Terms of Ambivalence: Cultural Politics and Symbolic Exchange

I first met Penny van Toom at the 1990 SPACLALS conference in Wollongong. I was a PhD student coming to terms with the debates animating the field of postcolonial studies, and how the settler and Indigenous literatures of Australia, Canada and New Zealand might contribute to them. My partner and I had come to the conference after a touristic stay in Sydney and Katoomba where we had sought out mementoes and souvenirs of the ' Australiana' variety. Now, in a lecture theatre where we gathered for a panel ofpapers, I was sporting a T-shirt with an 'Aboriginal design ' motif on the front, and Penny, who arrived to take a seat in the row in front of us, turned around to me and said, 'I don't disapprove of your T-shirt'.1 Her comment startled me, and her double-negative phrasing indicated, without spelling out, complexities invoked in such purchases of 'Aboriginal design' -emblazoned T-shirts, sweaters, coasters, posters, and so on. My pleasure in these things was undoubtedly aesthetic, uninformed by knowledge of the sources, provenance or significance of the images. Yet I also had some notion that wearing or displaying 'Aboriginal design' items was a gesture of appreciation, and an expression of political solidarity with 'Aboriginal peoples', conceived in such general terms in their collective marginalised and oppressed position within the Australian nation. At the same time, it was the Australian national(ist) construction and deployment - or patronage - of' Aboriginal culture' that had enabled me to purchase and consume these items.2

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Published 1 November 2010 in Volume 25 No. 4. Subjects: Indigenous literature & writers.

Cite as: Prentice, Chris. ‘Terms of Ambivalence: Cultural Politics and Symbolic Exchange.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 25, no. 4, 2010, doi: 10.20314/als.eeed14eebf.