Australian Journal of Cultural Studies
Vol. 3 No. 2, December 1985

An Event in Publishing, An Intervention into Academic Style

Gary Wickham

Krim Benterrak, Stephen Muecke and Paddy Roe, Reading the Country, Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1984, 251pp, $29.50.

The usual focus of book reviews—the contents of the book concerned—will not be the major focus of this review. Instead, I will concentrate on two features of Reading the Country its presentation as a book and the intervention into 'normal' academic style constituted by Stephen Muecke's 'fragments' (the name he gives to his mini-essays) .

For those not familiar with Reading the Country, perhaps through one of the many reviews of it which have already appeared, [1] it is a combination of landscape paintings by Moroccan born West Australian artist Krim Benterrak, stories by 73 year old Aboriginal Paddy Roe and the above-mentioned fragments by Muecke, an Australian academic. It is a combination around the theme of 'reading' (looking at, understanding, feeling) a particular piece of Australian country, the Roebuck Plains near Broome in Western Australia.

Reading the Country is a beautiful book. It reads surprisingly easily and well. This is a surprise because the three modes of authorship involved are not, on the face of it, good bedfellows, or rather good book fellows. One might expect such a combination to be incoherent at best, pretentious at worst. But it is neither. Why does it work so well, why is it a beautiful book?

The answer lies mainly in its design. In the first place Benterrak's paintings are well situated in the text as well as being superbly reproduced. In the second place the book's introduction—an essay by Muecke called 'Reading this Book'—and its conclusion—a 'postscript' interview with Muecke called 'Writing this Book'—are brilliant textual devices. The introduction allows the reader to approach the book in such a way that its unusual combination of modes of authorship is rendered exciting and productive rather than problematic. The conclusion allows the reader to leave the book without losing this feeling. And in the third place, Muecke's fragments are positioned

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as very effective binders. They hold the book together. For all this, credit must go to the publishers, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, especially to its managing editor, Ray Coffey who, according to the Acknowledgments, nurtured the project from start to finish.

As well as these strengths of design, it is crucial that we look to Paddy Roe's contribution in considering the book's beauty and workability. His stories have a charm that is very difficult to relate. As the introductory essay notes, 'Not even the wildest European imagination could produce Paddy Roe's reading of the country: the words are just not there'. His stories are very simple yet they convey a sense of a very complex tradition.

In discussing Muecke's fragments as an intervention into normal academic style, obviously the first thing to be done is to define 'normal academic style'. By this figure I mean the sort of completeness usually demanded of academic books and essays. Completeness of referencing technique and completeness of argument.

Most knowledges used in normal academic work are supposed to be ascribed to a particular owner. Homage must be paid to this owner in the form of a footnote or some other reference. Muecke's intervention into this aspect of normal academic style takes two forms: (a) a minimal use of direct acknowledgments; (b) the use of reminders, at several points throughout his contributions, that Reading the Country is not authored in an unproblematic sense (the differences between the three forms of authorship employed and arguments about the way Paddy Roe's Aboriginal culture transfers knowledges with out any notion of the ownership of these knowledges highlight these reminders and make them very convincing).

Most arguments used in normal academic work are supposed to be developed to a 'finished' state. Whereas conventions of producing a car include a diverse division of labour—some people consider car concepts, some design cars based on some of these concepts, some set up the machinery to build them, some build parts of them, some put these parts together, etc.—conventions of producing an academic argument are much more restrictive when it comes to labour. One person alone is supposed to consider concepts and design arguments based on some of these concepts and set up the machinery to build the argument and build all its parts and put these parts together, etc.

Muecke's intervention into this aspect of normal academic style is to restrict himself to the consideration of concepts. His fragments (and 'fragments' is a good term to signal his intervention) cover a large range of topics in not many pages: the nomadic nature of writing

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and the possibility of 'strategic nomadology'; the problematic nature of history writing, especially its celebration of origins and its celebration of individuals; the uses and abuses of the concept of literacy; the importance of silences in some Aboriginal discourse; the production of meanings for colours; the problematic nature of economics and counting; the reception of works of art; improvising versus engineering as cultural practices; the nature and function of texts. Along the way he considers many concepts, especially concepts circulating in a lot of recent French theoretical work, like bricolage (circulating around the names Levi-Strauss and Derrida), rhizome and nomadology (both circulating around the names Deleuze and Guattari).

Muecke hints at what his consideration of concepts might mean for the design of arguments about texts, about culture, about the con temporary politics of Aborigines, etc. His hints might be scattered, might not constitute even a part of the 'complete' process of producing an argument, but they are undoubtedly worthy. Combined with his consideration of concepts they encourage an explosion of possibilities for the production of academic arguments. They are a very effective means of broadening the conditions of production and operation of academic arguments. Without work like Muecke's fragments the unfortunate tendency within academic institutions to play it safe when it comes to the production of arguments, to work only within widely accepted theoretical frameworks, to be very suspicious of any work which attempts to shift the boundaries of these frameworks or which uses other, not so widely accepted frameworks, would become further entrenched.

It is worth noting that in being an intervention into both completeness of referencing technique and completeness of argument, Muecke's fragments represent an Australian development of interventions under the name of Michel Foucault. Foucault's intervention into completeness of referencing technique is well known. It has proved to be a contentious intervention, especially with historians. His intervention into completeness of argument is best summarised through a couple of quotations:

What I have said ... is not 'what I think', but often rather what I wonder whether one couldn't think. [2]

What I say ought to be taken as 'propositions', 'game openings' where those who might be interested are invited to join: they are not meant as dogmatic assertions that have to be taken or left en bloc. [3]

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As well, it is worth noting that just as the effectiveness and worth of Foucault's interventions into normal academic style do not mean that his arguments are thoroughly convincing, so the effectiveness and worth of Muecke's interventions do not mean that his arguments are thoroughly convincing.

To conclude, let's consider a question which was raised at a seminar on Reading the Country held in Perth earlier this year. This question focussed on whether the book functions more as a coffee-table book or more as an academic text. It seems to me to be a measure of the effectiveness of the book as an intervention that it manages completely to blur the distinction between coffee-table book and academic text. Indeed, it is a high compliment to Reading the Country that it made it to the bestseller list of the National Times alongside Martha Gardener's Book of Household Hints.

Gary Wickham teaches at Murdoch University.

Notes

1. The better reviews have appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald (May 4, 1985), the National Times (May 10, 1985), Newswit (Student newspaper, New South Wales Institute of Technology) (June 4, 1985) and The Age (July 29, 1985).

2. Foucault, M., (1980) 'Power and Strategies', in Gordon, C. (ed.) Power—Knowledge. New York: Pantheon, p. 145.

3. Foucault, M., (1981) 'Questions of Method', Ideology and Consciousness, No.8, p.4.


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