Late last year I was invited to give a paper on Ned Kelly for the launch of Fed Uni’s new-look Faculty of Arts. The paper was part of a public seminar series called “The Curious” hosted by the Faculty’s long-standing Cultural Enquiry Research Group (CERG). Below is an extract of my paper, which has the full title of “Emplacing the Outlaw: Heterotopic Encounters with Ned Kelly.”
I would like to begin this paper by acknowledging and celebrating the First Australians on whose traditional lands we meet tonight, the Wathaurong peoples, and pay my respects to the elders, both past and present.
This paper marks a bit of a departure for me. As a literary studies scholar, my research and teaching practice tends to focus upon how works of literature are products of, and contribute to, various socio-cultural discourses. But when I was invited to present a paper on the functioning of place and space in the legend of Ned Kelly, I felt compelled to underpin my discussion via my own quite limited encounters with Kelly culture, specifically, the thoughts I had while touring Kelly country as a young adult. As I began researching my topic, I realised that this desire to bring a personal response to the mythology of the Kelly gang – to place the legend, or narrative, within one’s own epistemic framework – is not unusual, even when the response is a critical one. Nathanial O’Reilly, for instance, begins his formal cultural studies analysis of Peter Carey’s novel, True History of the Kelly Gang, by evoking his own childhood – by discussing not only how the story of Ned Kelly informed his early schoolyard games but also how the narrative occupied a seminal position in his primary school education during the 1970s. One of the key reasons people frame their discussions of Kelly via personal experiences is because the Kelly saga is a national narrative; a narrative which is used to work through, what cultural critic Fiona Allon refers to as “the ambiguities, ambivalences and repressions that adhere to any proposed model of nationhood or national home” (n.p). Just as O’Reilly uses his childhood experiences to mark the various ways in which the Ned Kelly narrative has been positioned in Australian popular culture, my own spatialized encounters with Kelly will be used in this paper to investigate wider questions about how the mythologising of the Kelly gang by settler Australians tends to be enacted via a specific kind of physical and imaginal engagement with place and space, an engagement that, for me, brings to mind the social sites that Michel Foucault terms “heterotopias.”
Driving through Kelly Country as a young adult during one of my first sustained adventures away from home, I experienced a “Rip Van Winkle” moment that I have forever since associated with the saga of the Kelly Gang. After a year travelling in Northern Queensland, my then boyfriend and I were slowly making our way home to Tasmania in a 1984 Burnt Orange Toyota Corona that only seemed to go if I placed a kiss on its dashboard. As we drove through Glenrowan, on a round-about way to my grandparents’ house in South Australia, my boyfriend recounted the story of the Kelly Gang with a deep sympathy for the outlaw which seemed to complement his love of Jim Morrison and Nietzsche. I listened to his impassioned retelling of the events at Stringybark Creek (the tragedy that Kelly did not recognise the sign of surrender until too late), his account of the final shoot-out at Glenrowan, and his reiteration of Kelly’s much contested last utterance, “such is life,” with fresh ears while watching the carnival of Kelly memorabilia roll by from my window. Driving through Glenrowan I had felt as though I was touring a fairground, a space Foucault might identify as a “temporal heterotopia,” one of those “marvellous empty sites on the outskirts of cities that teem once or twice a year with stands, displays, heteroclite objects, wrestlers, snakewomen, fortune tellers, and so forth” (“Of Other Spaces” 7). The view from my window seemed to both undermine and reinforce the brevity and hyperbole of my boyfriend’s version of the Kelly legend; and led me to question just what the large commemorative statues and numerous deserted Ned Kelly Tea Rooms were revealing/concealing about Australian culture?
Examining the commercialisation of the Kelly saga, Laura Basu suggests that the “untold quantities of Kelly tat” being sold along the tourist route is really just trying to conceal the fact that there is “only a void behind the helmet; an absence to be filled by Ned Kelly spare ribs from the Ned Kelly diner, Ned Kelly wine and Ned Kelly cork screws” (37). Like the “void behind the helmet,” for me the semi-deserted-fairground-atmosphere of towns like Glenrowan evoked a sense of placelessness, and spoke to a thwarted settler desire to construct a place-based mythology of home.
Amidst this cacophony of “Kelly-ana” I drifted off to sleep and I dreamed a dream in sepia; a dream where in which Ellen Kelly sat rocking slowly in her chair, wearing a widow’s garb and staring at me, blankly. Once this vision dissolved, like a break between film shots, my mind’s eye descended into a nightmare shutter-scape, from which I surfaced to find myself held hostage in a suburban backyard, pegged by my elbows to an old Hills Hoist. I woke from this dream disorientated. To my young and inexperienced eye, the terrain outside my window seemed not to have altered all that much: trees, scrub, dirt, repeat. When I asked how much longer we had to go, my boyfriend replied “hours,” implying that I had been asleep for only a few minutes. So, I continued to muse on Ned Kelly – imagining hideouts, and shoot outs, and a mother’s love – until I saw a sign saying we had just crossed the South Australian border; my boyfriend had lied, I had been asleep for three hours, rather than three minutes, and we just about to arrive at our destination. I recollect this incident here, primarily, because of how it forced me to reconsider my place in the world. While the space of my dream was an internal one and not, thereby, strictly heterotopic, it is has remained, in my mind, entangled with the narrative of the Kelly Gang I was told while driving through Kelly country – an incident that prompted me to “discover” my “absence from the place” where I perceived myself to “be”…
The full version of this paper is currently being developed for a journal article.
Allon, Fiona. “Boundary Anxieties: Between Borders and Belongings. Borderlands 1.2 (2002).
Basu, Laura. “Memory dispositifs and national identities: The Case of Ned Kelly” Memory Studies 4.1
Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias.” Architecture (October, 1984),
Translated from the French, by Jay Miskowiec.
O’Reilly, Nathanael. “The Influence of Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Narrative in Australian
Popular Culture.” The Journal of Popular Culture 40.3 (2007).