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From dichotomy to difference: The Australian literary construction of Indonesia

Rankin, Stephen (1999) From dichotomy to difference: The Australian literary construction of Indonesia. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Abstract

In this thesis, I examine a selection of Australian novels set in South East Asia, and especially Indonesia, with a view to identifying ways in which these texts reflect changes that have taken place in Australia’s relationship to Indonesia over the last twenty years. I also use a number of Indonesian texts that contribute to an understanding of this process. I draw predominantly upon novels and short stories by the Australian writers Christopher Koch, Blanche d’Alpuget, Gerard Lee and Inez Baranay and the Indonesian writers Umar Kayam, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Achdiat Mihardja, Gerson Poyk and Dewi Angraenni.

In order to identify and map these changes in attitude as they are exposed in the texts, I will adopt a postcolonial approach, with an emphasis on constructions of otherness, using the work of a range of theorists including Immanuel Levinas, Homi Bhabha, Michel Foucault, Frederic Jameson, Mikhail Bakhtin and Wilson Harris.

In these last decades of the century, there has been evidence in the Australian public sphere of an increasing openness to, and understanding of, Indonesian culture and values, both in national foreign policy and in artistic production. I argue, however, that this apparent improvement in cross cultural relations is at best superficial and that there is a continuing undercurrent of racism that is increasingly masked by discursive strategies of tolerance. It is my contention in this thesis that most of the changes in approach to Asian otherness reflected in Australian fiction in the 1980s are actually changes in discursive techniques for the concealment of the cross-cultural suspicion and racism which continue to underlie these narratives and Austrahan culture in general in the ‘postcolonial’ period.

In addition I assert that the novelistic attempts to aesthetically resolve the contradictory nature of postcolonial hegemony (often through the application of liberal / humanist notions of tolerance and equality) generate a split in Australian literary discourse which is representative of a broader contradiction at the heart of Australian attitudes to Asian alterity at the end of the millennium. The attack made on ‘political correctness’, multiculturalism, and migration over the last few year in Australia (and the surprising level of support it has received in the community) is, I suggest, a consequence of the immense difficulty of attempting to hold together the contradiction that exists at the heart of Australian discourse concerning the other.

More recent shifts in the Australian fictional construction of Indonesian identity, examined in the last chapter of the thesis, suggest the emergence of something more than the mere re-deployment of Western strategies of control. In these later novels we see the beginnings of a negotiation of cultural alterity which reflects both the immense difficulties and possibilities that lie ahead for Australia as it attempts to grapple with its unique geographical context - as a Western culture located in Asia.

I have also attempted to identify several prerequisites to the development of genuine and productive cross-cultural dialogue and, through the reading of Australian literary texts, have indicated the degree to which shifts in Australian discourse have taken us closer to, or further from, their achievement.

The inclusion and analysis of several Indonesian novels and short stories reflects the methodological indebtedness of this project to Bakhtin’s theory of dialogism. Drawing also upon Bhabha’s conception of enunciative presence I argue that genuine dialogue can only be achieved with Australia’s near-neighbours through direct contact with, and metonymic displacement at the edges of, cross-cultural otherness.

My argument suggests that no matter how ideologically acceptable the Western tradition of imposing orientalist conceptions may have become in recent years (in terms of its commitment to tolerance and egalitarianism), it is no substitute for the process of agonistic dialogue between dissimilar identities. In fact, such a liberal / humanist approach to the construction of cross-cultural identity plays a role in preventing effective dialogue because of the appearance of respect for otherness that it generates. In keeping with this conception of the importance of direct engagement in the cross-cultural process I have included and analysed several Indonesian novels and short stories as dialogic responses to Australia’s largely monologic production of the Indonesian subject.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation: Division of Social Sciences, Humanities and Education
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: repository@murdoch.edu.au. Thank you.
Supervisor(s): Longley, Kateryna and Webb, Hugh
URI: http://researchrepository.murdoch.edu.au/id/eprint/52960
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