Decolonising Discourses; a review of Indigenous representation

Words: Courtney Boag

4 October, 2020

“Those who have the ability to shape discourse define what it is possible to think, while suppressing other ways of thinking. The ability to shape discourse, legitimatise and reproduce it builds power.”

Seán Kerins

Perceptions of Indigeneity have historically and, continue to be, framed around certain representations. Representation can be understood as an ongoing “social process of making sense of the signifying systems within a culture”, and the process of ‘interpreting’ and conforming to these representations becomes “central to how we see other people and ourselves” (Spencer 2014: 19). However, in regard to Indigenous representation, this process is fundamentally flawed as definitions of ‘Aboriginality’ have historically been created by non- Indigenous people, and arguably still rely on how non-Indigenous people perceive the ‘Other’ (Said 1978). Historically, Australian Indigenous people have been the subject of intense European observation, commentary and discriminatory classification (Dodson 1994). The act of distinguishing between ‘full blood’ and ‘hybrid’, ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ Aborigines has come to characterise the structural violence of colonialism in Australia, and in many ways, remains an underlying tendency still imposed on Aboriginal people today (Dodson 1994; Maddison 2013).

According to Morgan (2006), Aboriginal people, particularly those living in urban and regional areas, exist in an ‘ambiguous’ and ‘in-between’ cultural and social space and because of this they continue to be subjected to notions that the further they distance themselves from a ‘traditional lifestyle’ the more their Aboriginality is ‘depleted’. Alfred and Corntassel (2005: 597) argue that Indigeneity has become an identity “constructed, shaped and lived in the politicised context of contemporary colonialism” reinforced by both ‘oppositional, place-based existence’ and with the lived experiences of “struggle against the dispossessing and demeaning fact of colonisation by foreign peoples”. Langton (2012: 17-18) also writes that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are still subjected to ‘symbolic violence’ through state impositions of the ideal ‘authentic’ Aboriginal person, which for her have become “fraught and toxic”.

Recent studies demonstrate that “deficit discourse surrounding Aboriginality is intricately entwined within and across different sites of representation, policy and expression, and is active both within and outside Indigenous Australia” (Fforde, Bamblett, Lovett et al. 2013). Deficit discourse has become a common term that is used to describe how prejudiced representations are made manifest. Discourse, in and of itself, can be understood as systems of thought, the composition of ideas, attitudes, beliefs, courses of actions, and practices that shape reality by systemically constructing the subjects and the worlds of which they speak and subsequently, represent. Therefore, deficit discourse can be described as a mode of language that consistently frames, in this respect, Aboriginal identity in a narrative of deficiency. It is fundamental to point out here that discourse, in whatever way it is produced, actually plays a significant role in wider social processes of legitimation and power. Discourse can develop new truths and it can reinforce or demystify old truths, it can give power to some voices at the expense of others, it can represent images in various lights depending on who is producing the discourse, and it is precisely this point which demonstrates how discourse is always illustrative of underlying power relations (see Kerins, 2012: 26).

Discourse is both constitutive and productive, it is a social phenomenon that governs the ways in which any given topic can be meaningfully engaged with and in this way, it frames and constrains our understanding; however, it can also produce new knowledge and cultivate new social relationships (Hall, 2010: 72).  As Kerin (2012: 26) notes, it follows that:

“Those who have the ability to shape discourse define what it is possible to think, while suppressing other ways of thinking. The ability to shape discourse, legitimatise and reproduce it builds power. By defining what is possible to think and suppressing others, those with institutional power – like governmental agencies – do not need to draw on coercive force to change people’s behaviour because the dominant discourse has established a framework, or ‘rules of the game’, that individuals and groups must ‘play to’ in order to be recognised and participate.”

These subtle manifestations of deficit discourse occur within various sites of representation, such as within policy environments, health care, childcare, Indigenous tourism, and increasingly, over social media outlets.  In the annual Wentworth Lecture, Yawuru man Michael Dodson spoke pointedly on this matter:

“In all these representations, these supposed ‘truths’ about us, our voices and our visions have been notably absent. There may be an enlightened minority who have been willing to open their eyes and ears to allow the space for Aboriginal people to convey their Aboriginalities. But, as my colleague Marcia Langton so poignantly wrote, the majority of Australians ‘…do not know and relate to Aboriginal people. They relate to stories told by former colonists’ (Langton 1993, 33). So today, to even begin to speak about Aboriginality is to enter a labyrinth full of obscure passages, ambiguous signs and trapdoors. The moment the question is asked, ‘Who or what is Aboriginal?’, an historical landscape is entered, full of absolute and timeless truths, which have been set in place by self-professed experts and authorities all too ready to tell us, and the world, the meaning of Aboriginality.”

Significantly, urbanisation and cultural hybridisation of Aboriginal people does not deplete Aboriginality, but has rather, in many ways, facilitated new forms of cultural identities to emerge through “combining the old and the new, the traditional and the modern” (Morgan 2006: 63; see also, Paradies 2006; Rowse 2000). Literature is increasingly exploring how Aboriginal people are challenging essentialist notions of ‘authenticity’, to construct new identities that “speak back to and alternately shift and reproduce the boundaries— geographical, racial, political, and cultural—that underlie prevailing hegemonic assumptions about Aboriginal cultural authenticity” (Lambert-Pennington 2012: 132; see also Grieves 2008). Paradies (2006: 356) argues for the creation of a “hybrid space of multiplicity” where notions of Indigeneity are freed from the “prison of romanticisation”. Fforde, Bamblett, Lovett et al. (2013) suggest that Aboriginal identities and Indigenous policy development will continue to be ‘constrained’ if dominant perceptions of Aboriginal identity continue to be influenced by colonial underpinnings

French philosopher, social theorist and literary critic, Michel Foucault (1980: 98), believed that power is an entangled system that involves the whole of society, but that “individuals are the vehicles of power, not its points of application”. He also perceived power as something created through interactions amongst actors and embedded in social networks. In this light, Aboriginal identities can be created and influenced by constant interaction and stimulus from external factors but can also control how they respond to such change (Barnard and Spencer 1996). The work of Wolfe’s (1999) underlying ‘logics’ of ‘structural elimination’ is advantageous in explaining the ways discourse has been used across various sites of representation to reshape and reinforce certain ‘truths’ about Aboriginal peoples. However, Rowse’s (2014: 300) critiques on the homogenising tendencies of Wolfe and Veracini’s work are pointed, as he argues, their conclusions often reduce “sensitivity to Indigenous heterogeneity” by engaging readers in a narrative of “epistemological and political certainty”. He notes that this way of thinking seldom acknowledges the power individuals have in shaping their own identities.

Foucault’s work then urges us to consider how power moves between actors, but how discourse can – and often is – used by those in power to frame and objectify the identities of others to reinforce their own agenda. Foucault (1988) describes types of power as ‘technologies of power’ and ‘technologies of the self’. ‘Technologies of power’ can be conceptualised as discourses of ‘measurement’ and ‘categorisation’ which “objectify others in ways that define their identities” (Liljeblad 2014: 70) and are often exercised by those in positions of power as a means of reinforcing other people’s positionalities. Conversely, ‘technologies of the self’ are discourses which enable people to influence how their identities are portrayed in common discourse and consequently “empower them to counter technologies of power and become less subject to hegemonic control” (Liljeblad 2014: 70; Foucault 1988). Foucault’s (1972) ‘micro-politics’ of discourse represent the interplay between technologies of power and the technologies of the self and are described through what Foucault termed, ‘archaeology’ and ‘genealogy’. ‘Archaeology’ aims to uncover the underlying structures and rules of how discourse creates knowledge, in terms of “how the prohibitions, exclusion, limitations, values, freedoms, and transgressions … all its manifestations, verbal or otherwise, are linked to a particular discursive practice” (Foucault 1972: 193). In contrast, ‘genealogy’ explores how knowledge is turned into power through “describing the micro-politics that define norms and identities” (Liljeblad 2014: 71).

Subsequently, when we practice what Foucault would describe as being an ‘archaeological’ reading of current literature, news or propaganda we are actively engaging in the written content by inquiring as to who is producing the content? What agenda is the content serving? Who is benefiting from the content and who isn’t? Foucault encourages us to remain inquisitive and critical when fleshing out the stitching’s of what holds the written or spoken word together. In dismantling the assumptions, prejudices and representations of Aboriginal people portrayed in discourse we will come to understand the ‘genealogy’ of how discursive practices produce and reinforce power positionalities. It is through this process that we can begin to liberate Aboriginal representations from the shackles of the colonial agenda. 

While Foucault believed that discourse is produced by power, he also claimed that it is not entirely subject to it, arguing that discourse can also present a “point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy” (Foucault 1978: 101). Consequently, discourses of power can be challenged by counter-discourses against hegemony from Indigenous people which can ultimately facilitate ‘technologies of the self’ as it can empower Indigenous people to control how they are represented (Liljbald 2014). Following Foucault, it is emphasised that “power is not evil” but that we need to – as a collective – be more aware of how Indigenous people’s are portrayed in discourse so that we can “play these games of power with as little domination as possible” (Rabinow, 1997: 298; Foucault 1988). Indeed, Foucault (1978; 1988) advocated for self- reflection and self-examination in encounters so that each actor may become more aware of the power relations created by their ‘technologies of power’ and ‘technologies of the self’. He argued that, in doing so, it would eventuate in an “open-ended strategic game” (Rabinow, 1997: 298) whereby each actor may exchange knowledge with each other to the extent that ‘technologies of power’ and ‘technologies of the self’ may become “fluid enough to shift, even to the point of constantly reversing” (Liljbald 2014: 77).


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