The Terra of Recognition

Article excerpt

Since first contact and invasion, Europeans have imagined Australia in two related ways: as terra nullius, and as terra incognita. While Indigenous Australians have always known the fictiveness of these two modes of imagining this country, it took until the 1992 Mabo decision and legislation in 1993 for there to be legal recognition that Australia was not terra nullius; arguably, the allure of Australia as a mystery, as an unknown, still has a place in the white imagination. Foucault's analysis of the power/knowledge nexus makes explicit the connections between these two conceptions of Australia, and their role in justifying what could be done to Indigenous peoples. The land's supposed emptiness signals its mystery, which in turn allows free rei(g)n in the ways in which it may be known, and in the types of knowledges that can become authoritative. Thus the way in which 'Australia' was known by the colonisers, and the ways in which this set of knowledges became dominant, have been crucial in securing control of the land and its people.

While it is no longer so easy to see Australia as tabula rasa, debate over the meaning of 'country' remains critical for reactionary and for progressive forces alike. Dominant narratives that attempt to maintain colonialist ways of knowing are troubled by Aboriginal, multicultural, Left, feminist, and queer voices, who offer dissonant histories and presents. This collection is a further example of this resignification process occurring at a particular historical juncture. A number of the essays were originally presented as papers at the International Australian Studies conference held at the Ipswich campus of the University of Queensland in July 2000, the theme of which was 'Country'. The essays demonstrate the ways in which 'country' is being re-cognised in three interrelated senses of the word: in terms of perception; in terms of knowledge; and in the legal sense of formal recognition of Indigenous country.

The essays are arranged into the recurrent categories through which the authors come to know (and as Foucault makes clear, to repossess) 'country'; furthermore, these categories, Place and Past, Cultural Narratives, and Consumption, signpost key concerns of the historical moment. While place and history have always been central to national definition, a number of these essays attest to the contemporary emphasis on a link between history and a quite specific locale, and also to the ways in which we can reread the past through the particular uses of space. The category Cultural Narratives suggests the ongoing importance of stories and related forms of cultural practices to the making of 'country'. If Cultural Narratives marks the making of 'country', then the category of Consumption alludes to the methods by which we ingest 'Australia', whether through eating or shopping, or through government ideologies and policies. Practices of the quotidian, and those of the state, are not neutral, but are important ways of shaping country.

The collection begins with Melissa Lucashenko's 'Country: Being and Belonging on Aboriginal Lands', the only 'fictional' piece in the collection. Although such a classification obscures the essay's truth value, it can be read as an allegory of the entire set of issues surrounding Australian country and non-Indigenous attempts to possess it. Lucashenko uses elements of fairytale, such as simplicity and horror, to write a parable of Aboriginal life, pre and post-invasion. The story refuses many conventional expectations of Aboriginal writing: it highlights the incommensurability of Aboriginal and non-Indigenous understandings of country, and thus refuses the concerted efforts by whites to claim their own 'special' form of belonging or connection to country. Hence 'Country: Being and Belonging on Aboriginal Lands' is indeed a necessary opening unsettlement of any overly comforting/comfortable identification for whites with liberal pluralist conceptions of country. …