Seen last week: and The Question of The Intellectual ~ theatre notes

Monday, September 07, 2009

Seen last week: and The Question of The Intellectual

Last week's shenanigans, in brief: Tex Perkins in The Man in Black: The Johnny Cash Story at the Athenaeum (Australian review in Friday's paper, here); Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage at the MTC, 100-word brief in the Oz shortly; and Liminal Theatre's Oedipus: A Poetic Requiem, of which more on TN once I deal with a pressing deadline. If you missed this fascinating production the first time round, it's running until September 14.

Meanwhile, UK critic Andrew Haydon has made a welcome return to blogging with the recent resuscitation of Postcards from the Gods. In today's post, he's picking up on a blog conversation started by George Hunka in New York and continued by Steve Waters in the Guardian blog, broadly asking where the public intellectuals are, and why they're not writing about theatre. In a thoughtful and complex response, Andrew responds baldly: "what public intellectuals?" And goes on to suggest that the kind of long-form responsive writing that Waters claims doesn't exist does in fact exist on blogs. (Waters describes blogs as "angry" and "circular", which seems a bit sweeping: Ms TN, to take an example to hand, might be angry, but she's more angular than rotund.)

We might ask the same question here. Are there any "public intellectuals"? Was Donald Horne the last of his kind? Is it, in fact, possible for an intellectual of the calibre Hunka is citing - Adorno, Sontag - to exist in any public way in our culture, given that "intellectual" is most often used as a term of abuse? Having watched Alana Valentine's talk on verbatim theatre on the ABC Fora yesterday, which was big on straw men, unsubstantiated assertions and cheap shots (gotcha Barrie Kosky, hur hur), I wonder. I don't have a problem with verbatim theatre per se - look at our friend David Williams and Version 1.0. But Valentine seems to inhabit a universe in which Peter Weiss - a pioneer of verbatim art - is a kind of ice cream. Sometimes I peep over the parapet and all I feel is despair - why are we still in kindergarten? Discuss while I get on with my own public hackery.

26 comments:

Jana said...

Public intellectuals are proclaimed dead more often than Theatre, The City, and Society together, three things that still feature prominently in my life. Like The City (the most contentious one), I think the answer is that they will exist while we have modernity (I could have included The Novel on the list and quoted Kundera abundantly): while we keep talking about the dispersal of the city, rise of the suburb and the cyberspace, and the move away from centrality, people still huddle together to live. Equally, public intellectuals are people who speak to us about our times, and for as long as we have mass media, we will have such figures, of some sort.

To lament the fall of the public intellectual is a little like complaining that we have to send our children to private schools. They aren't god-given, but a combination of a person saying something, people listening, and a working communication channel (a publisher, an editor, a newspaper). Working on Spark, I've been thinking a lot about what makes a working system out of the ideal we call 'culture', and it's all three in equal measure. I've heard countless academics complain that they live in the ivory tower, which I consider infantile rather than self-deprecating. My proposition is always to write for newspapers, civilian magazines, simple-language books and so on. The innovation required is not in style, but in medium. Academics are hardly the voiceless stratum oppressed by the rest of the society and powerless to change their circumstances! (However, the role of expert and the role of public intellectual are significantly different, and one doesn't follow from another. Even more childish seems to me the desire of every academic to be a publicly regarded voice. In theatre, as Haydon points out, excellent academic writing regularly appears, but I often wonder whether other academics treat it with the respect it deserves, and if not, how they expect anyone else to.)

But may I ask: do you mean Australia when you say 'our culture', or do you mean the European-grown world in general (to avoid 'Western', considering Melbourne is east of Africa)? Australian problem is distinct from American or British in that our public debate lacks, first and foremost, attention to rigour in thinking, and then to style. Our public debate is both boring to read and intellectually uninspiring. Occasionally one of the two, only very rarely both.

Perhaps Spark should have an annual competition for best hatchet job? I was horrified at Haydon's suggestion that Hoipolloi be stripped of their funding as a service to the British theatre, but it makes me wonder whether I've just grown mellow in the temperate Australian critical climate. We all love a good debate; we adore a good cat fight. We pay attention. People paid attention to Julian Meyrick's response to you even if only to dismiss one side completely. But then there's that notion, which I again notice in Australia more than in either the US or the UK, that the moment an activity is worthy of serious consideration, it may not be fun anymore. Look what Australian comics are turning into...

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jana - by "our" I'm being parochial - I mean Australia. And yes, to generalise with polemic force, I agree with you on the general tenor of public debate here. Especially in the arts. Now I feel obliged to state that there are exceptions... but they almost always happen despite the prevailing culture, not because of it.

Which is not to say there are not smart and independent thinkers around. There are. But do they have that prominence in public debate that qualifies as the old-fashioned "public intellectual"? I see Andrew claims Zizek (I have to say I never thought of him as British, but hey) - who of equivalent intellectual weight and public prominence exists in Australian public life? Given, say, that Peter Singer and Robert Hughes don't live here...for reasons both have been vocal about. Andrew also rather dismissively names John Berger, who I'd put at the top of any list of necessary intellectuals. And who abandoned Britain during Thatcher's reign and now lives in France...

Here, for the sake of specifics, is the Australian Public Intellectual Network's Top 40 list of public intellectuals. (Wot, no Richard Flanagan? - the only fiction writers are Helen Garner and David Malouf... And sadly, theatre very clearly doesn't exist as a public intellectual exercise... aside from Guy Rundle, maybe. And that's very maybe.)

1. Robert Manne
2. Henry Reynolds
3. Tim Flannery
4. Noel Pearson
5. Phillip Adams
6. Peter Singer
7. Marcia Langton
8. Geoffrey Blainey
9. Hugh Stretton
10. Inga Clendennin
11. Tim Costello
12. Meaghan Morris
13. Michael Kirby
14. David Malouf
15. Frank Brennan
16. Peter Craven
17. Raimond Gaita
18. Ghassan Hage
19. David Marr
20. Don Watson
21. Bob Brown
22. John Frow
23. Helen Garner
24. Barry Jones
25. Stuart MacIntyre
26. Humphrey McQueen
27. Keith Windschuttle
28. Elizabeth Grosz
29. Carmen Lawrence
30. Bernard Smith
31. Germaine Greer
32. Marilyn Lake
33. Hugh McKay
34. Fiona Stanley
35. Clive Hamilton
36. Guy Rundle
37. John Hirst
38. Robert Hughes
39. Drusilla Modjeska
40. Glyn Davis

Jana said...

Mea culpa, actually, for the phrasing. I think Haydon is completely right for mentioning Zizek, who is definitely a public intellectual on an enormous scale, and whose insights are equally applicable in the UK as they are in Slovenia (the fact that Haydon is much more aware of Neue Slovenische Kunst than the average British punter is a separate issue), or Australia for that matter. God help us on the day we're not allowed to read Adorno because he's German.

Like in art, good thinking comes from copying, I would imagine. Perhaps the problem, if there is a problem, is precisely that Australians are so afraid to think about issues that aren't 'Australian', or read people that aren't 'Australian' (or haven't been vetted in London first, which is where Haydon's comment acquires extra poignancy). Among the recent theatre issues that resonated widely, I can think of two significant deaths and Seven Jewish Children, on which nobody is writing because, ostensibly, they are not Australian enough.

One part is systemic, sure: remember Umberto Eco's introduction to Travels in Hyperreality, explaining to his American journalists that he is not "finding it hard to reconcile his academic work with writing a newspaper column" because that's what academics in Italy do? But literally everyone in my faculty regularly speaks up on the issues of built environment; it's just that the parameters of the conversation are so limited, the entire discussion deadly boring, and the titles of these think pieces always along the lines of "Australia must..." or "Victoria should consider".

Is it to do with not enjoying a conversation for the sake of the conversation? Commentary pour commentary? Thinking for thinking's sake?

I must say, I've been enjoying Louis Nowra's writing enormously these days. It's barbed, but by overtly disagreeing it at least shapes the general blabla into something structured, something resembling a culture.

Ethel Malley (Miss) said...

Number 10 Inga Clendinnen is misspelt! and please who is number 22 John Frow? Never heard of him. That's all right, as I imagine he's never heard of me.

(So you don't have to live or work here to be a public intellectual? Throw in Clive James then?) And what about those creepy Counterpoint guys on Radio National with their strangely arbitrary Thatcherite manque' agenda and their young-or-middle-aged fogeyish thing for swing 78s? Are they public, or intellectual?

Alison, I hope your review of God of Carnage acknowledges that the set is among the ugliest and most unforgiving ever visited upon a paying audience in this country, or any other country. Blood red walls and floor lit at a couple of levels of intensity for 90 mins. One wall is a calendar. (The couple next to me wondered what this squared off numbered grid with 7 French words at the top may have been. They concluded it was probably the months of the year... Really, the Australian incuriosity about and resistance to languages with literatures closely related to our European roots is omnipresent, dismal, and worthy of a study all of its own.)

To resume on that SET: In fact, it is the equal ugliest set ever created since Thespis was a gel, and actually contributes to reducing the modest enjoyment to be had from this play. I cannot understand why anyone hated the audience so much as to inflict it upon people like me who P A Y to attend. I shall have to go and lie down in the dark, and perhaps listen to some radio plays.

Ethel Malley (Miss) said...

oh and I nearly forgot! I too saw that Alana Valentine on ABC Fora yesterday. What a shocker! How tasteless to turn the Alex Buzo lecture into an undignified whingeathon about her own case of OPAD (Other Peoples' Attention Deficit) about HERSELF, complete with Publication List!

AND it seemed to be at base a Sydneycentric (yawn) snit about how there are "too many" productions of classic plays. (Where is this place? I want to move there.) Presumably she seethed her way through Women of Troy and The Wars of the Roses and Metamorphoses when the healthy STC subscriber base should have been drinking thirstily and gratefully at her own fountain. I know these people need their egos, but not instead of work of sustained interest they don't. (Shouldn't she be on that intellectuals' list? Just ask her.)

Andrew Haydon said...

Hello,

It's lovely to be back and being discussed like this. Jana, I possibly did go a bit far with the "stripped of funding" comment. In context - Hoipolloi getting warm reviews and nominated for awards - it seemed a lot less irresponsible.

As for "claimng Zizek" - I guess he's a "public intellectual" here in Britain insofar as he has a chair at Birkberk College in London, is regularly published by the London Review of Books and less regularly by the Guardian. As such, while clearly not a Briton (any more than he's a German, a Pole or an American), he's certainly a public intellectual here.

And yes, I think on reflection I was way to hard on Berger (and forgot Kenneth Clark of "Civilisation" fame).

I'm finding it fascinating watching this debate sweeping round the anglophone world and seeing every country lament their own cultural standing in the light of the previous countries'. George wrings his hands in New York, I wring mine in London, and then you guys wring yours. It's like a sort of domino effect of one-downmanship :-)

Your cultural life seems pretty neat from where I'm sitting, btw. I'm not sure we've had any Heiner Muller performed here for years...

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Ethel, Jana, Andrew - thanks for the comments. Some random responses: Yes, before I forget, I've been enjoying Louis Nowra too. And point taken on Zizek - absolutely fair enough. And you can blame the Australian Public Intellectuals Network - how marvellous that there is such a thing - for the misspelling.

And do you know Ethel, aside from the performances, or at least most of them, in God of Carnage, I loved that set! The play itself nearly sent me to sleep with tedium. Maybe I needed the red to keep me awake. I mean, boulevard is as boulevard does, but I was expecting, even for this, something - well - something less flimsy. Silly me.

Well, now we've decided that Anglophone culture is in its senility on all sides of the globe, maybe we should rescue it from desuetude and remember all the reasons we love it, really. No doubt all our beloved cities have virtues - you have the LRB, for godsake, George has Richard Foreman and Marilyn Nonken, and here we have old Heiner and anyone else we can borrow and make our own (which is seriously one of the several things I like about here, a true and unselfconscious eclecticism). But that ABC Fora talk really was too typical of a certain kind of discourse to not remind me of how awful it can be.

George Hunka said...

Unwringing my hands for a moment, I type a few words of thanks to Andrew for pushing the discussion onward. I note Zizek as well, though in the U.S. his work most often appears in the journal Lacanian Ink -- a fine publication (www.lacan.com), but you're unlikely to find it stacked next to Time or Newsweek at the local newsstand.

What you're pointing out here, Andrew, is that this does seem to be systemic in the Anglophone world rather than limited to one nation-state or another (and that 18th/19th century concept is heaving its last breath); if somebody could discuss the situation in other countries, I'd like to hear about it. The West itself seems to be fleeing from contemplation and intellection, validating instead that squishy "feeling" or "sensation" or "spirit," words that we're draining meaning from as well. Partly it may be because public intellectuals may be perceived as ineffective: They've done us no good with their thinking so far, eh? so let's get out and do. This tends to obscure the fact that thinking and speaking (and yes, feeling) with more complexity are very much voluntary acts of engagement with the world.

I did like what Waters had to say about the dialogue between this critical approach and artistic work itself: "It's not simply that theatre needs to explain itself or that it needs validation by intellectuals. It's more that profound and pertinent reflection yields better work ..." And perhaps more productions of Muller in England and elsewhere. The public intellectual will not engage with the theatre until she has a theatre that engages her interest, and Artauds and Becketts rarely come along.

Public intellectuals emerging from the theatre itself are a different story, and something ancillary to what Andrew's talking about. And if their influence remains limited to a coterie, that's no shame; coteries grow (like those around Cage's, Crimp's and Heidegger's work). But if we begin from such sources, let's do continue on. And I warn that we shouldn't mistake mere namedropping for the work of thought -- or an honest engagement with these thinker's works -- itself. I sometimes feel that people who mention Adorno, etc., got everything they know about him from bookflap copy, passing mentions in other work and secondary sources like Wikipedia. Defining our reference points is one thing, but we do their work a disservice if we don't absorb this speculation then go on to further speculate for ourselves. (Not to say that any of the participants in this discussion have done anything of the sort, but the risks are clear.)

Alison Croggon said...

I'd say the reason for the decline of the PI isn't anything so conscious, George. I'd point towards the ethos of the mass media, which has narrowed the perameters of public thought to the op-ed piece and the soundbite. When you read something like Joseph Roth's exquisitely written feuilletons, which were written for the daily press, you can see how things have shifted. Still, there might be a counter-shift: people like Murdoch have been claiming that the only way for papers to survive is to generate quality writing. We'll see. We sure live in interesting times.

And yes, conversation that is merely name-dropping, a veneer of knowledge, is no substitute for the desire and passion of thought.

Sorry to bang on in this parochial manner, but Valentine's speech typifies so much about what passes for discourse here. (I should say I haven't seen or read her plays, so have no opinion on her actual work). Valentine doesn't even get as far as name-dropping. In fact, the argument for verbatim theatre can be an interesting one, akin maybe to the early 20C argument about the artistic provenance of collage (continued in poetry in the 70s in Britain and even much later here, but that's by the bye). And there's important things to be said about the artistic politics of directly relating communal experiences (Helene Cixous and Ariane Mnouchkine - Perjured City, Les Dernier Caravanserail - might be a model there, although the obvious Anglo examples are Tricycle and David Hare).

But instead Valentine sets up a series of dubious claims: that reinventions of classic texts are claimed to be the cutting edge of contemporary theatre, that avant garde theatre artists (read: Kosky) are deeply conservative, that classic productions come at the price of new writing, and that theatre recycles classics more than other artforms (so what about orchestras or dance or opera?!) She offers no evidence, talking as if everything on main stages is Shakespeare, which the merest glance at any company's programs will demonstrate is not true. She bowdlerises the possible reasons why people might want to produce classic plays (apparently because of something unchanging called "human nature"). Then there's some arse-covering - of course there are brilliant productions of classic plays that she respects highly yada yada - which makes nonsense of her previous claim (who's doing these classic plays about human nature crowding our stages, then? Bell Shakespeare?) Most of the rest is self serving polemic, with gestures towards big things like truth and the collective experience of theatre, which is hardly confined to verbatim theatre. The only verbatim playwright mentioned is Valentine and it's mostly about arguing her personal legitimacy as an artist. The intellectual horizon is about one inch high.

This wouldn't matter if it were not so prominent, and if I'm being hard on Valentine, it's because she is far from exceptional. I can't remember the last time a serious speech about theatre was broadcast on national television. And I wonder, why is the ambition so small?

the anvil said...

I have been following these discussions on your various blogs, and reading this particular thread I am struck by a couple of thoughts about the lack of in-depth discussion around theatre, particularly in Australia. Firstly the mass media is not doing its bit, and secondly there are massive economic factors at play.

Alison's point about mass-media ethos is certainly accurate. I would like to add that Australians are not immune to complex analysis, as we have a rich vein of discussion around politics and sport, why not the arts? I put it to the mainstream press that Australians do not engage in public debate around the arts because the conversations we are presented by our broadsheets are reduced to inch-wide plot summaries and descriptions of the set! (apologies to those who posted on this issue before, but this is not criticism, it's a book report)

As a result, a glance through the arts pages, when you get past the scores of ads, reveals no great return on the intellectual investment we make by reading that particular paper. So I for one will often skip straight the sport because I know there will be a robust analysis to feed my mental urges for stimulation. If the Herald or The Age published something interesting about the arts, people would read it! It's really sad, arts coverage is a token gesture (smh.com abandoned their theatre blog several years ago.) It's no coincidence that the word "elite" when used in reference to sport is a compliment, for arts it's used sneeringly.

My second point about economic factors here is simple. Australian educational institutions have spent the last ten years in famine and drought. Our previous conservative government stripped Tertiary funding to the bone and universities were forced to start acting like businesses. Arts faculties were among the hardest hit, and the impact is still leaving the sector reeling (look no further than Melbourne Uni & the current VCA fiasco). As such our arts academics are very hard pressed to find time to engage in proper public debate. Others, such as recent graduates or arts workers who by rights should be emerging public intellectuals are frankly preoccupied with keeping their jobs. I for one recently made a decision to focus on my creative writing rather than pursue a debilitating 50 hour week working copy. It was an easy choice in the end but the sacrifice in terms of quality of life has been large.

And this brings me to my third point, which has only just come to mind. Of that list above - how many are under forty years of age? How many under fifty? My point is not one of discriminations (i personally couldn't care how old someone is) - but that the incumbent generation is yet to define itself. I'd wager that as this latest wave of technology change settles in the next year or so, those of us who aren't glued to iPhones will step up and create the first great intellectual leap of the millenium.

For the record, I'm 32, playwright, theatre blogger, emerging intellectual, based in Sydney.

lovely to meet you all, I look forward to following this discussion.

Sancz

http://5thwall.wordpress.com

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Sancz - nice to meet you (and your most interesting blog - thanks especially for that discussion of A Kind of Ruckus). You might find Peter Singer's comments on Australian higher ed - link above - pertinent to what you're saying about university culture here!

To be honest, I think what is probably the most important qualification for the "intellectual" tag is curiosity: it's that curiosity that I see missing in so much discussion. It's not even a refusal to look, so much as a terrifying apathy. And yet there's such pleasure in the play of ideas and making, in the organic breath of culture. It's by no means compulsory to be interested, but I do wonder why those who claim to be interested so often seem so incurious.

There is also my favourite definition of an intellectual, quoted by Edward Said but actually an old fashioned 19C definition: "An intellectual is someone who will tell the truth, no matter what the price".

Neither of these things - truthfulness, curiosity - have anything to do with university, although in the best circumstances they can take place inside such institutions as well as outside them.

I wouldn't take that list as definitive: it's skewed in a particular way, and putting Clive Hamilton on par with Peter Singer for example (or making Robert Manne No. 1) seems all highly problematic to me. (Also there's a lot of historians. And isn't Bernard Smith dead? Or am I thinking of the wrong Bernard Smith?) I'd say Marcus Westbury is one younger voice who is out and about and making intelligent cultural provocations, and there are bound to be more. Mostly rising up, dare I say it, through the blogosphere, which is mostly written by younger people. I see enough restlessness and curiosity and brains around me anyway, and that strikes me as a good thing. The rest is stubbornness. And a wariness of the cultural machine, which can be pretty toxic here.

epistemysics said...

“I'd say the reason for the decline of the PI isn't anything so conscious” – I was under the impression that Pi went on forever? (Terrible joke, I know.)

I wouldn’t necessarily call the problem a “terrifying apathy”, Alison, though I think that may very well be one of the symptoms. Could it perhaps be that age old fear of asking a stupid question, or maybe even an offensive one? As we know, Socrates managed to ruffle a few feathers back when he was doing it, and while most intellectuals-to-be don’t have to worry about hemlock, our society nowadays is turning into a very politically correct one (though this is not to suggest that any new intellectual thought must therefore be offensive or politically incorrect, though questioning the current norms of society would often tread into this territory, one suspects – the truth is often painful).

So in relation to that quote from Said, perhaps there are not as many people willing to pay the “price”, or maybe that price has gone up? (This is not to belittle the price some have to pay in other countries with less free societies, though.) Keep in mind that that “price” can be economical as well – if there’s no space for the public intellectual in the media, as others have commented, they won’t be getting paid, either (I’d much rather have some bread to eat, rather than a Platonic idea of bread!).

Alison Croggon said...

Is saying anything that differs from the received consensus ever done without tremors? I doubt it. As for the question of whether to speak or not: as Sancz said above, such choices are not always about simple choice. At that point, the question of bread or truth, they reach into the question of necessity. And yes, I've earned the right to say that.

I suspect, EP, that whether a statement is PC or not is a bit of a red herring. I'd be asking more whether it's thought through: if it is, then you can defend it if it draws attack. Certainly, provocation on its own is surely the most boring of motives for saying anything.

epistemysics said...

I would agree that differing from the consensus usually causes tremors, though I suppose the point I’m trying to make (quite badly) is that with the advent of political correctness the tremors are far more severe than they used to be. While the public intellectual may find it necessary to tread on a few toes in service of the truth, those around them (in the media where they get coverage, for example) may not be as willing as they once used to be to report it (for a variety of reasons, I suppose, political correctness perhaps being one of them). No longer does the bread/truth choice lie just with the public intellectual, but the journalist/paper as well. (Of course, I’m young and naive, so I’m basing this on the “no space for PIs in the media” that others have been talking about.)

As the others have suggested, though, it may be that the public doesn’t care for the theatre criticism of the past, for example, and this is the main reason why the media space for such things have shrunk (rather than being PC (or the equivalent of PC in theatre criticism terms)). So to completely counter what I just said (I hold opinions extremely lightly), perhaps our society is becoming too tolerant to care about such issues that a PI might raise, not necessarily because they don’t care, but because they’ve learned to be much more accepting. The validity of cultural relativism is far from determined (I think), but perhaps we, at least in multicultural Australia, have been taught to be tolerant of other cultures so much that we have become too tolerant of our own, and as such feel less of a need to change it, or to be told of it in the media? (And so the tremors are so soft that they can’t be felt.) If everybody is “right”, then can anybody be wrong?

Just throwin' a few theories out there... (One of these days one of them might stick.)

Alison Croggon said...

Um. EP, a bit of historical perspective might help here. If you want to see actual political correctness at work, you can do worse than look at the characterisations of, say, first wave feminists, or race activists in mid-century America (or if you want contemporary examples, just glance over any right wing nutcase blog). Intolerance and misrepresentation is as old as people wanting to change things and other people wanting to preserve their power. I am not at all sure about the contemporary provenance of PC - it's usually a term used by someone who's objecting to having to think about someone traditionally not-fully-human (black, brown, female, working class, whatever) as fully human. It gets murky, I agree. I don't think it's PC that's the problem at the moment. I think it's nouveau paternalism, which has gone all new age touchy-feely but is just as controlling as it's ever been. But that's another issue.

I'd also say that the PI absence has been rather over-egged here: it's ridiculous to argue it's entirely absent. Yes, things do appear in the msm, and sometimes they're even good. Sometimes very good. It's just that you can't expect quality as a default. I might also say - with due respect to Katherine Brisbane et al - what "theatre criticism of the past"? (And who are "the public"?)

epistemysics said...

I realise that political correctness has been used negatively in the past and been overcome (though I would agree that I am in severe need of some historical perspective, as well as a brain, heart, and a...no wait, that’s the Wizard of Oz), but I would tentatively suggest that...actually, I’ll just leave it there on second thought.

The “theatre criticism of the past” I referred to probably would have been better defined as the “theatre coverage of the past” – I hear people talk of how the arts section of the newspapers, etc, have been diminished (space-wise), and hence I assume that at some point in the past the arts section was, well, bigger (though I suppose quantity of course does not equal quality). As for “the public” I meant, you know, those people...out there...in the public...where you can see them... (I was referring to those that read the media – the readership of a newspaper, for example.)

And until two minutes ago I’d never even heard of paternalism...most edifying as always, Alison. (And patient!)

neandellus said...

Eek! Bernard's not dead! He had a bit of a health scare last summer, but he's doing well now and will be turning 93 in October. The only other Bernard Smith I know of was an eighteenth century organ maker(?).

John Armstrong? He's surely as much an Aus.P.I. as Clive JAmes. Armstrong has a brief few pages on theatre in his latest book (A Weak Pot of Tea).

Jana said...

I would be careful not to confuse great thinking of the past with 'theatre coverage' in the arts pages. Comparative lack of Susan Sontag-like figures has not been proven yet to have occurred on a global scale, and has probably not happened in Australia. The shrinkage of the theatre reviews, on the other hand, may have to do more with the market for both theatre and the newspapers. However, literature gets plenty of space in all sorts of media, and the discourse produced in this space is so turgid that the occasional Craven shit stir (like the recent PEN anthology review) is downright welcome.

But forgive me if I'm less than preoccupied: it's not just that I've been reading everyone from Judith Butler, Giorgio Agamben and Slavoj Zizek's first wife, Renata Salecl (all alive and active public intellectuals) to Erika Fischer-Lichte and Vjeran Zuppa (perfectly living and incredibly smart theatre theorists); it's also the fact that my own department newsletter records 2-3 newspaper appearances by fellow academics weekly, and that my favourite lecturer, Justin Clemens (who certainly fulfills the role of PI in my book) has just had an article published in Meanjin in which he compares the quality of Australian visual arts criticism to the (mentioned) boringness of literary criticism, and relates it to the quality of our visual arts. Thus: we have the minds, both locally and globally, and we have the art, both locally and globally. The mainstream media are getting heavily shaken anyway, and I don't see what's stopping any public thinking from happening except... indolence, perhaps? Hardly tragic, certainly.

Alison Croggon said...

Ah - well the point is that Sontag didn't exist in a university, but was a major figure in the (quality) mass media. And brilliant and necessary though his thinking is, I haven't read Agamben in the Age recently.

Alison Croggon said...

...and thanks, Neandellus. Gosh, he's still around! Bernard Smith seems like a giant from another era, and it's kind of heartening he's still going. And mea culpa: I should have checked (first rule of not being lazy).

Alison Croggon said...

...and (another PS) I should add that the Australian has just doubled the space for its arts coverage.

Jana said...

Giorgio Agamben in lastampa.it; in Venice he hosts book launches, gives radio interviews, and whatnot.

The other point is that all Italian children have three years of obligatoru philosophy in high school, and actually read Agamben. I sense in your comment, Alison, a kind of anti-academicism that does not exist in Italy - for example - and that may well be the same sentiment that makes newspaper editors shun commentary that demonstrates complexity of thought. Susan Sontag made an effort to separate herself from the academia, yes, and it was a great decision in her environment. Agamben doesn't need to separate himself from Ca' Foscari and IUAV in order to secure being read by the average citizen. Perhaps this is the root of the problem.

Alison Croggon said...

Jana, I think you've misunderstood me rather comprehensively. In stating the fact that Agamben doesn't appear in the pages of the Age, I am not stating an opinion on it. In answer to your claim of "anti-academicism" (!), I have no inhibitions about quoting Agamben's ideas - see my reviews on Honour Bound or The Fall or Le Dernier Caravenserail.

We began with your earlier assertion that you don't care about what's in the daily press because of the richness around you at Melbourne Uni - frankly, notwithstanding Peter Singer's complaints about the decline of the liberal humanities here, I should be shocked if there were no intellectual life in the haven of the university! But this whole discussion is about the intellectual debate in the most public of fora, which remains the mainstream press. And it would seem to me that an intellectual world which sidelines one of the most important contemporary political philosphers as an obscure Italisn academic has something wrong with it. Which is maybe my whole point...

Jana said...

Returning to this conversation after a short hiatus: I apologise for seeing anti-academicism where there was none. But I've never claimed that I "don't care about what's in the daily press because of the richness around me at Melbourne Uni", and I wouldn't. My argument is slightly different: that the mass media are in a state of great upheaval at the moment, which may allow for many worrying trends to be reversed. It won't happen unless many planets align and hard work is done, but things are changing, and we have a great opportunity whizzing by as we speak.

I would love to see more Agamben (or Peter Singer) in the daily press, and I think the fault lies more in the press than in the writing of these men. I don't think academics should simplify their thinking, or godhelpus think more engaged thoughts - there is a genuine purpose in paying people just to think, and that should be recognised. We complain when artists are asked to quantify the benefits of their output. Academics today are routinely challenged about the purpose of their work.

You've made me think that 'public intellectual' would be a person who perhaps interprets, re-packages and disseminates, rather than necessarily producing thought. Someone who connects the current affairs with philosophy, literature, and their timeless insights. In that sense, criticism comes close, because (I mean criticism, not daily reviews, for the reason that) criticism reads a work of art within multiple frames, finds resonances in other artworks, other theory, and places it in context. A public intellectual, I dare attempt a definition, does the same with the current events, providing a sort of guidance through life the way a critic provides guidance through an art.

The academic, in both cases, does a distinctly different job of producing thought, which may be immediately useful (like Agamben's work on states of exception, or Hans Thies-Lehmann's Postdramatic theatre), or it may be intermediately useful (all the academic work that has fed into Homo sacer or Postdramatic theatre). However, it's not thinking attached to a cause: it's creative and freeform, like art. Perhaps the dread so many people seem to have in front of the academia (or just thought) explains why our opinion pages are so dull: if a public intellectual sits in a careful middle between the esoteric heights of the academia and the inconsequentiality of the daily life, anti-intellectualism would certainly disturb that balance.

Even among my students and colleagues here in the ivory tower, few approach serious thinking carefree. My argument was: we should read more, and complain less. Thoughts are being thought as we speak, and turned into writing. It is just the conversation that they don't enter, for whatever reason.

I also wonder if the dullness of the Australia-should-Australia-must opinions in the press are due to outside thinkers being drawn into the public domain exclusively as experts and answer-givers, paternalistically required to tell us what's right, rather than as agent provocateurs and intellectual shit-stirrers.

The comment layout on your blog is so narrow it becomes hard to follow the conversation after a certain density of argument builds, don't you find?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jana - thanks for that. I certainly wouldn't claim that Agamben or Singer have no place in the mass media, and it's our loss they're not simply part of the wider conversation. And yes, things are quite interestingly in flux: I don't feel gloom and doom around the question, simply because there's enough oxygen around to keep me happy (even if I'm personally a little athsmatic at the moment). I think we're broadly in agreement.

There is, sadly, still a colonial attitude in Australia which accounts for a certain timorousness, even obsequiousness, in some discourse. Our strengths exist in the work which simply takes its place at the table, with neither apology nor aggrandisement, and there's quite a lot of stuff around which does precisely that, and with that lightness you speak of. And yes, we're good at shit-stirring, and I like that too.

I like even more the idea of reading more and complaining less. Though a good hard questioning now and again does no one any harm. Onward!

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jana - thanks for that. I certainly wouldn't claim that Agamben or Singer have no place in the mass media, and it's our loss they're not simply part of the wider conversation. And yes, things are quite interestingly in flux: I don't feel gloom and doom around the question, simply because there's enough oxygen around to keep me happy (even if I'm personally a little athsmatic at the moment). I think we're broadly in agreement.

There is, sadly, still a colonial attitude in Australia which accounts for a certain timorousness, even obsequiousness, in some discourse. Our strengths exist in the work which simply takes its place at the table, with neither apology nor aggrandisement, and there's quite a lot of stuff around which does precisely that, and with that lightness you speak of. And yes, we're good at shit-stirring, and I like that too.

I like even more the idea of reading more and complaining less. Though a good hard questioning now and again does no one any harm. Onward!