Evaluating Aboriginality


by

Ceridwen Spark

Monash University, Australia


Copyright © 1999 by Ceridwen Spark, 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.


    Review of:

    Stephen Muecke, No Road: Bitumen all the way (Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Center Press, 1997).


  1. Stephen Muecke's No Road (Bitumen all the way) (1997) is an amusing, engaging and challenging text which reflects the cross-fertilisation of 'theory' and 'fiction.' This uniquely structured novel is appropriately read in the broader context of discussion regarding the valuation, incorporation and/or appropriation of Aboriginality in the Australian context.

  2. Home, especially as it relates to nationhood, is one of many topics addressed in the text, which to some extent reflects the resurgence of interest in home as a potentially enabling concept--albeit one with a troubled and often politically conservative history. Theoretical engagements with 'home' in the Australian context arise both because of Australia's history as an 'immigrant nation' and also, perhaps to a lesser extent, because indigenous claims rest for their discursive power on the claim to be 'at home.' Described as having "nowhere to go, according to white expectations, but more 'at home' in this context (in this case the fringes of Australian towns) than any Australian can ever quite be" (Muecke 14), indigenous people, especially rural-dwelling individuals and groups, have come to embody the 'homeliness' that non-Aboriginal (and perhaps particularly Anglo) Australians appear to desire. Muecke's journeys from Paris and the inner-city suburbs of Sydney to remote Australian landscapes enable and enrich his reflections on home, emplacement and mobility. However, his quest for Aboriginal stories frequently leads him away from Sydney (which has a comparatively large Aboriginal population) and, as a result, his musings on Aboriginality and belonging rarely challenge the notion that Aboriginal people are primarily and even 'properly' located in 'outback' rather than city spaces.

  3. Though he registers the significance of discourses of dispossession to modern subjects, Muecke does not draw connections between the claim to marginality and 'post-colonial racism'--a term the cultural geographer Jane Jacobs has coined to describe the 'new racist' view that "Aborigines despite their economic and political marginalisation, now have too much, too much special legislation, too much land" (Jacobs and Anderson 19). Had he done so, Muecke may have been less inclined to imply an equivalence between 'displaced' and 'modern' subjects (152). Some of his claims, for instance: "as a family we felt marginalised; everyone else seemed to be gay or lesbian . . . [w]e appropriated the jargon of 'hyphenated or hybrid identities' and claimed our children represented this indeterminacy of gender" (153), though they contain an element of parody, could be considered problematic by critics who have (rightly) pointed out that if fragmentation, marginalisation and dispersion are seen to constitute "the representative modern experience"(Hall 113), claims to displacement generally are divested of their oppositional power. Nevertheless, this occasional tendency toward glibness does not detract from Muecke's subtly-made point that blurring the boundaries between centre and margin may expand, rather than preclude, the possibilities for reforming politics.

  4. Meaghan Morris' illuminating essays on the conventional opposition home/travel provide an obvious springboard for Muecke's own thinking about travelling and home in the contemporary Australian context. Having cited Morris, Muecke replicates something of her invigorating and often "undisciplined" (43) style. In the process, he contributes to the development of a new space for himself and others who may wish to explore complex theoretical questions in innovative ways. The wide-ranging nature of the text enables Muecke to make salient contributions to an immense variety of debates and topics, including tourism, travel, hybridity, essentialism, identity, Aboriginal drinking and post-modern architecture, to name but a few provocatively tackled in the text. While the implied reader of No Road is a theoretically informed one, likely to be attuned to the complexities of these discussions, most readers with an interest in any of the above issues, for example, will find themselves newly challenged and refreshingly engaged.

  5. Combining wit with a theoretically informed perspective, Muecke also explores the tensions that inhere in the relation between theory and practice:
    I'm vulnerable, I'm thinking half the time that being a plumber would be a whole lot more useful than doing Aboriginal studies. I mean, you can imagine turning up in some community in the North-West to fix the plumbing. That the people would see the point in doing. But the other? - "Hi, I'm a cultural critic, I've come to fix up your representations". (91).

  6. In addition to examining the complex issues of representation, No Road is committed to theorising language, writing and words in relation to journeying, emplacement, belonging and power: "Bonnie belongs to this territory where she can tell her stories by the river in the morning or at night under millions of stars. 'You don't care, I can tell you anything, eh?' she says to me, not suspecting that I adore her" (144). Muecke's tone oscillates between this engaged,even occasionally enraptured perspective, and ironic distance as he creatively explores the relations between one's locatedness and the production of narratives, between emplacement and storytelling.

  7. Capitalism's relation to Aboriginality is interrogated throughout the book and Muecke--despite his own differently constructed desire for relations with Aboriginal people--demonstrates his acute awareness of the ways in which Aboriginality, frequently constructed as 'Other,' has been re-made in recent years. Exploring the somewhat disturbing overlaps that exist between tourist and research practices, Muecke discusses the difference between "mixing with them" and "parallelism" (34). Drawing on a wide variety of sources and traversing various places, he quotes an 'ancient’'Yoruba proverb,
    No matter how long the log lies in the water it will never become a crocodile (53)
    thereby reminding readers that the desire to transcend oneself, which frequently underlies the search for cross-cultural encounters, can never be fully realised. Cognisant of the ways in which the discourse of 'discovery' is bound up with various progress narratives and with tourism--pioneering's contemporary counterpart--Muecke seeks to bring other travel stories to the fore, stories which convey roads on which ritual and repetition, rather than the quest for novelty might prevail. He describes, for instance, an Aboriginal story in which "the two men, because they are Creation Beings, create, name, bring places into being, so that from that point on people will always travel this road and always find these things. This road is not a pioneering road, it is not part of progress, novelty or modernity" (60). Thus, Muecke reminds readers that travel is about the recovery of ancient space, layered with conflicting stories, tales of colonial bloodshed, white mythologies and "the promise of Asian investment and ‘future development" (58).

  8. Muecke's exploration of the relations between people refigures sameness and otherness. While the paths of individuals are always 'parallel lines,' there are moments in which meeting places arise and unity, however temporary, can be experienced. Drawing on sources as diverse as his friend Abdelkarim, St Augustine and Newtonian physics, Muecke's imaginative and often poignant exploration of difference, incommensurability, knowledge and convergence is as much about the relations between strangers from similar "textual suburbs" (20) as it is about exploring broader questions such as the relation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal philosophies. Claiming that "there is too much invested in liberal white demands for authenticity which preserve distance in relation to Aboriginal lives, making them apart in time and space," Muecke suggests that as a result "passionate and public encounters are increasingly rare" (102). In contrast, his own refusal to shy away from depicting the more 'negative' aspects of Aboriginal culture alongside the 'positive' ones makes him something of a pioneer in a field in which a wide variety of representations of Aboriginal people might become possible. Exploring the various shapes and forms that 'Otherness' and relating to it takes, Muecke juxtaposes his letter about the "re-making of Coonardoo, to Trinh--the most sought after feminist film-maker in the world" (95) with his friend's fascination with 'getting a bit of the other,' in this case Joy, an Aboriginal woman. Here, Muecke's ambiguous "J'ai envie" (108) makes it impossible to construct his own fascination with Otherness as something which exists outside colonialism. However, this is a rare moment in No Road--the book's own desire for novel (frequently Aboriginal) stories and philosophies goes largely unchallenged. Despite Muecke's innovative weaving of theory--including Lingis and Trinh Minh-ha on otherness, humour and politics--No Road does not traverse the path of self-reflexivity to the point where Muecke's own quest to open up new ways of becoming other is itself sufficiently problematised. Informed by Deleuze and Guattari, the author's desire for a "lightness of touch--we drift if we can" (191) is bound up with wanting to imagine himself "already gone" (135), a desire which approximates the quest for objectivity, the effort to absent oneself, which characterises imperialist ethnography. For all its cleverness, No Road stops short of divulging what might be at stake for the author in critiquing the desire for cross-cultural encounters.

  9. Despite the author's apparent compulsion to occupy the position of 'knower' on occasions--a tendency which Muecke humorously alludes to several times--for instance, "I got out my papers, the intellectual showing off even as we were almost lost" (132), and when he tries to "teach Patience how to walk the Aboriginal way" (195), No Road provides "something new"(184), in contrast to "the old (which) is always the confident step, the almost cliched, the acceptable" (159). Against roads which have "done all the thinking for us"(125), Muecke concatenates ideas in an effort to disrupt the certainties of Imperial grids and to keep theory moving. Muecke is the "affective academic subject whose complex intersubjective relations are part of his writing" (138) and No Road, partly because of its idiosyncratic style, makes an immensely valuable contribution to thought about a variety of complex subjects, including Aboriginality, subjectivity and nationhood.


WORKS CITED

Anderson, K., and J. Jacobs. "From Urban Aborigines to Aboriginality and the City." Australian Geographical Studies 35.1 (1997): 12-22.

Hall, Stuart. "Minimal Selves." In Black British Cultural Studies. Ed Houston A. Baker, Jr., M. Diawara, and R. H. Lindeborg. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996, pp. 115-119.

Morris, Meaghan. "At Henry Parkes Motel." Cultural Studies 2.1 (1988): 1-47.

---. "Great Moments in Social Climbing: King Kong and the Human Fly." In Sexuality and Space: Princeton Papers on Architecture, Ed. B. Colomina. Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 1992, pp. 1-51.


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