Caring for Aboriginals? The Politics of Anthropology in Australia

People just joining this debate will have some homework to do first, to better understand what follows below. Here is some of the history of the discussion. We began focusing attention on a debate between Australian anthropologists around the state’s intervention in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, starting with a commentary and extract in what is now our temporarily interrupted series of Encircling Empire Reports. In focus was an article we featured, by Barry Morris and Andrew Lattas: “Embedded Anthropology and the Intervention.” To make my own position clear, I was strongly in favour of the author’s perspective. Soon after, ZA was contacted by one of the anthropologists at the centre of the critique by Morris and Lattas, Francesca Merlan. Out of concern for fairness, we then published Merlan’s response: “Response to Lattas and Morris’ ‘Blinkered Anthropology’.” What follows below is the third installment in the debate, which is the response to Merlan by Morris and Lattas. This is a longer version of what has been sent to the Australian periodical, Arena.


Unblinkered, Caring Anthropology that wants to end
Food Nutrition Programs

Response to Francesca Merlan, by Barry Morris and Andrew Lattas

Merlan claims she has never argued “the current situation of Indigenous people, however one interprets it, is due to their ‘culture’.” We agree that, elsewhere, Merlan has employed more sophisticated theories of culture that are less reductionist in positing fixed, deterministic, cultural essences. We focused on the kinds of anthropology used in defence of the Intervention. In “More than rights,” Merlan argues that “forms of dependency are thoroughly entrenched in Aboriginal affective and behavioural repertoires.” For Merlan, dependency has deep customary roots in Aboriginal economic, kinship and ceremonial relations, and is actively sought by Aborigines in a modern world, where they search for new “bosses” and “responsive interlocutors” who are obligated to look after them. This ahistorical, homogenising analysis has an over-determined view of “culture” as creating modern welfare dependency.

Like Sutton, Merlan believes effective government care has been hindered by a “rights normativity” discourse focused on “the universality of equal rights”. She suggests terminating food nutrition programs for school children in favour of long-term, stable state involvement “that do[es] not make capacity for independent action a casualty in the relationship.” Merlan believes the state needs to cultivate initiative and responsibility, and so “such programs as the school nutrition initiatives must only be temporary.” She claims there is a danger that state intervention may inadvertently harm “the shaping of human capacity” with the Intervention’s effects becoming part of the problem. Whilst acknowledging adequate food nutrition to be important, Merlan claims we must recognise something more urgent, namely, “that people in these communities see some reason to shoulder more effectively the social responsibilities, and recognise the implications, of feeding, cooking, and basic everyday activities.” We are not sure why such discussions about capacity building, learned forms of dependency, teaching parents social responsibilities, and instilling domestic disciplinary routines are not arguments about culture. They seem to be related to contemporary neo-liberal welfare programs that seek to manage and create people through managing and transforming their culture, but phrased within the NGO language of capacity building. For Merlan, government must build up a cultural capacity for independence and not cultivate a supposedly Indigenous cultural emphasis on dependency.

Merlan claims we are unclear if there should ever be any state intervention in matters of health, violence and nutrition. Such arguments reduce the Intervention to the simple moral division between those who feel an obligation to care versus those blinkered ideologues who supposedly always oppose the state even in its caring roles. We have never suggested the state desert its welfare functions, but have criticised contemporary neo-liberal transformations of welfare, which selectively build up a new kind of disciplinary state apparatus around Aborigines that could not be as easily created around non-Aborigines. These renewed forms of racial governance by a carceral state apparatus have occurred alongside discourses, which seek to limit appeals to universal human rights and to social analyses focused on racial power and racial resistances. For us, it is not a quantitative question of more or less state interventions, but of the qualitative nature of contemporary neoliberal forms of governance. New technologies of surveillance, discipline, individuation and collective community accountability are deployed using pedagogic discourses that problematise indigenous social relations and culture.

We question the current unproblematic anthropological use of high-profile Aboriginal public intellectuals who support the Intervention. The discourse of Aboriginal intellectual brokers has changed over time so some now advocate neo-liberal forms of governance, such as increased welfare surveillance and an end to community work programs. The abolition of ATSIC has empowered a select few Indigenous spokespersons who advocate their positions through a neo-liberal language highlighting passive dependency and cultural dysfunctions. There has been little analysis of the political-ideological role of these new Aboriginal public intellectuals, who are quoted, almost as ethnography, by some anthropologists.

We are pleased Merlan no longer supports the Intervention as launched, declaring: “I have in mind something less flamboyant . . . much more collaborative and Indigenously directed.” Yet previously, like Sutton, Merlan used ethnography to support the initial military-style entry into Aboriginal communities even though it was “traumatic for some” and “frightened people in some Aboriginal communities for whom child removals are within living memory.” She claimed such “drama” was useful in combating “a situation of widespread apathy and dysfunction.” This included “lack of positive engagement in daily life and with other people, . . . and neglect, disorganisation and dysfunction in fundamental, everyday routines like food purchase and cooking.”

We often find it difficult to identify Merlan’s own voice from other authors she cites. Controversial points are made by using quotes from other authors, which can be read as extensions of her arguments but can also be assigned as someone else’s opinion when challenged. For example, it is difficult to know how much of the below sentence is Merlan and how much Sutton:

The anthropologist Peter Sutton sees its [Intervention’s] effect on Aboriginal communities and people as useful and, indeed, necessary: nothing besides a declaration of a state of emergency would cause people to sit up and take notice; nothing else would have convinced those who drink, and those who exert strong, negative influences on daily Aboriginal communal life, that the government was serious about its intentions to make change happen.

We would ask where else has the state sought to control alcohol use, drug dependency, domestic violence, and child abuse by sending in the army, removing human rights protections, and instituting encompassing forms of surveillance and welfare policing that reach into the very minutiae of everyday life.

Merlan argues that Aborigines have been enmeshed in the state for a long time. Astonishingly, she claims to raise this point not to argue that state enmeshment justifies further enmeshment, but the need for dialogue. Our concern is to do a genealogy of the different technologies that have controlled Aborigines and how current experiments with neo-liberal forms of racial governance use technologies of power phrased as technologies of care. Those same disciplinary technologies could only be applied to non-Indigenous citizens at great political cost. The scandal of contemporary Australian anthropology is that it uses its ethnography on the specificity of Indigenous society and culture to justify these exceptional forms of racial governance as part of a critique of “rights normativity”. Such anthropology renders exceptional states unexceptional. Current criticisms of the applicability of universal human rights principles have occurred alongside international pressure to reinstate the racial discrimination act, which could be used to challenge the Intervention.

Merlan criticises us as silent on “what combinations of state, Indigenous, and other agency” might be taken. This is strange, for Merlan participated in debates on the AASnet, where we advocated state policies mediated though local women’s groups, churches, elders, magistrates, and Aboriginal police. Perhaps more surprisingly, Merlan turns our critique of the carceral state into a new justification for terminating school meal programs because they are state “inroad[s] into domestic organisation”. She notes “such programs were a staple of the assimilation era, in most of the very communities where the meals programs now once again operate under the Intervention.” She argues that the goal of instilling mainstream cultural dispositions and habits was only partially achieved by such programs, which might instead have “suppressed, the emergence of domestic regimes involving regular meal preparation”. This model of poorly learnt family routines ignores how a lack of cooking in households may be related to present, overcrowded conditions rather than to a history of poorly learnt cultural dispositions. We reject the assumption that food programs for Aboriginal school children must be opposed in the present on the grounds of how such programs functioned in the colonial past. Ironically, it is our blinkered anthropology, which supposedly opposes all state care, that supports feeding needy remote Indigenous children, whilst Merlan’s unblinkered caring anthropology calls for its end. Such is the politics of care and suffering in contemporary anthropological discourse.

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