McKenzie Wark responds to Robert Dessaix

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I don’t know anything about Russian, but I’m fascinated by the portrait of the humanities Robert paints in his essay on Russian studies in Australia. It belongs to a very popular genre — one in which a golden age of humanities culture is seen in the rear view mirror from a period of decline. Particularly curious about this genre is how the high point always coincides with the writer’s early career, and the decline with the emergence of a new cohort on the scene. The latter are responsible for the decline, the former for the peak. Or at least, the ageing cohort are made exempt from responsibility for the decline, which resulted from forces beyond their control, such as ‘Dawkins’.

In the Dawkins era, the number of people studying in the Humanities increased. This increase was not as great as the numbers who went to Business studies and some other disciplines. My theory about that is that the expansion in places drew in new students from the lower middle class with different perceptions about education. In my experience, they tend to be students who are the first to get a shot at becoming really middle class in their family, and they often have non-English speaking backgrounds. They don’t have the luxury of studying things that don’t have clear rewards. They feel disadvantaged studying language based subjects in English. Which is not to say that these students are uncultured. Rather, they are cultured in things that even ‘multicultural’ humanities does not appear to value.

So, as the numbers expanded in higher education, the numbers expanded in the humanities, but less so, and the new student cohorts had a slightly different relation to questions of culture and education. This required the creation of new kinds of courses that had a new mode of address, one aimed at this different kind of student. Humanities programs that grasped this grew in the 80s and 90s. Those that didn’t, lost ground. Typically, those that lost ground seem to want to blame anything — evil postmodern culture, multiculturalism, even the students themselves, rather than look at the failure to recruit as a problem that falls squarely on the shoulders of the designers of the program.

The kind of ethos Robert describes as typical of Russian studies in its alledged Golden Age strikes me as rather class and culture bound. It assumes the values of a certain kind of middle class and its relation to education. It was a refined culture, no doubt, but still a limited one — not least in its inability to see how alienating this might look to outsiders. It’s a particularly sad failure of vision when you think about it in relation to the current moment in cultural politics. If the last federal election tells us anything, it is that the culture of the educated middle class failed to articulate a version of itself that could appeal widely enough to stem the rise of a culture of reaction. The symptom of this has been there for some time, and we did not notice: the expansion of higher education was skewed away from us. Blaming anyone but ourselves for that only compounds the failure of critical imagination.

It would be a terrible thing indeed if nobody read Dostoyevsky any more, but somehow I don’t think things are as bleak as that. Cultures fascinate in proportion to their power, and the decline of the former Soviet Union leads to a decline in the ‘erotics’ of things Russian. I see no reason why it would not also lead to a transferral of that charge to other literatures and cultures, perhaps ones that are just as great. (Having not studied Chinese I think it prudent to refrain from making a judgement on its value).

The other trend Robert mentions is for students to be fascinated by their own roots. This strikes me as a mostly beneficial development. It eroticises those cultural sources that actually contribute to Australian culture rather than those of the great empires of the day. Far from making cultural dialogue more difficult, its a sound basis for it. Students invent a sense of who they are. That gives them confidence. It strikes me the least confident voices in Australian culture, and hence the most prone to reaction, are people like me: lower middle class (not quite but almost) Anglos with precarious senses of identity. Whenever I return to my home town of Newcastle and see people I used to know, what strikes me is the sense of cultural unease, and the way a lack of attention to the roots and routes of the cultural past contribute to that unease, and the reaction that flows from it.

Culture changes. The points of conflict change, as to the points of erotic charge. It’s important not to lose continuity altogether. One hopes there will always be departments of Russian (and for that matter, of Celtic studies). But the Humanities are custodians not only of the past but also of the future. It’s important to be able to use the immense resources of the past to articulate possible cultural futures. Which is why, what appears to Robert as a golden age seems to me a period of missed opportunity.

McKenzie Wark lectures in media studies at Macquarie University .

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