Archive for August 2004

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[eccr] Thinking Race and Identity Conference Review

Sun Aug 08 07:50:49 GMT 2004

>Thinking Race and Identity (Conference Review)
>University of New South Wales, Sydney 31 July 2004
>Danny Butt <(db /at/>
>This conference was billed as "a forum for people interested or working in
>the area of contemporary French philosophy to discuss concepts of race and
>identity", and despite not having any particular interest in French
>philosophy I had a great time and learnt a lot. Fanon had been creeping up
>my "must revisit" list recently so this conference seemed like a good
>opportunity to move toward that. Particular congratulations should go to the
>organisers - Danielle Davis (UNSW), Joshua Mullan (Macquarie) and Mark
>O'Neill (UNSW), all philosophy postgrads, for a programme that brought in a
>much more diverse audience (60ish? people) than you'd expect from a French
>philosophy conference! Undoubtedly the cheap registration (esp for unwaged
>people) was another contributing factor. These notes are a mixture of notes
>made during the day and reflections on some of the speakers/issues and are
>likely to contain many inaccuracies, so I'd appreciate any corrections /
>responses and you should take these representations with plenty of salt.
>Also apologies to anyone whose work I misrepresent here!
>The day began with Marcia Langton and this was the second time I've heard
>her speak, and once again she would have to rate among my favourite
>conference speakers, with a passionate mixture of policy analysis, what I
>would call pragmatic theoretical reflection (though Langton prefaced this
>talk with "I'm not going to talk about theory"), historiography and personal
>experience. One of the most useful themes I find in Langton's work is the
>consistent move away from abstractions in Aboriginal issues and through to
>specific situations, highlighting the experiential aspects of identity and
>reformulating many issues as simply about the white left's lack of
>preparedness to engage with indigenous people's experiences. However, these
>experiences are always located in the particular historical construction of
>the fundamentally (and constitutionally) racist Australian nation-state. One
>particular story I found enlightening was her linking of the legal status of
>Aboriginal people at Australian Federation to the distribution of Federal
>government financial support between Eastern and Western Australia. If
>Aboriginal people had been counted as citizens, South Australia and Western
>Australia would have had to be given more money than the eastern centres of
>colonial occupation. Couldn't have that! Langton was also consistent in her
>linking of contemporary indigenous experience to larger media power
>dynamics, describing Redfern as "the Iraq in your backyard", one whose
>day-to-day reality is mediated and marketed by the white media as a symbol
>for race relations, and so anything which doesn't fit the story gets thrown
>out. Prof Langton is one of the real treasures of Australian public life and
>I'd encourage anyone interested in contemporary Australian issues and/or
>colonisation to hear her speak.
>The next session was over to French philosophy. Danielle Davis began with a
>discussion of the black body as performed in the recent death of Redfern
>teenager TJ Hickey as he was chased by police. Drawing from Fanon and
>Merlau-Ponty, Davis outlined the various kinds of relations possible between
>white and black bodies, placed TJ's pursuit in the context of a larger
>history/paradigm of black pursuit by white cops, and argued for a
>reformulation of these relationships that (I think?) rested on a way of
>physically relating in terms of openness, a turning toward, an acceptance of
>being in the same physical space in a mutually productive way. It reminded
>me of a great piece of stand-up from one of the Original Kings of Comedy,
>about the way white people move when they "walk along the street catch a bit
>of blackness in their periphery... They're walking along nervously, I move
>to the left to walk by but the guy's also moved to the left to try and let
>me pass on the right, so I change tack but he's freaked out and quickly
>darts to the right blocking my way again... so in the end I had to rob him."
>A suggestive paper even if I was a little troubled at the use of what is
>obviously a tragic and still-raw situation in service of a slightly
>abstracted discussion of bodily relations. Then again I don't work in
>philosophy so maybe that's just the nature of the discipline. The feeling
>was clarified by a question from the floor that asked whether Hickey's
>distance from his own people's support networks (my understanding was that
>few if any of his extended family lived in Redfern) may have played a role
>in his vulnerable position with the police. That seemed like a very clear
>question to ask from an Aboriginal cultural viewpoint that Davis did not
>seem to be able to account for within the framework proposed in her paper.
>The other two papers in this panel were from white philosophers, and both of
>them were useful for exemplifying in different ways the perils of applying
>European academic speaking positions in relation to indigenous issues. Ros
>Diprose (UNSW) gave a reading of a passage from Ivan Sen's excellent film
>"Beneath Clouds" [the scene where the older Aboriginal woman asks the
>white-identifying but possibly Aboriginal Lena "Where your people from
>girl?"] to discuss the importance of a place-bound model of community for
>Australia. Jean-Phillipe Deranty (Macquarie) gave a reading of "Blacklines -
>contemporary critical theory by Indigenous Australians", in which he
>proposed to" give up a position of power" and relate what he'd learnt from
>this book as a French philosopher.
>I've recently discussed elsewhere the usefulness of Spivak's suggestion that
>"who speaks is less important than who will listen", and the immediate
>consequence of that question in terms of this audience who were present is
>"what do these presentations offer an Indigenous audience"? Not much judging
>by the response from the floor, where questions emerged about the usefulness
>of a generic discussion of "community" for Aboriginal peoples, given their
>highly complex and culturally specific ways of managing relationships. Both
>speakers were careful to situate their papers in the non-indigenous space,
>but at this stage I'm just about ready to put the statement "I'm not
>speaking for Aboriginal people" in roughly the same category as "Some of my
>best friends are..." You know it's going to be followed by some kind of
>generalisation that the speaker feels the need to qualify, and is therefore
>likely to be dodgy. Diprose and Deranty's papers weren't "bad", and may have
>passed without comment at the usual white-dominated humanities conferences,
>but if we're looking for some practical reconciliation I think it has to
>happen in our methods of communication more than the content we choose to
>study - i.e. we need to get past the space where white people talk to each
>other about Aboriginal issues using European theoretical terminology that
>excludes Aboriginal conceptions of the same phenomena.
>A notable methodological contrast could be seen in the paper by Faye
>Brinsmead, a legal scholar who, without any performed anxieties around
>representation, gave a detailed and practical re-evaluation of the judgement
>by Justice Blackburn in 1971 that asserted that indigenous people have no
>property rights. Brinsmead's contention - if I recall correctly - was that
>while Blackburn's conclusion was decried as racist, the judgement itself
>contains a wide survey of commonwealth approaches to indigenous property
>rights, and performs an unintentional deconstruction of legal approaches to
>indigenous ownership that posits a "right of occupancy" rather than a
>"freehold property right." If this occupancy-based approach was elaborated
>upon it could have far-reaching consequences that would dwarf Australia's
>Mabo judgement, in that the right of occupancy may not have been
>extinguished by *any* state allocation of freehold property, and this would
>bring about a much-needed legal discussion about the incommensurability of
>these conceptions of property. It could possibly move beyond the dynamic
>Michael Mansell observed, where "the court gives an inch but takes another
>mile". [Note: I've only recently familiarised myself with the legal
>dialogues on native title and I could have this argument totally wrong, but
>what was important was that everyone I talked to thought it was a great
>Brinsmead followed Irene Watson (Flinders) on this panel, whose paper I
>mostly missed due to being caught up outside talking, but which seemed to be
>trying to reclaim the revolutionary aspirations of Fanon from the tamer
>academic recuperations we've become used to. She reminded us of Fanon's
>contention that the end point of the colonial dynamic would be the "wrecking
>of colonial space", and a destruction of this space, rather than any
>synthesis that might be hoped for among liberal white culture.
>Rounding out the panel was Paul Patton (UNSW), who moved from his advertised
>title on "Indigenous Rights" to a discussion of difference in relation to
>Government-Indigenous relationships in Australia. I must admit to not being
>as familiar with Patton's work as I should be, as I've probably just read
>the wrong things and not felt like pursuing his work. On the other hand,
>I've found Patton inspirational as a white Australian philosopher
>consistently returning to race issues, and facilitating interdisciplinary
>and intercultural relationships in the intellectual community in innovative
>ways. I'll probably check out more of Patton's work after this conference's
>paper, because it was great. Patton performed a very clear exposition of
>Australia's "pathological attachment to equality", which is routinely
>mouthed by Prime Minister Howard and co despite the very obvious
>inequalities which continue to exist and be fostered by colonial government
>practices. While we tend to think of ourselves as moving forward on
>"reconciliation", the previous ten years in Australia has seen a
>semi-dismantling of Native Title, no real process on native rights
>generally, and the disbanding of ATSIC, and its functions reabsorbed into
>"mainstream" government departments. What's gone wrong? Patton outlined the
>lack of a public language for contemporary "differential rights", even if
>this is seeking to restore "equality" by reversing the racist differential
>rights that have built the Australian nation-state. This lack of a public
>language allows Howard to say the most outrageous stuff like "We can't have
>a Treaty with our own people, so a Treaty would deny Aboriginal people
>citizenship." Patton called for academic and public intellectual work that
>elaborates on "terra nullius" and includes the depths of its racism and its
>role in contemporary interpretations of race relations.
>Before the panel just discussed, Australian Senator Aden Ridgeway gave
>probably the best conference presentation by a politician that I've seen (I
>realise that may not be saying much, but it was great). He talked candidly
>about negotiating his responsibilities to government, to his community, and
>(as the only Aboriginal member of parliament) to Aboriginal people
>generally. His personal story as a high-school dropout from North Coast NSW,
>moving to becoming a welder then community activist and politician provided
>no shortage of vivid anecdotes to support his view that Australia's failure
>to accept Aboriginal people as fully human is a loss to the entire country.
>Ridgeway also discussed the Australian perversion of the word "egalitarian"
>to generate some "plausible deniability" about the "real trauma behind the
>statistics in Aboriginal communities." He finished with a call for greater
>investment in Indigenous languages, noting that "we spend more money on
>teaching French than we do teaching Aboriginal languages", and highlighted
>the benefits of mainstreaming Aboriginal-controlled service provision in the
>outback - "the Miramar model" - where e.g. Indigenous health services
>treated Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
>The keynote address came from Lewis Gordon, professor of philosophy at
>Temple University and author of a number of books on Fanon and African
>philosophy that I have to check out after his address! His paper "The Human
>in the Question of Race: A Philosophical Portrait" gave an expansive
>overview of the issue of race in philosophy. Gordon has a Barthesian style
>with a gift for "summing up" ("There are six kinds of decadence in
>philosophy..." "three approaches to racial domination..." "two options..."
>etc.) - my notes at the end of his paper read like a fully indented lecture
>outline. But his direct style in no way trivialised the complexity of the
>issues of race in philosophy, carefully distinguishing between the different
>logics of race discourses around colour (anxiety over "exponentiality") and
>indigeneity (belief that indigenous people will disappear); or philosophical
>exclusion based on epistemic closure (removing oneself from engaging with
>questions) or "bad faith" (removing oneself from engaging with evidence).
>Gordon also brought his own experiences into the frame, describing an
>editorial in a former employers' University Newspaper raising questions
>about the "proliferation of black faculty" on campus. It turned out that
>there were 9 out of 2200 black faculty members, but it was Lewis choosing to
>walk across the campus each day to his classes that had provoked a moral
>One of Gordon's key points, drawing from Fanon's dialectics of recognition,
>was to suggest that all kinds of racist assumptions have a simple form:
>"Tell me why you have the right to exist." The object of the assumption then
>has to "use external things to justify yourself.... But the moment you're
>caught seeking recognition by using these external things you've already
>lost." The only real strategy is to find ways of inverting the assumption,
>in DuBois's formulation to stop being the problem, but occupy the space of
>identifying problems. Because the racist logic is about the elimination of
>"problems", racial others are invariably fighting for the end of the entire
>racist world-system (thus revolution/self-determination rather than liberal
>assimilation). Gordon also made a number of related points about the perils
>of disciplinarity, and the need for a radical study of "movement" among
>peoples due to the absence of "voluntary migration." [I think]. Anyway, a
>thoroughly entertaining and insightful address that left me with a lot to
>think about and follow up.
>Finally and importantly, the event had some of the best conference catering
>I've encountered. Plenty of vegetarian-vegan options at lunch, bearable
>coffee, sparkling mineral water in breaks is a great idea, tasty SE-Asian
>styled finger food and good wine/beer/juice selection at cocktails to
>finish. A real pleasure not to leave a day's conferencing desperate for some
>good food :).
>#place: location, cultural politics, and social technologies:

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