Re-Thinking the 1980s

Devonport 1985On Tuesday 9 June 1983 I was on holidays from Reece High School in Devonport. It was welcome relief: 1983 was one of the more miserable of my life. We had upped and moved as a family from inner city Melbourne, and I wasn’t taking to small-town life on the north-west coast of Tasmania too well.

Bob Hawke had been Prime Minister for three months and four days, the Tasmanian Dams case was in full swing at the High Court, and Devonport was ablaze with fury at Canberra’s interference in the island-state’s affairs. The charismatic and tactically parochial Robin Gray had been Premier for just over a year, and you could count the bright green ‘NO DAMS’ car-stickers cruising East Devonport’s streets on the fingers of one thumb (I know because it was on our Mitsubishi Express). Tasmanians, as ever, had eschewed the mainland’s political swing: it was Hawke (elsewhere the People’s Prime Minister) vs. the Hydro, Canberra elites vs. normal folk, greenies vs. work. The only thing I appreciated about our boys-only wood- and metal-work period was that I once caught our teacher—an acknowledged greenie—slipping out of class for a cigarette at the back of the school: eyes raised to heaven as the smoke exhaled…then the face in his hands.

Three weeks later the High CourHawke and Queen Mothert would make its decision and save Tasmania’s Franklin and Gordon Rivers. But that lay in wait. On 9 June 1983, Bob Hawke had other important business to attend to: officially opening the University of London’s Australian Studies Centre at 28 Russell Square, in the presence of the Queen Mum.

The Australian National University’s Frank Bongiorno spoke at that Centre’s 2014 manifestation—the Menzies Centre—last night, ‘re-thinking the 1980s’ and ushering in a wave of nostalgia in his audience. It is an irresistible effect of such a subject, while Frank hauled us back to historiography, but the struggle was (for me, anyway) really part of his point. The 1980s had slipped, almost unnoticeably, into History while we were gasping at 9/11’s spectacular birth of the 21st century. You could feel the 1990s evaporate, but we kind of forgot to take a hard look further backwards, even if the fashions revived.

Long-forgotten words kept popping out of Frank’s mouth, and we in the audience swallowed them like so many shoulder-padded madeleines: Prices and Income Accord, Joh for PM, Japanese tourist, the State Bank of Victoria, multi-function polis, Cliff Young.

20141015_191630Frank showed us how quickly, too, serious academic thinking about the 1980s slipped away in the 1990s, how few memoirs there are of the era—odd when we are now so suddenly awash in our own—and how many of its myths persist. He took us through a few of them, notably the all-knowing treasurer-banker-entrepreneur who could harness a deregulated market; punctured somewhat by crashes and all, but perhaps more so by Frank’s suggestion that deregulation was seen by some bureaucrats as an inevitable evolution of Australia’s economy, not the stuff of visionaries.

The racism of the 1980s—in Frank’s paper focused on popular and media responses to Japanese economic power—seems appalling but also up-front, clear, compared to the dog-whistling of our present. But that, too, may have had roots in the 1980s. Frank brilliantly illuminated the ‘discovery’ by politicians of a rhetoric of non-discrimination which could be used to discriminate: if we let too many Asians in other immigrants will suffer, the ‘balance’ should be right ( = more white people please); Aboriginal Australian land rights will take resources from those who have earned them hard.

And yet even that seems somehow simple to defuse: the kind of racism you can still—in part—meet head on. I wondered, as Frank shifted into his moving coda on the Young Shuffle, whether it is a case, also, of the proliferation and diversification of the media since the 1980s. Cliff’s fame glances forward to the flash-celebrity of today but is also as outdated as the dot-newsprint photographs that capture his run. If casual racism is essentially pervasive it has—in the internet—found its métier.

You can’t recount a decade in an hour: so we will have to wait for Frank’s forthcoming book for his full take on the era’s politics in the broad context of popular culture. But the seminar was a Proustian taster of what is to come. Looking forward to the 1980s, Frank!


Dr Ian Henderson

MCAS: born 9 June 1983 and still going strong

Menzies Centre’s re-launch season (21-23 October 2014):

Mining Literature

New Ground Down Under

MCAS Live Symposium

Re-Launch Reception

Approaching Charlie’s Country

Moon over Thames 9 Oct 14 For two hours yesterday London was—momentarily for a packed NFT1 cinema at the British Film Institute—also Charlie’s country. Just as the Thames was estranged by the light of a full moon—light that expresses all the moon’s past and future phases—everything looked different during and after this film, but different in a way that is always available to us if we choose to think about it.

Charlie’s Country is the latest collaboration between director Rolf de Heer and David Gulpilil, and the movie itself was layered with the history of their film making, and Gulpilil’s long and brilliant screen career. For me it was irresistibly a sequel to Ten Canoes (2006), with many of the same personnel listed in its closing credits, during which a steady shot of Gulpilil’s extraordinarily expressive face, relays again, now in a few minutes, what we have just seen over the last two hours.

But it is a sequel that, rather than ‘following’ the former film, instead is laid over it, like a second exposure of the same stock. It is kind of like watching a film of what might have been ‘really’ happening in someone like Gulpilil’s life while Ten Canoes was being shot: and we know from de Heer’s extraordinary making-of documentary, Balanda and the Ten Canoes, that things were going on in Gulpilil’s life during that historic moment in Australian film-production history.

And it is like watching how one community’s struggle with local Indigenous law, the fulfilment of which forms the plot of Ten Canoes, plays itself out in contemporary Australia. Here is Charlie, Minygululu’s and Dayindi’s descendent, negotiating the same struggle a thousand years later, but now everyday and existential challenges of sustaining country-law are exacerbated by the intervention of the shifting and seemingly arbitrary rules of ‘white’ law.

This is an uncompromising film in confronting both the effects on Indigenous Australian communities of the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act (2007) and the practices that appeared to motivate it. There is no shying away from casual racism, police brutality—though (hard though it may be to believe) the representation of that is nuanced in the film—and problems of alcohol consumption and the exploitation of women in some Aboriginal communities (though these don’t overwhelm what, for me, the film is really about).

We also see the double-edged sword of this kind of art-activism that has challenged culture-makers who venture into portraying contemporary Aboriginal Australian lives since at least Jack Davis’s landmark play The Dreamers (1982). Because in one sense the film sets up—particularly in its dialogue with Ten Canoes—a contrast between an authentic and fulsome past tradition and a ‘decrepit’ present, making of it a powerful political message: this is what ‘you’ have done to ‘us’.

On the other hand, the same dialogue helps us see continuities between the performance of country-law lives in the past and present. And that is not only in those moments when Charlie is in his own country—communing with the creators of the rock art behind him—but also in the kinship relations, the interventions of elders, and the (obligatory) sharing of resources evidenced in Charlie’s less alluring moments. Here too Charlie’s Country is a layer-sequel: country-law is still here, unchanged, working.

Its power—which is that of the ancestors—reaches beyond borders and beyond kin. It informs, for me, the pace of this film which flows with the undulating, pause-ridden qualities of the local languages used in it. It inducts viewers into an alternative temporality. Sure, lots of films do that: but in this case the way the viewing body is placed in relation to the narrative forges a state of being necessary to the approach to Indigenous Knowledge. In other words, we have begun to adopt the unexpectant waiting that governs our ability to learn something of this worldview (the one Dayindi learns at the end of Ten Canoes).

Rolf de Heer 2It was an unexpected bonus last night to have Rolf de Heer himself appear on stage at the BFI, speaking eloquently and frankly about his relationship with Gulpilil (who, I should add, won best actor in the Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes for his role in the film).

De Heer also discussed his sense that it will be one hundred years—five hundred years according to the person to whom he first ventured this opinion—to ‘solve’ the problems Charlie’s Country reveals.No one can doubt that, nor, as de Heer said, that this is a ‘problem’ for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians alike.

But perhaps rather it is an unsolveable problem, irreconcilable, a forever stone in every Australian’s shoe. That is far from saying shifts in attitude and policy aren’t needed fast, nor that these can’t have direct and dramatic effects on Australian lives. It is rather to frame—from an unabashedly intellectual viewpoint—Australia’s predicament as also a problem of mind. We are all living in the formidable wake of human history’s most extraordinary meeting of clashing epistemologies. And if, in two hours, we are drawn closer to the mind- and body-set which enables anyone to approach Charlie’s country, then that is a momentary fold in time, to other Australias where the ancestors are again in glorious voice.

Dr Ian Henderson

MCAS website

Interested in reading more? See Ian Henderson, ‘Stranger Danger: Approaching Home and Ten Canoes (2006)’, South Atlantic Quarterly 108.1 (Winter 2009): 53-70.

Twitter vs. Deep Listening

Monash PratoConferences are one of those institutions of academic life which occasionally warrant a re-think. As a postgrad you tend to get out there in as many as possible, to get the gist of how things are done, said, to network, and hopefully get spotted for a job one day.

For those of us who teach they are a welcome jolt out of teaching mode, and a sustained chance to re-connect with the shifting cohorts who influence our own work, while getting a long snapshot of research going on elsewhere and where one ‘fits’ in the field or fields.

Conferences can also be filled with pleasures, particularly if they are located in as beautiful a town as Prato, outside Florence, where I have just been for the European Association for Studies of Australia’s annual shindig; and if they are as well organised as the team at Monash Centre Prato—a brilliant venue with its own espresso bar (!!)—managed for us this time.

The human element of conferences is the key still: but these days they have a twittersphere also. I’ve been trying my hand at tweeting for the first time in the last few weeks @OzOnStrand and been delighted to re-meet friends and colleagues from Australia and beyond in this new way. EASA wasn’t awash with tweeters, though great credit to KCL’s Stephen Morgan @TheFarParadise and Monash’s Matteo Dutto @matteo_dutto who set up #easaprato. Tweeting is, though, something like a whole lot of people speaking, and few of them listening to one another.

There was some irony, then, in my tweeting about Lou Bennett’s concept o20140925_193209f ‘Deep Listening’, a process intrinsic to Indigenous Knowledge, built on silence, duration, and openness to human and non-human presence. The irony underscored something else I’ve thought about in the past: the hostility of fast-paced output-driven, objective-laden university teaching (some of it anyway) to the structures of Indigenous Knowledge.

Deep listening was also developed—brilliantly—by Dr Romaine Moreton’s keynote at the conference, in an inspiring contemplation of mind, place, visuality, mapping and politics, a performance of thinking and communicating which was wholly contemporary but energised by tradition. Later I spoke to Romaine about the paradox of teaching approaches to Indigenous Knowledge in a rushed 50 minute seminar. She said I should take the students to the nearest river and just have them sit and listen to it. Seeing as the nearest river is the Thames this seemed at first unlikely but I am increasingly thinking this is the best way to begin some of my modules. In fact, the idea of doing so has been the one most powerfully implanted in me by this conference: it has risen like the Thames itself, which still has natural rhythms for all the business going on on its surface and the need to control its desire to flood. Romaine and Lou were showing that, through deep listening, though far away—ostensibly—from country, Indigenous ways of ‘hearing’ the land can reveal its presence. Including on the watery back-doorstep of King’s on the Strand.

Dr Ian Henderson

@OzOnStrand Check also #mcasOz

Menzies Centre website