Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Introduction: When They Write What We Read

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Introduction: When They Write What We Read

Article excerpt

Thinking modernity puts the stress on rupture, on the break between the old and the new, between the traditional and the modem. We'd like to think other ways than modernity, to move beyond its ruptures and oppositions. [But] the question of how modernity continues to organise discourses [of ?traditional' cultural practices] remains a crucial problem.2

THIS BOOK EXPLORES THE CROSS-CULTURAL POLITICS, PRACTICES, management, and effects of ?talk' and ?text' in the sphere of contemporary collaborative Indigenous Australian writing. Like many books, it headed off in one direction and ended up with a focus and destination different from what I originally had in mind. Initially, I had wanted to write about the textual politics of cross-cultural editing in the sphere of Indigenous Australian life-writing. I had been vexed for some years during the 1990s by the status of ?co-authorship' that seemed almost routinely assigned to the nonIndigenous editors of a number of texts that narrated the life-stories and experiences of Indigenous Australian people published between the 1970s and the 1990s.31 could not understand why so many of these books were designed to make the role and power of the editor hyper-visible, seemingly as a constituent feature of the genre, and especially given the ways in which the practice jarred so strikingly with the function of an editor in Western book culture, which is to play an active role in assisting the author to write as effectively as possible, and then to disappear completely from the published work.4

What did it mean that some editors of Indigenous life-writing texts not only did not disappear, but often became entrenched as co-authors in the published version? How did this shift my understanding of the cultural role and status of the editor? And how was I to understand the cultural role and status of the Indigenous Australian author(s) of such texts as a consequence? Moreover, in what sense were the editors of these books authorial ?collaborators', given the absence of their own life-stories as part of the texts' narrative contents? A number of these works had been verbally narrated by their Indigenous authors and either dictated to or recorded by the editor, who thus functioned as a kind of amanuensis in ways that were familiar from other cultural and literary locations and traditions. But this did not seem to me to be a satisfactory explanation for editorial hyper-visibility; how many amanuenses did one see with their name up in lights as co-author of the stories they wrote down? Like that of the conventional book editor, the labour of an amanuensis self-destructs as a textual trace before the work reaches publication; it serves a notational function, but does not annotate in the way that characterized the editorial commentary and framing of these life-writing narratives.

The cultural and political work of cross-cultural textual collaboration thus emerged as a key site for me with regard to how Indigenous (and non-Indigenous) identities were textually performed and managed within the life-writing genre. In an ethnographic context, George Marcus has written compellingly of what he calls the "collaborative ideal" of cross-cultural representation. This arose as a "strong reimagining of the regulative ideal of rapport"5 informing standard anthropology as new approaches to ethnographic textual strategies of representation gathered pace in the 1980s. As James Clifford has pointed out, the possibility of collaboration "suggests an alternate textual strategy, a utopia of plural authorship that accords to collaborators not merely the status of independent enunciators but that of writers."6 "The collaborative ideal," writes Marcus, "entails the notions that knowledge creation in fieldwork always involves negotiating a boundary between cultures and that the result is never reducible to a form of knowledge that can be packaged in the monologic voice of the ethnographer alone." Yet the plurality of voices within such textualizations, he suggests, does not ultimately dismantle the ways in which they preserve the notion of a ? …

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