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June 9, 2013 / Southerly

‘Australia’: literature, ideology and fetishism

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Ali Alizadeh

I am delighted to be this month’s Southerly blogger, and would like to use this opportunity to explore the crucial rapport between literature and ideology. In this and my forthcoming blogs for Southerly, I’ll be reflecting on how, in my opinion, the production and reception of contemporary Australian writing is informed and in many cases formed by what Karl Marx has termed, in The German Ideology, as an epoch’s “ruling ideas”:

The class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, consequently also controls the means of mental production, so that the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are on the whole subject to it (67).

The aim of my blogs is to detect and dissect some of the key ideas to which writers and readers in Australia are being subjected; and I will explore the extent to which these ideas are concomitant of the interests of the forces that control the actual production and dissemination of writing in contemporary Australia. In my forthcoming blogs I will address the ideas of ‘success’, ‘progress’ and ‘community’, and the role these values play–as what Jacques Lacan may term les points de capiton or ‘quilting points’–in joining the material and intellectual ideals of the dominant forces in the contemporary Australian writing scene.

The topic of this first blog is literary nationalism. Gone are the days of Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities and the proposal that the nation as such is a speculative construct, and that in the age of globalisation we are free to imagine ourselves across borders and traverse political demarcations on a whim. The fantasy of a natural socio-geographical particularity is no longer a fantasy. It is now all too common for individuals to view themselves as physically and spiritually included in the symbolic of a locality. The recent and ongoing trend of the marks of national fidelity being cut into the very materiality of bodies, in the form of Southern Cross tattoos and suchlike, is only a graphic demonstration of the dialectical manifestation of nationalism as an oppositional response to the pseudo-internationalism of global capitalism. National communities are no longer imagined; they are being ordered, concretised and symbolised.

But what does any of this have to do with literature? A great deal, it seems. Over the last few years the perception that the nation must become an actuality as well as a centrality in the literary milieu has emerged as nothing short of a ruling intellectual idea in Australia.

Starting with a number of well-known commentators’ complaint that–in Morag Fraser’s words, as published in a major daily newspaper in 2011–tertiary students in Australia are being forced to study “Colombian fiction or the most recent iteration of French theory” instead of coming “within a bull’s roar of Australian literature,” quite a number of forces in charge of the country’s literary production have launched a campaign to, as it were, raise the volume, pitch and tenor of the “roar of Australian literature.”

The Wheeler Centre, arguably the country’s best-funded private literary organisation–the self-proclaimed “Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas”–denounced the perfidiously cosmopolitan academe for “offering only the bare minimum in courses on Australian writing and its authors” and heroically announced the inauguration of its own series of public lectures “as part of a brand new assessment of our national literature”. The indefatigable Michael Heyward, publisher at Text Publishing, bemoaned the (supposed) fact that “we have lost track of some of the great books written by Australians” in an extended interview in The Age, whilst publicising the launch of Text Publishing’s series of “books [that] are milestones in the Australian experience.” And Geordie Williamson, the chief literary critic of the Australian newspaper, decided to put an end to “the increasingly marginal status of Australian literature in the academy” by writing a volume on a number of Australian novelists as “an act of reclamation,” published by, yes, Text Publishing.

To point out that many of the abovementioned protagonists, their businesses and their careers constitute, as Marx would have it, the very force which has the means of material production and promotion of books and writing at its disposal would be a bland understatement. It seems rather obvious, at least to this observer, that the discourse of literary patriotism has provided the Wheeler Centre with a marketing narrative for the promotion of their literary events as an alternative to university education; or that this jargon has been, in Marxian terms, a rather useful concept for the economics of Text Publishing’s new enterprise.

But ideology is not simply a glorified PR operation, installed to advance the ‘rational’ economic interests of those in power. For ideology to successfully function, it must have a fundamentally ‘irrational’ ingredient and dimension so that it may act as an immaterial fantasy that we the people (who are subject to ideology but do not benefit from it) may believe in as one would believe in a religion, ‘family’ and, indeed, ‘the nation’.

Marx wrote about this dimension of commodification in Capital when he discussed “the magical quality” that gives a product (e.g., in our case, a work of ‘classic Australian literature’) a fetish character, a “metaphysical” and “theological” value that enables and legitimises the object’s exchange-value (42). As Slavoj Žižek has written, for an ideology to succeed as a powerful fantasy, a “famous fiction” is necessary to seduce and enchant the people and to conceal the economic imperatives of the ruling classes (205); and, in my opinion, the name of this fiction apropos of the topic of Australian literary patriotism is, undoubtedly, ‘the cultural cringe.’

I find the proposal that contemporary Australians may be lacking in national pride rather absurd. In our age of revived ethno-religious, tribalist and identitarian passions of all kind all over the world, one need not look further than the images of the 2005 Cronulla riots, the 2009 Manly ‘rampage’ and the 2010 Villawood Detention Centre counter-protest to reflect that ultra-nationalism and jingoism are not foreign to this country. And yet, perhaps to ward off any intimation that our new literary patriots are in any way reminiscent of ‘ugly’ ‘moronic’ ‘racists’ and so on–and, in my view, they are indeed nothing of the sort–the fiction of the cultural cringe has been invoked to justify the economically desirable push for the Australianisation of literary studies, literary journalism and literary creation by those who are in the position to financially benefit from this push.

In his aforementioned interview with The Age, Heyward states that an aspect of his decision to republish a number of Australian literary ‘classics’ has been to defend the nation’s literature against “a half-formed thought that somehow the real books are elsewhere, the real books are coming out of Europe or the US or Britain.” In a similar vein, Emmett Stinson has argued that Australians are yet to “overcome the cultural cringe” since, according to Stinson, the main reason Australian authors such as Nam Le and Cate Kennedy have been widely read and praised domestically is because these authors have been published and praised in the US.

But is this really the case? Is Stinson not aware of the fact that Kennedy had published four books in Australia prior to being published in The New Yorker in 2006? And who precisely are the shadowy figures who promote, according to Heyward, the nefarious “half-formed thought” that Australians don’t write “real books”? ‘Un-Australian’ academics, with their penchant for Colombian fiction and French theory, perhaps?

I would like to end this blog by stating unambiguously that, despite being an academic quite enthusiastic about Gabriel García Márquez and Alain Badiou, I include Australian literature across all of the subjects that I co-ordinate and teach. My current research project is a theoretical study of contemporary Australian poetry, and I have just purchased a copy of one of Text Publishing’s ‘Australian classics’. The university where I work offers an undergraduate subject in Australian literature; hosts conferences and symposia on Australian literature; and includes a research centre partly dedicated to the study of Australian literature. The idea that academia is responsible for the putative decline in the cultural value of Australian writing is frankly irrational, untenable, and, in the precise sense of the term, ideological.

Works Cited

Marx, Karl. Capital. Ed. David McLellan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Marx, Karl (with Friedrich Engels). The German Ideology. New York: Prometheus Books, 1998.

Žižek, Slavoj. For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor. London: Verso, 2008.

7 Comments

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  1. Emmett Stinson / Jun 9 2013 9:39 am

    Hi Ali:

    There are some interesting points in your article, but I think you’ve seriously misunderstood the stakes of my argument to the point of misrepresenting it. I do not simply think that ‘the main reason Australian authors such as Nam Le and Cate Kennedy have been widely read and praised domestically is because these authors have been published and praised in the US’. Rather, I argue that their overseas reception influenced (but not determined!) their Australian reception, and use this case study to suggest that international success is playing an increasingly important role in Australian reception. But it’s not the simple or straightforward relationship you suggest (and I actually mention Cate’s other books in the article). My argument is about how Australians perception of themselves as a cosmopolitan and outward-looking affects the way they value their own literary works, not a clarion call for xenophobia or nationalism (indeed, I am a U.S. citizen!).

    More importantly, I actually agree with you that the new wave of literary nationalism is misplaced. To quote my article: “Recent public disputes over the alleged ‘disappearance’ of Australian classics from university classrooms have, ironically, proved that readers’ interest in the national literature is as strong as ever. Not only, as Gelder pointed out, is Australian Literature being ‘taught in more than 300 subjects in about 40 tertiary institutions’; several publishers – including Text, Allen & Unwin and Harper Collins – have begun reprinting classic Australian literary works. As social psychologist Norman Feather demonstrated in the 1990s, Australians are now actually biased towards Australian cultural products, rather than suspicious of them.”

    Fine if you want to disagree with me (disagreement is good), but you’ve put me on the wrong side of my own argument!
    Best,
    Emmett

    • Ali Alizadeh / Jun 13 2013 6:05 am

      Hi Emmett,

      Thanks for taking the time to read my post and for the thoughtful comment. I acknowledge that we’re in agreement apropos of this wave of literary patriotism, and I totally agree that you’re certainly not sounding ‘a clarion call for xenophobia and nationalism’ in your piece (I wasn’t really making that suggestion, but I take your point.) Nevertheless, I do think that we’re in disagreement with regards to the cultural cringe. I simply don’t think that such a thing exists (although it may have existed once upon a time). I can think of many Australian books, films and music albums (not to mention other cultural phenomena such as sports, brands, beers, etc) that have done quite well locally without having at all been recognised internationally. Indeed, often the possibility for overseas distribution of an Australian book depends on that book’s domestic success.

      best,
      Ali

      • Emmett Stinson / Jun 13 2013 10:01 pm

        Sorry to reply yet again, but I find your response somewhat puzzling. It would be crazy to deny that ‘many Australian books, films and albums…have done quite well locally without having at all been recognised internationally’. This doesn’t refute my point. My argument is that international reception increasingly affects local reception, but I see this as a trend, not an absolute.

        More to the point, I think you misunderstand the cringe, which was never just about the reflexive dislike of Australian products. As Phillips argues, the cringe stems from an anxiety about Australian culture that results in ‘an inability to escape needless comparisons’ to foreign works. In your article, you cite many examples of well-known intellectuals and writers directly comparing Australian and international literature. This strikes me as strong evidence that Phillips’s notion of the cringe still functions in some form.

        Moreover, Phillips argues that nationalism, of the kind you outline in your article, actually exemplifies what he terms the ‘cringe inverted’, and basically serves as a sort of coping mechanism for dealing with this anxiety. In Phillips’ vision, Eurocentrism and nationalism are supplementary discourses (a point I make in the article in a discussion of Sylvia Lawson’s The Archibald Paradox). In this sense, I don’t think we are even agreed on what the cringe is!

        Sorry to respond again, but you’ve mentioned my article in two pieces recently. Usually I really enjoy reading your work, which is typically insightful and provocative (as is much of this article).

  2. Jayne Fenton Keane / Jun 10 2013 2:02 am

    Reblogged this on JFK Blog and commented:
    In this post I appreciate that Alizadeh confronts the literary and ideological tensions associated with producing an ideology of an Australian canon. I’m looking forward to reading how he develops the argument and the underscored questions in it, eg whose perception, whose control, whose literature?

    • alializadeh / Jun 13 2013 6:28 am

      Thanks, JFK. Well, it seems to me when one is taking about the power of those who control the means of literary production, the perception that counts is that of the very same forces. So if they perceive that there exists, say, a lack of academic courses on Australian literature, then that perception becomes a reality i.e. we start believing that, yes, there is indeed a lack of academic courses on Australian literature, even if such a lack doesn’t actually exist. I’m not entirely sure if it matters whose literature is spoken of when one speaks of Australian literature, and I’m not convinced that including a few female authors among this cannon (and, in due course, Aboriginal, immigrant, queer, etc, writers) will make this kind of patriotism any less regressive. Thanks for reading the post and for the comment.

      best,
      Ali

  3. DJ Huppatz / Jun 12 2013 11:04 pm

    Hi Ali, provocative post, it will be interesting to see where the next ones will go.
    Pushing this one further, I wonder what Marx would make of Gina Rinehart’s poem (here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/australiaandthepacific/australia/9085842/Gina-Rinehart-pens-universes-worst-poem.html) and the subsequent reaction by the literary establishment. And I’m only being partially frivolous here. Certainly GR is someone who would qualify as controlling material production, but seems to have no interest in controlling cultural production (aside from control of the newspapers? Though here her interest doesn’t seem to be “literary”). That is, using GR as an extreme, I wonder if in a contemporary Australian context there’s a bigger gap between these two productions than Marx would have it? And, as a second issue, I wonder if, rather than production, mediation or consumption of Australian literature is an alternative way of thinking through these issues? That is, GR produced a poem but the mediators of Aust lit, whatever their ideological stance, and whether they are in academia, publishing industry or wherever, are not going to allow it into any kind of canon. Presumably, neither will the consumers of Australian literature.

    • Ali Alizadeh / Jun 18 2013 7:35 am

      Hi Dan,

      Thanks for reading, and for a really excellent question.

      I think the Rinehart poem is a very rare — hence newsworthy — instance of a capitalist oligarch forgoing the mediating agent of culture industry and doing her own dirty aesthetic work. There’s something quite quaint and ancient about it. It’s far more common for a culture industry (consciously or not) in love with capitalist ideology to produce the sort of mental labour and discourses that benefit the ruling classes without the ruling classes having to lift a finger. And that our literati has mocked and rejected Rinehart’s poem doesn’t make any difference whatsoever to the regime of late capitalism i.e. she remains Australia’s richest person (or is that 2nd richest?) utterly irrespective of how we might feel about her poem; and please also note that Rinehart’s poem is, without a doubt, the single most discussed and widely read poem written by an Australian in recent memory. In fact, if there really did exist such a gap between our aesthetic judgment and the economic base, then would we even be talking about her poem?

      Take care,
      Ali

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