion' effecting a particular object or thematic than it is with trying to link disparate events or smooth out contradictions inhering in their definitions.
    A discursive formation is not, therefore, an ideal, continuous, smooth text that runs beneath the multiplicity of contradictions, and resolves them in the calm unity of coherent thought; nor is it the surface in which, in a thousand different aspects, a contradiction is reflected that is always in retreat, but everywhere dominant. It is rather a space of multiple dissensions; a set of oppositions whose levels and roles must be described. (Foucault, Archaeology 155)
    Together the notions of discursive practice and discursive formation offer a means for situating Aboriginal identities in the order of discourse. Within the regulating principles of discursive practices we have been examining, we can see how the enunciative-function attempts to ward off the materiality of discourse in an endeavour to master its chance events and to reconcile its disparities. That is, regardless of their intentions to accommodate diversity, all participants in the debate seemed fixed upon the notion of having to choose the most suitable 'discourse of Aboriginality', to borrow Hollinsworth's phrase. In doing so, they unwittingly quell the diversity inhering in Aboriginal identities, and restrict the capacity for representations to shift in accordance with the specificity of a particular situation and institutional site. In other words, the status accorded to the speaking subject within the Oceania discussion becomes complicit in preserving the idea of a unitary sovereign subject, even though some participants, like Hollinsworth, might like to avoid this. Foucault is careful, however, not to completely diminish the creative role assigned to the enunciative-function. What he argues is that he has "deprived the sovereignty of the subject of the exclusive and instantaneous right to it" (Archaeology 209).

  26. In contrast to the rarefying principles characteristic of discursive practices, the discursive formation is not intent on trying to define an object once and for all. Hollinsworth's search for the most politically effective definition of Aboriginality, for instance, would therefore be seen as misguided from an archaeological perspective. Analysing the politics of identities as discursive formations would show that, no matter who the speaker was, a specific identity cannot be definitively pinned down in advance of the discourse in which it finds itself effected. In this sense, Hollinsworth's bid to settle on a definition of Aboriginality as 'resistance' discounts the situations in which it might be more appropriate to speak of Aboriginality as 'descent' or Aboriginality as 'cultural continuity.' Equally, if Hollinsworth's critics had paid less attention to the speaking subject, and more attention to the rules and procedures that limit subjects when they speak in specific sites of struggle, the discussion could have moved toward a multiplication of strategies for intervening in various discourses and institutional sites where Aboriginality as an identity is at stake.

  27. To conclude, then, it makes more sense to think about the question, "What matter who's speaking?" in terms that first consider how a discursive space may effect an identity, before any speaking commences. Suspending reference to a speaking subject does not seek to absolve the investigator from responsibility, but instead inquires after what enables and constrains a subject in the very act of taking up a speaking position. As Foucault puts it in his own defence:
    If I suspended all reference to the speaking subject, it was not to discover laws of construction or forms that could be applied in the same way by all speaking subjects, nor was it to give voice to the great universal discourse that is common to all men at a particular period. On the contrary, my aim was to show what the differences consisted of, how it was possible for men, within the same discursive practice, to speak of different objects, to have contrary opinions, and to make contradictory choices; my aim was also another; in short, I wanted not to exclude the problem of the subject, but to define the positions and functions that the subject could occupy in the diversity of discourse. (Archaeology 200, emphasis added)
    As various liberatory struggles remind us to respect diversity between identities, Foucault's archaeological analysis can remind us to respect also differences within various identities. So perhaps we should not be too hasty in providing a literal answer to Beckett's rhetorical question that provides the title for this paper. For if rhetorical questions are asked to produce effects, then the matter of who speaks for, and about, whom cannot be answered before travelling the path of each situation in which such decisions might have to be made.


    [My thanks to Glenn D'Cruz for commenting on earlier versions of this paper.]

  1. M. Foucault quoting S. Beckett in "What is an Author?," p. 138. Back

  2. As will be pointed out later in the paper, the category of Aborigine homogenises the diversity of peoples identified in indigenous regional terms such as Koori, Nyoongah, Wongi, Murris, to name a few. I begin by using the term Aboriginal peoples because I will be referring to a debate that discusses Australian Aboriginal identity in general. Back

  3. I am referring to the following articles that appeared over two issues (63.2 and 63.3, 1992 and 1993) of Oceania: D. Hollinsworth, "Discourses on Aboriginality and the Politics of Identity in Australia"; M. Nyoongah, "Self-determining Our Aboriginality, A Response to 'Discourses on Aboriginality and the Politics of Identity in Urban Australia'"; B. Atwood, "Comment on Hollinsworth"; A. Lattas, "Wiping the Blood off Aboriginality: The Politics of Aboriginal Embodiment in Contemporary Intellectual Debate"; J. Beckett, "Comment on Hollinsworth"; D. Hollinsworth, "Coagulating Categories: A Reply to Responses"; G. Cowlishaw, "Introduction: Representing Racial Issues"; A. Lattas, "Essentialism, Memory and Resistance: Aboriginality and the Politics of Authenticity." Back

  4. In general, see M. Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge. Back

  5. For a clear and astute study of negotiations of Aboriginal identity on talk back radio see S. Mickler, The Myth of Privilege: Aboriginal status, Media visions, Public ideas. Back

  6. The term 'strategic essentialism' is not only used within the confines of this particular debate, but has also been effected in other discourses, such as postcolonial studies and feminism. For example, see Spivak's comments on the Subaltern Studies group in her article, "Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography." See also, D. Fuss, Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference. For an account of the kinds of theoretical and practical ruts that can develop within discussions when essentialism is opposed to anti-essentialism, see G. Spivak and E. Rooney, "In a Word: Interview," om Outside In The Teaching Machine 1-23. Back

  7. See N. Harstock, "The Feminist Standpoint: Developing the Guard for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism"; see also S. Harding, The Science Question in Feminism, and Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women's Lives. Back

  8. See her "Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective." Back

  9. As the writer in question has since dropped Nyoongah from his name, I will refer to him throughout in the main text as Mudrooroo. Back

  10. Hollinsworth situates his paper as identifying different discourses of Aboriginality in order to analyse their "implications for Aboriginal political struggles [and to] examine their consequences for urban Aborigines whose authenticity and claims to unique status in Australian political and cultural terrains are continually contested" ("Discourses" 138). Back

  11. V. Laurie, "Blacks Question 'Aboriginal' Writer," and "Identity Crisis." Back

  12. See M. Foucault and G. Deleuze, "Intellectuals and Power: A Conversation between M. Foucault and G. Deleuze." Within the course of this conversation, Deleuze commends Foucault for raising an "absolutely fundamental" point concerning speaking positions -- "the indignity of speaking for others" (209). A critique concerning the issue of self-representation in this article is given in G. Spivak, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" Back

  13. Hollinsworth quoting Atwood, "Discourses on Aboriginality," p. 138. Back

Works Cited

Atwood, B. "Comment on Hollinsworth." Oceania 63, 2 (1992): 158-59.

Beckett, J. "Comment on Hollinsworth." Oceania 63, 2 (1992): 165-67.

Cowlishaw, G. "Introduction: Representing Racial Issues." Oceania 63, 3 (1993): 183-94.

Foucault, M. and Deleuze, G. "Intellectuals and Power: A Conversation between M. Foucault and G. Deleuze." Trans. D. F. Bouchard and S. Simon. Language, Counter Memory, Practice. Ed. D. F. Bouchard. New York: Cornell University Press, 1977. 205-17.

Foucault, M. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. London and New York: Tavistock, 1972 [Fr 1969].

---. "The Order of Discourse." Trans. I. McLeod. In Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader. Ed. Robert Young. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.

---. "What is an Author?" Trans. D.F. Bouchard and S. Simon. Language, Counter Memory and Practice. Ed. D. F. Bouchard. New York: Cornell University Press, 1977. [NEED PAGE RANGE]

Fuss, D. Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Haraway, D. "Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective." Feminist Studies 14, 3 (1988): 575-99.

Harding, S. The Science Question in Feminism. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1986.

---. Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women's Lives. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Harstock, N. "The Feminist Standpoint: Developing the Guard for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism." In Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology and Philosophy of Science. Eds. S. Harding and M. B. Hintikka. Dordrecht and Boston: D. Riedal, 1983. 283-310.

Hollinsworth, D. "Coagulating Categories: A Reply to Responses." Oceania 63, 2 (1992): 168-71.

---. "Discourses on Aboriginality and the Politics of Identity in Australia." Oceania 63, 2 (1992): 137-55.

Langton, M. "Well I Heard it on the Radio and I saw it on the Television . . ." Woolloomooloo: Australian Film Commission, 1993.

Lattas, A. "Essentialism, Memory and Resistance: Aboriginality and the Politics of Authenticity." Oceania 63, 3 (1993): 240-67.

---. "Wiping the Blood off Aboriginality: The Politics of Aboriginal Embodiment in Contemporary Intellectual Debate." Oceania 63, 2 (1992): 160-64.

Laurie, V. "Blacks Question 'Aboriginal' Writer." The Weekend Australian, July 20-21 (1996): 1, 12.

---. "Identity Crisis." Australian Magazine in The Weekend Australian, July 20-21 (1996): 28-32.

Mickler, S. The Myth of Privilege: Aboriginal status, Media visions, Public ideas. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Press, 1998.

Mudrooroo (see Nyoongah).

Nyoongah, M. "Self-determining Our Aboriginality, A Response to 'Discourses on Aboriginality and the Politics of Identity in Urban Australia.'" Oceania 63, 2 (1992): 156-57.

Spivak, G. C. "In a Word: Interview." With E. Rooney. Outside in the Teaching Machine. New York and London: Routledge, 1993. 1-23.

---. "Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography." In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York and London: Routledge, 1987. 197-221.

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