Between surfaces: a psychodynamic approach to cultural identity, cultural difference and reconciliation in Australia

Saunders, Jane E (2007) Between surfaces: a psychodynamic approach to cultural identity, cultural difference and reconciliation in Australia. PhD thesis, Victoria University.


The impetus for this enquiry came from two experiences with an Aboriginal Other, which prompted the initial research questions: “Why does the existence of an Aboriginal Other threaten a white sense of belonging?” and; “What are the mechanisms and purposes of aggression towards, or exclusion of, that which represents otherness in the Australian context?” In the introductory chapters, the author’s experiences at Lake Mungo and Legend Rock are presented as case studies to illustrate Wittgenstein’s (1953/1968) concept of the ways that subject positions are constructed through language games and hegemonic discourses. Psychodynamic theories of identity formation have been applied to the analysis of these cases to argue that the unconscious construction of Australia as a good, white and Christian nation has acted to overwrite Aboriginal perspectives and to position Aboriginal people at the margins of society. In Chapter One the case of Lake Mungo was presented to illustrate the ways that language games function as cultural frames, through which all experience is filtered. As well, Buhler’s (1934/1990) conception of the deictic and symbolic fields, and the role of the proper noun in allowing or disallowing individuals to occupy a position in the symbolic order as subjective agents was discussed. Here, a relationship between cultural framing and the construction of hegemonic discourses which act to position all that is Other outside positions of enunciation was posited. This was followed by a brief exploration of the concept that the lives of Aboriginal people are organized according to an ontological position that differs in fundamental ways from the world view of the white mainstream. Specifically, it was argued that the social realities of Aboriginal people are embedded within their relation to land and the kinship obligations associated with belonging to a particular community in a particular place. A series of hypothetical indices of difference, based on Margaret Bain’s (1992) research into a semi-remote Aboriginal community at Finke, in Central Australia, was presented. The centrality of whiteness as an organizing principle in Australia was illustrated by Barton’s (1901) “A White Australia” speech, made at the time of Federation. In the ensuing investigation of the way that the dominant culture has constructed an ideal image of the typical Australian, it was suggested that white Australians identify with a mythical Good Australia though white discourses of enlightened nation building and Empire, in which Aboriginal culture has been “mapped and managed” into a museum context and Aboriginal people have been rendered as “metonymically frozen into an extinct past” (Hemming, 2003, pp. 1-3). In Chapter Two, a case study approach, based on Freud’s model of analysis as an archaeology of the present, was used to explore the mechanisms behind the occlusion of Aboriginality as a presence in the case of Legend Rock. The Freudian (1919) concept of the uncanny was critical to the investigation of the particular anxieties around belonging that are evoked for white Australians when confronted with the unfamiliar Aboriginal presence in familiar spaces. In this section of the thesis, Gelder and Jacob’s (1999) characterization of the overturning of the legal fiction of terra nullius after Mabo as the return of the repressed was discussed. In Chapter Three, the rationale for using a case study approach to address the guiding hypothesis and the propositions to be investigated in the current study are outlined. Chapter Four introduces Lacan’s (1949/2002) conceptualization of the mirror stage, during which identifications are formed and the ego, or “I” is first recognized, as well as Klein’s (1937/1964) theory of primitive defence mechanisms. The ideas of these clinicians were used to explore the function of the Other in both normal development and in pathological states. This literature was then applied to an investigation of the process of othering as it has manifested in the Australian context in more general terms. Rutherford’s (2000) thesis: that an Australian ego-ideal has been based on the identification with a mythical being-without-lack, provided a starting point for analysis of the ways that white Australia has constructed a veil around cultural difference in order to defend against acknowledging the fact that Aboriginal peoples have been profoundly damaged by the practices and processes of colonization, and that these practices and processes continue to damage current generations of Aboriginal people. In Chapter Five, it was argued that, after Mabo, white Australians have had no choice but to adopt one of two defensive positions with respect to Aboriginal Australia. Following Money-Kyrle’s (1951) reading of Klein, these positions were nominated as being characterized by either persecutory or depressive guilt. The rejection of the Aboriginal story of Legend Rock was posited as representing the persecutory position, which was discussed in terms of the phenomenon of the rise of Pauline Hanson and One Nation. It was argued that the denial of Aboriginal rights, and attacks on Aboriginal people as the recipients of special treatment, could be explained as representing the manic defence of a large minority of the white mainstream in response to perceived threats to identifications with the Good Australia evoked by the recognition of Native Title. As Klein has explained, the manic defence is driven by anxiety and functions through the primitive psychological process of splitting, whereby internalized good (ego syntonic) objects are retained and internalized bad (ego dystonic) objects are projected onto the scapegoated Other. In the case of One Nation, Aboriginal people were represented as “greedy” people who wanted to take away “our backyards”. By contrast, it was argued that many white Australians had adopted the more difficult depressive position, which was best exemplified by Paul Keating’s (1993) Redfern Park Speech. The processes of splitting and projection that characterize the persecutory position enable us to repress the knowledge that we have inflicted harm, and thereby escape feelings of guilt. Depressive guilt, on the other hand, is associated with the painful awareness that harm has been done and a desire to make reparation to the damaged psychic object. This desire was manifest in the emergence of grass roots movements, such as Australians for Reconciliation, comprised mainly of white Australians, who organized their own responses to the stance taken by Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party. Australians who wished to amend past wrongs were frustrated by the inertia of the Wik debate, the failed referendum for a republic, the Treaty debate, and the dismantling of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra. Ordinary citizens walked over bridges and contributed to the Sea of Hands in their tens of thousands to show their solidarity with Aboriginal people. The “Sorry” books were in answer to the Howard administration’s steadfast refusal to make an apology and offer compensation to the Stolen Generations, as had been recommended by Wilson and Dodson’s (1997) Bringing them Home Report. Chapter Six outlined the epistemological and methodological framework within which the research was conducted. In this section, the ethics of conducting research with indigenous communities has been presented, and the reasons for adopting a critical approach to psychological research are explained. The primary data from the interviews was presented in Chapters Seven, Eight and Nine. Data was organized into sections according to the main themes that were raised by the indigenous participants, accompanied by relevant commentary from the non-indigenous contributors. The analysis of the emergent themes has been presented alongside the data within each section. In Chapter Seven, the guiding hypothesis that Bain’s (1992) indices of difference would be salient for a cohort of Aboriginal people living in urban and regional environments was partially supported. The Aboriginal participants’ subjective experience of their Aboriginal identity was explored In Chapter Eight. In Chapter Nine, Lacan’s concept that the unconscious is structured like a language, together with his emphasis on the role of metaphor in creating the illusion of fixed meanings, was used to investigate how Aboriginal narratives of identity have been influenced by representations of Aboriginality in both mainstream and indigenous communities. In Chapter Ten, a summary of findings, conclusions and recommendations has been presented.

Item type Thesis (PhD thesis)
Subjects Historical > RFCD Classification > 380000 Behavioural and Cognitive Sciences
Historical > Faculty/School/Research Centre/Department > School of Social Sciences and Psychology
Keywords cultural identity, reconciliation, Psychodynamic theories, Aboriginal Australians, ethnopsychology, Australian national characteristics, race relations
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