Radical media, politics and culture.

Angela Mitropoulos. australia, racism, environment, welfare +

s0metim3s writes

Australia on the edge

Angela Mitropoulos, reviewing Allaine Cerwonka, Native to the Nation: Disciplining Landscapes and Bodies in Australia, Borderlines 21, University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Allaine Cerwonka’s Native to the Nation explores the everyday details of claims to ownership of — as well as and belonging in — Australia's postcolonial landscape. The attention to that detail is impressive.

So too are the analytical connections made between landscape, spatial control and geopolitics as Cerwonka puts some of Foucault’s concerns to work in examining how 'contemporary state power depends on the disciplining of territories and 'the production of docile bodies.' What makes Native to the Nation much more than another textbook Foucault is the attention to those details of contingency that Foucault insisted on, in this case: the specificity of the postcolonial territory of Australia, always located precariously on the edge of both ownership and beloning.

The book begins with a discussion of the shift from understandings of the landscape as "uncultivated" to more recent attempts to eradicate "non-native" or "exotic" flora in favour of "native Australian" gardens and landscapes. Cerwonka links the first to the early colonial doctrine of terra nullius [empty land] and related concepts of Aborigines as "uncivilised" and "unproductive". Here, the picturesque "English cottage garden" of aspiring middle-class suburbia 'served as a critique of the legislated land enclosures and of the industrialization of the landscape.' But it did so nostalgically: as a depoliticised aestheticisation of the struggles against the Land Enclosure Acts in Britain and their counterparts in the penal colony of, what was later to become, Australia.

The more recent preoccupation with "native Australian" gardens is, Cerwonka argues, a response on the part of "settler" Australians to the challenges of Aboriginal Land Rights movements and "non-white" migration, both of which trouble the formers' claim to belong to and control what "Australian" means, where its boundaries and putative essence lie.

Writing of debates over which trees to plant in a main Melbourne thoroughfare, Cerwonka shows that 'the environment [as a definition of what is uniquely Australian] functions as a form of blood and stock - a way of imagining that white Australians are connected further back than just colonial settlement of the continent.'

More sharply: the association between the nation-state and "the environment" so particular to Australian self-conception is a advantageous political-cultural fiction. Environments are as divergent within the legal borders of Australia as they are between parts of Australia and other parts of the world. But it is a fiction which nevertheless becomes materialised through the daily practices of gardening, debates over parklands, streetscaping and so forth and is, ultimately, constituent of who has the authority to exercise land rights and assert jurisdictional boundaries.

The third part of the book studies policing in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy. Cerwonka details many of the procedures through which police develop classification systems, record information and try to assert behavioural and political norms through their ability to criminalise (or overlook) specific activities and people.

This, I think, is perhaps the most important part of the book, speaking as it does to a debate that is yet to fully surface in discussions of policy and policing. Cerwonka insists that the means by which postcolonial control is exercised is not through exclusion or invisibility but rather through constant attempts by police (and others) to include Aborigines and (non-English migrants) in an epistemology and ontology of visibility.

As the struggles around Hindmarsh Bridge demonstrated, 'Aboriginal groups are forced to make their knowledge "apparent and visible" if they are to receive government resources.' It is not, therefore, a case of insufficient recognition by the state of Aboriginal cultural-religious practices, since the latter are often constituted by an intersection of sacred and secret. But nor are conflicts over visibility simply 'a cultural difference between (modern) Western culture and Aboriginal cultural forms.' The imposition of an ontology of visibility seeks to territorialise the modern colonial state against its myriad challenges, including those of Aboriginal land rights movements and unauthorised or "non-white" migration.

Recognition and visibility here function to police ontological norms and control bodies: it is not Aboriginal communities per se that might be recognised, or particular cultural practices that can be made visible. On the contrary, these are 'the means by which the modern state governs,' mechanisms to distinguish between those who are deserving of state funding, constitutive of what "community" means and productive of proper subjectivities.

The importance of such an analysis extends well beyond the suburbs of Fitzroy. Ongoing attempts by governments to couple of welfare payments to "proper behaviour" — evidenced in recent proposals to, for instance, introduce "smart cards" to document and regulate what Aboriginal people in receipt of welfare purchase — do not simply recall the paternalism and enclosures of the mission-reserve systems of the past. More than this, such welfare arrangements seek to assert a regime of visibility and subjectivity through the blunt instrument of money and the micro-management of everyday life.

I would add that the internment of undocumented migrants and refugee determination processes function according to a similar imposition of visibility and subjectivation, as do the changing, post-Taylorist forms of workplace supervision and management; but these are minor oversights in a book which deals with so much already.

The final section deals with Australia's anxious geographic proximity to Asia. Here, Cerwonka links depictions of "Asians" as inherently criminal and "filthy" to Australia's highly ambivalent relationship with its own origins as an English penal colony and always dreading "contamination" by "Asia" which is, in turn, depicted as homogeneous.

As Cerwonka concludes, Australian government policies and many of its people may well be no more racist than those in, say, the US or Germany. Yet because Australia exists 'on the outer perimeter of Empire, on the symbolic edge of the northern hemisphere, on the outside of Asia — historically it has responded by trying to prove its membership.' Native to the Nation is definitely worth reading and engaging with.

Link: Native to the Nation