Identifying Australia in Postmodern Times:
RE: CONSTITUTING AUSTRALIA - THE DIFFÉREND, THE (RE)PUBLIC, AND THE PROPER NAME.
(c) Jerry Everard 1994
|1. Identifying Australia
The title of this book, 'Identifying Australia in Postmodern Times' is somewhat like issuing a writ of Habeas Corpus. It is a challenge, addressed at once to the writers of these papers, and to you, the reader. The writ has been issued and it will not be taken back. The writ asks the recipient to 'produce the body', or justify its detention, presumably in its absence.
There is in the title, still a hint that Australia is somehow a thing in a time. It is as though the body of Australia is there to be identified, pre-constituted, occupying a spatio-temporal locus. It is a dead body, perhaps, requiring identification, so the police can continue with their business. Or - and this brings us closer to Habeas Corpus - perhaps it is a question of detention. We are summoned to justify before the law (yet paradoxically, invariably after it) why we should detain, or pin down a thing called Australia after all. And this is where two problems arise: firstly, the notion of Australia as a self-present Thing, and secondly, the problem of historicism implied by the second axis of the title of this book - postmodern times. These aporia provide my point of entry into this discussion. They also hint at a way forward into the mess we encounter when confronted by the question of identity. For the problems that arise are practical problems, encountered by policymakers every day. But they are also perennial problems - and that in itself poses a difficulty with the historicist approach, for the problems are neither new, nor especially post modern.
Let me suspend the thing-ness of Australia for a moment. To signal this, I shall speak of Australia as that
That the word 'identifying' is in the present tense implies that the process is continuous. The fact of history shows that to be the case. Like the almost proverbial shit, it happens. Like the biological metaphor, it happens as a by-product of a process. Without the process there would be nothing to sustain it, and it would no longer be in production. Australia; you're standing in it.
Let me address this another way. Policymakers articulate Australia ('state' the State) in various but fairly specific ways. The formation known as 'Australia' is, first and foremost a discursive formation. When you look at what policymakers do, it comes down to talking and writing things down. They also engage, on occasion, in other signifying practices, such as ministerial visits to other, similarly constituted states, or they send gunboats to provide a tangible 'signal', in political parlance. All of these are signifying practices, without which Australia as a particular cultural practice would cease to exist. Some states have recently experienced, or are in the process of experiencing this; for example, the successors to the former Yugoslavia, or the former Soviet Union, or the former East Germany. Few people these days speak of Prussia, Bohemia or Transylvania. States are dynamic entities that exist as a product - one could even say as a by-product of their constitutive practices.
The identities of States, like those of individuals, are articulated across a range of discourses; foreign and defence policy, health, telecommunications, social security, and so on. As Catherine Belsey points out:
Insofar as states represent and are represented by (and in) a range of discourses, state identity cannot be said to be unitary, continuous or cohesive. Provisionally, perhaps, particular articulations of the state can be said to trace a particular position within specific boundaries of operation. It follows then, that the State qua discursive object may be construed only insofar as it enacts a specific regime of boundaries, establishing and maintaining the identity of this state, as opposed to the anarchic3 exterior.
The linguistic and other semiotic means by which we operate a shared social and political world form the currency by which we articulate the values that define our shared sense of community.
the first word in the title - 'invoking', in the present tense (a process) - is a useful way into the problem of Australia's identity. It is also implicit in the way one might discuss the question of Australia as an object. For Australia is, among other
What is important to note here is that meanings are never divorced from the practices that produce them, and that discourse represents an active struggle for and against the production of particular types of statements. Moreover, I shall contend that the State, so construed is operable only as long as particular kinds of representation delimit the state in that form. This is evident in the articulation of Australia as seen through the practices of constitutional monarchy embodied in Australia's Constitution. It is also evident in the articulation of the boundaries between self and Other in the same document - for example in its inclusion of certain states, and the exclusion of certain people.
As a result, the identity of the state as a material and cultural artefact cannot be reduced to a single system of ideas, either at the level of the individual or at the level of social theory. As both product of and producer of practices of representation, the state cannot be reduced to simple utilitarian or social functions. The state is neither a-historical, nor immutable - that is, it cannot be reduced to a single, or simple identity.
To speak of identifying Australia both implies and entails a logic of representation that itself refers to a logic of presence. Moreover, to speak thus also entails an absence such that Australia - the thing requiring identification - is not actually present, here, where the identifying needs to be done6. Thus re-present-ations of Australia can be said to differ from and defer access to the presence of Australia. Derrida refers to this process as différance. That presence is sought to fill a perceived absence, indicates that a hierarchy is at work that privileges presence over absence. The hierarchy of presence and absence is, of course, only one of a large number of dichotomies that have characterised Western metaphysics for some centuries. As Ashley points out, however:
He goes on to argue that without these boundaries, presence would be put in question, in a manner which would 'undo the very source of authority and meaning to which the logic of representation would strategically return'.
From this it is possible to see that asking what Australia
The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia
Considering that a conquering nation might well feel confidence in its strength and identity - especially after the first hundred years - Australia after European conquest yielded a remarkably tentative Constitution. As a founding document Australia's Constitution is far from a confident 'we hold these truths to be self-evident' - type of document.
Historically, such founding documents have represented the difinitive statement of inclusion and exclusion for the State. Such documents articulate the boundary between 'self' and 'other' in terms of common sets of beliefs, attitudes, and values held to mark out a 'people'.
In this light, it is worth comparing, for a moment, the opening preamble of the Constitution of the United States of America,
We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
with that for Australia:
It would appear that there was considerable doubt as to whether or not Western Australia was going to enter the Commonwealth of Australia at all. Interestingly, under Article 6 of the Act, which defines the key terms, one finds that
'The States' shall mean such of the colonies of New South Wales, New Zealand, Queensland, Tasmania, Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia, including the northern territory of South Australia, as for the time being are parts of the Commonwealth ....
The fact that New Zealand did not go on to become part of the Commonwealth of Australia, although Western Australia did, suggests that there was indeed overt recognition that states were and are historically contingent, even essentially contested concepts. There is a marked difference between the emphasis on unity posed in the Constitution of the United States of America, and the open acknowledgment of the positive disunity expressed in the Australian Constitution. Of course America's notional unity was more honoured in the breach, expressing a desire more than an established fact. But then, in both cases we are discussing formations of discourse - fictions.
Indeed, in legal practice, states are defined as legal fictions, or persona ficta in Hobbesian terms. A legal person is, like a Lacanian or Foucauldian subject, a subject of discourse. As Frow argues, the relation between such subjects and things, is that of 'a relation between subjects'8. As with all discursive relations it comes down to a relation of power. In Foucauldian terms, this is articulated as the power of the negative9 - it is the power to exclude the Other from the use and disposition of the object. This raises an interesting question, because if the subject is constituted by the power to exclude, then the subject is constituted by its boundarymaking processes. This operates at the level of the state as well as at the level of the individual. This is what is meant by stat(e)ing states.
Frow notes that from this it follows that subjects per se are not things, but rather relational structures. If this is the case, then it also follows that:
Although repealed only sixty-six years later, the fact remains that the identity of Australia enacted by the Constitution systematically excluded those vanquished by European conquest. It is therefore, arguably, not only for possession, that aboriginal people call for land rights, but for recognition within a Euro-centric legal system of subjectivity - the right to exist as legally constituted persons.
This constitutional oversight led to the continuing enactment of aboriginal people as a people living, quite literally sous rature - under erasure. Indeed, even today, when we examine the Constitution as amended, we can see, in almost Derridean terms, the relevant phrases written thus:
Somehow the irony has been lost, when the aboriginal people of Australia are systematically excluded because they are there, yet crossed out because the statement is in error. This is a classic case of what Lyotard referred to as différend. We do not need to look to the Jewish Holocaust for our différend. Lyotard puts it this way:
Despite the moves since 1967, to address the legal issues of racism as embodied in the law, there remain the broader historical and cultural forces that led to the Constitution being written in a particular way. Sadly, despite legislation to the contrary, the continued re-statement of those cultural forces is set to continue unabated for some time. First the writing, then the practice. The Constitution, conversely, represented the writing down of a particular set of cultural practices. Changing the Constitution to write-in aboriginal people reflects a cultural change among an elite sub-culture. Nevertheless, the cultural practices of Australian identity, as reflected, for example in popular television and advertising still tend to place aboriginality under erasure.
The original Constitution systematically erased aboriginal people by a phrase (or two). Lyotard notes that:
Where the phrase systematically erases, or silences a people, we can note that:
Taking these in sequence, one can read back into the Constitution the social emergence of the phrases in question. It is an indictment on European conquest that one can suspect the denial of all these instances in the two phrases referring to aboriginality in the original Constitution. Firstly, that the situation in question (in this case White law) is not the business of aboriginal people (treated as wildlife, therefore treated as lacking the competence to partake fully in (white) Australian society, and for whom special legislation would suffice. Secondly, that it never took place (the Terra Nullius concept) - if there were no people, then there was no need to count them in legislation, or in counting the numbers of people in the Commonwealth, or State. Thirdly, that there is nothing to say about it (the situation is senseless, inexpressible) - if Terra Nullius, then there is nothing to legislate for. And fourthly, that it is not the survivors' business to be talking about it. This is the argument that says, okay, the great grandparents of the present survivors were dispossessed, so what business is it of the present survivors to make a fuss?
Lyotard speaks of this with respect to the case of the waged worker. In this example, for the worker to exist within a contract or agreement, presupposes that the work can be spoken of as the temporary surrender of a commodity which can be exchanged for other commodities. What this elides is that the 'service' performed by the worker represents time from the worker's life. This is not an exchangeable commodity. But without recourse to this idiom, the worker does not exist within its referential field.14
It is heartening to see acknowledgment that what is needed at minimum in terms of recognising aboriginality, as an aspect of Australian identity, is an ongoing process of 'reconciliation'. But let us not forget that for as long as it is necessary to treat aboriginality as difference, as Other, then Australian identity will remain Other than aboriginal.
This serves to illustrate two aspects of the constitution of Australia's identity, as set out in the Constitution. Firstly, that the constitution of Australia's identity is mutable, historically contingent - if trac(e)able by the visible deletions in the text of the Constitution. Secondly, that changes in the cultural practices of Australian identity lead to changes in the identity itself, as reflected in the Constitution. Another example that illustrates this process is before us today, in the form of the debate concerning Australian republicanism, and its constitutional implications.
3. Re: Public. An 'Ism'?
The subtitle of this Act is: 'An Act to bring constitutional arrangements affecting the Commonwealth and the States into conformity with the status of the Commonwealth of Australia as a sovereign, independent and federal nation'.16 This Act terminated the power of the Parliament of the United Kingdom to legislate for Australia. The Act finally removed the effectiveness of the British 'Colonial Laws Validity Act 1865' . Under the 'Colonial Laws Act' the United Kingdom reserved the right to render void or inoperative any Act passed by the Commonwealth of Australia or the States on the ground that it was 'repugnant to the law of England'. It might well have been an Act to Render the Queen as a Postmodern Subject Position.
Under the Australia Act 1986, the Queen is potentially open to charges of 'conflict of interest', or at least She would be, if She were a modernist, unitary subject of discourse. But, as Queen, She does not occupy the subject position of 'natural person'. She is, in Her capacity as Queen, a 'legal person', and herein lies the difference. For example, having dealt with teh question of the compatability of Australian with British law through the Australia Act 1986, there remains an incompatability in the other direction. As I have noted, the Colonial Laws Validity Act 1865 allowed the UK to render void or inoperative Australian laws that were deemed to be repugnant to the law of England. There is no commensurate Act that would enable Australia to provide for the Monarch the same employment equity granted to other holders of public office in Australia, in terms of discrimination on the grounds of gender or creed. As Attorney General, Michael Lavarch has noted; under Section 116 of the Constitution, 'no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth'. Yet our head of State is required under English law to be of the Anglican faith. Moreover, as Lavarch has stated,
A further inconsistency arises in the provisions for holders of public office. Section 44(i) of the Constitution states:
That Australia's head of state holds dual citizenship would also seem inconsistent with the constitutional arrangements for other holders of public office.
However, if Australia is indeed a 'virtual' space governed by a 'virtual' Queen, re-presented by the Governor General, then why should Australia become a republic, as though in some strange sense this act would render Australia more self-present? This sentiment has been echoed by at least the pro status quo-ists, if not the pro-monarchists themselves. The arguments, or at least assertions run as follows:19
* there is no a-priori reason why Aboriginal people will fare better under a republican Australia;
This much is not in dispute by the Republic Advisory Committee. As their report notes:
Thus, although the monarchists and the status quo-ists can see no tangible benefit to Australia becoming a republic, the Republic Advisory Committee has found that at worst, in terms of economic and political stability, becoming a republic offers no detriment either. In fact it finds that becoming a republic is neutral on this issue.
The difficulty facing pro republicans is that they have to argue a case for activity over passivity. For Australia to remain a monarchy, the population just needs to do nothing. We have seen, however, that states are somewhat evanescent entities. Without active maintenance, they would just fade away. Without their borders, literal and symbolic being policed and maintained through the myriad practices of the minutæ of statemaking, the state would cease to exist.
From the moment the words 'be it therefore enacted...' are uttered within the rituals of a particular kind of speech act, a process is set in motion, a by-product of which is a State. States, as we have seen are not 'natural persons'. In fact even 'natural persons' require nourishment and maintenance practices, both actual and symbolic in order to remain subjects by and of discourse. So in fact, the 'act' of doing nothing is still an act of discourse. On this basis, the pro-monarchists, including the pro-status quo-ists must equally justify why Australia should continue to be enacted as a monarchy in the face of an increasing set of republican practices designed to render to Australia the sovereignty it operates by virtue of Statehood.
Prime Minister Keating has stated repeatedly that Australia would benefit from becoming a republic in terms of national identity and national unity. These are symbolic, and may not have a tangible effect on political stability or economic stability. But to suppose that symbolic reasons are less important than economic or political reasons, is to fall into the fallacy of assuming that the economic and political realms are not themselves founded upon a discursive and historically contingent edifice. That is to say that the political and economic realms are equally 'symbolic'.
Some have argued that were Australia to become a republic it would only be rendering in law essentially what is currently fact in practice. The argument runs this way: a republic is defined as a 'state in which the supreme power rests in the body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by representatives chosen directly or indirectly by them'. Since the Commonwealth Constitution can be amended only by the people, by referendum, then ultimate sovereignty in Australia rests with the Australian people. As the Republic Advisory Committee note:
Other supporting arguments for this position include our checks and balances to the power of government through the separation of powers, and a strong regard for the rule of law and the protection of civil liberties, at least in law. In effect, this argument holds that Australia is already a 'virtual' republic.
If this is indeed the case - that Australia is already being articulated as a republic, then it follows that the time is fast approaching when this fact shall be articulated in the juridical discourse of the Constitution. When that time arrives, the republican identity of Australia will have a stronger discursive base with which to articulate the future.
It will be a stronger discursive base because the idea of Australia will be articulated as a more autonomous, unitary and cohesive subject, unfettered by a perceived allegiance to another's monarch. For example, until the Australia Act (1986) Australia did not possess the full and unfettered sovereign rights of a State. A republican Australia would go a long way toward confirming those rights in the eyes of the world.
4. The Proper Name...
We have seen that the distinction between 'legal' persons and 'natural' persons cannot be maintained as a simple Manichæan dichotomy of nature and culture, because the status of the 'natural' person is itself constituted by and within a discursive economy through the articulation of sets of rights and duties (boundaries). That is to say they are both fully discursive categories.
Australian tolerance of diversity is one of Australia's strengths. But to be perceived as a strength, it must be perceived as Australia's own tolerance, rather than the tolerance allowed a wayward colony by another. There is strength in diversity only when articulated from a position of confident autonomy.
We have seen also that Sovereignty, too, is a 'legal fiction' by which states articulate rights to govern within its boundaries (stating States) and duties to (re)present all the people within those borders in dealings with other States (stat[e]ing States).
It would be cumbersome to try to maintain these discursive categories as objects. What I have alluded to in this chapter is a set of processes, the by-product of which functions as a proper name. Identifying Australia is a process, not a thing - a verb, rather than a noun. It is a process that is set in play through the invocation of the name, not an end-product. Indeed, the invocation of the name serves to stand in place of the thing in order to signify its difference from and defer-ment from the present. All this is to suggest that identifying Australia is a boundarymaking process that can be read out from and articulated through sets of discursive practices.
The final point I want to make is that these processes have always been in play. A noted nineteenth century strategist, Carl von Clausewitz, proposed the maxim that 'war is a continuation of policy by other means'. I am inclined to the view that policy is a continuation of conflict by other means. We speak of identifying Australia as though this were a mark of its fragility, its evanescence. We speak of Australia's identity in precisely the place where we do not perceive it to be. A similar sentiment seems to be echoed by the Chinese scholar Lao Tzu around 500B.C. when he wrote:
1 See Gayatri Spivak's translator's preface in Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1976, p.xivff.
(c) 1994 Jerry Everard
Email me . . . other academic papers or return Home