Back Professor Iain McCalman

Professor Iain McCalman

Cultural History and Cultural Studies: the linguistic turn five years on.

How has history been adapted to developments in the field of cultural studies? What criticisms have been directed at the past practices of historians, and how valid are these criticisms?

My task of today echoes one of five years ago. In 1995 I was asked to address the Research School of Social Sciences (RSSS) at the ANU on cultural studies as part of the lead-up to a major review. I argued passionately then that all humanists and social scientists needed to come to grips with the challenges posed by its advent. My rhetoric was that of crisis. I spoke as if Cultural Studies was wielding an epistemological battering ram. Like it or not, I declaimed, ‘the linguistic turn’ was the key intellectual paradigm of the late twentieth century and we had to face up to both its destructive and constructive implications. Structuralism had opened the attack in the early 1970s through the writings of semioticians like Roland Barthes, cultural anthropologists like Clifford Geertz and metahistorians like Hayden White. Post structuralist heavy-hitters had followed. Foucault, Derrida and Lyotard in particular had sapped our intellectual underpinnings by contending that language does not reflect reality but construct it.

In its most extreme form, I contended, the linguistic turn threatened to overturn all our prior practices and assumptions as social analysts. Derrida and his disciples posited no attainable reality beyond the text. Seeing language as entirely constitutive and self-reflexive, meant that all extra textual meaning collapsed into discourse. Methods and models borrowed from the natural sciences vanished into smoke. Traditional scholarly disciplines dissolved like icebergs in a thaw History became little more than a ‘floating signifier’ threatening to float us into the textual ether with it.

All this was, of course, deliberately sensational: I wanted my audience to take urgent notice. Like a hellfire preacher who had softened us, his congregation, I proffered salvation in the form of an accommodation with the linguistic and cultural turns. We did not need to throw out the baby with the bathwater; linguistic theorists like Gadamer and Certeau had shown that language, though constitutive, also retained materialist and descriptive properties. In Australia, moreover, Cultural studies was not aggressively ahistorical. Disciplinary border crossing could be exciting. I cited the example of a new breed of cultural historians who were revitalising my own field. Figures like Robert Darnton, Roger Chartier, Lynn Hunt, Greg Dening and Natalie Davis had followed the cultural turn deep into the cognate disciplines of anthropology, literary theory, and art history. They were using interpretive strategies to uncover the buried codes of cultural artifacts, and deconstructive methods to dissect the plural meanings of literary and artistic texts. The first approach stressed underlying unities, the second hunted for difference. I urged RSSS, therefore, to open itself to these bracing winds. The audience response made me feel like one of those benighted characters who jump into the polar-bear enclosure at the Melbourne Zoo, though given the recent fate of the Urban Research Centre I should be thankful that my advice was not heeded.

My forlorn plea of 1995 does, however, provide a yardstick for testing how far we have moved since. In this the first year of the new millennium how do we view the ‘cultural turn’ and its most ebullient offspring cultural studies?

At one level it seems to me that our mood is now less upbeat. A recent book edited by cultural historian Lynn Hunt and sociologist Victoria Bonnell carries the significant title of Beyond the Cultural Turn, and its contents signal both an emerging critique of culturalism and an attempt to revitalize the category of the social. The New Historicist movement which flourished in the US in the 1980s, did for a time seem to herald a serious convergence between literary critics and historians. Originating in Californian English departments , its credo was ‘the textuality of history and the historicity of the text’. In practice, though, its treatment of text and context has differed markedly from ours. Deeply imbued with deconstructionist theories and methods, New Historicists tend to juxtapose some aspect of a canonical text with a seemingly unrelated fragment of contemporary culture in order to demonstrate the multiple flux of meanings within. Their mission is to expose textual silences, elisions and contradictions, and to show that both text and context are fragmentary and incomplete, riddled with contradiction and uncertainty.

By contrast we historians are trained habitually to connect and construct, to seek out unitary as well as differential meanings, and to track similarities across our sources over time. When we work to recover lost or suppressed historical voices, it is usually to make normative claims, to argue for the value and dignity of those peoples and traditions that have suffered posterity’s enormous condescension. Lynn Hunt notes that historians can cope with subversion but not with incoherence. Above all we are uneasy, it seems to me, at the willingness of many literary theorists to abandon any interest in causation, The need to explain historical change across time stands at the very heart of the historical enterprise, however imperfect the results. W e are troubled by static or frozen synchronicity and by W.H. Auden’s boast that ‘Poetry changes nothing’.

Literary-inclined historians like myself tend as a result to be drawn to the study of genres rather than of individual text. Genre can not only reveal large patterns across multiple sources, but it is also a sensitive barometer of crisis and change. It links canonical and non-canonical sources and locates them within cultural matrices. Yet this is precisely what the deconstructionist critic Dominic La Capra dislikes about our methods. By connecting a high literary text with wider generic patterns, he argues, historians diminish its aesthetic subtlety and plurality of meaning. In these ways historical and literary modes still seem deeply incommensurable.

At the same time we need not exaggerate our divide. Reading through the diverse contributions in the new Hunt and Bonnell book, it is clear that we understand each other a great deal better than five years ago. Cultural studies and linguistic theory have furnished a lingua franca with which we can converse even if it is not our daily tongue. No-one puts the word ‘discourse’ in apostrophes any more and the ferocious arguments between social structuralists and discourse analysts seem to have abated. An accommodation has been reached. Representation and experience might be ontologically distinct, but most of us agree that they are mutually constitutive. Structure shapes practice, but equally practice generates new structures.

For many of us the best contribution of cultural studies has been to deepen and revitalise an interest in narrative theory and practice. Ever since a boy I have always believed intensely in the 'storyness' of life. Our world is suffused with stories. Consciously or not we use them continually to make sense of the mass of incoherent facts and sensations that immerse us. Modern philosophers like David Carr contend that storytelling is embedded in our deepest consciousness: stories are woven into the very way we think and live. Hayden White has long shown us how we shape our histories by poetic or perfomative acts, moulding them into the form of fictive plots using archetypal tropes, myths and topoi. Being aware of this fictive process frees us to be more honest about our own shaping role as writers, and more creative when performing that role. We are not bound to follow the modes of the nineteenth-century realist novel simply because these seem to have greater ‘truth effect’. Historians, long berated by theorists like La Capra for our stylistic conservatism, have started to employ some of the experimental narrative techniques of contemporary novelists, poets and media directors. Princeton historian Simon Schama has ranged from a retro-invention of the traditional historical chronicle to a fragmentary, surrealistic and half-fictional historical montage. Greg Dening has brilliantly incorporated techniques and methods of visual ethnography and contemporary film-making into his cross-cultural histories. The result is work that excites and inspires students and scholars across the disciplines.

The cultural turn has also focussed the attention of historians on the importance of cultural narratives. By cultural narratives we mean those stories that circulate widely and insistently across many media within a specific society or set of societies over a given period of time. These include non literary forms such as theatrical performances, spectacles, shows, paintings, prints and songs. Why do some stories flower like this while others fail? How socially representative are such stories? How do they relate to more self-consciously aesthetic cultural forms? How are cultural narratives plotted ­ what themes, symbols, motifs do they use or borrow? Above all, how and when do such cultural narrative come into being or change shape, and with what consequences? Victor Turner’s famous studies of the Mbemba peoples of Zambia suggest that cultural narratives are created and recreated in response to acute social crises, generating ritual stages of breach, crisis and redress before culminating in a reconciliation with the old order or negotiation of new alliances and strategies.

Analogously some European historians have in recent years charted the emergence of new cultural narratives during the crisis that precipitated the end of the old Bourbon regime and the advent of the French Revolution. Over this period hosts of legal, judicial and other literary, visual and material artifacts work to transform the royal family romance of the ancien regime into stories of a parricidal, Jacobin brotherhood. Such a plotline enshrines what feminist philosopher Carol Patemen sees as one of the key narrative shifts in the history of modern political thought whereby Locke’s great eighteenth-century political fiction of the social contract was rewritten to exclude women in favour of a band of virtuous, egalitarian male brothers. So it was, she argues, that the modern liberal polity came to be built on misogynous intellectual foundations. Feminist historians like Hunt and Joan Landes have also found that such cultural narratives link and illuminate the public and the private spheres, revealing how ostensibly ‘neutral’ public political ideologies were frequently erected on or against hidden domestic narratives such as the family romance, the unwaged women worker, and the seduced serving girl.

Let me finish by taking us closer to home by referring to one specific example of a cultural narrative that is still gripping most of us today—the harrowing story of the ‘stolen generation’. Here surely is one of the most powerful narratives to emerge out of the sorry history of Australian European–Aboriginal contact, and it is a story that will not go away. If John Howard thinks that he can argue it out of existence by statistical and semantic cheeseparing about what percentage of people constitutes a ‘generation’ or by claims that Aboriginal children were not ‘stolen’ but borrowed for their own good, he is yapping in the wind. This story obtains its emotional power not only from a mosaic of individual tragedies enacted over successive epochs, but also because it crystallizes our deepest guilts as European Australians and taps our deepest mythic memories as western moderns. Whoever coined the phrase ‘stolen generation’ has helped to shape a new cultural narrative, and one that harnesses plotlines that are deeply plausible and emotionally compelling to European and Aboriginal Australians alike. Our formative early reading and film viewing has been steeped in stories about stolen generations of children: whether it is the lost boys of Peter Pan, the stolen children in Pinocchio, the street waifs of Victorian England snared by Fagin, the abducted young girls of Parisian bordellos, or the lost generation of young men blasted out of existence on the beaches of Gallipoli. All these prior traces feed the cultural purchase and power of cultural narrative that has become, and will long remain, European Australia’s brand of shame.

But it is also a cultural narrative that takes specific and diverse local forms across space and time, and I want to conclude this paper by outlining briefly one of these microhistories as an example of what seems to me best about the kind of work that is being done by workers in the ‘cultural mode’. The practitioners in this case are Carol Cooper and Kim Mackenzie, whose disciplinary and professional credentials encompass anthropology, art history, ethnographic film-making, museum curatorship and electronic histories. Between them they have brilliantly reconstructed a story of a stolen aboriginal boy, Oscar, thereby furnishing us with a window into the mind of a type of marginalized figure about whom our history is usually mute. The story’s originating source was a tiny, scruffy sketch pad containing childlike drawings jammed onto the pages in seemingly random sequence. A short accompanying note from a North West Queensland station manager Augustus Glissan in the 1890s explains that he had been impressed by the skill with which this young black stockhand drew on the limestone rocks and so had given him this small pad and some coloured pencils. The survival of this sketchbook is itself an epic in the social life of things: it somehow passed from a doctor in Melbourne to the Institute of Anatomy, and from there into a box of miscellaneous junk bequeathed to the National Museum. There it thankfully fell into the hands of Carol and Kim, whose ensemble of skills and talents were mobilized to unpack its mysteries.

To condense years of painstaking investigation into a crude summary, Oscar was an aboriginal boy in his early teens who had been removed from his family in consequence of some kind of melee that occurred in the Palmer River goldfields area. It is not clear whether the Palmer was his own country or whether his family had been drawn there by the opportunities that beckoned in the series of rushes of the late 1870s and early 1880s. Glissan’s letter reveals that he had been procured by the native police specifically to work on the Rocklands station, part of what seems to have been a systematic trade in black children to work the pastoral industry. Despite the discomfort arising from a badly burnt leg he rode hundreds of miles on horseback in the company of the native police before arriving at the station on the Barclay Tablelands. His drawings were retrospective, probably done over a longish period of time in the late eighties or early nineties.

To me, and I suspect to most historians, the sketchbook would have remained a tantalizing but opaque curiosity, for there is nothing to make sense of the drawings except some Eurocentric captions provided by Gus Glissan. But Carol and Kim eventually cracked Oscar’s code: unfamiliar with European literary and graphic conventions, the boy had used his drawings to tell stories which worked in a reverse cartoon-like sequence from bottom right to top left. Extraordinary detective work further enabled the two cultural analysts to plot Oscar’s vivid pictorial narratives against contemporary events. He tells many stories: one of the most dramatic depicts a murder in 1887, when Glissan’s predecessor as station manager had been killed by local aboriginals for his sexual interferences in their domestic arrangements. Oscar depicts both the original killing and the subsequent ruthless retribution as native police pursue several tribespeople and eventually commit summary justice by shooting a bound and helpless man.

There is an extraordinary sense of shock and immediacy as we are confronted with this tragic visual communication across the gulf of time and culture. Yet such historical stories do not necessarily conform to predictable or comfortable patterns. We are faced with the unpalatable evidence that native police were used, as elsewhere throughout the British empire, to pacify and oppress fellow indigenes from other tribal or ethnic areas. Even more disquieting, is a hint from the way that young Oscar has drawn the native police compared with their local victims, that his own sympathies are at best ambivalent. Yet, on reflection, should we be surprised that a teenage boy, wrenched from his family, place and culture, should admire the tough, disciplined body of aboriginal men with whom he had travelled, camped, and talked. We do not know what kind of personal emotional support and bonding might have taken place on that long, slow ride to Rocklands. Guns and pipes and uniforms are emblems of masculine self-confidence and power for adolescent boys today; how much more so in the circumstances in which Oscar encountered them. Neither do we know what kind of filters or mediations Oscar’s pictures had to undergo within the Rocklands station environment. If the drawings were being viewed and vetted by the station manager Glissan, how free was he to declare his own inner allegiances? What was the little black figure who peeps from the edge of several of them really thinking and feeling? These and many other questions remain open to exploration and surmise. If I can be permitted a plug, you will be able to learn more about this unique story in a book I am editing on Gold in Australia and, more elaborately, as a component of an exhibition on Gold which will launch the new National Museum of Australia in March next year. What we can say here is that the story of the stolen generations, built on thousands of such tragic microhistories, is destined to remain one of the key cultural narratives of Australian history for a long time to come.