Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

From Cobra Grubs to Dragons: Negotiating the Politics of Representation in Cultural Research

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

From Cobra Grubs to Dragons: Negotiating the Politics of Representation in Cultural Research

Article excerpt

This seemingly obscure title, 'from cobra grubs to dragons', is chosen precisely because it was not used as the name of the cultural research project analysed in this paper. 'From Cobra Grubs to Dragons' was suggested as the title for a cultural tour of the Fairfield area in Sydney developed by myself and others through a partnership between the Centre for Cultural Research (CCR) at the University of Western Sydney (UWS), the Fairfield City Council (FCC) and the Migration Heritage Centre of the NSW government. The cultural researchers involved in producing the tour felt that this title was an evocative description of the tour which guides participants in visiting numerous sites illustrating Fairfield's cultural diversity: from places associated with the Cabrogal mob that lived in the area prior to invasion, to the dragons which decorate the many Buddhist temples built by migrants and refugees settling in the area from Indochina. As the project developed, a key funding partner vetoed that title, to be replaced by the prosaic Tune in to Fairfield City: a Multicultural Driving Tour' which now appears on the audio CD, map and instructions that enable motorists to take the tour. This paper analyses the rather more complex issues of naming and representation, partnership and voice raised by this cultural research project.

Ien Ang has argued that cultural research is oriented towards problem-solving, not so much in terms of providing easy 'solutions', but rather by contextualising practices and problems within the complexities of culture.1 Ang reminds us that cultural research is always implicated in the politics of representation and that the distinctive contribution of cultural research might be to highlight the 'level of politics where meanings and values are struggled over'. My own experience as one of the producers of the Tune in to Fairfield' tour suggests that the politics of representation is indeed central to cultural research, and that the inescapable engagement with representational politics raises a number of dilemmas for cultural research that aims not merely to analyse but also to intervene in the politics of representations around cultural diversity.

These challenges are particularly acute when working in collaboration with non-academic partner organisations, whether in a research consultancy such as 'Tune in to Fairfield' or through ARC Linkage projects. As collaborative research of this type becomes increasingly central to the new research agenda in Australia, it is vital that cultural researchers are able to examine the dynamics of research partnerships and to develop criteria to ensure excellence in both the research and the outcomes. Collaborative projects provide opportunities for cultural studies to be taken seriously as more than critique, and yet only two percent of ARC Linkage projects in the Humanities and Creative Arts are classified as cultural studies.2 In this paper I analyse the achievements of the 'Tune in to Fairfield' project and reflect on the challenges of doing cultural research in partnership within the context of the dominant discourses of cultural diversity in Australia.


As cultural researchers trained in media studies and journalism, the 'Tune in to Fairfield' production team was influenced by a widely cited essay by Marcia Langton on filmmaking involving Indigenous Australians.3 Langton draws on feminist and post-colonial theories of representation to argue for a protocol of inter-subjective dialogue and mutual self-definition in order to challenge colonial relations in which the colonised 'object' is defined and explained by the colonising 'subject'. Langton proposes an ideal model for constructing understandings of 'Aboriginality' as:

the construction generated when Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people engage in actual dialogue, where the individuals test and adapt imagined models of each other to find satisfactory forms of mutual comprehension. …

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