[csaa-forum] But wait, there's more

Dr Melissa GREGG m.gregg at uq.edu.au
Fri Feb 25 21:02:31 CST 2005

For those who missed it, especially our international readers, this piece ran in The Australian today. I would really like to know people's thoughts on it. I keep thinking, 'Why now? Who is listening anymore?' But I'm not sure it's exactly the same alarmism of an earlier moment in cultural studies' institutionalisation/emergence. Will people on this list be ignoring it? (and I don't just mean the professors who keep having to take the blows for us, I also mean postgrads and ECRs. Many younger academics have been trained in the 'New Humanities' from day one, and I guess that means we've never known 'hard work' or 'rigour'!) Is it time for a new generation of cult stud graduates to start talking back to this tiresome critique?

Gregory Melleuish: Out with Thucydides, in with the Barbie dolls


IN the late 19th century Charles Badham, professor of classics at the University of Sydney, argued that the university man trained in the techniques of a liberal education would possess a clear consciousness, "full of reverence, refinement and clear-headedness ... by the very conditions of his discipline temperate in opinion, temperate in measures, temperate in demeanour".

He advocated culture, "the thought of our permanent humanity and of the ineffaceable identity between the soul of the past and the soul of the present", as the ideal to guide the Australian colonists and save them from the superficiality and charlatanism of the modern age. 
Now, compare this with the way in which proponents of cultural studies - the New Humanities - describe the role of their discipline: Culture is a "contested and conflictual set of practices of representation bound up with the processes of formation and re-formation of social groups". The contrast between the two ideals of culture could not be starker. 

Alas, the New Humanities are now in the ascendancy. Last year, the Australian Academy of the Humanities elected Graeme Turner, a well-known cultural studies practitioner, as its president. The executive of the academy, moreover, is dominated by other figures from the world of the New Humanities: Elspeth Probyn, Stuart Cunningham, Anne Freadman. 

The New Humanities are now firmly entrenched, in one form or another, in our sandstone universities. Cultural studies is touted as something in which Australian academe has a world-class reputation. 

Many people today think of arts as some sort of soft option. But traditionally liberal education involved hard work in the shape of textual analysis and emendation. It gave access to the best that had been written. 

The men who created the Australian commonwealth were largely products of this liberal education. Edmund Barton was reputed to carry a copy of Thucydides with him. Samuel Griffith published a translation of Dante. 

Traditional liberal education had both rigour and excellence. It also encouraged humility as one encountered some of the greatest minds of humankind. Thucydides or Shakespeare or Augustine have more to tell us about the human condition than the superficial scribblings of yet another denunciation of sexism and racism in Australia. 

Compare some of the key characteristics of cultural studies and the New Humanities. 

The focus is on popular culture and everyday life. 

You don't need to be able to read a language other than English. 

You don't need to know about any society other than your own. 

You don't need to know anything about any time except the present. 

You don't need to know anything about religion. 

You don't need to read any works that are more than 30 years old. 
At a time when more and more Australians are engaging with an internationalised world, the New Humanities would seem to lock people into a very narrow and restricted view of the world. 

Let's take some examples from Australian universities of what one can learn from the New Humanities: 

At the University of Melbourne one can study a unit entitled "Contemporary Culture and Everyday Life", which "introduces students to concepts such as hegemony, ideology and culture, in order to provide intellectual frameworks for the reading of diverse cultural sites such as the family home and practices (shopping, fandom)". 

At the ANU in "Reading Popular Culture: An Introduction to Cultural Studies" one is able to study "how objects such as the Walkman, the Holden and the Barbie doll have been represented in advertising and in product promotions". 

At UWA in a unit entitled "Sex, Bodies, Spaces: Gender and Pop Culture" the question is asked: "How can the practices of everyday life be interrogated to yield insights about the relationships between the body, gendered identities and prevailing cultural 'norms'?" 

One must truly wonder how a person who had spent some three or even four years studying Barbie dolls, shopping malls and gendered identities would measure up to Badham's ideal of culture. Would they be "temperate in opinion, temperate in measures, temperate in demeanour"? Given the opportunity, what sort of constitution would they be able to write for this country? 

Gregory Melleuish is associate professor of history and politics at University of Wollongong. This is an extract from his address to a Quadrant dinner on Wednesday.

© The Australian 

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