Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 2, No. 2, 1989
Performance Theory Australia
Edited by Brian Shoesmith & Tom O'Regan

Review of Brian Head & Walter, James, eds, Intellectual Movements and Australian Society (Melbourne: O.U.P. 1988) 397 + x pp.

Gary Wickham


This is a good book and an important book. Its major failings are that it is barely aware of why it is good and not aware at all of why it is important. As a result, it doesn't make nearly enough of its main strength.

Its main strength is that it considers intellectuals in Australia in terms of their conditions of operation. By and large it avoids the tired tendency to think of intellectuals as free-floating bearers of ideas, 'people of ideas' (more likely 'men of ideas') who seem to operate in a vacuum (some essays do fall back on this tendency too easily, however).

Brian Head sets up this strength in his lengthy introductory essay. He offers the following basic definition of intellectuals:

those who engage in the production, transmission and adaptation of ideas about society and culture ... Intellectuals are found not only in academic and research institutions, but also in a range of occupations that may involve a significant degree of social and cultural expression ... Not all people filling these, or similar occupations could be considered sufficiently interested in ideas to qualify as "intellectuals". The point, however, is that people in such fields often engage in significant intellectual functions, constructing and modifying the shape of social understanding. (p.3)

In broadening the category of intellectuals in this way, Head claims for his definition the following four advantages: it avoids 'the traditional stereotyped identification of intellectuals with the tiny elites of high culture and of academia'; it emphasises that people can be intellectuals even if they don't identify themselves as such; it encompasses Gramsci's point about intellectuals ('organic intellectuals') providing skills 'for social and political groups in every-day life'; and it heeds Gramsci's warning that to think 'we are all intellectuals' is to ignore the fact that labour is divided such that only some people perform occupations concerned with ideas. (pp.34) All these advantages add up to a commitment to the notion of the conditions of operation of intellectuals.

Head considers the conditions of operation of many different forms of Australian intellectual - academics, public servants, business persons, trade unionists, literary figures, scientists, lawyers, doctors, architects, and others. The conditions include journals, publishers, associations, and the anti-intellectual aspects of Australian society. He tries to stick only to definite conditions of operation, rejecting for example vague classifications like left, right and New Right.

The other essays in the book follow this lead, as I've indicated, to at least some degree. Helen Bourke examines the conditions of operation of social science intellectuals just after World War 1. Stephen Alomes examines those conditions of operation of intellectuals which have allowed them to act as publicists for ideas. Joan Clarke examines the conditions of operation of scientists as intellectuals. Albert Moran extends the definition of intellectuals in considering media work as a condition of operation of media intellectuals . A A Phillips (in one of the last pieces written before his death) offers some of his own experiences as conditions of operation of Australian intellectuals.

Gillian Whitlock and Chilla Bulbeck consider the different conditions of operation facing women intellectuals compared to men intellectuals, proposing as they do so the term 'thinker' as more appropriate to conditions which especially affect women, like connections to communities rather than institutions, and care of children. Stephen Garton examines the spread of Freudianism in Australia as a major condition of operation for psychiatrists as intellectuals. Patrick Buckridge considers the concept of intellectual authority in considering the conditions of literary intellectuals in Australia between 1945 and 1975. Andrew Wells concentrates on the conditions of operation of what he calls 'old left' intellectuals (Fitzpatrick, Gollan, Turner, Ward, etc) and considers the changes to these conditions which led to the rise and fall of 'new left' intellectuals in the sixties and seventies.

James Walter examines the conditions of operation of certain bureaucrats and business leaders as intellectuals in the post World War 11 reconstruction era, arguing that intellectuals have had a major impact on government policy making. Max Charlesworth focuses on the conditions of operation of Catholic intellectuals in this country, especially the differences between the Catholic Worker group and the 'Movement' group. John Docker is much more sympathetic to the 'new left' than Wells in considering many of their conditions of operation, though he is not completely uncritical. Dennis Altman, like A. A. Phillips, draws largely on personal experience in considering the conditions of operation of Australian intellectuals, but he develops this into something of a theory of ethics around the slogan 'The Personal is Political'. Finally, David Kempt, seemingly the token conservative, examines the conditions of operation of both liberalism and conservatism as intellectual forces in Australia since 1944.

Such a wide range of essays, needless to say, provides the reader with a mass of information about intellectual movements in this country. The contributors and editors are to be congratulated for this achievement alone. An extremely comprehensive bibliography, divided into six parts, ant an excellent index make the book even more valuable as a reference book. To add to these bouquets, the book is superbly produced and very thoroughly edited.

Of course, a lot could be said about each and every contribution, as I'm sure in time it will be. I'll restrict myself here to just three, perhaps random, judgements, before returning to my assessment of the book as a whole. First, the most politically exciting aspects of the book are Bourke's treatment of the politics of disciplines and Whitlock's and Bulbeck's arguments about the need to change the conditions of operation in Australian intellectuals so that they no longer reflect masculinist norms of organisation and action. Secondly, much more attention should have been given to the ethics of intellectuals. Altman's essay does not go nearly far enough, and yet he is left as the only brave soul addressing this crucial area. Thirdly, as I noted above, there are too many lapses into the 'history of ideas' tradition which sees ideas as having no other conditions of operation than people's minds. These lapses are especially apparent in the contributions by Phillips and Walter, though they are also noticeable in the essays by Bourke, Clarke, Moran, and Charlesworth.

The book as a whole, while it clearly follows Head's lead about the conditions of operation of intellectuals, doesn't seem to realise the potential of this lead. Indeed, Head doesn't seem to realise it himself. I kept waiting for the book to see that a focus on conditions of operation, rather than on intellectuals as pre-formed human bearers of ideas, opens the door to the political possibilities offered by a thorough-going critique of subjectivity, possibilities that writers like Foucault, Hindess, and Hirst have been exploring for some time now. I waited in vain.

Instead of recognising its strength and developing it in this direction, the book allows an unquestioned human form of actor to sneak back to centre stage. The category of intellectuals is significantly broadened in the book, but intellectuals are still seen as given human actors with given attributes and capacities. The political possibilities of developing an engaged Australian intellectualism without given forms of actor are ignored. The other weaknesses I have pointed to are allowed in on the coat-tails of this failing.

This is where the book's failure to recognise why it is important comes into play. It is important because intellectualism in Australia is so weak, that, for example, it is not even capable of being used to defend the higher education institutions that are supposedly central to it. Intellectualism in this country needs all the shots in the arm it can get, if it is to be used to help defence higher education against attacks that seem driven by an anti-intellectual utilitarianism, and for a range of other reasons. This book is by its very presence one such shot in the arm, yet this whole political role is barely mentioned.

I'm not suggesting that the book should be criticised for failing to respond directly to the Dawkins-led attacks. This certainly would have been helpful, if its publication timing could have allowed it (and it seems it could have to at least some extent). Rather, I'm saying that in not even being aware of the political role of intellectualism in this debate, it reveals a cavalier indifference to its own potential political importance.

If the book had taken up the challenge to develop and contribute to the idea of an engaged Australian intellectualism without given forms of actor, it could've helped for instance, bolster Australian participatory democracy, which needs engaged intellectualism if it is not to be a hollow gesture. The fact that a book on intellectuals could contribute to this and other problems, is lost on Intellectual Movements and Australian Society.


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