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Boundary lines and origins

November 10, 2012

I’m not including the context of the rest of the discussion here, because I like the ideas in it on a grander scale…

After mentioning the “boundary line, the moment of death” (6) Taylor discusses what he refers to as “that other boundary, that of origin.” (6) “It is, perhaps, the most perplexing of boundary lines” he writes (6). “One can tell, at least in a fairly simple way,” he writes, “when something ceases to exist – though this is rendered problematic by such notions as memory, rememoration, the copy and, of course, the clone. Much thinking about Postmodernism has concerned itself with this. But just as important, and perhaps more difficult, is to determine when something emerges, you might say, from non-existence into existence.” (6)

The difficulty of locating an originary moment of signification has not impeded us, within the public arena, from searching out and commemorating what we consider, or construct, as significant moments of national origin. In Australia one thinks of such moments as the ‘discovery’ of the east coast by Captain James Cook, the arrival of the First Fleet, Federation and Anzac. These moments of origin are also thresholds, moments of division and distinction, and can be considered as articulating – in all senses of that word – our national history and the national identity which is constructed in conjunction with it. Because, of course, a national identity is constructed in terms of difference and distinction [-p.7] just as much as a personal identity. Once a nation crosses such a threshold, so the argument would go, it has moved into another phase. As Hal Porter put it put it – memorably but erroneously – in a poem called ‘After September 21, 1914 AD’:

Sunbonnet girls in pinafores
still skipped; those funny men still chattered
on gramophones – but innocence
had lost its voice, no longer mattered:
no innocence at all since then,
never such innocence again.” (6-7)

He continues: “One would be hard put today, knowing what we know about the treatment of the Aborigines, let alone our convict past (about which Porter himself wrote so memorably in The Tilted Cross), to consider our nation as innocent prior to the outbreak of the First World War. My point, however, is a different one: what are accepted as originary moments are constructed as such after the event. In a way which recalls Nietzsche’s argument for the reversability of cause and effect in The Will to Power, they are originary only by virtue of what is subsequent to them.  To revert to the Hal Porter poem, our present condition has as its origin the outbreak of the First World War, and an illusory prior innocence has been constructed to indicate how, as a result of crossing that threshold, we are different now from what we were. But in this process, the origin of our present condition, the threshold we stepped across, only became, and only could become, an origin after the event.

The perplexing nature of origin is reflected in The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary’s 1993 definition of the word as ‘The beginning, cause, or ultimate source  of something; that from which a thing is derived, a source, a startingpoint’. There are at least three meanings tangled together here, and it is worth distinguishing them. The first is that of source, that out of which something is produced. The third sense – and the most perplexing – is that of beginning or startingpoint, and the dictionary expands on that in its definition of the word’s use in mathematics as ‘A fixed point from which measurement or motion begins’. Applying these distinct meanings of the word origin to the idea of white settlement in Australia one could say that its origin (though only one of several), in the sense of source (the second meaning of the word), was Britain and the British population. And the third sense, that of beginning, could be seen as the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788.

But even that is problematic. Perhaps the beginning was actually the setting out of the Fleet from Britain; or its equipping and manning; or the initial planning of the enterprise; or was it something earlier, somebody’s bright idea and preliminary discussions; or, even, Cook’s and Bank’s discovery that the east coast was habitably? Or was it the planning for Cook’s various voyages to the South Seas? Where can the line be drawn? One begins to understand why the lexicographers of the Oxford Dictionary tangle the various distinct meanings of the word together.” (7)

Ref: Andrew Taylor () ‘Origin, Identity and the body in Malouf’s fiction’

blow, I need to find the full reference…


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