The Utopian imagination of Aboriginalism.
But if the inhabitants of that land will not dwell with them to be ordered by their laws, then they drive them out of those bounds which they have limited and appointed out for themselves. And if they resist and rebel, then they make war against them. For they count this the most just cause of war, when any people holdeth a piece of ground void and vacant to no good nor profitable use, keeping others from the use and possession of it, which notwithstanding by the law of nature ought thereof be nourished and relieved. (2)
Thus the foundation of Utopia is a hypocritical one, as the peaceable lives of its citizens are only secured as a result of violence towards other lives. The injustices of 16th-century capitalism, outlined in the first book, are only resolved in the second by a further injustice. The imperial logic at work here is but a simulation of one of capitalism's principal effects, this being the conquest and colonization of space. Indeed, as Christopher Kendrick argues, the second book of Utopia articulates the very invention of space in this historical period. (3) Amidst changing economic regimes, as Europe moved from feudalism to capitalism, space was a way of conceptualizing the experience of displacement. The topography of Book Two was the imaginary accompaniment to the reality of unemployment described in Book One, as dispossession and homelessness turn an immersion in place into a new idea of space.
That violence may well be inherent to the program of utopian spatialization was foregrounded centuries later by dystopian and critical utopian writers, whose imaginary topographies were often tarnished by totalitarian regimes or hegemonic cultures. (4) Yet these were largely representations of those living inside utopian, dystopian or revolutionary situations, and were not concerned with those whose difference disqualified them from the political consensus. It is instead science fiction, with its aliens and humanoids, that analogizes imperial and colonial history. One of the founding texts of the genre, H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds, displays a capacity for working through the historical conditions of its imagination. In case readers missed the political relevance of his narrative, Wells compares Earth's invasion by a particularly malevolent species of alien to a recent terrestrial conquest:
The Tasmanians, for example, were entirely swept out of existence in a fifty-year war of extermination waged by European immigrants. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit? (5)
In the novel, Wells plays with understandings of race and species, terrestrial and extraterrestrial, to question a prevailing and Darwinian assumption among Europeans that the Australian Aboriginal people were doomed to extinction. (6) Bringing the inhumanity of this logic to light, Wells recognizes the injustice of the destruction of a people. In this he joined a growing humanitarian concern for the welfare of the first Australians. It would not be until the 20th century that a combination of violence and trade on the Australian frontier would give way to government policies of protectionism and assimilation. This concern for the Aboriginal, however, often remained tied to an expectation of their imminent demise. To 'Smooth the Dying Pillow' was one attitude from which such policies sprang. (7)
The original hypocrisy of More's spatialization is useful for unravelling this apparent shift from carelessness to care. While Utopia can be thought of as belonging to one moment of European history that displayed a willful disinterest in the fate of indigenous people, a belated concern for their welfare would appear to manifest a second moment of humanism for which this fiction is also famous. Early European interest in Aboriginal Australia was indeed humanistic, as anthropologists and missionaries brought to light the character of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. (8) These early texts, with their description of unchanging cultures and kinship systems, can be read as utopian spatializations of the prehistoric. While they demonstrated an interest in fellow human beings, they also inscribed this interest into static and ideal forms. Such representations also appear in colonial paintings of a similar period. After being painted only rarely, Aboriginals began to crop up more frequently in the later 19th century as dark silhouettes against the light and space of the Australian land. (9) The appearance of this noble savage, dressed in skins and engaged in traditional activities, takes place against the historical expansion of grazing into the less hospitable areas of the continent. Painting the noble savage coincided with the decline of another fantasy about the interior. This was the idea that an inland sea must lie there, waiting to be discovered and exploited. Indeed, the first piece of Utopian fiction written and set in Australia narrated the blissful repose that could be found on the shores of this delusion, in the arms of a thriving, pale-skinned civilization cut off from the rest of the world. (10) After the loss of several famous explorers, the dryness of the centre became the greater wisdom, and this fantasy of an oceanic interior was superseded by the idea of Aborigines living in harmony with nature and themselves. (11)
For Ian McLean, the absence of the Aboriginal in colonial art and its presence are two sides of the same conceptual coin. (12) The latter fills a void brought about by the absent expanses of the continent, in a substitution of one misrepresentation for another. While McLean wants to overcome the contrariness of such positions with a third way that is redolent of Homi Bhabha's hybridity, here I want to remain with the second moment, with the romanticization of the Aboriginal, insofar as it persists today. Whether as a spectator at Tjapukai Aboriginal Culture Park, or while shopping for 'authentic' Aboriginal art, non-Indigenous people frequently consume constructions of the tribal and traditional that are implicitly utopian, as they gesture to harmonious ways of life. While a marxist tradition extending from Ernst Bloch to Fredric Jameson has discovered the utopian buried in the most commercial of products, from sports games to soap operas, the utopian content of the romanticized Aboriginal is more immediately visible. The image of the idyllic native, whether the silhouette of a man holding a spear atop a rock face or a colourful dance for tourists, is closer to the imagination of a collective life than many other cultural products whose utopianism is obscured by a more immediate libidinal satisfaction. These representations of the Aboriginal reconstitute the double-articulation that Kendrick points to in the original Utopia. While in More the uneven development of early capitalism gives rise to the deterritorialization of the feudal mode of production and the consequent production of space, here idyllic representations of the Aboriginal reterritorialize the differentiations brought about by colonialism. Such representations are a reverse colonization of the void brought about by racial and cultural differentiation.
Contemporary scholarship on Utopia is, however, interested in the future, while the construction of Aboriginality as tribal and traditional ties it to the past. The difference is elaborated by none other than Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, whose utopian imagination distinguished an advanced communism to come from a primitive communism that lay in the European past. (13) In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels identified the presence of primitive communism in the present day, making extensive reference to the early anthropology of Aboriginal Australia. (14) He elaborated a theory of human development that had evolved from this state of primitive communism to place increasing prohibitions on both sexual relations and property ownership, eventually becoming a fully-fledged system of monogamy and capitalism. Aboriginal Australian society belongs to the lower and earlier stages of such a development, at the furthest remove from this highly structured system of isolation and alienation. For Marx and Engels this state of existence stands at one end of a lineage of modes of production that has advanced communism at the other. Utopia is origin and destination, from which the human race has come and to which it will return. The difference between them lies in the redistribution of surplus. While an advanced communism determines the fate of surplus according to need, the primitive redistributes according to kinship systems. The latter precede and resolve the contradictions of capitalism, in a figuration of time before and after history.
The play of similitude and difference in theories of advanced and primitive communism is helpful for an understanding of the way in which utopian representations of the Aboriginal function. For a non-Indigenous cultural consumer, living amidst the breakdown of extended family structures in late capitalism, kinship may well be associated with an unrecoverable past, or remain on the other side of a racial and cultural barrier. In this way, the consumption of Aboriginal utopianism enacts that hypocrisy of More's original text, in which a first culture reinforces the spatial
boundaries of an invading culture. It is, however, to the maintenance of kinship relations among Indigenous people that non-Indigenous people may well look for a working model of utopian life. Remote communities, long established in the Australian interior, offer an approximation of what Marx and Engels understood by primitive communism. While a class of educated Indigenous people took power over these communities during the self-determination era of the 1970s, often displacing the traditional authority of the elders into a new political space, kinship remains a principal mechanism by which surplus is shared. Relatives are obliged to give whatever they have to each other, to share wealth, transport and home. The land itself is also shared, surpassing the Western system of private property with a communistic system of title that was likewise established in the 1970s. Thus the association of the utopian imagination with Indigenous community is not entirely misplaced. Even Captain Cook, scout for the invaders, offers a precedent for thinking of Indigenous communities not only in utopian but in critical utopian terms, when he notes in his journal that:
they are far happier than we Europeans, being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary Conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a Tranquility that is not disturbed by the Inequality of Condition. The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all the things necessary for life, they covet not Magnificent houses ... (15)
So it is that this observation of a utopian way of life turns into a critique of Western capitalism.
Yet the association between the utopian ideal and remote Indigenous communities in particular needs to be accompanied by a list of anti-utopian provisions. After all, utopian spatialization is the provenance of a specifically Western heritage of imagination, and should not be confused with the actual. Most urgent among these provisos is the lack of adequate and appropriate health care, where a premature death rate leaves communities spending much of the year in sorry time. In this sense, and in many others, these places are hardly utopian. Similarly, the classification of remote communities in the framework of primitive communism may imply that they are on the bottom of some ladder of political, social and economic evolution. It was those who came after Marx and Engels, and witnessed the imperial ideologization of state communism in the USSR and China, who addressed this problem within marxist theory. The idea that different modes of production could be simultaneous with each other recovers primitive communism from Marx's lineage of modes of production. (16) Nor is primitive communism on the lower rungs of some ladder of historical development. They are to be differentiated from each other by the ontology of their organization, their cultural specificity marking them out as distinctively utopian formations. Thus the model of simultaneous modes of production recovers the category of primitive communism not only from the problems of a paternalistic historical succession, but also from the generalization of difference.
It is with this in mind that the distinction between advanced and primitive communism becomes useful for thinking through the way in which Aboriginal representations are used to construct utopian spatializations today. For while thus far the distinction between primitive and advanced communisms has been one between the impossible and the possible, the past and the future, the location of Aboriginal representations does in fact vary in time and availability. Again, it is science fiction that best allegorizes the relationship between cultures, or in this case the construction of Aboriginal and primitive communisms. A first example of such is Marlo Morgan's bestselling Mutant Message Down Under. (17) Here the science fictional tropes of telepathy and inter-species communication turn up in the multiple talents of an Aboriginal tribe who take her walkabout. These superpowers are, however, doomed, as Morgan repeats the age-old association of romanticism with extinction, writing that her mysterious hosts have decided in the face of Western civilization to pass from the Earth. That Morgan claims her tale to be true only brings her repetition of this 19thcentury dyad to a more damaging level of representation for contemporary Indigenous people. For the novel only represents Indigenous Australians in this authentic but lost tribe, or as spiritually lost on the streets of an unnamed Australian city. Either way, there is no future for Indigenous people, and the construction of a primitive utopia only takes place to allow Morgan to heroize her own role as a messenger from an unrecoverable past.
Mutant Message Down Under reconfigures a literary history in which utopian spatializations are not reconciled with the possibility of actual social change. Phillip Wegner suggests as much in the case of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward. (18) This 19th-century utopia of the fictional year 2000 propagandizes social change while being disdainful of actions carried out by the working-class movements of its time. Immensely popular, Looking Backward capitalized on the distress of people living in unhappy working conditions while smothering the very opportunity they had for changing them. These contradictions are not absent from More's original text either. His infamous claims that the book was not meant to be taken seriously, that its proposals for social reform were in fact lighthearted, have been a yoke for the utopian cause ever since. Marx's own rejection of utopian fancy was made in the same bleak light, as he identified utopian fiction with an aristocracy wanting to maintain the status quo against the truly revolutionary pragmatism of the proletariat. (19) In each case, Utopia turns into the anti-utopian. Mutant Message Down Under enacts this reversal too, placing claims for the actual existence of Indigenous utopian forms under the inevitability of their own extinction.
The fate of the imaginary place of primitive communism in the constellation of the Western imagination is more complex in a most recent popular success for utopian fiction. By settling a previously uninhabited planet, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy appears to bypass the violence of the colonial process toward first peoples. (20) However, the return of the repressed is at work in this narrative of colonization, and the place of indigenous authority appears once again in a Martian version of the environmental movement. The Reds look upon Mars as a wilderness that must be defended, in a defamiliarization of contemporary environmental movements. The reasons for the preservation of Mars, however, are uncannily reminiscent of protectionist arguments for the preservation of Aboriginal people and culture in early Australia. These arguments have two sides to them, the scientific and the romantic. In Robinson's trilogy, the Reds argue that the preservation of Mars should lead to an improved understanding of the origins of the universe and life. The other Red position is one that defends rock for rock's sake; that argues for the intrinsic worth of the planet. In 19th- and early 20th-century Australia, positive representations of Indigenous people are also scientific and romantic. Engels, for instance, is interested in Aboriginal society insofar as it offers an insight into the origins of civilization. Romantic representations such as the noble savage instead emphasize the harmony and natural integrity of a way of life. That both of these positions rely on static constructions of Aboriginalism, of a culture unchanged over thousands of years, betrays the utopian spatialization of a fantasy common to both. The Mars trilogy narrates the way in which both modes of reasoning are tied to the assumption of extinction, as the Red position on Mars becomes untenable before the wholesale terraforming of Mars. Thus the conditions for the establishment of this most recent utopian spatialization are not so far from More. In building a version of Marx's advanced communism on Mars, the primitive must be destroyed.
There is, however, another figuration of indigenous authority in the Mars trilogy that is not destined to disappear. Over the course of the books the so-called First Hundred arrivals on Mars accumulate longevity and celebrity, which grants them a degree of generational authority. Life extension treatments allow them to play out their political differences over centuries, and like gods their actions are on the scale of a planet. Their position of respect is achieved rather than bestowed, however, and provides a means of imagining how it is that first peoples, such as the Indigenous people of Australia, could assume leadership in some imagined future nation. With tens of thousands of years with which to assemble a heritage of place, Indigenous Australian cultures carry the cultural authority of the generations who have lived there. The Mars trilogy suggests the ease with which this authority may be transferred from the past into the future, as the older inhabitants of the planet enact their own heritage in everyday affairs. While the utopian form of this future Mars may well take on the appearance of an advanced communism, as a loose constitutional arrangement binds different collectives together, the persistence of the First Hundred, the mingling of their interpersonal relations with political history, simulates the kinship relations of primitive communism. They are for all purposes an extended family, yet one that is engaged in processes that are of the character of advanced communism.
It is a new generation of tall and angular Martians who look upon the politicking of these aged immigrants with puzzled disdain. This new breed has lost the traumas associated with millennia of terrestrial complications, and instead takes its utopian life for granted. Here is the abolition of politics that should accompany any utopian realization, as the gap between life and government closes into a communistic ontology. By the third book, the first settlers are beginning to forget how to politic too, as their memories start to fall away from their aged minds. Forgetting is the condition by which they become utopians, as the traumas that originally drove them shift into history. Even the militant leader of the Reds, Ann, who over the course of the trilogy experienced the gradual and painful loss of an original, unspoiled Mars, finds that forgetting has changed her personality:
'I've forgotten my whole self. I think there's someone else in me now. In partway. A kind of opposite. My shadow, or the shadow of my shadow. Seeded, and growing inside me.' 'How do you mean?' Sax said apprehensively. 'An opposite. She thinks just what I wouldn't have thought.' She turned away, as if shy. 'I call her Counter-Ann.' (21)
Such a display of personal sentiment from the once distant personality of the defender of Mars is testament to the power of this new mode of being, seducer of even the staunchest of dispositions. Yet the loss of this other Ann is indicative of the problems to be found even in this most heterogeneous and tolerant of utopias, as the truly inassimilable position of the Reds is overcome in a simple forgetting. Again, the post-colonial situation of Australia reveals the way in which utopian spatialization carries with it an anti-utopian double. For such a forgetting with regard to the traumas of invasion and colonization would enact a repression of the differences between the cultures of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. The mechanism of forgetting must simultaneously be considered as an anti-utopian mechanism, a closing down of certain kinds of communication.
While Mutant Message Down Under and the Mars trilogy configure their primitive communist tropes with regard to the past, another science fiction novel imagines strong kinship relations in an imagined future. Ursula Le Guin's Always Coming Home is largely set in the Na Valley, somewhere in California where everybody is related to everybody else. (22) There are no real strangers, only those who are to be welcomed into one's home. The novel furnishes a mental exercise in thinking about kinship not from the outside, as the other novels considered here do, but from the inside. Always Coming Home is set in a distant time and after an apocalyptic war, and is thus theoretically populated by the descendants of the reader. The coming of a race of Condor men, who want to build roads and bridges without consulting the local people, leaves the characters of the valley puzzled as to how one can live as a stranger to the world that surrounds you. It is in this Condor society that the readers of Always Coming Home will recognize an analogy for their own alienated present. In alternating sections, Le Guin reproduces the two books of More's Utopia, one a narrative about the Condor invasion, and the other an ethnography about the lives of the Kesh. It is this latter that reproduces the spatialization distinct to the utopian genre, and yet its ahistorical immersion in custom and culture, the self-coherence of its world on the level of language and ontology, make it resemble a non-heroic fantasy.
Certainly this is a different kind of utopia to The Dispossessed, written by the same author more than ten years earlier. (23) While the existence of computers in Always Coming Home is something of an aside to the day-to-day lives of the people in Na Valley, in The Dispossessed the planet-wide computer network assigns names and determines where one is to work, sending the anarchist utopians to this or that province as need determines. This shift in Le Guin's oeuvre from science fiction to fantasy can be thought of as a response to the failure of the utopian movements of 1968 to bring about actual revolutionary change. While the references to the year '68 in The Dispossessed suggest that Le Guin is working through the implications of this recent history, by the time of Always Coming Home, Utopia is instead located in the sense of kinship, the shift from one to the other signalling that from an advanced to a primitive communism. (24) Le Guin's change is aligned to a market in which fantasy was growing in popularity. Whether this corresponds to an increasing interest in imaginary versions of primitive communism remains a question for further research, in a generic field that has had far less scholarly attention paid to it than science fiction. Its imagination may well be subject to the same kinds of criticisms that are relevant to a consumption of Aboriginal representations, as fantasy is frequently defined by its impossibility, and thus by the unavailability of its utopias. (25) It is the quality of Always Coming Home to defy this generic expectation, and to entertain the imagination of kinship systems in a future that are not a total impossibility. However, if the inhabitants of Na Valley required a holocaust to bring about such radical social change for Californians, it is a poor comparison to the utopianism of The Dispossessed, in which people themselves brought about revolutionary change in a recent past.
It is the shift from an advanced to a primitive communism in Le Guin's oeuvre that is of interest here, because it indicates that the ability to imagine both kinds of utopia has been alive and well in the recent past. If in the first case, the viability of this imagination relates to the viability of social change, the latter may well be indicative of a certain interest in imagining life with stronger kinship ties. Such a cognitive exercise, I want to suggest, is analogous to imagining what it would be like to live within an Indigenous community today. Indeed, a recent article by Hetti Perkins on the subject of Aboriginal art bore a title that could well have belonged to a science fiction anthology. In 'Parallel Universe, Other Worlds', Perkins provides a glossary for translating between these worlds. (26) Le Guin also constructs a glossary for the imaginary world of the Kesh. Translation is a necessary process between worlds that are distinct from each other, worlds that do not share much in common. It requires not only words, but an imaginative leap to fill in the gaps of understanding, the spaces opened by difference that language cannot entirely fill. In recent anthropology and other writing about remote Indigenous Australian cultures, there has been a shift away from the semantics of understanding, of systemic descriptions. (27) This is also a shift away from utopian spatialization, which carries with it the potentiality for imperial violence. Not understanding another culture can be as important as understanding, and the acknowledgement of misunderstanding can be immensely productive for the translation process. (28) These texts enact a performance of utopianism in bringing about a communication that would otherwise not take place between worlds.
While it is tempting to valorize these new representations of Indigenous cultures and peoples at the price of the old, the marxist critique that finds utopian content in all kinds of degraded texts emphasizes the potentiality buried within them. Even Mutant Message Down Under offers a message of hope for inter-racial and inter-cultural relations, as it demonstrates that there is some degree of interest in the Indigenous. Although Aboriginality in this text may be crassly misrepresentative, at least the difference of this utopian form emphasizes the break between Indigenous and non-Indigenous worlds. It is this difference that can be the only basis for a communication that acknowledges the irreconcilability of kinship structures with Western ways of life. Unlike the imagination that accompanies advanced communism, kinship cannot be forgotten or resolved by the political space between cultures. In this sense, McLean's third way is unfeasible with regard to remote communities, because hybridity overwrites the radical difference of this boundary. Yet the spatialization that accompanies the utopian imagination, the leap into the mind of someone living in a different situation, presents just as many difficulties for a model of communication and mediation. After all, violence has been inherited from its original reterritorialisation, in a willful neglect of what is in favour of what might be. In this sense, utopia always carries with it the anti-utopian, a content that qualifies the ambitions of the form.
(1.) This article uses the terms 'Aboriginalism' and 'Aboriginal' to refer to Anglocentric constructions of Australian Indigenous people.
(2.) T. More, Utopia (1516), trans. R. Robinson, Ware, Wordsworth, 1997, p. 74.
(3.) C. Kendrick, 'More's Utopia and Uneven Development', Boundary 2, vol. XIII, no. 2/3, 1985, pp. 233-66.
(4.) See T. Moylan, Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia, Oxford, Westview, 2000.
(5.) H. G. Wells, War of the Worlds (1898), Wisconsin, Golden, 1964, p. 13.
(6.) For an account of social Darwinism in colonial Australia, see B. Smith, The Spectre of Truganini, Sydney, ABC Books, 1980, p. 21.
(7.) A. P. Elkin, The Australian Aborigines, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1974, p. 366.
(8.) Elkin, The Australian Aborigines, p. 366.
(9.) See I. McLean, White Aborigines: Identity Politics in Australian Art, New York, Cambridge
(10.) Anon., '"Oo-a-deen", or, The Mysteries of the Interior Unveiled' (1847), Australian Science Fiction, V. Ikin (ed.), Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 1982, pp. 16-20.
(11.) For an account of the emptiness encountered by the explorers, see R. D. Haynes, Seeking the Centre: The Australian Desert in Literature, Art and Film, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
(12.) I. McLean, 'Being and Nothing: Figuring Aboriginality in Australian Art History', First Peoples, Second Chance: The Humanities and Aboriginal Australia, T. Smith (ed.), Canberra, Australian Academy of the Humanities, 1999, pp. 107-29.
(13.) K. Marx and F. Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), Peking, Foreign Languages Press, 1968.
(14.) F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Moscow, Progress, 1948. Arena Journal No.26 On Line 4/9/06 4:56 PM Page 182
(15.) Quoted in Smith, First Peoples, Second Chance, p. 19.
(16.) See B. Hindess and P. Hirst, Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975.
(17.) M. Morgan, Mutant Message Down Under: A Woman's Journey into Dreamtime Australia, London, Thorsons, 1991. I am indebted to Ian Buchanan for pointing out the science fictional qualities of this text, and to Gareth Griffiths for his tale of dining with Morgan.
(18.) P. Wegner, Utopia, the Nation, and the Spatial Histories of Modernity, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2002, pp. 62-98.
(19.) Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, pp. 60-73.
(20.) K. S. Robinson, Red Mars, London, Voyager, 1996; K. S. Robinson, Green Mars, New York, Bantam, 1996; K. S. Robinson, Blue Mars, New York, Bantam, 1996.
(21.) Robinson, Blue Mars, p. 693.
(22.) U. Le Guin, Always Coming Home, London, Harper Collins, 1985.
(23.) U. Le Guin, The Dispossessed, London, Gollancz, 1974.
(24.) Le Guin, Always Coming Home, pp. 292, 319.
(25.) See, for example, J. Clute and J. Grant, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, New York, St Martins, 1997, p. 338; G. Wolfe, Critical Terms for Science Fiction and Fantasy: A Glossary and Guide to Scholarship, New York, Greenwood, 1986, p. 38; B. Attebery, The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1980, pp. 1-3.
(26.) H. Perkins, 'Parallel Universe, Other Worlds', N. Papastergiadis (ed.), Complex Entanglements: Art, Globalisation and Cultural Difference, Sydney, Rivers Oram, 2003, pp. 57-68.
(27.) See, for example, H. Morphy, Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1991.
(28.) For one history of such misunderstanding, see R. Trudgen, Why Warriors Lie Down and Die, Darwin, Aboriginal Resource and Development Services, 2000.
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|Title Annotation:||Part III: Australian Utopias|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2006|
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