Second Proposition

All cultures exist interculturally, though seldom on equal terms.

2.1 Thinking interculturally involves giving due weight not just to the flows within and between languages and cultures but to the structural, often asymmetrical, relations among them. For all his jocoserious intercultural and interlingual game playing, Joyce’s experience of colonial Ireland, and his sensitivity to the question of Europe’s global dominance in the first half of the twentieth century, ensured that these relations, and the often nightmarish histories of contest and conquest that underpinned them, were never far from his thoughts. Much the same can be said for the Indian poet-philosopher Rabindranath Tagore who is another key figure for this site (see Third Proposition).

2.1.1 At one point Ulysses (1922) mocks the statist voice of the dominant by parodying a speech that links the fate of the Irish under British rule to that of the Jews under the Pharaohs in ancient Egypt. As the connection implicitly recognizes, the supremacy of the British or European colonial state marks only one chapter in the long, ongoing global history of domination. An Egyptian ‘highpriest’, who in this multi-layered parody is also an Anglo-Irish apologist for the British Empire, asks ‘the youthful Moses’, who is also an Irish nationalist and Gaelic revivalist:

Why will you jews not accept our culture, our religion and our language? You are a tribe of nomad herdsmen; we are a mighty people. You have no cities nor no wealth: our cities are hives of humanity and our galleys, trireme and quadrireme, laden with all manner merchandise furrow the waters of the known globe. You have but emerged from primitive conditions: we have a literature, a priesthood, an agelong history and a polity. (106-107)

Characteristically, the exact status of these words within Ulysses itself is complicated by the fact that they are themselves being quoted – the fictionalized Professor MacHugh is citing a public exchange between two historical figures – and because they are framed by various allusions to Aeolus, the Greek god of the winds. By implication, all the speechifying in this episode, whether by the dominant or the dominated, is so much bloviating oratory. In its own idiosyncratic way Finnegans Wake (1939) reflects on the history of cultural domination as well. There are always ‘two signs to turn to’, it notes, taking a more global perspective, ‘the yest and the ist, the wright side and the wronged side’ (597). No less characteristically, the word play here ensures that the two signs/sides simultaneously encompass the ‘west’ and the ‘east’, as well as the past (yest was an informal abbreviation for yesterday in Joyce’s day) and the present (ist is German for is); the perpetrators (a wright is someone who makes something, e.g. a wheelwright, though it also used to mean a doer) and the victims (wronged). As this implies, it is impossible to treat geography, history, politics, and ethics as discrete categories when thinking about this long history.

2.2 A number of questions follow from this. How does the particular culture under consideration fit into the dominant political, economic, legal, technological or knowledge systems of the time? What place does it occupy within the relevant state structures, whether national or international? What historical forces shaped, or continue to shape, its status? And what part does language play in any struggle over its future or its very survival?

2.2.1 For a series of broader perspectives on some of these issues, see Wikipedia’s list of active separatist movements (in 2016 it identified around 50 in Africa and 60 in Asia alone), as well as its entry on endangered languages; Ethnologue, the most reliable inventory of the world’s languages, inaugurated in 1951 (in 2009 it identified 473 out of 6,909 living languages as ‘nearly extinct’, most in the Americas and the Pacific); the British-founded NGO Survival International and US-based Cultural Survival which have been active since 1969 and 1972 respectively; the Living Tongues Institute (2005), the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (1996), the PEN International Girona Manifesto (2011) and the PEN report Culture’s Oxygen (2016); as well as the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (2005). The photographs Ricardo Stuckert took of an uncontacted Amazonian community in December 2016 are also worth bearing in mind in this context.

2.3 Since these questions can be asked of many disparate situations, ranging from the domination of the Kingdom of Mali in thirteenth-century West Africa to the fate of the Andaman islanders in independent India, it is impossible to answer them in abstract terms. The following images and links, all of which relate to the place of indigenous culture in Australia since the 1970s, simply highlight some of the complexities this kind of analysis involves in practice. These are especially acute when calls for sovereignty, or self-determination, framed in modern statist or counter-statist terms, enter the equation, as they do in the Australian context and many others. For an account of the alternative, anti- or non-statist strategies adopted by the hill communities of Zomia, see James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale, 2009), and for the recent political success of the Mapuche in their efforts to create an intercultural Chilean state, see Chile: election of progressive indigenous academic to oversee constitutional reform is a blow to right-wing establishment, 8 July 2021.

Australian Parliament Forecourt Mosaic

2.4 This image shows the mosaic that forms the forecourt to Australia’s Federal Parliament in Canberra, which was opened in 1988. It is based on a Central Desert dot-style painting, Possum Wallaby Dreaming (1985) by the Aboriginal artist, Michael Nelson Jagamara, who is from the Papunya community in the Northern Territory. According to the Parliament’s website, the architects ‘wanted the Forecourt mosaic, as the first work of art encountered along the north/south Land Axis, to embody the idea of Australia prior to European settlement.’ They also felt that ‘a site-specific work by an Indigenous artist would recognize the unique relationship of Aboriginal cultures with the land.’ In this image the earth-coloured mosaic forms a counterpoint to the loftily air-borne blue flag, which asserts the unity of Australia’s various federating colonies (via the large Federation star), its place in the southern hemisphere (via the five stars of the Southern Cross), and the modern state’s continuing ties to Great Britain/Commonwealth (via the Union Jack). Parliament House itself reaffirms the links to the latter by displaying a manuscript version of the Magna Carta, the document that is often claimed to be the foundation of the England’s legal and democratic traditions.

High Court of Australia

2.4.1 A similar symbolic association, officially intended to link Australia before and after the arrival of Europeans, can be seen in the use the Australian High Court, also in Canberra, makes of Rosella Namok‘s award-winning painting Today now…we all got to go by the same laws (2003). As the guide to the Court’s artwork puts it, this nine-panelled painting, which has three middle panels, all in dark, earthy colours, flanked on either side by others in bright, primary colours, ‘represents the recognition of traditional Aboriginal law by the broader Australian legal system.’ And yet, as Namok’s own explanation of the work indicates, the intercultural situation is not as straightforward or as painless as this bald formulation suggests. Her comments also address the problematic status of the English language in this context and include some telling reflections on the equally vexed issues of time and history. (On current estimates around 25 indigenous languages are used actively in Australia today, though, historically, these languages were numbered in the hundreds.) When referring to ‘the middle’ here, Namok has in mind the three darker panels that make up the centre of the piece.

When I look in the middle … it’s hard, hard for me to think, to talk ‘proper English’.
Look inside middle … before time … then go look, go outside … that’s Australia today.
Inside middle … before time … there was strong law. People … they would know what way they belong … it was really strong those days … strong … tradition … culture … people … country … law. Strong and straight … everyone knew it … everyone followed it.
Then other people came from all over the world … every place different … got own laws … own culture.
Today now … we all got to go by same laws … but … that traditional law … it’s still there underneath. (Rosella Namok, 2003)

2.4.2 In these institutional settings, the Forecourt mosaic and Namok’s painting reflect the evolving efforts on the part of the Australian state, especially since the referendum of 1967, to redress the two-hundred-year-long history of injustice against the many indigenous minority communities by various legal, political and cultural means. Among the most significant landmarks in this history, besides the 1967 referendum, are the Barunga Statement of 1988, the Mabo case of 1992, and Prime Minister Rudd’s apology of 2008. These efforts towards reconciliation have, however, been challenged under the auspices of the Sovereign Union of First Nations and People, which has made sovereignty and self-determination – the watchwords of traditional European state-building – not recognition within the established state structures, the central issue, as the following image shows (note the word-sculpture spelling out ‘SOVEREIGNTY’ on the right):

Aboriginal Tent Embassy (Bidgee)

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy, a deliberately makeshift, though also precariously permanent, structure established on the lawns in front of the old Parliament in Canberra in 1972, is among the most conspicuous political expressions of this alternative statist vision. Featured on one side of the cabin in the foreground of this image, the Aboriginal Flag with its three symbolic colours (red signifying the land, yellow the sun, and black the Aboriginal people) is another. First flown in 1971 it was officially given Flag of Australia status in 1995. Among other things, the representatives of the tent embassy reject the established state’s language of ‘settlement’. What is officially celebrated as ‘Australia Day’, which commemorates 26 January 1788, the day British naval officers established a colonial outpost in the name of the King (see image below), should, in their view, be called ‘Invasion’, ‘Survival’ or ‘Sovereignty Day’. As a 2006 press release (reaffirmed in 2012) made clear, the embassy continues to see sovereignty, not accommodation or recognition, as the only way of addressing the history of dispossession that has defined the intercultural situation for the Aboriginal people since the eighteenth century:

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy believes that the issue of Aboriginal Sovereignty has been unresolved since 1770 when Aboriginal people opposed Captain James Cook’s reconnaissance of the Great Southern Land `Terra Australis’, followed by Captain Arthur Philips incursion establishing the platform for invasion [on 26 January 1788]. Out-posts were initially set-up on the East Coast of `Terra Australis’ and methodically spread across Aboriginal people’s `terra firma’.

As a direct result of these unprovoked and planned transgressions, Aboriginal people of terra Australis resisted and defended our inherent sovereign heritage that continues to be suppressed by political ideology and economic greed which clearly stands out in the endemic statistical evidence of Aboriginal people’s quality of life and restrictions of a free Aboriginal voice. Australia’s lack of political freedoms and religious morals are denying Aboriginal people’s right to self-determination, is an indictment on all Australians.

Founding of Australia‘ by Capt. Arthur Phillip R.N. Sydney Cove, Jan. 26th 1788 (Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales)


James Joyce, Ulysses (Oxford: World’s Classics, 2008).

James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (London: Faber and Faber, 1975).

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