Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Modernism, Antipòdernism, and Australian Aboriginality

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Modernism, Antipòdernism, and Australian Aboriginality

Article excerpt

This essay describes the entanglement in Australia of three concepts: modernism; 'settler modernity'; and Aboriginality. Its three principal arguments are: (i) that European perceptions of Australian Aboriginal cultures were deeply influential in the development of modernism; (ii) that anxieties about the proximity of Aboriginal and settler peoples in Australia - but also resistance to European theories of Aboriginal culture not validated through personal experience of interacting with Aboriginal Australians - influenced strong anti-modernist sentiment among some Australian artists and writers; and (iii) that perhaps this 'anti-modernism' might instead be characterized as an 'alternative' modernism in Australia - an entanglement of visions of progress and degeneration - to which I will give the purposefully ugly label of 'antipödernism'. In developing these arguments I will make reference to Sigmund Freud's Totem and Taboo (1913) as inflected by the work in Australia of Francis Gillen and Baldwin Spencer, and discuss writings by Miles Franklin in particular, as well as Katherine Susannah Prichard, D.H. Lawrence, A.D. Hope, and Christina Stead.1

Altogether, then, I will be exploring the impact of a particular construction of Australian Aboriginality on the development of modemist writing in Australia, a vast and complex subject, not least for its invocation of such contested terms as 'modernism', on the one hand, and 'Aboriginality', on the other. By virtue of providing an overview, then, I will necessarily crush significant nuances within the writing of the authors whose work I will mention; I am conscious also of working with a European figuration of Aboriginality, which is well removed from the knowledge derived from the lives, traditions, and experiences of real Aboriginal Australian men and women. I beg forgiveness for this on methodological grounds, for misconceptions of Aboriginality historically have been as influential on the cultural development of European and Australian writing as those messy and entangled truths about Indigenous Knowledge that emerge directly from interventions by Aboriginal people and from collaborations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal thinkers and activists.

As a starting point for this exploration I find useful a 'traditional' distinction made in discussions of Western modernity summarized by Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar in his introduction to Alternative Modernities (2001). The distinction is that between societal modernization ("the growth of scientific consciousness, the development of a secular outlook, the doctrine of progress, [... ] individualistic understanding of the self, contractualist understandings of society, and so on") and cultural modernity, or modernism:

By and large, the proponents of cultural modernity were repelled by the middle-class ethos - by its stifling conformities and banalities; by its discounting of enthusiasm, imagination, and moral passion in favour of pragmatic calculation and the soulless pursuit of money; and, more than anything else, by its pretensions, complacencies, and hypocrisies as represented by the figure of the philistine.2

Avant-garde artists, in this reading, invoke both "the cultural patina of modernity as a spectacle of speed, novelty, and effervescence"3 - they celebrate the positive outcomes of a technological age - and also set themselves up against regimes of social and intellectual routine, of bourgeois aspirations, and political, social, and aesthetic complacency. In doing so, they break tradi2 tional forms in the making of their art, architecture, design, and writing: they 'make it new'. They also make their artwork deliberately difficult to consume: because the complacency of consumer culture is one of their targets; and because they work outwards from those new and challenging models of human subjectivity and history that rise from (i) scientific studies of nature, notably Darwin's in the nineteenth century, and (ii) those new theories of the human psyche, and materialist histories of culture, produced in the early decades of tiie twentieth. …

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