Mavericks and Chameleons

by Helen Daniel

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A paper given at the seminar ‘The Intellectual, the Public and the Public Intellectual’, La Trobe University, May 1996

Meaghan Morris who, were she here could easily be mistaken for the topic, once suggested that “Most Cultural Studies conferences create a landscape of astonishment…where bizarre non-encounters between incommensurable identities are made meaningful only by an effort to do something with the startling fact that they can occupy the same space”.1Why am I talking of cultural studies conferences and public intellectuals at the same time? Is this not oxymoronic?

In a sense both the cultural studies figure and the public intellectual should be vying for the same space, but rarely do. But it’s Morris’ emphasis on “the startling fact that they can occupy the same space” which interests me here. That is, the nature of the space available to the public intellectual in Australia and the strange company in which the PI might find himself/herself — together with the tricky question of just what does a PI do?

The PI speaks from within a structure of thought and values which is consistent but flexible, has a commitment to public discourse — but would never use a word like discourse — and has a readiness to be forthright on complex issues but has also a fondness for being understood. The PI therefore does not deploy the language of the academy, unless among consenting adults.

The PI moves comfortably among the priesthood of academics, but with a strong sense of irony. Where rituals are celebrated in tongues, the PI remarks upon the histrionics and flamboyance but prefers his/her own pagan language — because the PI has a powerful sense of audience or readership and regards it as a moral imperative to address that audience. The PI crosses the boundaries of disciplines regularly, scarcely noticing the gesticulations of the border guards so accustomed to making the crossing that he/she scarcely notices the gesticulations of the border guards. In short, the PI seems to me something of a chameleon, because he/she can change the colour of his/her language, according to circumstance and environment. But the PI is also a salamander and can endure fire and great heat.

So where are we? The PI as a form of lizard, it seems. But it is also true, in my view, that, although there are many reported sightings of the species, the PI is, in Australia, an endangered species because the PI’s natural habitat is threatened and our intellectual and cultural ecosystem is out of kilter.


Last year, in the wake of the Demidenko affair, there was much debate about access to public space and the nature of the watchdogs guarding public space — and there were many charges against literary academics for not speaking out. It seemed to me, the most heated accusations were by journalists — and, curiously, often based on a naive notion of the processes of gaining access to public space.

In Australia there is a major cultural chasm between the academic world and the world of journalism — and there are many people (on both sides I must confess, although from where I stand, of course, the academics seem the worse offenders) who do not wish to bridge that chasm. Indeed there are many who ward off interlopers and put guards on the crossing points to protect their territory.

On the other hand there are some cultural mavericks around and some PIs, who have always passed to and fro the cultural bridge, barely noticing the chasm below — so accustomed to the trafficking from one to the other, that they often linger on the bridge and sometimes report back to the rest of us the View From the Bridge.

But of course there are many bridges, many chasms.

A few years ago, a professor at a Victorian university suggested that literary journalists who do not use the proper academic language of semiotics and deconstruction are “literary derros”, apparently shabby, destitute creatures wandering homeless around the intellectual city, unable to gain access to the rich critical fare that more upright and prosperous literary citizens could enjoy. I seized on the term gleefully and immediately declared myself a literary derro.

Actually, I thought about starting today with a quotation from Derrida or Baudrillard, to show my literary credentials are all in order and to lend some class to my derro notions. But I am a derro by choice, confirmed in my calling.

It is easy for literary derros, presumably a kind of low-Other, to mock the vocabulary of the upper classes, but the issues are critical: by building a wall around ideas and demanding an exorbitant and preposterous vocabulary as the ticket of entry, such terminology excludes many readers from the cultural arena.

Another literary derro, novelist and critic Gore Vidal, once wrote a splendid piece on critics as literary gangsters, from the “neighbourhood thugs” and “edgy hoods” waiting for a chance for a heist on innocent passing authors, to “hit-and-run journalists” or the critic who “prowls the criminal night, switch knife at the ready”.

Certainly we have a few gunslingers in universities and some freelance hoods determined to notch up a few literary kills, but we have few of the species maverick. Not the card-sharp and likable rogue from late 1950s television, but the intellectual rover, wandering freely outside the walls of the academy.

If we want a vital intellectual life to which we all have tickets, we need more maverick PIs. Not gangsters firing at random and not poor derros hungering after rich man’s fare, but mavericks, well-fed, stylish and spruce. On second thoughts, perhaps the 1950s television Maverick is right after all. He was not deft with a gun and avoided gunfights, preferring to outwit the blackguards and gunslingers of his time. After all, I’m not suggesting an intellectual showdown at the academic corral, but a little cultural discourse.


Which brings me back to Meaghan Morris and her “landscape of astonishment” and “the startling fact that they can occupy the same space”. Meaghan Morris’ words occur in an essay entitled `On the Beach’ and indeed there is a sense in which the littoral image holds. “On the beach”, as Morris points out (p.107), is “an old expression meaning beached: shipwrecked, destitute, bankrupt, abandoned, washed up.” It is also the name of a “cultural framework for addressing ‘the state of the nation’ (also the world, the human condition, public affairs…)”. There is a sense in which, just to change the metaphor for a moment, the PI is a figure of the cultural beaches — that is, on the edge of two contradictory environments.

Beaches are not only boundaries, but places of leisurely congregation, littoral places where, a little like Morris’ notion of Cultural Studies conferences, there is a “landscape of astonishment” and surprising encounters among those startled to find they are able to inhabit the same space.

The writing of reviews seems to me an activity for the beaches. Indeed reviews pages of newspapers and magazines seem to me to be the cultural beaches of Australia. The echo of Winston Churchill’s fighting on the beaches is not irrelevant, but then beaches are for sybarites too.


In many Australian universities, reviews are not recognised as the proper behaviour of the academic and do not count in an academic CV. Yet reviews, whether on radio or in the pages of newspapers and magazines, are a vital public venue, because they constitute the most accessible public space for a range of readers. Reviews are the primary venue for the reception of new ideas or a new work of art — and are therefore a form of news. Reviews pages are also a point of intersection for the committed readers and the casual reader quite properly using the pages to keep himself/herself informed as well as wanting literary/cultural entertainment. Review pages are also, like Morris’ landscape of astonishment, an intersection of disciplines.

I believe now that there are many enemies of imagination in Australia and not the least of them is our collective settlement for what I might call a teetotaller imagination. So, to end on a note of carousal: according to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, the ancient Goths had a wise custom of debating everything of importance to their state, twice, that is, once drunk and once sober, to achieve a suitable mix of vigour and discretion. Perhaps, to overcome the blandness and caution of much reviewing in Australia, reviewers should try this: two reviews, one drunk, one sober, merged discreetly but vigorously the morning after.

I suspect a little cultural intemperance may be just what we need for some high-spirited, roisterous intellectual debate. Culturally we tend to sobriety, even teetotalism. The wowsers would have us abstemious, dispirited, vigilant, on the alert against stirrings of cultural passion. Perhaps it’s time for some high-spirited quaffing, a little cultural carousing. The PI as toastmaster, perhaps.

So where are we? The PI as a chameleon — part maverick, part salamander, part beachcomber, part derro, part toastmaster — but ultimately dependent on our protecting the intellectual environment and so protecting the PI’s natural habitat.

Helen Daniel is a literary critic and editor of Australian Book Review.


1. Meaghan Morris, `On the Beach’, Ecstasy and Economics, EMPress 1992, p9

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