Ethics of Representation and Self-reflexivity: Nicolas Rothwell’s Narrative Essays


  • Stephane Christophe Cordier University of Sydney University of Wollongong


Nicolas Rothwell, Place, Space, Settler colonial studies, Spatial representations, The sublime, Romanticism, W.G. Sebald, Non-belonging


ROBCON - Ethics of Representation and Self-reflexivity: Nicolas Rothwell’s Narrative Essays

While many contemporary Australian writers pitch their narratives on the coastal fringes, where most Australians reside, Nicolas Rothwell returns obsessively to the interior where one senses a sense of unfinished business. The spatial instabilities that resulted from the settler colonial project act as a catalyst for unsettling prior forms of knowledge and belief. Rothwell’s works feature real-and-imagined characters caught between fiction and non-fiction, the lies in the land and the lie of the land. His narratives create a form of generic disorientation that has a political, social and epistemological purpose. Central to Rothwell’s literary project is the reminder that spatial representations influence spatial practices. The author advocates for a break from the novelistic tradition; the country has seen enough literary and legal fictions that had catastrophic consequences for the native population and the environment.

I argue that Rothwell’s spatial and literary renegotiations culminate in the formation of a new literary genre, the narrative essay. The author decolonises place, space and literary forms to articulate ethical models of non-belonging. Rothwell offers a transformative sublime aesthetics that I analyse as an expression of Bill Ashcroft’s ‘horizonal sublime’ and Christopher Hitt’s ‘ecological sublime’. I compare Rothwell’s ethics of representation, characterised by a self-reflexive prose, narrative instability and narrative regression, to that of Anglo-German author W.G. Sebald, who uses similar techniques in his evocation of a ruined Europe. Rothwell not only presents man’s propensity for a ‘Natural History of Destruction’, he is also intent on identifying the mechanisms at work in building the future.


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