Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

The Sheep's Face: Figuration, Empathy, Ethics

Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

The Sheep's Face: Figuration, Empathy, Ethics

Article excerpt

The word 'species' is etymologically related to looking. Although its primary biological definition is that of beings that can interbreed, species can refer to things of like kind: this relates to the term's Latin derivation, specere, meaning to look. Describing how things look and conveying this appearance to others (whether in writing, or in relaying a memory) typically involves the use of metaphor. This article reads a number of Australian texts in terms of interspecies relations between humans and sheep, and considers the use of metaphor-and metonymy-and the place of ethics in this relation, with a particular emphasis on the face of both human and sheep: how sheep and humans look, in both senses of the word.

The image of the sheep in Australia-and in particular the metonym of the sheep's back-is historically identified with the economy. In a lecture from 1993 on industry protection, titled Getting Off the Sheep's Back, the economist Ross Garnaut refers to this figure in plural terms. He writes: 'Australia was "on the sheep's back" in the sense of depending heavily on the wool industry for its prosperity. From the 1890s . . . Australia was on the sheep's back in a second sense. Australia imposed costs on the export industries through protection and increasing layers of inefficiency in the rest of the economy.' Garnaut stretches this figure even further in arguing that, due to 'the costs to Australia of other countries' trade restrictions . . . the whole world is on the sheep's back' (4).

This image of the world on the sheep's back is not about strength, however, but about weakness. Garnaut writes, 'For most of this century [i.e. the 20th] the sheep's back was able to carry the load without collapse, if not discomfort' (9), adding, 'The ending of the reserve price scheme has removed a free ride for competitors' (10). According to Garnaut, the sheep's load was a problem: 'Australia has been getting off the sheep's back . . . the sheep could not carry the old load' (5). If we read Garnaut's further use of metaphor as being derived from wool it gets even more tortuous: he implies that the sheep-as metonym for the wool industry-metaphorically protects itself through tariff protection, and from 'layers of inefficiency.' Australians, then, protect themselves both with and from wool: 'insulat[ing] community welfare from the vagaries of the wool market' (4).

In his role as climate change advisor to the Rudd and Gillard governments, Garnaut turned from the metaphorical to the literal with his reported suggestion that sheep (and cattle) be replaced with kangaroos as a way of reducing carbon emissions (as kangaroos emit less methane than sheep and cattle). He proposed cutting sheep numbers by 36 million and increasing kangaroo numbers from 34 to 240 million. Inevitably, the farmers (as reported by the newspapers) turned to (punning) metaphor in their unimpressed responses. An article in the Age on 1 October 2008 ran with the heading, 'We'll skip the kangaroo suggestion farmers say' (Gray). Another article saying much the same thing but retitled-and de-authored-'A few roos loose in Garnaut's top paddock,' was published in The Land the following day. In a later scholarly article on nationalistic aspects of meat eating in Australia, Adrian Peace wrote that criticism of Garnaut appeared to be related to his distance from the land: 'it was noteworthy that any weakness perceived in Garnaut's argument was connected with his ivory tower status, his remoteness from the grassroots.' Although his argument was less metaphorical than his criticism of industry protection, it was nevertheless seen as fanciful. As one commentator, quoted by Peace, wrote: 'If this is the best analysis Garnaut can come up with in relation to kangaroos, what does it say about the veracity of the rest of his modelling? Take away the fetish for numbers and it's stuffed.'

According to the Big Merino website under the heading 'Merino Facts,' the Goulburn statue is the 'biggest Merino in the world: standing 15. …

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