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).

Can you think personally and impersonally simultaneously? Yes, you can, and that’s what I will be trying to do here.

Today’s seminar, on the occasion of my retirement from the University of Queensland, was intended as an opportunity for us to reflect on the history of Anglophone literary academia roughly over the period of my career—which is to say in the wake of the sixties. This is the context in which it occurred to me that it might be illuminating to use my own case as a portal into that history, at the risk, I know, of sounding merely self-involved.[1]

Three points in support of this experiment are worth noting immediately.

First, I make no claim as to my career’s typicality. On the contrary. It has been marked by movement—intellectual and geographical—to an extent that would have been unlikely had I been trained in the States say. There I would probably have found a field at grad school and remained more or less attached to it until the end. But I think that itinerancy, itself largely an effect of the accident of my having begun my studies in New Zealand, makes my case more rather than less instructive as an opening to both the Zeitgeist and the discipline’s turns over the past fifty years or so. Just because of my marginal perch, I was especially exposed to their eddies.

Second: all career trajectories are driven by forces which operate through many channels. One such force is of course the private personality, which, although of no academic interest, has a covert role to play in personal/impersonal thought of the kind I am broaching here.[2] Another, as will become apparent, is social: the professional networks and connections in which careers are formed. Access to the discipline’s infrastructure is another formative structure: in writing this, for instance, I have been struck how important local journals have been to my path. Then, of course, there is the discipline’s intellectual history which moved fast over the period: as we all know, the academic study of literature in 2018 is quite unlike that of the sixties. That is not just a matter of different ideas and methods, it’s a matter of a different mood. Putting it simply: a shift from confidence and hope to flatness, even melancholy. Last, my generation’s career trajectories have also been driven by the university system’s managerial “reforms”, which, perhaps in Australia particularly, have shaped the discipline’s intellectual agenda more than is often acknowledged.

These remarks signal that this impersonal/personal approach might allow one to access a complexity difficult to achieve in conventional histories of the discipline. That’s partly because an individual career begins contingently in a particular place and time, and the play between structure and particularity (or moral luck) which shapes it from then on can press against the abstract model-building and argument-making characteristic of scholarly historical analysis. And it’s partly because a career connects the various levels I have mentioned more vividly and concretely than is possible for more formal scholarship.

With these thoughts in mind let me turn to my own story.

As an adolescent who loved to read, I began, aged sixteen, to study English at Victoria University, Wellington, in 1967, the year that the sixties as we think of them came into bloom. At the time, the department was dominated by Leavisism.[3] This meant that students were taught an orthodoxy for which: i) the English Department was society’s most effective institution in resisting capitalism’s materialism and instrumentalism because it transmitted the moral imagination’s strongest vehicle, namely serious literature, and it did so by making literary judgments which upheld a tiny canon; ii) these judgments were based on historically-informed close readings of shortish passages as continually ratified in tutorials; iii) important literature was marked as such by its complex but tight relation to the vernacular idiolects in which ordinary life was lived; and iv) English studies, thought this way, had no truck with either the “research” paradigm or scholarly specialisms.[4]

Whatever we might now want to say about Leavisism, it seemed very much at odds with the sixties’ “revolutionary” ethos: i.e. the sixties’ faith that the up-and-coming generation would live a completely different life than that of their parents, a life emancipated from inherited repressions and rigidities, emancipated from patriarchy as it came to be called. From that perspective, Leavisism, despite its anti-capitalism, seemed another strut in the instituted authority-system, and so my undergraduate years were lived out in an unforgiving struggle between living and studying. Unsurprisingly, in this revolutionary moment, life won. For me, that meant becoming involved in the drug scene, and then spending three years in jail, where I studied for an MA, and where my academic career proper began.[5]

A year after my release I found myself enrolled in a PhD at the University of Cambridge, intending to write a biography of George Eliot’s partner, G.H. Lewes, under Gillian Beer’s supervision.[6] At that time I still thought that academics led relatively free lives, which could allow them to live and think athwart social conventions. I was only cloudily aware that the academy was also a choice for what is ultimately a bureaucratic job against the sixties’ promises of radical experiment and emancipation, which were anyway already in retreat. Nor had I any idea of how to conduct research, or, indeed, of what the discipline’s current intellectual interests were. When I arrived at Cambridge I had never heard of Barthes, Derrida, Lacan, Foucault or Althusser, the period’s great names, who did, I think, continue to represent sixties’ resistance, albeit in a displaced and limited way.

At Cambridge I found myself in a department that offered its grad students no formal training at all. Not coincidently perhaps, this was also the moment of Cambridge’s theory war.[7] Publically that war was fought by two professors: Christopher Ricks articulating an aestheticized quasi-Leavisism, and Frank Kermode a skeptical version of structuralism. At this point, theory more generally promised two separate things: on the one side—the structuralist side— it withdrew literary analysis from ethical purpose (i.e. from producing cultivated persons) in favour of objectivity. This retreat from Bildung, although it had recently had a conservative flavour in a critic like Northrop Frye, now loosely belonged to the sixties revolutionary moment just because it had cast off ethical intent. On the other side, theory developed critique in the interest of, in particular, women’s and people of colour’s liberation. More specifically, for us Cambridge grad students circa 1975, theory meant either ideology critique in its “Screen theory” form or deconstruction which we tried to teach ourselves.[8] I of course aligned with the theorists, feeling that theory did indeed constitute progress. But you couldn’t confidently write a dissertation from that position since someone on Ricks’ side might fail it, as happened to one of my friends. And so when my scholarship ended, feeling helpless, I left Cambridge for a job in a London advertizing agency with neither a completed dissertation nor sound disciplinary skills nor professional networks in place.

Nonetheless five years later in 1983, I was employed as a tutor in the Melbourne English department, my only qualification being a hastily assembled, yet-to-be-ratified Cambridge PhD. The Melbourne department I joined was also at war with itself. Here the theorists, represented by Howard Felperin, a Yale deconstructionist, were opposed by two groups each suspicious of the other: a purist Leavisite faction and the belle-lettrists.[9] Despite my involvement with the department’s newly established, cosmopolitan, belle-lettrist journal, Scripsi, I again aligned with the theorists, and soon made that public by giving a talk which attacked medievalism (and by implication the department’s medievalists) as complicit with racism, which did not exactly reduce tensions.[10] When Ken Ruthven arrived a few years later, we theorists would win the department’s intramural struggle, but only at the point when theory’s own energies were beginning to wane, mutating into a subsidiary branch of what Ken then dubbed “the new humanities.”[11]

I found my feet as a literary academic somewhere else. In 1984, after a year at Melbourne, I was invited to return to Auckland as a visiting lecturer in order to introduce theory to the English department there. This led to me giving a talk, brashly called “Towards a Revision of Local Critical Habits,” soon published in AND, a new mimeographed departmental journal, edited by friends.[12] This piece brought the full force of ideology critique to bear on a short story by Frank Sargeson, outing an ornament of the Kiwi canon, somewhat in anticipation of queer theory to come. Here I struck a note to which I was often later to return (e.g. in my little book on Patrick White): a polemical, quasi-pedagogical, critical rhetoric which simplified and applied whatever theory seemed most appropriate for a specific occasion. [13]

But another, less academic, essay sent my career on its way.

The New Zealand that I returned to in 1984 was a different country to the one I had left in 1975. Relations between Maori and Pakeha had changed. Maori now had an organized de-colonizing agenda in place; the Pakeha government had established the Waitangi Tribunal designed to rectify abuses of the state’s founding document—the Treaty of Waitangi; and an official policy of “bi-culturalism” was being adumbrated. It struck me that the theories of postmodernism which were then taking hold internationally quite failed to take anticolonialist efforts like these into account.[14] As a result, I wrote “Postmodernism and Postcolonialism today” for the New Zealand literary journal Landfall.[15] It, I believe, introduced the term “postcolonial” to the theory world, and was soon taught around the world.[16] Later, I came to believe that its argument was in part mistaken, and by the early nineties I had all but stopped working in the by-then thriving field of postcolonialism on the ground that theory of the kind I was drawn to did not, in fact, help the colonized’s struggles against colonialism and its legacies.[17] No matter: by then I was professionally established as a “postcololonialist.”

When I returned to Melbourne, I began to think about my career practically for the first time. My three-year tutorship was about to end, which meant I needed to apply for the continuing position in the department then being advertized. But I was utterly clueless about how to go about this, and was surprised when Howard told me that the position required academic publications, of which I had none. This was a point at which networks began to count. Howard arranged with Ken Ruthven, then a professor at Adelaide, to accept two of my talks for his properly academic journal, the Southern Review, so as to secure me the job.[18] This was an act of friendship, but it was a political act too: Howard and Ken were interested in building up a theory cohort in Australia. It was also something else: it is unlikely that a woman or a person of colour or a queer would have received the same degree of support. As a child of the sixties who had taken anti-racism, feminism and homophobia on board, I recognized this, and it affected how I was to occupy my professional office. Uneasily.

Once I was a permanent member of the department, my networks soon extended further. Overseas visitors were common and many of those we hosted in the late eighties and early nineties went out of their way to help me. Tom Mitchell, editor of Critical Inquiry encouraged my critical impulses and published a piece of mine on Raymond Williams as his lead essay; Stephen Greenblatt published me in the Berkeley English department’s new historicist journal Representations and helped organize a year at Berkeley as a visiting professor, where I became friends with Cathy Gallagher and others; Hillis Miller, a Yale patron of Felperin’s, read my work, even my Cambridge dissertation, in order to be able to write a reference for me; Terry Hawkes, founder editor of the pathbreaking UK theory journal, Textual Practice, reprinted my “Postcolonialism or Postmodernism” in his first issue and commissioned me to write a book on Foucault for the New Accents series he edited.[19] It was because of connections with older men like these, animated by their hopes for theory, that, jumping the ranks, I was appointed the Robert Wallace Chair of English in 1992 aged 42, last of the department’s god professors.[20]

At this point everything changed again.

The second part of this article appears tomorrow on Politics/Letters Live.


[1] See Benjamin Stora, 68, et après (Paris: Stock 2018) for a much more substantive personal/impersonal analysis of the ‘68’s aftermath.

[2] An academic’s personality may be of semi-academic interest however: see my essay “The Sins,” in How we Remember: New Zealanders and the First World War, eds. Charles Ferrall and Harry Ricketts. (Wellington: Victoria University Press 2014): 157-165. How we Remember, published on the centenary of World War One’s beginning, consists of essays by New Zealander writers and intellectuals who were asked to think about how the war affected them personally. I claim that in my case it helped produce the personality that became an academic because of the way it affected my father (he was born to a German mother and Jewish father in Schwabing, Munich in 1916, not much moral luck in that) and who shaped my interests and disposition partly in reaction to the person he became. See Hans Kauders, “München 1922,” Der Querschnitt, 2/3 (1922): 248-9, for my grandfather’s sense of Schwabing and Munich in the period of my father’s childhood.

[3] See Vijay Mishra, The Literature of the English Diaspora: Theorizing the Diasporic Imaginary, London: Routledge 2007, 1-3, for a nice anecdote which helps give the flavour of Victoria’s English Department’s Leavisism at this time. For diasporic Leavism more generally see Christopher Hilliard, English as a Vocation: the ‘Scrutiny’ Movement, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2012.

[4] My most recent attempt to come to terms with Leavisism is “When literary criticism mattered,” in The values of literary studies, ed. Ronan McDonald. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2016): 120-136.

[5] I wrote my MA thesis in jail, having been admitted into the Auckland University program after determined efforts on my behalf by my friend Jonathan Lamb and my supervisor Ao Mcleod. After retiring, Ao wrote a fictional memoir which included an interesting account of her own relation to the literary academy. See Aorewa McLeod, Who Was that Woman Anyway: Snapshots of a Lesbian Life (Wellington: Victoria University Press 2013).

[6] My going to Cambridge was enabled by my winning a Commonwealth Scholarship which provided sufficient funds for three years study.

[7] For a contemporary report on the “MacCabe affair” which crystallized this struggle, see Francis Mulhern, “The Cambridge Affair,” Marxism Today 10 (March 1981): 27-28. For recent sociological/dramaturgical view of the affair drawing on the archives, see Marcus Morgan and Patrick Baert, Conflict in the Academy: a study in the sociology of intellectuals (London: Palgrave 2015).

[8] The summa of Cambridge “Screen theory” ideology critique at the time was Stephen Heath’s Questions of Cinema, (Bloomington, Ind.: University of Indiana Press 1981) and Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16/3 (1975): 6-18.

[9] When I arrived at Melbourne I was solemnly told by one of the Leavisites that I had joined the “best English department in the world.” The reason that it was the best English department in the world was that its Leavisism had deviated least from the source. Melbourne’s Leavisism exists now in the archives in the run of its journal, Melbourne Critical Review. On this moment and mindset, see John Docker, In a Critical Condition (Penguin, Melbourne, 1984), and Terry Collits, “Sydney Revisited: Literary Struggles in Australia (circa 1965 and ongoing),” Australian Book Review 210 (May 1999), pp. 23-28. In his In Another Life: the decline and fall of the Humanities through the eyes of an Ivy-league Jew, (Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse 2014), Howard Felperin has published a lively memoir of his Melbourne (and Yale) years.

[10] This entered print as “Cultural Values and Fascism,” Southern Review 17 (1984): 166-181. My involvement with Scripsi bore fruit in my first published essay, “Joyce’s Spectacles,” Scripsi 1/2, (1982): 99-113 and in a polemical review of John Docker’s book cited above which I wrote at the behest of its editors and my then mates, Peter Craven and Michael Heyward. (See “Condition Critical but not Serious,” Scripsi 3/1 (1985): 215-227.) For a good analysis of Scripsi’s founder and guiding force, Peter Craven, and his understanding of literature and literary criticism, see Ben Etherington, “Cravenho’s Universe,” Sydney Review of Books, 27 October 2017. See also Craven’s debate with Ken Gelder printed in Overland and available here:

[11] The “new humanities” concept and the post-disciplines that it covered were officially consecrated at the 1991 Australian Academy of the Humanities conference that Ken Ruthven convened under that title. Its proceedings were published in K.K. Ruthven (ed.) Beyond the disciplines : the new humanities: papers from the Australian Academy of the Humanities Symposium 1991 (Canberra : Australian Academy of the Humanities, 1992). My own most considered published position on the new humanities and the post-disciplinary turn is to be found in “Is cultural studies a discipline? Does it matter?’” Cultural Politics 2/2 (2006): 265-281. And Ken Ruthven’s inimitable and heterodox take on criticism and its personae (and which lay at the back of many of our minds during this period) was presented in K.K. Ruthven, “The Critic Without Qualities,” Meridian 4/2 (1985): 162-173.

[12] AND’s editors were Leigh Davis and Alex Calder. My talk was published as “Towards a Revision of Local Critical Habits,” And 1 (1983): 75-92. In New Zealand, there is now a body of commentary on AND (and this essay)’s impact on local literary criticism. See, for instance, Patrick Evans, The Long Forgetting: post-colonial literary culture in New Zealand, (Christchurch: Canterbury University Press 2007), 22-25 and John Newton, Hard Frost: Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature 1908-1945, (Wellington: Victoria University Press 2017), 286-289.

[13] Patrick White (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1996). This book made the argument that White was canonized in part because Australia needed a great writer. It also analyzed White in relation to settler colonialism and homophobism, which was new to the “Aus Lit” of the time. And so Patrick White met some resistance. See for instance Ivor Indyk, “A Paler Shade of White,” Sydney Morning Herald (June 21 2003) and, for a summary, Wang Labou, “Cultural Studies and Simon During’s Critique of Patrick White,” in A History of Australian Literary Criticism (Beijing: China Social Sciences Press 2016): 366-392.

[14] The talk was critical of Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” New Left Review, 146 (1984): 59–92. and Jean Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

[15] “Postmodernism or Postcolonialism?,” Landfall 39/3 (Spring 1985): 366-381. The international, as against the local, intellectual background for this piece was Edward Said’s Orientalism which influenced my generation immeasurably.

[16] The claim that it “probably” makes the first use of the word “postcolonial” in its subsequent theoretical sense was made in Diana Brydon, “Postcolonial Cultural Studies,” Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Criticism, eds. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1994, p. 583. See also Perry Anderson, The Origins of Postmodernism, London: Verso 1998, p. 119.

[17] My first critique of academic postcolonialism appeared in “Postcolonialism,” in Beyond the Disciplines: the New Humanities, ed. K.K. Ruthven. Canberra: Australian Academy of the Humanities 1992: 88-100. See also “Empire’s Present,” New Literary History, 43/2 (2012): 331-340. My sense that I was not in synch with much postcolonialist thought became very apparent to me via a cutting critique by Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra of a review I wrote of Mudrooroo’s book, Writing from the Fringe. For the review: Simon During, “How Aboriginal is it?” Australian Book Review 118 (1990): 21-23. For the critique Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra, Dark Side of the Dream: Australian Literature and the Postcolonial Dream, (Allen & Unwin, Sydney 1991): 78-79.

[18] These publications were “Cultural Values and Fascism,” Southern Review 17 (1984): 166-181 and “Reading New Zealand Literature,” Southern Review 18/1 (1985): 65-86.

[19] The publications mentioned here are: “After Death: Raymond Williams in the Era of the Modern,” Critical Inquiry 15 (Summer 1989): 681-703; “The Strange Case of Monomania: Patriarchy in Literature, Murder in Middlemarch, Drowning in Daniel Deronda,” Representations 23 (Summer 1988): 86-105; “Postmodernism and Postcolonialism Today,” Textual Practice 1/1 (Spring 1987): 58-86 and Foucault and Literature (London Routledge 1993) which did not actually appear as a New Accent book because the manuscript was too long for that series. I presented what I learnt from my year among the Berkeley new historicists in “The New Historicism,” Text and Performance Quarterly: Special Issue, Criticism since the 1970s, 11/3 (July 1991): 171-190, which was written after discussions with Cathy and Stephen.

[20] I am not implying that these older men preferred to help young men than young women. Nor am I am implying that in my career I wasn’t helped by women as well as men—for instance and in particular, Ao McCleod, Frances Ferguson (who was to organize my Hopkins position) and Gauri Viswanathan (whose intellectual support over years has meant a great deal to me.) When I turn the tables and think of myself as a mentor and helper I’m abashed to find that I’ve probably supported more young men than young women myself. As to “last of the god professors”, in the 1990s, promotions to full professor became routine whereas previously professors in Australia held endowed chairs and you could not be promoted to such a chair (of which most departments had only one or two), it had to be conferred upon you on the retirement of a predecessor.