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.