Gillian Cowlishaw Among the Historians

Gillian CowlishawIn 1986, Gillian Cowlishaw lamented that what passed for social anthropology in Australia had been really ‘social archaeology’.[1] Social anthropologists, she argued, tended to reify Aboriginal ‘culture’, treating it as somehow immune from political and historical trauma—as prehistoric, fixed in time. In 2003, Cowlishaw reiterated her argument against the ‘false binarism which places Aboriginal culture in one basket and colonial history in another’.[2] As a corrective, the insights of Antonio Gramsci, Frantz Fanon, Eric Wolf and Talal Asad framed her own studies of Aboriginal Australians. Moreover, she sought to incorporate the voices of Aboriginal Australians as modern subjects, not archaeological objects, in her narratives. It is this critical historical sensibility—and attendant sensitivity to the violence of exclusion—that renders Cowlishaw’s studies so pertinent to revitalizing contemporary Australian anthropology and so appealing to some of us beyond the confines of her discipline.

Early in her career, perhaps influenced by Ian Langham, George Stocking and other historians of anthropology, Cowlishaw developed a critique of racial assumption—often disguised as ‘tradition’ or intrinsic ‘culture’—in anthropological reasoning. Critical race theory seems to have been a touchstone in her work, a means of assessing ethnographic merit. During the 1980s, a few historians, such as Henry Reynolds, Ann Curthoys and Andrew Markus, were launching a sustained critique of racial assumptions in Australian scholarship. For social anthropologists, however, ‘race’ would prove a stickier category, less readily dislodged from their research. It kept on gumming up social analysis, often in the form of unchanging ‘culture’ or ‘tradition’. ‘Much discussion about the position of Aborigines in Australia today’, Cowlishaw wrote in 1986, ‘makes an implicit assumption about the importance of racial, meaning biological, differences’. But since race was really a ‘social construct’, shouldn’t we rather be asking ‘who constructs it and why?’[3] Her aim, she continued, was ‘to lay the groundwork for an ethnographic study of racism’—not to collude with ‘the erasure of racism as a lived structure of domination’.[4] Importantly, Cowlishaw demanded recognition of the impact of colonial history on modern Aboriginal communities, which were complex and mixed, not biologically and culturally abiding and pure. She was particularly committed to examining ‘the ways in which the category “Aboriginal” is created and maintained in the face of changing characteristics both of Aborigines and of the society in which they are encapsulated’.[5] Even in 1986, Cowlishaw provocatively urged us to include ‘avowed antiracists’ within the new ethnographic remit. ‘The nature of their work in a racially-structured society’, she wrote, ‘forces them into an understanding of what they are doing that includes as one main element the racial categories that are commonly used by those on whom they depend to get jobs for their clients’.[6]

It would be interesting to know how the emergence of subaltern, postcolonial and Aboriginal histories during this period shaped this critical project, the recognition that ‘Aboriginal life is saturated with colonial power’.[7] At the same time as Aboriginal anthropology thus began engaging—prominently in Cowlishaw’s own inquiries—with the history of the impact of settler colonialism, historians such as Greg Dening, Rhys Isaac, and Inga Clendinnen were cultivating a Geertzian anthropological sensibility. Yet rarely, it seems, did these projects intersect. On the whole, anthropologically minded historians must have found Australianist anthropology disappointingly sterile and historically naïve. Still, a few social anthropologists during this period obviously did recognize critical colonial histories of racism to be intellectually fertile for their own ethnographic projects. But until recently, Cowlishaw’s interest in Aboriginal and subaltern history doesn’t seem to have been properly reciprocated by historians themselves. To be sure, such historical sensibility is not shared with all anthropologists, but historians of Aboriginal Australia have been surprisingly slow to identify the historical value of Cowlishaw’s work. Maybe earlier generations of historians gave up too soon on the anthropologists and just stopped paying attention—they saw them as part of the problem, not the solution. ‘Historians are using their skills’, Cowlishaw wrote in 1993, ‘not only to unearth the entrenched racial violence of the past but to unearth the sins of the anthropologists’.[8] Ten years later, she again emphasised ‘the morally and culturally ambiguous cultural dynamics of the frontier with itsCultivation of Whiteness cover shifting and intermingling cultural realities, priorities and relationships’.[9] But to what extent were the historians on whose inquiries she drew engaging with her studies? Of course, I’m not saying there has been no contact between historians and anthropological critiques of the social construction of Aboriginality—or ‘the particular ways that racial boundaries and definitions are constructed’.[10] My own historical work, especially The Cultivation of Whiteness (2002), was shaped by engagement with studies by Cowlishaw and other critical anthropologists. And Bain Attwood, for example, in Telling the Truth about Aboriginal History (2005) briefly, and favourably, quotes from Cowlishaw’s work. But on the whole the Aboriginal history wars and the Aboriginal anthropology wars seem to have kept themselves separate, as though they occupied different ground. It would be fascinating to know what Cowlishaw thinks of their mutual interests or missed connections.

It was, in part, Cowlishaw’s implicit argument for attention to the settler colonial making of whiteness that stimulated me to write The Cultivation of Whiteness in the late 1990s. In view of her later criticism of her lack of attention to the subject, this may be considered inadvertent or unwitting—or just exceptionally subtle—of me. Later in 2003, Cowlishaw deplored anthropologists’ ‘reluctance to engage in analysis and cultural critique of white society in this era of risk and destabilisation’. She urged anthropologists to ‘turn their ethnographic gaze onto white society, to a cultural analysis of the institutions which manage Indigenous people and the “cultural borderlands”, the arenas of interaction and interchange between Indigenous persons and whitefellas’.[11] Evidently, a few anthropologists, and even a few historians, had been listening—a few, not enough.

Aboriginal history and Aboriginal anthropology often still seem to move on parallel tracks—indeed, they can appear as binaries—but perhaps Cowlishaw and others (such as Patrick Wolfe, Tess Lea, Maggie Brady and Emma Kowal) are showing us how they might converge, so that the changing cultures of contemporary Aboriginality and whiteness are more than shadows on the historian’s margins.

Courtesy of the South Australian Museum archives

Courtesy of the South Australian Museum archives

[1] Gillian Cowlishaw, ‘Aborigines and anthropologists’, Australian Aboriginal Studies 1 (1986): 2-12, p. 9.

[2] Gillian Cowlishaw, ‘Euphemism, banality, propaganda: anthropology, public debate and Indigenous communities’, Australian Aboriginal Studies 1 (2003): 2-18, p. 10.

[3] Gillian Cowlishaw, ‘Race for exclusion’, ANZ J. Sociology 22 (1986): 3-24, p. 4.

[4] Cowlishaw, ‘Race for exclusion’, p. 5; and Cowlishaw, ‘Representing racial issues,’ Oceania 63 (1993): 183-94, p. 183.

[5] Cowlishaw, ‘Race for exclusion,’ p. 22.

[6] Cowlishaw, ‘Race for exclusion’, p. 7.

[7] Cowlishaw, ‘Representing racial issues,’ p. 190.

[8] Cowlishaw, ‘Representing racial issues,’ p. 189.

[9] Cowlishaw, ‘Euphemism, banality, propaganda,’ p. 7.

[10] Cowlishaw, ‘Aborigines and anthropologists’, p. 9.

[11] Cowlishaw, ‘Euphemism, banality, propaganda,’ p. 11.