Decolonial Theory Should Not Be Safely Contained Within the Classroom
Why Poetics and Academic Practice Are Insufficient
Earlier this year, a campaign started at the University of Sydney, where I work and study, calling for the renaming of the Wentworth building and for the removal of a statue of William Charles Wentworth from the Great Hall. Wentworth is one of the founders of the university, honored in colonial memory for his 1813 expedition with Gregory Blaxland and William Lawson across the Blue Mountains, a journey that precipitated the pastoral exploitation of Wiradjuri country.
Less known is Wentworth’s interference in the 1838 trial of seven white stockmen who massacred up to thirty unarmed Gamilaraay people at Myall Creek, in which he prevented Aboriginal witnesses from giving testimony that would have likely resulted in conviction. The University of Sydney campaign builds on similar movements to remove colonial memorials from university campuses, such as the 2015 #RhodesMustFall campaign at the University of Cape Town, which continues to organize against social and institutional inequality. More recently, students and staff at the University of Melbourne successfully campaigned for Richard Berry’s name to be removed from a prominent building—Berry was a well- known eugenicist and collector of illegally acquired Aboriginal skeletal remains.
The structure of “Must Fall” resistance has been extended to fees, rape culture, science and outsourcing, and has become one of the most recognizable decolonial discourses across Africa, Europe, America and, increasingly, Australia. Similar strategies, such as the “Why Is My Curriculum White?” campaign and “Undercommoning,” a radical anti-university project that has inspired free education collectives in Brisbane, Melbourne, and Sydney, demonstrate that the removal of distasteful memories is only the beginning of these nuanced, embodied, and at times violent struggles to dismantle neoliberal and neo-colonial institutions of knowledge production and provide real educational alternatives. Many individuals involved with these campaigns are themselves embedded within the academy—as students, researchers and lecturers. Many are activists for social justice and opponents of the tertiary education industry itself—these possibilities do not exclude each other.
Is it possible for an institution of knowledge production in a settler-colonial state such as Australia to function as an agent of decolonization? Over the last 20 years, through critical texts such as Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies, decolonial theory has pried Indigenous studies from the grasp of anthropology and created a space in which Indigenous ways of being, knowing and doing are more than mere curiosities or stylistic gestures; they are embodied practices and protocols in our work both within and beyond the institution. In Australia, Aboriginal research centers and academics (for example, Lynette Riley, Juanita Sherwood and Aileen Moreton-Robinson) have been at the fore of these transformations, despite consistent hostility from institutional culture. As Aman Sium, Chandni Desai and Eric Ritskes have acknowledged, no movement to reimagine and rearticulate colonial power will go uncontested:
As we witness the death throes of global capitalism and its insatiable appetite for Indigenous land and resources, we must also understand that, like a cornered animal, it will fight until the last breath in defending the privileges of colonial governments and extractive industry.
As a teacher and researcher whose work straddles literature and Indigenous studies, I am familiar with this site of resistance. The principles of respect, responsibility and reciprocity that were passed down to me and guide how I inhabit my Aboriginal world are not valued by the knowledge systems of the West—a system that has been imposed over ours. Decolonial theory provides the Indigenous subject with the tools to deconstruct and challenge colonial infiltrations into our worlds and minds, but decolonial practice within the academy is restrained to that which the institution regards as profitable. In other words, it is safely contained within the classroom, in the form of critical frameworks, unsettling questions or creative-thinking assessments. Outside of the university, I have given late-night workshops on decolonial theory to anywhere between two and 200 people, often squished together in a leaky tent. I usually have to shout. Some sessions have ended with direct action or vandalism.
While these spaces and discourses allow for generative engagements with other marginalised communities, they are not themselves instances of decolonization. The material logic of decolonization—in its most literal translation, the overcoming or undoing of colonial domination—has been in operation since at least the fifth century BCE. Until the late 1990s, the study of decolonization in the academy was predominantly historical and historiographical, concerned with metropolitan politics, colonial matrices, wars of independence, nationalist rebellion, language restoration, racial segregation and nation-building following the trauma of imperial violence. James Le Sueur in The Decolonization Reader insists upon a definition of decolonization as “a process by which colonial powers—in this case European nations and administrators—departed, whether voluntarily or by force, from their overseas possessions in various areas of Africa and Asia.”
Major theoretical influences from Frantz Fanon and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o have pushed lived experiences of oppression to the fore of decolonial studies and have contributed to the development of critical frameworks that challenge the cultural, political, material and epistemological dimensions of imperial power. Their approaches are ostensibly oppositional: Ngũgĩ’s best-known contribution to this discourse—Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature—is concerned with the liberatory possibilities of language, both as communication and culture, and has been key in mobilization around language policies in Kenya, while Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth explores systems of embodied resistance available to the colonial subject:
You do not turn any society, however primitive it may be, upside down with such a program if you have not decided from the very beginning to overcome all the obstacles that you will come across in so doing. The native who decides to put the program into practice and become its moving force, is ready for violence at all times. From birth, it is clear to him that this narrow world, strewn with prohibitions, can only be called in question, by absolute violence.
Fanon’s work cautions against bourgeois nationalist replications of colonial institutions and hierarchies, and demonstrates imperialism as an insidious matrix of sociological determinism. He is unapologetic in his recognition of violence as the final tool for the colonial subject. Yet, as Frederick Cooper observes, despite the political and organizational value of his work to the MustFall movement in South Africa, Fanon has also been eagerly taken up by those who are unlikely to face the consequences of violence. For Dane Kennedy, decontextualized reliance upon figures like Ngũgĩ and Fanon in contemporary discourses of decoloniality is part of a broader tendency towards abstraction, an obeisance to the literary roots of postcolonial theory. In no accident of language, Kennedy argues that literary theory has claimed “squatter’s rights” over studies of imperium.
Australia’s particular conditions of settler-coloniality seem to foreclose the possibility of material decolonization. The sovereign nations of this land were invaded and illegally occupied in 1788 under the false doctrine of terra nullius—a legal principle that remained in force until the 1992 High Court ruling in Mabo v Queensland (No 2). We are the only Commonwealth nation that has no treaty with its Indigenous peoples. Today Indigenous Australians still face significantly reduced life expectancies and significantly higher rates of incarceration, child removal and suicide. The colonizers have not left, but instead police our borders and imprison those who seek asylum from conflicts in which we are implicated. Patrick Wolfe outlines the Australian “logic of elimination” as a dual project: erasing the native for the benefit of land acquisition and the establishment of the settler colony, while simultaneously cultivating a symbolic return of the native, to influence and demarcate the colony’s point of departure from the imperial center. This exists within a structure of genocide, in which our presence or absence is negotiated through legislation, forced labor, eugenics or outright murder, all for the benefit of the colony.
This structure is maintained by forms of what Eve Tuck and K Wayne Yang have termed external and internal colonialism, the former referring to the exploitation of Indigenous lands and waters, and the latter referring to the geo- and bio-political management of Indigenous bodies within the borders of the “nation.” The kidnapping and enslavement of South Sea Islanders in the nineteenth century to generate labor and wealth demonstrates the concurrent processes of settlement, subjugation, and empire. An additional complexity in this configuration is the offshore detention of refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom are themselves dispossessed Indigenous peoples. This structuring of the colony creates an entangled social division between those who occupy a beneficial position in relation to the state and those who do not. It is this opposition that needs to be at the center of how we understand the decolonial possibility in Australia.
In Please Knock Before You Enter, Noonuccal scholar Karen Martin examines decolonization in an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander context, applying Hawaiian sovereignty activist Poka Laenui’s five phases of decolonization. It is a process unambiguously concerned with Indigenous wellbeing, Indigenous struggle and Indigenous liberation, which Martin configures as a trajectory for Indigenous research. Where the first stage of recovery and rediscovery have been prohibited by vicious histories of state-legislated removal and denial of culture, the second stage of mourning has become the object of condemnation by conservative political speakers such as Kuku-Yalanji lawyer and academic Noel Pearson and Warlpiri Alice Springs councillor Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, who earlier this year claimed Aboriginal people have become “professional mourners.” The next stage, dreaming, is one in which the new world order is imagined and mobilized, followed by the final stages of synthesis and action. No aspect of this process can be hastened or depoliticized; at an individual and institutional level, it is the rebuilding of our world.
Given these fraught political demands, it is important to question why, and how, decolonization has been discussed so intently in Australian literary theory and poetics. From an Indigenous standpoint, there is merit in such an approach within the current stage of dreaming—indeed, radical imagining is critical to any liberatory discourse. To build a body of knowledge that could sensitively attend the complexity and difference of Aboriginal literature would be no simple task, but it is one that must be anticolonial, given the origins of the study of Aboriginal literature and cultural production in anthropology.
Yiman and Bidjara academic Marcia Langton’s landmark 1993 publication Well, I Heard it on the Radio and Saw it on the Television was one of the first to engage with the possibility of an anticolonial Aboriginal aesthetic in film and television, and incremental improvements have been made ever since. However, literary theory and poetics still occupy a contentious place within global discourses and practices of decolonization. Literature is a term we apply to the textual products of the West, or those texts that reinforce accepted narratives of the other. For those who live in a perpetually compromised position regarding the sovereignty of our ancestral homelands, for whom the West came with guns and disease, literary theory usually signifies a binary of applicability: either it is unconcerned with our material realities and processes of cultural production, or it has seized upon our creations for its tropes and metaphors. At worst, literary and poetic theory is elitist, ahistorical, esoteric and universalizing.
The apparently oppositional dialectic between politics and literature, between the real and the writeable, is exemplified by the widely circulated mistranslation of Jacques Derrida’s aphorism “il n’y a pas de hors-texte”—“there is nothing outside the text.” This rendering legitimates the depoliticization of literary, social and cultural theory by suggesting there is nothing that cannot be understood in discursive terms. Its more accurate sense—”there is no outside-text”—more relevantly speaks to the impossibility of separating context from language and meaning.
Much of the work that needs to be done in Indigenous literature is still discovery and amplification, responsibilities that can be observed in the activist work of young Aboriginal writers such as Lorna Munro, Alison Whittaker, Ellen van Neerven, Nayuka Gorrie and Amy McQuire. The collaborative translational projects of Paddy Roe, Stephen Muecke and Krim Benterrak in the 1980s were crucial in forming a space for song cycles beyond dehumanising boundaries of curation, and more recently Stuart Cooke has continued this work into West Kimberley song with Speaking the Earth’s Languages and George Dyuŋgayan’s Bulu Line. Penny van Toorn’s Writing Never Arrives Naked is a study of the rich and complex history of Aboriginal writing and literature since first contact, which does vital work in dispelling the myth that Aboriginal literature began and ended with Oodgeroo Noonuccal. As Alison Whittaker observed last year in an interview with Kill Your Darlings, there is a long history of Aboriginal women asserting their sovereignty through writing—a reality that texts such as Writing Never Arrives Naked and the Macquarie Pen Anthology of Aboriginal Literature have attempted to bring into broader public knowledge.
Aboriginal literary scholar Peter Minter experiments with a decolonial literary form in his 2013 essay “Archipelagos of Sense.” He speaks to the issue of linguistic dissonance—which George Seddon articulates as an “overlay or color filter”—in which English language and traditions blur perceptions of the Australian landscape. For Minter, the Jindyworobaks might present an early possibility of poetic expression that evades settlement aesthetics, albeit within the axis of a nationalist anxiety, à la Michael Farrell’s central thesis in Writing Australian Unsettlement. I am less generous, and unsympathetic to the aesthetic appropriation of Aboriginal languages at a time when speaking your language was an offence worthy of physical violence or forced removal.
Minter, along with many other Indigenous scholars, makes the crucial point that decolonial theory offers more potential for sovereignty and autonomy to the Indigenous subject than postcolonial theory. In Dhuuluu-Yala: To Talk Straight, Anita Heiss establishes, through dialogue with a number of Aboriginal writers and scholars, that postcolonialism is a largely irrelevant and depolitical fashion in Australian literary discourse. For Chickasaw literary scholar Chadwick Allen, postcolonial theory has become an attempt for colonial institutions to evade settler accountability and essentialize global Indigenous aesthetics through dematerial bodies of theory. He is particularly concerned with the Australian contribution to postcolonial discourse, as exemplified in Bill Ashcroft, Helen Tiffin and Gareth Griffith’s The Empire Writes Back, in which the vastly different life-worlds of the settler and Indigenous subjects are essentialized through forms of communal oppression. Unless corrected, this abstraction of political and material processes will be the laughable future of decolonial discourse in Australia.
Most literary approaches to, or co-options of, decolonial theory are premised upon one version or another of Lyn Hejinian’s argument that purely discursive resistance implies the material political resistance of hegemony. The critical equivalent of this becomes the argument that “liberated” or resistant readings of colonial texts in scholarly, critical or pedagogic contexts are sufficiently influential to justify an invocation of the decolonial project. This logic is evident in RD Wood’s notion of “activist listening,” outlined in his review of the latest releases by Uncle Ken Canning (Burraga Gutya), Natalie Harkin, Sam Wagan Watson and Phillip Gijindarraji Hall.
Bearing witness is a central component of activist poetics, as seen in the work of John Kinsella, and is the first process for any meaningful relation between Aboriginal people and settlers, but Wood seems to suggest that the mere consumption of Aboriginal writing is a form of activism itself. Poetry plays a key role in Aboriginal activism in Sydney in particular, with figures like Uncle Ken Canning and Elizabeth Jarrett leading this meeting of resistance and cultural expression. When traveling the country to raise awareness of the mistreatment of Aboriginal children in youth detention last year, Kira Voller, sister of the spit-hooded Dylan Voller from Four Corner’s Don Dale exposé, used poetry to articulate her frustration and grief. Lorna Munro’s poetics rupture the English language to defy colonial inscriptions and center her Wiradjuri language and Wiradjuri life-world. For the most part, these poems are unpublished and only available to those who attend the rallies, marches and forums in which they are performed. While slam poetry has received critical attention, there has been next to no literary engagement with protest poetry in situ. As an organizer who has felt the frustration of non-attendance by supposed allies, and a poet who has witnessed the preferencing of “literary” poetics over those that most overtly defy colonial structures, I would contend that activist listening can only begin in activist spaces.
This tendency to remove decolonial poetics from its material context corresponds neatly with what Tuck and Yang have delineated as “settler moves to innocence”: a range of intellectual evasions of settler complicity in the colonization of Indigenous peoples. This includes notions of settler nativism and fantasies of adoption into Indigenous “country” on purely symbolic terrain. In her 2016 essay for Cordite, “Unbidden: Settler Poetry in the Presence of Indigenous Sovereignty,” Bonny Cassidy interrogates the fraught ambitions of this movement in settler representations of Indigenous place and being, looking specifically at the case of John Mateer’s famously ill-received poem “In the Presence of a Severed Head,” about murdered Nyungar warrior Yagan.
The essay knowingly situates itself on a fault line in Australian poetry, in which settler writers are laying claim to decoloniality through a depoliticized emphasis on place and self. These tropes are not accountable to any material reality or lived experience. The conceptual aim is merely to transform settler ontologies, albeit, as Cassidy briefly acknowledges, “in parallel to the historiographical, political and legal acknowledgement of Indigenous sovereignty,” a task I presume it’s left to me and mine to achieve. Cassidy’s conclusions, which are further explored in an essay for Plumwood Mountain entitled “Talking to a Stranger: Decolonizing the Australian ‘Landscape’ Poem,” do not take responsibility for the privileges of citizenship or the ability to rewrite the self. Much of the poetry of Plumwood Mountain’s special issue on “decolonization and geopoethics”—edited by Minter, but with no other Aboriginal contributors—is political solely in its stylistic innovation.
The central concern of land acquisition and exploitation in the maintenance of the settler-colonial state perhaps accounts for the manner in which eco- and geo-poetics have taken up decolonial theory, but Corey Wakeling’s essay on Lionel Fogarty and decoloniality stands at odds with the poetic body of the journal. Fogarty’s work is unambiguously volatile to colonial power and its languages. As an activist, elder, and community leader, his work often appears in such discussions, but is rarely interrogated beyond its more didactic political demands; his linguistic defiance is usually explored from positions which ultimately privilege English as a poetic standard. I contend that Minter’s call for non-Indigenous poets to take up responsible positions has been misconstrued as an invitation to cultivate Aboriginal associations for political and poetic capital, rather than as a call for material solidarity. Since the special edition of Plumwood Mountain, I have encountered several “decolonial poems” by settler academics in conferences and talks. I listen in silence, and am constantly astounded at how much affective labour I am still expected to give settler anxieties—and how little is returned to our communities and struggles.
The impulse to locate Australia’s decolonial literature in the imaginative possibilities of ecocriticism, geopoethics or any other form of poetic in which the contradictory national concerns of writers such as Les Murray or Lionel Fogarty can be configured as aesthetic variance is a contemptuous disservice to the origins of Aboriginal writing. When speaking beyond the praxis of poetic conceptualisation, the language of decolonization is not merely unsettling, it is violent. As it should be. In the early nineteenth century, literacy was often the only tool by which Aboriginal people could plead for the return of their lands and children. The interrogation of this archival history has become a site of stylistic and conceptual innovation for Aboriginal poets such as Natalie Harkin, Jeanine Leane and Tony Birch, whose respective projects reach beyond poetic constraints, into family or community narratives to challenge structures of erasure.
Decolonial studies within the academy are asking interesting questions. Many of us use “decolonial/decolonizing” to provide a language to express our movement against the settle-colonial interior. Decolonial theory gives us what feminism, critical race studies and gender critiques cannot alone give us. Wiradjuri academic Juanita Sherwood has demonstrated significantly improved health and social outcomes through culturally restorative and decolonial research methodologies. These are not metaphoric stakes. Dialogues concerning the boundaries and possibilities of decolonization are crucial, but they demand political counterpoints. In meetings about trauma theory and traditional storytelling practices, the Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council are using picture books to reduce neglect and abuse in their communities. Academics such as Boroloola Jason De Santolo and Noongar Clint Bracknell have been central to songline and language restoration in their homelands. Bunurong writer Bruce Pascoe’s research into traditional agricultural practices provide vital strategies for how to live sustainably in a time of impending climate disaster, the consequences of which Indigenous peoples are at the forefront of.
The decolonial imagination should be there to serve the colonized in protest and solidarity. We run the risk of foreclosing decolonization to an academic elite by coding it purely within poetics and academic practice. While it is true that there is no protocol for settlers to engage with the enormously confronting notion of decolonization in any discipline, the theory that emerges from this struggle should benefit those outside the sandstone walls of a colonial institution, mortared with our blood.
This essay originally appeared in Overland 227.