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J. Stadler, P. Mitchell & S. Carleton, Imagined Landscapes: Geovisualizing Australian Spatial Narratives.

J. Stadler, P. Mitchell & S. Carleton, Imagined Landscapes: Geovisualizing Australian Spatial Narratives

Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2016, pb, 238 pp., 11 b&w illustrations, 14 maps, bibliography, index. ISBN 9780253018458, US$30

This is an exciting and challenging book; but for its value to be appreciated it needs to be 'studied' rather than simply read, otherwise the quality of the message it is communicating may be missed, or perhaps not even understood. Although the authors of the present work might not see it in this way, this reviewer considers Imagined Landscapes to be continuing the intellectual challenge of the collection of geographical essays--The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes--edited by Donald Meinig (1979). In both, attention is focused on searching for ways and means of seeing, reading and interpreting 'landscape'. One of the distinct differences between these two works, separated as they are by about four decades of research and practice, is that Stadler and her colleagues have been able to take advantage of recent 'turns' in geography and in literary and other areas of cultural studies. This has opened up different perspectives, methods and means of enquiry into cultural landscapes, and with these opportunities the authors have been able to craft new insights. In essence, these three authors have extended the 'conversations' of Meinig and his contemporaries about landscape, and have extended the exploration into what they refer to as 'imagined landscapes and imaginative geographies' by including 'spatial story-telling' in the mediums of films, novels and plays (2016, p.1). To do this they venture into what they describe as digital cartography and geovisualization. These new conceptualizations and techniques of enquiry have been described by Sadler and her colleagues in a language style and a vocabulary which may lie outside the comfort zone of some readers. This is another reason why this book is a challenge.

So, what have Stadler, Mitchell and Carleton given us which was not available to us before? The clue lies in some of the early sentences of the first chapter, where there are references to 'imagined landscapes and imaginative geographies' and to the contributions made to our understanding of geography and history through films, novels and plays; in particular they refer to examples of narrative fiction as "do(ing) far more than frame the environment as a background against which narrative action plays out; they generate symbolism and produce cultural meaning " (p.1).

Essentially, these authors have given to us a new set of ideas about the mediated representations of space, about new ways of seeing and understanding the cultural and physical landscape, new insights on spatial history, and a new platform for the recording of environmental, economic, social and political events.

The sequence of the 'conversation' presented here begins with a very resourceful Introduction. In less than twenty pages the reader is enlightened about what are referred to here as 'geocriticism's disciplinary boundaries', and to 'digitally enabled spatial humanities'. Unless the reader is conversant with the new strands of thought which underpin this book, this is a chapter not to be missed. It is sometimes difficult, but it addresses matters which were taken into account in the funded research project which led to the creation of The Cultural Atlas of Australia (2014) and which have contributed to what is presented in this volume. This is the critical chapter, and so without an understanding of what is considered here progress through the remaining five chapters may prove to be difficult.

It is the 'raw material'--the spatial referencing embedded in (or introduced into) film, literature and theatre--which presents a particular conceptual challenge to the conversations here. By way of concession, Stadler and her colleagues comment that "in film, literature and theatre, the representation of space and place can never simply be mimetic " (p.25), that is, accurately representative of the 'real situation'; in later chapters the authors concede that some of the geographical referencing for film, literature and drama has been 'imagined'--'fictive' is their chosen term. In Chapter 1 (Remediating Space), the authors address mediating and re-mediating space to suit the circumstances of the story of any film, novel or play; comment is also made about subsequent cross-media adaptations. The Australian novel Wake in Fright (Cook, 1961), is used as a case study to reveal how the original novel and a subsequent film and a later stage play have contributed to the imaginative geographies of the Australian interior, creating what the authors refer to as a "coproduction of fictive and physical geography" (p.31). That theme is carried into the second chapter (Cultural Topography and Mythic Space) where, using data sets from The Cultural Atlas of Australia, the authors are led to concede that the locations used in films, plays and novels as indicative of circumstances in the landscape of the Australian North "do not correlate precisely with the national demographic data and population density" (p.95). In the chapter which follows (3: Spatial History) attention is directed to a specific case--the films, novels and plays which depict the story of the convict Alexander Pearce, whose notoriety is derived in part from his resort to cannibalism after absconding from a remote penal settlement in Tasmania. It was the purpose of this chapter to reference the use geovisualization techniques and to "demonstrate that qualitative information found in photographs, film footage and journey narratives can offer insight into evolving perspectives on a locale over time" (p.97), and contribute enrichment to the spatial story.

Chapter 4 (Mobility and Travel Narratives) focuses on the cultural politics of belonging to the land. Central to the conversation here is the case study of the 2011 film Red Dog in which a dog roams the routeways of the resource-rich Pilbara region; tracking its progress exposes the network of cultural, economic and geographical factors which contribute to 'place and belonging' in that region (p.134). The case study is a vehicle for explaining the usefulness of the geovisualization techniques being advocated throughout the book (which, in this case include the use of travel narratives, GIS map layers, Indigenous land claims data and census information) as the means by which the story can be correlated with changes to the landscape. For their final chapter (5: Terra Incognita: mapping the uncertain and the unknown) Stadler and her colleagues considered "the technical and conceptual difficulties and the spatial politics of mapping fictionally uncertain spaces" (p.164); 'terra incognita' and Australia's desert space was used as the case study. Although the final chapter misses the opportunity to summarize the preceding arguments, it at least draws attention to the mammoth task undertaken by the triumvirate of authors: "In mapping approximately two hundred Australian narratives and examining a variety of perspectives on these spatial stories and the places they represent, we have built on and extended the insights offered by pre-existing studies of individual texts to situate these perspectives within a network of intertexts and influences which landscape and location provide the coordinates of meaning-making" (p.193).

The breadth and depth of the research in evidence in this volume proved, at times, to be exhausting for this reader. Not only is the text information-full, there are footnotes and a twenty-two page bibliography of more than three hundred works cited in the text; and all of this is squeezed into 193 pages of text. Encountering this work is a challenge; it has to be studied and not just read. For those not familiar with the intellectual interface of cultural studies with geography it will be necessary to become conversant with a language style and vocabulary which, at times, can be daunting, as can be the high order research which sometimes is thrust at the reader with a rapid delivery of citations, cases and commentaries. Clearly, the maximum benefit will be derived from a studious reading of the text, accessing the supporting references and being aware of the potential of--and perhaps using--The Cultural Atlas of Australia. Sadler, Mitchell and Carleton have crafted a text which provides new insights and offers new opportunities.


MEINIG. D. (ed.), (1979), The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes, Oxford University Press, NY.

THE CULTURAL ATLAS OF AUSTRALIA, (2014) [Note: from the webpage: "The Cultural Atlas of Australia is an interactive digital map designed to meet the needs of anyone interested in tracing the ways in which Australian places and spaces have been represented in fictional texts. The foundation of the project is a representative sample of 150 prominent, contemporary feature films, novels and plays set in the Australian landscape."]

Michael Fagence

School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, University of Queensland
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Author:Fagence, Michael
Publication:The Globe
Date:Jul 1, 2016
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