McKenzie Wark responds to David Carter’s Public Intellectuals, Book Culture and Civil Society

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Read David Carter’s Public Intellectuals, Book Culture and Civil Society

David Carter has done an excellent job in shifting the discourse around public intellectuals from their own chosen ground of moral/aesthetic authority, to an inquiry into the economy of taste that such public speech affirms. However, he seems to me to concede too much to what we might call the conservative public intellectuals. I don’t see how it’s that much progress to have history spoken about in public if it is still the property of mostly white and very class-bound moral/ aesthetic elite. All that’s changed is that such an elite has colonised radical and critical histories and claimed them as the subject matter for an unchanged mode of cultural authority.

Of course one needs to be careful in invoking the rhetoric of an ‘elite’, but perhaps we need to face up to the fact that the gig is up, that many Australians really are fed up with the kinds of moral/ aesthetic, and as I will argue historical authority that is wielded against them. I’m all for respecting knowledge, but there is a more open and democratic vision of what constitutes knowledge, what forms may express it and what subjects may hold it that I think we really have to come to terms with, if the reactionary backlash is not to go on for ever. On this score, the public intellectuals may be more part of the problem than part of the solution.

I’m grateful to Carter for noting that there was always a counter- discourse within the space of the media, the weekend supplements and the publisher’s lists. Meaghan Morris was always a role model for me as an examplar of a different kind of intellectual practice. Or rather, as opening up the possibilities of an engaged intellectual life. There were others – Carter mentions Stephen Muecke, who was always a great example as well. There’s a genuine questioning of the politics of knowledge in all his work, from Reading the Country onwards. One could mention others, such as Ghassan Hage or Eva Cox or Paul Carter.

Its curious to me that while Carter is razor sharp on the moral/aesthetic strategy deployed by conservative public intellectuals, he is far less critical of the appropriation of ‘history’. Perhaps this is just a cultural historian’s bias. But surely one of the things at stake here is the coming together of moral, aesthetic andhistorical authority. Indeed, moral and aesthetic authority rest on a command of the past. Its clear from the examples from Carter’s essay – Stravinsky’s Lunch, the towel as turban, and so on. These are historical as well as aesthetic anecdotes. ‘History’ needs to be questioned as one of the modes of restoration employed by the conservative gesture of the public intellectual.

The counter-discourse within the space of the essay is not one that privileges historical knowledge. From Meaghan Morris to Stephen Muecke to Catharine Lumby or Ghassan Hage, it’s curious how the historical is not the main mode of legitimation. The social the cultural, or the media operate as an alternative plane upon which to seek out a more open, democratic and collaborative practice of knowledge. Perhaps the problem is that history is still a discourse in which the others are spoken about, but don’t really get to speak, and much less change the mode of the discourse itself. History is still ‘imperial’, in Paul Carter’s terms.

Of course there are other histories, and other kinds of historian, and David Carter is one of them. Which is why I’m still surprised that history in general is let off the hook in this otherwise very pertinent and useful essay. But I think a more comprehensive and less forgiving critique of the public intellectual would have to question the use of history as a form of legitimation, by which what Mark Davis calls ‘coterie liberalism’ prevails.

I understand David’s desire not to appear to be stomping on a ‘popular’ cultural formation from the heights to academia. But as he points out himself via a quote from Frow, there’s no such hierarchy in place now anyway. High culture is a bubble within market culture, but so too is academic culture. What needs more attention is the way public intellectual discourse carves out a prestige market, premised on all the old figures of a hierarchy of taste. Note, for example, how an aestheticised ‘Aboriginality’ fits this strategy, but other aspects of Aboriginality don’t.

There’s no place in the high minded talk about ‘reconciliation’ for those pictures that are in Reading the Country of Butcher Joe in an old singlet sitting in the dirt. Public intellectual appropriations of Aboriginal creativity expect it to conform to existing aesthetic categories. Dot paintings are OK as they fit an established understanding of ‘art’. So too does the prize-winning Aboringinal novel. But what about the Aboriginal country music that Clinton Walker and Andy Nehl documented in their book and film Buried Country? What about the more challenging ideas of Eric Michaels, who saw western desert video as taking a western technology and turning it to indigenous cultural needs? The inevitable distortions involved in speaking for another are made worse in public intellectual discourse by a refusal to question the very historical / aesthetic / moral categories of judgement imposed on Aboriginality. Why should a people have to have a history before they can have a claim on justice?

As Ghassan Hage points out in White Nation, its been all too easy for the white liberal public intellectual to become the spokesmodel for multiculturalism. It is what has taken the place of actually creating places for genuine cultural plurality. Yes, there are a few non-Anglo talking heads in the media, but look how they are obliged to behave in order to get column inches or air time – within the existing parameters of the white liberal moral and aesthetic discourse.

As I argued in The Virtual Republic, the essay has a history too, and part of the struggle over it is to recover another understanding of it. It can be a tool of class snobbery, but it can also be a means of communication across the various divisions of taste and labour, which is what I think Montaigne intended. I am one of the common kind, he said, in everything except that I think myself such. He was a cultural democrat before his time. That doesn’t mean the essay is a ‘dumbing down’, as academic snobs assume. Rather, it is a vector across the cultural landscape, that seeks to connect thought and feeling regardless of ‘rank’. But in order to function as such, the essay has to question established hierarchies of cultural value and the powers that be which are vested in them. This is something that is not going on in the ‘public intellectual’ abuses of the form.

McKenzie Wark, Comparative Literature, Binghamton University, NY, USA.

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