Essay by Ben Gook: Lest we Forget; Let us Forget.

On August 3-4, 2013, Catherine Ryan and I will create a work in which audiences of the Underbelly Arts Festival will look out from a viewing platform on Cockatoo Island to find that the Sydney Harbour Bridge is gone. Signage on the scenic lookout will loudly declare that there is nothing to see here. For this work we have commissioned two writers to reflect on the image of the bridge’s absence. The second essay, by Ben Gook, is below. A publication including this essay, as well as a piece by Timothy Chandler and a section containing other images of the invisible, will be available at the Underbelly Arts Festival to buy for a gold coin donation.

View images of the work: Nothing To See Here (Removal of Sydney Harbour Bridge).
You can also read the other essay:
“The Bridge’s Negative Image”, by Timothy Chandler.

Lest we Forget; Let us Forget.

In 1932, the respected anthropologist Raymond Firth wrote that the Aboriginal Australian showed a strange trait, one unlike that of their indigenous counterparts elsewhere in the colonised Pacific. The indigenous Australian, he said, “mutely dies.” The race would undergo a passive, silent, unremarkable and forgettable death. So began the twentieth-century slide into forgetting indigenous Australians. This would be one more entry in the ledger of what Stanner called the great Australian silence. It would take just a couple of hundred years of settler-indigenous contact—and within that span, just a few intense decades of frontier activity—to decimate a people who had been in Australia for some 40 000 years. In 2013, to look out from Cockatoo Island and see Sydney’s settler landmarks—apparent icons of progress—disappear prompts us to consider invisibility and visibility, forgetting and remembering, as well as the entanglements of settler and indigenous Australians in the present.

If the Australian indigenous people died mutely—and I think we have cause to dismiss this as nothing more than an historically symptomatic fiction—it may well have been due to shock and trauma. Better yet, we could say that settlers were imposing European ideas on a foreign land and were unable to hear what they did not understand, just as they painted and organised the Australian scrub and bush into an idyllic pastoral scene, far from its actual state. Taming Australia’s “disorder”—its unfamiliar trees, bizarre fauna and “savage” inhabitants—entailed a ruthless, arrogant and unsympathetic approach to all that was encountered. The few celebrated cases where this did not happen—that is, where settler and colonial people got along—are the exception that prove the rule: what was visible vanished, what could be heard, silenced.

Six years after Firth’s ominous assessment, in 1938, a group of indigenous activists gathered not far from Cockatoo Island to march—mutely—from the Town Hall to the Australian Hall. It was Australia Day, January 26—one hundred and fifty years since Captain Cook had landed, also not far from where Amy Spiers and Catherine Ryan’s Nothing to See Here (Removal of Sydney Harbour Bridge) stands. The Aborigines Progressive Association—established by William Ferguson, Pearl Gibbs and Jack Patten the year before—gathered to hold a “Day of Mourning & Protest.” Its proclamation flyer says, in part, that they gather to “make protest against the callous treatment of our people by the white-men during the past 150 years.” The invite was not extended to settlers, with only “Aborigines and Persons of Aboriginal Blood” asked to attend. The day’s proceedings were delayed by the official sesquicentenary parade through Sydney’s streets, which was a “symbolic procession depicting 150 years of progress,” as one contemporary newspaper report put it. Mary Talence wrote in her diary: “For white people it seems like celebratin’ progress, but for Aborigines it was about mournin’ everythin’ they’ve had to give up for white people’s progress.”

Figure 1.

Replica of HMS Endeavour, the vessel commanded by Captain James Cook in 1771.

The dialectics between silence and noise, mourning and celebration, remembrance and forgetting, presence and absence have been at play in Australia since its colonial founding. From the colonial Frontier Wars, as Henry Reynolds calls them, to the History Wars, the interactions between settler and indigenous Australians have been marked by an anxiety about remembrance and forgetting, belonging and dispossession. As one book—Uncanny Australia—argues, something unsettling is at the heart of this settler nation. Periodic flare ups remind us of the subterranean, unconscious tension here: these may take the form of historiographic disputes, such as those over the precise number of indigenous Australians killed by settlers and recorded in the archives; or they may take the form of a sentimentalised political plea to make reparations (little children are sacred, as we are told by the report that licensed the “intervention”—coercive reconciliation—in Northern Territory indigenous communities). But these patterns of awareness are marked by their own visibility and invisibility. These issues periodically come to the front pages of newspapers along the eastern seaboard, before disappearing again, remembered and then forgotten in a tidal rhythm.

The foundational blind-spot of the nation is simultaneously fixated upon and unseen as an absence. So, we might ask, how long does it take to forget what was once present? When does presence become an absence? And can remembrance make absence a presence once more?

Common imperatives to remember—lest we forget—are bound up in a redemptive myth of memory.

Memory is not a thing, but a process. Nations have diverse strategies—processes—of dealing with the past, with collective memory: forgetting; moralising; forgiveness; reconciliation; commemoration. These are not mutually exclusive paths. Forgetting is a necessary—if paradoxical—stage in remembrance. There can be no remembering without forgetting. Although many speak out against forgetting, this counterpart of remembrance need not be negative. Common imperatives to remember—lest we forget—are bound up in a redemptive myth of memory. Holding the traumatic or terrible memory in mind will mitigate its recurrence. This myth says that only ignorant and ahistoric actors will do wrong; its implication is that those who remember will redeem themselves and do good. Yet British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips points out “to say that those who forget the past are likely to repeat it is not to say that those who remember it will not.” The horrors of the Nazi camps are the moral index of why we need to remember; gripped by an anxiety about repetition, we cycle through endless histories of those years (Hitler’s Women, Buchenwald in Colour, Nazi Henchmen and so on, until the SBS schedule is full), fascinated and traumatised by it still, by the passivity and power, by the horror and ignorance.

Figure 2.

The Norwegian freighter MV Tampa, refused entry to Australian waters in 2001 while carrying 438 rescued refugees.

And yet, uncanny, unconscious repetitions are at work, even if we are conscious of history: how else to explain the proximity of recent measures in remote indigenous communities—such as welfare rationing, heavy law enforcement, land tenure changes and accusations of moral degeneracy—and those of earlier generations, those shaming, dark days of stolen children, religious missions, indentured labour and other enforced “correctives” likewise licensed by moral degeneracy and modish, craven Darwinian anthropology and science. How else to explain, too, the acute Australian fear of “invasion.” A myth of terra nullius and fantasies of an Asian or Muslim “invasion” are constitutive parts of Australian nationhood. The fetishisation of “orderly migration”—we will decide who comes to this country, and the manner in which they come, and so on—trades on a half-remembered, half-forgotten history of dispossession and occupation, not least of arrival by boat. Nikos Papastergiadis draws these ideas together to argue a peculiarly Australian matrix “combines the primal trauma of colonialism, the ongoing ambivalence over the sense of place, and the doubts over regional security in the national imaginary.” So the decolonisation suggested by a) Mabo and land rights claims and b) the “hordes” arriving by boat from our north congeal into a fear that Australians would lose their backyards—on one side to legal judgements in favour of indigenous possession and on the other to a bulging immigrant population. The reality proved otherwise on both fronts, but these are fertile ideas, still sustaining political discourse.

The fetishisation of “orderly migration”—we will decide who comes to this country, and the manner in which they come, and so on—trades on a half-remembered, half-forgotten history of dispossession and occupation, not least of arrival by boat.

Australian historian and cultural studies academic Chris Healy has criticised the theatre of “forgetting and remembering” that accompanies settler accounts of Indigenous history: specifically, Healy has in mind the guilty “liberal” consciousness of public figures such as Germaine Greer and Mungo Maccallum who, at different points, have made remonstrations about “not being told” and “never knowing” about Indigenous history. In this drama, the (white) individual has a moment of revelation as they suddenly become aware of something they claim to have never known. Something is speaking through these repeated acts, even if the actors do not know it: indigenous people are remembered as an absence in Australian culture, forgotten as a presence.

This is not to say that Maccallum’s and Greer’s claims are without subjective and objective truth. As historians have argued, indigenous histories were marginalised in the century following Federation. Nineteenth-century histories contain many mentions and invocations of indigenous history, even if we would contest their characterisations today: they at least had Aboriginal presence at their heart. Henry Reynolds argues that Australia’s twentieth century has been the century of forgetting. He claims it is more contentious now to argue that there was a frontier war. This forgotten and contested frontier war has been displaced by the Anzac myth hoisted around World War I experiences as the “testing ground” of the relatively young nation, and around World War II as the good war. Against this, Healy wants to point to a cultural mode of remembering that contrasts with the fact that, for many settler Australians, it is all too easy to forget indigenous Australians—and then to forget their forgetting. Indigenous people therein disappear, banished either to the past or to some nebulous “outback,” from which they sometimes appear to play AFL football or to have a painting hung in the National Gallery. So a paradox: “Aborigines are remembered as absent in the face of a continuing and actual indigenous historical presence,” Healy argues. This tension between invisibility and visibility maps in complex ways onto a tension between threat and peace: the Aborigine with a land claim on your suburban house versus the faraway kids and dogs and flies of the outback delivered to us by news reports.

These examples suggest that history and memory are not either remembered or forgotten but often both, sometimes present in veiled form. As if in premonition of what was to become their nation’s legacy, German philosophers offer us some of the most fruitful insights into memory, history and how we live with ghosts. Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger and Gadamer—all have stressed the importance of forgetting for the living of life; for the individual, forgetting is necessary to avoid the overwhelming onrush of memory and the past. So the equations cannot be “remembering = benign” and “forgetting = malign.” The details are more complex, less given to purified moral judgements. There are, of course, varieties of forgetting, derived from conscious and unconscious motives for historical exclusion—repression, oversight, misremembering, false constructions. Andreas Huyssen, for example, argues that both Germany and Argentina might be case studies: considering firstly, how Germany has forgotten/remembered the Holocaust and, secondly, how Argentina has forgotten/remembered its death squads and military dictatorship. To simplify, Huyssen argues that an early moment of forgetting was necessary in both countries to prepare the ground for a later engagement with these discomforting histories. Adam Phillips argues similarly: “Enforced memory, like all indoctrination, is fear of memory, of what it might come up with, so to speak, when left to itself. To leave memory to itself, forgetting is required; the time-lag, the metabolism, the deferrals of forgetting. Forgetting has to be allowed for if memory—non-compliant, unmanufactured memory—is to have a chance.” Forgetting, then, is not necessarily the worse option. Indeed, the instrumental approach to memory and history forces silences and gaps of its own—and these may be more dangerous or troubling. Phillips: “What we are urged to remember is bound up with how we are being urged to live.” As with all historical and psychic bargains, forgetting too may orient us to the future. Voluntary and involuntary, encouraged and discouraged—memories always have a future in mind.

We ought to remember the founding of the Australian colonies came on the back of a faith that the nation was vacant, silent, empty.

If we forget that all national foundings were violent, then we ought to remember the founding of the Australian colonies came on the back of a faith that the nation was vacant, silent, empty. Its inhabitants too—who, being without recognisable “culture,” were a form of nature themselves—were silent, mute. To forget this, to stuff those phantasms back into the unconscious, takes quite a lot of cultural energy. Primary school kids know the first colonial encounters took place not far from Harbour Bridge, by well-meaning racists in habits and dog collars, puffed-up colonial sadists in red coats. What happened between then and now, however, is a foggy history for most Australians. This breeds another forgetting, a blindspot: the majority of indigenous Australians now live in urban centres. Today, some of the biggest indigenous communities in Australia are a short train ride away from Sydney in Redfern and La Perouse—but of course, these urban “indigenous” are not real “Abo-rig-i-nes,” because the real ones live in the desert, rape their children and live under military and bureaucratic watch, apparently protected against themselves. In the cities, meanwhile, settler communities use the past to enact their own profound revelations; at some interval divined by publishers and newspaper editors, an opinion piece or memoir will argue (again) “we were never told,” and so on and so forth. Between these exclamations, settler Australians carry on, challenged periodically by artworks such as Nothing to See Here. Scanning Sydney from this island, let us see how we feel when one of settler Australia’s chief icons of progress disappears from the landscape. What strangeness will come from this?

Individual transformations are admirable but insufficient—what needs to be consolidated is a sense, not of indigenous Australians as other, alien, unapproachable, as living on the other side of some unfathomable divide, but present, similar, living with us. Memory and history, remembrance and forgetting are drawn upon by settler/indigenous identities. So part of the move to reorganise relationships between Australians is a settler recognition that we must refuse to disown those uncomfortable parts of ourselves (including our historical inheritance of privilege and violence) and refuse those tendencies to dehumanise and construe indigenous Australians as passive, helpless or violent subjects. We also need to challenge the purified racial categories here: indigenous genetic heritage—as well as cultural inheritances—can be traced through a large part of the “white” Australian population. This needs to be remembered without forgetting—without devolving and dismissing—the remarkable historical, anthropological and linguistic work to date on indigenous Australia and its past and present: the indigenous “part” of Australia cannot be homogenised into some mass of indistinct history, as if it had “died out” of natural causes, a cultural repetition of the Darwinian selection ideas that caused so much damage in past decades. We must remember not to forget the indigenous Australians that are part of our present.


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