Phillip Hall reviews Thinking the Antipodes by Peter Beilharz

Peter Beilharz, Thinking the Antipodes: Australian Essays. Clayton, VICMonash University Publishing, 2015. ISBN: 9781922235558

 

Phillip Hall

 

Peter Beilharz was for many years Professor of Sociology and Director of the Thesis Eleven Centre for Cultural Sociology at La Trobe University. Thesis Eleven was founded under the banner of Karl Marx who wrote in his thesis on Feuerbach that: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”. The essays collected in Thinking the Antipodes are variations on this theme: celebrations of the transformative potential of ideas and of the work of social theorists. Beilharz is a Marxist who wants to change the world by understanding it.

Beilharz’s book is divided into two sections: Part One: “Themes” and Part Two: “Thinkers”. Part One is highly theoretical and examines such concepts as what it means to be Antipodean; the themes of Australian and New Zealand Settlement; the emergence of modernity and modernism in the Antipodes (of Americanisation and Fordism); and the reception given to Alexis de Tocqueville’s pioneering social theory on “New World Settlement” in understanding where we have come from and where we might be going. Part Two is made up of a series of informative chapters on individual social theorists (such as John Anderson, Vere Gordon Child, George Seddon, Hugh Stretton and Jean Martin) examining their ideas on the themes outlined above, while about half of Part Two is given to an exceptional discussion of the work of Bernard Smith.

Beilharz writes that, in an historical sense “being antipodean literally means having the feet elsewhere; coming from the other side of the earth, being elsewhere, outside the centres, displaced, implicitly disadvantaged” (xvii). For Beilharz, the most significant Australian social theorist to expand on this understanding is Bernard Smith. Beilharz shows how Smith’s roles as an art historian (Australian Painting 1788-1960) and anthropologist (European Vision and the South Pacific) are well understood but, Beilharz argues, Smith’s function as a social theorist has never been sufficiently valued. Beilharz explains that Smith’s interpretations of orientalism and cultural imperialism, for example, anticipate the more valued work of Edward Said. Likewise, his contribution to the discussion of provincialism, isolation and distance in antipodean historiography remains highly pertinent.

Beilharz summarises Smith on being Antipodean: “rather than dividing the world into two, and presuming a simple relation of subordination between north and south, or centre and periphery, it might be necessary to think of them as necessarily interconnected” (xvii). This might mean that centres and Antipodes are “mutually constituted” as they work through patterns of multi-directional cultural traffic (xvii). So Smith’s work has a great deal of relevance to notions of metropolis and periphery, place and identity. To Beilharz, the most significant gesture in the work of Bernard Smith is to

remind us that the only necessity in art or in politics is the sense that this ongoing discussion is open, in every sense imaginable. For imagining the Antipodes does not simply mean living on the edge; it suggests inhabiting a space characterised by creative tension, wedged in between European ethnicity and indigenous and local sources which are suggestive of difference. (189)

So the idea of the Antipodes makes less sense as a geographical entity. It should be seen as a cultural form and viewed as a relation rather than a place.

Beilharz also examines the myths of origins in Australian and New Zealand settlement, tracing the lines of thought through such pioneering social theorists as Alexis Tocqueville and W. K. Hancock. He examines the policy components of this settlement as defined by the journalist and historian, Paul Kelly, who sets images of an old, redundant, closed society against the desirability of a new globalised one. Beilharz shows how the academic, Geoff Stokes, is better informed by postcolonial ideas of the settler society, and expands on Kelly’s theory of settlement. Finally, Beilharz refines Stokes’ theory of settlement, by setting out his own preference for the more radical and comparative concept of settler capitalism.

Why does all this matter? Beilharz pays tribute to the important social theorists and historians who have considered what it means to be “Antipodean”. In particular, he argues elegantly and convincingly for a more balanced assessment of the intellectual legacy of Bernard Smith who should be celebrated as a significant social theorist and not only as a leading art historian and anthropologist. Beilharz finds delight in ideas of settlement and nation building and ponders the social justice implications of these historical processes. He shows how the images and stories that we create about ourselves do not emerge “miraculously from the landscape” but from “encounters with differing cultures” (189).

Place matters: it means that [Antipodean] artists and writers hang upside down … [and] cross genre like the platypus … [most are non-Indigenous], but different; Pacific, in the landscape if not [all] originally of it, yet at home for all that; intruders not in the bush so much as already marked actors who do not simply receive inscribed identities, but also play some part in forming them. (189)

This collection of essays is an important Marxist hymnbook dedicated to the intellectual struggle of imagining what it is to be Antipodean.

 

Phillip Hall lives in Melbourne’s Sunshine (western suburbs) where he works as a poet and reviewer for such publications as Cordite and Plumwood Mountain. He is a very passionate member of the Western Bulldogs Football Club. He also continues, through his writing, to honour First Nations in the Northern Territory’s Gulf of Carpentaria where he has family and friends.

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