Page 99 of my thesis opens with an evocative image:
‘Sleepy Cloncurry, the scene of more unfulfilled promises than any other town in Australia, clung to its horses and its camels’.
This quote from the historian Geoffrey Blainey about the mining town of Cloncurry in Outback Australia suggests an affective entanglement between place, ideology, and the more than human. Here Cloncurry is both a ‘scene’ and something agentic in its own right, something that ‘clings’: it is where the modernist and capitalist promises of taming the wilderness and striking it rich through mining remain unfulfilled, but it is also that which persists in sticky relation to these dreams through the companion species that were first brought to Australia to assist in realising those promises. Later in the page, I add to Blainey’s description:
“During the economic downturn of the 1920s and 1930s, when the price of copper fell by nearly fifty percent, most mining hubs quickly became ghost towns, houses were moved whole to new places, and settler-colonial hope for the region’s expansion remained tentative”.
And yet, through this and many cycles of boom and bust that followed, a sense of optimism—perhaps a ‘cruel optimism’ (Berlant 2011)—remained. In these precarious conditions, people did and still do build lives, wage politics, and dream of futures.
My PhD, based on fieldwork conducted in the Cloncurry region in 2017, charts such cruel optimism and ideology in relation to narratives of place and belonging. In particular, I am interested in the affective and material afterlives of modernist narratives of ‘taming the wilderness’ and ‘closing the frontier’ in settler-colonial states. Thinking with the rubble of ghost towns, the vacant places where homes once were, changing approaches to economic development, and the introduced species that now run wild in the landscape, I suggest that settler colonial visions of closing the frontier in Outback Australia failed. I ask what that means for settler descendants living in the region today and their claims over Indigenous lands. I focus on how non-indigenous settler-descendants express and legitimate their affective and economic relationships with place in relation to contestation over land use for conservation and Native Title.
By pointing to a long history of the ‘unfulfilled promises’ of settler colonial ideology in Outback Australia, my page 99 suggests something of the problem of non-indigenous people’s belonging in settler-colonial states when that belonging has historically been predicated on ideologies that manifest in violence against indigenous lands and peoples. It also implies the question of how one might draw from new narratives and engage in new affective relationships to construct new belongings.
Works cited: Berlant, L. G. (2011). Cruel optimism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Alana Brekelmans. 2021. Out There, back then: chronotopes of presence and absence in Outback Australia. University of Queensland, PhD Thesis.