Notes on an interview with Paul Carter
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Hands crossed, head held at an angle that causes his glasses to sporadically catch and reflect the neon light, Paul Carter responds to my question with a litany of negatives: "I'm not interested in 'post-colonialism' per se , I'm not interested in biography, nor am I interested in psychologies. What I am interested in," he coughs, lifts a hand to adjust his glasses, "is more about footing it, the way we ground ourselves, a poetics of movement, perhaps."
Carter's The Road to Botany Bay and Living in a New Country inspired international and national attention because of the radical nature of his "spatial history" radical in both senses of the word, for spatial history not only returns to the root of things, grounding itself in origins and epistemologies, it also challenges long-established historical methodologies, offering alternative interpretations of the relationships between space, time, colonisation and historical events.
But then, Carter also writes librettos for operas, sound texts for museums and performance pieces for dance companies. At first I assumed that these two interests were distinct, that Carter was an academic who wrote "on the side", but in fact, Carter uses the texts of his historical research as the basis of his poetics: "spatial history" and "sound geography" combine to create what Carter has described as his "migrant aesthetic". The relationship between colonialism and contemporary culture is central to this aesthetic, as Carter engages with the texts of colonisation in order to define and reflect upon the possibilities of the present.
It is unsurprising, then, that the term "migrant aesthetic" operates on a variety of levels. Carter is concerned with everything from the treks of explorers, the nature of urban grids, the language of note books, journals and poetry, to the different style, sense and circulation of metaphors, metonyms and sounds. Carter's migrant aesthetic acknowledges his position as an Anglo-Australian migrant, as well as his belief that the contemporary post-colonial condition is one of fragmentation, dislocation, coincidence and pluralism.
The sense of randomness and possibility in his writing, of creating pathways while travelling, seems closely related to his migrant experience not only the personal experience of geographical and cultural displacement caused by moving from England to Italy, then Italy to Australia, but also the sense of multiple identities, memory and language lapses shared by post-colonial communities While Carter's spatial history recalls the way both indigenous people and colonisers patterned Australian space with their travelling, language and demarcation of territories, his sound geography explores the degree to which we live in dialogue with our present environment.
I interviewed Paul Carter in June 1994, hoping to clarify the relationship between his position as an Anglo-Australian and the objectives of his migrant aesthetic:
KL: In Living in a New Country, you talk about the desire to break down national rhetoric: how it is enclosed in genealogies of blood and boundaries. How does this relate to your ambiguous position as a British migrant?
PC: There are two reasons to talk about breaking down such boundaries. The first is that I think there is a strong straightforward political urgency about rethinking community identity other than in terms of ethnicity or blood, and the reason for that is twentieth-century history. The second reason is that this history is not just of ethnic warfare, it is also of the last gasps of imperialism these two things go together. If you start to say you want to re-ground communities, you are inevitably taking a position about the rhetoric of colonisation and so on
I suppose that there is an autobiographical position that I come to these positions not from any desire to define myself against a particular origins, but rather from a reluctance to exclude the multi-dimensional identity that not just I, but anyone has in a country like this. There is a tendency to assume that because you come from another country, you are somehow representative of that culture. My own family history is a history of heterodoxy within that structure. It could be told entirely in terms of the processes of colonisation, so that you could trace the vicissitudes of my family in terms of industrialisation, vagrancy, itinerancy and all the problems associated with urbanisation in the north. The very strong Methodism in my family is deeply associated with reactions to industrialisation and shattered communities, while the other side of my family were basically peasant workers in a highly feudal system
KL: So it is Carter as in 'cart', not as in 'cartography'?
PC: That's right, absolutely. Part of my project is to complexify the notions of lineage and descent. You don't have to say, "Oh, Gee, let's forget the differences," you don't pretend that, coming to this country which has inscribed itself in the image of Britain, you fail to arrive in a position of privilege, but you also arrive with a whole set of difficulties. You arrive in a situation where you have to be the double mimic, you have to be
KL: A mimic of yourself as an Englishman as well as a mimic of someone trying hard not to be an Englishman
KL: So how does this relate to what you have described as a desire to return home?
PC: One of the things I'm very interested in is the trope of nostalgia in migrant writing My novel, Baroque Memories , is precisely a meditation on this. The chief character is called Nostalgia, and it is very much about the problematic of return. I'm very interested in the paradox of return that you never can go back whether it's to a love affair, or to a country. Nevertheless this trope is very strong, going back to Ulysses and The Odyssey I'm interested in how one might find a way of travelling which takes you back to the beginning without ever returning, and how as part of that, this kind of returning might be equivalent to dancing on the spot. I'm trying to find a different way of thinking about groundedness as pathmaking, which doesn't involve a circular journey, but parabolic passages, which bring you back to the ground, but never in the place where you started, [even though] they give you a sense of return. So then the idea of origins gets moved because you are no longer trying to recapture some kind of Arcadian past, or some kind of childhood. What you are trying to do is construct a path as you go along.
Being a "migrant", Carter has developed a heightened sensitivity to aspects of culture often taken for granted movement, sound, the formation of cities and language, the way we deal with spatio-temporal constraints and freedoms. In reading Carter, we partake of the outsider's inside observations and are forced to appraise ourselves and our cultural inheritance from alien, alienated and alienating perspectives. It is not surprising, then, that Carter's migrant aesthetic occasionally appears incomplete, open-ended, even unresolved. He is an explorer in his own right, only his terrain is the perplexing land of language a world rife with deceptively similar landmarks. Perhaps it would be helpful to read his brilliant and bewildering books as explorer journals, rather than self-contained theoretical works. For throughout Carter's writing a disconcerting gap appears, a strain between the actual experience and the constraints of language. This is one of the dilemmas of Carter's migrant aesthetic, of migrant experience itself, and it fittingly expresses the dilemma we feel of living in, but not only in, language.
Kiera Lindsey is a postgraduate student at the University of Melbourne. This piece is extracted with permission from Writing Lansdscapes 1995.
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