Fellows Detail

Professor Kenneth Maddock

MADDOCK, Kenneth James. LLB (New Zealand), MA (Auckland), PhD (Sydney). 1986. Panel A.

Elected: 1986

Discipline: Anthropology

Date of Passing: 02/06/2003

Obituary:

Then members of the Australian Anthropological Society received a brief email message from David Martin, informing them of Ken’s death, it ended with the sentence: ‘His forthrightness, intellectual honesty, and rigour will be missed by the profession’. I think that summarises very well how Ken was regarded by his colleagues, and the high esteem in which they held him.

Over the weekend I refreshed my memory of Ken as a young man by looking at a photograph taken in 1967 at a cricket match. Tall and athletic, with a shock of blond hair, he stood in a group of youthful émigrés from England and Wales, including Richard Wright, Nicolas Peterson, Rhys Jones and Harry Oxley. If you didn’t know that he was born in Hastings, New Zealand (as distinct from Hastings, England), you would be excused for thinking he was one of them. Indeed, given his careful articulation and a certain formality of manner, I initially assumed he was English in origin and continued for a long time to think of him as such.

In his struggle with cancer, Ken drew upon cricket to describe the humiliating effect of medication on a once-robust frame: ‘Chemotherapy has hit me for six’, he said. His last words to Sheila were: ‘I have scored ten runs short of a century – write down the score’. Although he may not have been in a clear state of mind, she thought his meaning was that he had not quite accomplished what he had hoped for. A good innings, but not one for the record books.

I am sorry if he left us on that note of disappointment because it is not warranted. Ken’s contribution to social anthropology in Australia over the last forty years is second to none. If we take as criteria range of interests, depth of scholarship, analytical acumen, and lucidity of exposition, the score on the board comes to a comfortable century. He played the game at international level; and while he may not have been the Don Bradman of Aboriginal studies, neither was anyone else.

Let us spend no more time on the quantification and hierarchy of achievement. Ken, after all, was by conviction an anarchist, even if as a normal product of natural selection he was susceptible to the pleasures of competition and the temptations of self-esteem. His initial training was in law, which helped him to develop formidable debating skills. Almost immediately after obtaining his bachelor of laws degree, he enrolled for an MA in anthropology at the University of Auckland. The subject of his thesis was preferred and prescribed marriage systems in New Guinea and Western Melanesia, which in due course aroused his interest in Aboriginal systems and led to a preliminary trip across the Tasman Sea. Recalling the occasion much later, he wrote: ‘Les was in the field during the summer of 1962-63 when I made my first visit to Sydney, but I shared a house with [his friend Monty West] and his wife Betty, who lent me his PhD thesis’. A year later he returned to begin his own PhD candidature at the University of Sydney, with me as his supervisor. The subject of his research was a recent, highly secret cult in southern Arnhem Land called ‘Yabadurrawa’. Empirically and analytically the outcome was a tour de force but, because of the sensitive nature of the material, Ken's PhD thesis could not be published.

One day a few years after Ken finished his fieldwork I was sitting at a table in a beer garden at Mataranka writing up my diary in a field note book. An Aboriginal man I’d never seen before came up and started a conversation, in the course of which he asked me if I was a ‘business man’ (meaning a person involved in secret ceremonial matters). I reacted somewhat cautiously to this, and he then asked: ‘You know Ken Maddock’? ‘Yes’, I said, ‘he’s a good friend of mine’. ‘Well,’ replied the Aboriginal man, pointing to my notebook, ‘this paper, that’s how I know you’re a business man. Ken Maddock got the same paper.’ The totemic significance of departmental stationery.

The dominant theoretical influence pervading Ken’s two theses was undoubtedly Lévi-Strauss. In fact by the 1970s Ken had become the most influential exponent of French and Dutch structuralism in Australian anthropology. This status was achieved not only through his widely-acclaimed general description of Aboriginal society, published by the Penguin Press in 1972, but by a number of ingenious shorter essays as well, placing interpretations on such matters as Aboriginal myths of the acquisition of fire, the emu anomaly, indigenous systems of classification, the brother/sister taboo in Arnhem Land, and so on. There was something about the formalism of the structuralist approach, I think, that suited Ken’s temperament. What he found particularly attractive in Lévi-Strauss was the notion of culture autonomously transforming itself according to the inherent possibilities and constraints of a rational logic. A good example is his analysis of the Australian fire myths, which he argues can be ordered as segments of a supermyth generated by a mathematical formula of which the Aborigines themselves were presumably unconscious. Such structures, supposing they exist, provide explanations of a very different order from Freud’s concept of the unconscious and the associated idea of culture as a way of dealingwith unruly emotions.

While Ken was in Sydney on his first visit he bought a copy of John Anderson’s Studies in Empirical Philosophy. He was already familiar with the Libertarian Broadsheet and continued to contribute to its successor Heraclitus until a few years ago. While Ken was always keen to point out common ground between Anderson and Lévi-Strauss, such as the notion of social or cultural movements taking up and working through the minds of individual thinkers, it seemed to me they stood for two rather different though perhaps complementary strands in his intellectual composition: Lévi-Strauss on the one hand focusing upon ideas as instruments for ordering the chaos of experience; Anderson on the other hand preoccupied with the distortions of ideology through which interests are concealed and authority imposed. It was Lévi-Strauss who reinforced Ken’s interest in the crystalline properties of thought, Anderson who intensified his impatience with the impurities of sentimentality, mystification and self-serving humbug.

The passage through parliament of the 1976 Northern Territory land rights act was a watershed not only in Aboriginal affairs but in Australian anthropology as well. Anthropologists with a background in Aboriginal studies came into increasing demand as consultants and expert witnesses in a legal process that effected a return of almost half of the Northern Territory from colonial to Aboriginal ownership. Ken was in the forefront of this revolution, assisting the Land Commissioner in one case and the Land Councils in several others, but more importantly publishing a series of analyses and running commentaries for which his combined skills in anthropology and law provided an unmatched authority. At a more general level. while in Holland on sabbatical leave in 1979-80 he produced a monograph entitled Anthropology, Law and the Definition of Australian Aboriginal Rights to Land, which became a precursor to his book Your Land is Our Land, published in 1983, again by Penguin. This provided not only an anthropological and legal background to the land rights struggle in the Northern Territory but also considered earlier trends in European thought manifest in the writings of such scholars as the philosopher John Locke and the Swiss jurist Emer de Vattel.

The first twenty-five years of Ken’s professional career in Australia were by any standards a period of unqualified achievement. By the mid-1980s he was a major figure in Australian anthropology, the father of three fine children, and the husband of a woman who was as much his intellectual partner as the joint custodian of his genetic future. Yet it was about this time that he entered what is vulgarly but perhaps aptly referred to as a ‘mid-life crisis’. I have no doubt that it was during this period that he began the depressing process of self-assessment that made him wonder whether he was ever going to score the coveted century. To pass over it like that, however, would be to trivialise something much more significant. The fact of the matter is that the profession itself was in a state of crisis, though whether as a prelude to death or some unrecognisable metamorphosis no one could confidently say. Topics and issues that had been at the heart of the discipline since its inception, including many of those to which Ken had devoted his best years, no longer seemed to be of interest. More to the point, they were likely to be stigmatised as inappropriate. In the view of a new generation the primary responsibility of anthropologists was not to advance their discipline but to advance its subjects.

Both, one would hope, are moral enterprises which can be pursued simultaneously. It should be possible, as Ken put it, to mix science with sympathy. Unfortunately, however, as the century drew to a close situations began to develop in which it seemed a choice had to be made between one and the other. At any rate, a bias in one direction or the other created a schism within the profession, particularly in that part of it involved in Aboriginal studies. There was never any doubt as to what values Ken would give priority if a choice was forced on him. In one of his last essays, published in Anthropology Today, he spoke of ‘the dubious pleasures of commitment’. ‘The use to which anthropologists put information’, he wrote, ‘can with some justification be cynically regarded if they appear to be blurring the boundary between the anthropology as expert and the anthropologist as partisan or advocate.’ He did not pretend that it was easy to maintain that boundary or even to know where it should be drawn. But there was no doubt that if it was shifted too far or eroded altogether, the status of anthropology as a branch of knowledge would disappear.

Ken’s public defence of that status was both courageous and painful. To some within the profession he became a hero, to others an enemy. Whatever soreness he may have felt on that account would be mollified by testimonies to his integrity already beginning to appear, some of them from colleagues with whom he found himself in dispute. I believe the healing process will continue and that anthropology as Ken knew and loved it will in time re-emerge as a scholarly discipline, more mature and leaner in appearance perhaps, but acknowledged as having played a leading if not dominant role in shaping the humanities during the twentieth century. Ken’s contribution to that era, as a fieldworker, thinker, and scholar committed to the values of science, is assured of an honoured place.

Les Hiatt

This was an oration given at the funeral. At the time of his death

Ken was Emeritus Professor at Macquarie University.

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