The Return of Postmodernism in Aboriginal History – Part 2
Part 1 is here…
Left-wing academic McCarthyism
In the Australian case, the extremism of statements by Brunton, Morgan and Windschuttle suggests that this analysis should be extended by asking whether such figures experience castration anxiety, that is, a fantasised danger to their genitals symbolised by the national ideal that makes them feel powerful and good about themselves.
Dirk Moses, Aboriginal History, 2001, p 102
The suggestion that I and other critics of Aboriginal historiography are fearful for our genitals is probably the nadir of a long and grubby line of commentary in defence of the historical orthodoxy.
Indeed, Moses’s statement probably ranks as the sleaziest ever made in any debate over Australian history. There is not the remotest justification for it, since neither I nor the others he mentions have stooped to remarks of that kind. Nor could its author’s plodding turn of phrase be justified as witty, stylish or amusing. It is sheer personal abuse, whose only potential insight is into its author’s own fixations.
The statement is from a peer-reviewed academic journal and it tells much about the standards prevailing not only in that particular journal but in the academic infrastructure that supports it. For the comment must have been acceptable not only to its author but to the anonymous referees, presumably historians, who approved it, as well as to the editors, Curthoys and Docker, who commissioned Moses’s piece and published it.
If there was any objection from the chair of the journal’s editorial board, Peter Read of ANU, or from any of the journal’s twenty-one other board members, most of them publicly-employed academics, it has yet to surface.
As well as personal insults, this debate has attracted political accusations that range from hackneyed to vicious. I am routinely either denounced outright as a “Howard intellectual” or my work is placed within the context of the Prime Minister’s attempts to reassert a positive national history.
This is despite the fact that my critics are well aware that throughout the 1990s I took the opposite stance to Howard about Aboriginal history. My book The Killing of History, published in 1994 and last revised in early 2000, described Henry Reynolds as one of Australia’s “most revered” historians and Charles Rowley’s The Destruction of Aboriginal Society as one of the great works of Australian historiography.
My views only changed later in 2000 when I started to do some primary research of my own and found the field was riddled with exaggerations, misuse of evidence and outright inventions.
Several critics have tried to use the radicalism of my student days to brand me an extremist. In the Robert Manne anthology, Whitewash, Dirk Moses claims that in my youth I was a “fanatical communist”. In his book In Tasmania, Nicholas Shakespeare says I was once a Trotskyist.
Bain Attwood has spent a lot of time, and a good deal of university money, in an obsessive pursuit of my past. He has gone through all my student journalism of the 1960s and 1970s and has searched ASIO files in the National Archives of Australia looking for dirt on me. For this project, he had two research assistants and funding from the School of Historical Studies at Monash University.
Unfortunately for Attwood, neither ASIO nor the NSW Special Branch thought me of sufficient interest to warrant a dedicated file. Attwood found an ASIO agent briefly mentioned me speaking at two anti-Vietnam war meetings in February 1971, but that is all. Moreover, these reports seem inaccurate to me but I am unable to check the authenticity of Attwood’s transcription since the National Archives internet address he provides as his source contains only blank pages. In this little exercise in left-wing McCarthyism, Attwood is largely reduced to quoting slogans from articles written by others in student publications which I edited or contributed to.
For the record, I was never a member of the Communist Party or of any of the factions — Leninist, Stalinist, Trotskyist, Maoist or whatever — that emerged from the Russian and Chinese revolutions. Indeed, in my student days I was attracted to the 1960s American New Left precisely because it seemed a form of radicalism uncompromised by the old, discredited pro-Bolshevik factions.
But as the 1970s unfolded, the New Left, too, reverted to type. When it descended into a morass of violence — with the Black Panthers, Weathermen, Baader-Meinhoff gang, Red Brigades and the Symbionese Liberation Army practicing armed robbery, kidnapping and murder — it ended any romanticism I had about the Left.
The biggest issue among student radicals at the time was the Vietnam War and the biggest mistake we made, though few will admit it even today, was to believe the war was a genuinely nationalist movement to liberate the Vietnamese people from French and American imperialism, rather than what it actually was, a war of communist expansion throughout South-East Asia. The other big issue was the campaign against apartheid in South Africa, a cause I still think was right.
The Marxist theory to which I subscribed in the 1960s and 1970s was far more about history than politics, and came straight from Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, a beguiling book that seduced many of my generation (as well as suggesting the title for Attwood’s own much later work The Making of the Aborigines ). Thompson launched social history, or history from below, and defended English empiricism, both of which I supported enthusiastically.
When Louis Althusser’s ultra-theoretical, Stalinist version of French Marxism subsequently became the vogue in left-wing academic circles in the mid-1970s, I was a vocal and argumentative critic. As my 1984 book The Media testifies, I also rejected the other fashionable academic Marxisms of the time, that of the Frankfurt School and the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies.
I joined the Australian Labor Party in 1969 and remained a member until 1991. No one who knew me during that time would have called me a communist. Although I had Trotskyist friends, none of them would have called me a Trotskyist either. Hall Greenland once called me a civilised Whitlamite, a reproach for being Left but not Left enough.
The most brazen inventor of my past is Robert Manne, who in his desperation to prevail in this debate has abandoned all scruples. In his collections Whitewash and Left Right Left, he claims I was once an enthusiast for Pol Pot. Never in my life have I written or spoken a word in favour of Pol Pot. Despite my public challenge, Manne has never been able to produce any evidence to back his charge. As Manne knows, my only connection to Cambodia ‘s killing fields was that an academic friend was murdered by Pol Pot in Phnom Penh in 1978.
Not content with personal abuse and political smears, my critics have also waged a campaign against my professional credentials. In an opinion piece in The Australian in January 2003, Dirk Moses claimed I had no credibility as a historian because I was “a freelance writer with no postgraduate training in the discipline”.
Yet again, this is false. I won a Commonwealth postgraduate scholarship to the Department of History at the University of Sydney, the same place where Moses is employed now. I was a postgraduate student there from 1970–75.
At the time, the department required postgraduate students to undertake a program in historical methodology under the tutorship of Professor John M. Ward. I fulfilled all the coursework requirements and gave the obligatory seminar papers.
In the end, though, after being appointed to a full-time lecturing position, I decided to switch my candidacy from history to politics and took an MA Honours, a research degree, from Macquarie University for a 100,000-word thesis on unemployment in Australia. Incidentally, the first sentence of its introduction, which was published by Penguin Books in 1979 under the title Unemployment, proclaimed its principal methodology: “this book is a social history”.
Bain Attwood employs the same tactics in Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History. To try and write me out of this debate, he gives a misleading version of my employment record, noting that my first academic appointment was as a tutor in the School of History at the University of New South Wales in 1973–74, but then claiming “he never worked in a university department or school of history again”.
This is misrepresentation by omission because he fails to record I had a full-time appointment as lecturer in Australian history, as well as in journalism, from 1977 to 1981 at the New South Wales Institute of Technology. This was a degree-awarding college of advanced education whose Department of Humanities and Social Sciences housed a modest but respectable Australian history program also taught by other historians, Ann Curthoys and Stephen Hooper. It subsequently became the University of Technology Sydney. Attwood also neglects to record that as lecturer in social policy from 1983 to 1990 at the University of New South Wales I taught a largely historical program.
It is telling that those who disparage my credentials never apply the same test to my critics. Double standards abound. For instance, Robert Manne could buy into the Aboriginal history debate not only without a PhD in history but with no postgraduate qualification of any kind. He has two bachelor degrees. Yet no one in this debate has ever said he is unqualified to speak on the subject.
In any case, the idea that only those with formal academic credentials or those currently employed by universities are real historians, and only those specialising in Aboriginal history are reliable commentators on that particular subject, is wishful thinking. Universities are one place to do history but far from the only one. Many of the profession’s best practitioners, certainly in the UK and USA where successful authors can live on their royalties, now avoid universities with their paltry salaries and inexorable administrative trivia.
In Australia, Beverley Kingston, herself a long-time member of the School of History at the University of New South Wales, observes in Stuart Macintyre’s collection The Historian’s Conscience: “There is nothing very special about history or mysterious about how it is done … Some of our best history has been written by journalists or by passionate enthusiasts.”
This is true. One of Australia ‘s best living historians is Eric Rolls, who spent most of his working life as a farmer in western New South Wales. In Tasmania, almost everyone acknowledges the most impressive scholar of Aboriginal history is the late Brian Plomley, who had a postgraduate degree in biology, no history training and no academic position in history.
Attwood’s attempts to exclude me from debate are not confined to my writings on Aboriginal history. He also wants to dismiss my 1994 critique of postmodernist historiography, The Killing of History. That book attracted considerable attention in the United States, where it sold more than 25,000 copies in both hardcover and paperback, and went through four separate editions.
Attwood tells his readers it was a work of no consequence: “it has been more or less damned by leading historiographers in the United States ”.
This is not true. While the book did receive some predictably hostile reviews from postmodernist historians — especially from one of Attwood’s heroes, Dominick LaCapra — it was welcomed by Georg Iggers, then America’s most senior and best-known historiographer. Iggers invited me to speak at an international conference in 1999 and included a paper of mine in the anthology Turning Points in Historiography which he and Edward Wang edited in 2002. (The full text is on my website, as Atwood well knows.)
In fact, The Killing of History did so well in the US that between 1996 and 2001 I made regular lecture tours of American universities to speak on historiography. The last of these was organised and sponsored by The Historical Society, America ‘s newest professional association of university-based historians. My website reproduces several of my US lectures and seminar papers and lists eleven American universities where I have spoken, including Princeton, NYU, Boston, Chicago and Duke.
In the UK, in Times Literary Supplement’s annual survey of its reviewers in 1997, Hugh Lloyd-Jones, one of Britain’s great classicists and long-time Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, listed The Killing of History as one of the two best books of the year. How many other Australian history books have made that list?
The prize for the most obtuse remark in this debate is fiercely contested but my award goes to Sydney Morning Herald journalist Jane Cadzow for an observation about me in May 2003. She said that because I had two dogs, one black and one white, this revealed I thought in black and white terms.
Attwood not only repeats this dim-witted deduction but devotes a full page in Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History to a photo of the dogs and me from Cadzow’s article. I’ll admit that if I owned a pair of Pit Bulls it might reveal something of my character, but not a Scottie and a Westie. Pace Cadzow, the dogs belong not to me but to our family, and were originally birthday presents to our children. They are not my muses. I am just their walker.
Attwood’s version of the politics of the founding authors of this academic orthodoxy is even more fanciful. He says that despite my branding them as leftists, they were not into radical politics. “Few of the historians in the field of Aboriginal history were of the left of the 1960s,” he asserts. “Reynolds, for example, was never on the left”.
Instead, Attwood accuses me of projecting my own student radicalism onto those I am criticising in order to create a straw man I can then use to demonise academic historians.
Attwood must know this is false, since he has read Reynolds’s autobiographical book Why Weren’t We Told? where the author gives the following account of his and his wife’s politics in 1966 and 1967, soon after he took a job with Townsville University College (later James Cook University).
In Townsville we became activists. Our first cause was the Vietnam War … Margaret and I joined the local anti-war Peace Committee, which brought together radical clergymen and members of the small but influential Communist Party … This did not endear us to many at the college, nor did the company we kept or the causes we espoused… Our involvement with radical politics, our association with the communists, was seen as letting the side down and undermining the standing of the college.
Other prominent founders of what became the new Aboriginal historiography had even more impeccable left-wing connections. Lyndall Ryan was a member of a well-known Marxist family. As Stuart Macintyre records in The Reds, Lyndall’s parents, Jack and Edna Ryan, were prominent members of the Communist and Trotskyist political movements from the 1920s to the 1940s.
Ann Curthoys was another red diaper baby, as she has written herself more than once. Before the Soviet regime fell, it rewarded her academic father Geoff Curthoys with a holiday on the Black Sea for fifty years of service to communism. Ann was one of the University of Sydney activists who went on the famous 1965 freedom ride to Aboriginal settlements in rural New South Wales. In her book on the subject, she writes that so many of the students on the bus were Communist Party members that organisers were worried if the media found out the event would be “written off as a communist plot”.
Bob Reece was also a Sixties student radical, or at least he gave that impression when I knew him in Sydney as a postgraduate student working on Aboriginal history. In September 1967, when I was editor of Honi Soit, Reece wrote an article for us supporting the student protestors engaged in what he called the “Brisbane Revolution”.
Meanwhile, at the University of Queensland, Raymond Evans and Kay Saunders described the mood in 1973 and 1974 when they wrote the first edition of their book Race Relations in Colonial Queensland:
Our concerns as historians were formed as much by our social experiences and political commitments as by the documents we researched … It was not only those days spent diligently working at the Queensland State Archives or the Fryer Memorial Library which shaped our intellectual perceptions. There were also other, angrier days spent in protesting against military conscription, the Vietnam war and apartheid; as well as those measureless times of debate on human liberation, women’s rights or class oppression.
One could go on and on. In the 1970s, Tim Rowse was an Althusserian Marxist. Humphrey McQueen embedded his Maoist politics in almost everything he wrote. In his preface to the 1977 book The Black Resistance by two of his political comrades, Fergus Robinson and Barry York, McQueen said the story of Aboriginal resistance was “as magnificent in their particular way as was the Long March of the Chinese Communists”.
The milieu of left-wing politics that spawned the writing of Aboriginal history in this period is so well known to everyone involved that it makes you wonder who Attwood thinks he is writing for. While his academic peers will no doubt be glad to see him trying to put the boot into me, they will also be concerned that so much of what he says is not only wrong but easily proven to be wrong.
Postmodernism and “true histories”
Nothing appears as ridiculous as an obsolete orthodoxy.
Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark, The History Wars, 2003, p 35
Attwood’s colleagues will be even more concerned, though, about his continued advocacy of postmodernism.
Attwood is a New Zealand immigrant who came to Australia as a postgraduate student in the early 1980s. He decided to make a living writing and teaching about the Aborigines. He created an academic niche for himself by applying postmodernist and poststructuralist theory to Aboriginal history. Ann Curthoys writes in The Oxford Companion to Australian History:
Bain Attwood’s work registered something of a shift from Marxist to post-structuralist approaches from the late 1980s … In the collection Power, Knowledge and Aborigines (1992), Attwood’s introduction applied the insights of Foucault and Said to Aboriginal history, with an emphasis on the ways European Australians ‘know’ ‘Aborigines’, and produce historically and culturally specific discourses of their own. [her scare quotes]
The final three chapters of Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History constitute an endorsement of a postmodern approach to Aboriginal history. Attwood relies most upon the work of the French historical theorist Michel de Certeau; the Indian-American postcolonial literary theorist Homi Bhaba; and the American postmodernist historian Dominic LaCapra.
Attwood is a critic of historical realism, which he says implies that historians have direct access to the past. This view is based on “an assumption that there is a correspondence or mimetic relationship between the actual past and history as represented by texts”. Historians who believe this suffer from what he calls the referential illusion, which holds that “the past is indexed or mirrored by historical texts and so implies that the historian can re-enter the past and grasp it in an unmediated fashion”.
Most importantly, Attwood asserts, history is “the result of a dialogue between past and present, present and past, an exchange between the texted past and the historian (as well as between those historians who inquire into it), a fusion of the horizons of the past and the present.”
So, the essence of history is that it is a process of “understanding the past in the present”. If we approach it this way, he says, we can see that conventional history is not the only means to historical knowledge. “It is now more apparent than ever,” Attwood writes, “that history, and particularly academic history, is only one way of understanding the past in the present.”
In Australian history, he acknowledges that the documentary evidence of a violent frontier is thin on the ground. As I noted above, he admits that Whitewash, and in particular its longest essay by James Boyce, fails to find any more credible evidence about violent conflict in Tasmania than I found.
Of frontier historians generally, Attwood concedes: “Most importantly, ‘revisionist’ critics have demonstrated that these academic historians lacked documentation for most of the killings represented in their accounts.”
Rather than take this as an indication that either (i) there is insufficient evidence to convict the Australian frontier of very much violence, or (ii) the Australian frontier was not actually a very violent place, Attwood argues that the fault lies with conventional historical methodology: “the approach of historical realism is not equal to the task of representing this past.”
Instead, he wants to use the memories of people he defines as traumatised victims to paint the place as bloody as possible.
Although white academic historians might have difficulty sustaining a genocide thesis, Aboriginal people can still do this, he says, despite the lack of acceptable scholarly evidence. “… many Aboriginal people believe that ‘genocide’ is an appropriate word for remembering their historical experience. It amounts to a truthful myth, and they tell the story in this manner.” [his emphases]
Aborigines, he argues, have bona fide insight into the past because they are among those peoples who have suffered most. In particular, because they have been victims of trauma, they have a special insight denied to others who study the past only through documents.
Those peoples of the world who are traumatised victims have their memories, which, Attwood says, are “something other than factual or documentary knowledge” but which have their own veracity. Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History says “memories — like dreams — tend to reveal hidden preoccupations in highly condensed symbols”:
In many quarters, memory has come to be associated with testimony, and this has become a critically important way in which we relate to the events of our time. This is most evident when it is associated with trauma, a phenomenon that has come to acquire enormous significance in recent years. In much contemporary culture, people who have witnessed a traumatic event, or can claim a relationship to one, have been given a particular kind of legitimacy… Together, trauma, memory and testimony privilege those who ostensibly tell it how it was, especially where they are regarded as victims rather than perpetrators or bystanders. These narratives might best be described as “affective histories” (to use a term coined by Homi Bhabha). They, rather than the contemporary historical record, are deemed by many to be the authentic voice of the past or the authoritative bearers of the truth about history.
Although he talks here as if the traumatised victims are the authentic voice of the past, in other passages of his book Attwood sees them as truth-tellers who are different from, but equal to, academic historians. Moreover, he thinks that it is possible that a proper, Aboriginal-centred history of the frontier would emerge if history-makers were to combine the two genres of “affective history” and academic history.
In making this case, there is one conspicuous issue Attwood fails to address. Apart from Aborigines suffering what he calls trauma and remembering it in highly condensed symbols like dreams, why should anyone, including other Aborigines, trust what they say?
What if they make things up, or tell lies, or worse yet, derive their knowledge of the past not from Aboriginal traditions but from history books written by white Australians? Attwood uses very few examples to illustrate his thesis but when he does, its difficulties stand out starkly. He writes:
In the case of Tasmania, the Aboriginal spokesperson Jim Everett has asserted that a “colonial holocaust” occurred there, while another leader, Michael Mansell, has claimed more generally that: “The British had more impact on Aborigines than the Holocaust had on the Jews.”
The problem with proposing Tasmanian Aboriginal people today as authoritative bearers of the truth about the past is their lack of any direct connection with that past. Tasmanian Aboriginal culture ceased to exist long ago. As Brian Plomley writes in his history of the Flinders Island settlement, Weep in Silence:
As a result of this [British] invasion, the Tasmanian Aborigines ceased to exist as a natural society, and their numbers were reduced within three-quarters of a century to a few individuals of mixed blood, the majority of whom had formed a special community on the Furneaux Islands. All these people of mixed blood lost most of their original Aboriginal culture.
This has long been confirmed by the mixed blood descendants themselves. When interviewed for Rhys Jones’s 1978 film The Last Tasmanian, these Bass Strait islanders (from whom both Jim Everitt and Michael Mansell are descended) denied they were Aborigines.
They knew that their antecedents had been English sealers and their Tasmanian Aboriginal wives, but they called themselves “straitsmen” and “islanders” and regarded themselves as neither European nor Aboriginal. One of the women of the Mansell family declared in the film: “I’m not an Aborigine … There are no Aborigines now.”
Patsy Adam-Smith’s 1965 book about the islanders, Moonbird People, confirmed this. Not only were there no Aborigines left, there were no Aboriginal stories or memories from the frontier period passed down to the present generation.
In other words, the ideas of both Jim Everitt and Michael Mansell about the fate of the Tasmanian Aborigines must have come from somewhere other than Aboriginal culture and tradition.
Indeed, it is perfectly obvious to everyone but Attwood that they learnt what they know about the subject from history books by non-Aboriginal authors. Moreover, from the same sources they picked up the most politically exploitable point, the comparison between colonial Tasmania and the Holocaust, despite Attwood’s assurances that in academic history there is no such connection.
Tasmania is far from being the only place where this is a problem. The great majority of those on mainland Australia who identify as Aborigines today are far removed in both time and genealogy from pre-European Aboriginal society.
More than 70 per cent live in what the census defines as major urban or other urban areas. More than half of Australia ‘s Aborigines are married to or cohabit with a non-Aboriginal person. In urban areas among the young, that figure rises to ninety per cent. Most are between one and two centuries removed from the colonial frontier.
It is this sociological group that has produced almost all the Aboriginal activists who now join white academics in making confident pronouncements about colonial history and its purported tales of genocide. But like Everitt and Mansell, they too learnt what they know about this history not at the feet of tribal elders but at university where they read it in the work of post-1960s white historians.
In Northern Australia, where traditional Aboriginal culture does survive intact in some communities, Attwood’s case is also on dubious ground but for different reasons.
Attwood discusses Aboriginal oral tales which recall that Captain Cook founded the cities of Sydney and Darwin and massacred local Aborigines at both places. The fact that Cook died in 1779, nine years before the First Fleet cast anchor at Sydney Cove, causes Attwood no worries. “It might be concluded that these histories lack historical authenticity,” he concedes, “because what they narrate is sharply at odds with what actually happened.” Nonetheless, once we read these stories the proper way, he argues, professional historians can accept them as bearers of historical truth.
Captain Cook stories do not purport to treat Cook as a historical personage, but rather as a mythic character who symbolises British colonisation by encompassing a large set of people, processes, events and the like. As such they do not seek to provide an account of relations between particular peoples in a particular place at a particular time. Instead, they tell of the general relationship between two peoples: the British colonisers and the Aboriginal landowners… As such, it can be argued that these narratives faithfully render the nature of frontier relations and so can be called true histories.
A similar, though not identical, argument about the myths of tribal peoples has long been made by some anthropologists. The narratives told by tribal people obviously contain information they believe, express sentiments and relationships they feel, and act as symbols of wider social relationships. Attwood quotes the work of the Macquarie University anthropologist, the late Kenneth Maddock, as an endorsement of his interpretation of the Captain Cook stories.
But none of this makes Captain Cook stories reliable guides to history, far less “true histories”. Aboriginal people might well believe a story, and it may well sum up their idea of the relationships between colonists and colonised, but that does not make it true.
A clear demonstration of this emerged in the tale of the stolen generations of Aboriginal children. Before Darwin Federal Court in 1999, Peter Gunner and Lorna Cubillo both swore that government officers had forcibly removed them from their families and from their Aboriginal community, against the wishes of their parents, in order to fulfill a state policy of assimilation of part-Aboriginal children into non-Aboriginal society.
Based on similar Aboriginal evidence, Ronald Wilson’s 1997 report Bringing Them Home had said government policy on child removal amounted to genocide. Gunner and Cubillo were chosen by Aboriginal Legal Service lawyers as the best candidates for the test case for compensation for all the policy’s alleged victims.
It turned out that other evidence before the court convinced Justice Maurice O’Loughlin (himself a former barrister on the pro-Aboriginal side) that neither Gunner nor Cubillo were stolen children. Gunner had been voluntarily placed in a welfare institution and there was no evidence that Mrs Cubillo had been forcibly removed. Justice O’Loughlin also found there was no evidence of any policy, systematic or otherwise, of forcible removable of part-Aboriginal children. In short, the “stolen generations” story was a myth. And in this case, “myth” means untrue.
There is little doubt that many who testified before Wilson ‘s inquiry passionately believed their stories. They certainly fulfilled the criteria — the memory of the traumatised victims of colonialism — that Attwood advances to turn Aboriginal beliefs into “true history”. However, Justice O’Loughlin’s judgment gave a more plausible explanation of why their beliefs were at such variance with the facts:
I am also concerned that they have unconsciously engaged in exercises of reconstruction, based, not on what they knew at the time, but on what they have convinced themselves must have happened or what others have told them.
One of those who supported O’Loughlin’s findings was Kenneth Maddock. In Quadrant, October 2000, Maddock examined the literature of anthropologists’ fieldwork among Aboriginal communities from 1925 to 1975. He found none of its authors had observed any government programs of genocide or forcible removal. The silence of the anthropologists who, he said, would have been the first to blow the whistle on such practices, almost certainly meant there was nothing to report.
In other words, Attwood’s use of Maddock as a supporter of the notion that mythological constructs are historically acceptable is completely deceptive. Indeed, Maddock’s writings distinguish sharply between myth and history. He is critical of those, like the prehistorian Josephine Flood, who take a literalist view of mythology. The article by Maddock that Attwood cites, published in Jeremy Beckett’s 1988 anthology Past and Present, treats the Captain Cook stories strictly as myths, that is, as stories that lack verisimilitude. Maddock writes:
Contrary to the view some recent writers have taken of aboriginal myths, there is no reason to see them as orally transmitted records of events in which the characters took part. That is so not only when the events described are patently mythical — skins changing colour, boats turning to stone, and so on — but when the characters are historical. The interest of the stories, from an historical point of view, has nothing to do with their telling us who did what, where and when, but with their demonstration that some recurrent processes of culture contact in Australia have been assimilated by Aboriginal imaginations.
Were Maddock still alive and able to respond, he would be appalled at the misappropriation of his work by Attwood in support of the eccentric notion that tales of this kind constitute “true histories”.
In short, Attwood’s postmodernist version of history is inherently unreliable. To know what really happened in the past, it is not enough to simply accept Aboriginal beliefs or myths, no matter how passionately they are held, no matter how traumatised their authors, and no matter how many condensed symbols academics imagine they contain.
Moreover, there is no prospect for Attwood’s hopes of a fusion of genres between academic history and indigenous mythology. History is the pursuit of the truth about what happened in the past, while mythology has no criterion of truth and little concern for it.
In fact, it is curious to see Attwood making an argument of this kind. In 2000, he published an article critical of the stolen children testimony. He was then sceptical about collective memories and, instead of accepting myths about the past unreservedly, he argued that Aboriginal testimonies needed corroboration by empirical research.
He criticised Peter Read, the ANU historian who coined the term “stolen generations”, for over-relying on testimony based on memory, for allowing a series of minor narratives by individuals to coalesce into a grand master narrative that attributed all child removals to a policy of genocide, in short, for straying far too close to myth and fiction.
However, in the 2001 edition of Aboriginal History, Attwood’s critique was severely rebuked by Rosanne Kennedy, a lecturer in women’s studies no less. She reminded Attwood of some of the fundamentals of the postmodernist theory to which he was purportedly committed. She chided him for being too empirical and for not agreeing with the founder of postmodern historical theory in America, Hayden White, that history was nothing but a series of literary tropes. She also introduced him to Dominic LaCapra’s theories about trauma and victim testimony, which his latest book now adopts with fervour.
Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History thus appears to be Attwood’s confession of his previous failings, an act of contrition for allowing himself to have become so outmoded, and a reassurance to colleagues that he is back on track with the correct line.
Attwood would have been better off, however, if instead of wasting his time on more postmodernist theory, he had studied some real philosophy of history. This would not have been difficult because not far from him in Melbourne is Behan McCullagh of La Trobe University who specialises in the latter field. Indeed, McCullagh, the author of The Truth of History (1998) and The Logic of History (2003), is currently the most impressive philosopher of history anywhere.
McCullagh is a historical realist, and his work demolishes the postmodernist cant that saturates the work on which Attwood dotes. Had he read and understood McCullagh, Attwood would have seen that his own criticisms of historical realism are irrelevant. There is no “referential illusion” and there are no epistemological difficulties in historians’ dependence on documentary evidence or texts.
It is true, of course, that historians draw inferences about what happened in the past from written texts rather than from their own direct observations. But this only implies their accounts of the past will not be true if that textual evidence is not connected with, or does not establish, what happened. “It is not the fact that their descriptions are inferred from other texts which makes their truth suspect,” McCullagh observes. “It is suspect only if the evidence does not strongly entail their truth in the first place. When the evidence strongly supports the truth of an historical description, one is rationally entitled to believe it is very probably true.”
Moreover, Attwood’s claim that history is not about the past but rather “the past in the present” is just as irrelevant. It is an old truism that every generation rewrites history to pursue its own interests and answer its own questions. But this poses no fundamental problem for historical truth about the past. A description of the past is true if something happened in the past that resembled one of the conventional truth conditions of the description. We verify the truth of that description by directly observing whether the documents and artifacts that survive from the past correspond to those truth conditions.
As I noted above, Attwood has been making a living out of the Aborigines for the past twenty years. His articles often profess concern about justice for them. One of his books is called Rights for Aborigines. But the kind of history he advocates is unlikely to deliver them either justice or rights.
To describe indigenous myths as “the authoritative bearers of the truth about history” is to do a disservice to the interests of Aboriginal people. It is just as bad as affirming the ancient Aboriginal belief that sickness is caused by sorcery. It is no different to missionaries telling them the Book of Genesis provides an accurate account of the creation of the world.
Moreover, postmodernist history is essentially dishonest. It is born out of bad faith, since those who profess the theory don’t take seriously the stories they pretend to endorse. Attwood might feign support for the Captain Cook myths of Northern Australia but he doesn’t believe them himself.
Unfortunately, as long as the humanities and social sciences continue to be controlled by the Left, academic patronage will ensure that little changes. The practices and theories that now prevail will not only publicly discredit the historians of Aboriginal Australia but the whole academic profession of history.
Indeed, anyone in the profession should be disturbed by the kind of work now being produced by the upcoming generation of postgraduate students. A recent conference at the University of Newcastle for indigenous people engaged in historical and social science research advertised papers with the following titles:
- Why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Peoples Should Boycott Research! Why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Must Boycott Research!
- Is disease theory a mythical fabrication embedded in Australian historiography to rationalise the misappropriation of another peoples’ lands and waterways?
- Foucault’s Governmentality Literature and Indigenous Affairs.
- The history of western education in Australia for Indigenous peoples has been destructive to Indigenous beliefs and culture.
- Indigenous Research Methodologies: It’s all about a good Yarn Up
How much further does this field have to decline before it attracts some serious internal criticism?