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Clive Hamilton and Australian intellectual life

Clive Hamilton’s speech from the Walkley Short List announcement has been reprinted at New Matilda. Here’s a snippet:

Non-fiction is going through a renaissance in Australia, particularly books of social and political commentary and analysis. The resurgence of non-fiction is Australian society reflecting on itself and has served as an antidote to the complacency that came over the country for many years. It also represents a challenge to political power, which is becoming all the more important as the media industry goes into freefall.

The extraordinary rise of writers’ festivals over the last seven or eight years, celebrated in the publishing industry, has paralleled the rise of non-fiction. Attendances have grown sharply. Unexpectedly, the festivals themselves became major political events, as well as literary ones. Authors of social and political comment have become as popular as novelists, reminding us that there is a substantial intelligent and engaged reading public out there. The flourishing of writers festivals coincided with the Howard years when many felt alternative opinion was discouraged, especially with the Labor Party adopting “me too” and small target strategies.

Although these are good signs, we are still beset by a lack of intellectual depth in this country, something observed by Australian academics returning home after stints at universities in Europe and the United States.

This shallowness is due in part to our size and in part to the narrowing of the intellectual scope of our academics, who have become more time pressured and enslaved to the publish-or-perish rule. Following the Dawkins reforms of the late 1980s and the corporatisation of the 1990s, universities have been transformed. No longer devoted to seeking the truth they have become service providers for educational consumers. The incentive structure of the “enterprise university” requires intellectual effort to have measurable outcomes, ones whose value is calculated by bureaucratic procedures in Canberra. Risk-aversion and specialisation in arcana naturally follow; so does withdrawal from public debate. 

The narrowing of intellectual life is reflected in the parlous state of Overland, Australia’s foremost literary magazine that also publishes articles about politics and culture. In the 1950s and 60s a typical academic in the social sciences or humanities would be familiar with developments in political and social theory and be au fait with the latest literary trends and controversies. Few today can comfortably straddle both domains.

The bit about Overland stems, I think, from a conversation I had with Clive after an event at Trades Hall, in which we discussed the difficulties that academic specialisation caused a generalist magazine like Overland, since it was no longer possible to assume  that readers interested in politics necessarily cared about fiction, nor that poets necessarily took an interest in politics, whereas Overland in its earliest incarnation was explicitly oriented to readers equally passionate about both.

But that’s not to suggest that Overland‘s in a parlous state. In fact, in a perverse way, the slow but steady rise in Overland‘s circulation probably reflects the general point Clive’s making, since, with so few outlets now publishing serious work for a generalist reader, those that remain are increasingly cherished by readers.

Jeff Sparrow

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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