The blind puppeteer: the Australia Indonesia communications relationship in the postmodern context

Lewis, J 1994, The blind puppeteer: the Australia Indonesia communications relationship in the postmodern context, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Communication Studies, RMIT University.


Document type: Thesis
Collection: Theses

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Title The blind puppeteer: the Australia Indonesia communications relationship in the postmodern context
Author(s) Lewis, J
Year 1994
Abstract Australia's communications relationship with Indonesia is of particular significance for each nation's regional and international aspirations. The current reappraisal of Australia's relationship with the South East Asian region generally and Indonesia in particular necessarily involves the re-assessment and re-orientation of national identity. A number of recent analyses of Australia's identity in relation to the region have argued that Australia and Australians have adopted the Orientalist attitudes of imperialist European nations, especially those of Britain. In particular these analyses are critical of imperialist processes which equate cultural 'difference' with inferiority, using this equation to justify control, exploitation and oppression. Accordingly, Australia's 'image' of itself in relation to Asia - both in the historical and current fields - combines white superracist attitudes with economic and military exploitation. These analyses attempt to deconstruct Australian Orientalism by pointing to its ideological and critical deficiencies, most particularly as it is produced through literary, ftlmic, news and advertising texts. This form of deconstruction or 'De-Orientalism' fails to account fully for the complex interrelationships which function to form culture and meaning. Specifically, De-Orientalism, in criticizing homogeneic Orientalist formations tend to reinstate the cultural 'distance' and 'difference' which separate Australia and its Asian neighbourhood.

In the realm of the political economy similar views prevail. In particular, liberalist and neo-Marxist analyses tend to parallel this De-Orientalismincluding the distinction between the self of the West as norm and the East as alien other - with subaltern or core-periphery models. In these conceits the core (metropolis, centre, north) is the dominant and residual imperialist dominion which uses its military, economic and linguistic power to dominate and exploit the weaker nations and peoples of the world. As with DeOrientalism, these models of the international political economy tend to see macro capitalist processes as subsuming national, cultural and ethnic independence. Capitalism exploits the cheap labour and weaker circumstances of the peripheral peoples. In the process, 'difference' and distance are swamped by the all-absorbing power of First World capitalism. Where it is discussed in relation to the South East Asian region, Australia tends to be simply affiliated with the core.

Both De-Orientalism and the core-periphery models seem to embrace 'difference' as a positive political value. However, this approach seriously distorts the contemporary inclination toward global integration. Poststructuralist theoretical interests (and the postmodernist inheritance) provide an alternative approach to transcultural communication by acknow ledging its complexity and the primacy of language-discourse in cultural formation. Identity is more complex than De-Orientalist cultural conceit acknowledges, especially as it is practised by Australian analysts. Australian images of Indonesia are conceived through images of Australia itself: the two are necessarily and inevitably connected. The concept of transculturalism indicates the interdependence, fluidity and precariousness of personal and national identity. The issue of language (discourse and image) as the mediator of all reality cannot be separated from discussions of identity and culture.

The global political economy is also more complex than the core-periphery models permit. The global postmodern context is drawing nations and cultures into greater and more rapid communicative transactions and greater levels of interdependence. Australia and Indonesia cannot be regarded as singular political constructs with the one dominating the other. New economic programs are producing more complex power transactions at both the macro and individual levels. The fictional and news texts analysed in this study demonstrate the fluidity and interdependence of transcultural identity, and the instability of power, particularly as it functions at the level of the individual body.

Several fictional texts - Christopher Koch's novel and Peter Weir's fllm The Year of Living Dangerously, Blanche d'Alpuget's Monkeys in the Dark, Glenda Adams' Games of the Strong, Tony Maniaty's The Children must Dance, Eric Willmot's Below the Line - have the political context of Indonesia as central to their themes. In analyzing these texts, the current study is concerned with the effects of internationalism - especially the surveillance of nations, cultures and individuals through media, diplomatic, political and aesthetic processes - on the Australia Indonesia relationship. This study rejects the De-Orientalist analytical model which tends to treat these texts as exercises in Australian adventurism and Western political hubris. Rather, the study examines the broader political processes of Indonesia's New Order Revolution (and East Timorese invasion in The Children must Dance) in relation to - first, Australia and Indonesia's participation in the global processes of capital, surveillance and international order; and secondly, in relation to the personal crises of the Australian visitors. Through the analysis of these texts the study claims that Indonesia and Australia are not always distinct political entities. Subjective re-orientation produces a wide range of responses and communicative formations. Domination and resistance may function through distinct political and personal alliances which defy national, ethnic and cultural divisions.

These flows and counterflows are also identifiable in Australian news texts and in the discourse of business. Attempts in the media to transcend difficulties and tensions between Australia and Indonesia have been generally directed by a new form of economic pragmatism. While Edward Said has been extremely critical of the utilitarianism of J. S. Mill's nineteenth century Britain, particularly as it reinforces imperial rule over India, the new utilitarianism that is directing international globalization has been less carefully scrutinised; it is this new utilitarianism, with its emphasis on personal pleasure and choice, which is informing much of the discourse that urges a greater regional participation for Australia. Again this new utilitarianism - driven by Australia's declining economic fortunes and the impelling and absorptive force of international capital- is an ideal which seeks equal participation beyond simple East West oppositional divisions. Nevertheless, trade between Australia and Indonesia, particularly as it is experienced at the personal or bodily levels of pleasure and profit, also involves a multitude of complex and even contradictory transactions. The power of the New Order regime and the practices of capitalist exchange are scrutinized in the ABC Embassy program, the Barnes-Birrell novel Water from the Moon, Dewi Anggraeni's novel The Root of all Evil, Dennis O'Rourke's 'fictional-documentary' The Good Woman of Bangkok and John Duigan's film Far East. A number of these texts also depict Australian expatriates' involvement in the trade of human bodily pleasure; again the precariousness of subjectivity and the uncertainties of political alignment and Orientalism generally are explored. The study of these texts necessarily involves reference to a number of the ideological issues raised in Chapters One and Two, most especially as they relate to feminism and the postmodem celebration of pleasure and individual choice.

The third group of fictional texts is located in Bali. Continuing from the previous two chapters' discussion of politics and the transaction of the economic body, Chapter Five explores the use of Bali in recent fiction and film as the site for Australians' bodily and spiritual pleasure. The ideology and ethics of tourism is central to all of these texts. A distinction is generally delineated between ethical or cultural tourism and mass tourism; a parallel distinction is also made between the feminine and the patriarchal in the deployment of the sexual body and in tourist activities generally. The current study again locates a number of paradoxes and contradictions in these texts and in the ideology of tourism more broadly. Simple separations and celebrations of difference fail to comprehend fully the complexities of communicative transaction and the interactive status of Australians and Indonesians. Power cannot be simply described as being vested in the Australian as Western visitor over the Balinese as Oriental (Other) host.

Conceits which describe Australia and Australians as quasi or neo Western imperialists are, in conclusion, quite inadequate. A reading of the fIlm and literary archive in the postmodern global context shows that Australians are not exclusionists who carry racist assumptions about the superiority of themselves and their heritage. The cultural politics of De-Orientalism or 'ethnic pluralism' too often reproduces the monophonia and essentialism it claims to overthrow. As it produces images of South East Asia, inevitably producing images of itself, the Australian imaginary is replete with contradiction, gaps, flows and counterflows. Our task is to elucidate those tasks in relation to contemporary culture. The experience of transculturalism should not be reduced to ideological formulae, but needs to be understood as further destabilizing the processes which form discourse, power and culture.
Degree Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Institution RMIT University
School, Department or Centre Communication Studies
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