Pavlov’s dog & postcolonial angst.

Can my reimagining of the self and social ever be anything other than a constant reinterpretation of the colonial experience?

"The eternal soundtrack of the denuded paddock remains, for me, the sound of that distant rabbit screaming in exquisite agony."

a howl by James Moylan

Lest we imagine the settler apology brings us into a fully postcolonial moment, let us revisit the terms within which this apology is constituted. First, let us recall that the settler apology comes out of a sense of melancholia. Melancholia is in itself a form of resistance to change in that it emerges when there is a refusal to accept the lost object/ideal. In short, the settler apology carries with it a resistance to the new state of the social world created by postcolonizing events.
- Alison Blunt.

The colonial boy.
In one of my earliest memories I kneel on the backseat of a Holden on a hot summer’s day, staring as a plume of bulldust billows into the air behind a trip into town. The rolling bare New England hillsides are clad in a late summer brown and the passing barbed wire fences and lonely gum trees all dance in a heat shimmer. There is no true horizon, just an indistinct haze in the middle distance. The car stinks of vinyl, tobacco, and grease. We are bound for the Bonshaw Pub where the kids will play on the shady veranda and drink ice-cold seven ounce glasses of squash, the menfolk will sit in the bar drinking beer and discussing the serious magic of farming. The mothers and sisters will be absent.
The ways of seeing the world I learnt whilst staring out the back window of that Holden are still with me. The geographical/social/personal common sense I absorbed as I watched the bulldust rise is the common sense I employ today. Those trips into town in the back of a Holden, with a gruff Uncle driving and a dangerous cousin by my side, are my Holden Car Dreaming.
I am a colonial boy.

One might imagine that ‘sorry people’ - being non-indigenous, mainly white (and mostly from an Anglo-Celtic background) and largely middle class - are empowered enough by their placement in the structure of a settler nation to be outside of any destabilizing ill-effects that might come from a call for an apology. On the contrary, the reconciliation process implicates these Australians quite specifically.
– Alison Blunt.

That distant rabbit screaming.
When a colonial boy encounters a raw washaway along a creek gully, with the ragged remains of a barbed wire fence suspended and strained across it, he feels at home. This is not ecological damage - it is colonised land. The colonial boy has walked a hundred miles along these same gullies into the late evening setting steel-jawed rabbit traps. And most mornings he will hurry back along the same trap line in the cold pre-dawn gloom - half asleep but sickened and anxious for the sound of that distant rabbit screaming in agony.
Sensitivity is not a colonial virtue. Any child of a traditional rural household knows a farmer’s relationship with the earth is rarely sentimental. Settlers ‘battle’ land. They ‘clear’ bush. ‘Fence’ countryside. ‘Fight’ elements. Clear felling is ‘progress.’ Raw bush is ‘unworked.’ When you turn the soil you scar mother earth and kill wildlife, there is no room for sentiment. It must be, and is, refuted. Sentiment is suppressed.
Cleared, burnt, fenced, turned, and planted ground is a colonial landscape and I was a colonial boy. Thirty years later this history imbues my vision with an overlay of colonial anticipation, and also grief; even before I have a chance to apprehend the geography.
The eternal soundtrack of the denuded paddock remains, for me, the sound of that distant rabbit screaming in exquisite agony.

Pavlov’s dog.
When gutting, pairing, and hanging rabbits along a fence in the early dawn, I would often watch hawks and eagles gather at the end of the paddock, waiting for an early morning treat. So now even the birds are complicit. The sight of an eagle sitting on a fence instantly evokes the red stink of blood in my nostrils and a concomitant surge of guilt.
When younger this rhetoric of guilt was inaccessible, it was experienced as an undifferentiated fog of regret, a passing timeless moment in which present and past merged in melancholia. Now, as an adult, I can articulate my angst for country, dead trees, extinct wildlife, murdered blacks, lost knowledge, and my own brutally mutilated vision.

Yet still Pavlov’s dog howls in my night.

A strange place: unsettled by other desires, histories, knowledge and memories, but a place more like home.
– Lisa Slater.

Postcolonial Angst.
I am the colonial boy. I am coloniser and colonised, simultaneously. My very gaze imposes imperatives and extinguishes contingency, at once - unconsciously - incessantly.
I know there is a different Australia but my knowledge is not my vision. My own eyes will always betray what I know and believe. Every time I look to the land I see first my own history, and then hear the distant scream of the tortured bunnies of my youth.
Perhaps this is an internal tension that every ‘sorry person’ must negotiate, self-consciously, with every glance? Perhaps we ‘sorry people’ must learn to ‘unsee’ even as we see? Maybe for the colonial boy an understanding of home will always be a negotiation with grief?
And so I frame a question I cannot yet answer: can my reimagining of the self and social ever be anything other than a constant reinterpretation of the colonial experience?
My greatest aspiration for my daughter is that she will never experience postcolonial angst. I want her to stay well in a non-colonial geography. To see a raw washaway and at once feel for the soul of the devastated land. To see ringbarked trees and at once weep for what has been desecrated. To see prior occupation.
Most of all I want her to see the birds and find solace, companionship, and beauty - not shame.

Ashcroft, Bill. Griffiths, Gareth and Tiffin, Helen. (1998) ‘Colonialism’, in Key Concepts in Post-colonial Studies, London: Routledge, pp. 45?51.
Blunt, Alison. & McEwan, Cheryl. (Editors). Postcolonial Geographies. London, GBR: Continuum International Publishing, 2003. at 10th April 2009.
Blunt, Alison ‘The Apology in a Reconciling Nation.’ in, Blunt, Alison and McEwan, Cheryl (Editors). Postcolonial Geographies. London, GBR: Continuum International Publishing, 2003. p 212-213. at 10th April 2009.
Offord, Baden. (et al). Australia, Asia and the World. Study Guide (2nd ed 2009) SCU
Slater, Lisa ‘No Place like Home: Staying Well in a Too Sovereign Country’ (2007), M/C Journal, 10(4), at 31st March 2009.
Sidney Nolan. Ned Kelly. 1946. National Gallery of Australia.

Soenke Biermann (of Southern Cross University) provided gentle critique and wise guidance.

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