Belonging to Country-A Philosophical Anthropology. (Reconciling Knowledges)

By Miller, Linn | Journal of Australian Studies, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Belonging to Country-A Philosophical Anthropology. (Reconciling Knowledges)


Miller, Linn, Journal of Australian Studies


Over the past three to four decades Australians have been undergoing a radical reassessment of their relationship with the land and each other. In recent times, non-Indigenous Australians have been exposed to a number of shocking revelations about the country's colonial and more recent past. (1) As a consequence, the quest to find out who `we' are and how `we' ought to live has gathered increasing relevance and urgency. These questions have enlivened public debate concerning Australian national identity; debate that is now both commonplace and heated.

The impetus for this paper is an issue at the heart of that debate: the question of who truly belongs to and in Australia. `Belonging' has become an increasingly prominent term in academic and broader discussions about Australian national identity. Indeed, the question of who properly belongs to this country Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal--is a highly politicised and contested national issue. Belonging has been recognised as having strong currency in both a legal and a moral sense.

However, despite the extraordinary investment made in the notion of belonging and its prevalence in popular, academic and political discourses, there is very little attention paid to explicating or theorising the concept itself. One aim of this paper is to address this lack; however, a stronger focus is placed upon the belonging of Australia's non-Indigenous population--specifically, settler Australians. (2) How legitimate are settler claims to belonging to this land? How accurate are those protagonists--both Indigenous and non-Indigenous--who deny the very possibility of such belonging? (3)

The approach I take is philosophical, but not in the sense that it appeals to rights or duties--whether legal or moral. Instead, I provide an exposition of the notion of belonging itself, hoping that by doing so we are better equipped to judge how and when the term is most appropriately applied. To this end, the paper employs the thinking of nineteenth century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard offers a philosophical anthropology of being-in-the-world from which I draw the notion of `belonging qua correct relation'.

After briefly discussing the significance that `belonging' has assumed in contemporary Australia, the paper falls loosely into two parts. The first attempts to develop formally the philosophical theory of belonging qua correct relation; the second examines the position of settler Australians in this context. In this process, a conceptual apparatus is constructed to help improve understanding of what it means to belong to and in Australia and to provide a greater insight into ourselves in our quest for belonging.

What is at Issue?

Given recent revelations about the colonial occupation of this land and the dispossession and oppression of the Indigenous population, it is understandable that many settler Australians feel guilty, shameful or sorry. What is less predictable, and more difficult to comprehend, is the tenor of other attitudes that have ensued. What has become increasingly evident in the non-Indigenous population is an intensified self-consciousness, which in some cases has resulted in an insecurity reaching hysterical levels.

Such emotions are evident in Pauline Hanson's now infamous maiden speech to Parliament, in which she stated:

   I am fed up with being told `This is our land'. Well, where the
   hell do I go? I was born here, and so were my parents and children
   ... I draw the line when told I must pay and continue paying for
   something that happened over 200 years ago. Like most Australians
   I worked for my land: no one gave it to me. (4)

Here Hanson asserts the belonging of settler Australians, particularly those of Anglo-Celtic origin, as a given--bestowed either by land ownership, immediate birthright, ancestry or a sense of nationalism. I suggest that her statement, affirming that the Australian land belongs to one specific group of non-Indigenous Australians, and rejecting Indigenous claims of ownership, veils a desperate fear of illegitimacy and alienation from the `home'.

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