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Postcolonial ambivalence: Reading Aboriginality

Fielder, John (1996) Postcolonial ambivalence: Reading Aboriginality. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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The central claim of this thesis is that an understanding of ambivalence as a productive element of discursive practice opens up reading strategies which counter the assimilationist tendencies of dominant reading formations in relation to Aboriginality in Australia. This claim is supported by offering readings of selected texts which foreground the threat posed by the unassimilable difference of Aboriginality to the project of modernity and its colonising impulse. These readings of specific texts marked as “Aboriginal” identify an historical pattern of projection of ambivalence onto Aboriginal people.

My thesis counters this historical pattern of colonialist projection by framing ambivalence as a particularly modern “problem,” a dilemma that is intrinsic to the logic of modernity. In an abstract sense, then, ambivalence is explored as the supplement of modernity's and colonialism's desire to impose Enlightened Western order on “primitive” peoples, places and practices; in a more concrete sense. ambivalence is explored as an increasingly undeniable social force in Australia as cultural policy has shifted away from assimilationism and towards cultural pluralism.

This shift in cultural policy since the 1960s is examined in terms of Aboriginal writer Mudrooroo’s “Wildcat” trilogy: his novels are used as a springboard to discuss the social and cultural tensions evident in dominant reading formations. I also use the novels to identify some of the ways in which Aboriginal people negotiate persistent assimilationist expectations, both the disabling effects of the exigencies of assimilationism and the enabling opportunities they have exploited. I argue that Aboriginal people have necessarily had to struggle with ambivalence, whereas the primary colonialist strategy has been to deny ambivalence. It is in this context that I apply Homi Bhabha's ideas on the ambivalence and hybridity of “cultural translation” in order to emphasise the struggle inherent in negotiating incommensurate cultural practices and logics.

In this thesis, I also explore oppositional reading tactics which acknowledge the slippage, incompleteness and surplus of cultural translation, in order to counter assimilationist reading strategies. I refer to “reading,” in a very broad sense, as a form of translation and show how everyday, informal interpretative practices also operate in terms of dominant reading formations. Accordingly, this thesis applies Mudrooroo's “wildcat” metaphor to cultural fields beyond literature: to Nyoongahs’ struggle to reclaim sacred sites in an urban context and to the “image” of Aboriginal Australian rules football players.

Overall, the thesis shows how selected Aboriginal literary and cultural “texts” expose and disrupt the assimilationist tendencies which persist in Australian mainstream reading patterns. The thesis is especially concerned with the ways in which such texts respond to specific social and political circumstances, and seize opportunities—understood here in terms of cultural ambivalence—to re-frame Aboriginality. In other words, the thesis demonstrates how Aboriginal texts, how Aboriginal people, have actively contributed to the ongoing process of changing established cultural reading formations in Australia.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Social Sciences
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): Longley, Kateryna
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