The critical attitude of the intellectual towards the community is, of course, not in itself harmful; on the contrary it could be healthy, even a creative influence, if the criticism were felt to come from within, if the critic had a sense of identification with his subject, if his criticism came from a sense of shared shame, rather than a disdainful separation.
A. A. Phillips, ‘The Cultural Cringe’, The Australian Tradition: Studies in a Colonial Culture (Melbourne: F. W. Cheshire, 1958), pp. 89-95 (p. 93).
‘I don’t see’, said the Queen, ‘why there is any need for a press release at all. Why should the public care what I am reading? […]’
‘To read is to withdraw. To make oneself unavailable. One would feel easier about it,’ said Sir Kevin, ‘if the pursuit itself were less…selfish.’
‘Perhaps I should say solipsistic.’
‘Perhaps you should.’
Alan Bennett, ‘The Uncommon Reader’, London Review of Books (8 March 2007): 11-23 (14).
And so one works out strategies for teasing the natives.
Alan Seymour, ‘Come The Dawn’, Westerly 4 (Summer 1995): 5-12 (5).
Naturally all those cultural traits you notice on a return to the motherland are located in the self. Everywhere, compounded by the familial onslaught of Christmas, are people like me…hence the abjection. How pleasant, rather—in Britain’s not-quite homeland—to know Dr Henderson: moderate exotic, specialist in Neighbours-style letstalkaboutittery, purveyor of relentlessly friendly information, the mostly-harmless bull-in-a-staff-meeting, the larrikin baulking at true breaches of respectability.
Instead, back in Australia, each personal mannerism refers me back to the channelsevenification of Australian social discourse (I am 7). I noticed it again the moment I re-arrived (1 December), that is, two weeks before a madman set up shop opposite the Martin Place studios and the rolling news became the news. It is too late to claim a scoop: but even if I had rushed to press in early December, I would not have been the first to notice that at some stage we all started deploying a version of Strine whose commercial apotheosis occurs every Sunrise.
It seems to be a Down-Under version of American-TV Perky and perhaps its rise dates, like Kochie’s, from around 2002. Whatever the case, it has gathered to itself the nervous laughter of Phillips’ Cultural Cringe just before it sets the face serious and delivers some dot-point facts straight from management. (Sharon Strzelecki nailed it whenever she all-of-a-sudden formally introduced herself to other characters, also from 2002 [see here from 9:36]).
Now, (Nervous) Perk-to-Serious-to-Perk Strine (PSPS) handles any transaction, taking us, in the process, from the everyday to the telemarket and back again. It sells you Mylanta at the local Chemist (greeting you with a panicky chuckle, actively listening, checking your reflux isn’t a heart problem or any of the other dot points on the manufacturer’s insert—caring—before agreeing with a laugh it is just our communal over-eating and hoping you have a good arvo) and with equal dexterity on TV negotiates a transition from sanctimonious street flowers to a baby koala, from a brief school massacre by the Taliban to sunshine at the Gabba. It did not explicitly manoeuvre between the two corrupted expressions of faith in that shop window (the Shahada and Merry Christmas) but then, why should a commercialised national tic map out the very foundation of its being?
Like its earlier incarnations, PSPS demands you end any social transaction as a mate. (I know because I do it too.) Now there is no need, thanks to Jennifer Rutherford’s The Gauche Intruder (MUP 2000), to re-articulate the aggressive egalitarianism lurking behind this everyday intoning of the Australian Good (agree we are the same/equal or I’ll bash the shit out of you). Nor need we be reminded of how it extols Australian (‘pragmatic’) management of majority-defined need (‘we are equal because we all want the same thing and our country is good because we have communally arranged for our needs to be adequately serviced, as long as no one jumps the queue’). Hence, as of old, PSPS expresses abhorrence of the opposite of Australian Good: idiosyncratic open-ended desire.
What is new, I think, is the sheer commodification of this national quirk. Then—when Phillips wrote ‘The Cultural Cringe’ and Patrick White his ‘The Prodigal Son’ (the 1950s)—the ‘need’ was determined by something like an organic community (a set of white-settler neighbourhoods with well-meaning xenophobic tendencies). Now, they are determined by the mass market in big-business hyperdrive. So just as Grindr and Tinder have commodified the desiring individual online (they make money by helping us turn ourselves into self-pimping units), even the simplest Strine greeting—to say nothing of ‘63 not out’—now expresses the paydirt of any number of multinational multimedia corporations. (Was Seymour not prescient when, in successive revisions of The One Day of the Year, his iconoclastic but nuanced play on the ANZAC legend, he increasingly foregrounded big business’s amoral and expedient promotion of The Day, and strengthened the role of Jan, the one non-veteran character equipped to see it?)
PSPS, then, might be described as an intersubjective affective sequence, involving a number of shared attitudes towards a series of managerial dot points. Compare this to the collusion that bothered Phillips. He recalls a lecture by a ‘visiting Englishman’ to ‘a Melbourne audience on a literary theme’. To illustrate a point, the lecturer summons a vision of the ‘common man’, ‘the sort of man you might meet on a Melbourne tram—rather a crude sort of chap, but…’ (p. 91). Phillips notes that the city is doubtless localised by the lecturer for wherever he finds himself speaking, but that his Australian audience’s reaction is peculiar: ‘He had simply made a transposition into a setting better known to his audience, since the point about the setting was to emphasise the familiarity of the character. Had he really intended to make a criticism of the specifically Australian Common Man, it would have been, in a guest, a piece of gratuitously discourteous irrelevance. The natural response to it would have been shocked and mildly annoyed surprise. Yet his audience—highly selected for Cringe by the nature of the occasion—laughed. They were, in fact, hastening to assert, “Yes, yes, I know that Australians are crude; I’m on your side of the fence.”‘ (p. 92)
Here the nervous laughter colludes with the lecturer to distinguish the laugher from the ‘crude sort of chap’ he knows himself—as an Australian—to be. In PSPS, rather, the nervous laughter colludes with the interlocutor in recognition that the ideal vendor-consumer relationship does not quite fit. The vendor’s perky demeanour is full of punctures, the consumer isn’t quite sure s/he is rich and demanding enough. In both cases the ‘failures’ are located in their Australian accents, which, paradoxically, foreground themselves at the moment of the transaction.
Hence Channel Cringe mainly appears in a tendency to make price comparisons. Phillips’ ‘minatory’ ‘Public School Englishman’ lurking at the back of every Australian’s mind has morphed into Kim Kardashian. And thus the mental habit/cultural ‘stance’ Phillips identified—a neurotic sign of a ‘colonial culture’—is now one of our globalised culture.
Not least for this reason, the peculiar cultural demeanour of Australians that so concerned Phillips is worth thinking about again. For a start, Australian culture today is where substantial portions of the rest of the world are trying to get (back) to. I make no claim to anything but a distorted and personal viewpoint here—not least for having this time visited only affluent regions of Hobart, Canberra and Melbourne—but for the first time my eyes are open to just how big and booming everything is here (previously I only noticed how in Britain and/or Europe everything seems smaller and more recessed). For the first time in over ten years, also, I’ve driven rather than flown into the latter Bleak-Chic City, twice on two different freeways. Take your pick, there are several more to choose from, at least six lanes each, all laced by colossal power lines, all feeding enormous road-trains of goods, along with zillions of car-driving consumers, into the spectacular multi-storey malls of central Melbourne. It happens in other major cities, too, of course, but the flat expanses surrounding this one, its relative newness and booming wealth, and the depth and exuberance of each freeway’s penetration into and through the CBD make the feeding of a monster all the more plain.
Once inside—and I do realise I witnessed the abnormal madness of pre- and post-Christmas buying—the scale of consumption is overwhelming. This is not so much a matter of extremes of wealth, like one witnesses in London among other places. No, what overwhelms is the high proportion of the population that can consume at this marvellous rate. What is more, on the face of it, Australian consumerism is Australian multiculturalism triumphans. With apologies to A. D. Hope I must agree: ‘In them [Australian malls] at last the ultimate men arrive.’ Wandering the air-con ‘streets’ of Melbourne Central is a home-grown vision of global harmono-prosperity. An assimilative vision: everyone here looks the same. Which is to say I look like them.
Have we, in fact, sleep-walked our way into equalling the world ‘overseas’? The contest is over: we punch above our weight (all we ever wanted), our malls are as bad as anyone’s…and our Westfields are even colonising London. Who can complain, then, should an Australian government be elected whose ideology unapologetically matches the practice of everyday life?
‘Yet there are some like me turn gladly home’. For even if the Great Australian Emptiness has reached a new commercial apotheosis—‘teeth’ no longer ‘fall like autumn leaves’ but are capped and fixed by orthodontic artistes—in our nervous laughter there may be some redemption. Because what, for Phillips, was a contributing sign of a repugnant Cultural Cringe may now be a true measure of Channel Cringe. At worst our nervous laughter suggests Australians can’t quite picture themselves in the full body of the global Konsumer; at best it is the Australian body’s registration that global consumer culture does not amount to much.
In this productively unsettled state we are in the domain of Australia’s (at least) century-old comic response to life in the suburbs; and hence in the full strength of our artistic and performance community’s work. No one needs me to tell them that this strain of Australian culture—featuring, mocking, abhorring, acknowledging, articulating, celebrating suburbia and suburbanites—is not still going strong in a range of media, though I am pleased it continues to be a loving representation from the ‘inside’. (Can any of us legitimately claim to ‘escape your own skin, even if it itches like hell’?)
Australia’s intellectuals, I think, face a more uphill battle with Channel Cringe. (Might this explain a certain siege mentality underpinning many papers—including my own—at the recent, nonetheless re-energising International Australian Studies Association conference in Hobart?) The History Wars, for example, are over…but I’m not convinced that means ‘we’ won. We could set two 2015 trailers on either side of the fence here (and this is not passing judgement on the aesthetic qualities of either one): Channel Nine’s Gallipoli and Channel Seven’s Australia: The Story of Us. The former’s tag is ‘Australia Was Born on the Shores of Gallipoli’; the latter’s ‘How Our Ancient Land Became a Modern Nation. The People The Events That Shaped Us. 40,000 Years in the Making’.
Either position is beside the point. Because I’m unsure whether we don’t have—now that there is a general acknowledgment of colonial violence, a managerial attitude to priorities of belonging, and a scholastic habitus that recognises ‘our Indigenous people’—a harder task ahead. To quote White again, ‘what intellectual roost there is’ has been pulled out from under us by (in culture) the high-gloss drama and (in news) the onscreen pundit (as often as not one of our own, racing for impact). Hence it is also the speed of response in the Age of Channel Cringe that is hostile to the very thing that intellectual work has to offer; the thing it offers that is different from 24/7 rolling insta-comment.
The latter is in fact well served in Australia. If our country’s corporation-dominated public sphere almost lands—on first re-entry—a knock-out blow, even in the subsequent stupor other media voices can be heard. They might emerge in New Matilda, Crickey, Inside Story, The Monthly, the ABR, and the new grand-daddy of them all the Guardian Australia to name but a few (with the links showing some examples of their counter-discourses) or the ever-embattled ABC/SBS/NITV (SBS has a history of Australian race-rioting coming up!). But they can be as likely found in the remarkably generous and informed standard of ‘users comments’ made by Australians in such fora: more generous and informed, I think, than made by their UK and USA counterparts, for whom slap-downs acquired in Oxbridge/Ivy League tutorials upend opportunities for real debate. The standard of Australian user comment may be high because our educated elite have so few spaces for resisting Channel Cringe’s all-out assault (though that is just a hunch). What we can say, though, is that Channel Cringe mercifully co-exists with strains of Australian culture and criticism which exhibit the ‘relaxed erectness of carriage’ Phillips predicted would be a sign of the Cultural Cringe’s demise.
And yet Phillips’s ‘relaxed’ wants re-routing. For him it signified the desired confidence of a kind of Australian critic whose authority was born of merit wedded to a self-awareness that did not place her/himself above or rather outside the community whose culture s/he critiqued. I think this is standard nowawdays, showing indeed how far we have come since the 1950s. But I don’t know any academic who can claim to be ‘relaxed’. Instead, self-aware/deprecatory intellectuals though we may be, we are tumbled pell-mell into the high-speed world of the global education market. Or rather, in the rat-race of competition that ‘fosters collaboration’ while eroding possibilities of true collegiality, as often as not whenever we ‘work’ we are anything but relaxed as we perpetuate the channelsevenification of academic life.
I know this because it has been something that has been seriously bothering me for the last month. It’s been bothering me because I haven’t been achieving my dot-point academic objectives (answering emails) and feeling genuine guilt about it.
There are reasons. Firstly, I’ve been experiencing what any area studies specialist—particularly one who practises the profession outside The Area—suffers when s/he is sporadically immersed in it: a kind of stimulus overload leading to intellectual reflux. (This blog is my Mylanta.) Secondly I have been reading: three random (= eeek, only tangentially related to research/teaching) books per week.
And both processes have made me realise how normal it is for me to acquiesce in the new managerial vision of an intellectual life. For is the latter not rather about making oneself for considerable tracts of time unavailable, solipsistic, even selfish? And is this not, in the context, a truly resistant practice? Australian! Get thee into the window seat, pull the red mooreen curtain and read a bloody book! It’s the first lesson I still too often forget to teach…and learn.
For more on the Cringe see
Frank Bongiorno and Ian Henderson, ‘Beating Round the Bush: The Australian Legend and The Australian Tradition’, in Tanya Dalziell and Paul Genoni, eds, Telling Stories: Australian Literary Cultures 1935-2010 (Melbourne: Monash Publishing, 2013), pp. 195-201
Ian Henderson, ‘“Freud Has A Name for It”: A. A. Phillips’s “The Cultural Cringe”’, Southerly, 69.2 (2009), pp.125-45; rpt. Best Australian Essays 2010, ed. Robert Drewe (Melbourne: Black Inc., 2010), pp. 105-116.