Livio Dobrez

These days, in the shadow of postmodern anti-essentialisms, many Australian scholars will profess not to know what 'Australian poetry' is. What can one say except that, in Andrew Taylor's Foucauldian formulation, it must be what 'we' (itself problematical) say it is. What else could 'Australian' (or 'American' or 'Japanese') possibly mean? But this is only the beginning of the difficulty. Why 'poetry' (and not, more broadly, 'discourse')? And what about 'history of'? Without totalizing narrative, can one retain the idea of a 'history'? For the present writer this is the least of it. The most immediate problem here is not intellectual, that is, textually-political, but straightforwardly political. 'Australian poetry in English' is itself a tendentious entity. It is certainly not synonymous with 'Australian', since it excludes the poesie australiane of Maria Valli (in Italian) or the poetry of Dimitris Tsaloumas (in Greek), not to mention material in Aboriginal languages. Thus in its way perpetuating colonial dependence, 'Australian' but 'in English' — 'English' which at once functions as something other than neutral linguistic referent. I can only note this fact and move on.

The present essay is not a descriptive survey, but an argument about twentieth-century Australian history, more concerned with its conceptual logic than chronology. If the combination of history and logic sounds Hegelian, it does so with heuristic intent. The historical logic which concerns me is mediated and to that extent constructed by discourse, and in Identifying Australia in Postmodern Times I sought to name five such discourses, three of which are relevant here. It may be that such discourses occur wherever colonial settlement has taken place in the last few hundred years. When the British came to Australia in 1788 they encountered puzzling novelty, marvelled and observed. After which they appropriated. What I term 'contact discourse' corresponds to low-level economic exploitation; 'appropriation discourse' comes with high-level exploitation which, I have argued, transforms the land and the colonial subject, generating local identity, the beginnings of national consciousness. Aus-tralianness, that is, nationalism proper, does not arrive until the (fundamentally economic) process is consolidated towards the end of the nineteenth century. Nationalist discourse in Australia is a text in which possession of the land, a certain taming, may be taken for granted. Australia no longer appears as exotic (as at contact) or as obstacle (as in the process of appropriation). Colonial Australians see themselves, indeed construct themselves as Australian, that is, as belonging to the land. Any hint of contradiction is excluded along with the presence of Aboriginal people.

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