When the Imaginary Australian Is Not Uncanny: Nation, Psyche and Belonging in Recent Australian Cultural Criticism and History

By Gelder, Ken | Journal of Australian Studies, January 2006 | Go to article overview

When the Imaginary Australian Is Not Uncanny: Nation, Psyche and Belonging in Recent Australian Cultural Criticism and History


Gelder, Ken, Journal of Australian Studies


In our book Uncanny Australia, Jane Jacobs and I argue that postcolonialism brings both the good news and the bad news; at the same time, we never say that postcolonialism exists outside of the shadow of colonialism. We argue that Australia is postcolonial because, even as it remains under the shadow of colonialism, it does things differently; it does things that could not have been done if Australia were still just 'colonial'. The debates and discourses about the Republic, reconciliation, or the need for sovereignty and for a treaty, the real and symbolic weight of narratives concerning the 'stolen generation', and Australia's proper and improper relations to East and South-East Asia and the 'indigenous Pacific' are just some of the issues that work to reconfigure the nation in ways that those older colonial logics can no longer sufficiently explain.

I must repeat, however, that these debates do indeed remain shadowed by, and entangled in, those older logics. In the midst of these reconfigurations of the nation, we can sometimes even see those old logics intensified: this is the bad news of postcolonialism. The settler Australian anxieties we traced in Uncanny Australia-in particular, about Aboriginal people being potentially able to claim 'too much' (which is what we mean by 'postcolonial racism')--are one instance of this feature. This is certainly not decolonisation, although it does speak to a perceived 'weakening' of settler identities that I will discuss shortly. Alongside these anxieties, we also observe a set of postcolonial sympathies-settler Australian sympathies for the Aboriginal sacred, for example, or more broadly, settler Australian embracings of 'Indigenous culture', 'Indigenous spirituality', and even the yearning to be reconciled, to say sorry and be forgiven-and we note that these, too, can similarly intensify those older colonial logics, even as they self-identify as postcolonial. It is now commonplace to observe that settler Australians are in fact 'unsettled' in a range of ways that speak to postcolonial predicaments, which is certainly bad news for some. But it is much less commonplace to note how those same unsettling conditions of postcolonialism are enabling a settler Australian relation to country to become, paradoxically perhaps, more secure than ever before-which is also bad news for some, but good news for others.

As a humanities academic, my interests have always been in the psycho-social, in the discourses and critical methods inherited from Freud, Marx, Durkheim and others that have enabled me, like many others, to read literature and culture as 'symptomatic'. It is probably fair to say that the psycho-social is still the dominant critical discourse in the humanities, with commentators veering towards one end or the other (the socio-political or the personal) of this hybrid way of viewing the world, its events and its texts. In this context, I want to comment on five recent works of Australian criticism from the humanities that are themselves psychosocial, and I shall continue to be primarily psychosocial in my response to them. These works are Miriam Dixson's The Imaginary Australian: Anglo-Celts and Identity--1788 to the Present; David Tacey's Re-enchantment: The New Australian Spirituality; Peter Read's Returning to Nothing: The Meaning of Lost Places and Belonging: Australians, Place and Aboriginal Ownership; and, briefly, Jennifer Rutherford's The Gauche Intruder: Freud, Lacan and the White Australian Fantasy. I want to show that these books each react to current postcolonial unsettlements for settler Australians by, precisely, producing (or imagining) a more secure, a more legitimate, relation to country than ever before--that is, before postcolonialism. Quite unlike Uncanny Australia, in other words, these are each (with the interesting, although partial, exception of Rutherford's) nation-building books. As I discuss them, I also hope to raise further questions about what it means to speak of 'postcolonial Australia', especially in terms of settler-Australian self-(mis)recognition. …

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