Indigenous Sovereignty: Activism and the Imagination
Free Public Lecture
Theatre B, Ground Floor
2017 Returning Harvard Chair of Australian Studies Lecture
The recent Uluru Statement from the Heart (May 2017) and the Final Report of the Referendum Council (June 2017), the result of dialogues across Aboriginal Australia, are significant expressions of a rapidly evolving discourse on sovereignty in Australia. For some groups and individuals, pursuing Aboriginal sovereignty has been the only basis on which Indigenous rights can be properly pursued. The original crime on which white Australia is founded is the violent imposition of sovereignty, without cession or extinguishment.
For other Aboriginal activists and intellectuals, thinking in terms of sovereignty has been a delusion or ‘injusticeable’; Aboriginal rights are to be pursued through existing institutions of the law and government. Currently these strands within Aboriginal political life are being transformed by the discourse of Makarrata (truth-telling and agreement) and constitutional recognition of a ‘First Nations Voice'.
As someone who spent decades working in Aboriginal politics in Central and Northern Australia, Alexis Wright has been an activist for Aboriginal sovereignty but has carried this commitment into the literary sphere. Her novel The Swan Book (2013) is a futuristic meditation on the limits of sovereignty from an Indigenous perspective: what if national borders disappear under the rising waters of global warming? What if national governments are superseded by global rule? What if the social contract that holds sovereignty intact through institutions collapses in anarchy? The Swan Book explores these scenarios, including Indigenous leadership, in a complex interplay of utopian and dystopian modes.
Although in recent years there has been development in ideas such as republics of letters and world literary systems, within these models of literary governance, citizenship and mobility, the question of sovereignty has been largely absent. This lecture argues that Alexis Wright’s work is an instance of how the literary imaginary can address real world issues of Indigenous rights and national sovereignty within the Indigenous world novel.
Presented by the Australian Centre with the Harvard University Committee on Australian Studies, and the Harvard Club of Victoria.
Professor Philip Mead, Chair of Australian Literature
Professor Philip Mead
Chair of Australian Literature
University of Western Australia
**Philip Mead** is a graduate of ANU (BA Hons), of La Trobe University (MA) and of The University of Melbourne (Ph.D, Dip.Ed.). From 1987 to 1994 he was Lockie Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing and Australian Literature in the English Department, University of Melbourne, and from 1995 to 2009, Senior Lecturer and Associate Professor in English at the University of Tasmania. Since 2009 Philip has been the inaugural, federally endowed Chair of Australian Literature at the University of Western Australia, and Director of the Westerly Centre. In 20092010 Philip was also Ludwig HirschfeldMack Visiting Chair of Interdisciplinary Australian Studies, at the Free University, Berlin and in 20152016 was Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser Visiting Professor of Australian Studies at Harvard University. In 2009 his book *Networked Language: History & Culture in Australian Poetry* (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2009) was shortlisted for the Association for Australian Literature’s Walter McRae Russell Award, and in 2010 it won the New South Wales Premier’s Prize for Literary Scholarship. In 2011 he coedited, with Brenton Doecke and Larissa McLean Davies, *Teaching Australian Literature: from classroom conversations to national imaginings* (AATE/Wakefield). During his time at Harvard, Philip completed three book projects which are currently in press: *Antipodal Shakespeare: Remembering and Forgetting in Britain, Australia and New Zealand, 19162016* (with Gordon McMullan; Arden Bloombury); *The Social Work of Narrative: human rights and the cultural imaginary* (ed. with Gareth Griffiths; Ibidem/Columbia University Press); and *The Literature of Tasmania: a brief introduction* (Fullers Publishing). Philip’s research is at the intersections of national and transnational literary studies, cultural history and theory, poetics, literary education, and digital humanities. He has received and led numerous nationally competitive research grants including the ALTC funded project, ‘Australian Literature Teaching Survey’ (2009) and the ARC Discovery Project grant for 20102012, ‘Monumental Shakespeares: an investigation of transcultural commemoration in 20thcentury Australia and England.’ Philip is also a CI on the ARC Discovery Project grant for 201619, 'Investigating literary knowledge in the education of English teachers' (with Larissa McLean Davies and Lyn Yates, University of Melbourne, Brenton Doecke, Deakin University, and Wayne Sawyer, Western Sydney University). He is on the board of management of the ARC LIEF funded AustLIt consortium and is also currently an Australasian team leader for the German BMBF (German Federal Ministry of Education and Research)/DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service)funded, and University of Tübingenled, International Thematic Network 'Literary Cultures of the Global South' (201518) which includes participants and partners in Germany, Africa, Latin America, India and Australasia. Philip is a member of the Australian Research Council’s College of Experts, and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities.