The anthropologist's bagmen; Frazer, Spencer and Gillen, and the Primitive in Australia

The anthropologist's bagmen; Frazer, Spencer and Gillen, and the Primitive in Australia
Timothy Mason (anthropologist)

The historian of an institution, whether formal or informal, has to face up to one theoretical problem of some consequence, and that is whether to view the history which she recounts as if it were the unfolding of a developmental sequence, propelled by forces internal to the institution itself, much as a perfect rose may be regarded as the expression of the flower's biological essence, or whether she should not direct her attention to the rain and the wind, as they blow and beat against stalk and leaf, tearing petals from the head, or to the predators which blemish and destroy. Does the history of a science, for example, follow the logic of discovery and theoretical reflection, or is it overwhelmingly shaped by forces beyond the laboratory walls ? - internalist and externalist accounts compete and collide, and resolution is rarely achieved. 

In the story and counter-story that I wish to examine here, we will see that both internal and external constraints have combined on occasion, and have clashed on others, in such a way as to make the tale difficult of determination. To begin with, it is hard to imagine what anthropology could have emerged in the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries that was not, in one way or another, a creature of Imperialism (see 14, passim). If we compare the traditions of France, Britain and the United States in this domain, we find that although they are undoubtedly different, and although these differences are in part traceable to the variations in the intellectual traditions of each country, nevertheless, each is also profoundly fashioned by the experience of colonialism. As we shall see, as far as Australia is concerned a crucial aspect of the story is whether there was or was not a specifically Australian ethnological outlook, or whether it is not the case that, at the very least through the 19thC, and on into the early 20th, Australian fieldwork was fired and directed by the concerns of richer traditions than they were themselves able to call upon. Is it the case, as Stanner suggests, that : 
the whole Australian ethnological product might well have fallen flat but for the influence of foreign scholars like Morgan, Tylor, and Frazer (?) (19, p. 212).

In the history of Anthropology, the development of Oceanic and, in particular, Australian studies is of central importance. The impact of the material concerning the Australian Aborigines on the discipline was considerable ; as the early confidence, rooted in Imperialism and in an evolutionary vision of humanity in which the white European stood at the summit, peering down at the lesser breeds of savages, and in particular at that most lowly of all representatives of the human race, the black Australian, waned, so the studies of Howitt and Fison, of Spencer and Gillen were first thrust aside - Malinowski is instrumental in this - and then relegated to the status of a skeletal spectre, lurking in one of the murkier cupboards at the back of the house(1). 

Lately, however, these works have been placed back upon the table ; Hiatt directly confronts them in his discussion of the twists and turns of Australian ethnography, and appears ready to give them their due (9, passim), while Kuper, as we shall see, has much to say about them, although he is by no means unhostile (13, pp 93 ff.). In the French anthropological tradition, Spencer and Gillen have always been regarded with some admiration, and recent works by Moisseeff (17, passim) and, in particular, Testart (25 ; the book is dedicated to Spencer & Gillen), have recognized their importance, and even attributed them with grandeur. 

But not only have the reputations of the early Australian ethnographers waxed and waned with intellectual fashion ; I will argue that the roles and the relationships of the main characters in the drama have been presented in such a fashion that they have comforted a view of metropolitan domination, and, in so doing, have denied the emergence of an authentically Australian voice, a voice forged in the meeting between settler and Aborigine, between white and black men and women of the bush. We have heard Stanner characterize Australian ethnography as wholly reliant on European theoreticians : let us now listen to how Kuper presents the intellectual context within which Spencer and Gillen were to carry out their field-work and write their books : 
There soon built up a considerable demand for information on Australia. Coupled with the lack of an indigenous tradition of ethnography, this gave rise to a remarkable situation. The first serious students of Australian aborigine society were in thrall to opinionated outsiders, who inspired, and often even arranged the finance for, their expeditions. (13, p.93)

In this view, the role of the men and women in the field - one should not forget the interesting figure of Daisy Bates, for example - is in the main to fetch and carry for the man in the ivory tower. However, Kuper is ready to admit that in the case of both Fison and Howitt, and of Spencer and Gillen, the relationships are rather more complex : 
The subservience of the Australian ethnographers to anthropological theorists was facilitated by a curious accident. The two great Australian studies of the late nineteenth century were made by partnerships in which a foreign intellectual, without previous first-hand experience of Australia, but directly inspired by metropolitan theorists, joined up with a local expert who had a rich store of information. The first partnership, between Fison and Howitt, was inspired by Morgan ... In the next generation Spencer and Gillen, directed by Frazer himself, studied Australian totemism as a religious system. (13, p. 93)

This picture, then, sees the anthropological endeavour as being articulated according to a hierarchical structure of command and influence. James Frazer, the metropolitan theorist, passes his orders down to his intellectual lieutenant, Baldwin Spencer, who, in his turn, primes the untrained but willingly subservient man on the spot - Frank Gillen. 

There is, however, another way of telling the story ; from this perspective, Frank Gillen devoted his life to the study and the protection of the Australian Aborigine. Gillen, a man without powerful friends, was lucky enough to strike up a relationship with a university professor who offered him the encouragement and the occasion to put his observations of the Aranda into the public realm, where they were to be taken seriously by some of the leading luminaries of the European intellectual establishment. 
Gillen's role never gained the recognition that it deserved - while both Frazer and Spencer were knighted, Gillen remained without honours until his death. This was inevitable, given the extent to which social class considerations still permeated the academy, and the degree to which Gillen's Australian-Irish background rendered him invisible. As Australia shakes off its colonial status, we might expect to see this version of the story emerge : and indeed, the attempt has been made (see the editorial material in 19). But it may be that there are ambiguities and dark corners in this tale that make it unlikely that we will ever see Gillen catch entirely the light at the centre of the stage. It is possible, then, that what I have to offer you today is the tale of a re-writing that will never be accomplished. Let us see. 
Part I : Dramatis Personae

First, I wish to introduce the main characters in our drama. Following Kuper, for the moment, I will begin with Sir James Frazer. The author of 'The Golden Bough' was the son of a Scots pharmacist. A Classicist by training, he became interested in the origins and development of religion, and was to produce two of the most remarkable works of his time in that field. According to his biographer, Frazer was a shy man, and something of a recluse. He never gave lectures, and indeed, avoided the university library, preferring to stock his own with the huge number of books to which he needed to be able, wrote his wife, to refer at any time. Frazer is indeed, then, the armchair intellectual, the man who, notoriously, when asked whether he had ever met a Savage in the flesh, answered, gratefully, 'Thank Heavens, no!' 

Baldwin Spencer was trained as a biologist. While a student, he had listened to Tylor's lectures, and had helped the latter install the Pitt Rivers collection in Oxford. He had read Frazer on Totemism and had been impressed; when he left to take up the chair of biology at the University of Melbourne, he took with him a letter from Tylor, urging him to take any opportunity to study the native peoples that should offer itself. Spencer was to make a name for himself in his original discipline, working on the fauna of the Australian continent. But when he met Frank Gillen, while on a scientific expedition to the centre, he found himself in a position to take Tylor's advice. 

Frank Gillen was what the English used to refer to as a 'rough diamond'. Of Irish stock, he had received little formal schooling, starting to work for the post office at the age of 11. Most of his life, he worked for the South Australian Telegraph Company, and he became station master at the Alice Springs Overland Telegraph Station. He was, then, something of a pioneering figure, virtually the administrator of the whole of the central Australian area, at a time when Australian anxieties about their inability to occupy the totality of the territory that they claimed were particularly sharp (See the argument in Day (5, passim). On the pivotal role of the telegraph in opening up Australia, see Blainey, (4, especially pp. 222-7). The vital importance of the telegraph to the development of modern Australia, and in particular its role in the mining industry, should not be forgotten in what follows. 

It was at Alice Springs that Gillen came to know the Arrernte (Arunta), and it was his knowledge and understanding of their customs which impressed Spencer on their first meeting. Gillen was to become most thoroughly implicated in his ethnographic work, and passed by a number of offers of more lucrative employment in order to be able to maintain his contacts with the peoples he studied. Alison Petch writes of him : 
With the publication of The Native Tribes of Central Australia in 1899 and The Northern Tribes of Central Australia five years later, Gillen achieved fame in intellectual circles both inside and outside Australia. He gave public lectures in Adelaide and chaired a section of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science. Unfortunately, his fame was never matched by formal recognition of his work. He received neither honours nor awards, not even election to full Fellowship of the Anthropological Institute in London, an honour received by Spencer. Although he contributed largely to the fame which led to Spencer being awarded a Fellowship of the Royal Society and a CMG, his work was never recognized by his own government. (21)

Are we, with Gillen, at the bottom rung of the scientific ladder? The modern (or post-modern) anthropologist would find it harder and harder to agree with this ; first because the image of the ladder is an artifact of the relations of power and status, rather than of the realities of scientific construction, but second, because anthropologists have been brought to recognize more and more clearly that those whom they study are themselves theoreticians of their own lives and customs. The figures missing from the rapid sketch that I have given above are, then, the men and women of the Arrernte who inducted both Gillen and Spencer into their tribe, and who reported upon their culture, permitting the two anthropologists to witness and even to film their sacred ceremonies(2). 
For Spencer, and for the European authorities who used the data that the two men published, the Arrernte were of interest because they were so distant from the main European settlements that they offered the best hope of studying the life of a Stone-Age people as close as possible to its original conditions. In their eyes, the Arrernte represented mankind at its most primitive, at something approaching the base-line from which cultural evolution must have begun. 

Today, we know that the social life of the Arrernte was shaped by their living in the midst of the most inhospitable environment near the centre of the Australian desert, and that the great majority of Australian peoples, inhabiting the coastal regions until they were violently displaced by the English invaders, lived under very different, and more benign conditions, and, although sharing many cultural traits with the peoples of the interior, elaborated them in rather different ways. We also no longer assume that the Australians have no history, that they have been caught in a kind of time warp, and thus preserved as a living museum, a sample of what the first men and women must have been. 
Spencer and Gillen's works, then, can no longer be regarded as precious because of the direct insights that they offer to the evolutionary anthropologist. Nevertheless, as Alain Testart eloquently declaims, they remain valuable for the picture they give of an Aborigine society in those last few years during which they retained something of the structures and practices that had been theirs before the convicts landed. How far this picture conforms to the ways in which the Arrernte themselves conceived of it, how deep a trace their voices have left in the record, it is perhaps impossible to say today. That other names than those of Spencer and Gillen should be attached to the works that they published seems certain(3). 
Part II : Sitting at their master's feet

Those who would rewrite the pages of Australia's history consecrated to the works of the anthropologists have a number of difficulties to overcome. Not the least of these is that both Spencer and Gillen themselves appear to caution Kuper's version of it. Thus, he is able to cite Spencer as writing to Frazer : 
The knowledge that there is someone like you, who can piece together the odd fragments of information which isolated workers can acquire is a great stimulant. (13, p. 102)

Similarly, he finds Gillen sending this to Spencer : 
'Do please let me have list of questions by each mail. I must have the guidance of your scientifically trained mind to work or I shall accomplish very little.'(13, p. 101)

and Spencer reassures Frazer concerning his working relationship to Gillen : 
I send him up endless questions and things to find out, and by mutual agreement he reads no one else's work so as to keep him quite unprejudiced in the way of theories. (13, p. 101)

There are good reasons to take them seriously on these matters. Spencer, although he had shown an interest in anthropology, as we have seen, an interest that was by no means unusual on the part of a biologist in the wake of Charles Darwin, had not been trained in ethnography, and probably still looked upon it as a subsidiary interest - Gillen offers him not only 'anthropological tid-bits' but also the preserved cadavers of Central Australian 'vermin'(19, p. 121). Gillen, for his part, appears to have been ill at ease with a pen ; his letters to Spencer are vivid enough, but he has no mastery of punctuation, and phrase runs into phrase with very little in the way of buffering. Spencer punctiliously added his partner's name to their books - even attaching it to one which he wrote after Gillen's death, but it was the academic who set the words upon the page. 

Frazer, nevertheless, is very favourably impressed. From the beginning, he recognizes in Spencer a valuable theoretician, and insists upon his publishing his account of totemism, which overthrew the generally prevalent theory of that phenomenon, one which Frazer himself had supported. A little more than a year after their correspondence had opened, Spencer allowed himself to challenge Frazer's theoretical explanation of Arrernte totemism. As Frazer's biographer put it : 
This letter had a profound effect on Frazer. So impressed was he by Spencer's hypothesis that he was willing to say that it was not merely plausible but probable. To ensure that Spencer should go down in history as the man who had solved what Andrew Lang would later call 'the secret of the totem', Frazer suggested that Spencer immediately write a letter to either Nature or the Athenaeum outlining his ideas or, better still, read a paper before the Anthropological Institute. (1, p. 157).

And, in fact, Frazer arranged a special meeting of the Institute to coincide with one of Spencer's visits to England(4). Although Spencer certainly held the author of 'The Golden Bough' in great esteem, and although he was indebted to Frazer's patronage, he remained his own man, and Frazer knew it. 

Gillen's case is rather different. Although he was unschooled and untrained, he was not uneducated. He had read Frazer, and knew Fison and Howitt's work ; however theoretically pure Spencer wished him to remain, he was not unversed in the major disputes in anthropology, and his position as chair of one of the sections of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as his activities as lecturer, would have kept him abreast of scientific discourse. 

But above all, Gillen was in constant association with the Arrernte, and was, moreover, unusually open to and interested in their way of life. John Morton notes that Gillen, in his accounts of Aborigine life, shows far more sensitivity than do other witnesses whom Frazer was willing to use, in particular the dismal figure of Constable Willshire, whom Gillen eventually had indicted for his part in a mass murder.(5) The reputed junior partner began collecting examples of the Arrernte language well before he met Spencer, and made some attempt to learn it - although it seems that he never spoke it fluently, and that most communication between him and his informants took place in pidgin, or through interpreters. He may have expressed - and felt - a certain degree of humility in his relationship with the English university professor, but he does not appear to have been the kind of man who would have been able to contain himself in the role of errand boy. 
Part III : Kicking away the ladder

Spencer and Gillen's work is first put to the test by their argument with Carl Strehlow. The elder Strehlow was a missionary, and he was convinced that the primitive peoples among whom he spread the word already possessed the concept of a single God. Spencer and Gillen, however, found no such idea among the Arrernte. Spencer, in his correspondence with Frazer, was emphatic, writing : 
I feel more than ever convinced that, judging from our Australian tribes as a fair sample of savages, your theory of magic preceding religion is the true one ... I do not believe that any native Australian has the slightest idea of anything like an 'All-Father'.(6)

To Spencer's mind, Strehlow had arrived at his conclusions because he had allowed his missionary zeal, and his religious convictions to blind him to the realities of Arunta beliefs. However, the younger Strehlow, who grew up among the Arrernte themselves, argued that it was Spencer and Gillen who had allowed their theoretical prejudices to run away with them, and that they lacked a fuller understanding of the mythology of the people upon whom their reputation was founded. As Testart acknowledges : 
De ces disputes, il subsistera l'impression que l'oeuvre de Spencer et Gillen, dont on a toujours reconnu la grandeur, était néanmoins entachée d'erreur et sujette à caution. (25, p. 10).

Moreover, they were to be confronted with an even more formidable opponent : Bronislaw Malinowski, in a work which he wrote before venturing into the field, and in which, nevertheless, we find virtually all the themes which he was to make his own over the years of his prime, dealt a mighty blow to their reputation, for while he accepted the accuracy and interest of their observations, he denied their theoretical importance altogether, and depicted them as being but the toys of their intellectual mentors. Throughout his book on the family in Australia (15), Malinowski is at pains to dismiss the evolutionists' schemas ; to do so, he must deny the claims made by the field-workers. Both Fison and Howitt and Spencer and Gillen found traces in their data of an original group-marriage, such as had been hypothesized by Lewis Henry Morgan. Malinowski, following in this his teacher, Westermarck (26) - but also following his own deeper inclinations - refused to believe in this evolutionary chimera. 

Malinowski's strategy, then, was to show that the ethnologists' own data flew in the face of their theoretical positions. Spencer and Gillen, like Fison and Howitt, were reduced to the status of hard-working journey-men, remote controlled by their English or American mentors. In this he was, to some extent, following in Westermarck's footsteps, but brought to it a greater vigour, and, subsequently, his powerful reputation as the father of modern field-work, and as leader of the functionalist school of anthropology(7). 

Malinowski sets out to undermine the authority of his sources in no uncertain terms ; thus he announces that : 
Highly objectionable from our point of view, however, is the fact that our best informants (especially Howitt and Spencer and Gillen) describe the facts of sexual life today in terms of their hypothetical assumptions. To gain, therefore, a clear picture of the actual state of things, we shall have to distintegrate all that is hypothetic in the statement from the actual facts. (15, p. 90).

Here we see the ethnologist reduced to the mere status of 'informant', on a par with the Savage, interviewed by the fieldworker. (It is ironic in this context to recall Claude Lévi-Strauss's judgement of Malinowski himself as being a great fieldworker but theoretically poor - essentially an empiricist, not seeking underlying principles, and indifferent to structural problems). The view of Spencer and Gillen as mere bagmen at the service of European theoreticians is placed firmly upon the table. 

Malinowski will, of course, go on to construct his own personal myth in a way which pushes the early Australianists even further into the background. With his loudly repeated claim to have 'invented modern fieldwork', he relegated these early ethnologists to the status of historical forerunners, and called into question their claims to veracity. Malinowski saw himself as virtually inventing the science of anthropology, an impression which he was to reinforce in his books - In 'The Sexual Life of Savages' for example, his footnotes almost all refer us to his own work (16, passim) ; only Seligman obtains five references, and of the four other anthropologists to appear (one citation each) two are quoted but to refute the arguments that they had advanced against his own. 

As functionalism swept the field, so the work of the early Australianists receded into the background. Within French anthropology, they retained something of their old glory, for they had been a major influence on Durkheim, and were used once again by Lévi-Strauss. In the United States, little use was made of the Australian material after Morgan, for with Boas and Sapir, the most urgent work seemed to lie with the American Indians. Within English anthropology, there seemed no need to question Malinowski's authority on this matter, and Australian workers still continued to look to the UK for inspiration. The ladder, with Gillen at its lowest rung, Frazer at the roof-top, and Spencer passing the tools back and forth in the middle, had been kicked out from under them. It was unlikely to be raised again. 
Part 4 : Australian heroes?

The two ethnologists fared no better in general histories of Australia. Spencer held a place, of course, as a biologist, but his ethnographic work tends to melt away. This is certainly because of what W.E.H. Stanner has referred to as the 'Great Australian Silence' ; quite simply, the Aborigine disappeared from Australian history, once the land had been civilized - a process that occurred in the wink of an eye. 

In 1985, D.J. Mulvaney and J. Calaby published 'So Much that is New: Baldwin Spencer 1860-1929' (18). This biography of Spencer can be read as an attempt to make of this immigrant intellectual a figure of true importance in the history of Australia, and to detach him from dependence upon metropolitan favour. The attempt had not been made easy ; the authors found some difficulty in getting a publisher for the work, and felt that this may have been because there was little interest in such a figure. 
But the lack of interest may not have been altogether due to the ethnocentric snobberies of English publishers ; there are good reasons for believing that a retelling of Spencer's story is untimely in his adopted country. For Spencer's close knowledge of the Aborigine had not, apparently, lead to his becoming a champion of their cause ; far from it - it had seemingly reinforced in him the prejudices of the age, for he saw them as a doomed, lost race, for whom little could be hoped other than a pleasant and easy death. Indeed, Spencer was the vehicle for the most dismal prejudices of his time, and, in his final work on the Aranda, offers us this vision of the people who had welcomed him into its bosom : 
Australia is the present home and refuge of creatures, often crude and quaint, that have elsewhere passed away and given place to higher forms. This applies equally to the aboriginal as to the platypus and kangaroo. Just as the platypus, laying its eggs and feebly suckling its young, reveals a mammal in the making, so does the Aboriginal show us, at least in broad outline, what early man must have been like before he learned to read and write, domesticate animals, cultivate crops and use a metal tool. (22, iii)

So it was that when, in 1911, he was called upon to draw up a set of recommendations on the treatment of the Aborigines, and subsequently was appointed Special Commissioner and Chief Protector of Aborigines in Darwin, he was instrumental in setting in motion a policy which resulted in thousands of Aborigine children being stolen from their families, and brought up in orphanages or in white foster families (3, pp. 38-9). 

Thus, the entry for Spencer in the International Dictionary of Anthropologists concludes that : 
Spencer's work served, in Australia, to provide academic respectability for popular racial prejudice, justifying authoritarian social control. (27, p. 654)

and the rest of the text restitutes the old picture of Spencer as Frazer's awestruck bagman. 

Given the present state of relations between white Australia and the original inhabitants, Spencer would be a dangerous hero to resurrect. What about Gillen? Gillen, after all, had experienced almost daily contact with the Arrernte, and had seemingly always done his best to fulfill his mission as Sub-protector in Alice Springs. Indeed, as we have seen, on one occasion, he was instrumental in indicting a white policeman for the murder of a number of indigenous inhabitants - an almost unheard of event in those dreadful times. Moreover, whereas Spencer drifted across the political spectrum from an early radicalism to the Tory authoritarianism of his later years, Gillen retained his opinions to the end. 

Gillen, then, could be seen as a figure who had been cheated by the English establishment, and its Australian offshoot, of his rightful place in history. He could perhaps even stand as an early symbol of the possibility of reconciliation between the white and the black populations of Australia. But there are shadows even in this story, for his basic vision of the Aborigine was similar to Spencer's. Like most of his fellow invaders - for by pushing the European presence into the very centre of the continent, by establishing through that presence that the white man had his place in Australia, Gillen was one of those who 'tamed the frontier' and who brought the iron fist of Empire to the Aborigine, however velvet the glove may have been with which he concealed his hand - he believed that the native population had lost out in the struggle for survival, and that it was headed for extinction. 
These shadows are lengthened by the role he played in the maintenance of the cross-continental telegraph, for, as Blainey points out, the advent of this radically new form of communication was instrumental in developing the Australian mining industry. In the debate that at present shakes Australia over Aboriginal land-tenure, it is the mining industry that appears to be leading the opposition to the recognition of the full rights of Native Title. 

Gillen, then, would be a truly emblematic figure in the history of his nation. Not a hero, perhaps, but a worthy representative of both the best and the worst that Europe had to offer this newest of New Worlds. But it would be difficult to forget that in the years between Spencer and Gillen's first meeting and their joint investigations of those whom they would label a Stone-Age tribe, and the publication of 'The Arunta', in 1927, the Arrernte had shrunk from a people of some 2,000 individuals to a mere 600. Spencer, in his Preface to the book, tells us that of the original group of forty persons known to himself and Gillen in 1896, and of whom Gillen was the appointed protector 'not a solitary man, woman or child remains', adding that 'this is only one of many such groups, studied by us in the early days, upon whom the same fate has fallen'. The exact nature of that fate he does not reveal. 

We have seen that the account which historians and participants have given of the relationships between Frazer, Spencer, and Gillen, have varied - both through time, and from one place to another. The factors that shape this variation are several ; some of them can be seen as internal to the science of anthropology itself, for as the Evolutionary paradigm waned, so the work of Spencer and Gillen, too tightly linked to that of Frazer, who had been one of the leading lights of the school, came to seem distant and dated. The victory of Malinowski and the reign of functionalism were to push the early Australianists into the shade. In France, where functionalism developed through Spencer and Gillen, rather than against them, they were never to plunge into the obscurity that hid them from view in the English-speaking world. 

Yet others lie outside anthropology itself ; we have seen how it was that Australia 'forgot' the Aborigine, and later the questioning to which the Imperial project was subjected from the 1940s onward undermined the whole world-vision that had made possible the work of the early ethnologists. But at the same time, as Australians themselves came face to face with their distance from the Metropolis - a distance not only in space, but also in hearts and minds, as the Second World War brought home to them - and began to face up to the need to forge for themselves an identity which was not subservient to the centre, so the idea of influence, whether in the arts, or in the sciences, as being a one-way flow came to be put into question. Spencer could now be seen as an Australian by choice, and Gillen as the true article. 

From the internalist point of view, the recent trend in anthropology to pose once again the evolutionary questions may well lead to a refurbishing of the reputation of the early ethnographers. Chris Knight, for example, in his work on the development of kinship and marriage (11, p. 45), has only praise for Spencer and Gillen, and is scathing towards those who have put them to one side. Where Malinowski damned them with faint praise, modern anthropologists may be more likely to see their clear-eyed accounts of the universe of the Arrernte as one of the monuments of the ethnographical endeavour. 

But, as I have indicated, there may be external reasons which will make it difficult for anthropologists to celebrate these ancestors in too boisterous a fashion. The status of the First peoples in Australia has become one of the most sensitive questions on the political agenda. One sees, perhaps, too clearly how Spencer might hold hands with Pauline Hanson, to accept a full re-establishment of his reputation with an easy grace. 

Of course, historians do not look to fabricate heroes. The tale of Spencer and Gillen may well be worth the retelling in all its complexity, and with all its ambiguities. The easy slope of influence that still underlies the judgement of Kuper or even of Stocking can no longer be sustained. Gillen's work in the field would necessarily become central to any reformulation of that fruitful partnership. Whether at this time such a rewriting would find a ready audience is another matter.

Notes : 

1. Marvin Harris (8), in his critical round-up of the discipline, makes no mention of Spencer and Gillen. In France, Mondher Kilani's 'Introduction à l'anthropologie' (10), which is avowedly historical in intent, also leaves them to one side despite their considerable influence on the work of Durkheim and Lévi-Strauss. 

2. Many of their photographs are no longer available for viewing, as they reveal mysteries that were intended to be kept secret. 

3. And those names are being unearthed. The present need to document claims to Native Title has lead anthropologists to go through the records of the early ethnographers, Spencer and Gillen included, and in doing so to put names to some of the faces that appear in the photographs, and identify some of those who were their informants. And although the names of the informants do not appear in the published works, they are cited in the notebooks and the letters. 

4. As Kuper notes, Frazer was always willing to admit the importance of field-work, and at one time wrote to Spencer to say that he was sure that while his own work would not survive, that of the field-workers would. 

5. John Morton writes, in an e-mail message arising out of a discussion on the list Anthro-l, dated 16/03/98, "A study of Gillen might, I think, be made revealing if his position were to be compared with other pioneers in the fieldwork industry - Morgan, for example - or, at the other end of the spectrum, someone like Mounted Constable Willshire, who had experience comparable to Gillen's in Central Australia, but whose understanding of Arrernte ('Arunta') society was absolutely dismal. (Willshire, for example, can be found in the JRAI of 1894 as one of Frazer's indirect respondents.)" 

6. This is cited in Hiatt (9, p. 106), who gives a chapter over to the dispute on the existence of a High God in Australian mythology. 

7. The personal relationship between Malinowski and Spencer was, to say the least of it, strained. Spencer, finding Malinowski's letters to a young woman, passed them on to her parents, thus bringing to an end an affair which Malinowski was having difficulty extracting himself from. 

1. Ackerman, Robert, 'J.G. Frazer ; His Life and Work', Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987 

2. Berndt, Ronald, M., and Catherine H. Berndt, (eds.), 'Aboriginal Man in Australia ; Essays in Honour of Emeritus Professor A.P. Elkin', Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1965. 

3. Birch, Tony, 'A Blood Test for Mabo', The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 1995, 6: 1 & 2. 

4. Blainey, Geoffrey, 'The Tyranny of Distance ; How distance shaped Australia's history,' Sun Books, 1966. 

5. Day, David, 'Claiming a Continent ; A new history of Australia', Angus & Robertson, 1997. 

6. Firth, R., (ed.), Man and Culture ; An evaluation of the work of Bronislaw Malinowski, RKP, London, 1957. 

7. Freud, Sigmund, (tr. S Jankélévitch), Totem et Tabou, ; Interprétation par la psychanalyse de la vie sociale des peuples primitifs, Payot, Paris, 1968 (1913). 

8. Harris, Marvin, 'The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture', New York, Crowell. 

9. Hiatt, L.R., Arguments about Aborigines ; Australia and the Evolution of Social Anthropology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge,1996. 

10. Kilani, Mondher, 'Introduction à l'anthropologie', Payot Lausanne, 3e édition, 1992. 

11. Knight, Chris, 'Blood Relations : Menstruation and the Origins of Culture', Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1991. 

12. Kuper, Adam, Anthropologists and Anthropology ; The British School 1922-72, Pergrine, Lodon, 1975 (1973). 

13. Kuper, Adam, The Invention of Primitive Society ; Transformation of an Illusion, Routledge, London and New York, 1988. 

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1 comment:

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