The Cunning of Recognition

Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism

The Cunning of Recognition

Politics, History, and Culture

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Book Pages: 352 Illustrations: 7 b&w photos, 9 figures Published: July 2002

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Australia/New Zealand/Oceania, Politics > Political Theory

The Cunning of Recognition is an exploration of liberal multiculturalism from the perspective of Australian indigenous social life. Elizabeth A. Povinelli argues that the multicultural legacy of colonialism perpetuates unequal systems of power, not by demanding that colonized subjects identify with their colonizers but by demanding that they identify with an impossible standard of authentic traditional culture.
Povinelli draws on seventeen years of ethnographic research among northwest coast indigenous people and her own experience participating in land claims, as well as on public records, legal debates, and anthropological archives to examine how multicultural forms of recognition work to reinforce liberal regimes rather than to open them up to a true cultural democracy. The Cunning of Recognition argues that the inequity of liberal forms of multiculturalism arises not from its weak ethical commitment to difference but from its strongest vision of a new national cohesion. In the end, Australia is revealed as an exemplary site for studying the social effects of the liberal multicultural imaginary: much earlier than the United States and in response to very different geopolitical conditions, Australian nationalism renounced the ideal of a unitary European tradition and embraced cultural and social diversity.
While addressing larger theoretical debates in critical anthropology, political theory, cultural studies, and liberal theory, The Cunning of Recognition demonstrates that the impact of the globalization of liberal forms of government can only be truly understood by examining its concrete—and not just philosophical—effects on the world.


“[This] book should be compelling to anyone interested in the contemporary impasse of liberalism.” — Michael Warner, Artforum

"[The Cunning of Recognition] is packed with original ideas and is written by one of the most interesting thinkers in contemporary anthropology. Beth Povinelli is like a breath of fresh air in Australian Aboriginal anthropology. . . . Well read in philosophy, gender studies, cultural studies and politics, Povinelli applies contemporary theoretical discussions from a wide range of sources to ethnography in subtle and informative ways." — Andrew Lattas, Oceania

"[A] book that provides brave critique and generates thought and heat is one that deserves to be read." — Diane Austin-Broos, The Australian Journal of Anthropology

"Ambitious and bold. . . . Offers much of interest for those understanding the Australian scene and liberal practice and should be read by those interested in Australia and in liberalism more generally." — Francesca Merlan, Journal of Anthropological Research

"An impressive application of both political and cultural theory to anthropology and makes a decisive contribution to the debate on the cultural politics of multiculturalism." — Gerard Delanty, American Journal of Sociology

"Povinelli makes an important point in asserting that Indigenous Australians are often called upon to negotiate impossible contradictory demands to be particular kinds of 'authentic' Indigenous persons." — Katie Glaskin, Anthropological Forum

"Povinelli's critique of liberal multiculturalism is relentless and often ingenious." — Duncan Ivison, Australian Journal of Political Science

"There is a great deal of useful material in this book." — Melanie G. Wiber, Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

“An intelligent, valuable, and absorbing study. Povinelli relentlessly dissects the legal and affective bases of contemporary multicultural liberalism, while bringing the Australian case squarely into an ethics debate that has up to now been dominated by the North American experience.” — James Ferguson, coeditor of Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology

“Elizabeth Povinelli’s The Cunning of Recognition is a breakthrough work that has major implications for redefining the relations between cultural studies and anthropology. With a consistently high level of intellectual excitement and commitment, Povinelli draws together work from a variety of fields in new and provocative ways.” — Benjamin Lee, author of Talking Heads: Language, Metalanguage, and the Semiotics of Subjectivity

“The Cunning of Recognition is one of the most challenging books I have read in years, a passionate and moving account of what the practice of multiculturalism looks like on the ground. Along the way, Povinelli inventively reframes debates within anthropological theory over kinship, culture, and the state. Without platitudes or readymade postures of critique, she shows us an impasse in liberal thought that stems not from its weaknesses, but from its strongest ethical sense of obligation toward those who are different. This is dialectical thinking at its best, painfully and excitingly honest.” — Michael Warner, author of The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Elizabeth A. Povinelli is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. She is the author of Labor’s Lot: The Power, History, and Culture of Aboriginal Action and the editor of the journal Public Culture, also published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top

Introduction: Critical Common Sense

1. Mutant Messages

2. The Vulva Thieves (Atna Nylkna): Modal Ethics and the Colonial Archive

3. Sex Rites, Civil Rights

4. Shamed States

5. The Poetics of Ghosts: Social Reproduction in the Archive of the Nation

6. The Truest Belief is Compulsion


Selected Works Cited

Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2868-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2853-7
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