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The rupture of silence: Judith Wright's refiguration of Australian colonial silence

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posted on 2017-03-02, 03:09 authored by Kankahainen, Nicholas
In this thesis I examine the ways in which Judith Wright refigures colonial representations of Australia as ‘silent’. In place of a silence that implies the land’s emptiness or lack of meaning, I argue that silence in Wright’s poetry is essential to representing the other-than-human world. Wright employs silence in her poetry to signify the infinite and complex ecological and historical contexts all human and other-than-human beings both exist within, and are signifiers of. In the first chapter I identify the basis to colonial perceptions, descriptions, and constructions of the land as silent. I argue that descriptions of the land as ‘silent’ were based less in a lack of sound, than the absence of sounds of European civilisation, and a lack of words to fully describe it. Insofar as this silence (as absence) represented an existential threat, I argue these lexical lacunae were obscured through the use of ‘silence’ as a trope. As a trope, ‘silence’ was used to deny that there were parts of the country that remained linguistically uncolonised. In addition, it provided an expedient means of suggesting that the land was lacking in meaning or agency before the arrival of Europeans. In Chapter 2 I establish the terms of Wright’s challenge to these colonial constructions of the land as silent. Wright’s counter-claim is grounded in a particular approach to the concept of wilderness, closely resembling its etymological meaning, which pays attention to the presence of autonomous (or ‘wild’) other-than-human beings, rather than a place where human beings are absent. In Wright’s work, other-than-human autonomy, or wildēorness, is evident in her observation of signs or ‘voices’ in the land produced and read by other-than-human beings, which I read in biosemiotic terms. However, inasmuch as such voices challenge the claim that the land is absent of meaning, they also signify broader (hidden) networks of meaning that Wright is unable to access or interpret, a fact she comes to increasingly accept, as her later poems demonstrate. In the third chapter I account for how she arrived at this refigured view of wilderness. I argue that a contemplative approach forms the context through which Wright ‘heard’ the voice of the other-than-human. I also argue that such an approach does not see Wright return with more adequate descriptions of her subjects, but leads her to a deeper silence, as the apophatic element in many of her poems demonstrate. This apophatic silence is grounded, I argue, in a Heraclitean ontology of flux. In the fourth and final chapter I provide an outline of the way silence is refigured by Wright as a means of poetically disclosing these biosemiotic networks and ontologies that her own verse could not adequately decipher or evoke. Wright locates silence in an ‘aesthetic-contemplative’ context, placing it in a dialectical relation with the poetic or visual image. Rather than treating silence as the opposite to speech or meaning, in its ‘holy uselessness’ silence suggests greater depths of meaning, or aspects of phenomena ungraspable in ordinary language. In this way Wright engages silence in the service of tacitly disclosing the whole of an ecosystem or a being that inhabits it.


Principal supervisor

Catherine Rigby

Additional supervisor 1

Andrew Johnson

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Department, School or Centre

Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics

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Faculty of Arts

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