This text was originally delivered at an event honoring Simon During’s retirement from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, where he has been Research Professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities since 2010. During’s books include Foucault and Literature (Routledge 1991), Patrick White (Oxford 1994), Modern Enchantments: The Cultural and Secular Power of Magic (2002), Exit Capitalism, Literary Culture, Theory and Post-Secular Modernity (Routledge 2010) and, most recently, Against Democracy: Literary Experience in the Era of Emancipations (Fordham 2012).

In the late eighties, the Dawkins reforms were announced, aimed mainly at increasing participation in Australian higher education, basically in order to increase the nation’s human capital.[1] I became aware of their full force at a Heads of Department retreat in 1995 where the Vice-Chancellor introduced us to a new institutional imaginary. All of a sudden university administrators were managers working on behalf of “stakeholders”; students were thought of as clients or customers; essays and books were “outputs”; departments were responsible for their own financial viability as determined by algorithms which assigned a dollar value to publications and student enrollments; and department heads were required to reshape their curricula for commercial reasons, namely to attract fee-paying overseas students rather non-fee-paying local students.

As a literary academic I resisted most of this. Indeed early on, in 1987, I had published a piece, “Woodchipping in the Groves of Academe,” against the Dawkins reforms, in Arena, the journal of a marxisant collective to which I was also then close.[2] But as a middle manager I felt I had to comply with the University of Melbourne’s embrace of the Dawkins model. So as Head of Department in the 1990s I spent a great deal of energy restructuring the department: I and my friends, David Bennett and Dipesh Chakrabarty, had already set up the cultural studies program on the grounds (as far as I was concerned) that the students needed the opportunity critically to study contemporary culture in all its diversity and richness.[3] But I went on to develop a media program, aimed primarily at overseas students, as well as creative writing and publishing and editing programs, all for commercial reasons.[4]

Many of my colleagues were dubious about these moves, suspecting that they would sideline English proper. They turned out to be right, but at the time I argued that if we did not develop the new programs, literary studies would languish anyway since the new managerial model did not support disciplines as such. At any rate, by the end of the nineties, I wanted to leave Melbourne. I felt that basic professional values—teaching, academic autonomy, commitment to the discipline’s transmission, intellectual vitality—were of little importance to the people who ran the university. And so I prepared to move overseas.

The institutional shifts I have been describing happened alongside profound shifts in English itself. I suspect that these affected me especially strongly because, as I’ve indicated, my moral luck was to lack a firm disciplinary foothold. And one way for me now to grasp how I reorientated myself then is to recall how I responded to three of the period’s more stimulating books.

The first of these was John Guillory’s Cultural Capital (1993), a careful Bourdieuan investigation into the sociology of literary judgment.[5] As such, it belonged to a larger moment. In the late eighties, much cutting-edge literary analysis came to think about literature and literary criticism not philosophically, politically or formally à la first-generation theory, but more or less neutrally and functionally in relation to society and government. Australia was at the forefront here: Ian Hunter’s Culture and Government (1988) had been a pioneer in this sociological turn, and Tony Bennett’s Outside Literature (1990) polemicized for it.[6] Unlike Hunter and Bennett, however, Guillory responded to America’s so-called canon debate by positioning himself in relation to identity politics.[7] And unlike Hunter and Bennett, whose work carried an animus against practices associated with humanist literary studies, Guillory, albeit in a dispassionate Marxist mode, was an adept close reader.

This is not the place to offer a full account of Cultural Capital. Let me just say that I accepted its argument that literature’s cultural capital had declined since 1945 because the new “professional-managerial” class did not need it, and for that reason support for high literature’s dissemination was decreasing. I also agreed with Guillory that the high theory moment was now largely organized by a logic of cool and charisma. More importantly, I agreed with his argument that most critiques of canonicity were misplaced. Literary canons do not primarily represent the voices and interests of particular groups: they have been constructed on other terms than that, for other reasons. The literary field was “relatively autonomous” from the social fields in which racism and sexism operated. Thus the effort to revise the canon just by increasing oppressed groups’ representation in it was a misapplication of justified emancipatory wills.

This was the point where my disagreements with Guillory began. For him, as for Ian Hunter earlier, the canon was constructed in what he called the school. In the end, it was transmitted in order to confer cultural capital on a minority of students. This line of thought seemed to me both right and wrong. It was right to situate the education system as a key vehicle of literary transmission and selection in a process which helped divide people, not least into classes. But for all that, Cultural Capital failed to offer an adequate account for why some literary texts were canonized and others not.

John contended that the cost of education increased the rarity of developed literary knowledge and appreciation, and that this rarity was the material condition of high literature’s cultural capital. Even were this so, it tells us nothing about the relative quality of different kinds of understandings and experiences of literature. Nothing about why—to pluck an instance from the air— Jane Austen’s fictions are now canonical while those of her near contemporary, Catherine Gore, are not. The reason for that lies irreducibly in the different quality of their writings, however we may wish to parse “quality.” Thus Guillory’s elision undermines literary studies whose definitive object is exactly literature’s quality and qualities.[8] And it occurred to me, in a utopian spirit and against the mood of the times, that literature’s loss of prestige might possibly ground a stronger, if smaller, literary academia based on continued attention to why and how some literary works are more worth taking into the future than others. At any rate, my commitment to theory was being undermined from within theory itself.[9]

The second book the helped orientate me in the nineties was Meaghan Morris’s Ecstasy and Economics: American Essays for John Forbes (1992).[10] It appeared the same year as my The Cultural Studies Reader (put together when developing Melbourne’s cultural studies program) in whose introduction I had argued that cultural studies’ identity politics and populist strands resonated with what we then called Thatcherism.[11] Meaghan’s book was interested in this question too. But her brilliant book also impressed me so because it was a riposte to the Australian version of the sociological turn. With its meticulous reading of Forbes’s “Watching the Treasurer,” it was proudly literary.

Ecstasy and Economics is about Meaghan’s relation to Paul Keating both as a media figure and as an apostle of what we then called economic rationalism. It made the case that the economic policies Keating introduced to Australia carried with them a utopian excitement few could resist. For her, Keating was such an effective vessel for this ecstasy because, paradoxically, he also represented the old Labour politics of the masculinist Australian working class, not least in his wit, and to which she, both as a feminist and as a heterosexual woman attracted to Keating (not as a person but as an image), responded ambivalently.

It is a wonderful book which still rewards reading. It introduced me to the personal/impersonal method that I have often copied since, including here.[12] And it showed how literary criticism could contribute to cultural and media studies and, indeed, how different disciplinary methods directed at different objects (TV news, postmodern lyric poetry, economic policy documents) could come together in a single analysis. But, for me, in its nuances and ambivalences, it did not offer a clear enough critique of the de-regulatory, free-market economic policies that were beginning to reshape the university system. To make that case most forcefully, I thought that we needed a more worked-out historical understanding of Keating’s policies’ conditions of possibility. In this regard, Ecstasy and Economics was also constrained both by its cultural-studies populism (by the pressure for its author to position herself as a fan) and by theory’s charismatic economy most apparent in Meaghan’s borrowings from Deleuze and Baudrillard. Indeed Ecstasy and Economics seemed as much focused on work in cultural theory as on Keating and (as we now say) neoliberalism. It struck me, perhaps unfairly, that this was not quite the book the topic demanded precisely because it was just so nuanced, personal and cool.

Thus Ecstasy and Economics, a book I admire, also helped turn me from cultural studies.[13] If reading both Guillory and Morris had helped me understand that there was still a place for old-style literary studies, then Meaghan had also allowed me to suspect that critical analysis is strongest both when it is not mainly addressed to insiders, and when it is based on careful historicist reasoning. After all, dispassionately to explore historical contexts and pathways removes one some from the reductions involved in political position-taking as well as the seductions of academic au courantism.

The last book I want to mention is Stephen Greenblatt’s Learning to Curse, especially its chapter, “Towards a Poetics of Culture” which was in fact first published in Australia.[14] This piece meant so much to me because, discarding the hermeneutics of suspicion and deploying Marxian concepts against Marxism, it extended the obvious point that capitalism is the condition of modern culture. For Stephen, capitalism energizes modern culture; it opens it up and expands it. It does not melt all that is solid, it makes it flow. More particularly (and after talking with Cathy Gallagher), Stephen’s essay helped me realize that capitalism had established an important new cultural mode—not fiction as a genre, but fictionality as a force field in which images, narratives, things… detached from truth, attached to money, are re-assembled, re-symbolized and re-motivated.[15] As it expanded fictionality’s domains, capitalism made the world not just more open to border flows and exchanges but more exciting, dynamic, mobile, complicated and various.

Hints of this way of thinking also existed in the cultural studies of the time, but “Towards a Poetic of Culture” was, and remains, a bold and heterodox piece. Explicit affirmations of capitalism remain rare in the sixties’ aftermath, and there is no doubt Stephen’s essay chimed in with emergent neoliberalism. Indeed the essay divided me. On the one side, I remained, and remain, committed to the emancipation movements we associate with the sixties and seventies but I also accepted Stephen’s argument’s broader sweep, which, in fact, in its anti-traditionalism and anti-authoritarianism, its embrace of risk and change, seemed to me consonant with other aspects of the sixties’ spirit anyway.[16] Yet, as I say, in my desire to maintain literary criticism as an academic discipline in resistance to neoliberal university managerialism, I was also being pushed in a conservative direction, back to more traditional literary quality and qualities.

This was the immediate background of my book on secular magic: Modern Enchantments: the cultural power of secular magic (2002).[17] I wanted to write on a topic not much noticed by academia so as to avoid the temptations of either coterie or specialized writing. In Gallagher and Greenblatt’s spirit I also wanted to explore the cultural power of lightness, deception, secularity, fictionality and money. Secular magic was perfect for this, all the more so because it allowed me to engage a postcolonial problematic, since the magic/reason opposition (which I was putting under strain) was a strut of intellectual Eurocentrism.[18] And it provided opportunities for literary analysis. As a result Modern Enchantments was successful enough for me to become an attractive hire for a good US research university.[19]

I need to bring this talk to an end, so cannot give a full account of my experiences at Hopkins, and then, back in Australia at UQ, and how I negotiated further disciplinary twists and turns in both places. Enough to say that I decided to go to Hopkins on account of its reputation as “the last of the ivory towers.” That reputation was well deserved: at the time I arrived, Hopkins knew no managerialism, no bureaucracy. It respected professional autonomy. It was not interested in being cool. It had no sense that the new humanities were displacing the old humanities, which, in tandem with managerialism, was causing such havoc to the older disciplines in Australia. More than that: unlike departments I had known so far, the Hopkins English department, reaping feminism’s harvest, was run by women, which I found made life at work easier.[20] At the same time, however, it nurtured no residual hope for theory. That mood had withered, to be replaced by a more humble attachment to what was “smart.”

At any rate, this was a situation in which I could attune myself more carefully and independently to literary studies as such and the contexts of their vulnerability.

Which bore fruit in my next two books, Exit Capitalism and Against Democracy. In them I proceeded along various tracks.[21] I wrote quite detailed but broadly critical and pedagogical essays about writers I admired—from Christina Stead and Katherine Mansfield to E.M. Forster and Saul Bellow—largely in an effort to keep them in circulation in ways that made sense to me. I also began to examine the discipline’s past in order to scope out what might be retrieved from it. Then too: I made attempts to assess the mix of democracy, statism and capitalism under which we were living. My disquiet with both university managerialism and the new humanities along with the neoliberalism that was encouraging both, was, as I say, leading me towards acts of intellectual/disciplinary conservation, so I also felt the need to come to terms with conservatism and its history.[22] I wanted to find ways of joining an ongoing commitment to the sixties emancipation movements to a new, still “theoretical” but perhaps also conservative, understanding of literature and culture. This was to lead me, for instance, to rethink the Leavisism of my undergraduate days.[23] It also led me to begin to reconsider the academic humanities themselves so as to see what case can still be made for them after stripping them of the wishful thinking, self-interest, and self-importance which now, more than ever, nourish them.[24]

I would like to explain how, in this situation, I embarked on a major research project on the relationship between Anglicanism and British literature and also how I experienced my return to Australia on an ARC grant for that project.[25] But, instead, I want to end by thinking more summarily about how to judge the history of literary academia, in the light of my story so far.

Let me do that just by asking: Is the post-sixties history I have been evoking to be understood, as we in the theory generation hoped, as a narrative of emancipation and progress or, rather, as one of erosion? At one level the answer to that must be: progress. Literary studies’ exposure to the sixties political movements—most notably feminism, anti-racism, postcolonialism and the queer movement—as well as, paradoxically, the loss of literature’s cultural capital which (as we can now say ex post facto) enabled the theory moment to flourish, led to a massive expansion of the discipline’s range and depth. Let us not forget that for a time in the eighties, English became something like a model for advanced studies across the Humanities generally. Speaking personally, that flourishing has been intellectually and politically exhilarating, and, as I’ve indicated, has also been my career’s springboard.

 But in the process, as I have also been arguing, hopes evaporated and, most importantly, literature itself in its definitive form faded from view. By this I mean that the discipline lost its ability to give a good reason why, for instance, it is important for thoughtful people, and not just academic specialists, to read, say, John Dryden.

Do such reasons still exist? It is not at all obvious that they do. Even so, I believe that the discipline, as we inherited it, needs them if it is to endure, and, as I say, to reach for them we will have to move beyond literary studies’ current forms. Indeed I suspect that we will need to reconsider the traditions of literary appreciation—academic and otherwise—which best articulated such reasons, not out of nostalgia but as a start for further disciplinary transformations— probably based on a new understanding of the humanities as a whole.[26]

But I know, I know: I shouldn’t hold my breath.      


[1] The history of the post-Dawkins Australian university system is given a neutral, full analysis in Stuart Macintyre, André Brett and Gwilym Croucher, No End of a Lesson: Australia’s Unified National System of Higher Education, (Melbourne: University of Melbourne Press 2017). For the key early critical account, see Simon Marginson and Mark Considine, The Enterprise University: Power, Governance and Reinvention in Australia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2000)

[2] “Woodchipping in the Groves of Academe,” Arena 81 (December 1987): 111-119. See also in a similar spirit, “Althusser Meets Adam Smith: Mr Dawkins’s Idea of a University,” Meridian 7/2 (Oct. 1988): 185-191, and “The Humanities and Research Funding,” Arena 90 (Autumn 1990): 29-36.

[3] My 1993 inaugural lecture at Melbourne gives a sense of how I then saw the relation between literary and cultural studies. It is, looking back, a very sixties thing: with reference to Rimbaud, Jarry, Benjamin and Fichte, it argues that much modernist literature was written by the young against literary pedagogy and that cultural studies sustains some of that rebellious, anti-academic spirit. That wasn’t a way of thinking which could be held on to for long. But published as “Teaching Culture,” Australian Humanities Review: an online journal, (August 1997): 1-7 and reprinted in a widely used US theory text book (Falling into Theory, ed. David Richter. New York: Bedford Books 2000) it too met with critique and conferred on me something of a professional reputation as a philistine cultural studies person which sometimes still turns up today. See, for instance, Ihab Hassan, “Negative Capability Reclaimed: Literature and Philosophy contra Politics,” in Literature and Philosophy 20/2 (1996): 305-324, and, recently, Peter D. McDonald, “’What about criticism?’ Blanchot’s Giant Windmill?” in ed. Amit Chaudhuri, Literary Actitivisms: Perspectives, (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2017), p. 92 where I am described, oddly, as “one of the most prominent” of the “crudely anti-literary advocates.”

[4] While I was never very actively involved in research in either cultural studies or media studies my administrative work in these fields did lead to some published thought, e.g. “Writing outside the Book,” Cultural Critique 16 (Fall 1990): 129-160; “Professing the Popular,” Meanjin 49/3 (Spring 1990): 481-491; “Popular Culture on a global scale: a problem for cultural studies?” Critical Inquiry 23/4 (Summer 1997): 808-834.

[5] John Guillory, Cultural Capital: the problem of literary canon formation, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1993).

[6] Ian Hunter, Culture and Government: the emergence of literary education, (London: Macmillan 1988) and Tony Bennett, Outside Literature (London: Routledge 1990). See also Ian Hunter, ‘The Humanities Without Humanism,’ Meanjin, 51/3 (1992): 479–490 and John Frow, The Practices of Value, (Perth: University of Western Australia Press 2013). I am using “sociological” here very loosely: in conversation after hearing this talk, Ian Hunter resisted that label on the grounds that his work of the period emerged from the later volumes of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, which are not of course sociological at all. But still I think the term best catches what connected him, Bennett, Bourdieu and Guillory (and others) to one another. I should also note that at the time Hunter and Bennett were colleagues at Griffiths University, one of several universities founded in the immediate post 68 period, whose pedagogical structures, intellectual interests and moral economies differed significantly from those of the older universities in which my career took place. I owe this point to Gillian Whitlock. My response to Hunter’s work at the time, such as it was, is to be found in two reviews, “Ian Hunter’s Culture and Government: Revisionary Disenchantment,” Typereader 2 (July 1989): 7-15, and “Ian Hunter et al. Accounting for the Humanities,Media Information Australia 66 (Nov 1992): 109-112.

[7] The term “identity politics” which is now often used pejoratively (but not by me) was first used positively in the later 1970s: it is said that the black feminist Combahee River Collective was the first to use it that way in 1977.

[8] Guillory does give a careful reading of Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” in order to explain why it, in particular, became canonical. But this reading is a form of ideology critique: for him, “Elegy” is canonized because, to put it very reductively, it communicates passivity to the established order and thus was attractive to school textbook compilers. But not all poems that communicate such passivity are canonical, while many that do not, are.

[9] This shift in my thinking was first spelled out in “Literary Subjectivity,” Ariel 31:1/2 (2000): 33-50, a printed version of a talk I first gave in 1996.

[10] Meaghan Morris, Ecstasy and Economics: American Essays for John Forbes, (Sydney: Empress Publishing 1992).

[11] See “Introduction” in The Cultural Studies Reader, ed. Simon During (London: Routledge 1993), 14-15.

[12] Essays which take this approach include “Clifton Hill: Aesthetic Subjectivity and Local Politics,” Meanjin 53/1 (Autumn 1994): 61-75; and “Henry James and Me,” MLN 118/5 (2004), 1278-1294.

[13] Ecstasy and Economics deterred me from cultural studies just because I admired it so and yet it wasn’t mounting the kind of critical analysis I thought was needed. But I was much more put off by the direction that more mainstream Australian cultural studies was beginning to take and in particular by the emphasis on cultural policy and “creative industries” rather than on theory and critique. My disquiet, expressed in Cultural Studies: a critical introduction (London: Routledge 2005) and elsewhere, triggered an online debate which was published as “An Exchange on Theory & Cultural Studies,”Cultural Studies Review 12/1 (2006): 181-201. For an excellent summary of Australian cultural studies history, which comments on that debate, see John Frow, “Australian cultural studies: theory, story and history” Postcolonial Studies (10/1 (2007): 59-75.

[14] Stephen Greenblatt, “Towards a Poetics of Culture,” in Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture, (London: Routledge 1990), 146-160. This essay was based on a talk originally given in 1987 at the University of Western Australia, and first published as “Towards a Poetics of Culture,” Southern Review, 20/1 (1987): 3-15. My thanks to Noel King for reminding that it first appeared in Southern Review.

[15] Gallagher was to publish a full account of her theory of fictionality only many years after she had formulated it in “The Rise of Fictionality” in The Novel: volume 1: History, Geography and Culture, ed. Franco Moretti. (Princeton: University of Princeton Press 2007), pps. 331-367.

[16] This is to say that we need to think of sixties dialectically: on the one side, they brought liberation; on the other, they helped enable neoliberalism (i.e. they helped provide the ideological conditions for “ecstatic” deregulation, privatization etc under the economic conditions that pertained from about 1974).

[17] Modern Enchantments: the cultural power of secular magic, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 2002).

[18] The anthropologist Graham Jones in his excellent book, Magic’s Reason: an Anthropology of Analogy (Chicago: Chicago University Press 2017) takes up some of Modern Enchantment’s categories to help him think very carefully about how the magic/reason distinction works to support or undercut eurocentricism in his discipline.

[19] Modern Enchantments did I think achieve a minor “theoretical breakthrough”— a phrase I owe to the late Teresa Brennan who often used it in the reading groups and seminars that constituted Melbourne’s vibrant theory scene in the late eighties, a scene which, against the odds, still flourishes. It did so by noticing that “secular magic” (i.e. stage magic, theatrical special effects and so on) was simultaneously a driver of popular enlightenment and the core of modern, commercial showbiz (the “magic assemblage.”) Otherwise put: the “light” in light entertainment was also, if faintly, the light of the Enlightenment.

[20] Frances Ferguson and Amanda Anderson (with support from Sharon Cameron) ran the department for the most of the time I was there. One should also recall it was then a very small department; for a couple of years during my time it only had five professors.

[21] Against democracy: literary experience in the era of emancipations, (New York: Fordham University Press 2012) and Exit Capitalism: literary culture, theory and post-secular modernity, (London: Routledge 2010).

[22] I began this process by choosing “conservatism” as my seminar topic at the 2009 Cornell School of Criticism and Theory. The fruits of this seminar are to be found in chapter 3 of Against Democracy.

[23] See “When literary criticism mattered,” cited in note 2 above.

[24] See “Stop defending the humanities,” Public Culture, Public Books website. March 2014.

[25] My return to Australia was encouraged and arranged by Ian Hunter and Peter Cryle, and the terms of my employment at the University of Queensland were generous. My original home, the Centre for the History of European Discourses (CHED), focused on intellectual history rather than literature which I found rather stimulating (as well as a sign of literary studies’ marginalization in Australia). More negatively: while it is risky to generalize from my experiences at Queensland, most would agree that the processes by managerialism is embedding itself into the whole Australian system are inexorable. More than ever, academics are regarded as the workforce of particular institutions rather than as autonomous professionals or colleagues with a right to structure their own working conditions and purposes. There is no understanding of universities’ responsibilities to the disciplines. Ranking and quantification reign. Students are thought of as potential contributors to the economy. Certainly UQ had organized itself around managerialism of this kind pretty thoroughly. The Institute for the Advanced Studies of the Humanities (IASH), which replaced CHED, encouraged what Dimitri Levitin, in his critical review of a book written from with the Institute, calls “REF research,”i.e. scholarship which takes shortcuts and plays safe because it is aimed primarily at maximizing fundable “outputs”. See Dimitri Levitin, “Peter Harrison’s The Territories of Science and Religion,” The English Historical Review 132 (2017): 706-708. And as my “line manager” told me in a meeting discussing possible seminar topics: “We don’t do collegiality here, and if you don’t like it you can get out.” Which I did, arranging for fellowships abroad for most of my last years at UQ. I am now attached, once again, to the University of Melbourne.

[26] A final footnote is, of course, not the right place to sketch out a plan for a revivified English department interested in maintaining the post-Eliot lit crit project. But still: aren’t we also honouring the free sixties spirit? So let me let it rip in this footnote, and say that I suspect that, given current trends and configurations, the undergraduate curriculum in such a department might involve: 1) mandatory courses that teach genre-based creative writing and journalism; 2) courses studying a canon divided into periods and movements (romanticism, modernism etc); and 3) history of lit crit/theory courses, all in a unified program. This curriculum would be minimally elective and be planned collectively in the interest of coherence and interactions between courses. Literature itself would be conceived of (roughly speaking) as a set of ways of using more or less vernacular idiolects and more or less inherited forms that allow one to report on and imagine not necessarily actualizable relations both between people and between people and the world, as well as styles of acting, thinking, feeling and living. The canon would stretch back to the earliest vernacular texts, and be conceived of as providing the condition of possibility and intelligibility for continuing to write literature well in our society. On the one side: knowing the canon is what you need to write literature well; inversely, if you write literature well the canon is what you need in order to know that that is indeed what you are doing. This double formulation implies that different English departments, existing as they do under somewhat different conditions from one another, might develop different modes/ideas of “writing literature well”, and thus might also have somewhat different canons. The revisionary postulate of such a program would be its commitment to the canon’s relative autonomy so that its students, who would of course have particular ethnic/sexual/national/class identities, would be encouraged to express their identities in their studies, if at all, as mediated by the relatively autonomous canon and also by the history of literary appreciation, criticism and theory. Nonetheless this curriculum would simultaneously radicalize students by bringing society to the bar of the canon, and “conservatize” them by allowing them to understand that familiarity with an inherited canon is the condition of writing literature as well as you can, whatever your identity and will. At this level of study, academic criticism would be conceived of as itself a literary writing practice like and alongside other writing practices.