The only thing I've ever bought from an antique shop was a bakelite ashtray in the shape of Australia. It's a piece of old junk, really, but I had to have it regardless of the price. Perhaps it was something about its past-ness - its material, its design, and even its function are resonant of an earlier and innocent age brim-full of modern industrial confidence and patriotism. Being thoroughly post-modern, my pleasure in it now can be wholly parodic, and so it sits on the kitchen bench between the food-processor and the fridge, like a quotation from another text, another time.
But, I admit, it was really the shape of the ashtray, the shape of Australia, that got me in then - and still does. And isn't the outline of Australia still, perhaps now more than ever, the most potent symbol we have of the nation? The flag will no longer do, kangaroos and wattles have never quite done. So we turn to the outline of an empty space. Abstract geography comes to stand for history and nation.
Is there any other country so insistent about its own shape, so inundated with its reproduction from stubbie-holders to official Bicentennial logos? Why was the map of Australia one of the stars of the Bicentennial Australia Live programme? What anxieties about boundaries and centres does this obsession reveal?
These questions are prompted, not only by the persistence of my ashtray-Australia in this post-bicentennial year, but by the recent collection of essays Island in the Stream edited by Paul Foss. The title is a nice one, referring to our obsessions with boundaries and location but placing them in the context of movement.
Flicking through the contents of the book you might wonder what Thomas Watling in the 18th century has to do with Charles Chauvel in the 20th; what the early explorers have to do with Australia Live; what Aboriginal housing has to do with the obscure habits of the cinephile (the film buff). Part of the answer comes in the book's sub-title, 'Myths of Place in Australian Culture'.
This is the kind of title beneath which literary critics have written many dull books, pale reflections of the myths they attempt to describe or demolish. Island in the Stream is very different. It examines what might be called the 'placeness' of place. To quote Foss, what the essays discuss, from many different angles, are 'those larger symbolic and material structures whereby a portion of terrestrial space has been transformed into a place of historical life for people'. In this sense, the book is rather about myths of space - the transformation of space into history, locale, and identity.
The centre-piece of these de-centering essays, for me, is Meaghan Morris's 'Panorama: the live, the dead and the living'. This is a wonderful, inventive, serious essay which shifts from Australia Live to Ernestine Hill, from Jean Baudrillard to Sanctuary Cove, from anti-nuclear protests to Australia Day. Its themes, which become for me the themes of the volume overall, are set up in a discussion of Australia Live - of its high-tech aesthetic and obsession with mobility and coverage. The essay confronts that fashionable post-modernist gloom which sees only the disappearance of historical and critical space in this age of media spectacle. Precisely by focussing on 'the modern history of the constitution of popular culture', as she puts it, Morris prises open a critical and historical space for her own discussion of media and spectacle from 1930s travel writing to contemporary social protest.
Three aspects of this essay lead into the rest of the volume. First it reflects conscientiously on its own status and procedures, not to be too-clever-by-half or inward-turning, but the opposite, as a way of sending the essay out, of engaging it. The essay, in short, is political. Second, there's the essay's focus on the history of media, or rather mediation, so that discussion of 'myths of place' can't be separated from a discussion of modernity and technology. This is also true, for example, of Ross Gibson's account of Watling's 18th century texts, where it's shown that aesthetics and subjectivity are thoroughly interleaved. It's also true of the book's art-work, above all the photo-collages of Peter Lyssiotis (with their beautiful, displaced objects caught in space) and in the savage-comic fantasies of Juan Davila (where the Four-X man meets Chesty Bonds, but in a realm as far from Australiana as you're ever likely to get!). Third, Morris's essay suggests that we need to re-think tourism as a full-scale 'ism' - with its own ways of seeing and knowing - no less, say, than colonialism or modernism (its close companions).
Adrian Martin's essay 'No Flowers for the Cinephile: the fates of cultural populism, 1960-1988' can be read in the light of these themes. This essay was the most unexpected pleasure in the book. Its topic could seem the narrowest - the fates of the film buff since the sixties. But the essay constantly produces moments of illumination, of complex insight. It takes what seems, to non-cinephiles, to be a marginal note in Australian cultural history and argues it into the centre - thus shifting the centre. From the obsessions of some film freaks it conjures a key moment in national 'film culture' history; this in turn conjures up the complex space of post-colonial cultural relations. The film buff becomes another kind of tourist.
After Hollywood, landscape and history have never been the same. Stuart Cunningham's essay on Charles Chauvel follows this theme, from an intricate, localised reading of genre and technique, through to cinema images of the nation as historical, political, even sexual entity. The same can be said earlier of photography and landscape: after photography landscape was never the same. Paul Carter asks why the explorers did not take photographs: 'in the first fifty years of photography not a single expedition was photographed.' What emerges is an account of two profoundly different senses of point of view, of seeing landscape and space, and of journeying. Photography, it's argued, 'made no distinction between exploration and tourism'.
These essays, and I could add most of the others in the book, take a very specific, local topic and coax from it - or extract by force - an evocative, surprising, wide-ranging significance. Peter Myers re-writes the official problem of Aboriginal housing as a 'history of symbolic space' - and therefore an immediate political issue. Eric Rolls, on the Chinese in Australia, works rather by accretion, layering incidents and arguments one upon the other and thus reshuffling the layerings of history so that new perspectives start emerging out from underneath the old.
Altogether it could be said that these post-disciplinary essays invent an array of new concepts - or, at the very least, that they elevate some familiar words into concepts for Australian cultural history. Tourism I've already mentioned. But we could add, among others, associated concepts like 'spectacle'; Paul Carter's notions of 'exploration' and 'spatial history'; or 'nostalgia' in Sneja Gunew's account of migrant writing.
None of which is to say that Island in the Stream isn't a mixed bag, that the essays aren't sometimes annoying, evasive, and hard to get on with. But it is worth the effort. The book has been attacked elsewhere as jargon-ridden and cliquey, a kind of intellectual insider-trading. But no - this isn't a collection of mere 'arty textuality' from Art and Text. If you don't get that reference, in other words, you'll still get a lot out of the book, and in the most unexpected places. And I must insist, these writers have all done their homework; each essay is closely researched. Theory gets its pay-off in the archives.
Despite the book's official sponsor -- the Bicentennial Authority - the essays are not 'monumental' works which pronounce on the current state of the culture. In most, there's more a sense of news from the front, of participation in an immediate, on-going argument. The best essays can shift with purpose between philosophy and journalism, high theory and fleeting impressions.
Altogether these points make Island in the Stream a brave publishing venture. It is a book with loose ends and odd mannerisms. It won't fit neatly into any one academic or commercial category. It will, almost certainly, have a small readership in the first instance. Whether that's a problem - what sort of a problem it is - I leave to the authors, the publishers, and above all the readers, to consider.
New: 1 February, 1996 | Now: 12 March, 2015