Suvendrini Perera: An Insular State

An Insular State

Thu 02-09-10, 7:30pm

At least since Thomas More’s Utopus founded his ideal state by carving it free, by the use of forced labour, from the continent to which it was bound, the topos of the island, organised by an ontologised division between land and sea, has been central to the geopolitical imagination of western modernity. In his 1998 Boyer lecture David Malouf described island-Australia as the product of an entirely new and uniquely European act of envisioning: When Europeans first came to these shores one of the things they brought with them, as a kind of gift to the land, was something that could have never existed before; a vision of the continent in its true form as an island … And this seems to have happened even before circumnavigation established that it actually was an island … Aboriginal Australians, however ancient and deep their understanding of the land, can never have seen the place in just this way … If Aborigines are a land-dreaming people, what we latecomers share is a sea-dreaming, to which the image of Australia as an island has from the beginning been central (my emphasis). For Malouf island-Australia is the fulfilment of a European (more specifically, English) desire that completes a teleology of colonial desiring: a gift. Reciprocally, insularity is the distinctive gift the colonisers bring to the land: an opening of previously unimaginable ways of seeing and being. This paper explores what is at stake in insularity as a gift of form, at once a topographic and imaginative figure and a political programme, for Australia, the island-continent.

Suvendrini Perera is Associate Professor of Cultural Studies at Curtin University. She completed her PhD at Columbia University, New York, and her B.A at the University of Sri Lanka. Her most recent book is Australia and the Insular Imagination (New York: Palgrave, 2009). A co-edited volume, Enter at Own Risk? Australia’s Population Questions for the 21st Century is forthcoming in 2010.

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