The public intellectual in Australia

It is an old lament that Australia is anti-intellectual; unlike an imagined continental Europe, where only one capstone project service for students. In this lament, it is not just the parched climate that renders Australia infertile to public intellectuals, nor even the undoubted tendency of some media to dumb tilings down’. Academics and creative people are also at fault:

The intellectuals with their old maidish modesty and diffidence had let this country become a back- water, a paradise of dull boring mediocrities, a place where the artist or man of ideas could only live on in sufferance. This lament intersects with a contemporary concern about the ‘death of the public intellectual’, itself a symptom of ‘anxiety about the viability of …“the profession of thought ”. In this view, public intellectualism has been pincered on two fronts.

The first pincer is a decline in media values. The media has fragmented and in that process, it is said, distinctions between enlightened debate and infotainment have elided, to the detriment of current affairs reporting. Pre-existing tendencies to scandalise have been overlaid with an assumption, imbued in wider society, that all views, however (un) informed, are of equal value. This misguided egalitarianism is reinforced in some school pedagogy and played upon by politicians keen to promote anti-intellectualism. It manifests itself in the prominence of talk-back radio, although the neutrality of the space provided by talk-back is subject to engineering by agenda-driven radio hosts. In this new world, there is little place for expert voices, unless they are willing to replace thought with opinion and compete with spin and provocative opinionation, and thereby becoming part of the punditry’.

The second pincer comes from within the academy and its publication hierarchies. To Guldi, the humanities in particular retreated behind a wall of European influenced theorization that distanced both its language and interests from that of everyday discussions. This process was reinforced by the metriflcation of the ‘publish or perish’ doctrine, so that quality of one’s arguments was less important than the academic standing of the publication outlet. More public forms of expression, such as a book accessible to an educated but general readership, were discounted. This in turn led to a flourishing of ever more specialised journals, fragmenting the conversation of the university. Others, in Australia at least, have diagnosed not a death, but a recrudescence of the public intellectual. For Carter this is a product of an ‘economy’ of relations between market, media and academy, driven more by the culture wars than a flourishing of individuals. In this rebirth, Carter diagnoses a paradox in the same public intellectuals decrying a weakening or decline in public discourse. He sees, in much of that, a self-aggrandisement, a ‘fantastic, even grotesque’ claim for intellectuals to play the role of the nation’s saviours’.

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