Monday, January 7, 2013

Inventing "the bush"

I dropped my heavy pack and sat down just below the waterfall. To our left the loud, rocky stream twisted up through the hills to some tiny origin miles inland. Before us lay a field of smooth yellow stones, a sandy bank behind it, followed by a short band of crumbled cliffs. Rock pools interrupted the field, connected by rushing trickles which fled downstream at an impressive pace.

Nat and I munched on some mixed nuts and contemplated our surroundings. It was nice to escape the haunting structures of the city and throw ourselves into the expansive wilderness of Mount Barney National park. Unfortunately, the visual serenity of the rocks and trees and far-off peaks wasn't matched by the sounds of the leg-rubbing cicadas which hammered our ears and made conversation nearly impossible. The volume rose and fell at unpredictable intervals, frequently drowning out the gurgling stream. I was annoyed, frustrated by these insects intruding on our solemn paradise.

I slowly rose to my feet, hauled the pack over one shoulder and then the next, watching Nat do the same. We still had far to walk if we were to climb Bippoh Peak, but had all but surrendered that goal. As we hopped up the rocks and the cicada-noise fell, we started talking.

"What do you reckon we'd do if one of us got bitten by a snake?" I said.
"Not much, we didn't bring the EPIRB. The other one would have to climb to somewhere with phone reception", she replied.
"That's a bit of a scary thought".
I paused for a moment.
And then started again: "Well, it'd be better if you got bitten, cause I could carry you out".
"Gee thanks".

And just like that, a small reptile could convert our cliched 'escape' into a veritable prison. "Please rescue me, I need to escape back to the city!" And what if I was an aboriginal Australian who'd lived on the banks of the creek for my whole life? What would I think of the bush then?

I was shaken from my thoughts by a soft rumbling beneath my feet. I looked down, and the boulders that we were standing on were shaking in their places. Up ahead, the others were trembling too.
A huge BANG rang through the air and the colour began to fade from the hills which encircled us. Well, not the fading colour from the setting of the sun, but a draining removal like paint being poured down the sink. The wind picked up and hurried the pigment away, leaving the tops of the peaks completely blank. It was a nightmarish inverse of snow, rushing down the mountains from within and enveloping everything in its path. A desolating, inescapable whiteness.

In a few seconds, this emotionless plague had swept up our entire surroundings until even the stones on which we stood had lost their yellow. For a moment, all was quiet and calm, with only the blue sky above us suggesting that it might not be a dream. Then, invisible cicadas rubbed their legs together to deafening levels. The hills were melting.
The landscape was quickly losing its form, sinking into a flat mass. The sky became like one large cloud and slowly pushed itself into the ground below. They merged together, and nothing could be told from nothing in this white entirety.

Nat and I looked at eachother.
"Is this purgatory?" She asked, rather calmly.
I looked around for any trace of sensible matter outside our subjectivities.
"Well....Yes...I suppose so".


Thinking back on this curious incident now, I realise that we all have always been, are, and will always be in a kind of purgatory, only given form by our prejudices, concepts, images, the social structure in which we are truly captive.

What is this totality that we call "the bush". When we consider its individual elements - the one tree, the one rock, the slice of water - outside of this totality, it evaporates. The atoms exist. "The bush" - the ideas, concepts and feelings that are called to mind when we hear these words - does not.

It's like the dispute between the two fictional intellectual factions of the Victorian outback described in Gerald Murnane's The Plains. One group, who wore gold ribbons to denote their membership "wanted the people of the plains to see the landscape with other eyes; to recover the promise, mystery even of the plains as they might have appeared to someone with no other refuge...They were pledged to find grand themes in the weathered gold of their birthplace (2012 edition, pg. 32)". The 'old-golds' debated and sometimes even fought fiercely with the 'blue-greens', who "said they esteemed the land of their birth for the very reason that it seemed bounded continually by the blue-green veil [of the haze above the plains] that urged them to dream of a different plain (pg. 29)". The debate between the two groups obscures its essential genesis - it can take place because there is no true, solid essence of the plains which exists outside of human consciousness.

In this way, the fundamental thesis of the novel is buried in an explanation of a minor intellectual dispute within a different group - the 'Inner Australians':
Not long before the sudden collapse of the secret societies one man had dissociated himself from the minority of Inner Australians and had taken up the most extreme of all positions. He denied the existence of any nation with the name Australia. There was, he admitted, a certain legal fiction which plainsmen were sometimes required to observe. But the boundaries of true nations were fixed in the souls of men (pg. 44).
But who was encouraging, facilitating, financing this frivolous debating? In whose interests are the images and ideas made? It is the rich land-holders of the Murnane's plains, who employ countless artists, poets, historians, writers, and even filmmakers for the purposes of 'revealing' something about the plains. The protagonist of the novel, a man intending to make a film about the area, is taken into the home of one of these oligarchs, and ends up spending the rest of his life studying the plains without ever coming closer to his goal. Why? Because as Murnane suggests, its accomplishment is impossible.

I like to think that Murnane was inspired to write The Plains by reading Richard White's Inventing Australia. It's not impossible; the latter was published only two years before the former. Because what Murnane gives to Australian literature, White gives to Australian history.

While the prominent intellectuals of the surrounding years were arguing about how British, American (see Donald Horne's The Lucky Country) or completely independent Australians and their identity and culture were or should be, White provided a much more radical perspective - that the dominant ideas about 'Australia' and its people are invented to serve the interests of power groups and to repress the existence of classes.

In this way, White's thesis represents, as Zizek would say, a "traumatic kernel" in the discussion of Australian identity, as it  denies the assumption on which this identity is founded - that the Australian people, in their totality, can be described by a finite set of characteristics - and instead starts from a foundation of class struggle and broad (I'm talking word-wide) historical context.
(As a quick aside, the only thing that I felt was missing in White's analysis was an examination of the junction between images/identity and reality - for example to what extent has being told that they are like the British or Americans made some portion of the population more like the British or Americans?)

What I've been slowly pottering towards in this odd post is that Our ideas of "the bush" are not independent of these economic interests and this class struggle, as we who romanticise it would like to think, but are deeply fixed in the social structure. I don't know nearly enough about the history of Australia, and its current circumstances in order to exhaustively argue this thesis, but it offers a good starting point for future blog posts :-)

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