I found it interesting that Chris’ post yesterday about an Australian heart language elicited a couple of comments that reflected pretty iconic Australian images (e.g. the coast, the outback, Les Murray).
I’ve recently come across a theory in anthropology that suggests that you really only understand a group (nation, sub-culture etc) if you share with them in ‘Cultural Intimacy‘ (proposed by Michael Herzfeld). So, for example, the theory proposes that in many nations there is a idealised representation of the nation which covers over a bunch of secrets that we protect from outsiders and which really constitute nationalism. Herzfeld did his research in Crete, and he discusses the way that in Crete, sheep-stealing is a symbol of Greek manhood that exists in tension with the representation of Greece as a modern (and also ancient) law-abiding democracy and that animal theft is therefore hidden from outsiders. And it elicits a weird combination of shame and pride.
These ‘secrets’ – the things that we know about ourselves as a people or group, but which we keep hidden behind the facade of our group imaginary – are what actually define us as insiders. The group imaginary is how we represent ourselves to outsiders, but the secret tensions reveal our self-knowledge. The secrets are how you can say “Oh, she just doesn’t understand, she’s not one of us….”
The Australian national imaginary includes things like this… we’re an egalitarian country, full of larakins who don’t play by the rules, shaped by the harsh and dangerous environment of the Australian outback, full of adventurers who enjoy our outdoors lifestyle. But I think this belies a bunch of Aussie secrets about deeply entrenched inequality, a love for obeying the rules (we hate ‘queue-jumpers, for instance), and that most of us live pretty safe, suburban lives, are overweight and spend more time in front of a screen than in the sun.
Tim Winton and Les Murray to some extent buy into (and even help create) the Australian national imaginary — I wonder what parts of pop culture reveal Australia’s secret self-knowledge?