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Debbie Rodan's book sets out to weave a path through theoretical approaches that assume sameness among people, and those that assume difference, in order to think about justice in a contemporary liberal society like Australia. (The book uses 'liberal' broadly and does not, for example, engage in arguments about neoliberalism). Rodan neither fully embraces nor discards modernist nor postmodern conceptions of identity and sets out to propose models that do not fall into binary oppositions of sameness and difference. The book is oriented to the goal of achieving social change in the political world. It states from the beginning that social movements 'do need a kind of identity politics to enable social change for action' (p 20) and concludes that 'to achieve social change with regard to politics there does need to be some form of consensus, even if it is only strategic and impermanent. […] There needs to be latitude for both a universal rule and the possibility of judging "case by case"' (p 147). Her examples refer primarily to the injustices of gender and race politics and she draws on feminist and post-colonial theorists to support her arguments.
The book considers three contemporary theorists who have focussed on the politics of liberal societies. John Rawls' work is outlined with respect to his concepts of public reason, overlapping consensus, the good person and reasonable pluralism. Rodan appreciates Rawls' theory of how 'the political structure of one's society contributes to the constitution of one's identity' (p 51) but finds his work limited because it privileges the rights-bearing individual over the community and does not account for identity formation through differences of gender or economics, nor the partiality of individuals' historically produced locations. Jürgen Habermas' proposal that 'identity formation is constituted through a collective and shared communicative rationality' (p 66) is critiqued primarily for its blindness to gender differences in shaping 'rationality'. It is also employed (and challenged) as a model for thinking about the contribution that contemporary Australian women's life stories make to shared understandings of women's lifeworlds, in particular Drusilla Modjeska's ficto-biography Poppy. (1990)
Jean-François Lyotard's notion of 'the differend — namely, that what cannot be presented can give rise to a dispute or conflict', (p 86) is explored as a way of critiquing the consensus that Rodan identifies as so problematic in the other theorists she presents. It is explicated via discussion of the Bringing Them Home report on indigenous children removed from their families. Her conclusion problematises Lyotard's endless focus on 'particulars, contexts, and contingencies' (p 103) because to achieve social change 'there does need to be some form of consensus (even if it is only temporary)'. (p 103)
The final two chapters are more detailed readings of texts to illustrate the usefulness of the three theorists discussed, more often to point to their limitations, and to highlight the texts' contributions to thinking about identity and difference. One chapter discusses a range of Aboriginal women's autobiographies, reading them as testimonies, 'a communal telling of the collective experience of a group of people who were judged as inferior' (p 125) which Rodan concludes 'further contribute to the movement for reconciliation in Australia'. (p 126) The final chapter considers the film East is East, the story of a Pakistani-English family in 1970s Britain. The film is read as 'disrupting [Enoch] Powell's (and later Thatcher's) construction of "Englishness" as white, Anglo-English and Anglican' and as presenting 'the possibility of justice to come'. (p 144)
While these last chapters, and the one devoted to Poppy, are detailed readings, I felt uneasy about the use of cultural texts in chapters devoted to the theorists where they appear primarily to illustrate, tease out or exemplify the ideas of theorists, without giving due attention to their history or taking them on their own terms. The discussion of the Bringing Them Home report to explicate Lyotard's concept of the differend is a case in point. My unease comes from the potential for a hierarchy between theory and example to subsume and occlude so much of the text designated as the example.
The book feels to me like it is based on curriculum for an undergraduate course, where the teaching environment, and teachers' and students' active engagements create a lively context. Whether or not the book has originated in teaching, as a reader I often felt like an outsider to a discussion that was interesting but for which I lacked a point of entry or enough context for this particular combination of theorists, texts and critical standpoint. Too many passing references are poorly explained.
The book is useful for its introduction to the three theorists it presents and critiques. Its central concern with practical and strategic means for achieving justice for marginalised peoples in liberal societies, and its stress on the political necessity of collective testimony as a sign of shared experience, is a useful point from which to evaluate each theorist's framework. I can imagine using the book's account of Rawls, for example, to teach students about liberal theories and their limits. The accounts of the cultural texts will be useful for readers already engaging them who are open to thinking about them in terms of identity and justice, but less meaningful for the general reader.
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|Altitude issue 6: Reading Indigenous Australian Texts Part 2|
This issue completes the collection of essays on Indigenous cultural production introduced in the previous issue. It features a number of discussions of storytelling focussing, in the case of Somerville and Perkins, on the collaborative practice of storytelling exchange in a massacre story. Van den Berg looks at the functions of story-telling in indigenous communities and Ravell looks at the Moore River experience in life stories by van den Berg and Pilkington. Fielder examines Kim Scott's fiction and collaborative life story work and Miller reads Unaipon's life and literary work in the context of mimicry and whiteness. Webb and Mackinlay read the performance of song in urban and rural environments. [details]
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