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spatial practices Arrow vol 5 no 2 contents
About borderlands volume 5 number 2, 2006



Spatial Practices and the Rejection of "Modern Aspirations" in Australia

Allaine Cerwonka, Native to the Nation: Disciplining Landscapes and Bodies in Australia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Lawrence Niewojt

Australian National University



1. In Native to the Nation Allaine Cerwonka explores the ways in which Australians define their place in the world and how their sense of belonging is expressed through physical manipulation of landscape. Although this examination of spatial practices will appeal to scholars in a wide variety of disciplines, Cerwonka declares her work to be "a study of politics" (p. 51) primarily concerned with the manner in which globalisation has "complicated the territoriality of national communities" (p. 47). This book is based on twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork completed in Melbourne during the 1990s, and the author's inquiry was visibly influenced by the Republican debate that was then being waged in Australia. At that time Prime Minister Paul Keating envisioned his Labor government as the initiator of change and called for the establishment of a republic with an Australian head of state who would "embody our modern aspirations - our cultural diversity, our evolving partnerships with Asia and the Pacific, our quest for reconciliation with Aboriginal Australians" (quoted in Dyrenfurth, p. 191). Heated public debate and national soul-searching did not yield a republic, and Cerwonka views this rejection at the ballot box as evidence that multiculturalism, reconciliation and engagement with Asia posed a major challenge to "the imagined connection between people, place and culture upon which the settler nation-state has been premised" (p. 8). Though numerous books have tackled the topic of republicanism in Australia, Cerwonka uses the referendum campaign as the departure point for her exploration of the subtle linkages between national imagination, landscape sensibilities and lingering "Britishness" in Australian society.

2. Organised as a series of thematic chapters, this study takes a "multisited ethnographic approach" (p. 49) where Cerwonka has conversations and formal interviews with members of   two inner-city communities - the East Melbourne Garden Club and the Fitzroy Police Station - and analyses the spatial practices through which they constructed or defined place. In the introductory section Cerwonka gets readers up to speed with the theoretical foundations of her work. Her succinct literature review is marked by the skilful deployment of key concepts and the major intellectual figures in the fields of social and political theory. Benedict Anderson's ideas on the constitution of nations as imagined communities, as well as Foucault's conceptualization of state control, are given particular emphasis.

3. Cerwonka then begins her analysis by examining the political cosmologies enacted by the members of the East Melbourne Garden Club. We are told that this part of Melbourne is an upper middle-class suburb where a majority of people claim "Anglo-Celtic ethnicity", reside in "fully restored Victorian terrace houses" and maintain "English cottage gardens" filled with daisies, roses and camellias (p. 54). The Garden Club is comprised of "economically well-off, white, elderly women", some of whom had never worked outside the house (p. 95). The activity that binds this group into a community is the production of urban gardens that reflect the 'picturesque' style. Such gardens became popular in Britain during the 19 th century and subsequently came to be inscribed in Australian settings. Cerwonka's discussion of the rise and spread of picturesque gardens as a mark of British civilisation, and the roles of key players such as Edmund Burke, William Gilpin and Lancelot "Capability" Brown in this process, is both fluid and informative. However, her claim that the cultivation of a picturesque landscape necessitated that many native Australian species be perceived and treated as "weeds" in order to "legitimate the appropriation of the land under the terms of terra nullius" (p. 67) is not convincing. Earlier in the text Cerwonka presented a photo of a sheep paddock with the caption reading "The Australian bush, perceived to be "weeds" and "hostile" by Anglo-Celtic settlers in its uncultivated form" (p. 7) and her brief discussion of "weeds" draws mainly on Frieda Knobloch's work on the colonization of the American West. In a later section devoted to native plant enthusiasm in Australia, this issue is further confused when a Garden Club member reveals in an interview that she thought of camellia bushes (a European species) as a type of weed (p. 110).

4. Cerwonka goes on to chart the evolution of East Melbourne from a diverse 19th century working-class suburb to a homogeneous, well-to-do neighbourhood that proudly displays a British heritage through its restored Victorian homes and gardens. But is it really homogeneous? We are denied a discussion of the suburb's fundamental population characteristics (there is no mention of Census figures), nor is there even a cursory acknowledgement of the fact that the term "Anglo-Celtic Australian" encompasses considerable ethnic and religious diversity (Hirst 2001, p. 31). Focusing on the restoration guidelines set out by a community group, the author provides vivid descriptions of area homes, their unique architectural features, and the ways in which their owners aspire to recreate what they perceive to be the 'character' of an English village. What stands out in this section is the recentness of East Melbourne's 'Britishness' and heritage concerns - it is a phenomenon closely linked to the movement of recently arrived immigrant groups to newer, larger houses in the city's outer suburbs. Readers would have also benefited from a discussion of heritage building protection framed within the context of the heated political battles that ensued across Melbourne in the 1970s. Just next door, in 1972 the Fitzroy Residents' Association had been involved in a conflict with real estate developers over the preservation of terrace houses which resulted in the passing of Victoria's Historic Buildings Preservation Act (Lennon 1991). Surely this had a major influence on the way in which historic preservation was viewed in East Melbourne.

5. In the chapter titled "Policing the Body Politic: Mapping Bodies and Space in Fitzroy" Cerwonka hits the streets with the police as they attempt to maintain law and order in this diverse and densely-populated neighbourhood. Here Cerwonka introduces readers to police procedures and activities, and engages in a fascinating discussion of the various technologies that enable modern-day forces to maintain a grip on criminal activity. Descriptions of tools such as neighbourhood maps, the LEAP computer database, station bulletins and running sheets are cleverly related to Foucault's conceptualisation of state control, practices of surveillance and their impact on our individual freedoms. This will certainly appeal to students of criminology in Australia. Her examination also highlights the importance of stories in the exchange of information amongst officers and explores the ways in which they construct narratives of Fitzroy's criminal element. Amongst these intriguing glimpses of what may be considered a "police mindset", it is telling that officers "did not want to live close to the crooks they dealt with on a daily basis" (p. 166) and that, in order to gain sympathy for their difficult work conditions, they always took the author to see "unappealing" things (p.167).

6. What quickly emerges as the main theme of this section is the strained relationship between police and Aborigines in Fitzroy. Cerwonka deploys anecdotes, observations and portions of interviews to make the case that "Aboriginal land rights claims threatened the police officers in ways much like they threatened white Australians and the settler state" (p. 192). The author details how the police responded to this threat by overpolicing Aboriginal spaces and giving them unduly harsh treatment. And yet, despite many pages devoted to the topic, the relationship with the Aboriginal community in this suburb is not provided with any historical context. For this, interested readers should consult Eleanor Harding's "Aboriginal Fitzroy" chapter in Fitzroy, Melbourne's First Suburb (1991). A long-time Aboriginal resident of the area, Harding describes how crime decreased over several decades while living conditions, social services for Aboriginal people and relations with police improved significantly, especially during the 1980s. Contrasting with Cerwonka's perspective, Harding's account suggests that the author might have presented different conclusions if she had interviewed members of Fitzroy's Aboriginal community during the course of her fieldwork.

7. Readers encounter a similarly problematic approach when Cerwonka uses the interaction between Fitzroy Police and the Asian community as a means of illustrating Australia's relationship with Asia and public attitudes concerning multiculturalism. The author contends that police practices act to "define Asian immigrants as outsiders in the national community because of their supposed criminality and dirtiness" (p. 198). Though it is difficult to understand how police officers, when interviewed on the job, could not discuss components of the population without referring to their criminality, Cerwonka takes up the hygienic strand of their argument with gusto and notes how officers express a "fear of contamination" whenever dealing with the Asian population (p. 201). At this point, vague statements prevail and there is no sustained discussion of how, historically, immigrants in various countries have been stigmatized as "unclean" nor any specific mention of public health fears associated with the outbreaks of SARS and avian influenza in southeast Asia. Furthermore, important details about Fitzroy's Vietnamese population, such as its size and distribution, are not provided nor are members of this community asked about their relations with police (see Woods 1991).

8. With regard to multiculturalism and its manifestations in Melbourne, Cerwonka asserts that over three decades after the demise of the White Australia policy, "whiteness" continues to be a key component of Australian identity (p. 204). Fears of "Asian invasion" and the "Yellow peril" are very much alive, and Cerwonka believes that former MP Pauline Hanson's criticisms of multiculturalism and Asian immigration in the 1990s were an expression of widespread public anxiety (p. 215). Sadly, this focus on the extreme and sensational precludes an analysis of long-term immigration patterns in Australia (see Khoo and McDonald, 2003) or a discussion of the official policy of multiculturalism and the subtle process of cultural assimilation that accompanies it (Hirst 2001). Indeed, the latter portion of the book speeds towards a somewhat predictable conclusion in which the author, in an anecdote attributed to "many Americans", tells us that "Australians are particularly racist" (p. 230) and that the spatial practices examined in this monograph "assumed and reproduced a dominant white Australian national order" (p. 231). No doubt readers will be left wondering what conclusions would have been put forward if this study had included non-white communities as well.

9. After making such provocative statements, in her brief conclusion Cerwonka takes a markedly different tone. She declares that "This study has not tried to generalize about the totality of Australia from such specific contexts" (p. 232) and that the absence of quantitative data "does not allow us to know definitively whether most people supported the idea that Australia is a part of Asia" (p. 234). This effort to ensure that the study was not considered to be representative , left me wondering if the book's American audience would heed this disclaimer and respond positively to the author's reluctance to draw any broader conclusions. Exploration of the linkages between spatial practices and the issues associated with Australia's "modern aspirations" would have demanded precisely these sorts of informative generalizations. Having been denied this journey from the specific to the general, the undergraduate students in politics or cultural studies that pick up this book over the coming years will need to look elsewhere if they are desirous of a window into Australian approaches to cultural diversity (see, for example, Withycombe 1985, Howard 2006, ABC News Online 2006, Hirst 2001), the nuances of engagement with Asia (Milner 2000), or the linkages between ideas of nation, ethnicity and landscape (Kaufmann 1998, Buzzelli 2001, Gröning and Wolschke-Bulmahn 2003).



Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2001 Census of Population and Housing. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2006.

Buzzelli, Michael. "From Little Britain to Little Italy: an urban ethnic landscape study in Toronto." Journal of Historical Geography 27 (2001): 573-587.

Dyrenfurth, Nick. "Battlers, Refugees and the Republic: John Howard's Language of Citizenship." Journal of Australian Studies 84 (2005): 183-196.

Gröning, Gert and Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn. "The Native Plant Enthusiasm: ecological panacea or xenophobia?" Landscape Research 28 (2003): 75-88.

Harding, Eleanor. "Aboriginal Fitzroy." In Fitzroy, Melbourne's first suburb , edited by Cutten History Committee of the Fitzroy History Society. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1991.

Hirst, John. "Aborigines and Migrants: Diversity and Unity in Multicultural Australia." Australian Book Review 228 (February/March 2001): 30-35.

"Howard Australia's most xenophobic leader, Greens say." ABC News Online, 2 September 2006. Available at:

Howard, John. "It's sense, not discrimination." The Daily Telegraph , 2 September 2006. Available at:,22049,20329026-5001031,00.html

Kaufmann, Eric. "'Naturalizing the Nation': The Rise of Naturalistic Nationalism in the United States and Canada." Comparative Studies in Society and History 40 (1998): 666-695.

Khoo, Siew-Ean and P.F. McDonald. The Transformation of Australia's Population, 1970-2030. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2003.

Lennon, Jane. "The Vicpar Case." In Fitzroy, Melbourne's first suburb, edited by Cutten History Committee of the Fitzroy History Society. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1991.

Milner, Anthony. "What is Left of Engagement with Asia?" Australian Journal of International Affairs 54 (2000): 177-184.

Withycombe, S.M.W. Town in Transition: a Socio-Economic History of Queanbeyan, New South Wales, 1945-1985. Fyshwick, A.C.T.: Canberra Publishing and Printing Company, 1985.

Woods, Carole. "Refugees from Vietnam." In Fitzroy, Melbourne's first suburb, edited by Cutten History Committee of the Fitzroy History Society. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1991.

© borderlands ejournal 2006



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