A Symposium on the state of Australian Fiction with McKenzie Wark, Katharine England, and James Bradley ... (read more)

John Docker

Mark Davis’ Voltairean Gangland is one of those rare books that prise open a space for revaluation of the direction of a culture. Like The Dunciad’s evocation of the Grub Street hacks of its time, Gangland exposes tentacular networks of chummy patronage, mutual puffery, and cultural power. Gangland is especially enjoyable on the clown-like behaviour of the ex-Scripsi diaspora – in a curious sexual division of labour, a B-team of male critics, captained by the felicitously named P. Craven, has successfully promoted a coterie of writers like Jolley, Garner, and Modjeska. Compared to those I analyse in Australian Cultural Elites (1974) and In A Critical Condition (1984), this new élite is the most intellectually thin in Australian cultural history. Assisted by a passive, grovelling middle-class readership, it both creates such writers as canonical and then tries desperately to shield their texts from critique and challenge.

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Donald Horne: critics and negotiators

The general idea of ‘public intellectual life’ is more useful than the particular idea of’ the public intellectual’. ‘Public intellectual life’ is a public manifestation of what I called in The Public Culture ‘the critics’ culture’ of a liberal-democratic state. (It is made possible by the belief in a questioning approach to exist­ence as a central force in society.) However only parts of this critical activity emerge into the public culture; it is these parts that might be thought of as its ‘public intellectual life’. They provide a kind of public acclimatisation society for new ideas. All kinds of people may play a part in working up these ideas down there in the subterranean passages of the critics’ culture and others may take over the business of negotiating them into the public sphere. Many of these ‘negotiators’ are paid public performers in the news and entertainment industries. However some of the ‘critics’ also have a capacity to barge in directly – but only if they have a desire to appeal to people’s imaginations, and the talent to do so. These are the ‘public intellectuals’. Some of them may be one-offs. Some become regulars. They become influential if they articulate ideas that are already in the minds of some of ‘the public’ anyway, if in a more diffuse state. They get nowhere if they don’t. Two of my books, The Lucky Country and Death of the Lucky Country, were prime examples of appealing to interests of which readers were already becoming aware.

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