Poetry, race and nation:
In the lead up to recent federal elections held late in 2001 — during a campaign dominated by the events of September 11 — the Australian public sphere became embroiled in bitter national debate. News of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre had only just been preceded by the Australian government’s own controversial handling of what became known as ‘the Tampa affair’. A domestic and international drama ensued from the government’s decision to bar entry to Australian waters of a Norwegian vessel that had carried out the maritime rescue of a distressed boatload of asylum-seeking Afghanis and Iraqis. Having thus reasserted Australia’s territorial sovereignty, incumbent Prime Minister John Howard declared, in the dying hours of a campaign that would result in his government’s return to power: ‘We will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come.’
Deploying to striking effect the personal pronouns of a collective national imaginary, John Howard’s statement encapsulated the popular — indeed populist — appeal of his government’s tough stance on the protection of Australia’s coastline against the incursions of uninvited others. Howard’s statement promised to allay persistent, recently heightened Australian fears of invasion — an invasion surreptitiously brought about by the uncontrolled immigration of racially foreign others. His words offered to many Australian voters, especially to those resentful of recent trends in multiculturalism and globalisation, the vision or fantasy of a restored national wholeness and the strengthening of explicit white control over the nation’s borders. It was also a culminating statement that seemed to crystallise Howard’s own symbolic victory in a contest for Australian national identity that had surged through the public sphere in the 1990s and that had seen the rise of radical new formations of white Australian conservatism in Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party. It now seems clear to many that, since then, Howard’s policies and rhetoric have effectively eclipsed One Nation, co-opting its energies and converging its discourses with those of respectable mainstream party politics. In his prescient 1998 book, White Nation: Fantasies of White supremacy in a multicultural society,Ghassan Hage casts fresh light on whiteness in Australia, identifying the logic of a national-spatial fantasy shaping discourses of ‘anglo-decline’. Analysing shifts in Australian culture from the mid 1960s, from a British-identified Australian whiteness to a newly dominant modality of Anglo-Celtic whiteness, Hage points out that ‘… coming from an Anglo-Celtic background was enough to make one feel that one had the capital to maximise both homely and governmental belonging as an innate right’.1 It is this right that Howard reasserted in the 2001 election campaign.
The expulsion of the threatening ‘outsider’ from Australian shores in the exercise of a white national-spatial fantasy has historically been accompanied by problems in dealing with the ‘inside-outsider’ figure of the displaced indigene — in short, with Australia’s Aboriginal community. Ann Curthoys discusses how in the Australian public sphere the discourse, policy and practices pertaining to these parallel figures have rarely been ‘spoken together’: ‘White Australia did not address its racial others in a united or coherent discourse, but rather in separate registers at different times’.2 The establishment (definition and maintenance) of white Australian identity, accordingly, might be said to occur in and through the complementary operations of these discourses, and their epistemological and institutional embeddedness in contemporary Australia. This is so despite the projection — especially from the 1960s on — of the Australian nation as open, tolerant, diverse and multicultural, qualities marketed for audiences both global and domestic at the Opening Ceremony of Sydney’s 2000 Olympic Games.
Taking up Hage’s analysis, my paper focuses on the operations of whiteness in the context of contemporary Australian poetry. Developing his approach from Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of the operations of symbolic capital in and across social fields,3 Hage argues that ‘whiteness’ functions in Australia as a taken-for-granted capital that can be accumulated, converted and exchanged. Sufficient white capital — whether endowed or acquired by individuals — allows access to both homely and governmental power. Moreover, Hage suggests, modalities of whiteness shift over time and across fields in Australia in ways that refashion and renew its hegemony. Whiteness, therefore, is not a stable or fixed identity category, but a repository for specific kind of capital — one that allows a fit between individual bodies and a collective fantasy of nation. Possession of whiteness provides access to an imagined racially ‘normal’ or ‘unmarked’ body, an upwardly mobile body that passes readily through various social fields, including privileged fields of power. An individual’s ‘whiteness’ can be augmented or diminished in conjunction with other aspects of identity — such as class, gender, age and sexuality. My own discussion takes advantage of work by both Bourdieu and Hage to focus on how white capital operates within restricted areas of Australia’s field of cultural production — specifically, the literary field and the field of poetry. My purpose in so doing is twofold: to investigate how the practice and positioning of writers in the field negotiate issues of race and whiteness; and secondly to highlight reciprocity between such restricted cultural fields and ruling Australian aristocracies.4 My conclusion will reflect briefly on more recalcitrant questions about Bourdieu’s socioanalysis of culture and its application to both white identity and contemporary Australian poetry. One such question concerns the degree to which it can envisage change to what otherwise appears as the eternal return of the same: of hegemonic whiteness in the Australian national imaginary.
In Among the Barbarians(1998),5 a
best-selling polemic against Australia’s multicultural elites and discourses
of ‘political correctness’, Paul Sheehan devotes a chapter (‘White Dreaming’)
to the vigorous defence of prize-winning novelist David Foster whose provocative
essays, interviews and conference performances have lent a somewhat scandalous
complexion to his reputation for literary brilliance. Foster’s colourful
career and biography convey a narrative equally derived from the tradition
of the maverick, rugged Australian bushman and from that of the Nietzschean
artist. Foster’s work history spans distinguished scientific achievement
in biochemistry, and casual labouring, as a postman and on prawn trawlers,
in support of a large family. This work history, often mentioned in promotion
and review of his books, provides readers with a point of access to their
surreal layering of the Australian vernacular with classical European
culture.6 Recognition of Foster’s achievement
in the literary field, however, has also been accompanied by uneasiness
about the extremes to which his opinions tend.7
With a literary reputation both bolstered and jeopardised by his provocative
rhetoric against orthodoxies in contemporary Australian culture, Foster
has been readily coopted by a commentator like Sheehan whose chapter opens
with the former’s self-description:
I’m not a nice guy. I don’t even want to be a nice guy. I have to overcorrect for the mealy-mouthed quality in contemporary Australian life. I try to draw attention to it by behaving in a different way. I just say what I think and it blows up in my face more often than not. But without honesty there can be no literature.
David Foster may or may not be a nice guy, but he won Australia’s highest literary honour, the Miles Franklin Award, in 1997. It gave him a little room to move. He says some things I would not dare to say, or even dare to believe, but his courage, his willingness to defend the maligned bushies, the breadth of his knowledge, and the sheer scope of his family, which stretches across the country, up to the Top End and into an Aboriginal clan, make him a remarkable Australian.8
So the ‘Thought Police’, rather than Aboriginal Australians, are the real object of Sheehan’s attack in Among the Barbarians.This Orwellian epithet — a usage perhaps drawn from the work of eminent Australian poet Les Murray12 — conjures a faceless and powerful ‘multicultural elite’, a ‘caste’ or ‘class’ of urbanites in possession of significant symbolic capital, whose alleged ‘political correctness’ is really a self-deceptive and self-serving cover for the privileging of their own power at the expense of mainstream, rural or working class Australians. This use of ‘police’ also draws on a white Australian anti-authoritarianism, sourced in convict and Irish-settler resistance to penal and colonial authority, a tradition crystallised in the Ned Kelly legend. The implicit invocation of this tradition aligns Sheehan and Murray ‘with’ the people and ‘against’ oppressive elites.13 Sheehan’s journalistic abusiveness is partly calculated as shock tactics, partly as rugged assertion of truth against the cynicism of city sophisticates. It is relatively easy to dismiss Sheehan because of this virulence. Yet the violence of his attack — not unlike that of Foster and Murray — can perhaps be seen as a measure of the symbolic violence exerted most effectively from the 1970s to the early 1990s by arbiters of value concentrated in bureaucratic, academic, media and cultural circles. In these decades, the generally bipartisan reversal of longstanding policies of Aboriginal assimilation and ‘White Australian’ immigration and their replacement with policies of multiculturalism was accompanied by, if not partly complicit with, the ascendancy of economic rationalism and globalisation. For white Australians excluded from the economic benefits of the latter, a politics of fear, focused on the alleged privileging by governmental and cultural elites of racially different others (whether Aboriginal, undifferentiated ‘Asians’ or most recently ‘Lebanese Muslims’14 ), saw a backlash against political correctness, exemplified by Sheehan’s book, and by Hanson’s right wing radicalism.
Even though — in his counterattack on a hegemonic cultural elite — Sheehan perhaps speaks an uncomfortable ‘truth to power’,15 his book is manifestly subject to a shared fantasy of white control. Its attempt to puncture the legitimacy of this particular cultural elite participates in ongoing, historically contingent struggles for power among dominant white groups. As columnist for an influential quality broadsheet, the Sydney Morning Herald, Sheehan cannot really be said to be disinterested; clearly he is a rival for symbolic power over the terms of cultural value, classification and discourse. David Foster and Les Murray are of particular use for Sheehan’s argument not only because their views seem to coincide with his, but because — as respected literary writers in restricted, elite fields — their cultural authority depends on their perceived distance from the worldly economy. Their reputations for high literary achievement make it much harder to dismiss these writers, precisely because of their dissociation from the ordinary marketplace; they are not bound by institutional affiliation, nor do they seek secular forms of political power. Manifest devotion to art brings a symbolic capital primed for conversion in other fields. It would be easy, however, to overstate this situation. Conversely, Sheehan’s cooption of Murray and Foster might equally be seen as hazardous for their respective reputations within the literary field, since the intemperate populism of Sheehan’s discourse threatens to collapse the distance from venal struggle that these writers need. It is one thing for such writers to speak for themselves, at conferences and in restricted markets within the literary field. It is another altogether for their views to be translated into and disseminated for a wider public in a possibly self-serving power struggle among opinion-makers. Such celebrity also brings notoriety, and the chance that complex thought will be commodified for deployment as a stake in worldly power games.
Beyond such obvious cooption for culture and media wars, the everyday practice of individual writers bears in subtle ways upon the definition and renovation of whiteness in literary field and nation. To explore this further I will compare and contrast the cases of two major poets of the land, Judith Wright and Les Murray. In both popular and high literary modes since at least the late nineteenth century, poetry has played a distinctive role in shaping and legitimising white Australian identity.16 In Bourdieu’s analyses of culture, the field of poetry (especially the more restricted field of poetry produced as an ‘art for art’s sake’) appears very much as a ‘sacred island’, governed by a logic of otherworldliness.17 Refusing the rules of the ordinary economy, poetry nonetheless contributes particular forms of capital to Australia’s governing elites. The response of Murray and Wright to what might be called ‘inheritance’, a term with multiple meanings and ambivalences, is the specific focus of the remaining discussion. Questions of inheritance — both economic and cultural — influence the disposition, practice and positioning of individual writers like Wright and Murray in their interactions within the field. ‘Inheritance’ commonly signifies the process by which, in law and culture (and with particularly strong ambivalences in Australia), land is made over into property and generationally transmitted. It also refers, in Bourdieu’s thought, to the complex processes of inheritance — often via family — of certain social dispositions, positions and destinies.18 In the literary field, ‘inheritance’ symbolically parallels its counterpart in economic and social realms, referring to the myriad of ways in which the legacy of culture is renewed, transmitted and disseminated, working both as impetus for belonging and as colonising force.
Judith Wright and — subsequently — Les Murray have been pre-eminent transmitters of white Australian belonging since each has sought, in different ways but with similar energy and impact, to re-imagine and celebrate the land in their respective poetries. Each has achieved high status and reputation not only in literary but also public spheres as a result. Yet, superficially at least, Wright and Murray could hardly represent more divergent political positions on matters Australian. The differences in their politics might be characterised, crudely, as progressive or left wing (Wright) and conservative or right wing (Murray). A member of the generation to reach maturity during World War Two, Judith Wright (1915-2000) — was not only a believer in but a lifelong activist for causes that came to dominate late twentieth century politics. The most significant of these included environmental conservation and justice for Aboriginal people. These themes not only marked Wright’s poetry but also led to her increasing dedication, especially from the mid 1960s onward, to writing and activism in these causes. This was, ultimately, at great cost to Wright’s time and energy for poetry. A significant player in the campaign to save, for example, the Great Barrier Reef from exploitation by mining companies, Wright also developed a profound commitment to and a not inconsiderable influence in indigenous affairs. From 1979-1983, for instance, she served on the Aboriginal Treaty Committee, enlisting many prominent white Australians in a campaign for a (still unrealised) treaty with Aboriginal people.19 Fifth generation descendant of a respectable pioneering family in the New England region of NSW,20 Wright dealt with her own personal sense of guilt by striving to enlighten her fellow white Australians about the unjust legacy of a past of which she and they had been beneficiaries. In some of her earliest poems, such as ‘Nigger’s Leap, New England’ (1945) and ‘Bora Ring’ (1944), Wright mourns the destruction caused by white invasion:
In contrast with Wright, Les Murray (b.1932) — a contemporary of Germaine Greer and Clive James, from the generation of the mid 1950s — recoiled strongly from the political aspirations and activism espoused by his otherwise admired predecessor, Judith Wright.26 Although a supporter — at various junctures — of such national causes as the move for Australia to become a republic (rather than — as now — a constitutional monarchy) and ‘reconciliation’ between Aboriginal and non Aboriginal Australians, Murray’s discourse even in regard to these matters has been hedged by an abiding wariness of proscriptive, progressivist politics.27 His refusal to be co-opted for what he has often described as fashionable, left liberal causes has permeated his writing — poetry and prose — from its earliest publication in the mid 1960s. Unlike many of his peers, Murray has consistently declined association with the agenda and political enthusiasms of ‘the Generation of ’68’, whom he regards as a privileged elite suffering from a mob mentality. It is ironic, therefore, that Murray’s own self-distancing from divisive political activism, along with his regular championing of ‘relegated’ rural folk, should have culminated, in 1999, in an invitation by Prime Minister John Howard to draft (in collaboration with Howard himself) a new ‘Preamble’ to Australia’s constitution. The ‘Preamble’ episode, and Murray’s involvement in it, merits closer attention; suffice to say that the resulting draft, rejected at referendum, drew acrimonious criticism from media commentators. Murray quickly distanced himself from a document over which he could never have asserted real control and from an episode in which he had become a political pawn.28
The contrast between Wright and Murray ? between their respective modes of engagement in public and political spheres ? is conditioned by particular circumstances that in turn shape the way these writers are positioned, or position themselves, within the Australian literary field. As for Wright, though in a contrasting way, Murray’s sense of attachment to the land is mediated by a family history. Descended from Scottish emigrants who established themselves in the 1850s in the NSW Manning River area, Murray has written of his sense of familial connection with a Celtic heritage. In both prose and poetry, Murray also refers to a particularly bitter episode affecting his own branch of family ? a matter crucial to his own positioning to which I will shortly return. Murray does not only draw upon a Celtic (specifically Scots) ancestry for personal and poetic resources; he also borrows from the anthropologically recorded oral literature of traditional Aboriginal culture.29 The interweaving of these disparate heritages in the elaboration of Murray’s indigenous white Australian poetry of belonging enables some of his most brilliant sequences, such as ‘Walking to the Cattle Place’ (1972) and ‘The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle’ (1977).
The direction and intent of Murray’s discourse, therefore, convey his distinctive response to the colonial encounter that so differently shapes Wright’s work. The point here is that Murray’s response entails a clear refusal of the direction ? political and literary ? taken by Wright. In researching her pioneering family’s history, Wright began to confront the wider frontier violence that had literally cleared the ground for subsequent and seemingly more benign waves of colonisation in the nineteenth century. In the process, her sense of guilt and horror and her questioning of her own inheritance dramatically increased. To ask about Murray’s attitudes to whatever his own forebears’ complicity with such processes might have been, however, is immediately to be diverted towards a moment of trauma closely affecting Murray himself.30 The episode concerns a grandfather’s incomprehensible meanness towards the poet’s own father, Cecil Murray. With little recompense, Cecil ? with wife and child in tow ? laboured for years on his father’s property only to suffer the ignominy of seeing his inheritance denied him and passed on to another favoured relative. Thus Murray grew up, in conditions of quite severe rural poverty, witnessing his father’s disinheritance, sorrows intensified by the untimely death of Murray’s own mother. Once poetry had begun to bring Murray substantial financial rewards, therefore, it is hardly surprising that one of his first gestures was to buy back the family property for his father. It is there that the poet still lives with his own family. Murray’s drive to repossess his inheritance ? literally the land of his father’s farm and symbolically his legitimacy as a white Australian poet ? runs deep in his discourse and poetry and brings him up sharply against the competing and prior claims of indigenous people.
Complex questions of class and gender — as well as of race — are also at stake in this necessarily sketchy comparison of Wright and Murray and of their relations to their inheritances, both economic and cultural. While Wright’s aristocratic connections with an established pioneering family endowed her with some economic and rather more symbolic capital, it is ironic that the everyday fact of her gender led to her exclusion from the category of heir to her family’s property.31 As a daughter, she could not look forward to inheriting the land itself. No doubt this banal fact propelled Wright towards a different destiny, predisposing her both to reject and, in another sense, to transform her family’s energies, firstly in pursuit of a poetry that ? in reconnecting her to the land she loved but would not inherit — proved of great significance for the Australian literary field. One of Wright’s great contributions to Australian literature consisted in her retrieval and canonisation of forgotten white Australian poets of the land, notably Charles Harpur and John Shaw Nielson. Her archival and critical work on these poets, gathered together in her book Preoccupations in Australian Poetry (1965), exerted a shaping influence on the field, thereby also establishing a lineage congenial to her own poetic approach.32 Secondly, Wright’s passionate concern over European maltreatment of the land, and her recognition of Aboriginal dispossession, made an incalculable contribution to the formation and circulation of new cultural and political discourses. Yet Murray’s relation to inheritance is similarly complex, being bound up with an egregious instance of downward class mobility. His resumption of his own father’s thwarted project ? his restoration of an unjustly denied inheritance — draws him inexorably towards the refusal (which paradoxically becomes a reinscription in another way) of the literary inheritance of his influential predecessor, Judith Wright. Likewise, his simultaneous inheritance of his extended family’s Celtic cultural legacy meets with this refusal, fuelling his drive to shape an indigenous white Australian poetry at the same period in which, as Hage points out, the shift from Anglo-British to Anglo-Celtic modalities of whiteness occurs in the Australian national imaginary.33
Thus immense contradictions, and Murray’s response to them, carve out his position in the field, shaping his rhetoric and producing his poetic vision. These contradictions structure a poem, provocatively titled, ‘Thinking about Aboriginal Land Rights, I Visit the Farm I Will Not Inherit’ (1974). The title barely prepares the reader for what proves a haunting description of a scene in which productive gridlines of crops accede to a vision of the bush reclaiming the farm’s slopes: ‘the polished shell barks / flaking, leaves noon-thin, with shale stones and orchids at foot / and the creek a hung gallery again, and the bee trees unrobbed’.34 The reversal of agricultural time suggested here leads into an arresting — but also troubling — final image of the poem’s speaker becoming indigenous, merging like an ancestral spirit with the earth: ‘By sundown it is dense dusk, all the tracks closing in. / I go into the earth near the feed shed for thousands of years.’ It would be hard to imagine a poetry more redolent of white Australian desire for an indigenous belonging, nor — it must be added — one more challenging to racial sensitivities.
Murray himself is not unaware of the sensitivities he has aroused and
provoked and is not without regret about such frequently contrary positioning.
There is a sense of the tragic about Murray’s ‘whiteness’, as can be seen
in his not infrequent allusions to his own Aboriginal connections:
‘I have lots of Aboriginal relatives but whether I have Aboriginal ancestry I don’t know … it would be such a simple solution to all my worries. I would be fashionable, there would be no more literary rivalry … If I were part-Aboriginal I would be honoured.’35
My comparison, therefore, of Murray and Wright — of their responses, poetic and public, to questions of Australian nationhood and belonging — suggests the persistence or durability of whiteness as a form of identity capital in the Australian literary field. The comparison also reveals how the poetic and public interventions of these quite differently situated writers participate in wider processes of transformation (often in and through resistance) of national identity into new modalities of whiteness. Wright’s refusal of her social inheritance as descendant of a landed white Australian family is prompted partly by a destiny imposed by gender; yet her initial refusal leads to her poetry’s powerful renovation of whiteness through symbolic belonging to the land. Wright’s subsequent transition from poetry to political activism was enabled by her literary reputation as eminent poet of the land; increasingly, however, her context and dispositions led her to question the very legitimacy of white belonging in Australia. Les Murray, at odds with his predecessor’s questioning of white legitimacy, appears to have refused her legacy even as he continues it by forging his own often problematic but intensely felt poetry of the land. Thus, amid the myriad of everyday, taken-for-granted and field-specific practices, whiteness continues as a powerful form of capital even as it resists detection as such. It might be objected, of course, that ‘whiteness’ is an empty signifier, infinitely replaceable by random other forms of capital or aspects of identity, like linguistic talent, personal power, social class or gender. The very elusiveness of ‘whiteness’ as category is precisely, however, what gives it its durability, arguably its primacy, and certainly its malleability as a form of capital that, as Hage shows, can be reconstituted over time.
In conclusion, I want to revert briefly to the question of the adequacy of such a socioanalysis of the micropractice of writers in the Australian literary field and its reverberations. Bourdieu’s sociology of culture has been criticised for reducing human practice to exchange value. While not necessarily agreeing here with the proposition that ‘use value’ is indeed ultimately separable from ‘exchange value’,36 I take this criticism as a salutary reminder of that which, in poetry, confounds or resists the purposes to which it otherwise may be put within the symbolic economy of the field. The exclusive focus on the exchange value of poetry, for example, may be unable to account for, or to comprehend, its power, beauty or creativity. Another, not unrelated criticism is that Bourdieu’s framework is too rigidly determinist (too structuralist) to account for historical change. Both these criticisms might therefore apply to the foregoing discussion. Without pre-empting further debate about these concerns, I would draw attention to the self-consciousness and reflexivity that a rigorous application of Bourdieu’s approach does require. Recognising what is at stake in one’s own writing within a field — from which circumstance I do not exempt this paper — may also allow recognition of how writers like Foster, Wright and Murray are also never entirely unaware of their own investments. Such awareness, in Bourdieu’s model, points back again to human resilience, adaptability and responsiveness, these being the inbuilt mechanisms of the social world he describes, within which structures constantly evolve into previously unanticipated forms. To remember and respect the knowingness of individual agents, therefore, is to keep thought open, to revive uncertainty rather than to accede to the purity of the orthodox. It is surely this awareness that leads Judith Wright to conclude her poem, ‘For a Pastoral Family’,37 with a measure of uncertainty in tension with the certainty of her political commitment. In the poem, Wright returns to contemplate the inheritance from which in other respects she so firmly distanced herself. Her conclusion — both determined and doubtful — suggests the impossibility of purity in any engagement, however necessary, in the social world:
1 Ghassan Hage, White Nation:
Fantasies of White supremacy in a multicultural society(Annandale,
NSW: Pluto Press, 1998), 198.