A Touching and Contagious Captain Cook: Thinking History through Things

Stephen Muecke


Abstract

For how long can history, as it is conceived in ‘the West’, continue to attach itself to an exhausted humanism, where ‘man’ is central and all the natural and inanimate objects surrounding humans (and linked intimately to human activity) are relegated to the function of support act?

This essay argues from anthropological theory that there are fundamentally different sorts of relationships that humans can entertain with non-humans, and that these relationships can have a magical force. When a monument is placed at the spot where an explorer first touched the land, does this impart a contiguous magic? On the other hand, where the stuff of history seems animated, and spreading out without clear connection to impart some small part of the aura to a doll representing the historical figure, are we not dealing with a sympathetic, contagious magic? This essay will experiment with these nonrepresentational forms of energy as they are transferred in domains associated with the figure of Lt. James Cook.

What, then, is Cook when he is displaced from ‘western’ history and spread around cultures like a virus? How precarious or robust, then, are the historical certainties associated with Cook-monumentalised Kurnell and its place in time as ‘the birthplace of modern Australia’?



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