A Review of McKenzie Wark’s ‘The Virtual Republic: Australia’s Culture Wars of the 1990s’

by David Carter

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‘It seems that you are either for McKenzie Wark or against him. Well, since it’s a matter of being either for or against, I am for.’ These sentences were first written by Vincent Buckley in 1958 with the words ‘Patrick White’ in the place of ‘McKenzie Wark’. An obscure reference I’m sure, but given Wark’s interest in culture wars and ‘cold warriors’ I rather like the resonances it sets in play.

From the one review of The Virtual Republic that I’ve seen (I’ve been out of the country) the book is already on its way to becoming a terrain of battle itself. Not that Wark could or would want to bear the kind of cultural representativeness that White asked for and then tried to undo. One of the qualities of The Virtual Republic which the review wouldn’t lead you to expect is its modesty.

I read Gerard Windsor’s review of The Virtual Republic before having read the book itself, and I want to read the book now partly through Windsor’s reaction. This is often how we read and it’s part of Wark’s argument too, the way that public conversations about culture construct the public space that he wants to call ‘the virtual republic’.

Windsor’s authority as a reviewer seems to be a literary authority. (Ironically the same issue of Australian Book Review prints Ivor Indyk’s terrific essay on the ironies of ‘Literary Authority’.) I guess one can see, all too clearly, what the editor had in mind — start a skirmish, keep the culture wars in the news.

And, predictably, Windsor responds in just this way. He seems to find his literary authority under attack by the book and turns to defend it. Fair enough, except that this seems to relieve him of the burden of weighing up the book’s argument in any detail, even in order to pick it to shreds.

We don’t find out much about what Wark is attempting to say or what kind of book it is except through some paraphrase, parody and selective quoting. There are arguments to be made, and Windsor picks out some of the weak spots, but without any substance the criticisms just sound like whinges. Windsor’s literary authority comes down in the end to the great unanswerable: ‘if only they would write well’. Strangely, in ways he seems not to understand, this might be just the point where Wark would agree with him — in a fashion.

If we were expecting The Virtual Republic to be full of mad postmodernism we might well be disappointed. What we find instead in the Introduction are phrases like ‘modest, gradual, practical change’ and ‘usefully conservative’. For the sake of argument let’s say there are two kinds of postmodernism — the wild and the cool. The former looks back to romanticism, though it mightn’t know it, and talks a lot about art, bodies, television, transgression and ‘writing’; it might also be called aesthetic or literary postmodernism.

The latter looks back to the enlightenment, sometimes to its own surprise, and finds itself talking about ethics, discipline, television and banality — all of which it rather likes, in its own way. Both have their moments, both have their uses in shrinking the all-consuming cultural worlds of the mid-century back into historical perspective. Both are present, too, inThe Virtual Republic, but over the course of its over-lapping arguments it is the cool postmodernist who emerges most strongly and who gets the best lines. Its gestures to the aesthetic as a realm of freedom I find least convincing, although I accept that this is a mode of writing and reading that actually ‘works’.

At which point I can’t resist commenting on Linda Jaivin’s back-cover blurb although I can’t not think I shouldn’t — Windsor begins his review with it. ‘Ken Wark makes postmodernism sexy’. As a blurb it probably is, as he says, ‘more than normally meretricious’. It’s a bit funny and bit silly too because we know it’s really about Linda Jaivin. My problem is that it gives altogether the wrong impression about what Ken Wark makes postmodernism mean in this book. I suppose ‘Ken Wark makes postmodernism useful’ isn’t sexy, but it might be useful.

Let’s see where postmodernism comes in the argument or the series of arguments, for Wark describes the book as ‘essays’. The book might be understood as a way of bringing its title and sub-title together. What do the ‘culture wars’ of the last decade or so — Demidenko, PC, Manning Clark tell us about the ‘virtual republic’? Or, in Wark’s own ordering, what might the notion of the virtual republic tell us about the culture wars?

By ‘the virtual republic’ Wark refers both to the existing public spaces of the media and other institutions of sociability, and to the potential for communication, community, conversation and controversy which these institutions contain (perhaps in both senses of the word) — ‘that zone of indifference that institutes the extension of all the people’s desires into a common world of conversation’ (52). The term might just seem catchy, just smart packaging. But I think the essays justify it, make it into a concept worth thinking with, because of the way it helps make sense of what makes the present different; it works less perhaps in the direct definitions of the ‘virtual republic’, which remain general and hopeful, and more in the accumulation of moments of reflection or critique over the course of the whole book.

The Virtual Republic begins as it often continues with a mundane story — flying home and getting hit in the soft spot by the Qantas ‘I Still Call Australia Home’ ad. What to make of the feeling the ad produces? ‘What is the feeling it generates good for?’ Like a number of other writers in recent times — Graeme Turner, Tom O’Regan, Meaghan Morris for example — Wark turns from an earlier decade’s relentless demolition of ‘nation’ to look for ways of restoring, even conserving, the concept or at least the ‘space’ it roughly describes, in the face of those who want to dissolve it into a bottom-line, end-of the-day market, boost it into One Nation or, like John Howard, do both at once.

This new modest or sceptical nationalism takes the media constructedness or saturation of this space as the condition of its being, not a problem to be resisted. This is both a mundane fact that has been with us as long as modern nations, and something unprecedented in the new ‘vectors’ of telecommunication that have altered dizzyingly what it means to talk of a ‘national community’. Wark describes these ‘communication vectors’ as comprising a realm of ‘third nature’ over and above the second nature of cultural habits.

Nations exist in culture.

To elaborate this, Wark turns first to the rather pre-postmodernist David Hume, second to Raymond Williams — to Hume for notions of entitlement and for the model of institutions or ‘a sociable culture’ which are necessary to extend our ‘partial sympathies’ to a wider community; to Williams for his notion of culture as a ‘structure of feeling’. Judith Wright also figures: ‘a writer who could only happen because a matrix of vectors moved her ancestors from one side of the world to the other, making differences collide and harden, but also sometimes making differences productive, making them differentiate further and further, releasing the virtual in new ways of being. How very Australian.’ (my emphasis, 41). The virtual republic is also about the release and proliferation of different understandings of the past.

Windsor doesn’t notice any of this. On the look-out for wild postmodernism, he finds it; if he doesn’t, he finds only platitudes: ‘It is written in a language I am not at home in, and insofar as I understand it, its messages are banal and platitudinous, albeit very worthy — nothing, nobody is black and white, communicability is all, and we must keep open, flexible, interactive minds. Heck, it does sound elementary.’

This is strange and interesting. Strange, because the large part of The Virtual Republic is written in pretty straightforward, even popular language, and when new terms like ‘vector’ or ‘antipodality’ are introduced they are carefully explained. High theory, here, is all about making sense of personal experience, and linking the personal to collective (and generational) experience. Interesting, because there is a sense in which the ‘messages’ are banal and platitudinous.

Or, to put it another way, they are conservative. Wark’s book is precisely about re-imagining something that David Hume, for example, or Michel de Montaigne, John Anderson or Hannah Arendt, had already imagined. He’s also talking about something that exists, at least in potential, in our mundane experiences — listening to the radio, watching the in-flight video, walking down the street.

What Gerard Windsor doesn’t get is Wark’s interest in what any of these things might mean in this time and place — after ‘the dark side of the enlightenment’, after the Holocaust, after Stalin, after the Cold War, after television, after Keating, after postmodernism.

For Windsor, I suspect, the platitudes are platitudes because half of these things haven’t changed anything for him. What was liberal common sense or liberal idealism or good writing remains so. For Wark, attempting to write as far as he can from a position in the stream of things, a more interesting artifice, none of the platitudes can any longer be taken for granted.

  • When the public sphere is discovered in the in-flight video then we need to talk again about ‘communicability’.
  • When the front pages are full of Demidenko, Clark and Hanson we need to talk again about open, flexible minds.
  • We need to find new ways of talking about the banality of such ideas and the places where they are given actual shape in our society.

I wouldn’t mind having to concede that The Virtual Republic isn’t ‘profound’ in the way I imagine Windsor understands the term. In a sense it’s too quick, sometimes too slick, too expansive, too full of detours, too sceptical, to bear that kind of weight. As Wark suggests, the book’s essay form is about ‘speed of engagement’ as well as ‘depth of perception’. This means trading certain kinds of authority for the license to range widely and change pitch often. It is part of the essay form’s attempt at a public life.

This first part of the book, ‘Roots’ (a nice title, serious and ironic in the context), ends with two chapters which simultaneously trace an intellectual autobiography, an autobiography of style, and an intellectual history of Sydney ‘alternative’ thinking, from John Anderson through the libertarian Push to media studies to postmodernism.

Although, as a Melbourne boy, I can never be as interested in the Push as I should be, this is fascinating stuff, not really detailed cultural history, but a tracing of those spaces or openings of freedom, scepticism, pluralism which each moment allowed, and also their limits. The break from earlier forms of libertarianism into post-modernism, Wark suggests, comes through a number of developments:

  • a move beyond the ‘personal act of self-constitution’, beyond ‘turning oneself into an exemplar’ (82), towards institutions that could function for ‘libertarian’ purposes;
  • the ‘failure of the project of becoming the subject of history’ — greeted with a certain relief (87);
  • the new intensification of global media vectors;
  • and a new turn to thinking about Australia, now as exemplary (of postmodern culture) rather than what we might call supplementary.

Wark traces the important figures and individual essays which have helped move such perceptions from ‘the margin of margins’ to the centre of the margins, at least.

I was about to say that Windsor has nothing to say about this part of the book. But he does, and it’s most revealing:

[Wark] sums up the game:

To write without resentment, fear, or lack of the other. The postmodern writing of Foss and Taylor, Morris and Michaels, Gibson and Muecke, Martin and Lumby, Ettler, Cohen and Callas avoided those traps … the postmodern writings of Riemer, Manne, and Gaita, Koch, of Garner and Williamson — did not.

Note the linguistic touch by which the goodies get the heroic syntax of the Agincourt speech’s ‘Bedford and Exeter, Warwick and Talbot … ‘ whereas the baddies cop arrhythmia. This elevation of unknowns, opportunists, and the cabalistically academic over track-record luminaries should send the Australian reading public (and most of the Australian intellectual community) into gales of laughter … His promotion of an alternative team is never dispassionate …

Windsor’s insight into Wark’s rhetorical strategy (it’s a good point, one we can enjoy) blinds him to his own rhetorical headbutting — ‘unknowns, opportunists, and the cabalistically academic’. To quote Windsor back at himself, ‘This is a slur, not an argument, in anyone’s philosophy’. It is not dispassionate; it should send most of the intellectual community into groans of despair were it not laughable. It seems he just doesn’t know about other kinds of readers and reading. Literary authority can’t bear to consider itself no longer central and deep — it will even risk making ignorance a virtue — while the opportunists have taken the opportunity to think of themselves otherwise.

The second part of the book, ‘Ariels’, takes a more detailed look at some of the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s — the Demidenko event, the mobilisation here of American political correctness rhetoric, Williamson and Dead White Males, Manning Clark and Meeting Soviet Man, and the Hanson-Howard double act. I won’t go into detail to trace the arguments on all these points. On the Demidenko and Clark events in particular, but also on Williamson and on meritocracy and multiculturalism, Wark is able to turn the whole debate around, hold it up, and see it from a new angle. He finds a way of reading Demidenko, the novel and the author, that avoids either pumping up the ‘literary’ or deflating it through the thesis of cultural decline. Wark might regret being so rude to Robert Manne given the latter’s recent departure from Quadrant (he looks more like a friend than ever before) but the analysis of the moral fable and the rhetorics of totalitarianism in Manne’s work is memorable. If Wark gets into trouble finding the right words for the Holocaust — and he probably does — he shows himself thinking through the precise reasons why he probably will.

The reading of Manning Clark and his Meeting Soviet Man was a real surprise to me — partly as one who’s read and written on Clark and the book before and after the ‘event’. This is a wonderful piece of extended cultural criticism, opening a space beyond the locked-in positions on either side (Windsor seems to agree it’s okay). One quote to illustrate:

‘Clark turns back towards faiths he cannot have, looking back from modernity, not without a little nostalgia. But he anticipates another turn, that of postmodernist thought, which pits the rationality of enlightened thinking against the institutional products of just such a rationality’ (228).

Clark’s book ‘is really an exemplary bit of cultural studies. One that merits rereading now, after the cold war, when it might tell us something about modernity’ (223).

I’m not sure that McKenzie Wark is a ‘great essayist’ yet, whatever that means. It might just be my nostalgia for gravitas. Perhaps there’s a kind of pathetic fallacy at work in which the writer aims to mimic the speed of cyberspace, when writing might just take the chance to slow things down, to meditate. Or perhaps it’s that the writing gets abstract sometimes when I want it to get sharp. There are a few (almost irresistible) cheap shots. But this is an important book for all it gathers in and throws out to the reader. More than once it does what essays should do — shows me something I’d never thought of in an area where I think myself an expert.


David Carter is director of the Australian Studies Centre at the University of Queensland. His books include The Republicanism Debate, with Wayne Hudson, and A Career in Writing: a study of Judah Waten. This review is featured in the current UTS Review (Vol 4 Number 1 May 1998, 228-3) and is reprinted here with permission.


Gerard Windsor, “Culture Wars: a review of McKenzie Wark’s The Virtual Republic“, Australian Book Review 196 (November 1997), 7-8.

McKenzie Wark, The Virtual Republic: Australia’s Culture Wars of the 1990s was published by Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW in 1997.

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