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March-September 2010               

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You Kiwis Are Really Eccentric, Aren’t You?

John Newton

Like Ian Wedde, I want to reflect on a trip across the Tasman and my reactions to that experience. Ian has spoken of the late 1970s; my trans-Tasman moment is 1989-94, when I was a graduate student and beginning lecturer in the English Department at the University of Melbourne. I’d expected academic life in Australia to be something I could slip into relatively easily. But it wasn’t – it was much more foreign than I had expected. What I have to say is almost purely anecdotal and extremely subjective (‘dinner party chat’ would be a fair description, though I prefer the happy genre label ‘low-budget ethnography’). However, in the context of that familiar lament about how ill-informed we are about the other side of the Tasman (whichever way we happen to be looking), I hope there may be at least some instructional value in my attempting to reconstruct for you my sense of disorientation as a New Zealander in Melbourne.

As you can probably tell already, my report is going to be somewhat more prickly and paranoid than Ian’s was. It’s also a bit cheekier, in that I am going to try out here a couple of reckless generalizations about the style of Australian intellectual culture. That being the case, though, I also need to put in place a couple of disclaimers – more or less self-evident, perhaps, but I’m not feeling quite so reckless as to go on without spelling them out.

Firstly, then, I’m talking about fifteen years ago and more. So some of what I’m describing will have dated – not beyond recognition, I think, but at least in certain particulars.

Secondly, I shouldn’t imply that other Kiwis in my situation would be as naive, ill-informed and bumptious as I was. I’m no doubt going to speak as if my own ill-preparedness for Australia were somehow representative, but I’m sure it was exaggerated in my own inimitable fashion.

Thirdly, and this is the most crucial of these caveats, I’ll probably imply at various points that what I’m saying about the University of Melbourne is potentially applicable to Australian intellectual life. But of course that synecdoche is exorbitant. I’m talking about one particular department in one particular university in one particular city. And something which New Zealanders perhaps do know about Australian intellectual culture is that it’s often very regional – in more exaggerated ways, I think, than we’re accustomed to noticing over here.

Finally, to conclude these preliminaries, I need to pause for a spot of housekeeping. That is, I want to table my apologies for not being around tomorrow, when I believe everyone else is going over to Waiheke Island. This is a real shame because Robyn and I have a bach over there and I’d like to be inviting everyone to lunch, but I can’t because I have a prior engagement. While you’re all on Waiheke, I’m going to be playing cricket – for the first time in fifteen years – turning out for my old Melbourne club, the Reds, who happen to have arrived in Auckland this week at the start of a North Island tour.

And now I need to tell you about this cricket club.

The Royal Park Reds were formed in 1979 out of an alliance between local branches of the Builders Labourers Federation (Maoist-leaning, and one of Australia’s most formidable blue collar unions), and a Trotskyite group known as the International Socialists. By the time I joined the club in the late 1980s, however, there’d been a schism: the Maoists and the Trots had gone their separate ways. The precipitating cause was an issue we’ve heard a lot about recently: rotation. The BLF faction wanted everyone to have a go (everyone gets a bowl, the batting order revolves week by week); the International Socialists were more meritocratic and wanted to win some games. So the blue collar workers went off to play ‘mats’. And the intellectual workers who made up the International Socialist contingent joined a turf competition known as the Mercantile League, where in the early 1990s we pursued the class struggle against the boys from Coles Myer, from the Melbourne Stock Exchange, from the National Bank, and so on. Just to be clear, what we’re talking about here is two quite antithetical cricketing cultures: ‘mats’ meaning concrete wickets in the further suburbs where everyone bowls fast and short and bats like that mongrel axe-murderer Dave Warner who opens for the Aussie 20/20 side; and ‘turf’ meaning grass wickets, more than likely in the inner suburbs (in this case South Yarra), where a correspondingly more middle-class version of the game prevails (though I might add that in terms of ferocity this notionally ‘social’ cricket was still miles away from anything I’ve ever played in New Zealand). I also want to emphasise that, despite the rocky history, the turf version of the club is still going strong – hence my apologies for tomorrow – and that the Baggy Red is still proudly worn, and with it at least some of that residual political identity.

I’m not being facetious when I say there are a couple of things here that strike me as deeply characteristic of intellectual life as I experienced it in Melbourne (or to put this another way, why you would never mistake this for the history of a New Zealand cricket club). The first has to do with the depth and complexity of left-wing culture in Australia. That you have middleclass professionals and blue-collar unionists coming together to form a social/recreational alliance around their shared socialist commitments; that you then see them splitting again over a point of theoretical dispute, let’s call it; and out of this the emergence of two separate clubs with distinct but still plainly left-wing political identities: none of this I think could be supported by left culture in New Zealand. You can see something similar in the internal politics of the Australian Labour Party, where you find not just formalised factional identities, but a media and public intellectual discourse entirely capable of analysing these internal relationships. Broadly speaking I don’t think the point will be disputed, but to be on the safe side I’ll take as my authority Bruce Jesson who is one writer to have made this point: on the left in New Zealand we just don’t have the same kind of intellectual tradition (its depth, its intensity, its self-reflexivity, its nuanced character). One could also observe how often – from Paddy Webb to Michael Joseph Savage to Lillian Smith to Winston Rhodes – the most effective voices on the left here have been those of Australian imports.

The second thing about this story which seems to me absolutely characteristic of Melbourne intellectual culture (and I might even risk saying Australian intellectual culture) is what I will call its precocious traditionalism. What struck me over there is a real appetite for discovering traditions and then ritualising their observance. I won’t labour the specifics of this in respect of my comrades from the Reds, though I think you’ll see what I’m getting at. But what I’m trying to suggest (as I cut a corner here, and steer back towards literary politics and the Melbourne English Department) is that intellectual life in Australia seems to be shaped – I don’t know if I should say more so than here, or more explicitly or more formally than here, but in any case more obviously – by its stern adherence to these emergent cultural traditions.

I arrived in Melbourne with my then partner in 1989. We’d both done MAs at Canterbury, where the disciplinary battle, such as it was, was between what in those days we loosely called ‘theory’, on the one hand, and on the other a dilute mix of New Criticism and ‘old’ historicism. (I won’t go into the place of New Zealand and New World literatures in all that, but you’ll be familiar with the general lines of allegiance – the situation was more-or-less standard in New Zealand at that time.) I didn’t know all that much about theory, but I knew what I liked: I adored Barthes; I liked Yale deconstruction and I thought I could work with that; and I really wanted to read Lacan. But when we got to Melbourne, the only thing that any of the smart people wanted to talk about was New Historicism. We didn’t even know what it was – what were all these people reading Shakespeare for? Get with the programme!

Of course the thing we didn’t realise, and it took us a long time to work it out, was that the whole question of ‘theory’ in Melbourne had long since been pressed through the sieve of Melbourne’s own intellectual traditions. So what had prevailed there was the kind of materialist and historicist theory that fitted a line of development from Raymond Williams to Birmingham Cultural Studies, and beyond: Foucault, New Historicism, Queer Theory, Bourdieu. And the shock was to discover that the kind of theory we were interested in (deconstruction and psychoanalysis) was assumed to be reactionary. There’s an essay by Barbara Johnson dating from the equivalent moment in the United States – an essay I’m very fond of – called ‘Is Writerliness Conservative?’ Well, in Melbourne that question had been well and truly settled, and the answer was yes. The ‘aesthetic’ is a class ideology – end of story. A consequence, of course, was that anything faintly tarred with the brush of writing was available for a good kicking.

Touching down in Melbourne was like stepping into the Cold War. In fact it was stepping into the Cold War, because it seems to me Melbourne was still in the grip, not just of the contemporaneous American/Anglophone ‘culture wars’ of the 80s and 90s, but also of a kind of hangover from the home-grown Australian culture wars of the 50s and 60s, the ongoing legacy of which was a vehement anti-aestheticism. As outsiders, though, we were apt not to realise that there were all kinds of places you weren’t supposed to go. You can’t go through that door – that’s where they keep the ghost of Vincent Buckley. And you can’t go through this other door or you’ll find the ghost of James McAuley chewing on Max Harris’s anklebone; or Les Murray poring over Quadrant, or something. And all you thought you were trying to do was to borrow someone’s copy of The Pleasure of the Text. Uh uh – not in this building! Go out to Monash and talk to Kevin Hart. He won’t mind, he’s a Catholic.

You can see, then, the problem for a budding deconstructionist: ‘textualism’ was a kind of poetry, and poetry was Chris Wallace-Crabbe and Peter Steele – the avatars, as they were perceived, of Vin Buckley and that dreaded Cold War Melbourne Catholicism. Peter, in fact, was a Jesuit priest. And the air there was thick with a kind of Da Vinci Code paranoia about conspiracies being hatched at the Melbourne Club with a Catholic cabal from the University Council, and so on. All of which may have been entirely well-founded, I don’t know.

What I do know, however, is that all this took a bit of negotiating when you came into the Department as firm young flesh who didn’t yet belong to anyone. I remember Chris Wallace-Crabbe inviting me to lunch to meet Peter Porter, and walking down the corridor wondering if I should pull my jacket over my head, or hide my face behind the latest issue of Textual Practice.

But somewhere around here is where that business about Kiwi eccentricity comes in. I can’t remember the exact occasion, and I’m not sure I can even remember who said it, but I do have this image of three Kiwis in a lift – my partner, myself, and a friend of ours who was writing a de Manian thesis on, I think, De Quincey. And I don’t recall exactly what prompted it – it may have been just our daggy clothes, or something equally trivial – but let’s suppose, for the sake of the story, that we were heading off together to hear something inappropriate like a seminar down the road by a visiting Lacanian analyst (as may well have been the case). You Kiwis are really eccentric, aren’t you?
So what was our response? Well of course we must have been pleased. We were Kiwis, after all. And Kiwis, I still firmly believe, are not great ‘joiners’. If the alternative was to become court-followers like the other ambitious young postgrads around us, then the label of ‘eccentricity’ would have been just fine with us. No one had ever wised us up to the iniquities of our romantic individualism. And I think that’s pretty typical, and that it’s why Kiwis make better anarchists than socialists. (Which I probably think is a virtue. But of course I would, because I’m a Kiwi, and something of an aesthete, and badly educated in left theory.)

Though not as badly educated as if I hadn’t been to Melbourne. And I have to say I did learn a hell of a lot. Our chief refuge was psychoanalysis, which we had to get elsewhere, from Lacanian clinical groups; and even if my cultural materialist colleagues and superiors were apt to condescend towards it, at least it furnished a few tools of its own with which to (privately) condescend towards them. (More recently, I’ve been told, the most rigorous Marxist in the Department has discovered Žižek and become a Lacanian, but that’s another story . . . ) Willy nilly, though, and especially in retrospect, I did learn a lot from that cultural materialist ethos. Especially about taste – it was worth going through Melbourne to discover Bourdieu.

As for poetry, what did it do on that front? Well, for me it was a stage on a wide detour and it’s taken me a very long time to come back to it. But I can’t, in all conscience, blame Melbourne for that. Or not, at least, before I talk to Philip Mead about it. Hopefully Philip might get across to the return leg of this event in Sydney, and if he does it would be interesting to hear him on this. Philip it was as much as anyone else who mentored and guided me through the Melbourne shark pool. And he was the one person who did manage to represent poetry from a place on the materialist wing of the department. On the other hand I know that Philip, like me, went a long time without writing very much verse of his own, and so I’d be interested to hear what the overlap might be in our narratives.

Finally, briefly, what about poetry in general, in light of what I’ve suggested about Australian cultural leftism, and in light of what I’ve alleged about that ceremony around local traditions? If New Zealand intellectual culture is more liberal (in the dirty sense), more individualistic, more good-naturedly pluralist – all of which I’m tentatively proposing – then what does that imply about the environment for poetry on our two respective sides of the water? One thing it might suggest is that factional divisions will be played out more explicitly and more fiercely in Australia than here. And I think that’s probably the case. It also makes it sound as if certain kinds of poetry – subjective, anarchic, ‘transgressive’, ‘eccentric’, weird – might be more apt to take wing and to find a permissive audience over this way. Maybe, or at least a part of me would rather like to think so. On the other hand, though, if one subscribes to the urgency of a post-romantic poetics, then it would seem by implication that our Australian counterparts are going to be advantaged, simply because the discourse that demands this over there is so redoubtable a beast. Any poetics that has had to run the gauntlet of that relentless ideology critique is always going to know where it’s speaking from, who it’s speaking to, and for, and under what material conditions. Or at the very least it’s going to be thoroughly drilled in thinking about itself in those terms.

So there you have it: a slimly grounded and eminently vulnerable set of speculations. But I hope they’ll be received in the spirit in which they’re offered: as incitement to discussion, and as a respectful indication of how much I think Kiwis have to learn from that foreign culture across the ditch.


Last updated 21 November, 2010