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Griffith Taylor Lecture, Geographical Society of New South Wales, 2004: Australia and the ‘State of Nature/Native'

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This account sets itself against the binarism of physical versus cultural determinism that drives population–environment debate over people's place on the Australian continent. In reading back into colonial times, it evokes ‘our' unresolved sense of relation to nature on a continent that has pressed awkward buttons since the time the botanist on Cook's Endeavour, Joseph Banks, first mused over the apparent contradiction on the east coast of human presence and uncultivated land. Australia's ‘state of nature', including its inhabitants, elicited tensions in Anglo-Celtic peoples' ambiguous relation with nature that have never gone away or been resolved. Indeed, I argue, against the background of what was considered in eighteenth-century Enlightenment thought to be a distinctly human separation from, and capacity to rise above, nature, that the Australian state of nature/native precipitated a crisis in prevailing ideas of ‘the human'. As consternation grew into the nineteenth century about the very capacity of Aboriginal people for improvement, and particularly for cultivation, I argue they challenged the basis upon which the unity of humankind had been assumed in Enlightenment thought. They could not be comprehended, according to the prevailing conception of racial difference, as a mere variety of the human. The radical idea of innate human difference may thus be understood as arising out of this incomprehension, as an attempt to account for the ontologically inexplicable difference of the Australian Aborigine. This lecture's excursion into the origins of ‘race' is by way of highlighting the uncertainty of the divide between the human and non-human worlds. Imagining an entangled world of living things may help to craft fresh lines of debate about modes of environmental belonging and becoming on this continent that overcome the stale binaries and blind spots of Australia's population–environment debate.
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Keywords: The human; civilisation; habitability; nature; posthumanism; race

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Western Sydney, Australia

Publication date: November 1, 2005

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