For me the Menzies Centre’s symposium on the future of Australian Studies (Thursday 23 October 2014) was a splendid success. We had an excellent turn-out and very high-quality introductions by a range of discussion leaders with expertise in Australian history, imperial history, Australian literature, comparative literature, and media studies. In the lead up the symposium also built on ideas discussed at two evening panel discussions, one focused on mining literature from Britain and Australia, and the other featuring papers by experts in ecocriticism, curatorship, and urban geography.
The symposium was followed by a buzzy reception at Australia House, hosted by His Excellency the Honourable Mr Alexander Downer, High Commissioner for Australia, who re-iterated the government’s ‘energetic support’ for the work of the Menzies Centre. The Principal of King’s, Professor Ed Byrne, also spoke, underlining the Centre’s ambitious plans for the future.
My own speech (see previous blog entry) attempted to sketch out the history of human life in Australia as an efflorescence of mind, where, in the recent past, Indigenous and non-Indigenous ways of knowing had come into violent collision: all Australian intellectuals work in its wake. My speech also celebrated the research and teaching of over forty Australian Studies professionals who had contributed to the Centre over the last 32 years, emphasising in particular the 17-year directorship of Professor Carl Bridge.
After recovering over Reading Week from this flurry of activity, I have now set my mind to considering some of the outcomes of the symposium in particular. I now ask all those who attended to consider submitting a one-page (though there is no word limit!) response to the symposium, positive and negative aspects of the experience, and your own further reflections on the past, present and future of Australian Studies. Anyone reading this is also welcome to contribute—just email a word-doc response to firstname.lastname@example.org—whether you attended the symposium or not; and potentially in response to the ideas below or in other postings. (We will send out an email notice when the site for the collated postings is developed.)
The great city spreads her dusky mantle over innumerable races and creeds, and I believe there is scarcely a known form of worship that has not some temple there […] or any communion of men that has not some club or guild. London is indeed an epitome of the round world, and just as it is a commonplace to say that there is nothing one can’t ‘get’ there so it is equally true that there is nothing one may not study at first hand. Henry James, ‘London’, The Century 2 (Dec 1888)
At a drink on the Friday after the symposium, Associate Professor Frank Bongiorno (ANU) commented on how privileged we all were to be able to come together in central London and discuss intellectual matters relative to our discipline. It is a comment that resonated with me for a number of reasons.
Firstly it underscored a number of comments from delegates about income/funding inequality across the Australian ‘planet’, in the range of communities where Australian history and/or literature are studied by students, but also in the diverse higher-education systems where Australian Studies researchers work. Most pressing for the Menzies Centre is the state of higher education in some parts of Europe where funding has reached crisis point not just generally but in the specific experiences of individual researchers, struggling to find the time and resources to undertake their work.
Secondly, it brought home to me something I had accidentally got right in organising the symposium. There had been a few different dates mooted, but the sudden availability of several of our speakers in late October, and the opportunity to place our evening events as part of the College’s Arts and Humanities Festival, meant we placed the symposium smack in the middle of the teaching term. This had negative side-effects (apart from nearly sealing my insanity) in making it difficult for several UK-based researchers to attend. But it also placed the symposium, which took place in the Council Room—in the very middle of the King’s Building—in a hive of other activity, students running all over the place and the College in full-scale chaotic-energy mode. It is this energy that we were seeking to re-harness: and thereby to speak with new relevance and vitality to the wider chaos of intellectual work in historically extraordinary transition.
It is, no doubt, not the taste of every one, but for the real London-lover the mere immensity of the place is a large part of its savour. […] Practically, of course, one lives in a quarter, in a plot; but in imagination and by a constant mental act of reference the accommodated haunter enjoys the whole […]. He fancies himself, as they say, for being a particle in so unequalled an aggregation; and its immeasurable circumference, even though unvisited and lost in smoke, gives him the sense of a social, an intellectual margin.Henry James, ‘London’, The Century 2 (Dec 1888)
Thirdly, it helped emphasise for me that few of us are researching and teaching Australian Studies in a vacuum. We have many other subject areas and topics which we regularly teach and publish on. I’ve included snippets from Henry James in this response because this week for the core module I convene for the MA English 1850-present I have been reading a number of life-writing texts focused on London. Our regular intellectual habits, then, already enact the transnational Australian Studies we were discussing at the symposium.
Fourthly, seeing anew the symposium in the middle of my own teaching brought home that each of us practises Australian Studies in the context of a regional intellectual tradition. That determines things like funding and resources, as mentioned above, but it also shapes the preoccupations, disciplinary emphases, and publication forms of our research and the substance of our teaching. These matters come to the forefront when Australian Studies conferences take place outside of Australia, and even more so in places outside the Anglo-American-Australian tradition.
These differences should be confronted more openly. If we move from considering ourselves disciplinary ‘associations’ with ‘memberships’ and ‘journals’—subscribing, in other words, to the traditional structures of humanities research—to thinking of Australian Studies as a murmuration, a dilation of coherence and dispersal, the points of both need to be thought about directly. A related notion also struck me during the symposium: that the catch-all conference may be dead. It is a product of us each having to give a paper in order to receive funding to attend. What is needed, rather, are shorter meetings sharply focused on answering specific questions. Our flight into the future on this front is potentially limited by questions of funds; but it shouldn’t stop us thinking about it; and making greater use of technology. So too would breaking away from the heavy and slow tread of the refereed journal issue as the main publication outcome for our gatherings.
An overwhelming example of our failure to confront differences in regional intellectual traditions that bear upon Australian Studies is our only tiny accommodation of topics and research expressed in languages other than English.
For the moment I am speaking of the inspiration there may be in the sense of far frontiers; the London-lover loses himself in this swelling consciousness, delights in the idea that the town which encloses him is after all only a paved country, a state by itself. This is his condition of mind quite as much if he be an adoptive as he be a matter-of-course son. I am by no means sure even that he need be a son of Anglo-Saxon race and have inherited the birthright of English speech; though, on the other hand, I make no doubt that these advantages minister greatly to closeness of allegiance. Henry James, ‘London’, The Century 2 (Dec 1888)
Fifthly, consciousness of regional intellectual traditions supports a new focus on place, as a topic and as an organising principle (beautifully rendered in Associate Professor Mark McKenna’s contribution to the symposium). Locality seems the more important the wider we cast the net of Australian Studies. But place is so emphatically a structuring element of Indigenous Knowledges, that it can also become a node through which to confront the collision of Indigenous and non-Indigenous ways of knowing which still energises Australian intellectual life.
London melts by wide, ugly zones into the green country, and becomes pretty insidiously, inadvertently—without stopping to change. It is the spoiling perhaps of the country, but it is the making of the insatiable town, and if one is a helpless and shameless cockney that is all one is obliged to look at. Anything is excusable which enlarges one’s civic consciousness. […] It is perfectly open to him to consider the remainder of the United Kingdom, or the British empire in general, or even, if he be an American, the total of the English-speaking territories of the globe, as the mere margin, the fitted girdle. Henry James, ‘London’, The Century 2 (Dec 1888)
For the American expatriate James, London was the capital of the Anglo-Saxon world and race, the centre of English and the medium through which he expressed his art. (Here I can’t help alluding to Malvina Hoffman’s statues on Bush House, opposite King’s–the former home of the BBC World Service–and their accompanying inscription: ‘To the Friendship of English Speaking Peoples’.) London as the capital of world Anglo-Saxonism is a myth Australian Studies should both repudiate and transform/reharness in London. Our shared language was, for A. A. Phillips, one of the problems forging the cultural cringe. And it overlooks that the Australian word is comprised of hundreds of different languages. But London’s long history as a ‘world’ city—abhorrent though that history has often been—and for many decades Australia’s ‘own’ ‘world’ city, still makes it a key site, along with other world cities, for thinking out what a ‘planetary’ Australian Studies might be; and how the ‘planetary’ itself shifts depending on the angle from which you approach it.
Hence, perhaps, a new significance for ‘Centres’ of Australian Studies. The Menzies Centre’s ‘object’ is to ‘promote the understanding of Australia in Britain and in Europe’. But as much as Centres have been established to serve a hinterland, their new charge should be to enable communication between other places, Centres, nodes, across the planet. And it will be as much in the mis-communications between such places that a new Australian Studies will emerge, as it will in the resources, research projects, and ideas which such communication will sustain. It seems to me, then, that a semi-marginal activity of the Menzies Centre—Centrelink—where staff and students from Dublin, Copenhagen and London came together (its apotheosis was the symposium itself) in fact now models a central object and activity of a Centre for a new Australian Studies.
It is in this way we can confront a key figure who emerged in discussion at the symposium. The lone researcher working on Australian topics in a non-Australian university with a sign saying ‘Centre for Australian Studies’ nailed to her/his door. The struggle of such lone hands should be supported via vastly improved communication nodes and much better use of digital resources, housed at larger Centres, such that they can sense, strongly, a large and worldly cohort of fellow researchers, potential visitors, and students, with whom they can instantly communicate and share ideas.
It brings me to a question which I was asked more than once over the week of the symposium: where is the Menzies Centre. My glib answer was that it is everywhere our new MCAS banner appears (which means often on my back, being carted between venues!). But the loss of the Centre’s ‘centre’, the grouping of mine and my colleagues’ offices, also symbolises its distribution across the entire College—our ‘marginal’ work is no longer hidden in small windowless seminar rooms—and the need to make of ourselves a digital arena in which anyone in the world can play.
This brings me to another key moment for me in the symposium week came on the Wednesday, a meeting with colleague Dr Simon Sleight and Associate Professor Anne Pender (UNE). We were discussing the challenges of editing a journal of book reviews, and quickly came up against the usual practices of distributing hard copies to reviewers, maintaining quality and range, and the failure of the higher education system to reward this work. And yet, quality reviews are absolutely vital for sustaining the book, still the centre-piece of humanities research, and something (understood as a long disquisition) we should defend.
Our conversation quickly veered into the opportunities presented by digital technology for rapidly speeding up the process of publishing reviews, and making these available and more attractive to much larger readerships. But what also became apparent was that to access this new world we need to relinquish some aspects of academic gate-keeping: and that considering what to maintain and what to give up quickly brings us up against large and fundamental problems facing academics in a time of open access. ‘What should we do with reviews?’ then became one of those sharply focused questions which warrant bringing together more talking heads; and we will continue to discuss it. But what became really clear is that we will sustain the review because it sustains the book: and that all our ingenuity is required to meet that goal. It may mean, nonetheless, doing away with some of those traditional structures of academic association.
It was a last-minute but brilliant coup for the symposium that Dr Agnieszka Sobocinska was able to join us—in a frankly crazy quick-trip from Melbourne—with funding support from the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash, where she is Deputy Director. She confronted us with a number of home truths, but emphasised also generational change, picking up the legacy Frank had outlined in his historical perspective on Australian Studies as a field, and casting it into a possibly bleak, possibly exciting future. World War One, its centenary, is upon us: but it, too, will pass. And the military underpinnings of Cold War area studies might also give way to unknown topics of the Australian Studies future.
Ecological issues, for example, wars on carbon emissions, are the ones about which our current students are politicised. They too want to know the kind of planet they will be bringing to the students they will one day teach, or their own children. They need to be even more alert than we to the politics of migration and population, to cultural collisions, and the violence of the future. Australian Studies research has enormous potential to contribute to these world debates, particularly if it has confronted its own diversity, its innate worldliness, through a field that—while ever alert to ideas of nation, the peculiarities of Australian disciplinary traditions, and questions that apply only to Australian place—must spin itself almost out of existence to create impact in those specific places and times when we come together, in person or online.
Dr Ian Henderson