An independent forum of strategy, tactics and history in the Australian left, green and labour movements
Over the past 15 years the rise of postmodernism and cultural theory has had a devastating impact on the intellectual life of the left in Australia. It has drastically affected the humanities, it has contributed substantially, along with some other factors, to the elimination of narrative Australian history as an academic discipline in some universities.The effect of this sweeping intellectual fashion in the humanities can only be compared with the impact of the cane toad on Australian fauna and the prickly pear on the flora. Like those two pests, the high theory of postmodernism tends to wipe out everything else in the cultural territory through which it sweeps.
Discussion of this phenomenon presents certain difficulties to me at a personal level. Several of the high priests and priestesses of the new clerisy are old personal friends, or at least, not particularly unfriendly old acquaintances. I have witnessed this bizarre beast grow and grow, right from its first landing in Australia via the works of Althusser, Foucault, Thomas Szas and Roland Barthes in the early 1970s.
For my sins, I sold in my bookshop hundreds of copies of books by the above, in the old Paladin and Verso editions, when they were the new and coming thing. They of course competed in those days with such writers as Hunter S. Thompson, Carlos Castenada and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.
Surveying the cultural devastation caused by the structuralists and postmodernists, I now believe that, by comparison, Hunter S. Thompson, Castenada and Robert Pirsig, who, after all, don't claim that their writings are some sort of science or history, are much less damaging to the cultural landscape than the high theorists. Castenada et al at least have some virtue as entertainers if your tastes lie in their direction.
Witnessing the devastation of the intellectual terrain by postmodernism, structuralism and the high theory, and having played a part in the wide distribution of many of these texts when they first hit our shores, I now feel a bit like the people must have felt later, who, with the best of intentions, introduced the rabbit or the cane toad to Australia.
I remember when Andre Frankovits (now the companion of Meaghan Morris) who, with his mate Arthur King, had been battling along making hammocks for a living, got the quite smart idea that he would reprint in Australia the works of Baudrillard, one of the early structuralists, partly as a business venture and partly because he agreed with the works intellectually.
I never heard that Andre made much out of the books as a business venture He priced them a bit too cheaply. But they certainly made a considerable impact in academe, and other publishers came along publishing the same and similar books at far higher prices, as the postmodernist intellectual fashion developed.
I have been a bit amazed to observe the rise and rise of my old acquaintance Meaghan Morris, as the Pirate Queen of the new high theory. When I knew Meaghan a bit in the early 1970s, she was a warm-hearted, affectionate, rather insecure, slightly neurotic person (as we all were to some degree in those days), already a considerable polymath, with an enormous but then rather undirected knowledge of Western literature.
I have been positively awed by her rise to become the Australian megastar of cultural theory of this whole discipline, which has devastated the humanities rather more effectively than the Nato bombs devastated the Serbian military machine.
At a human level, I'm impressed and pleased by the worldly success of an old friend, but intellectually my reaction is a good deal more ambivalent. I find Meaghan Morris's writings witty and entertaining and, thank heaven, a good deal less obscure than most practitioners of postmodernism, but even in her work I am irritated by the reduction of many questions that require social and human activity and intervention, to witty abstractions.
Most Australian postmodernists and high theorists are far more obscure and pretentious than Morris, and I suspect the popularity of Morris's work rests in the fact that she at least can be understood most of the time.
In a similar way I have known John Docker, another significant Australian postmodernist, and his wife, Anne Curthoys, a respected academic historian turned fellow traveller with postmodernism, most of my adult life. They are old friends. It is a bit cruel to be joining a crusade against a cultural fashion partly created by old friends and acquaintances, but I suppose that is one of the hazards of political and cultural life.
Keith Windschuttle and Alan Sokal
In intellectual activity it's usually fraudulent to lay claim to too much individuality. In developing ideas we always stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us, and we are always influenced by the books we have read.
We usually proceed, if we've got any common sense, by way of study, analysis and, ultimately, criticism of other people's ideas, if we come to disagree with them or grow beyond them. Knowledge is a spiral. If we don't proceed like this and claim too much special individual intellectual discovery, we are usually either (1) plagiarising others without acknowledgement or (2) mad.
In this spirit, I hereby introduce into this narrative the two major recent introductions to and critiques of postmodernism and high theory. They are both, in their own special ways, indispensible for any serious person who wants to come to grips with this cultural phenomenon.
The first book is The Killing of History by Australian
Keith Windschuttle. This book is extremely valuable because:
I disagree profoundly with Windschuttle's rejection of Marxism in the social sciences. In retrospect, his work on this book and the book itself, took place during a major transition in Windschuttle's outlook. He has now shifted over totally and spectacularly to the neoconservative right in politics. (One wonders whether Windschuttle would now repudiate the explicit defence of the Enlightenment in The Killing of History, from his new, ultra-neoconservative standpoint.)
Nevertheless, despite his subsequent transition to neoconservatism, The Killing of History remains a unique and important book. Its defence of the enlightenment and narrative history is persuasive and extremely useful. There is no book quite like Windschuttle's (which has just been reprinted in the United States) in rebutting the havoc wreaked by postmodernism in the historical and social sciences.
The second book is Intellectual Impostures by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. This is the book that stems from the magnificent, seriously intended deception perpetrated by Sokal on the postmodernist journal Social Text in 1996. Sokal, a physicist, submitted to Social Text a 35-page article, titled Transgressing the boundaries: Toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity. This piece included many of the most extravagant and mad reworkings of the physical sciences perpetrated by postmodernists, in one article, with prodigious authentic footnotes at the end.
One of the conclusions of the article was that material reality doesn't really exist! Nevertheless, Social Text did not wake up to the spoof aspect and published the piece seriously as a contribution to intellectual discourse. The Sokal/Bricmont book is mainly concerned with the madness of cultural theory applied to the natural sciences and mathematics. Like Windschuttle, they initially summarise the views of the high theorists that they intend to critique.
They then reproduce their Social Text article as a kind of demolition job, and draw out the lesson that the uncritical acceptance by the journal of their reductio ad absurdum article underlines the potential damage to the natural sciences from indiscriminate application of cultural "theory". One would be very hesitant to fly in an aircraft built or designed by a postmodernist.
In their epilogue, in summarising their critique of the high
applied to the natural sciences, some of their paragraph headings are,
in themselves, an argument, and almost don't need further explanation,
although they do go on to explain them usefully. Sample headings (to
provide something of the flavour of this book) are:
Both the above books, one about postmodernism and the social sciences and history, and the other about postmodernism and the natural sciences and mathematics, are necessary reading for anyone who has been bamboozled, bewildered or infuriated by the high theory, and are very useful tools for coming to grips with the curious, Alice-in-Wonderland territory that much academic life has become in recent times.
The devastating effect of postmodernism, in combination with other developments, on the humanities, particularly the academic discipline of history
For the past few years I have conducted a bit of a dialogue in my shop whenever people have bought or asked for books on postmodernism or the high theory, who are obviously undergraduates with a list from institutions like UTS, the Sydney Fine Arts Department or the University of Western Sydney.
I don't claim that my research methods behind the counter are particularly scientific, but I have formed a very strong impression, after cautiously starting a discussion with a number of undergraduates, that a very large number of them hate the high theory that is rammed down their necks in these institutions. They are thoroughly bewildered by it, unless they already have the kind of self-confidence that the products of certain elite private schools have, who often seem to think that they will soon master the strange new language.
The rest, the majority, thoroughly resent it, particularly, it is my impression, second-generation members of migrant families. One byproduct of this situation, it seems to me, is to sharpen the already existing gap between the high culture and the popular culture, and between education in the high culture and "practical education for a job".
I have encountered many undergraduates in this situation who have commenced a humanities course with a vague idea that they will learn something of use to them, found the high theory impenetrable and its practitioners condescending, and bounced away to concentrate solely on some course with perceived utility, such as real estate, hospitality, engineering, nursing, accountancy or economics.
As one young Greek student said to me: "I went to UTS. My parents sweated to help me go to university. My parents are old communists and I am interested in politics and history myself, and my parents said that I should do some history before I studied real estate, which I thought was a good idea. In the humanities stream at UTS they didn't teach me much history but they rammed all this incomprehensible cultural theory down my throat. I dropped the humanities, but went on with accounting."
I have met many working-class undergraduates who have had some variant of this experience. They resent both the waste of time and the cultural condescention they encounter in the high theory and its practitioners.
The Sydney University arts handbook
Anyone interested in history as a discipline is fighting a bit of a rearguard action at the moment. As the saying goes, "Those who don't study history are bound to repeat it." History is suffering in a devastating way at high school level from past changes in the curriculum. These days not even 20 per cent of students do history for the HSC. This compares with 60 per cent in the 1950s when I did the Leaving.
The history we studied was pretty conservative but, nevertheless, it was there including,at the Catholic college I went to, the cultural tension between British imperial history that we studied for the external exams and the Irish Catholic history we were taught during religion lessons.
In the 1960s and the 1970s the dramatic radicalisation among students and the young proceeded by way of sharp political criticism of the conservative history that we had been taught. But at least we knew that there had been a French Revolution, a Russian Revolution, an Easter Rising in Ireland, a Eureka Stockade, a Robertson's Land Act in Australia, and so on.
We had quite a clear idea who Lenin, Mussolini, Roosevelt, Churchill, Hitler, John Curtin, Jack Lang, Peter Lalor and Billy Hughes were. In the 1960s and the 1970s there was a considerable battle to introduce a more detailed study of Australian history and also a study of the history of revolutions and social upheavals in the 20th century, in schools and universities.
However, along came certain barbarians and under the guise of making the curriculum more "relevant", history as a discipline was dramatically downgraded in high school curriculums, to the point where last year, in the HSC, less than 20 per cent studied history in NSW. The Sydney University History Department was in the past pretty right wing, with a heavy concentration on British imperial history, European history and religious history, dictated by the conservative and evangelical Protestant beliefs of a number of the senior staff.
In the 1970s Australian history gradually got a bit of a toehold in this department, and in the 1980s quite a lot of Australian history and other social history was taught. In the early 1990s the history students even published a magazine for a couple of years, which had a considerable Australian history content, along with other material.
Well, not any more. In relation to Australian history, the cane toad function of cultural history has been devastating in the Sydney University history department. The old European history is still there, and the British history is still there, but the narrative Australian history has almost disappeared.
If you take the 1999 Arts Handbook listing for history as an example, you find 37 discrete units of study. Only five of these in any way pertain to Australia, and these five are mainly courses in cultural theory. They are Australia to 1888, a course mainly devoted to questions of cultural identity, and that ends in 1888 anyway, even, for instance, before the formation of the Labor Party. There are four other courses. called Living Memory, Maps and Dreams, Australian Cultural History and Issues in Australian Cultural History, which the description in the Arts Handbook suggests are overwhelmingly courses in "cultural theory" applied to Australia. Very little straightforward narrative Australian history at all. Very little political history, and very little social history outside the cultural framework. Very little urban history. Very little place for a text like Robert Hughes' The Fatal Shore or Manning Clark's works. Very little on the gold rushes, blackbirding, "the legend of the 1890s", the Eureka Stockade, or White Australia. No Billy Hughes, Daniel Mannix and the battle over conscription, no Jack Lang.
The sweep of Australian history completely dominated by discretely conceived cultural history which, in practice, often becomes the cultural history of the British ruling class translated to Australia.
The Sydney University History Department is an extreme case, but the situation is similar in the history departments of a lot of other universities.
Glancing through the Arts Handbook, I was fascinated to discover the resilience of the discipline called Jewish Civilization, Thought and Culture. This discipline substantially outweighs Australian history, and includes 19 discrete units of study, and is an utterly comprehensive coverage of Jewish history and culture. Many of the courses are given by the same lecturer, Suzanne Rutland. She is obviously an enthusiast and has fought hard for her discipline and has succeeded in preserving it against the poisonous combination of economic rationalism and postmodernism. Good luck to her! It's only a pity that there could not have been such an effective enthusiast for Australian history as Suzanne Rutland, somewhere in the History Department.
English departments, fine arts departments, journalism, media and communications and history departments, the sectors most devastated by postmodernism. The effect of the high theory on literary magazines and art magazines
The rise of postmodernism in Australia has coincided in universities with the economic rationalism of the 1990s. The combined effect of both things has been devastating for the humanities in many ways. Many courses have been cut back in many universities and the cuts have often been concentrated in the less fashionable, more traditional aspects of the above disciplines.
The postmodern sections of the courses, being currently fashionable have often been cut back less. One effect of these circumstances has been to sharpen the traditional differences between the "two cultures" one devoted to "practical education for life and production", and the other increasingly rarefied and removed from the real material world.The split between the "two cultures", never a good thing, has become much worse in the 1990s. In a recent article in the conservative journal, Quadrant, Windschuttle, who is a former journalist and teacher of journalism, dissects in a meticulous way the devastating impact of postmodernism in media studies on practical training for journalism. He asserts that many media studies and journalism courses teach students to deconstruct all written or oral statements at length, but teach them almost no practical journalism.
As a result, journalistic employers are reluctant to employ graduates from certain journalism courses, not because of their political opinions, but because they come out of the courses without a clue about how to research or put together a story. Many editors and working journalists echo Windschuttle's criticism of the impact of "deconstruction" on journalism schools.
English departments abound with courses in cultural theory but at least here the courses often have some relevance, because most cultural theory is essentially a literary discourse anyway, and quite a lot of it is relevant to literary theory and history.
Even in English departments, however, the dominance of this idiom, with all its associated ferocious obscurity and ambiguity of language, tends to have the cane toad effect of crowding out everything else. Fine arts departments are notoriously overwhelmed by the dense cultural theory idiom and here, again, the sheer obscurity of the language used and the whole discourse narrows down the potential students to a very small group of already well-educated super-sophisticates.
I've discussed the devastating impact on history departments above. In the whole area of the humanities the net effect is to deepen and sharpen the already existing split between the "two cultures" and to leave the humanities as the preserve of an increasingly rarefied intellectual elite who can master the obscurity of the current idiom, and can flourish in it.
One needs only to glance through such literary magazines as Meanjin or the deceased Scripsi, or such journals as the magazine of the Sydney University Fine Arts Department, to appreciate how the banal obscurity of the new wave of cultural theory has narrowed the audience for these magazines.
One effect of the narrowing of the audience is eventually that even, despite subsidies, sometimes such magazines go out of business, as Scripsi did, because almost no one is willing to spend actual money on them.
The rise and decline of the cultural studies, postmodernism book boom
I am a mainly secondhand, remainder and specialist bookseller, although I sell some new books as well. I'm also a rather determined book collector, more of books for reading and intellectual inquiry than books as objects, and I go to many book fairs and other booksellers' sales with a curious combination of incentives: the pursuit of saleable books for my shop, combined with collecting books for myself, particularly in the spheres that I am currently researching, such as the areas covered by this essay.
I have a good deal of professional respect for the mainly new bookseller, Gleebooks. In the 1980s it, in part, established its very successful business by catching the wave of the new high theory and catering to it in a very professional way, and I am sometimes even a little envious, from a business point of view, of the energetic and successful way it did this.
Gleebooks even sponsors each year a prize for new books in cultural theory and manage to keep a straight face while sponsoring this prize. (I think I would have difficulty keeping the straight face, which is perhaps one of the reasons why I'm not nearly as successful in business as Gleebooks.)
I have the utmost respect for their professionalism. For years I have frequented their six-monthly sales, where I often also buy books for myself, which I would not buy anywhere at top money, but at their very real sale prices, I feel I can afford. I have acquired many useful, obscure, initially very expensive books of social history, Australian history and so on, this way.
Over the last couple of years it has become apparent from Gleebooks sales that an enormous sales resistance has developed to books on cultural theory at the conventionally high prices that publishers set. Gleebooks makes a very creditable effort to carry at least one copy of everything in the avalanche of books of cultural theory that have come out in the last few years. But over the last couple of years, the very large number of such books that end up in their sales, indicates to me a fairly rapid decline in the actual purchase of these books for reading purposes.
Even at Gleebooks' quite ruthless sale prices, a lot of the books left at the end of their sales seem to me to be high-priced titles of cultural theory. The same books frequently turn up in the next sale. This phenomenon suggests to me that the academic fashion for postmodernism may have reached its peak and be declining a little.
More obviously, many people in the areas of academic life dominated by this idiom play the game, so to speak, but I doubt whether they actually spend much real money any more on the new books in the field, other than the ones they really have to buy.
The new epoch of the internet and photocopying seem to satisfy much of the academic market in this sphere, leading to an increasing spiral of very high retail prices and consequent overproduction in the postmodern literature-publishing industry. The Australian postmodernist publishing industry has for a number of years been dominated by Allen and Unwin, but in the last couple of years Pluto Press has bustled into the field with eight or 10 titles.
I have a feeling Pluto has left their run a bit late, but who knows. I'll be fascinated to see if the new Pluto books turn up as remainders quickly or not! In my experience, in my bookshop, undergraduates frequently ask for the secondhand philosophy section and they are looking for cheap copies of the big-name postmodernists - the eight or 10 of them, and classical writers like Nietzsche, who bear on the field.
The last thing they want to do is pay top money for these books, even the big names. No bookseller can ever have enough inexpensive secondhand copies of the big-name postmodernists. In my experience there is very little real market for the secondary figures and academic commentators in the cultural studies area. For instance, secondhand cultural studies journals don't sell well at all.
It's my experience that most people buy books most of the time for immediate gratification and entertainment, and I know very few people who find cultural studies either gratifying or particularly entertaining at the level of immediate personal reading.
Cultural theory and the real world. The work of Wark
Recently the cultural studies area has incorporated a lot of rhetoric about cyberspace and a whole idiom has emerged that celebrates the ludicrous abstractness of much cultural theory by identifying this theory with the abstractness of cyberspace and the web. Ho, hum!
One well-known postmodernist commentator, an academic who writes a lot in The Australian, delights everyone by his extraordinary real name, McKenzie Wark. This bloke is the doyen of postmodernist theorists and babblers about cyberspace. He has written several books on the theme, the most recent of which is called Celebrities, culture and cyberspace. The light on the hill in a postmodern world.
Despite all the cyberspace puff and rhetoric, his basic political message is much simpler and more pedestrian. His core argument is reasonably explicit: the best we can hope for in a postmodern world is Tony Blair's ultra-right-wing social democratic political project, or the right-wing policies of the Hawke and Keating governments. He positively celebrates the shift of the leadership of the labour movement to the extreme right, surrounding this celebration of conservative politics with his own special brand of cyberbabble.
He is openly contemptuous of such things as the increasing popular resistance to the GST and privatisation, because this resistance is an obstacle to the desirable "modernisation" of society. Predictably, Wark is a great fan of Mark Latham, the Blairite contender from the far-right of the Labor Party, for the Labor Party leadership.Mckenzie Wark's journalism is postmodernism harnessed to the project of pushing the labour movement to the right. Happily, the enormous popular resistance to privatisation and the GST indicate the possibility that with organisation and agitation the social forces still exist to thwart this development that Wark promotes.
Post modernists as snobs
Beneath the veneer of interest in popular culture that is common to many postmodernist cultural critics, there is a large and unpleasant vein of the crudest snobbery. The most unpleasant example of this that I have encountered recently is a book entitled Home/World. Space, community and marginality in Sydney's West, by Helen Grace, Ghassan Hage, Lesley Johnson, Julie Langsworth and Michael Symonds (Pluto Press, 1997).
This book is an almost perfect representation of the cultural theory idiom applied to immediate social and political questions. It makes like sociology, or even like social observation, directed at least at the idea of some sort of progressive social or political practice. On reading the book, however, this impression dissolves into the most unpleasant and abstract "deconstruction" of ordinary working class and middle class social practices that I have read anywhere in recent times.
It is also an attack on even the idea of social action to cope with such problems as urban sprawl. This book is a kind of classic of the postmodern idiom. We are told at the start:
The above paragraph, and the introductory section of this book in general, seem to me excellent examples of what Sokal and Bricmont above call ambiguity of subterfuge. What seems to me to have clearly happened is that the group of academics at Western Sydney got a grant under the general rubric of, as they put it, the politics of defining western Sydney. In normal, non-postmodernist, parlance, the notion of politics might have incorporated the notion of some political practice or activity to resolve such social and political problems as might emerge in the investigation.
Unless the grant-awarding body is absurdly light minded, it seems quite likely it thought it was making a grant for a study of some of the problems of western Sydney to aid in proposals for their solution. But along the way this group of happy postmodern academics have transformed it into something right up their alley: a series of elegant, difficult discourses, showcasing their ability to "deconstruct", and in fact ridicule, the social and cultural practices of many of the inhabitants of western Sydney.
One of the essays is a very systematic attack on all the previous attempts at social planning, such as the Cumberland Planning Scheme, which attempted to address some of the real problems of urban development. This attack is, in fact, an attack on the very idea of attempting to address real problems of urban planning.
The weaknesses of the Cumberland scheme are ruthlessly ridiculed, but no alternative model for urban development and planning is advanced. The clear implication is that all efforts at serious social planning are absurd, and by implication all that can happen is whatever is dictated by the capitalist market. Nevertheless, these absurdist Western Sydney academics implicitly present themselves as some kind of radicals!
There are four major essays in the book. The frontal assault on the very notion of any concrete proposals for urban development and the implicit argument that the attempt to resolve real problems of urban development are quite hopeless, is the article called Feral Suburbia? by Lesley Johnson. The article Outside the spaces of modernity: western Sydney and the logic of the European city, by Michael Symonds is less offensive, basically because it is so dense that I, at least, found its argument almost unintelligible. It's very erudite, but I doubt whether anyone will read it to the end.
The concluding paragraph gives something of the flavour of the article:
I am still trying to work out what the above actually means, and what Mike Symonds' conclusions actually are. I used to know Mike Symonds about 25 years ago. He had a pretty pronounced tendency to abstract thought and expression even then, and he has not got any easier to understand as he has risen in status in postmodern academic circles.
The article At home in the entrails of the west: multiculturalism, ethnic food and migrant home-building by Ghassan Hage, is, in my opinion, so bizarre that I subject it to a lengthy analysis in another essay on the whole corpus of Hage's work.
In essence, his argument boils down to the proposition that ethnic cafes are so dominated by the capitalist mode of production, catering to the tourist market, that they are a bad thing and that the only acceptable form of ethnic food is home cooking. Blimey!
The last article, Icon House: towards a suburban topophilia by Helen Grace, is the mother of them all. To my mind it embodies all the most unpleasant and offensive aspects of postmodern cultural criticism as a substitute for any concrete political or social practice in relation to the things discussed. Ms Grace takes, as her point of departure, Home World, and the phenomenon of exhibition homes and mass housing development in western capitalist countries.
She starts with an erudite discussion of past-utopian proposals or attempts at solutions of the housing problem, but her real enjoyment emerges in the middle and the end of the article, when she gets the opportunity for a "deconstruction" of the social practices of the unsophisticated working class and middle class people who flocked to exhibition homes in the 1950s and 1960s, and she has great, malicious fun with the aspirations and practices by which these implicitly ridiculous ordinary people were taken in.
This is a very common type of postmodern cultural comment, and it must be said that Ms Grace is a very classy practitioner of this arcane style and wields her pen with a very nasty panache. What I find gratuitously offensive in this whole method is the extraordinary assumption of intellectual superiority in much of this cultural criticism.
Some of it is quite funny, in the same brutal way that Barry Humphries is funny. But, nevertheless, it leaves very little space for the ordinary preoccupations of the ordinary people who engage in such "backward" cultural practices. Applied to the mass explosion of home building and acquisition by ordinary working class and middle class people, and the social contradictions and problems that were embodied in or produced by housing development after World War II, this approach of "cultural criticism" is quite useless for the development of any kind of real political or social practice in relation to mass housing.
The fact that peoples' aspirations in relation to housing were dominated, in the 1950s and the 1960s by the existing bourgeois cultural norms of the time, is hardly surprising. From any progressive or socialist or even humane point of view, however, the desire of the vast mass of people for their own home, expressed in these developments, is entirely normal, human and to be celebrated.
Amusement at some of the odd cultural features of the Australian suburban house is really quite secondary to all the material problems associated with the urban sprawl in Sydney and other Australian cities.
Such amusement and satire is hardly new anyway. Robin Boyd did it much better in the early sixties in the The Great Australian Ugliness.
The real problems are not the quite secondary cultural practices of ordinary people, but more mundane and brutal questions such as access to transport, provision of services, reorganisation of urban development to provide access to employment, and the question of all questions in relation to housing: access for all to affordable housing.
What is indicated by any serious study of the problems of western Sydney is the need for concrete and effective policies and practices for accessable mass housing, and for solutions to all the problems of urban planning. The cultural criticism in this book has absolutely nothing to say on these concrete questions, and provides no useful solutions at all, but it is an object lesson in the uselessness of postmodernism and cultural theory to any project of overcoming any of the problems of urban Sydney.
In defence of the Enlightenment
In the face of the havoc wrought by postmodernism and cultural theory in intellectual life in Australia and, in particular, the destructive effect it has had on mobilising academics and students for meaningful political activity, I often feel like starting a society for the defence of the Enlightnement, or some such body modelled on the Evatt Foundation or the Sydney Institute.
I am particularly angered by the way the cultural theory has, for the moment, pretty well killed off Marxism as an intellectual stream in educational institutions. I don't believe this will be permanent but right now the territory is pretty bleak. I am also angered at the rapid devaluation of serious political and philosophical argument, conflict and discourse.
The intellectual effect of reducing all questions to matters of language or representation is devastating. For the moment we have a generation of students in the humanities, the majority of whom have been persuaded to believe that all differences of opinion in the past over the big questions facing the human race have been total misunderstandings, and just a matter of different "narratives".
The cumulative effect of this reduction of all philosophical and historical questions to "representation", "narrative" and language, has combined with the impact of a rather degraded curriculum in history in high schools, to reverse for the moment the steady rise in the cultural level of students studying the humanities that has taken place for most of this century up until the last 10 years or so.
This intellectual decline won't be permanent either. Such declines rarely are, but we have to start a war for the revival of serious argument and debate in the social sciences, history and philosophy if we are to reverse this trend.
When I was a young bloke in the 1950s, I went to Sydney University as an undergraduate briefly, and I got involved in politics and intellectual activity. I made the personal transition from a sort of adolescent Thomism acquired from my Catholic secondary education, to a rather autodidactic kind of practical Marxism. I made this transition by way of argument and conflict between different schools of thought and practice.
I was dominated, in the healthy way that the young often are, by a crude adolescent desire and attempt to understand all things. I didn't do it particularly well, but it was certainly possible to get caught up in this wonderful world of conflict over beliefs, practices and ideas, in the 1950s and even more so in the 1960s and 1970s. Big questions were treated as such, and the great philosophical and political conflicts of the 20th century raged in my mind and day-to-day political and social life, as they did in the minds and lives of many thousands of others who were lucky enough to be young in this period.
I remember being greatly taken by a little Collier McMillan paperback that contained arguments for or against the existence of god, from such people as Jacques Maritain and Fr Martindale S.J., on the side of the existence of god, and A.J. Ayer and Bertrand Russell on the other side. I was ultimately persuaded by Ayer and Russell and I subsequently fell in love with Marxism as an intellectual system that worked well for me as a part of what seemed to me the basic human project of achieving equality and fairness in the world.
I got involved in political and social and cultural battles on all these matters. While my own political life and practice developed in a Marxist framework, nevertheless, I continued to investigate the history of the ideas and traditions and philosophies and political practices of civilisation up to that time, in a rather eclectic way. I remained conscious of, and still interested in, the enormous contribution of thinkers and belief systems that I considered had been transcended by my new outlook, but that had contributed to the development of humanity.
When I was an adolescent, in my last years at St Patricks, Strathfield, I became aware of the idea of different "narratives" in relation to modern history. We were thoroughly and effectively programmed by the Christian Brothers to regurgitate the Protestant liberal ascendancy historical view of Roberts' "History" for the external exams, and as a result of this thorough preparation, we did pretty well in those external exams, one of the factors that gave rise to the great resentment among the establishment about the considerable success of kids from Catholic schools in the Leaving Certificate.
We were also taught, however, equally systematically in religion lessons, that the alternative Catholic Medievalist anti-capitalist kind of history of people like Christopher Hollis, Chesterton and Belloc, was the true version and we should not be beguiled at all by the version we had learned for the external examiners.
We were thus made aware of different "narratives" but we were also thoroughly imbued by the Brothers with the idea of pursuing knowledge of a true history, which was, for them, the Catholic version. My idea of what is the true history of modern civilisation changed rather dramatically, in a Marxist direction, after I left St Patricks, but I am still grateful to the Brothers both for the seriousness about history that they encouraged in us and for the very sensible idea that they held that, while there were different stories it was pretty important to strive after the true story.
In retrospect, some aspects of the Catholic Medievalist critique of the development of modern capitalism seems to me of greater intrinsic value than it did when I was going through the necessary personal trauma of transcending Catholic religious belief.
The history of the 20th century, with all its pain and torment, triumph and tragedy, has included gigantic struggles over big and important questions of religion, politics, national self-determination, capitalism versus socialism, colonialism, poverty and wealth and enormous scientific and material and social changes.
It has been shot through with battles that have involved different philosophical and ethical conceptions. All these conflicts have involved enormously broader issues and realities than mere "narrative" and "representation". The temporarily triumphant, banal globalisation and capitalist neoliberalism much prefers to reduce all intellectual life to these pedestrian questions of "narrative" and "representation".
Nevertheless, the big social, political and philosophical questions will erupt again, inevitably, and this generation will have to work out for itself which synthesis of ideas and practices is true, good and useful. To do this, they will have to work on and take into account the whole body of knowledge, struggle and development of civilisation up to this point.
In this necessary intellectual and educational project, they will find useful many thinkers, such as Plato and Aristotle, Heraclitus, Herodotus and Pliny, Plotinus, Jesus Christ and Spartacus, St Augustine and Julian the Apostate, Gautama Buddha, Mohammed, St Thomas Acquinas, Chuang Tzu, Wycliffe, Gerard Winstanley, Thomas Munzer, Jan Hus, Gutenberg, Erasmus, Thomas More, Martin Luther, Zwingli, William Tyndale, John Calvin, Bartolomeo De La Casas, Spinoza, Blaise Pascal, Machiavelli, Voltaire, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Thomas Paine, Grachus Babeuf, Immanuel Kant, Wolfe Tone, Mary Wolstencraft, Thomas Jefferson and Toussaint L'Ouverture, William Thompson, Hegel, Marx, Engels, William Morris, James Connolly, Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman, Lenin, Trotsky, Che Guevara, J.M. Keynes, Jacques Maritain, Bertrand Russell, John Anderson, Manning Clark, Edmund Wilson, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre, George Orwell, Simone Weil, E.P. Thompson, Noam Chomsky, Roy Medvedev, Robert Conquest, Isaac Deutcher, Stephen J. Gould, Barbara Thiering, Ernest Mandel, Mary McCarthy, Paolo Freire, Wilhelm Reich, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein, as just a representative sample of the many giants who fought, inquired and struggled about big ideas and over the enormous questions of philosophy and life.
They will have to find a useful synthesis of all this world culture that has gone before and build on it. In the course of finding this necessary synthesis, they will discover that all these important battles, on the back of which our civilisation is built, have been battles about real questions, involving a very considerable interaction between theory and practice.
They have been battles between holders of many different
people who have engaged in different practices, who have passionately
striven to achieve that which they believed to be true, accurate,
useful and morally right.
To reduce these past struggles to banal, pedestrian, petty bourgeois mindgames about "narrative" and "representation" is to totally devalue the development of civilisation up to now. This curious interlude of postmodernism must speedily be pushed aside for any further useful development of human civilisation.
May 4, 1999
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