A u s t r a l i a n    H u m a n i t i e s
R e v i e w


A Politics of Stolen Time (continued)

in memory of John Forbes
John Frow

© all rights reserved

The Jawoyn Association's submission discusses the problems caused by the removed children's loss of the 'knowledge about the law; knowledge about country; knowledge about "the system"; and a social connectedness to all things Jawoyn' that allow a person to 'speak for country' (219). Again, this was the point: the children 'were to be prevented from acquiring the habits and customs of the Aborigines (South Australia's Protector of Aborigines in 1909); the young people will merge into the present civilization and become worthy citizens (NSW Colonial Secretary in 1915)' (202).

What the young people become, of course, is something else. For one witness, 'what you see in a lot of us is the shell' (177); another tells the Inquiry that it is as though 'you've just come out of nowhere' (13). And Carol, who tried to document her stay at a mission reserve and was told there was no record she was ever there, says: 'I haven't got anything to say I've been to Beagle Bay. It's only memories and people that I was there with. I don't exist in this world. I haven't got anything, nothing to say who I am' (404).

What the Report documents, then, is both a remembering and an absence of memory. It is itself in one sense a ceremonial act of remembrance, reading -- as its Terms of Reference require it to -- the 'traces' of past 'laws, practices and policies', 'tracing' the histories of the stolen generations of children, reading their 'scars' (3). All of these metaphors, with their indexical link between past and present, suggest a reference to a pre-existing reality; but if Certeau's argument is correct, this reference is also a way of instituting a reality in and for the present, and this reality is, as Martin Krygier puts it, a moment in 'a contemporary conversation'.6

The Report involves itself in this conversation by means of a constructive activity of writing which, rather than simply referring to a past located within its own pastness, brings together a heterogeneous assemblage of times:

These temporalities all run at different speeds and according to different social imaginaries, and their intersections, which don't happen simultaneously, are in many respects random and contingent. In other respects they are not, and the Report documents, in particular, the clash between an assimilationist project which assumes the inevitable absorption or extinction of the indigenous population,7 and the resistant survival of a dispossessed and disoriented people living on stolen time.

These pasts continue to exist in the present in that 'contemporary conversation' in which they are invoked to authorize a move within a serious game: the game of working out, or not working out, a just settlement between an invaded and displaced people whose dispossession has never been formally codified, and the people that now possesses the land and which has a diversity of interests including a moral interest in a just settlement ('just' within certain definite limits). As it happens, the sides in this game have been rather clearly defined around the question of history itself.

For Michel de Certeau, the writing of history 'aims at calming the dead who still haunt the present, and at offering them scriptural tombs' (The Writing of History, 2). The Commonwealth's submission to the Inquiry and Prime Minister Howard's address in May 1997 to the Australian Reconciliation Convention enunciate a number of principles governing the relation between the living and the unplacated dead.

The first is a stricture concerning the relativity of systems of value: the Government submission cautions against anachronism by suggesting that in evaluating the laws, practices and policies prevailing at earlier times in Australian history 'it is appropriate to have regard to the standards and values prevailing at the time of their enactment and implementation, rather than to the standards and values prevailing today';8 one epoch may not judge another.

The second principle concerns the absence of moral responsibility on the part of governments or peoples for actions committed at an earlier time. 'Australians of this generation', says John Howard, 'should not be required to accept guilt and blame for past actions and policies over which they had no control',9 and the discrediting of laws and policies is not a basis for the recognition of liability on the part of subsequent governments (Commonwealth submission, 32).

The third principle has to do with a distinction between symbolic and pragmatic fields of action. John Howard contrasts 'symbolic gestures and overblown promises' with the need to address 'the practical needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in areas like health, housing, education and employment'. It is these areas, rather than 'past injustices' or indeed an entire history of physical and cultural dispossession, which are 'the root causes of current and future disadvantage among our indigenous people'. Past wrongs should be acknowledged -- or, to put it more precisely and in a way that does not 'apportion blame and guilt', both sides should 'acknowledge realistically the interaction of our histories';10 but extrapolation from the past to the present is useless in addressing those 'practical needs'. If there is 'sorrow' for the 'blemishes' on our 'past history', it is 'personal', not collective, and is thus without effect.

Implicit in these formulations is a kind of brutal imperative to stoicism: stop whining about your life and get on with changing it.11 More fundamentally, the Government's position depends upon a historical relativism which seals past and present in their separate and internally homogeneous temporalities; in the words of the columnist Frank Devine, the 'eternal truth' in play here is that 'that was then and this is now'.12 This stark division between the present and a series of self-contained pasts repeats a classically historicist position for which each period is, in Ranke's words, 'immediate to God'. Its purpose is to render the past at once quite strange and quite inconsequential: 'These ghosts find access through writing on the condition that they remain forever silent'.13

The critique of historicism that Gadamer develops in Truth and Method emphasizes its theological character: it is only from the perspective of God that each historical time can be seen in its completeness and its separateness from every other time. But our encounter with the past, he argues, is not a relation between two isolated points; it is an encounter with an open-ended process of which it is itself a part.14 One of the images through which the Report imagines this intrication of historical times is that of resonance, the passage of a succession of overlapping sound waves outwards in echoing repetition from a point of departure. 'The actions of the past', it proposes, 'resonate in the present and will continue to do so in the future'.

And it goes on, in what is clearly a response to a criticism of the uselessness of historical knowledge, to say:

In no sense has the Inquiry been 'raking over the past' for its own sake. The truth is that the past is very much with us today, in the continuing devastation of the lives of Indigenous Australians. That devastation cannot be addressed unless the whole community listens with an open heart and mind to the stories of what has happened in the past and, having listened and understood, commits itself to reconciliation. (3)
The argument has to do with establishing that continuity of will and responsibility that defines the self-identity of the nation state. The authority invoked by the Report in its support is the Governor-General, Sir William Deane, who -- against the Commonwealth's attempt to turn away from 'symbolic gestures' in order to address the 'practical' issues of the present (a turn which, as Raimond Gaita notes, 'treats as irrelevant the fact that the Aborigines are landless because they were dispossessed rather than because of a natural catastrophe')15 -- calls for a form of historical settlement which would be the precondition for policy measures to take effect, and which would involve the rendering of discursive justice. He thus stresses the need for 'appropriate redress for present disadvantage flowing from past injustice and oppression' (4), one element of which -- the Report concludes -- should be a formal apology made to indigenous peoples by all Australian Parliaments.

But the act of apology is ambiguous. Etymologically the word refers to a speech given in one's own or another's defence, and only secondarily does it have its modern meaning of acknowledgement of a wrong. The definition that comes closest to this modern meaning is a subsection of the OED's: 'a frank acknowledgement of the offence with expression of regret for it, by way of reparation'. There are three parts to this: something happened; it should not have happened; by saying so, I make it up to you. The apology is thus a complex performative which seeks to de-institute a past reality 'which should not have happened' and to transform the conditions of a present relationship.

But given the semantic ambivalence that connects self-protection with concession of error, there can be no guarantee that this is what will occur: an apology may be a way of acting symbolically which feigns weakness in order to defend or even to strengthen power. 'Forgive me', it says, 'I was wrong': the apologist gains honour, and nothing changes.

Like all gifts, the apology thus has the potential to work coercively.16 Nicholas Tavuchis stresses its non-reciprocality by calling attention to 'the morally asymmetrical positions of the protagonists, the essentially symbolic character of the transaction, and the unpredictability of the outcome'.17 The crucial question then -- since any speech act may be inefficacious18 -- becomes that of the conditions under which a historical apology will work, and of what that might mean. This is above all a question of the relation between different and incommensurable kinds of costs and values: between rhetorical penance and actual humbling, and between discursive and material costs.

Norma Field's careful argument about Japanese apology for the war and particularly for the enforced prostitution of Korean 'comfort women' points to an inverse relation between apology and material compensation: a good apology must include effective reparation, but material cost must be subsumed within a real symbolic cost to pride, rather than being either a payment for services rendered or a non-committal expression of sympathy -- both of which effectively undo the apology. In the case of a bad apology, it is 'as if the words themselves were simulating money'.19 Material compensation must thus be secondary to symbolic reparation, but it is only when the apology gives rise to a chain of consequences that it can be said to be successfully accomplished.

Past realities are not changed in and for the past, but they can be changed in and for the present; 'apologies are made to the victims of past wrongdoing but for the shared present of victims and apologizers, and most of all, for the sake of a common future'.20

Apology is one of the forms taken by discursive justice, but it has two more elementary forms. The first is the reception and recording of testimony, which the Report recommends should be continued by the establishment of an archive similar to the Shoah Foundation's project of recording the victims of the Holocaust. The second is that 'listening' which the 'whole community' must undertake and for which the process of the Inquiry as it heard from witnesses in each state was a metonym. Listening is a form of ethical responsiveness which recognizes a duty to the story of the other.21

The model of storytelling that holds in the Report is that of a narrative catharsis triggered by the release of memories. If the experience of forcible removal is repeatedly referred to in terms of 'scarring' and 'trauma',22 the process set in train by the recording of and attention to the testimonies of the victims is one of healing: 'The experience of the Shoah Foundation and of this Inquiry is that giving testimony, while extraordinarily painful for most, is often the beginning of the healing process' (22), which extends from those directly affected to the larger trauma of the body politic.

The almost unspeakable word here is 'genocide'. While seeking to remain strictly within the legal framework of the time and to avoid a retrospective moralism, the Report nevertheless concludes that a principal aim of the child removal policies was the elimination of indigenous cultures, and that in the sense given the word by the relevant international convention this aim constitutes genocide.23 The Government, by contrast, has consistently refused the applicability of the term.24 But the point is more than a legal one. The assumption made by the Report is that collective acknowledgement of a nation's past criminality -- and this means, in the first place, naming it -- is essential to something like the honour or the moral integrity of nationhood. The making of reparation to the victims, both materially and discursively, is equally a repair of the wounded body politic. There is also a sense that, in the opening of memory and the restoration of a voice to the dispossessed, a kind of redemption can take place, a cathartic release from the pain of damaged lives.

But perhaps there can be no redemption. Speaking of the 'first-order narratives' of the survivors of the Holocaust, Martin Jay writes that, unlike the 'second-order' discourse of the historian who seeks to make sense of them, they 'must approach a kind of incoherence because of the fundamental unintelligibility of what happened to them'.25 And Lawrence Langer coins the term 'humiliated memory' to describe 'an especially intense form of uncompensating recall' amongst Holocaust survivors, a form of remembering which, far from restoring a sense of power or control over the past, torments the survivor, 'reanimating the governing impotence of the worst moments in a distinctly non-therapeutic way',26 and refusing to lend itself to the ennobling uses of history.

The writing of history, says Certeau, takes place midway between two poles: one of them, which he calls dogmatism, 'is authorized by a reality that it claims to represent and in the name of this reality, it imposes laws'; the other, which he calls ethics, 'is articulated through effective operations, and it defines a distance between what is and what ought to be. This distance designates a space where we have something to do' (Heterologies 199). It is the interstitial placing of historiography that is important here: its ethical function, which has to do with the time of writing and the contest of forces within and for that time, will have little purchase if it is detached from a sense of the irreducibility of the past to this writing, and if it thus projects too easy a redemption of stolen time.

Elsewhere Certeau speaks of the task of history as being that 'of articulating time as the ambivalence that affects the place from which it speaks and, thus, of reflecting upon the ambiguity of place as the work of time within the space of knowledge itself' (Heterologies, 217). This, I take it, is -- with all necessary qualifications -- not dissimilar to Gadamer's argument that genuinely historical thought must include its own historicity as a component of that history it seeks to understand.27

This ambiguity, and this inclusion of one historicity within the objectification of another, are what has here been called 'resonance', and Certeau has quite explicitly drawn out its implications for the use of orally relayed stories. Instead of a transcription and exorcism of those voices 'whose disappearance was formerly the condition of historiography', the historian may learn to listen to them, and so to discover 'interlocutors, who, even if they are not specialists, are themselves subject-producers of histories and partners in a shared discourse ... A hierarchy of knowledges is replaced by a mutual differentiation of subjects' (ibid.). This, again, is perhaps too easy.

There are no solutions to the theft of time; nothing gives it back, nothing redeems the lie that systematically falsified the world of the stolen children, and language is never equally shared. But a history which is rigorously committed to ambiguity may open up, as the 'Stolen Generations' Report does, a space of listening which will define that ethical distance that gives us 'something to do', and it will do so by unsettling its own enunciative relation to the disparate voices and the heterogeneous pasts that structure it. 'Time is precisely the impossibility of an identity fixed by a place. Thus begins a reflection on time' (Heterologies 218).

Please feel free to contribute to this discourse.

John Frow delivered this paper at De Certeau: a symposium which was held at the University of Tasmania in January, 1998. A revised version of the paper will be appearing in Meanjin 2/1998.

Notes and References

6. Martin Krygier, Between Fear and Hope: Hybrid Thoughts on Public Values (Sydney: ABC Books, 1997), p. 96.

7. There is detailed documentation of this project, and of the languages of primitivism and of eugenics in which it was expressed, in Russell McGregor, Imagined Destinies: Aboriginal Australians and the Doomed Race Theory, 1880-1939 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1997).

8 Commonwealth submission to the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, October 1996, p. 30.

9. John Howard, Opening Address to the Australian Reconciliation Convention, Melbourne, May 1997.

10. Cf. Allan Luke, 'The Material Effects of the Word: Apologies, "Stolen Children" and Public Discourse', Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 19:3, 1998, pp. 343-68; and Raimond Gaita, 'Genocide and Pedantry', Quadrant, July-August 1977, p. 45: 'How extraordinary ... that this government and much of the right treat reconciliation as though it were substantially a two-way affair, as though we had something for which to forgive the Aborigines'.

11. The argument is made explicit in Ron Brunton, 'Shame About Aborigines', Quadrant, May 1997, p. 39.

12. Frank Devine, 'Derisory offerings deserve only contempt', The Australian, January 15th 1998.

13. Certeau, The Writing of History, p. 2.

14. Alle Begegnung mit der Sprache der Kunst [ist] Begegnung mit einem unabgeschlossenen Geschehen und selbst ein Teil dieses Geschehens'. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode, 3rd edition (1960; rpt. Tübingen: Mohr Verlag, 1972), p. 94. Gadamer's formulation refers to the historicity of the work of art, but it can be extended more generally to the historical event, and indeed its implicit referent is surely the Holocaust.

15. Raimond Gaita, 'Not Right', Quadrant, January-February 1997, p. 48.

16. Cf. John Frow, Time and Commodity Culture (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), pp. 102-32.

17. Nicholas Tavuchis, Mea Culpa: A Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1991), pp. 34-35; quoted in Norma Field, 'War and Apology: Japan, Asia, the Fiftieth, and After', Positions 5:1 (1997), p. 33.

18. Cf. the argument made by Judith Butler in Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (New York: Routledge, 1997), pp. 16-19, that inefficacity is a necessary condition of performatives.

19. Field, 'War and Apology', p. 13.

20. Ibid., p. 37.

21. Cf. Richard Terdiman, 'The Response of the Other', Diacritics 22:2 (Summer 1992), pp. 2-10.

22. Cf. Sonia Smallacombe, 'Oral Histories and the Stolen Generation', UTS Review 2:1 (1996), p. 39: 'Others have no memory of that traumatic day -- therefore their memories had been repressed'.

23. The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was ratified by the Australian Government in 1949.

24. Cf. Mike Stekete, 'Sorry seems to be the hardest word', The Australian, May 24th 1997. Raimond Gaita ('Genocide and Pedantry', p. 45.) acutely observes the puzzling absence of any call, from either the left or the right, for those guilty of genocide to be brought to trial; trials are literally unthinkable, and that they are so, he concludes, 'is the most persuasive evidence that the significance of the crimes against the Aborigines has not been fully appreciated'.

25. Martin Jay, 'Of Plots, Witnesses, and Judgements', Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the 'Final Solution', ed. Saul Friedlander (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 104.

26. Lawrence Langer, Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), p. 83.

27. Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode, p. 283: 'Ein wirklich historisches Denken muß die eigene Geschichtlichkeit mitdenken'.

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