Academic journal article Antipodes

The Obstinacy of the Sacred

Academic journal article Antipodes

The Obstinacy of the Sacred

Article excerpt

CULTURAL AND LITERARY DISCOURSE IN CONTEMPOrary, Anglo-European Australia continually dallies with the sacred. This is not a matter of organized religion, nor is it limited to the range of engagements with the Indigenous that Ken Gelder and Jane Jacobs explore in Uncanny Australia. On the contrary, the sense of the sacred continually activated by Anglo-European writers, artists, and cultural critics is much broader than either of these suggests. Partly because of its breadth, the term also has something enticingly vague about it. This enables it to function as a very abstract counterpoint to a disenchanted modernity and, by extension, as a potential solution to the legacy of a violent colonial history.

Let me be clear on what I am talking about here and what I am not. I am explicitly not talking about formal religious frameworks and belief systems, and the communities they organize. In fact the all-encompassing nature of the phrase "the sacred," which is apparently meaningful independently of actual belief systems and even very general forms of religious experience (animistic, polytheistic, or monotheistic), already indicates a degree of alienation from the thing it attempts to name. It has always struck me as a term that circulates through a modern, disenchanted culture in order to name, often nostalgically, a broad experiential realm imagined as lying beyond that culture's limits. Hence, it has been possible to embody the term in highly affective, highly aestheticized moments bound up with the possibility of rupturing the limits of everyday practice in an instrumentalized society. That these moments are often loaded with political connotations, especially in a postcolonial context where they have been linked to a contemporary sense of national flourishing or renewal, invites us to examine them from the perspective of the politics towards which they gesture.

For David Tacey and many of the writers he draws upon, the sacred is the key concept in attempts to imagine a version of Australian identity uncompromised by, if not magically released from, the fatal entanglements of settlement. That this sense of the sacred in contemporary Australia is discursively over-determined goes some way towards explaining its durability and appeal across a wide range of creative and critical discourses. If we were to untangle its threads we would find the legacy of a modernist transcendentalism (embodied most powerfully in the work of Patrick White and Sidney Nolan), contemporary theoretical critiques of enlightenment discourse, a cultural studies productively engaged with Indigenous Australian knowledge, a new-age environmentalism in which Nature itself might become a quasi-sacred object, and various forms of postmodern rapprochement that, at least implicitly, activate feelings of lack in a disenchanted, predominantly middle-class population. The overt political stances here range from an energetic didacticism, directed towards the refashioning of Australian consciousness, to a melancholic sense of resignation in the face of a profane, instrumentalized public sphere.

For all their good intentions, contemporary attempts to tether the sacred to a framework of collective renewal can also resemble the forms of primitivism that we frequently find at the intersection of colonial and modernist cultural production. The discourse of the sacred in contemporary Australia is imbued with, to quote Marianna Torgovnick's definition of primitivism, "the Utopian desire to go back and recover irreducible features of the psyche, body, land, and community ... to reinhabit core experiences" (5). By virtue of the key role it plays in colonial discourse analysis, the term primitivism carries a politically pejorative taint that the sacred does not. This should not blind us to the fundamental relationship between the two. That a range of moral, aesthetic, and political questions is repeatedly linked to a notion of the sacred indicates not so much an attempt to think beyond the profane, the instrumental, or the radically disenchanted, but a residual deferral to well-established conceptual paradigms that play out the Western psychologization and aestheticization of religion as a way of navigating social and political problems. …

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