Inscription and the Settler Colony: Theorising Aboriginal Textuality Today

In recent years, the study of Aboriginal literatures has moved from a marginal interest of Australian literature to a site of global inquiry. Due to limited Aboriginal representation in the formal institutions of literary studies, this shift has arguably not coincided with sufficient reciprocal interpretive mechanisms capable of situating the Aboriginal text in a dynamic relationship with Aboriginal culture. As such, many of these discourses have reconstituted culturally inappropriate anthropological mechanisms in their engagements with contemporary Aboriginal literatures (Araluen, ‘Shame’). The unstable entanglements of power, sovereignty and exclusion that frame the Australian conditions of settler coloniality are manifest in the institutions and disciplines that teach, publish, and interpret Aboriginal literature. In the space of Indigenous research discourse and practice, Ngati Awa and Ngati Porou academic Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s pioneering work on decolonial Indigenous methods and practices, Decolonising Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (1999), demonstrates that the concept of the discipline is not only an organising system of knowledge but also a system of organising people and bodies. She argues that the intellectual productions of nineteenth-century imperialism, including notions of civilisation and the Other, are bound to and assert geographic and economic forces of appropriation, expropriation and incorporation (69). These knowledges not only form academic disciplines but have also been used to discipline the colonised through exclusion, marginalisation and denial.

Subsequently, legacies of colonial paternalism and erasure continue to inform the inter-subjective field of Aboriginality that structures settler readings of Aboriginal textuality and undermine representations of Aboriginal experience and expression that defy these expectations (Leane, The Whiteman’s Aborigine). Tony Birch describes this legacy as the ‘disloyalty effect’: whereby ‘critics, commentators and readers respond to what they feel is an implicit critique or betrayal of the national story: an act of ingratitude’ (‘Too Many Australians’). As Wiradjuri literary scholar Jeanine Leane has demonstrated, when non-Aboriginal readers fail to accept unfamiliar narratives and textual forms as legitimate articulations of Aboriginal identity and experience, they return to the comfort and safety of settler colonial representations, constituted through the national literary canon (The Whiteman’s Aborigine). These regressive impulses speak to the power of literary artifactuality to inscribe fixed and limited notions of cultural authenticity into binaries of permissible representation – a binary in which contemporary Aboriginal writers inevitably fail to perform either their ancestral or colonial codification (Griffiths). This invidious criticism has been active since at least Ruth Doobov’s 1973 review of Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s My People: ‘She is not in a position to have a very sensitive appreciation of European verse rhythms, but at the same time she cannot use the structure and techniques of the poetry of her Aboriginal ancestors’ (49). Despite extensive commentary from Indigenous writers and theorists challenging the silencing effected by white settler appropriations of Aboriginal representations, acts of what Yuin writer Bruce Pascoe calls ‘rearranging the dead cat’ of the settler colonial imaginary are still a prominent occupation of Australian literary culture.

Literary studies, as a sprawling and multifaceted discipline that straddles semiotics, hermeneutics, linguistics, cultural and critical theory, philosophy, historiography, psychoanalysis and anthropology, has at times been protected by its own ambiguity from the suspicion given more empirical disciplines. As a product of Western textual epistemology – what Edward Said would call the cultural object of discursive imperialism – literature is of course subject to the cultural closures of its origins (Culture and Imperialism). As such, literary discourse is inevitably shaped by the same structures of power and exclusion that have, since 1770, provided and sustained an intellectual discourse justifying the dispossession of Aboriginal peoples. Literature is a term that has been unevenly applied beyond the textual products of the West, or to texts that reinforce accepted narratives of the Other. For those who live in a perpetually compromised position regarding the sovereignty of our ancestral homelands, discourses of literary criticism usually signify a binary of applicability: either they are unconcerned with our material realities and processes of cultural production or they extract our creations from their cultural and linguistic localities for individuating tropes and organising metaphors in the successive paradigms of Australian literary history (Araluen, ‘Shame’).

In his generative study, The Distribution of Settlement: Appropriation and Refusal in Australian Literature and Culture (2018), Michael Griffiths interrogates the genealogy of white settler appropriation and the reconstitution of Aboriginality in the Australian public sphere and its associated discursive realms. Griffiths extends Patrick Wolfe’s logic of elimination into an interrogation of the cultural geo-politics of settler nationhood – which, he argues, are ultimately predicated on the simultaneous non-presence of Aboriginal people as political subjects, and the various modes of appropriation through which Aboriginality is reimagined and made available for settler consumption (6). Griffiths suggests that many of these settler representations, which ostensibly celebrate Aboriginality through artifactualities of romanticism and paternalism, are structured by nationalist anxieties and fetishised rituals of melancholia (21).

This textual genealogy of appropriation and reconstitution operates in a broader project of what Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang have theorised as ‘settler moves to innocence’: a range of political, intellectual and artistic strategies for the evasion of settler guilt and accountability (9). Australian literary historians Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra drew similar inferences regarding the role of the literary imagination of Aboriginality in the ‘doomed quest for symbolic forms of legitimacy’ by which Australian literature has sought to instantiate a heroic break from the imperial centre of its origins (x). Through the literary reconstitution of its colonial history, settler literature maintains and circulates a liberal democratic dream of nationhood, which, they argue, ‘is and always has been the after-image of the Australian nightmare, suppressing Australians’ worst fears by representing them in glowing terms as an ideal’ (217). Structurally speaking, then, according to this argument, settler literary traditions are multiply overdetermined against the authentic recognition of Aboriginal writing.

With little interest or strategy to engage with Aboriginal critical knowledges, and not merely creative productions (Grossman 1), literary criticism in Australia has carried on largely without accountability to the political and cultural conditions that shape Aboriginal textual production, and generally mishandles political or cultural forms of difference. These configurations have not answered the need for theoretical engagement with Aboriginal literatures capable of moving beyond the recognition of how well we perform, appropriate or ironise Western form, or that goes beyond distilling personal and communal narrative into explicit correlation with its most salient historical framing.

Although there are extensive archival records of Aboriginal writings in the form of letters, petitions and pamphlets from as early as 1796, prior to the commercial publication of Aboriginal poets and playwrights such as Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Jack Davis and Kevin Gilbert in the 1960s and 1970s, most Australian readers would have largely encountered Aboriginal voices in print through anthropological and linguistic records. These supposedly empirical texts were circulated extensively throughout the British empire due to what Australian historian Liz Conor describes as the historical coincidence of the growth of industrial print media alongside the colonisation of Australia and the broader Pacific. Literature about but not by Aboriginal people was granted legitimacy through the colonial institutions and networks that produce and distribute it. As Yiman and Bidjara anthropologist Marcia Langton has demonstrated, most Australians come to ‘know’ Aboriginal people today through interactions with these texts: ‘The most dense relationship is not between actual people, but between white Australians and the symbols created by their predecessors. Australians do not know and relate to Aboriginal people. They relate to stories told by former colonists’ (I Heard It on the Radio 33). This relationship, Langton argues, is an intersubjective field ‘remade over and over again in a process of dialogue, of imagination, of representation and interpretation’, and it is in this sense that ‘Aboriginality’ as a subjective and unstable phenomenon is produced by both Aboriginal people and settlers (33). As postcolonial and Indigenous theorists such as Said, Tuhiwai Smith and Aileen Moreton-Robinson have demonstrated, these are by no means equal relations of representation, and imperial claims to knowledge, and the institutions that reify them, are structured by imbalances of power that serve the colonial project (Said, Orientalism).

The published Aboriginal literatures of the twentieth century were produced in material contexts of segregation, legislated discrimination and social hostility. Writers such as Noonuccal, Davis and Gilbert wrote explicitly to themes of colonial violence and oppression. Their works were performed in spaces of political organising and community support networks and, despite commercial success, were reviewed harshly by the standards of settler critics (Doobov). Meanwhile, anthropological and ethnographic texts such as Charles Mountford’s The Dreamtime: Australian Aboriginal Myths in Painting (1965) were circulated as glossy coffee-table books to deliver exoticised and bastardised essentialisms of Aboriginal cultures to the middle-class homes of white Australian suburbia (Hodge and Mishra 78). In the second half of the twentieth century, the works of memoir and social realism from Stolen Generations, urban-living or dispossessed Aboriginal people were subject to essentialising debates regarding assimilation and appropriation, which measured their testimonies and representations against Eurocentric archetypes of the noble savage and the dying race (Leane, The Whiteman’s Aborigine). At the same time, settler Australian authors were winning international literary awards for novels thematising subjects such as the Frontier Wars, dispossession and reconciliation.

This nexus of the literary and political is a prevailing theme in early attempts to define Aboriginal writing in English. As Jack Davis, Stephen Muecke, Colin Johnson (Mudrooroo Narogin) and Adam Shoemaker observe in their 1990 anthology, Paperbark: A Collection of Black Australian Writings, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century examples of Aboriginal writing evidenced ‘people writing literally for survival’ against an oppressive colonial state (3). From this history, they observe that contemporary Aboriginal writing is often translated through such an emphasis, which sublimates individual self-expression into broad gestures towards freedom and protest. While such a reading might be accurate as a historical statement, they acknowledge this presupposition limits Aboriginal writers in a manner that white Australian authors would be unlikely to experience. As Australian literary scholar Anne Brewster argued in 1995, ‘[u]ntil recently, Aboriginal history was not speakable: there was no site upon which it could enter the public domain, and no means by which it could be heard within the dominant culture’ (4). Perhaps it will not always be so, but this essay operates from the position that contemporary Aboriginal writers continue to work against the effects of this legacy of unspeakability.

Aboriginal writers today have multiple traditions of inheritance, including almost a hundred years of Aboriginal literary publication, in addition to our ancient and immemorial storytelling practices. Aboriginal literature written in the alphabetic script of the Australian settler colony is a recent extension of continuing practices of storytelling, which include weaving, painting, dancing, singing, carving and other forms of ceremony that communicate ‘ideas, stories, dreams, visions and concepts with one another and with the other-than-human world’ (Justice 22). Despite this continuity, our adoption of the written word is not unburdened by the ethical and epistemological problems of the imperial networks from which it originates. As Cherokee literary theorist Daniel Heath Justice writes in Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, literature suggests ‘a particularly elevated kind of expression’ (16), which is invested in social capital, class relations, institutions and epistemological claims:

Literature as a category is about what’s important to a culture, the stories that are privileged and honoured, the narratives that people – often those in power, but also those resisting that power – believe to be central to their understanding of the world and their place in relation to it. (20)

Although plurality goes some way towards implying diversity of form and content, ‘literature’ is by no means a neutral term, particularly when applied to settler colonial contexts in which relationships to texts and textuality are subject to uneven distributions of power (van Toorn). The breadth and expanse of literature(s) is what Justice describes as its ‘beautiful, terrible power’ to serve the ‘powerful and the powerless alike; the rebellious texts of one generation become the stories against which the next generation struggles to be heard, even while providing inspiration and guidance for those who follow’ (21).

Framing the formal parameters of Aboriginal literature with an emphasis on its extension of sovereign cultural practices and histories, with an awareness of the influence of a wider context of settler colonial knowledge and expression, requires interpretive strategies outside conventional hermeneutics. These strategies include a need to decentre individual human authorship by acknowledging relationships of community, Country and the Dreaming. As Craig Womack observes of his own Creek-Cherokee context, Indigenous literatures have spiritual implications, as much as they do artistic:

Native artistry is not pure aesthetics, or art for art’s sake: as often as not Indian writers are trying to invoke as much as evoke. The idea behind ceremonial chant is that language, spoken in the appropriate ritual contexts, will actually cause a change in the physical universe. (17)

Womack’s explication of the mimetic relation of artistry to oral tradition emphasises the reifying power of language for the audience and environment that hears it. The written word, as a new technology of these traditions of evocation and ceremony, is not in and of itself a direct reproduction of the dynamic relations produced between speaker and listener. As Mississauga Nishnaabeg writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson has argued, in relational contexts of speaker and audience, the performance of story becomes:

[A]n individual and collective experience, with the goal of lifting the burden of colonialism by visioning new realities. While this is now also accomplished by Indigenous artists through the written word, spoken word, theatre, performance art, visual art, music and rap, film and video, it is most powerful in terms of transformation in its original cultural context because that context places dynamic relationships at the core. When mediated through print or recording devices, these relationships become either reduced (technology that limits interactivity) or unilateral (as in print, film, or video, when the creator cannot respond to the reaction of the audience). Then the process, to me, loses some of its transformative power because it is no longer emergent. (34)

Betasamosake Simpson rightfully highlights the often reductive and unilateral consequences of new media as a challenge for the fields of Indigenous writing and studies, one which she addresses through the spoken word performance of her own artistry. The emergent qualities of performance and the embodied, participatory nature of oral storytelling practices relate specifically to the community spaces and lands in which stories are made and shared. Aboriginal use of the written word is already entangled in oppressive power relations and claims to ambivalent determinants of authority and authenticity and is therefore, as Betasamosake Simpson suggests, perhaps uniquely equipped for modes of refusal and resistance with a goal to ‘lifting the burden of colonialism’ (34). It is imperative to maintain spaces, methods and languages that are sensitive to the nuance of these forms and their relationships to author; audience; the contexts from which they emerge; and their various cultural, political and artistic purposes without endorsing binaries of the literary and the oral. We must be aware, as Justice warns us, that ‘every time we privilege the literary, we run the risk of doing violence to the specific relational contexts of the oral’ (25).

As Sámi scholar Rauna Kuokkanen has argued, the assumption of an evolutionary continuum from the supposed primitivism of oral storytelling towards the sophisticated and civilised technology of the written word has been contested by linguistic and anthropological researchers for decades (Derrida; Brotherston; Mignolo). She draws particular attention to Jacques Derrida’s disavowal of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s study of the supposedly exclusively oral language of the Nambikwara people of Brazil, in which Derrida argues that the denial of Nambikwaran written language was propelled by romantic notions of authenticity (Derrida 101–40; Kuokkanen 94). In addition to the anthropological privileging of Western models of phonetic writing and its ensuing cultural biases, Kuokkanen emphasises that many Indigenous literatures have radically different value systems and perspectives to the knowledge systems of the imperial West; as such, comparatives of the written and the oral essentialise and distract from more interesting questions of genre, form and experimentation (94). Although this essay is specifically focused on writerly acts, Indigenous projects of critique across literature, academia, performance and visual arts are often interested in the porosity of arbitrary boundaries of orality and literary acts and in exploring the potential for cultural evocation in new media. As Justice argues, ‘[w]hen Indigenous peoples have been able to put these technologies to use in ways that affirm the sovereignty of Indigenous purpose, not subjection to white supremacy, they tend to uphold traditional practices, not erode them’ (22–23).

These discourses demonstrate the need for languages of textuality and expression capable of engaging the diverse forms and functions of contemporary Aboriginal storytelling practices, which are also sensitive to the histories and futurities these practices are rooted in. In 2013, following Nurungga education researcherLester-Irabinna Rigney’s (1999) theory of ‘Indigenist research’, Ambelin Kwaymullina, Blaze Kwaymullina and Lauren Butterly explored the interrelationship of cultural and spiritual forces in histories of Aboriginal publishing and continuities of Lore/Law. They propose ‘published sources’ as a collectivising term for ‘poetry, life histories, community histories, creation stories, scholarly articles and books’ that have undergone some mode of publication and distribution (1). This term, they argue, specifically attends to relationships between Aboriginal people and their textually constituted knowledges, emphasising that the recognition of authorship is a driving force in what Rigney calls the ‘contestation of knowledge’ at the heart of Indigenist research (Rigney 116; Kwaymullina et al. 1). There is a functionality to published sources that allows readers and scholars to speak to intellectual property without indulging the at-times fetishistic and Othering rhetoric of Aboriginal storytelling, which so often accompanies tropes of timelessness, placelessness and authenticity. Published sources are not constitutive of content or function, although their utilitarian pragmatism perhaps defaults to academic sterility. Conversely, Kwaymullina et al. also propose a language of ‘living texts’ to suggest broader cultural and spiritual forces, as well as relational connections between place, speaker and audience:

‘Living texts’ connect to Dreaming and Law and influence as much as they are influenced. They are Story – in the sense that they are part of the bigger flow of learning that emerges from creation and country … Aboriginal voices and stories continue to connect to Country and hold power even when translated into text, told outside of the contexts of the Country where the knowledge is lived, and potentially circumscribed by Western understandings. Researching texts, whether published or archival, creates a relationship between the knowledge and the reader that intersects and finds its embodiment in many realities, laws and relationships. (6)

This explication is structured by a series of enumerative insistences on the living, related and participatory nature of Aboriginal systems and knowledges that read counter to the secular hermeneutics from which so many interpretations of Aboriginal literatures are drawn (4). Kwaymullina et al.’s theorisation speaks to spiritual and philosophical underpinnings of Aboriginal epistemologies and ontologies. It also offers a productive but not prescriptive direction for interpretive dialogues with Aboriginal literatures, one that brings to the forefront spiritually and culturally situated elements of a text that are otherwise not operating at the surface of a narrative or its form but which are revealed through the sharing of a work amongst other Indigenous readers. To think of Aboriginal literatures as living texts is to acknowledge that they continue to instruct and guide their readers as they move through the different spaces and contexts of their lives, while staying connected to the lands from which those stories emerge through kinship relations.

To facilitate a fuller conceptualisation of our long histories of story, and the multiple forms of its expression across the authorship of Country, Dreaming, ancestors and our contemporary communities, Aboriginal literary scholars such as myself and Peter Minter (2021) have explored a language of ‘inscription’ to describe these many modes of textuality. Inscription holds significance in Aboriginal contexts, which extends to the translation of these contexts into English language and Western forms of distribution. It follows directly from Arrente artist and writer Jennifer Kemarre Martiniello’s use of the term in her conceptualisation of the cultural dimensions of textuality for Aboriginal histories and bodies, in which she draws on family histories to circumvent cultural deficit narratives of land and language loss and reflexively negotiates both the discursive and ontological triangulation of story, body and dreaming in which she is situated, or rather, inscribed: ‘I am bark engraved by the continuous cartography of my peoples, their histories – I am Dream. The unsilenced. The ink that runs from the tongues of languages to their inscriptions in print, paper, minds’ (94–95). Martiniello moves through cosmic and microcosmic scales of time and place to conceptualise interpolative acts of reading, listening, speaking, writing, creating and marking. In the entanglement of time and presence she depicts to explore the continuous occupation of spirit and ancestor in all forms and distributions of Aboriginal story, the relationship of Aboriginal story and the grammars and pages of Western literature is interpolative, desiring:

We gotta own ‘em, now, those white-fella marks on paper. We gotta take them marks and make ‘em run together like the dots and circles, the tracks and rivers and beings that live together on that bark. We gotta show that’s who we are, how we live. Them white-fella pages Tjukurrpa too, now, because it’s us mob that’s making the marks on ‘em – markings of ourselves like we’ve always been, like we’ll go on being, tracing our tracks on the paper. (94)

In this emphasis, the printed word on paper is more than a mere extension of technological resource, it is an exchange with history that draws writing into Dreaming. Writing is not a future frontier, a colonial invention: it is a continuous ‘marking of ourselves like we’ve always been’, recalling Waanyi novelist Alexis Wright’s description of the world she seeks to inhabit through her writing as a continuous temporality of the ancient and the new in which ‘all stories, all realities’ forever track through ancestral Country (3).

Martiniello presents a beautifully rich entanglement of time and presence that explores the continuous occupation of spirit and ancestor in all forms and distributions of Aboriginal story, cyclically offering story and questioning its discursive and performative framing:

In the beginning before everything was made the earth was soft. Fluid. Formless. The Ancestors moved across the land, inscribing the tracks of their journeys in the hills and plains, the mountains, deserts, forests, lakes, the creeks and rivers that they created. When their work was done and they had given the cosmos form and life, they sent their spirits into the rocks, the tress, the waters, the earth herself, the sun and moon and Milky Way. These places are spirit, sacred life, source, being. They are creation and continuum, they are story without end, the earth their living library. Tjukurrpa … Do I speak in italics? parentheses? to an audience? Or to a black floating space that hovers on its own insubstantiality, an ephemeral gauze spun by a line of mega-lights. The ground of the storyteller is defined by its ambiguity, its resistance to nails, fixation, incarceration by space-time isobars. By the imposition of alien topographic rescription. Erasure. (94)

In the ‘living library’ of the land and the stories that live within it, Martiniello inscribes her story as much as she is inscribed by the stories of her ancestors and the earth they have walked together. In negotiating the grammatical and paratextual parameters of written expression alongside the spatial domains of performance, Martiniello defines ‘the ground of the storyteller’ through ambiguity and refusal. This sense of inscription, and the spiritually embodied language of place and narrative it is situated in, encompasses more than a text itself, and offers a language to reconceptualise the boundaries of Aboriginal literature away from Western formal parameters, and into conversation with place and memory. It follows what Kwaymullina et. al. describe as the power for Aboriginal texts to ‘bridge Aboriginal and Western realities and show many models for Indigenous peoples in how to persist, endure, maintain and extend who they are’ (8).

Inscription is not a term I wish to reserve for Aboriginal textuality and cultural production simply to deflect from the assumptions of social capital and elitism that literature connotes. Inscriptions and acts of inscribing can be both celebratory and violent, and we are constantly surrounded by damaging histories and images of Aboriginal misrepresentation, which are inscribed against the daily living and survival of Aboriginal presence in the settler colonial state. Rather, I wish to propose that this term can refer to something larger than writing and textuality, to provide a richer comprehension of the fluid and at times unknowable parameters of our voices across time and place. We inscribe as we are inscribed, we reinscribe and resist inscription, we are erased and dis(de)scribed within and beyond the arbitrary boundaries of nationhood and the colonising structures through which it is maintained. Perhaps inscription’s most salient function is to recentre the embodiment of land and voice at work in Aboriginal textuality that has been denied by the mechanisms of settler colonialism, reminding us of the importance of community audiences and spaces that Betasamosake Simpson affirms.

This search for an alternative signifier for the diverse forms, contexts and priorities of Indigenous literatures is driven by the insufficiency of conventional structures of literary practice in the settler colony to recognise the cultural and historical intricacies of Aboriginal inscription. The legacies of invasion and the ongoing structure of settler colonialism are apparent in the institutions and discursive spaces associated with the production, distribution and analysis of Aboriginal literary, political and scholarly expressions (Huggins; Moreton-Robinson). Despite significant increases in the commercial availability of a diverse array of contemporary Aboriginal literatures, the critical resources available to Indigenous scholars and critics from the broader field of Australian literary studies are limited by histories of racism and erasure. Throughout the twentieth century, the emergence of contemporary and culturally dialogic literary practices by Aboriginal writers such as Noonuccal, Gilbert, Kim Scott and Sally Morgan prompted debate regarding contemporary Aboriginal writers’ incorporation of supposedly ‘traditional’ textual practices into Western literary standards and conventions and the success of such endeavours (Indyk). Simultaneously, Aboriginal-settler collaborative projects, such as Krim Benterrak, Stephen Muecke and Paddy Roe’s Reading the Country (1984), sought to frame ancient storytelling practices and traditions through post-structuralist theories and continental philosophy. Conversely, Aboriginal languages and signifiers have been appropriated into the settler colonial literary imagination through movements like the Jindyworobak poets, who extended the earlier use of Aboriginal representations as an ornament to radical nationalism from the Bulletin years of the 1890s, where stereotyped tropes of the Australian bush were invested with potent valences of white, working class masculinity.

The language of inscription does not necessarily clarify the task of wading through the often hostile and discriminatory legacies of Aboriginal literary, interpretive and critical representation in colonial institutions. However, it does facilitate the bringing together of multiple forms of artistic commentary in the face of literary criticism’s insufficient attention to Aboriginal textuality.

The undersupply of culturally relevant anti-colonial theory in Australia was documented by Langton’s writings on art criticism and the politics of representation in the 1990s. In her efforts to provide an anti-colonial cultural criticism of Aboriginal representation in film, television, anthropology and the visual arts, she invokes and extends a body of theory drawn from feminist, postmodern, postcolonial and cultural studies to analyse the discursive formation of Aboriginalities in media produced both by and about Aboriginal people (‘Aboriginal Art and Film’). She encounters similar concerns regarding the pervasive projections of primitivism and authenticity across diverse artistic forms and mediums, and a throughline of her interrogations is her emphasis on continuing and transformative cultural and artistic practices as Aboriginal people and communities incorporated new media into time-immemorial customs (165). This argument, which has also been explored by anthropologists such as Eric Michaels and Muecke, is often associated with the development of creative practices combining traditional signifiers, methods or aesthetics with Western technologies, such as the revolutionary Papunya Tula art movement, which gave rise to a global recognition of modern Aboriginal art through the meeting of body and sand painting techniques with acrylic paints and canvases. For Muecke, these developments demonstrate the necessity of inventive responses to an invading contemporary world to ensure a democratisation of modernity in which minorities are enfranchised but not necessarily assimilated into the colonial polity (158).

However, Langton’s reading of the interface of Western technology and Aboriginal customary practices and laws are not presented without caution. While recognising that the incorporation of the non-Aboriginal world into Aboriginal artistic practices might ‘lessen the pressure for Aboriginal people to become incorporated or assimilated into the global worldview’, she is nonetheless concerned that the modern context of commercial distribution secularises the representation of Aboriginal cosmologies and distances these knowledges from their land-based contexts:

What I see as central to much Aboriginal art production is a new permissiveness, atypical of the old traditions. To have the authority to execute the sacred designs (now seen around the world on objects as unrelated as sneakers and BMWs), only ten years ago, one had to be a properly qualified Law man or woman, a religious exegete. There was a harsh discipline and physicality involved in achieving and upholding this status along with its rights and responsibilities. (I Heard It on the Radio 90)

Langton elaborates on the development of cryptic coding in paratextual material that might signal certain meanings to initiated or familiar Aboriginal audiences, retaining the sanctity of secret-sacred or inside knowledge. This discrete context of production and reception presents challenges for didactic and translatory approaches to Aboriginal inscriptions, even those sensitive to the distinction between inside and outside meanings. Langton follows this debate in anthropologist Peter Sutton’s suggestion that Aboriginal art, by virtue of its negotiation of religious knowledges through coding, obliquity and reductive signification, is predominantly conceptual, in comparison to the perspectival focus of European art (Sutton, 1988, 37). Langton is concerned by the hierarchy of authenticity Sutton’s distinction raises between the apparently traditional art of more recently invaded Aboriginal communities and the more politically engaged work of urban Aboriginal artists (I Heard It on the Radio 92).

I will return to the question of cultural authenticity as it relates to interpretation shortly, but it is worth lingering on Sutton’s binary drawn between the conceptual and the perspectival, as it resonates with the linguistic and literary concerns of my approach. The reductive errors of Sutton’s argument are informed by the assumption that Aboriginal art communicates purely through metaphor as opposed to sign, thus reifying long-since deconstructed structuralist assumptions. The anthropologist and art theorist Howard Morphy has written in detail on the interdependency of ecological, genealogical and spiritual sign systems in Aboriginal visual art, arguing that signifiers of environmental and cultural knowledge in these works are informed by emplaced relational understandings of scale, orientation and technique. Through a close reading of several major Western Desert paintings, Morphy highlights the topographic and narratological structures encoded in two-dimensional representations, combining geometric and figurative gestures linked to specific geographic and spiritual localities (111). As the world of the Dreaming is both temporal and spatial, Dreaming stories can be mapped as much as they can be told, danced or walked. Morphy emphasises the embodiment and physicality of this artistic production, encouraging us to think of the collaborative gathering of artists around a canvas, and detailing the movement of hands or painting tools alongside descriptions of the human, animal and spiritual movements signified by the tracks imprinted in the work (106). As such, the signifiers of narrative and locality represented in these artworks are both communally constructed by human, animal and spiritual interactions with the land and communally interpreted in relation to it. Their inscription in two-dimensional forms distils but does not disguise or abstract the emplacement of their own creation. Thus, their signification does not conform to Sutton’s binary, being neither wholly conceptual nor perspectival. Or rather, questions of individual conceptual or perspectival intentions in artistic practices are distinct from the artworks to which Sutton refers. Sutton’s argument implies that the negotiation of spiritual and cultural restrictions pertaining to insider and outsider knowledges in Aboriginal art elides the possibility of other symbolic orders capable of operating around that restriction. In Sutton’s understanding, symbols of spiritual and environmental knowledges, as well as memories and other narratives, are assumed to be predominantly conceptual, even when they allude to communal knowledge. However, Morphy’s research, with its emphasis on the communal spiritual and ecological forms of participatory creation, resonating with the language and framing of inscription I have adopted from Martiniello, demonstrates a deeper symbolic order at work, beyond both the settler and the uninitiated Aboriginal eye.

Langton’s concern for the slippage of Sutton’s argument into false binaries of authenticity is justified here. In another work, Sutton et al. introduce a categorical oppositionality of artistic and cultural function between ‘detached comment (recent urban art)’, and ‘symbolic narrative (traditional art)’:

In the urban case, there are usually two primary texts: the art object and its message … In traditional Aboriginal art there is basically only one public text: the story, or spirit, or animal represented and its representation. The artist does not say things like: ‘In this painting I am trying to show the relation between power centred in the gerontocracy and what has happened to young people in my society.’ Meaning is not made exterior to its representation, and the message is not distinct from the myth or image itself. There is a quantum gap between this kind of mythic interpretation and an ethics-based overt analysis of the social order. (Sutton, Jones & Hemming, 1988, p. 2034)

While Sutton et al. do not directly state that the ascription of intention to Aboriginal art is inherently inauthentic, there is a clear suggestion that critique and analysis, when articulated by Aboriginal people, signifies abstraction, which in turn implies a degree of cultural detachment. Moreover, this framing implies that while ‘traditional art’ contains secret-sacred meanings that operate beyond the public text for the understanding of initiated audiences, there is no such depth to ‘recent urban art’ – and perhaps, by extension, no intention or desire to speak to initiated and culturally literate audiences. Meaning, in this sense, is also unevenly implied: where urban art has messaging that involves interpretation and conceptual ambition, it is implied that the public text of traditional art is purely didactic or mimetic. This binary affords little attention to form or medium, and no recognition of Aboriginal artists’ own concepts of the traditional and the modern.

This configuration implicitly devalues the political resistance and critical reflection of the ‘urban’ in favour of the supposed authenticity of the ‘traditional’, despite the role that the Western technologies of acrylic paint and canvas have played in the development and circulation of the latter. Langton does not dwell on these contradictions, but she notes that they recur as Aboriginal artistic practices expand into new medias and rejects the assumption that urban Aboriginal artists can only engage with their history and traditions through ‘a narrow detached conviction (‘Aboriginal Art and Film’ 93).

It is here again that we might think of the potential for a language of inscription to undermine the formal, historical and cultural distinctions espoused by Sutton. Further, through the language of inscription, we can draw explicit connections between discourses of visual arts and literature to highlight parallels across settler misuses of Aboriginal expression. Misrecognitions like Sutton’s are informed by philosophical and hermeneutic assumptions inappropriate to and inaccurate of Aboriginal culture, with considerable implications for the future of Aboriginal writing. We can draw from the epistemological and analytical failures of Sutton’s argument in relation to visual arts implications for a discussion of the encoding of insider or secret-sacred knowledges in Aboriginal literatures, which presents unique challenges for the pursuit of culturally sensitive literary theory. The task here is not merely to dispose of ineffective frameworks that are likely to misread Aboriginal representations – that is the condition of all non-Indigenous interpretation. More problematically, such a superficially reparative manoeuvre would assume that the Aboriginal author wishes to be interpreted. As Hodge and Mishra have noted, the hermeneutic problem here constitutes a difference of kind rather than simply one of scale:

Aboriginal culture is not a set of simple and transparent but neglected texts. On the contrary it is typically enigmatic and deceptive. The mystery of Aboriginal culture is the product of Aboriginal protectiveness as well as White indifference. (72)

Throughout the twentieth century, anthropological extractions of Aboriginal cultures and practices circulated secret-sacred knowledges, artefacts and remains through networks of commercial publishing, museums and universities. Australian literary and cultural studies is marked by extensive histories of extraction, misrepresentation and erasure that have restrained and sidelined Aboriginal representations of lived realities and political resistance to the mechanisms of the settler colony. The legacy of these curations and elisions have inspired interpretive, pedagogical and publishing strategies to improve the visibility and amplification of Aboriginal literatures, which witness and resist elimination. However, it must be acknowledged that Aboriginal textuality is also inhabited by secret and sacred knowledges, histories of trauma and violence, and cultural information that most Aboriginal people and communities would not wish circulated outside of closed spaces, much less in the academic institutions of the settler colonial state. This is perhaps the most explicit exemplification of Édouard Glissant’s 1997 argument for the right to opacity, by which marginalised subjects should refuse the expectation of transparency and visibility to our oppressors. As Hodge and Mishra argue, the study of Aboriginal literatures must be foregrounded by a recognition of the potential for meanings and contexts to be present but selectively apparent in a text:

The task of a mediator, then, must start by acknowledging this central fact: Aboriginal texts are secretive, opaque texts, concealing the most important levels of meaning. The difficulty is not extrinsic, a result of unfamiliarity by White readers with the language and conventions at issue, though this adds to the problems of decoding: it is more akin to the quality of difficulty that T. S. Eliot once declared was essential to modernist writing. (87)

That is, the interpretive difficulty or evasiveness encountered is not merely a matter of style or form imposed upon an otherwise extractable content. On the contrary, the structure of Aboriginal inscription articulates the intensely local and precisely communal nature of Aboriginal cultures.

It is a disservice to contain Aboriginal literatures to the closures, logics, ideologies and assumptions of Western thought and culture, even when texts directly engage with these logics and assumptions. While the interpretation of Aboriginal literatures must consider the conditions in which these texts are to whatever extent formed and distributed, it is my contention that interpretive strategies invested in aligning these texts to the settler colonial state cannot claim to know or speak for all that Aboriginal texts signify. Further, the literary and scholarly spaces associated with interpretive and pedagogic engagements with Aboriginal narratives and experiences are often hostile to Aboriginal knowledges and researchers (Watego; Thunig and Jones). Inquiry into reception of the wide array of textual forms produced for public access by Aboriginal people in the twentieth century reveals persistent conflicts of interpretation, particularly regarding Aboriginal resistance to Western literary modes and expectations as the political works of writers such as Noonuccal, Gilbert and Davis began to circulate (Healy; Kwaymullina et al.). The Australian poet Judith Wright challenged the utility of this assumption in Australian literature as early as 1988, asking: ‘Do we go on talking from our critical heights, as though our standards are necessarily to be accepted even by those who have no cause to thank us for them?’ (132). And yet, decades later, the legacies of anthropological, editorialising and paternalistic literary critique continue to resurface in contemporary scholarship surrounding Aboriginal literatures (Leane, ‘Cultural Rigour’).

As such, the history of settler colonial Australian literary studies and production as it pertains to Aboriginality is more so a demonstration of interlocution than interpretation, whereby popular framings and conceptualisations of Aboriginality drawn from archival and anthropological misrepresentations have been reconstituted in key texts and traditions of Australian literature and its associated disciplinary contexts (Hodge and Mishra; Leane, The Whiteman’s Aborigine, 2010; Griffiths). These framings and conceptualisations arise in patterns of erasure, mythologisation and appropriation across a multitude of Australian literary forms and genres, in which Aboriginal languages and cultural signifiers are incorporated into historicising or atavistic aesthetics that reify settler nationalist imaginaries (Griffiths; Araluen, ‘Snugglepot and Cuddlepie’).

As expressions of Aboriginal culture, history and experience entered print distribution throughout the twentieth century, the slippage between the translation and interpretation of Aboriginal inscriptions by settler researchers and critics undermined perceptions of authorship and voice and facilitated essentialising binaries and debates surrounding cultural authenticity and appropriation. Aboriginal stories, traditions and practices were treated as extractive commodities through anthropological projects that sought to translate difference and commercially distribute editorialised or otherwise reimagined representations cultural knowledges to white Australia (Hodge and Mishra 87). With the rise of personal memoir and urban realist writings, the late twentieth century saw an increasing emphasis on authorial identity in non-Aboriginal scholarship as self-articulations of Aboriginal experience failed to reaffirm familiar visions of Aboriginality fixed to tropes of timelessness and primitivism. This shift from a diminished to an overdetermined conceptualisation of the relationship between text and author in the settler colonial framing of Aboriginal literatures evidences the slipperiness of the ‘discursive regimes’ by which Aboriginality has been constructed and managed (26). In scholarly approaches to contemporary Aboriginal literatures, this emphasis has elided the exploration of aesthetic characteristics, formal structures and thematic interests and forced diverse modes of Aboriginal textuality into explicitly mimetic relations with their political and cultural origins.

As Leane’s extensive work on the pedagogical contexts of Aboriginal literature has demonstrated, most interpretive interactions between non-Aboriginal readers and Aboriginal texts relate to questions of authenticity and the intersubjective field of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal relations (The Whiteman’s Aborigine 139). Despite Langton’s argument that Aboriginality is constituted and remade by both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people ‘in a process of dialogue, of imagination, of representation and interpretation’, the privileging of conceptualisations and images of Aboriginality drawn from dominant colonial narratives over articulations of the lived experiences of Aboriginal people demonstrates that these are by no means equal relations (‘Aboriginal Art and Film’ 33–34). When non-Aboriginal readers respond to Aboriginal inscriptions, they are primarily engaging with the intersubjective field of representation attached to the text and its author through a discursive regime in which ‘[t]he most dense relationship is not between actual people, but between white Australians and the symbols created by their predecessors’ (33). Interpretation, therefore, is not necessarily a textual relation: or rather, the textuality of the relationship is not derived exclusively from the text at hand. Here we might think of how the language of inscription could foreground the agency of the author, as opposed to the symbolic order of a settler idea of Aboriginality.

It is from a recognition of the intersubjective field of Aboriginality and the challenges it presents for Aboriginal writers that Leane explores the pedagogical benefits of ‘the analytical frame’ in the teaching of Aboriginal literatures to non-Aboriginal readers (2010). By modelling the multiplicity of potential meanings that arise from a text through diverse theoretical frameworks, students are primed for generative relationships with difference and unfamiliarity in Aboriginal representations which depart from their preconceived imaginaries:

[I]f students can be brought to an awareness that a reading through feminist theory draws out different possible meanings than a reading through postcolonial identity theory, than a reading via psychoanalytic theory, and so forth, then they are more able to see that a reading from the Aboriginal standpoint will draw out something in addition but also something not complete. That is, from a teacher’s perspective, no one frame for reading produces the ‘true’ meaning of a narrative, and meaning itself is produced in the act of reading, which always also includes the reader’s particular social and political location. (The Whiteman’s Aborigine 139–40)

Leane describes the ideal outcome of this process as ‘shifting the ground from which [non-Aboriginal students] read’ (139). Interpretation in this context is not conceived of as the pursuit of specific meanings or authorial intentions but rather an exercise in improving cross-cultural understanding for students reluctant to accept Aboriginal representations in narratives that refuse colonial stereotypes and paradigms. By invoking the intersubjective field of Aboriginality in an explication of the ‘expressive-interpretive relations of writing-reading’ (2010, 234), such interrogations demonstrate how historically constituted conceptualisations of Aboriginality can move from a foregone horizon of assumption into the analytical work of reading and interpretation. This method requires the making visible of historical, social, political and cultural contexts otherwise unfamiliar to students but that inform authorial and textual conditions relevant to their reading and interpretation (234). In other settings, Leane has described the use of situational, relational and cultural framings as a basis for teaching Aboriginal literatures, adapting Bronislaw Malinowski’s ‘context of situation’ and ‘context of culture’ to illustrate the relationship between cultural context and cultural representation for students (‘Gathering’ 244). Her application of these principles to Archie Weller’s short story Confessions of a Headhunter (2000) examines the ways in which Aboriginal culture responds to sociohistorical time and space but continues to centre practices of story sharing and familial gathering, resisting the deficit-charged assumptions of cultural inauthenticity that emerge from less historically and culturally informed readings (245). Amangu Yamatji legal scholar and historian Crystal McKinnon draws on these pedagogical formations to explore narrative practices that make visible the sociopolitical contexts of Aboriginal experiences of the settler colonial carceral state (208). McKinnon demonstrates how pedagogical and framework-based approaches to Aboriginal literature can work alongside statistical and sociological research to make visible what data alone cannot:

I bring statistics to the narratives in Njunjul to thus illustrate how reading Aboriginal stories in the way the aforementioned Aboriginal authors and academics suggest deepens our understanding of the statistics and social indicators – providing a story behind the numbers and facts. Aboriginal literature allows a way to examine the relationship between police and structures of power through the narratives they tell. Aboriginal literature shines a light on the violence and reveals the horrors of Australian systems of policing and policing practices. (210)

The application of this methodology into cross-disciplinary contexts of colonial critique and resistance affirms the value of literary challenges to the intersubjective field of Aboriginality. This is not to suggest that the primary function of Aboriginal literatures is to translate or make visible Aboriginal culture for the benefit of a settler readership or that Aboriginal literatures operate merely in didactic or mimetic relationship to cultural knowledges. Rather, it is to reinscribe the text in relation to its own emplaced configurations of priority, which are varyingly communal, spiritual and political. Leane is clear in her argument that cultural ignorance restrains the possibility of ethical and generative engagement with Aboriginal literatures and self-presentations and that the consequences of this ignorance are primarily felt by Aboriginal people (‘Gathering’ 242–44). When settler readers reject the authenticity of texts that fail to adhere to their preconceptions of Aboriginality, they deny the diversity and modernity of Aboriginal people in the broader community. It is for this reason that Hodge and Mishra warned in 1991 that:

Aboriginal literary production will never be sufficient on its own to challenge the dominant construction of Aboriginality. Literary criticism will become the site of a new form of Aboriginalism unless Aboriginal voices are given their due place within the discourses that constitute it. (112–13)

As Leane, Langton, Hodge and Mishra and many others have argued, Aboriginal inscriptions have an important role in redefining relations between settler Australians and Aboriginal people. However, as Leane’s specific research on teaching Aboriginal literature has demonstrated, creative and imaginative works by contemporary Aboriginal people are not alone capable of dispelling the myths and artifactualities informing the intersubjective field of Aboriginality for non-Aboriginal readers. We can, as Leane encourages us, read this model as a metonym for the potentials of broader projects to make visible the historical legacies acting upon Aboriginal textuality and representation. Beyond extrapolations of aesthetic characteristics or cultural contexts, interpretation and interpretive acts can facilitate generative strategies for testing, challenging and inquiring without prioritising comprehensive results. It is my belief, drawn from evidence demonstrated by Leane’s study of Aboriginal literary pedagogies, that a consistent, involved and creative interrogation of the social, political, institutional and disciplinary conditions in which Aboriginal literatures are produced and circulated greatly improves both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal engagements with these texts. It is here, as Hodge and Mishra predicted, that culturally sensitive literary theory and criticism becomes necessary in the challenge to colonial narratives and constructions of Aboriginality that inhibit productive interpretations of Aboriginal inscriptions. Inclusive and expansive terms of reference such as inscription allow for Aboriginal literature to be placed in continuity with the formal predecessors it now operates alongside, without defaulting to capitalist imperial teleology.

As an early career researcher, and one of a small number of Aboriginal academics working in literary studies in Australia, I have sometimes struggled to discover and apply relevant literary theory to Aboriginal inscriptions that does not sublimate political or cultural forms of difference. The assumed primitivism and orality of Aboriginal culture has facilitated a wide array of erasures and false oppositions of authenticity and appropriation, with limited engagement with the vibrancy and complexity of the oral traditions that continue in our everyday and ceremonial lives. With little interest in or strategies available to engage with Aboriginal critical knowledges, discursive engagement with Aboriginal inscriptions has carried on largely without accountability to the political and cultural conditions that shape Aboriginal writing.

Contemporary First Nations literature operates in a rapidly transforming and multivalent landscape. Across the scholarly and broader arts industry, engagement with contemporary Aboriginal writing in Australia is marked by a new enthusiasm for Aboriginal stories and experiences. This phenomenon has in turn given rise to new challenges for authors wishing to maintain cultural authority over their storytelling methods and traditions, as well as an increasing urgency for culturally sensitive interpretive and pedagogical practices. As Australian literary studies moves towards the increasing representation of Aboriginal and broader First Nations experiences, contexts, priorities and inscriptions, we must prioritise Aboriginal voices in the guidance of theories, pedagogical practice and critical terms.

Published 25 May 2024 in Volume 39 No. 1. Subjects: Aboriginal literature, Aboriginal poetry, Aboriginal writers, Aboriginality, Nationalist & patriotic poetry, Settler colonialism.

Cite as: Araluen Corr, Evelyn. ‘Inscription and the Settler Colony: Theorising Aboriginal Textuality Today.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 39, no. 1, 2024, doi: 10.20314/als.cf065ede89.

  • Evelyn Araluen Corr — Evelyn Araluen Corr is a Goorie and Koori poet, editor, and researcher.