Beyond Savagery: The Limits of Australian ‘Aboriginalism’

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Kay Anderson
Colin Perrin


Ideas and representations of the supposedly savage condition of the New World's indigenous peoples have informed a now familiar account of colonialism. These have been understood as the ‘constructions’ of a discourse concerned to justify its colonisation of indigenous lands, and to legitimate its dispossession of indigenous peoples. There is no doubt that racial stereotypes were invoked to support colonialism. But their instrumentalisation—as self-serving constructions of ‘otherness’—has not only tended to define the colonial ‘encounter’ as a unilateral exercise of power; in so doing, it has effaced its very character as an encounter. In this paper, we critically engage this account of colonial discourse in its application to the Australian colonial context. Drawing less upon Edward Said’s description of the power of discourse, and more upon Homi Bhabha’s attempt to elicit its limits, our aim here is to restore to the Australian colonial encounter something of its specificity as an encounter. For this encounter, we argue here, provides a salient—if not a crucial—instance of the failure of colonial discourse to ‘construct’ Aboriginal peoples as savages.

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Author Biographies

Kay Anderson, University of Western Sydney

 Kay Anderson is Professor of Cultural Research at the Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney. She has published widely in the fields of Cultural Geography and race historiography, including the award-winning books 'Vancouver's Chinatown: Racial Discourse in Canada' (1991) and 'Race and the Crisis of Humanism' (2007).

Colin Perrin, University of Western Sydney

Colin Perrin is a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Cultural Research, UWS. He has co-authored several papers on the history of 'race', and written in the areas of indigenous rights, postcolonial theory, and legal ethics.