Not ‘Beyond Criticism’

A review of celebrities, culture and cyberspace by McKenzie Wark

by Gillian Fuller

© all rights reserved

The fate of conceptual work in Australia is that it is often perceived as too intellectual by the media and too popular by the academy. The media are unthinking but readable; the academy is thoughtful but unreadable (34)

McKenzie Wark’s celebrities, culture and cyberspaceis an extended meditation on the changing roles of celebrity in a ‘postmodern’ world. The book itself is fashioned from a series of new and republished essays and essay fragments exploring the differing desires that circulate around and through ‘celebrities’ like Kylie Minogue, Catharine Lumby and Paul Keating. The essays are structured as a series of thematic juxtapositions rather than a sustained argument. Through this ‘bricolage’ is it presumed that the reader will form their own sense of the connections, rather than be the object of an authoritarian argument.

The structure and the style of this book may be Wark’s attempt to circumvent the dilemma of public conceptual work adduced above, it may also be a useful way to recycle old writing into a new publication. Nevertheless, celebrities, culture and cyberspace, should be read as a sincere enough attempt to intervene in, and renovate the role of, intellectuals in public debates. Its specific contribution to such public debate is to deploy putatively more complex understandings of current media trends as a means of negotiating new understandings of political movements and more particularly to get beyond some of the reductive analyses that circulated around the ‘rise and fall’ of Labor in the 80s and 90s.

According to Wark a talking head becomes a thinking mind ‘by making concepts that are shared, via the media, with a public, where the concepts attempt to articulate the experiences of that public, at that moment’ (35). This assertion, however awkwardly structured could be read as Wark’s mission statement.

The preferred role of the public intellectual is to ‘articulate the conceptual desires of a public’ (35), to ‘articulate the desires for a critical questioning and creative rethinking of what might otherwise be taken for granted in everyday life’ (35). There a couple of obvious question here. Firstly, what is ‘a public’, and how can a public intellectual speak for them. Secondly, what is everyday life? Whose everyday life?

This book does raise important issues about the role of the intellectual in public debates, about the very possibility of being a media intellectual in Australia. This dilemma, however, is epitomised through Wark’s writing which unfortunately maintains a populist collusion with the very traditions of media and cultural analyses that he claims to offer an alternative to.

Wark figures himself as writing against ‘baby boomer’ gatekeeping, ‘suburban’ categorical understandings of culture and taste, and what he claims is the tendency of intellectuals to merely criticise the media.

Criticism is too suburban: it lacks an urbane ability to see everything and everything as a possible resource for making the fair go’ (109)

Casting aside for the moment the sustainability of such spatialised metaphors, I want to consider just briefly the characterisation of ‘criticism’ here. Firstly, media criticism is reductively divided into three equally misdirected camps: those who buy the ‘fourth estate’ notion and lament that the media doesn’t live up to it (Schultz); those who read ideology embedded within media texts (Langer); and those who discuss negotiated, resistant and active meanings that people make from the media (Ang and Nightingale).

In a chapter called ‘Beyond Criticism’ Wark offers us a fourth way, in which we should ‘see media studies as the business of enhancing the capacity people have for reading, not just critically, but also creatively’ (39). In which schema do these dispositions form some kind of binary? A liberal pragmatism is readily evident in Wark’s attempts to shift the balance of intellectual work ‘more toward the creative side’ (37) It results in some pretty ‘creative’ readings of some pretty ordinary texts that are forwarded as exemplars of urbane possibilities. Two such beacons for liberal relativist ‘fair go’, The Sum of Us and Strictly Ballroom, are approvingly cited. These films which feature respectively, ‘straight-acting’ gay men in Balmain, and ‘dancing ethnics’ in Marrickville apparently exemplify a challenge to the suburban.

The threat to suburban stability and order posed by the recognition of the homosexual or the migrant is, among other things, the threat to new information. (163)

I would have thought these films exemplary of misrecognition, of a wish- fulfilling fantasy that perhaps difference isn’t so different after all. Wark even deploys a nice folkloric metaphor to discuss urbane hybridity. Suburbia needs to develop ‘new moves’, (as opposed to eating, perhaps, ‘new cheese’), in order to ‘cope with new information [that] keeps the fair go alive, by preventing a fall into fear of change and strangeness’ (163). Baldly put, this is nonsense. The Sum of Us and Strictly Ballroom, difference could not be more comforting to a white, homophobic, supposedly suburban audience.

But then again I find myself confused about Wark’s conceptualisation of suburbia, which seems to sometimes slip seamlessly between suburbia as place and suburbia as mythology. Suburban as concept is categorical, nostalgic and oz cock rock. But whose suburban is this? The suburban of the Boomer media gatekeepers that Wark identifies as the Burblers?

I prefer to call them the Burblers. This is the sound they make in the media – burble burble. But it is also the place – suburbia – from which that sound comes. The Burblers have retired, one way or the other from public life, and make their pronouncements from private retreat in the suburbs (223)

Here suburbia is concept but it is also an actual place- a physical location. One might surmise that ‘Burblers’ live in Balmain or Mosman, but these ‘suburbs’ (genteel villages?) have very little to do with Lakemba, Cabramatta, Campbelltown or Hurstville. In the 1990s the suburbs simply don’t sustain even a metaphorical relationship to Wark’s nostalgic white suburbia of the 50s (or 70s), if indeed they ever did. Herein lies one of the major problems in this book. Mythologies of time delimit the discussion of space. Despite claims to the contrary: ‘[g]enerationalism is to time what suburbanity is to space- a refusal to overcome possibilities beyond an arbitrary norm’ (224), age, figured through generational nostalgia, saturates this book.

One the first page Wark informs us he was 11 in 1972. One sentence later, he informs us, perhaps unsurprisingly, that he was 22 in 1983. Thus in a rhetorical appeal that non-ironically recalls ‘baby boomers’ claimed obsessional foregrounding of ‘Vietnam’ and the ‘Summer of Love’, Wark firstly uses milestones in Australian Labor history to generationally differentiate himself from talking heads such as Richard Neville or Anne Summers. Later he almost narcissistically differentiates himself from his talking head predecessors through a tiresome cataloguing of e-mails between friends as they recall Countdown and the Brady Bunch. Wark seems unaccountably impressed with himself and his friends, but another public may find this ‘Squeeze Generation’ (122) nostalgia about wanting to fuck Marcia and/or Greg, rushing home to watch Countdown equally as white, cloistered, and tedious as the Boomer nostalgia that Wark claims to rebut.

The question of who Wark is writing for, now seems to require an additional ‘who is Wark writing to? For someone so focussed on generationalism he seems to speak most directly to ‘a public’ that was always erroneously and homogenously imagined by the very baby boomer ‘burblers’ he attacks. Is this the renovated role of the public intellectual? To engage in redundant and oversimplified debates with the likes Richard Neville and Anne Summers? Talking heads who have ALWAYS missed the point. There is a classic straw man argument going on here, that would seem to bear little relevance to current debates in media studies.

What a lot of talking heads who claimed authority to speak about the media still assumed in the 90s was that the way that people read and make use of it is just some sort of natural given (39)

It’s pretty commonplace by now in the academy that media ‘usage’ is complex, that its not just consumptive or resistant etc. But Paul Kelly (the singer/ songwriter) didn’t ‘make a difference’ for all of ‘us’. Some people would clearly assign Nick Cave to the pantheon of angsty art school wankers. McKenzie Wark knows this. Celebrities, culture and cyberspaceis after all a book about the complexity of desire, representation and the media. Yet oddly, other desires, other experiences that motivate other takes on celebrities and their events are either suppressed or construed as old, daggy or simply out of touch. The repression of a discussion of power and other non-categorical things that trouble both the suburban(e) and urban(e) weaken this discussion considerably.

But then, this book does sustain its authority more from authorial persona, from its deployment of ethos rather than a deployment of logos. And the ethos in this book is firmly embedded in urbane ‘hipness’. Wark quite narcissistically represents himself as urban and urbane through testimonials of Kings Cross parties, the adduction of songs from Triple J’s play lists and hanging out with web designers and chics who wear Betsy Johnson dresses. This appears not be part of a strategy in which he (ironically?) foregrounds the limits of his spatio/temporal/etc specificity, rather it seems more aligned with a classic ethical appeal in which he foregrounds his ‘of the moment’ credentials and experience as a way of not only distancing himself from his ageing and out of touch predecessors but also from his readership.

The ideas in this book are not difficult, nor are they too abstractly expressed, they are simply not structured or adequately defined.(One rewrite and a decent editorial job would have helped in this regard.) Perhaps this lack of attention to elaborating concepts could be read as part of Wark’s desire to not ‘trade in the seemingly transnational jargon of social theory or cultural studies’ (14). Yet, if ‘jargon’ is so onerous and so non-specific, why use the term ‘vectors’ from Chapter One and then only define the term in Chapter Nine? Moreover, why not attribute Virilio? Deleuze and Lacan, among others, get their guernseys.

Again the role of the public intellectual needs questioning here. Does a public intellectual need to buy into the pejorative (suburban?) assessments of the academic tools of trade, ie specialist terms used to develop abstract concepts? Does talking to ‘the public’ require deploying populist rhetorical strategies and disavowing a major part of what constitutes that person’s authority to speak (and be published)? Wark’s manoeuvres, like those Labor Party with whom he is invested, may be strategic but to what end? To achieve the Labor dream of ‘light on the hill’?

The expression the ‘light on hill’ suggests two elements that have to come together. The light itself is the virtual side of politics, the will to minimise human suffering through collective action. The hill that provides the vantage point for communicating this concept is the tactical combination of economic political and cultural circumstances. (338)

Metaphors work because of the rich associations they condense. Words carry the histories of lives, usages, other times and other places. It can be a useful strategy to make those histories work in another way. Suburban, Urbane, ‘light on a hill’. But sometimes not.


Gillian Fuller, School of Media and Communications, UNSW

McKenzie Wark’scelebrities, culture and cyberspacewas published by Pluto Press: Annandale 1999. Read an extract in Australian Humanities Review.

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