A Life In The World In Australia

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What happened? Where did you go? What was the highlight? Is there anywhere you’d like to go back to? If you were to construct a person’s life in terms of conversational capital—the interest of others in what that person has to say—one might think of overseas travel as a reasonably secure investment. As the Germans say, ‘When one travels, one has something to talk about’.[1] But what is the traveller talking about? The answer to this question provides a particular perspective on what it is to have ‘a life in the world’.

Life And World

My focus is the world as seen through the eyes of the person who has returned to Australia from overseas. There is a subject, the returned traveller, whose normal life has been interrupted by this journey—yet who has survived and lives to tell the tale of this period in the world. And there is a field of action, overseas, which contains a range of possible destinies for those who enter into it. In this travel, a world intervenes in a life.

What happened? Where did you go? What was the highlight? Is there anywhere you’d like to go back to? What I intend to address is the conditions that make the answers to these questions meaningful—in terms of what they say both about the traveller and the world that traveller has returned from. This subject has been chosen in order to establish a framework where it is possible to think of the practice of constructing a life within the collective construction of the ‘world’. By ‘constructing a life’, I mean the process of making sense of what happens within the space of an individual life. This is a practice that is specific to certain regions of discourse, such as gossip or fiction. One might presume that knowledge of the principles of this discourse leads one to have knowledge of how a real person makes decisions about what events would be appropriate to constitute their life, but that is not my direct focus. And, by ‘constructing a world’, I refer particularly to the spatial distribution of moral qualities whereby the world is seen to contain incompatible points of view.

These are my two reasonably immodest categories: life and world. I do not want to use life ‘and ‘world’ as concepts that can be simply added together; that is, ‘life’ and ‘world’ as pre‑established entities that find each other: as the empirical subject gathers facts about the world, or as the world is trammelled by hordes of visitors. Rather, I want to use these concepts as dialogically linked, the one constituted as speaking for the other. On the one hand, this is to think of life as it is revealed through the differences provided by the world, as extended through space to constitute a journey. And on the other hand, it is to think of the world as revealed through the lives of those that pass through it, as witnesses to the natures and differences that comprise the field that is termed ‘world’.[2] Of course there are other ways of revealing a life. And there are other ways of revealing a world.

With this general understanding, I’d like to reduce the concepts ‘life’ and ‘world’ to a more practical term. My use of the term ‘moral topography’ is derived from an essay by Charles Taylor: ‘The Moral Topography of the Self’.[3] Taylor uses this term to describe the architectonics of a Western sense of self. This is evident in the distinction between a false ‘outer’ self and the true ‘inner’ self. Taylor points to a change over time from a Platonic sense of self, which is identified by the recognition of certain truths, to a Cartesian sense of self that is constituted by the operation of reason. What Taylor is pointing to is a generalised picture of the self which operates within particular epochs; this picture can be associated with the prevalence of a particular Western philosophical school.

In taking the term ‘moral topography’ from Taylor, there are some elements which I leave behind. The basic framework of self as a construction in space that takes the form of an argument is certainly apt for my purposes, though the assumption that it can be accounted for in terms of shifts in Western philosophy is beyond the scope of my article. My interest concerns the investigation of more regional phenomena, particularly the possibility that the location of Australians in the world is manifest in the way they construct their lives. It is necessary, therefore, to find a ground for moral topography which rests outside shifts in Western philosophy.

There are two such grounds one might consider—one involves a practical ethics and the other works from the problem of establishing a psychic economy. Both ways differ from Taylor’s: they posit the presence of opposing tendencies as the basis for spatialisation, rather than account for it by reference to a formalised epistemological process.

It is assumed that within practical ethics it is sometimes necessary to adopt contradictory values of action. For example, a waiter, in order to pursue his role, must contain the contradictory values of indulgence and discipline. Indulgence is necessary to create the appropriate atmosphere of gaiety and licence, so that diners feel relaxed and at ease. Yet, at the same time, there must be present a disciplining capacity in case some diners overstep the limits of bonhomie and endanger the relaxation of others. The basic principle of practical ethics is that certain contexts require ways of acting which are contradictory.

This logic of spatialisation works not only at the level of practical action but also within the domain of emotional attachment to things. The psychic economy proposed by Melanie Klein, for instance, deals with the distribution of ambivalent emotions into good and bad objects: those objects to be pursued and those to be avoided. In this perspective, the world can be seen as largely constituted as an attempt to contain contradictory drives—to allow the expression of one drive without denying the possibility of its opposite.

As grounds for spatialisation, both practical ethics and psychic economy provide a logic of contradiction that may serve to set up a means of understanding the differences contained in a picture of the world. While not cancelling the validity of these, I will concentrate on the dialogical situation as the context of moral topography. Here, contradiction is housed in the argument between different points of view. While the meanings of the different points of view in this argument can be accounted for by the deeper fault lines in practical and psychic life, I hope to reveal the argument’s enactment in conversational life.

The World’ Stage

It is the conditions that authorise particular individuals in taking particular points of view which constitute the most delicate element in this picture. An individual’s identity is here located in a ‘staged’ representation of values. Within this dramaturgical approach, the life of an individual is characterised in terms of a ‘moral career’, a term coined by Erving Goffman.[4] Goffman examines the practices that exist for regulating the degree of agency one possesses in a society, particularly as it is mediated by institutions such as asylums. For the purposes of this article, I’d like to extend this concept to incorporate certain moral qualities. This pertains to the way a person’s life can be said to demonstrate the appropriateness of a particular quality, in the way we say that Marilyn Monroe’s life exhibits the tragic nature of beauty, or that Patrick White’s life shows us the strength of a personal vision. This is to look at life as a moral drama.

What part does the ‘world’ play in this moral drama? My claim is that the world provides a set of tokens which stand for particular points of view about life; individuals can gain authority to use these tokens by means of travel. The idea of the world as a moral stage is certainly a well‑circulated one—it is important to be specific about the way it is to be used in this article. The use of the ‘world stage’ here can be located between two alternative frameworks: the ‘naive’ and ‘suspicious’ accounts of this concept.

In medieval times, the concept of world stage had clear associations with the allegorical understanding of human destiny: that life was governed by certain narrative forms given a divine authority. As the Bishop of Chartres, John of Salisbury, wrote in the twelfth century: ‘It is surprising how nearly coextensive with the world is that stage on which this endless, marvellous, incomparable tragedy, or if you will, comedy, can be played; its area is in fact that of the whole world’.[5] Clearly here, the world existed to reveal a divine purpose, rather than natural law. The medieval concept of world stage exists here as the most naive reading.

Conversely, there is Edward Said’s work on the Western view of the East. Said identified the Orient as ‘a theatrical stage affixed to Europe’.[6] This is a stage involved in the fake play of speaking for the Other. In Said’s point of view, the career of the Orientalist partakes of a discursive project, which undermines the power of Orientals to govern their own affairs. We assume from Said’s perspective that the stage exists to mask the reality. Said’s concept of a geographical imagination exists in this context as the most suspicious account of a world stage: representations of Otherness can be reduced to self‑interest.

My use of world stage here concerns its position in an argument about how one should live a life. It differs from the medieval version in that it does encourage a single answer to this question. And it differs from Said’s version, in that it does not point to an imperialist project that attempts to take away the voice of the Other from conversation.

While my distance from the medieval view is perhaps unproblematic, given an ‘agnostic’ position my stance against Said requires justification. I’ll offer two reasons. First, Said’s view tends to homogenise tourists and travellers as mere agents of the Western world‑picture. This would be an inappropriate use of the travel talk examined here. Rather than examining published books that operate in an official region, the focus here is on informal conversations for which a difference in points of view is a necessary condition. I am looking here for arguments in which individuals can assert a voice, often against the dominant picture. Second, the implied perspective is Australian rather than European. From an Australian perspective, it is not so obvious what specific colonialist aspirations might be involved in the construction of a moral voice for cities such as Paris and New York. The perspective is that of a country whose geographical and historical distance from the rest of the world finds expression in an aesthetic distance, making the world seem more of symbolic than practical interest. This is a distance often referred to by novelists, such as Shirley Hazzard, who launched the phrase ‘... for Australians, the world is somewhere else’; or Frank Moorhouse, who used the line that ‘For us, Europe and the US were the world. We lived somewhere else’.[7] The world here can act as a repertoire of images of how life might be in Australia.[8] Certainly, there are material interests to be found—the description of a city in terms of world centres no doubt satisfies a desire to attract international capital—but these do not tell the whole story. It’s the middle part of the narrative that’s missing: how individuals find a place for themselves in local conversations by supporting and attacking points of view about the world.

What happened?

That’s the general focus of this article. The specific materials come in the form of contemporary travel talk, collected mainly from conversational groups that include young tertiary‑educated travellers from Melbourne.[9] The talk was collected as a response of individuals and groups to the question ‘Tell me what happened to you when you were overseas?’. Though many participants did have readymade stories about their travels, much of the talk consisted of advice about how to conduct oneself while overseas, particularly in terms of the degree of trust one should have in approaching strangers. This advice was often abstracted as a general theory of human nature: whether people are the same or different, whether they have a common underlying nature or possess fundamentally different characters. ‘Same’ or ‘different’ was a general argument to which many found their travel experience contributing. This element of travel talk is evidence that overseas experience can be used as credit for taking a position regarding the argument about human nature. This is an important element in the discursive power of travel, and I’ll return to it at the end of my article. My direction is towards the more specific points made about attitudes spoken for by different countries in the world. To give sufficient weight to how an individual interpolates travel experience into this argument, I should first mention a general framing condition in which my analysis will operate.

This use of the world as a stage for illustrating different possibilities was certainly not the only type of construction in travel talk. The conversational groups can be broadly differentiated according to the way they partitioned overseas off from home. This form of partitioning entails the types of potential meaning which travel took in subsequent conversations—this partly limits the possible use of travel in the construction of moral identity. I will only outline three types of narrative partitioning as this is not the specific focus of my article. The idea that travel represents a holiday, that is, a temporary release from the structured lifestyle of work, does not set up a situation in which the experience of being overseas is expected to return knowledge that can partake of the conversations about the world. Travel as romance, however, leads one to assume that travel has the potential to reveal the hidden order underlying life at home. Whereas travel as fiction opens overseas up to the possibility that forms of life will be revealed in the world which transform one’s life back home. The capacity of overseas life to contribute to the knowledge which one has of the world therefore depends on the forms of narrative partitioning which govern the conversations to which one returns.

The particular type of narrative partitioning which I intend to focus on is that of ‘fiction’. Here, the world is a place one can enter to experience alternative forms of life which can alter the horizon of possibilities in which one lives at home. I will briefly describe five of these locations: Africa, South America, India, Europe and the United States. To fully flesh out the range of narrative engagements would be a large, endless, and potentially impractical exercise. They are subject to change and innovation by travellers eager to find new twists to old stories. Proust constructed a picture of society where ideas have their day: ‘So age to age is reborn a certain realism which reacts against what the previous age has admired’.[10] As I hope the following quotations will demonstrate, individual voices situate themselves in a knowledge of each other, each claiming to represent a picture that is more real than the one previously. Because of this, the explanatory framework cannot have in its sights an abstraction of the field of topics that stand for an ‘Australian’ moral topography, rather it is limited to a general understanding of how the conversation in which that topography exists is structured. So, what does travel talk have to say about the world?

Africa

There were two main themes in talk about Africa: encounter with wild nature and accommodation to a slower pace of life among the people. Seeing untamed animals outside cages was often remarked upon as a highlight of travel through Africa; the presence of animals roaming freely in their original environment was contrasted against their artificial presentation in Australian zoos. Though the connection was never overtly made, it is plausible to read the same attribution of nature into the descriptions of African people; here the absence of cages is matched by a lack of adherence to the rigid timetables that mark a Western lifestyle. It is important, though, not to dismiss these comments as simply casting the ‘other as nature’, and therefore making oneself immune to its difference. Terms presented by the travel talk fashioned this theme into a message which influences life back home by providing an alternative way of conducting one’s life. A 24‑year‑old female Chiropody student made the point that the African way of life suggests that Westerners often trouble themselves too much with a needlessly complicated life:

I just love the African way of life, ‘cos it’s so slow and it’s so relaxed. And so happy and easy. I think people in the West create problems. I honestly feel that some people aren’t happy unless they’re unhappy. They’ve got a problem. But over there, just with a wave of the hand: ‘O yeah. Don’t worry about it’. No matter how great the thing may be, ‘Don’t worry about it’. I sort of adopted that attitude, ‘Don’t worry about it’. OK, I won’t worry about it. Their attitude is: ‘It’s pointless worrying about it, you’re not going to help the situation; you’re just going to bring yourself down, so just don’t worry about it’. And you don’t, and it will eventually sort itself out. Without you wasting a day or so thinking about it, and getting yourself upset about it.

I’m not pretending that it isn’t difficult to read this quote without evoking what is to us a stereotyped image of the happy black man: a sentimentally positioned person in whom we can project an indulgence that we would rarely allow ourselves. This is the sort of indulgence which circulated in the song and t‑shirt campaign ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’. Of course, in this process the African becomes the token of an unstructured and, therefore, happy life. The important point is that without this token, it might be more difficult to find ways of organising a response against routine. The quote indicates that this token of happiness demonstrates that an alternative form of life is possible, no matter how sentimental it appears to us.

India

The second example also comes from the third world, and is perhaps more familiar than the African journey in the assumptions about what happens to people when they travel. The Indian journey is stereotypically known as a route taken by bohemian Westerners in the attempt to find a better way to live. While the immediacy of Africa was contrasted with the complicated Western lifestyle, the difference of India was contained more in reflections about the presence of order in the world. There were two types of reflection enabled by India that were found in the travel talk. One concerned the revelation of certain archetypal forms (for example, an initiation into religious mysteries); the other dealt with the discovery of an absence of forms of order. Given the familiarity with the former travel narrative, it is interesting to give an example of the latter. A 23‑year‑old male Arts student relates the personal impact of this discovery:

It’s a crazy place. It’s quite frantic. It’s probably as close to an anarchistic place as you’d find. There’s an appeal to it because it’s a place that’s full of contrasts, and contradictions, like the place is a big contradiction. And that’s the major feel when you get back. You realise that it’s just the opposite to there. The contradictions are there. There’s just this poverty, and there’s wealth ... When you’re there you actually can’t stand the place for a while. It’s hard and it’s trying and it’s dusty and it’s dirty and it’s smelly and the food makes you sick all the time. The thing about it is, when you comeback, there’s something endearing about the place. I think it’s the fact that it’s got these contradictions in it. And they’re there, and they’re so full on. It just has an appeal to it about that.

The contradictions referred to here concern juxtapositions of opposites in the streets through which a tourist must travel: side by side one finds both rich and poor, animals and people. In Australia these categories would be separated in different suburbs, city and bush; whereas in India they intermingle. The words which the student found for this experience in India were that it was ‘like being in a painting’. This phrase keys directly the mode of narrative partitioning which frames the travel experience as a fiction. In this case, India is positioned as a space with a logic which is alternative to the ordered routines at home: its distance from the practical business of home life grants a traveller the possibility of standing in a disinterested relation to India.

One might push this analysis further to say that the India spoken for by this student works counter to the overall principle of moral topography. Given the ‘interest’ in putting opposing values in their place, the confusion of life in India tells of a world that is not governed by such a system—inevitably, of course, this becomes part of the moral topography itself, the place where no moral topography holds.

This experience of India was employed in the student’s travel talk to speak of the possibility that one can survive in a world not governed by a sense of logical order. This knowledge can be incorporated into life at home as a means of countering the experience of anxiety at the lack of clear logic occasionally felt back here. India dissipates dread:

The one thing it takes away is any despair or any dread which you have in life. It dissipates in India. I don’t know why, and I think it’s the illogicality of the place, the contradictions. So nothing is logical—that you can’t make life logical. So a bit of that despair that comes in, like that dread that sits behind you, sometimes you get that dread kind of, it dissipates in India because you can’t think of life in logical terms.

India provides no relief from disorder, so one is forced to come to terms with it. Officially, life in Australia does indicate various forms of order governing events, whether historical, such as the Bicentennial idea of a nation working out its differences, or economic as in the political discourse of the Liberal and Labor parties. Of course, this does not speak for the variety of phenomena that fail to fit within that logic: accidents, injustice, death, and so on. Here, India can be used to demonstrate that these phenomena are part of the normal pattern of life, rather than its aberrations. This discovery of India, as a token of liveable disorder, was associated by the student with a more confident sense of self after travel; this was evident particularly in being able to converse with parents as ‘people’ rather than authorities. India was seen to have given him a voice to speak for what is poorly represented in Australian life.

South America

South America is another space which provides a token for what is underrepresented in Australian culture, though in this case its function is quite different from that of India. While travelling to India was framed as a question posed to the self, South America invariably spoke to issues that went beyond any one individual’s apprehension of things: it was an introduction into the arena of real politics, in which issues are resolved with blood, as well as votes. There were other less sensational aspects of the South American narrative. In terms of tourism, it was given an ambivalent status: while it offered great cultural and natural sights, it also promised disorder and danger. The Aztec ruins for some offered themselves as a link in the history of civilisation, perhaps even its birthplace. Yet, in contemporary terms, it pointed to the limits of civilised behaviour. As one woman stated, South America was the sort of place where you could die and nobody would notice: there is no political order which seems to govern events. It was just this lack of order which other travellers focussed on as a valuable experience in questioning assumptions about standards of living in the world. One group of three students identified South America as a place where poverty and suffering is the rule rather than an exception: ‘Whereas we certainly have seen it [poverty] in New York and Spain, and even on the streets of Paris, but there [South America] it’s much more a pattern of the society.’

Among those interviewed, there was one family for whom travel to South America was the rule. In its case, such travel was a means of gaining personal experience that would reinforce the doctrine of social justice. Most of the family were actively involved in the Uniting Church, which concentrated on South America as the place in the world where the cause of social justice was most urgent. A 31‑year‑old male social worker with the Church talked about South America as a place where one necessarily brought into question the comforts which are normally taken for granted:

But I really believe you couldn’t go to South America without having been humbled a bit, I don’t think you could come back from South America without looking at what you have got in your own country and being a little more thankful for it at the minimum—come back and just be thankful for what you’ve got.

For this social worker, ‘being thankful’ entailed actively working to ensure that the rest of the world could live with the same standards of comfort as shared here. He contrasted the experience of travel to South America with travel to Europe. Europe for him was a journey which involved purely individual pleasure. This was not necessarily a bad thing, but it had its limits. Once in South America, however, one could never enjoy these things with the same level of comfort:

When I went to South America, I wasn’t interested to go back to Europe any more because my vision had been widened again. I mean Europe was great and it was different to Australia but it was a similar culture. Even Germany and Italy, they were more interesting, but there was still a very strong link with Australian culture. It was basically middle class, Western life‑style: very interesting, very enjoyable, [but] compared with the South America experience, it just paled considerably.

In the moral topography present in his travel talk, South America grants its visitors a social conscience. The primary action of this change is, like India, being in a situation where one cannot escape what normally causes anxiety. In the case of India one cannot avoid disorder, whereas in South America the suffering of people is unremitting. This youth worker was able to use his experience in educational camps to testify to the reality of films like Missing.[11]

Europe

An important element of the moral topography offered by the youth worker was the contrast between South America and Europe. Whereas Europe is pleasurable, it is also known. By contrast South America is something Other and potentially threatening. Granting a place for Europe in a moral topography risks obvious over‑generalisations. Within Europe there is a large difference between the attributes ascribed to its different cities. Florence is a city one can use to testify to the power of art history. Berlin is—or was—a place where one faces the power of politics to draw asunder people’s private lives. Yet, there were some general points made about Europe as a whole. This very sense of difference was one of these. The variety in Europe was often commented on in terms of the value of the tourist experience: it’s a continent in which one can experience great differences with little effort—it’s compact. Yet, these differences were often framed in terms of the obvious. As a travel experience, Europe is not likely to provide the space in which a traveller is able to return with a different view of the world. Europe, in this sense, is like something out of a book, or a dream. A young medical student used, without knowing it, Donald Horne’s label for Europe: ‘It’s a real dreamworld’.[12] It is this lack of reality which was associated with many of the comments about Europe, which depicted it as the conventional track of travel, particularly for Australians.

One traveller, a 31‑year‑old male publisher, presented the opinion that travel to Europe was necessary to maintain one’s identity in Australia: ‘you need to have travelled’ to Europe in order ‘to give validity to your opinions’. From the perspective of an older generation, a 57‑year‑old male engineer talked about his trip to Rome as making it more ‘comfortable’ for him when it is talked about in conversation: ‘I suppose everybody likes to be able to say that they’ve been there’. What these individuals are telling us is that European travel is necessary to maintain a voice in conversations back in Australia. The family that travelled to South America made this point in reverse: they claimed that their experience excluded them from many dinner party conversations for which the only accredited subject of travel talk was Europe. What these individuals seem to be doing is reflecting on their own experience in order to say something about the conditions of identity back in their home country.

The engineer qualified this role of Europe in an ironic manner. Though in Australia experience of Europe is seen as a norm, in Europe there is little knowledge of the rest of the world. The centre of the world appears to be uninterested in the world:

[Europeans] were very self‑centred. I know in such short experience I couldn’t say I’m convinced. that’s just the impression I got in talking to them. That they were very friendly, yet I thought they were surprisingly not very aware of what was going on inside.

A 26‑year‑old female biology student, characterised Europe in terms of temporal horizons. Using a threefold distinction between living for the past, present, and future, Europe was seen as looking backwards:

In fact I found a lot of people in Europe staid: everyone lives in the past, sitting on the laurels of achievements of two to three hundred years ago. No one’s looking to the future.

What is being referred to here is the same quality of Europe which makes it appealing to some other travellers—its connection with history. In this sense, the link with the past which Europe speaks for also contains its silence. In being so absorbed in its historical past, it cannot speak for the present. What these quotes demonstrate is that not only can travel talk give voice to different attitudes through token countries, but it can also take that voice away.

United States

In many ways the obverse of Europe is the United States. While relatively few travellers interviewed went to the United States, there were a small number who took the side of America over other places in the world. This support for America was presented primarily in terms of a freely given recognition of talent. Compared to Americans, Australians were suspicious of excellence and ambition. The publisher who felt travel to Europe was conventionally necessary to be part of Australian society (see above), granted a more personal place to the United States. He spoke of the United States as having changed his character from one of limits to one which gave licence to individual ambition. He talked about this as a ‘move to the right’:

I think politically I moved to the right, although everybody else seems to have moved to the right at the same time ... I went to the United States, I took the traditional Australian attitude of looking down on the loud Americans ... particularly when you see them in Europe. When they’re outside their own country they do seem to be loud and obnoxious. But when I met the Americans, they seemed courteous and friendly and I liked the American positive outlook. And I liked the desire to get on and encouragement to have an idea. I thought it was an encouraging environment in America for ideas, commercial ideas in particular, but other things as well—I guess aspiring to excellence.

The publisher contrasts the honest materialism of the Americans with the superior disdain of the English. In his biographical narrative he told the story of how his journey helped him develop a creativity necessary for contemporary publishing by changing his preconceptions of what’s possible.

This attitude from America of liberating the individual from limits had its particular focus in New York. Finding one’s way to New York provided the outlet for frustrated ideas of one’s potential. In other research concerning the life construction method, New York was used as a space in which frustrated talents could be realised. As such, it functions to reveal one’s true potential: ‘If you make it there, you can make it anywhere’.[13] Though, in general, most overseas journeys were presented as a revelation of what is true (this after all is the nature of the conversation about travel: to come to a true picture of the world and oneself) in New York this truth took the form of individual talent, rather than the potential of collective co‑operation.[14]

Travel Tokens

The range of values expressed in the different locations I have briefly elaborated does give some indication of the flavour of moral life spoken for by different parts of the world. Africa reminds one to slow down and not be obsessed by meaningless business. The happiness of the simple lives of the people living there provides evidence that life can be lived successfully without many of the luxuries Westerners are accustomed to pursue. India provides a similar caution against a view which says things must be a certain way, though here it is more the individual trial of getting about a country which does not conform to the sensible forms of life that enables one to deal with contradictions that cause anxiety at home. Rather than advise a more relaxed frame of mind, South America is shown to provoke a greater urgency to improve material conditions, though in this case the object of this project is extended beyond what one knows at home to the world at large. This is contrasted with Europe, which is seen to provide images only of what one knows already. As such it reflects back aspects of shared identity among Australians: it is the desire to see Europe which becomes a focus of what Australians share in common. South America is also distinguished from the United States of America, which is seen to recommend something that an of these other moral points argue against: concentrating on achieving one’s own individual ambitions regardless of the offence which they might cause in others.

Again, I must repeat that these points are only one slice of an ongoing argument. One might see this particular moral topography as representing different positions about how to organise the overall scheme of a life: whether there is such a thing, how total it should be, and whether the goal to which it accounts in the end is for oneself or others. As a moral topography, one might imagine what I have quoted as being a single dinner party in which participants each take the cause of their travel destination to argue how it is that one should live, particularly what types of goals one should set for oneself, whether it should be to promote oneself, one’s country, world justice, or not to worry about goals at all. Within this picture, the world is partly revealed as a collection of tokens which one might arrange in the form of an argument. And travel provides the links between individuals and these tokens: it gives particular persons the power to speak on behalf of the attitudes represented by different parts of the world.

The Real World

Can a moral topography ever be wrong? In the analysis I have presented such a question appears irrelevant: these world pictures are to be evaluated by their dramatic form, not their accuracy. But clearly there is a ‘real world’ with which travellers must engage in order to authorise their contributions to a moral topography.[15] This is a voice which must have some say in order for moral topography to remain open to the experience of meeting strangers in the world. But this voice raises difficult questions. Does the talk of South America, for instance, confine its populations to an interminably inequitable life in order to play the role of political martyr at the Australian dinner tables? Such would be a question that follows Said’s construction of ‘orientalisrn’. Indeed, given that a moral topography has a claim to ‘represent’ the world, it should keep open the possibility that a part of the world objects to the role in which it is cast. Yet, our sensitivity to the use of stereotypes should not hide the presence of an openness in travel talk which is honoured in the credit awarded to ‘meeting the people’. ‘Meeting the people’ for a traveller is similar to ‘working at the coal face’ for a scientist—it authorises a space outside of formal theory. If this aperture is kept open, then I would argue that the construction of a moral topography can provide a source of alternative ways of making sense to the ones which dominate official life at home.

Besides ‘meeting the people’, a moral topography can frame its own limits in the ground of sameness against which it develops national difference. It is important to recognise the travel talk itself partly consists of an argument about the very possibility of a moral topography. India was presented as a country in which such ordered schemes do not hold. But also, when generalising about human nature, many travellers made the point that, despite the surface differences between individuals, deep down we have the same basic natures, we desire the same sorts of things. So a 28‑year‑old female Science student states:

Despite going through different countries I’d got the impression, well, everyone’s completely different from country to country, but at the same time we’re all human, we’re all living the same kinds of lifestyles and all going through the same thing, that sense of happiness or quality of life.

What this point demonstrates is that the principle of moral topography, which casts different countries into a variety of roles in a drama of values, is itself the subject of the conversation in travel talk. There is a point at a certain stage, when the figures in the drama leave their roles and bow to the audience. It’s significant that this survives in travel talk through the point of human sameness. It’s interesting to consider how many moral topographies contain this ‘navel’ of sameness.

My conclusion, then, is as follows: travel talk entails the construction of a picture of the world in which opposing values are spatially distributed. This spatial separation is realised in the form of conversations about overseas in which individuals who are authorised by their personal encounter with the part of the world concerned can use a country as a token of an attitude to life. In this picture, the world exists as a field into which individuals can enter in order to gain a voice in the conversations that make up a certain social life in Melbourne. A life is revealed as a way among the countries of the world, and the world is revealed as a force in the lives of those who move within it. The world stops people settling their differences and provides an argument large enough to live in.


[1] Wenn einer eine Reise tut, so kann er was erzählen.

[2] You might find a rough parallel to this scheme in Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, in which characters leave  their idyllic existence to encounter the ‘world’. Their journey ends in talk: ‘the whole region being  under water gave them no invitation to any excursions, and, being well supplied with materials for  talk, they diverted themselves with comparisons of the different forms of life which they had observed and with various schemes of happiness which each of them had formed.’

[3] Charles Taylor ‘The Moral Topography of Self’ in Messer L A Sass and R L Wootfolk (eds)  Hermeneutics and Psychological Theory: Interpretive Perspectives on Personality, Psychotherapy and  Psychopathology New Brunswick Rutgers University Press 1989

[4] Erving Goffman Asylums Harmondsworth Penguin 1968

[5] Quoted in Stephen Greenblatt Sir Walter Raleigh: the Renaissance Man and His Roles New Haven: Yale  University Press 1973 p29.

[6] Edward Said Orientalism Harmondsworth Penguin 1978 p59.

[7] Frank Moorhouse Forty Seventeen Harmondsworth Penguin 1988 p2

[8] Something emphasised in the public discourse of a city like Melbourne, with its ‘Paris end’ of Collins Street, its ‘Manhattan skyline’, its ‘Viennese’ parks, etc.

[9]The corpus is derived from approximately 100 hours of travel talk collected from 72 participants.

[10] Remembrance of Things Past Harmondsworth Penguin vol 3 1983 p746

[11] In other ways, it is interesting to think about the current use of Mexican culture in fashion, food, and painting. Perhaps there is something in this use which authorises an attitude of political realism.

[12] Donald Horne The Great Museum: The Re‑Presentation of History London Pluto 1984.

[13] K D S Murray The construction of identity in the narratives of romance and comedy ‘in J Shotter and K Gergen (eds) Texts of identity London Sage 1989.

[14]The focus of the latter was found by some travellers in the rejuvenated deserts in Israel and the pyramids of Egypt.

[15] Another question of ‘real world’ also concerns the conversational franchise implied by the kind of moral topography constructed in travel talk. The materials which I have drawn upon come from Melbourne people, and are predominantly middle class. There are naturally many conditions which prefigure this argument. In a different class one might simply be excluded from the argument by the lack of travel capital necessary to take part. In another city, such as Sydney, there may not be the sense that European travel is taken for granted. Outside Australia, the sense of being part of the world might not provide the distance by which it can be used globally to be brought into the argument. And in another time, other tokens of argument might be used: eg, the rival powers of the gods Athene and Poseidon in Homer’s Odyssey. What I have presented is a moral topography specific to a particular time and place.

One shortcoming of this relativism is that it ascribes to the concept of moral topography the sort of plenitude which exempts it from critical evaluation: it exists everywhere throughout time though with different sets of tokens. There is another set of questions unanswered: What are the limits of moral topography? Is a moral topography ever unnecessary? Are some attitudes represented better than others? Is its function purely to limit access to the conversation? Can moral topographies vary in their accuracy or fairness to the countries represented? These are questions which I have clearly bracketed off from my article ‑ bracketing which I think is important in the initial formulation of what they might mean.

Published in Australian Cultural History 10, 1991 pp 32-45

Text is copyright Kevin Murray. For reproduction inquiries, email