Australian Journal of Cultural Studies
Vol. 1 No. 1, May 1983

"Australian Inventions": Review of Inventing Australia and two other publications

Graeme Turner

Phil Pearlman, Dear Australian (Sydney: Lansdowne Press, 1982).
Bruce Bennett, Cross Currents: Magazines and Newspapers in Australian Literature (Sydney: Longmans Cheshire, 1981).
Richard White, Inventing Australia: Images and Identity 1688-1980 (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1981) The Australian Experience Series No. 3.

Even the least observant among us would have noted the current boom in Australian cultural history of one mode or another; the publication in which this review appears is one example, and the three books under review here span almost t he full spectrum of modes and approaches. Dear Australian is a popular collection of letters published in The Australian newspaper; Cross Cunents is a largely scholarly collection of essays studying the role of magazines and newspapers in Australia's literary history; and Inventing Australia is a work of social history which owes its title to the currently fashionable notion that history is not composed of "facts" but of acceptable fictions.

Dear Australian is the least "serious" (that is, it seems the least aware of exactly what it is doing) of the three, perhaps inevitably. Although the introduction archly suggests that the collection is a "unique social history", a "fascinating jigsaw of Australian moods and attitudes", the letters rather offer us depressing evidence of the decline in quality in The Australian since its beginning in 1964. Increasingly, letters seem to need to be included for their representativeness, their vox pop authenticity, rather than for their wit, intelligence or authority. This would be less exceptionable if representativeness didn't become, increasingly, antithetical to wit, intelligence and authority. The potential for entertainment, let alone enlightenment, is then diminished by the low level of discussion. Daylight saving, for instance, is granted two full pages under the heading of "These Changing Times", and is comprised almost totally of "one-more-hour of-sun-will-fade-my-curtains" letters. The categories into which the few substantial letters are placed tend to trivialise by association, as if nothing is too serious for The Australian's reader to take lightly. Simon Townsend's open letter from jail during his stint as a conscientious objector is in a section entitled "From the Heart", in which the common element is that they are letters of personal confession: it includes a plea for tolerance from a homosexual, from Tracey Wickham's Dad, a rebel priest, and a pair of departing "whingeing" migrants. The issues themselves seem not to matter; in the "Great Debates" section we find Vietnam, the White Australia policy and cigarette smoking rubbing shoulders on equal terms. Serious letters discussing problems affecting the Australian film industry find themselves under the gormless heading of "That's Entertainment". Despite the occasional gem—pieces from Philip Adams, Garry McDonald and a rabidly reactionary anti-Moratorium letter from Barry Humphries—the collection is riddled with the smug nationalism and thoughtlessness of its parent production; it makes it a source for social historians but is typically vainglorious in its claims to be social history.


At the opposite end of the spectrum is Bruce Bennett's Cross Currents. Research in Australian literature and literary history is still at a primitive stage of development, and it must be said that this collection will prove an invaluable research tool for future scholars. The chief objective is to provide factual infor mation about the role of magazines and newspapers in Australia's literary history and there is little analytical or secondary content. As the editor points out, it would be "premature to attempt a full-scale analysis of the literary and social significance of magazines and newspapers in Australia before sufficient primary material existed". This is true, at least of the nineteenth century, and Elizabeth Webby's exhaustive compendium of nineteenth century newspapers is no doubt necessary, if dull. Bennett's chosen mode seems less demonstrably the ap propriate one for the twentieth century, and this is implied by the more disparate and less scholarly, approaches he has selected. Peter Pierce's discussion of lit tle magazines of the 1970s, Patrick Morgan's account of Quadrant, and Shap cott's account of the Bulletin's literary production under Douglas Stewart, are representatives of the academic, objective account in which primary material would be found. Much of the remaining essays, however, rely heavily on personal opinion, reminiscence, even manifesto (or mixtures of all three) by people close ly associated with the journals under examination. Some of these accounts are lively and engaging—Stephen Murray-Smith's piece tells more about the man than Overland, but given his role in Overland this is not inappropriate; others, however, do not work so well: Stuart Lee's account of Southerly is transparently subjective and makes claims for the magazine's character that seem questionable to an outsider.

What seems required in this modern section of Cross Currents is exactly the kind of approach eschewed in the colonial section because of the lack of primary material; since this is less of a problem with postwar studies the kind of cultural and ideological analysis exemplified by John Docker's work might have suited Bennett's needs admirably. Without it, in my view, the book's contemporary teeth have been drawn. One can see, for instance, the need for this kind of approach in John McLaren's discussion of book reviewing in newspapers (admittedly, an enormous topic, difficult to accomplish in the space given). McLaren's essay is intelligent and lively, but does excise the political and ideological aspects of the press's treatment of writers and their work—aspects that seem more than usually crucial to the function of the Australian press.

Cross Currents, then, provides primary material for researchers; it is modest ly and intelligently edited by Bruce Bennett who has tried to draw on as wide a range of approaches as possible, perhaps, in order to allow the various ver sions of polemic to balance each other. The modesty of the editorial role is possibly the most contentious feature of the collection; it does suffer from the lack of a strong analysis of the relation between the press, magazines, and literature as provocation to go back to the primary material with enhanced in terest and attention.

Although nobody would accuse Cross Currents of riding a "new wave" in Australian studies, or of pandering to fashion, this will certainly be said of Richard White's Inventing Australia. By presenting Australian history as a work of fic tion, he relocates the interest of the social historian in the relations between


phenomena and events rather than in the phenomena or events themselves. This quasi-structuralist approach leads White to examine the stock images of Australian identity with an eye to their cultural function rather than their cultural truth. While not in any sense employing a rigorously theoretical approach, the theoretically determined shift in perspective does reveal things normally left out of historians' accounts of Australian colonial history; for instance, White's discus sion of Australia's early links with America as the ~model" to emulate does useful ly complicate and qualify the conventional accounts of the struggle with crown colony status. Benefitting from Tim Rowse's work on Australian nationalism, In venling Australia further undemmines the orthodox, unitary accounts of the 1890s and the bush ethos as motivated and naturalised versions of the nationalist Australian .

White fits into the developing tradition of new Left Australian historians, re jecting Russell Ward's orthodoxies as cultural product rather than cultural analysis. Unlike Humphrey McQueen, whose arguments tend to suggest the possibility of a "true" version being laid bare, White is eminently sceptical:

there is no "real" Australian waiting to be uncovered. A national identity is an invention. There is no point in asking whether one version of this essen tial Australia is truer than another because they are all intellectual constructs, neat, tidy, comprehensible—and necessarily false. They have all been ar tificially imposed upon a diversified landscape and population, and a variety of untidy social relationships, attitudes and emotions. When we look at ideas about national identity, we need to ask, not whether they are true or false, but what their function is, whose creations they are, and whose interests they serve.

His subject, then, is the history of "images" about our history, and the ways in which the received idea of Australia has been used throughout our history.

Where the book succeeds is in its charting of the history of such images; where it fails is in assuming that such images are ~artificially imposed" unproblematical ly without having any meaning or specific signification within the culture. While alert to the glib assumptions of earlier historians, White is not so alert to the way in which cultural practices and myths become established. The use of the word "image" is, finally, too weak and imprecise to describe an intricate and significant (if not unmotivated) discourse within the culture. The image is separated from the cultural processes that enabled it to accrue significance, and from some of the processes that made its particular version of significance ac ceptable to the whole culture. One can, for instance, accept White's demonstra tion of the falseness of the Australian legend of the nineties as a depiction of life in the nineties, but accepting that does not help explain the wide purchase of the myth, and its survival as the signifier of nationalism for a range of ideological interests over our history. That such an invention served certain pur poses can be seen with hindsight, but that it was invented to serve those specific purposes seem unlikely, and that, having been invented, it will automatically serve those purposes improbably. The process whereby cultural invention is mytholoyis ed and encoded—and is thence open to use and manipulation—cannot be taken for granted, as it is in Inventing Australia. Perhaps it is churlish to ask that a social historian become a semiotician, but it is in this area that White's assump tions need greater examination.

As a revision of Australian history Inventing Australia is welcome and pro vocative. While presenting history as cultural production it also provides a rich fund of historical detail for the reader's own "inventions" that is fresh and illuminating. The perspective offered is carefully analytic of the economic bases for social change and is a resourceful defence for the Left in its attempt to repel the continual raids by the Right on their icons, flags and myths. As a work in which new theoretical possibilities are presented to Australian cultural studies its main benefit lies in its title.

New: 20 May, 1997 | Now: 22 April, 2015