Nicholas Birns responds to Gillian Whitlock

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I wish to warmly commend Gillian Whitlock’s article. On my recent visit to Australia, I found the gumleaf universities far more innovative and interesting than the sandstones, and certainly far less dependent on overseas precedents. Australia is blessed to have had these new laboratories from the 1970s onward which, as Whitlock suggests, are less vulnerable to decline narratives and elegies for the privileged academic days gone by.

Foreign academics studying Australian literature must not be taken in by the Miltonic script of ex-Melbourne English academics (who certainly have their American equivalents). We have, mistakenly, tended to relate to ‘Australian literature’ through the English departments of Sydney and Melbourne universities alone. Our allies (speaking generally, of course) are at the gumleafs and in their ‘diaspora,’ not the sandstones and in their elegiac exports.

We have had so much academia-trashing in the nineties and afterwards, so much of it a justification of the exodus of high-status academics, having slashed and burned their way through every possible theoretical formulation, to book pages, general-interest journalism, and lionization as “public intellectuals.” That this has coincided with a general drift of the public sphere to the political center-right is not coincidental, though not all-determinative. Certainly, this exodus has improved the content of literary journals, so that the coverage of books in the NEW YORK TIMES or the SYDNEY MORNING HERALD is better than it was ten years ago. But too often we are led to equate the career paths of certain intellectuals with the state of the academy as such, and to see academic scholarship as desiccated, played-out, and obscure.

The world of nuts-and-bolts scholarship, of real, solid academic work, is, even though far from the madding crowd, as exciting now, post- the posts- even though we are, as it ever has been. Whitlock’s essay provides a sophisticated and stirring reminder of this. It has cheered me up no end.


Nicholas Birns, Editor of Antipodes, New School University, New York

Read Gillian Whitlock’s Leaving “ME”

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