A u s t r a l i a n    H u m a n i t i e s
R e v i e w

Public Intellectuals, Book Culture and Civil Society

David Carter

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this paper has been divided
into parts one, two
& three


Between ethics and aesthetics (continued)
What, then, do we make of the born-again cultural decline thesis? Take Robert Dessaix's list again: 'the lack of national forums, the fragmentation of the public for intellectual discussion, the dearth of independent intellectuals, the corporatisation of the academy, even the spread of excluding, specialised languages'. These different elements are seen as symptomatic of a general narrowing in public intellectual culture rather than as specific effects in different domains. More than that, the symptoms can be reduced to two or three fundamental causes: first, the role of the market ('increasing commercialisation'); second, the mass media (commercialisation plus 'dumbing down'); and third, the retreat of the academy into specialisation (meaning professionalisation, political correctness or 'theory').

Reduced in this way, the analysis of cultural decline starts to look very familiar, a dull repetition of two modern traditions – first, intellectual disdain for the marketplace and popular culture, and second, the celebration of the intellectual as outsider, transcending any institutional or disciplinary limits. More dangerous, this latter easily turns into attacks on different publics and different kinds of intellectuals. Dessaix and a number of his speakers have heavily invested in these traditions (we could call them 'literary traditions'), although across the whole of Speaking their Minds the picture is much more complex as Jill Matthews, one of the dissenters, puts it:

When we speak of public intellectuals, for example, we tend to mean individuals who operate in a specific and fairly elite arena, bounded by certain forms of media and subject matter, whereas the public is enormously broader than that and we actually have public intellectuals operating in a multiplicity of domains. (Dessaix 1998, p. 203)

Against such multiplicity, the cultural decline thesis through which public intellectuals have so often defined themselves is largely defensive, reasserting a 'modernist' sense of intellectual authority in the face of major structural changes in print culture, in the academy, and in the media – changes which have involved an unnerving transference of values and practices from one realm to the other. Major structural changes probably always appear as decline or crisis to those whose traditional forms of authority are threatened. The trope of crisis produces the need for public intellectuals in the first place, and thus we shouldn't be surprised to find the two together – the rise of intellectuals and the narrative of decline. At the same time, given this basic conceit, it is almost impossible for self-elected public intellectuals to recognise how these same changes have created significant new public roles and new media for their interventions or to acknowledge their own dependence upon the commercial media and upon their own institutional locations and disciplinary training. There's often a kind of institutional bad faith underlying the public intellectual's writerly persona, something a bit 'off' about their 'moral independence'.

I don't want to get into the larger debate about the nature and social function of public intellectuals. There's an enormous European and North American literature, despite which the poverty of theory on the topic is staggering. It's genuinely surprising how much is still invested, even by someone like Edward Said, in these old stories of the intellectual as outsider – the 'maverick' in Dessaix's favourite term – preserving or redeeming the space of rational discourse from the ravages of the marketplace and the mass media.1 Alan McKee (2001) has shown how the bulk of North American writers on public intellectuals assume that they will be academics – people like themselves – if never 'merely' academics. In Australia, where the universities have seldom been accorded the same cultural weight, the emphasis falls differently.

If we take Dessaix's book as a guide, being an academic is about the last thing that matters in becoming a public intellectual; indeed this is precisely what has to be transcended by the true intellectual. Thus there's scarcely any interest, in Speaking their Minds, in the role of academics as teachers or scholars – that is, in the work that's done within the institution – although a number of the speakers, such as Henry Reynolds and Denis Altman, quietly remind Dessaix of their importance. Ironically, all but a handful of Dessaix's intellectuals are in fact academics, something Dessaix never considers in positive terms. Under what conditions, he might have asked, have the universities produced such a mixed and interesting bunch of writers and speakers? And how have they produced the listeners and readers, the consumers, for this kind of work? These seem to me much more interesting questions than 'what is a public intellectual?' or 'how to redeem the nation from cultural decline?'.

It's not the academy as such that agitates Dessaix and like-minded commentators, but specifically the contemporary humanities academy – post-post-structuralist, post-cultural studies, post-modernist, and, not least, post-feminist. At the heart of this imaginary is still the literary intellectual – or, better, the writerly intellectual – who stands against the figure of the theorist, the specialist, the professional. Dessaix's preferred term, in his characteristically intelligent and disarming manner, is the 'dilettante' – the true amateur, the true self-fashioner (Dessaix in Fraser 1998, pp.7-18).

As Mark Davis has argued, in a bracing slash and burn critique, this particular form of literariness has been embodied, above all, in the contemporary fashion for the essay I noted earlier (Davis 199b). It is present not just in individual essays but in the larger claims being made by authors and editors for the essay (or 'essay-ness') as a mode that will by its own uniqueness reconstitute the ethical and cultured nation. The distinction between the merely academic and the truly writerly essay, upon which such claims depend, exactly reproduces the opposition between the mere academic and the true intellectual or 'writer'. Thus the essay is invoked as a mode free of the conventions of scholarly work and free of ideology, neither documentary nor fiction, but diverse, free-ranging, open-ended, both intensely personal and public, intellectual and sensuous, immediate and highly elaborated, self-conscious and street-wise – the genre that transcends genre. This mix defines exactly what 'literariness' looks like nowadays, an ethical quality, as it has always been, rather than mere formalism. As suggested earlier, the necessary term for describing the essay in this mode is the aesthetic, here in its full romantic guise as 'ethical wholeness', that transcendent mode in which the dispersed capacities of the human – the rational and the emotional, the individual and the social – can be recombined on a higher plane.

In Davis's terms, the essayists and their editors are deeply nostalgic for the idea that 'literature is at the moral centre of the modern world'. This is little more than 'the last-ditch stand of coterie liberalism ... [of] a culture that clearly fears being forgotten' (pp. 4-5). He's thinking of Morag Fraser, Peter Craven, Modjeska, Dessaix, Garner, Pierre Ryckmans, Gaita, Manne and a few others. I think he's largely correct in his analysis. In many ways these are exercises in containment, mustering dispersed cultural capital back into the top paddock; they are nostalgic for a unified literary public; they reaffirm the moral authority gained through culture; the culture they reference is high European (as Davis asks, 'where are the non-white voices ... the Asian voices' [6]. And where are the Aboriginal voices?).

But these limits, although pervasive, by no means exhaust the range of cultural and social effects that such writing and reading might have. When Inga Clendinnen (1999) writes of her own encounters with histories of Indigenous/non-Indigenous contact the potential effects are complex and unpredictable. On the one hand, readers are invited by the personal mode of address to 'do history' with her and thereby to take responsibility for the consequences of the histories which constitute them as citizens. Her writing is about process and dissonance, memory as well as history; it takes serious account of disciplinary and institutional regimes. For those readers with the cultural capacities to take up this invitation, there is a useful kind of moral and political exercise on offer, one which I'm happy enough to see, in her terms, as indeed 'conducive to civic virtue'.

On the other hand, this ethics is always ready to turn into aesthetics, where the display of sensibility – cranking up the personal intensity – becomes the whole point. Essays on Australia's treatment of Indigenous populations or genocide can then be consumed within the same taste culture and for much the same kinds of pleasures as those fine contemporary literary novels, the self-help and lifestyle manuals, the travel and cook books, alongside which they're shelved in the good book stores. In the Introduction to her collection, Morag Fraser (1998) does the essay trick with almost embarrassing predictability. You take a detail, an arcane fragment from the European high cultural archive, the more arcane the better, the deeper one's culture (in this case, it's Matisse's glimpse of himself in a mirror where a towel becomes a turban); then the fragment, for those with the sensibilities to notice it, becomes the key to deeper meaning. In the fragment lies the whole culture. Stravinsky's Lunch does the same with its title.

On one side, as I hope I've shown, there's something positive in the way that the high aesthetic is being 're-tooled' in the once-low form of the essay for a kind of public ethical discourse. On the other, this always threatens to turn history into morality and politics into personality, thereby reaffirming the traditional role of culture in credentialising those who can speak for the nation. But then again, we should resist the simple argument that always sees this aesthetic effect as merely aesthetic; it is an aesthetics that through its modelling of ethical postures mimes a certain form of 'being in public'. If these new structures produce Robert Manne's essay on the Stolen Generation and send it into wide circulation, or if they make Henry Reynolds a household name, I can't despise them. But the vision of Robert Manne as the nation's conscience is precisely what's disquieting. Quite suddenly the abundance of public intellectuals can look like a narrowing and containment of the debate. The conscience of the nation remains a white, high-cultured and Eurocentric conscience. If it is pro-reconciliation it also remains anti-pop and anti-political correctness. Whatever the strengths of particular arguments or evocations, there is always an excess – in the writerly pose, the moral intensity – that we can simply call the persona of the public intellectual.

I have been talking so far as if the 'essay market' (or the public intellectual market) were a single thing. But I think book culture has been reorganised around two quite different projects, often both present in the one publishing list (sometimes even in the same book). Alongside the born-again figure of the writerly intellectual, others are taking on new roles made possible by the new relations between the media, the market and the academy. Following the lead of Meaghan Morris and others, writers such as Ken Wark, Tara Brabazon, Stephen Muecke and Catharine Lumby have taken up the essay as a 'new media' mode. They are deeply suspicious of literary or moral authority; they refuse the traditional oppositions between culture and commerce, art and pop or theory and pleasure which have structured the modernist intellectual's self-definition. They think 'media' first, 'culture' or 'language' second, 'literature' third. As Davis (1999a) has shown, there is a nasty generational fracture running across the field of public culture, between the modern and post-modern, literary and post-literary generations of 'educated readers'. The publishing industry is responding to both – but that's another essay.

Between history and aesthetics
In one of his most astounding mistakes, Dessaix writes that 'historians seem less visible on the public intellectual stage than they once did' (p. 186). It's difficult to guess what golden past he's imagining. I would have thought the opposite was true: historians are more prominent than ever before in Australia's public culture, as it ought to be in a new world or post-colonial society. Newer independent publishers such as Text have successfully marketed history in the same way as memoirs and literary fiction – from Watkin Tench to Inga Clendinnen. It says a lot about Dessaix's ideal of the intellectual that he can't see this.

Clendinnen, Reynolds, Peter Read, Ken Inglis, John Hirst and Greg Dening, all professional academic historians, have become prominent as public intellectuals in the broader (or narrower?) sense. More than that, writing on history has become the defining gesture of the public intellectual for writers such as Gaita, Manne, Modjeska, Malouf, Horne and many others who aren't professional historians in their day jobs. History, especially when it involves what Clendinnen calls 'national morality' (1999, p. 17), is what makes the public intellectual public. Above all, of course, the history that matters is the history of Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations and especially those issues with a public ethical dimension – the stolen generations, the massacres, the question of genocide, and the apology. This is particularly pertinent for the essay and the memoir.

Gillian Whitlock has argued that memoir has become the preferred mode of Australian public intellectuals, as a form of reflection and self-reflection driven by a sense of crisis or 'moral anxiety about the past' (2001). This anxiety is centred on dispossession and genocide, and what these mean for national belonging. There is a specific and unequal exchange here, especially following the Bringing them Home report: in Whitlock's terms, 'black testimony triggers white memoir'. To put it another way, black testimony triggers white anxiety – a distinctively local, post-colonial sense of personal implication. This stems, I think, from the peculiar intimacies of place and belonging in Aboriginal discourses and their power to get inside white discourse; also from the way ideas of the national are simultaneously unsettled and energised. The nation is at the heart of the problem as the recalcitrant historical narrative that resists being rewritten; but as that which can be ethically and juridically-charged through notions of citizenship and responsibility it may also be part of the solution. The space between the personal and the national is precisely the space of the ethical. There is also a professional implication – how should white historians and non-Indigenous intellectuals practice their craft when history gets to be so immediate and political in its demands? How to narrate the nation beyond national histories? In short, as Whitlock argues, the memoir (and essay) have become necessary forms for thinking and writing through the post-colonial anxieties of national belonging in Australia and reconstituting history and remembering.

The memoir is a performative genre. It evokes the process of ethical reflection. However provisional and open-ended, it offers itself as exemplary. As I've tried to suggest through my account of the new book cultures, there is a receptive audience of self-fashioning readers in contemporary Australia disposed towards the kind of ethical work essays and memoirs typically perform. I think we need to value the spaces and styles opened up in the public culture by such writing and reading. The rewriting of Australian history has been profound and exceptional.

I don't for a moment, then, want to underestimate the ethical or political force of 'bearing witness' or of reading history through the conceit of personal responsibility. The new kinds of work produced differently by Clendinnen or Read or Modjeska, for example, are genuinely new and powerful in this culture. But there are losses as well as gains. Not all historians are equal. With a few exceptions, most notably Henry Reynolds, what enables certain figures rather than others to rise to prominence as public intellectuals is not so much the value of their research, say, as their performance of 'writerly' qualities. Again the aura surrounding the public intellectual is the aura of the aesthetic, embodied personally not professionally. Something of this even adheres to Robert Manne, the least 'aesthetic' of writers, through the moral intensities of his writerly persona. And again the idea is that real intellectuals, real writers, transcend professional or disciplinary boundaries.

The idea of the writerly intellectual remains powerful. Who hasn't been seduced by the fantasy of being a writer rather than a mere academic (for example). But when we get to that point, it's time to be sceptical again. It's time to recall the virtues of historical work that is not about ethical performance or personal intensity. As Reynolds' work suggests, this does not mean it is therefore morally or politically inconsequential. To put it another way, what advantages might there be in not understanding the stolen generations issue as a moral question, as the same kind of question as one's attitude to the Holocaust – understanding it instead in the mundane historical terms of colonisation, racism, law and the politics of land? What might be the advantages in trying not to read it as a source of anxiety for us, as a test of our own moral adequacy, or as therapeutic for us? What advantages might there be in histories that are not about 'telling stories'? The insights enabled by ethical reflection as a writerly gesture can also be a form of blindness (or blinding). The significant work of historians, scholars, academics or teachers can effectively be concealed by the prominence of celebrity intellectuals. The very gravitas, the weight of moral authority, evoked by Manne or Gaita seems to silence other voices, other pleasures, other politics. Ethical arguments are all too ready to imagine reconciliation as a form of closure or resolution. History seems to me to be telling the opposite story.

Conclusion: do we need more public intellectuals?
There is often something fantastic, even grotesque, about the role public intellectuals accord themselves as the nation's saviours. Notions of the public good or civil society, however necessary to pluralist debate, always tend towards inflation and thus to inflate the personas of those who deploy them. This doesn't mean we abandon them. Under present circumstances in particular they've become useful tools for thinking about better forms of government. They provide ways of reviving the almost discredited notions of multiculturalism or reconciliation. But we should also remember the mundane rather than spectacular circumstances of the public intellectual life, remember its own specialisation and jargon, its niche markets, its limits. As McKee argues, for all the work that has gone into defining the public intellectual as a special kind of figure, nothing much more than a preference for a certain elevated style and tone of discourse can distinguish this figure from, say, the 'media personality' (often assumed to be its opposite). I'm sympathetic to his suggestion that we'd be better off abandoning the term altogether and simply referring to different functions within the knowledge class – academic, journalist, teacher, talk-show host, historian, archivist, producer and so on.

If the idea of the 'public intellectual' simply described a certain way of writing or a specific slice of the market, I would not be so ambivalent about it as I am. The kind of public talk that brings ethical, historical and policy issues together within the frame of the national is a politically effective way of sustaining notions of the public good and bringing a concerned public into being. Despite all that's bad about our media, I think this has happened in Australia in interesting and largely unprecedented ways over the last decade or so. The problem is that most definitions of the public intellectual claim more: they represent the public intellectual as an ideal form of the intellectual rather than one kind of intellectual comportment among others – good for some things, not so good for others; suited to some pockets of the publishing field or the media but hopeless in others; good at summoning certain publics, irrelevant to many others.

Whenever I hear the familiar refrain that we need more public intellectuals, I first think 'in whose interests?'. I might also want to remind the enthusiasts that more public intellectuals means more Ron Bruntons, more Michael Duffys, more Paddy McGuinesses. I'd want to counter with the claim that what we really need is more academics, more scholars and researchers, more teachers, more historians, and (why not?) more theorists. None of which is deny the value of going public. But let's leave the baggage behind.

Return to parts one and two of this essay.

This paper was assisted by discussions and essay-swapping with Kay Ferres, Gillian Whitlock and Alan McKee and Paul Gillen. Thanks.

David Carter is director of the Australian Studies Centre at the University of Queensland.
His books include The Republicanism Debate, with Wayne Hudson, and A Career in Writing: a study of Judah Waten.

This essay has had a response from MacKenzie Wark.

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1 See for example Said's recent contribution to the Deakin series of lectures: despite his emphasis on specific interventions, for Said the intellectual is defined first and last by his or her resistance and oppositionality. But we can't restrict the definition to those on our side. Goldfarb (1998) provides an original argument for what is ultimately a standard defence of the liberal intellectual.

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