Book Review

Ross Gibson, South of the West: Postcolonialism and the Narrative Construction of Australia

One of the most profound ironies of contemporary writing on issues of postcolonialism has been that notions of difference and Otherness, once reviled and repressed, have become the locus from which so much of 'the politics of identity' is now being waged. So much so, in fact, that numerous writers have suggested that the very idea of difference has become a sort of 'new universal' that cannot be escaped. Instead, it must be lauded and paraded on all fronts.

Perhaps the most persistent localised version of this paradox has been a belated attempt to reinscribe white Australia's obsession with colonial provincialism and marginalisation. Once the victim of projections of territorial imperialism and neocolonialism, we are told, the old obsession with a negative distance comes to be reinscribed as a positive difference.

Almost to the letter, this is the point of departure for cultural critic Ross Gibson's new book, South of the West: Postcolonialism and the Narrative Construction of Australia. Quite simply, this book is an attempt to view a number of aspects, objects, images and icons of Australian culture within the wider context of an emergent notion of an Australian cultural identity. As such, this book represents a brave step into what is, still, a relatively undefined field.

Free-ranging across the entire cultural spectrum, the breadth of Gibson 's concerns is extraordinary. From Chris Marker's films to Edgar Allan Poe's South Sea Tales, from Thomas Walling's 'letters in exile' to the ever contentious art of Juan Davila, the book is essentially a collection of twelve disparate essays on film , photography, art, as well a$ readings of historical and literary texts. While each of the essays is clear and well written, it is really within the filmic analyses that Gibson comes into his own.
Although the book contains two excellent filmic readings-one of John Heyer's 1953 documentary The Back of Beyond, the other of a single incarnation of the infamous Mad Max trilogy- its real highlight is an ambitious study of the role of landscape in Australian feature films. While a little dated, there is no doubt that this essay is an important contribution to the continuing debates over the nature of a truly 'national' cinema.

Yet in stark contrast to these patient filmic readings, Gibson's art criticism is far less polished. Moreover, his general musings on memory, which recur throughout the book, manifest a strange critical naivety. Not only does he reduce the complexity of questions of mnemonics entirely to the problems of representation, but there is no reference to the vast body of contemporary criticism problematising this very reduction. One need only cite here, by way of example, the work of David Farrell Krell or Edward Casey.

Sadly, this is just a particular instance of a more widespread malaise. In spite of its impressive diversity and elegant prose, South of the West is characterised by a refusal to engage with the complexity of the theoretical questions under consideration. The most obvious instance of this is to be found in Gibson's attempt to mate questions of gender and geography with the lubricant of desire. Although, in itself an admirable ambition, Gibson simply assumes the veracity of the Platonic construction of desire-so dear to Freud and Lacan-as lack, empty space. In so doing, however, he completely ignores the existence of the competing productivist version found in Spinoza, Nietzsche and more recently in the work of Foucault, Lyotard, Deleuze and Guattari.

Perhaps, however, the most disturbing aspect of South of the West is Gibson's attempt to reduce questions of Australian identity to the mute status of a perpetual conundrum. Furthermore, one canĀ· not help but think that his associated glorification of spatia-temporal 'nowhereness' embodies a more sinister denial. In fact, if one looks carefully, the entire book reads as a somewhat congratulatory celebration of this type of self-marginalisation. This of course raises many problems, not least of which is the whole question of whether white Australia-under the sign of postcolonialism I might add-has the right to indulge in the luxury of continuing to view itself as a colony, rather than accepting and acting upon its own pressing responsibilities as a coloniser?

Although, to be fair, the last few chapters do register an awareness of the complexity of these issues, South of the West ends where it began, abandoning the reader at the edge of a cliff, looking out at the tangled configuration of contemporary Australian culture below.

notes: 

1. On the differing theoretical approaches to the questions of desire, see Elizabeth Grosz, "Desire, the Body and Recent French Feminisms", Intervention, Special Issue on Flesh, No. 21 /22, 1989, pp. 28-33.