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Ordinary Thinking

By Robert Wood

In surveying the contemporary intellectual left in Australia today, I am struck by its over-reliance on theoretical models that are no longer used in metropolitan centres of learning. People here will often invoke the name of dead, white, male, continental European philosophers to buttress their claims about radical political and cultural change. I do not mean Marx, or even those in his lineage from Adorno to Horkheimer to Habermas. Indeed, the current generation of Australian intellectuals seem to have forsaken the socialist tradition that had a prominent place in earlier generations. I mean the uncritical importation of French new wave theorists, including Deleuze and Guttari in my field of literature in particular.

What are we to make of this reading list? It is not the citation that strikes one immediately, but how uncritical it is. Surely the thing to learn from the big dogs on tope of the world is that one needs to throw the ladder away? And from understanding that philosophy is a ladder, then one must inspect and fiddle with it before one climbs it. And, once climbed, one finds oneself on the roof checking the gutters and from there it is necessary to parachute into the neighbour’s backyard with an opinion on how they should treat their dog better and what to companion plant with the tomatoes (basil since you asked). The point of philosophy after all is to change the world, not to sit idly by as they reposition their guns to shoot us all down, or use their axes to hack into our ladders so we cannot overcome the walls they have built to divide us from one another.

And that brings us to the curious place of organised thought in places outside of Europe. For Hegel, the New World, which included the Americas (or mainly was the Americas and included Australia, New Zealand and other recent settler societies), was without philosophy. It was without history. But, the roots of history are in philosophy. The roots of philosophy are in poetry. The roots of poetry are in song. The roots of song are in the banal gossip of everyday. This is where we learn from the workers most of all, our comrades in the everyday. It is in those everyday observations, those ordinary insights, where a true philosophy and a philosophy of truth are in today’s age.

I do not mean the Hallmark greeting cards of the culture industry complex that you purchase in a fit of saccharine false consciousness. I mean those moments that pierce the exploitative logic of profit motivated late capitalists. This goes beyond knowing what ‘modes of production’, ‘commodity fetishism’, ‘primitive accumulation’ means. It certainly is in opposition to more pretentious arriviste fantasies like ‘rhizomatic’. It goes to the heart of where we see the presence of philosophy, of thinking. The worker is a thinking animal and we can see in the everyday language of our mates what being truly is.

In that way, freeing oneself from the shackles of power is there in the phrase ‘she’ll be right, mate’. This is a common Australian saying that has slipped in usage. The philosophical kernel of this particular example of slang, is to be found when we know that ‘she’ can refer to anything we so deserve from cars to jobs to life in general. And ‘be right’ is not an overly optimistic assessment, but simply that it will be OK. ‘Mate’, of course, brings with it connotations of partnership as well as friendship, solidarity and a type of class-consciousness. It is this simple phrase that expresses a feeling that could be said to be philosophical. And, in that way, we must acknowledge that our vernacular is a place for thought as well. This means respecting our people, the everyday hero, the ordinary bloke, who deserves as much attention as Derrida, Foucault, Zizek and all the others who are cited for status rather than interrogated on their own terms.

That means undoing the intellectual logic that is reigning here by seeing in ourselves the capacity to think without installing a new regime of colonial overseers. There is, of course, a revolutionary tradition we can look to in America and lessons learnt from the pragmatic ordinariness of much intellectual thought over there. This means mapping out who are our brothers and sisters from a settler colonial tradition that knows it too had to cast off the shackles of an imperial power in a desire to articulate who it was and why it belonged in the pages of history and philosophy in its greatest hour.

Robert Wood’s writing has been published in numerous literary and academic journals. He has interned for Overland, edited for Peril and Cordite, been a columnist for Cultural Weekly. At present he works for The Centre for Stories.



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  1. townsvilleblog

    To be perfectly frank I can’t see that Australian society has changed all that much, we have in excess of 3 million people living below the poverty line, 2.59 million people in January of this year either unemployed or underemployed. Something has to change, I don’t have much time for philosophers of any kind, I’d really like to see a person of action emerge on the Australian political scene who put these 2.59 people front and centre of any policy, a person who would speak out against the 30% of multinationals who have billion dollar incomes, yet don’t pay a cent in tax.

    I believe that there is a large amount of frustration in our Australian society, who continue to hope that such a person will emerge and talk to them about their problems, and the problems of the lowly paid workforce. Sally McManus has been a great watershed in the union movement and should be commended for her efforts thus far to ‘change the rules.’ The rules must change in favor of ‘people’ rather than the obscene amount of profit currently being made. Record profits, and record wage stagnation, when will the apathetic Aussie take action and join a union and fight, as previous generations have done in order to maintain the Australian standard of living?

  2. Frederick Froth

    But townesvilleblog, everything that you do and even think is patterned, limited and controlled by all of all kinds of uninspected philosophical presumptions. So to with everyone else including all of the “famous” philosophers of all persuasions.

    The patterning/control of the world-machine is immensely powerful. It pervades every aspect of our common culture.
    TV and all the newer forms of screen devices (“I”-phones etc) are the most potent form of collective brain-washing or trance-inducement ever invented. The culture, or more correctly anti-culture produced by TV is intrinsically hostile to the well-being of all living beings on this planet
    The (literal) brain washing,or brain and nervous system patterning begins from the moment that you are born and even while in the womb, and via your genetic inheritance from both your parents and grandparents. And perhaps even from the carry-over of your previous life-times.
    All of our media and “education” reinforce the collective trance-mind or invisible sea-of-mind in which we are all unconsciously trapped – like fish in water.
    And unfortunately we all unconsciously reinforce the collective trance-mind in all of our social interactions.

  3. Joseph Carli

    Good points, Robert, and ones I have wanted answered for a long time..Here is the ending of a piece I wrote back in 2013 on “higher learning”…:

    “. . . To close..I remember sitting in a shell of a new building having smoko with another contractor there…the only one on this day..a Italian…and being half-Italian myself, the conversation got around to children…”…and how many children do you have?” I asked….he was shelling a boiled egg…tilers, as a consequence of their occupation, have very short fingernails..and his short thick, calloused fingers were making a job of it…he sat silent across from me, the action in itself was an education , his fingers working on the egg and his tongue wetting his bottom lip..I thought he had not heard my question and I was about to repeat it, when he replied in a tired, fatalistic way..; “I do not have any children….I have movie stars.”….and he bit on the egg and stared at me….he didn’t have to explain, I knew, as I am sure YOU know, just what he meant..

    And (bad grammar that, starting a sentence with a conjunctive!) I now use that metaphor to say that we, of the fifth estate, have few, real, Left-wing intellectual commentators, we have Grammatical Stylists…

    Like many of us here and elsewhere on “progressive” sites, since the 2010 elections, I must have read thousands!…literally THOUSANDS of posts and articles, both encouraging the Left-side of politics and vilifying the LNP. mob….So..taking the 2010 election result as ending in a roughly 50 / 50 Labor / LNP. and the fact that the 2013 election ended in a LNP. win, we have to conclude the intervening years and thousands of articles not only failed to deliver ONE extra vote to our side, but in fact we LOST many…….so whatever we argued for in those essays and articles, it was somewhat of a duffer!….the argument didn’t reach the intended ears nor touched the intended minds….our direction was all wrong, it would seem.

    I am suggesting we give a degree of consideration as to how we can re-frame the discussion to draw in more readers.”

  4. ajogrady

    Make Australia great again. Join a union!

  5. Ill fares the land

    I found on e of the better dissertations on the decline of the “left” over the last 40 years or so is to be found in a book by Tony Judt – “Ill Fares the Land”. He links the decline in no small part to the fall of the USSR, because that meant the left thinkers no longer had a large-scale model from which the intellectuals of the left could draw some level of inspiration. But that has also lead to a failure of the left-thinking intellectuals to gain public attention. Social media could have assisted, but that seems to be dominated by vacuous idiots who spew forth their bilious attacks on anyone who dares to think differently – in essence, anyone who does think differently is lambasted for being a “leftie”!!

    Precipitously, the decline of the left has occurred as the power of the right has increased and as that latter power has increased, the right has been able to more or less direct governments to attack unions. The utterly disgraceful Thatcher was at the vanguard of a movement that has crossed the globe and we continue to see the LNP in a range of scurrilous endeavours to attack unions further. The over-arching driver for this is that the relativity between the power of labour and the power of capital has shifted dramatically and with it has come massive social ad economic inequality. Capitalists generally always had more “power”, but unions provided some measure of constraint; even if they had to be bovver boys to gain any kind of traction – if you “play” with thugs, you tend to be a bit thuggish yourself. That the psychopaths in suits behave as badly, if not more surreptitiously, rarely attracts any mention, but aided and abetted by willing governments they continue to wield greater power (even the vile Hawke attacked a union over the pilot’s strike – in league with his good mate, the corpulent and equally vile Peter Ables). But this has all seemed to culminate in an evisceration of the thinking of the left – made worse by the now mindless and derisory use of the term “left” by walnut-brained Facebook users who have no understanding at all of what “right” and “left” actually mean. This seems to have compounded the problem – those who would think of themselves as “left” are perhaps reluctant to expose themselves to the ridicule of what now masquerades as public “opinion” underpinned by the fear that lives at the core of every conservative. Fear of what they don’t really know – but they live in fear and respond viciously to anyone that pricks their “defensive bubble”

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