Disrecognized Space

agressi sunt mare tenebrarum, quid in eo esset exploraturi

Standing on (un)solid ground

Bearing the Images of various Species of Contention
William Blake: Jerusalem (Plate 69)

Truth, meaning and knowledge are culturally dependent, rather than existing as absolutes. This essay discusses the formation known as Uluru or Ayers Rock, and how its depiction creates a number of cultural meanings. The image will be addressed in relation to its significance as a cultural sign and its appropriation in a number of discourses – particularly the important Australian discourse of race and its construction of identity, and how these meanings are expressed through the interweaving of signs, intertextuality and representation. How these meanings have supplanted the overarching ‘truth’ of Humanism will also be briefly addressed.This photograph (Sunita 2009) is typical of the innumerable images of Uluru that exist and that have become ‘iconic’ and/or stereotypical.


Humanism has been an influential view of culture for a number of centuries up to the twentieth century. Using a human-centred, rationalist view of the world it aimed for an absolute Truth based on a teleological ideal (Lecture 2 2010, p. 2) in which culture and humanity were eternal verities subject to an objective, independent viewpoint.

From a Humanist stance, Uluru can be defined by a number of factual statements. It can be located by a (culturally specific) referencing system at a particular latitude and longitude; it can be described in terms of certain characteristics such as 3.6 km in length and 348 m in height (Vanhal 2006); it can be classified as a sandstone rock created by geological processes outlined by science; and its colour changes can be described in terms of atmospherics (Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities 2010a). Since Humanism viewed knowledge from a European perspective, Uluru was seen (literally) as a new and undefined object. Ernest Giles was the first to ‘see’ Uluru in 1872, and William Gosse ‘named’ it Ayers Rock the following year (Awaye! 30 October 2010).

After the upheaval of the twentieth century a postmodern perspective distrusts Grand Narratives, proclaiming universally applicable truths are no longer applicable (Barker 2008, p. 195) and culture has become a shifting sequence of numerous articulations that form, dissipate and reform (Barker 2008, p. 200). Previously suppressed readings of the rock have been allowed to be heard, but this has also increased the cultural disjuncture that Uluru has come to signify.

The image of Uluru is a Sign in the semiotic sense (Chandler n.d.b), consisting of both Signifier (the way it is represented – in this case a photograph of a type which has become iconic/clichéd) and Signified (what the Signifier means, which is both less clear and subject to interpretation). A sign, therefore, becomes a significant point of articulation for exposing and interpreting cultural viewpoints. Signs, as Thwaites, Davis and Mules note (1994, p. 32), obtain their (arbitrary but not random) meanings through differences, and it is this partitioning off that is important in the symbol of Uluru.

The photographic image while it purports to ‘represent’ reality (Chandler (n.d.b) notes photographs ‘stand for’ their subjects) is not reality itself. Indeed, photography itself can be seen as a Western way of seeing. Allen (2000, p. 177) notes that photography, once considered a representation of something real, is now seen as functioning through the ‘codes and conventions’ of the viewer enabling the image with its meaning(s). Osborne and Wintle (2006, p. 16) note images are used to construct national identities, as a ‘provisional and performative’ process, but this can also become a colonialist refusal to acknowledge the other (p. 17). The image of Uluru can be seen as an image of Australian identity, but which identity – coastal, Anglo-Saxon; Aboriginal; an unspecified? Thus Uluru is polysemic, waiting for a signified to be offered by the viewer (Allen 2000, p. 178). Since this, like the majority of images of Uluru, is taken from a distance with no humans visible, the signified can become whatever the viewer wants it to be. Whether that is of a sacred site, an object to be climbed, something to be danced on, something to ‘connect’ with Aboriginals or a multitude of possibilities remains open.

Representation is a central concern of modern cultural studies (Barker 2008, pp. 7-8), posting subject positions from which texts are interpreted (Barker 2008, p. 310). Representation is the way we make meanings. Stuart Hall describes how objects do not have intrinsic meaning, but are given meaning(s) in order to construct a meaningful world (Brooker 2003, pp. 222-223). Thus representation becomes a political issue from which subjects are both categorised, and position us in relation to texts (Barker 2008, p. 453). Subjects can be represented by a number of identifiers such as race, sex, gender, class, religion (or, often, a combination of these). Commonly people are represented by stereotypes (Barker 2008, p. 268) rather than attempting to address the representation that the individual chooses at any particular time. Cavallaro (2001, p. 12) describes Rorty’s distinction between the world (existing outside the viewer) and truth (generated from within the viewer as a function of language). This is the constructionist model that gives meaning through language (Macquarie University 2010b).

From an Aboriginal perspective, Uluru represents an embodiment of Tjukurpa (Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities 2010b), a belief and law system integrated into song, objects, locations, dance and ceremonies. Cavallaro (2001, p. 40) also notes how dominant cultural norms efface their presence (and power) by assuming that a representation somehow portrays the ‘real’ rather than an interpretation mediated by the “codes and conventions” of a culture. The meaning of Uluru is contingent on the chosen discourse(s) and ideology(s) of the interpreter.

The image of Uluru functions to a large extent through intertextuality since it is, on its own, a signifier without a signified. Barker (2008, p. 203) notes that intertextuality – particularly in a postmodern sense – is both explicit and oblique, containing links to the specific and also across boundaries. This creates a reinforced layering of meanings that reference each other (p. 350) and provide the opportunity for numerous cultural meanings. Intertextuality reads texts laterally, referencing existing codes which might be dominant or repressed (Brooker 2003, p. 146). There is, therefore, no reading of texts, but only re-reading: the viewer is the author, creating a temporary anchorage, according to Barthes (Chandler n.d.a).

An image of Uluru, therefore, obliquely references a cross cultural behaviour of signifying stones and rocks with particular powers (Butler 2000, p. 34). Butler quotes Dr Marion Anderson describing Uluru (p. 36): “Standing before it […] inspires a sense of awe and amazement.” The intertextuality of Uluru also intersects with definitions of identity. Brereton (1997, p. 32) notes the significance of flags in giving meaning to identity in the context of a possible new Australian flag. He quotes Hundertwasser, who used Uluru in his design, as noting the ‘central’ position of the rock in Australian geography as well as being “the central sacred symbol of Australia”. In 1975, when Uluru was handed back to its traditional owners, the Governor-General Sir Ninian Stephen said it was “not merely in the centre of our continent but at its very heart” (Awaye! 30 October 2010).

While there are a number of discourses centred around Uluru, the most contested is that of race. When Europeans discovered Uluru it was petra nullius, requiring naming. While there had been indigenous uses of the rock, these were superseded by the new cultural paradigm which viewed these as a now terminated history (Serventy & Harris 1971, p. 111).

Early images of Aboriginal people emphasised their “cultural distance” (Barnes 2007), including the contrasting of ‘primitive’ versus ‘modern’. In a 1958 TAA poster (Lebovic, n.d.) Uluru bisects the ‘tourist gaze’ between Western technological dominance and savage – a wild frontier where Aboriginal people were “the ‘lowest’ and earliest form of mankind that was closer to brutes than human beings”.

Race has become a resistant reading of the rock, especially since the 1970s, more prominently seen at particularly significant times such as the handing over of ownership by the Hawke government, or the recent twenty-fifth anniversary of that event. In 1975 the Chief Minister of the NT, Paul Everingham, expressed the dominant reading by describing Aboriginal people as a less developed race of lower intelligence (though he was also reinforcing White group identity) (Awaye! 30 October 2010): “this tiny vested interest group of very unsophisticated people who are totally manipulated by a couple of smart White advisors”.

Dunn et al (2004, pp. 410-411) differentiate between ‘old racism’ and ‘new racism’. In contrast to seeing other races as inferior, they describe the new form as an intolerance of what is now seen as a threat to (white, Anglo-Saxon) society, an erosion of the boundaries of ‘Self’ and ‘Other’. They see a defining characteristic as the need to specify (an) Australian identity which includes some groups but excludes others.

This new racism is perhaps most clearly evident in the writings of Andrew Bolt, with his concern about “us” and “them” (Bolt 2010a). This is evident in his reaction to the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Anangu people being given (back) ownership of Uluru (Bolt 2010b) where the rock is referred to as “Ayers Rock” rather than the Anangu name. The comments generally consider Aboriginal peoples (as an undifferentiated group) lazy and reliant on ‘handouts’, “victims” who lack self respect or “bludgers, drunks, grubby, my taxes”. Uluru becomes a means of defining ownership and belonging to “Australia” by excluding those who do not satisfy the cultural identifiers of this group. In this binary hierarchy, the unquestioned superior White exists outside of, and eternally different from, the Other.

In a comment at another post (Bolt 2010c) a commenter writes “For the record, as soon as I heard the climb was closing in a couple of years, I took the family there and we all climbed the sucker. […] This is my country, I’m free to travel wherever I like, I will not be held hostage by these people.” The commenter also chiselled off a piece of the rock as a souvenir. In this way the commenter owns and appropriates without (apparently) any concession to either Aboriginal law and custom, or even European law and custom (in reality, s/he would probably not choose to offend in a church, for example, nor is s/he ‘free’ to trespass on much of Australia). For this person, identity is best protected and reinforced by an attack, not directly on the “Other”, but the signifier for the “Other”.

This is the same thing (though perhaps with less rationalising and therefore more open) that Atkinson and Woods (2008, p. 3) refer to as “pathologising the sexually violent lives of ‘the objectified other’.” In the context of Aboriginal people, this objectification refuses to acknowledge the violence done through a systematic process of colonisation, nor the reinforcement of this process at government levels (p.16). Renaming Uluru and restoring ownership can, in a real sense, be seen as removing objectification and replacing it with identity.

Cavallaro (2001, p. 129), following Kristeva, observes that no culture can be considered stable due to the many threads that run through it, often at cross purposes. Creating the “Other” externalises facets of this conflict that we consider too difficult to deal with directly, thus transposing the unconscious threat to a less threatening external object.

Uluru and, in particular, the many images portraying it standing as a dominating presence amongst sparse, deserted, bushland, therefore multiplies via the viewer’s gaze and choice of discourse and ideology, to create a range of narratives and truths, either normalising pre-existing cultural viewpoints, or challenging them, rather than being a simple, absolute ‘truth’.


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