Et in Arcadia Ego: Landscapes of Genocide

By Armand, Louis | TriQuarterly, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Et in Arcadia Ego: Landscapes of Genocide


Armand, Louis, TriQuarterly


   In the blue waters of eastern Bass Strait, Flinders and its
   surrounding islands are what remain of land that once connected
   Tasmania to mainland Australia.

This description of Flinders Island could be from anywhere. But the idyllic seascape implied by these "blue waters" hardly seems to suggest the Bass Strait familiar to anyone who has travelled the route from Melbourne to Launceston: a body of water more readily bearing comparison to the North Sea than to any blue water lagoon. Something is obviously going on here, and it may be more than merely the usual gloss we expect to read in tourist brochures. That is to say, there may be more than genre at work in this unlikely geographical displacement. After all, widely advertised distortions of the Australian landscape have long been the stock-in-trade counterpart to the convict industry, as a means of establishing enforced settlement of the southern continent (enforced, at least, in one sense or another).

Tourism, too, is about compulsion, about being compelled. In its higher moments, it may even approach an experience of the ethical. The organized tour, for example, is about subjecting oneself, giving oneself over, however temporarily, however voluntarily, to the hospitality and care of others, removed from one's familiar, habitual environment. The tourist, almost by definition, is incompetent by standards of local knowledge. And that, no doubt, is part of tourism's perverse attraction. Its paternalism. Its reversion to a type of childhood.

For the tourist, local facts and "knowledge" assume a complexion of novelty. The picturesque. They are similar to the cheap trinkets one inevitably finds on sale in designated souvenir stores or (more solicitously "authentic") in open air marketplaces. They describe a faux knowledge, like the knowledge indulged in by children. One trades in this sort of ephemera, passing it along, assuming an enthusiastic, bored, pretentious air of being in the know. But this game is played out almost uniquely among fellow tourists and those, less fortunate, who have remained at home and in ignorance. But between the recycling and redisposal of phrases memorized from guidebooks, and the inevitable slideshows and photographic albums, what is in fact going on? What is being played out in this game of exploration and discovery? Of history making?

   Flinders Island is located off the north-east tip of Tasmania in the
   Furneaux Group of islands. It is the largest of the Bass Strait
   Islands. Emita, to the north-west of the island, is the location of
   the Wybalenna Historic Site. In the 1830's, as the population of
   Tasmanian Aboriginals dwindled, many were re-settled at Wybalenna in
   an attempt to consolidate the tribes and save the race from
   extinction. Wybalenna fell into disrepair, but was renovated by the
   National Trust in the 1970s. The site is significant to Aboriginal
   peoples. Also at Emita is a museum, marking not only the Aboriginal
   presence but exhibiting relics from Bass Strait shipwrecks.

Looking at a detailed map of south-eastern Australia, identifying the Furneaux group, and Flinders Island, isn't difficult. There is a sense that something, like a set of directions, has successfully been communicated. But something other than just the blue waters has been left out of this description. I wanted to read more about the land bridge. About what "remains" of what once connected Tasmania to mainland Australia. Perhaps I've already begun to evolve a notion that this "connection" is more than merely a fact of prehistoric geography. In truth, I've already begun looking for other connections. Other remains. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Part of the genre of tourism is a code of "attractions." These are the things one is more or less compelled to see or do, conveying in the process that special quality of "assumed" knowledge. The attraction is a commodity. …

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