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The university in the age of witchcraft


Publicity photo of American character actress Margaret Hamilton promoting her appearance on ‘The Weird World of Witchcraft’ episode of the ABC television series Discovery ’64, which aired on Sunday 25 October 1964.

I was invited to deliver a paper on a panel of young researchers, editors and curators at Impresario: Paul Taylor | Art & Text | POPISM, Monash University, 1 September 2012, a forum held in honour of the work of the late Australian art critic Paul Taylor, founder and editor of Art & Text. This is the paper as it was delivered.

I’d like to begin this paper with a proposition: A panel of young people carries with it a trace of superstition. Summoning us to (perhaps) try and give an image of the future is verging on witchcraft. Therefore, I would like to give you my reading of the past, of Paul Taylor and his editorial vision, and describe how I think it fits in with the conditions that graduate students and emerging writers face today following the initiatives of the Dawkins reform of universities in the late 1980s.

The ideas that I’m presenting are about criticism, as opposed to scholarship; however I recognise that separating the two as I’m about to do raises some thorny questions. Therefore, I want to position the university as the art object—the institution as art—and provide this paper as an act of criticism: its composition and its affects in relationship to its history.

As we all know, anything can be art, and the university, though perhaps lacking beauty, clearly carries with it many of the major properties of art. If the collective scholarship is the artist, we find within the work produced—here called ‘University’—its properties of mimesis, representation, and transformation as invention. We could also say that the notion of its possibility seems to inspire the terrifying sublime, which is perhaps why governments endlessly attempt to strangle its functioning.

Further, I position the institution as art and this paper the act of criticism because my own positioning—as a graduate student—means that the very paper I am presenting is meaningless. I cannot erase my own subjectivity in relationship to the words that are coming out of my mouth, thus, to quote Justin Clemens in his piece ‘Writing Art Writing’: This paper intends to be ‘Art writing as exposing the conditions of writing, that is, the conditions of meaning without itself being meaning or meaningful. A kenosis: emptying. An ekphrasis: vividly presenting ways in which another mode of presentation presents itself to this mode of presentation.’1

So, to begin, my first question is a contentious one: under what conditions do we welcome Paul Taylor and his work into the university and under what conditions do we welcome the former contributors of Art & Text? I’m going to be talking about the Dawkins reform of Australian universities. So, I’ll begin by noting that Art & Text was not a magazine based within an institution. But, in addition to this, it was not a refereed journal, it was not ranked and people did not contribute their research through competitive grants from the Australian Research Council. In fact, during its time of early circulation most of the writers, Taylor himself included here, had little tertiary education—at least by today’s standards. Many had basic bachelor degrees (Taylor had a BA with honours and others, like Adrian Martin, had no degree at all). Indeed few of the writers were enrolled in the kinds of postgraduate degrees we would consider today as vital to becoming a certified contributor to the intellectual culture.

Of course, there has always been a split between the arts and intellectual culture. But part of what Art & Text did was allow many emerging writers the opportunity to freely develop their written expression, enabling a cross-over between criticism and art. Freely is a word I use with caution, because Art & Text was not a superficially ‘pluralist’ magazine. It had a clear editorial line harnessed by Taylor. But despite Taylor’s committed post-structuralism, my reading of his editorial would be that it created a space for apathy. Much of the writing is typically cheeky and at times gleefully arrogant towards established canons. In the special issue of Art & Text on Antipodality,2 which is the issue that inspired me to give this paper, Taylor considers the essays by contributors including Paul Foss, Meaghan Morris, Lynn Silverman and Imants Tillers as geared toward an ‘effect’, rather than a future ‘ambition’ or ‘achievement’. Antipodal criticism, for Taylor, and likewise for Foss in his famous essay published in the issue, is apathetic, sarcastic, perhaps even ironic. It is neither a reclaiming nor a negation. Apathetic criticism, in an antipodal context, exists alongside art and ‘cuts across and short circuits every signification of the historically determinate kind’. ‘An apathetic map’ is the ‘true semiosis of the unknown, opposed to an ever present simulation of the not yet’.3

‘Albert Namatjira was born on July 28, 1902 (Marcel Duchamp’s birthday)’.4 Apathy—which is radical indifference—is the ‘effect’ rather than the ‘ambition’ or ‘achievement’ that I locate as the kind of criticism that Art & Text produced. The conditions under which this flourished largely existed in direct opposition to the kind we have today. Today we are caught up in achievement, professionalisation and an obsession for the ‘expert’. We have a points based system, writing is channeled through journals that are ranked (or not ranked),5 and expression is strangled into a bizarre quest for the scientific and the empirical. Tone is condensed into academic posturing, it is very difficult to do anything creative and, further, criticism tends to turn toward the over-used question: ‘What’s been forgotten?’ a question which is almost always followed with a desperate, angst-ridden search to fill in the supposed memory loss. This, I suggest, is the very epitome of witchcraft. It is a spell that has been cast to try to harness the future and has turned our university from art into icon.

Now as we know there are good witches and there are bad witches, just as there is good art and there is bad art. But let’s consider this spell through the initiatives of the Dawkins reform. I will call the reform a success because, if I’m correct, many of you in the room won’t even know who this man is and if you do remember, it’s likely you haven’t recently said or written anything about the impact his reform had on our institutions. He is so successful, he literally has been forgotten. Dawkins was an education minister in the first Hawke Government. His name is given to a series of sweeping reforms of all universities which sought to rationalise the institutional arrangements of higher education with the demands of the new ‘knowledge economy’. The reforms paved the way for what A. J. Bartlett calls the internal privatisation of education, which continues to this day.6

His intention—other than to ignore any notion of the role of education separate to the functioning of the economy—was to impact the future by ensuring an improvement in statistics. What he essentially did was push for a greater number of people to have degrees, which saw to the major reform of departments, schools of thought and also to the merger of hundreds of adult education colleges with major universities—a move which granted thousands of people degrees overnight. Suddenly Australia was more educated! To balance the budget, he introduced the HECS system (before this, universities were free as a result of a Whitlam initiative), as well as the ARC (where you have to now compete to get money to do research) and the ERA (journal ranking system).7

The publication which preceded the Dawkins reform, ‘The Challenge for Higher Education in Australia’, highlights the direction that the university takes today, where emphasis is placed principally on the economy and the only mention made of the arts and humanities is in reference to its ‘crucial contribution’ to Australia’s ‘national economic circumstances’—circumstances which Dawkins (not-so-ironically) suggested as traditionally geared toward an economy which had been ‘able to rely more on natural resources than human skills’.8 Our curriculum is now built around this same coupling of criteria with enforcement, which—like the work of Dawkins—inspires ahistorical tendencies within university departments. To place this in psychoanalytic terms, we are in a state of melancholia, as though what’s been ‘forgotten’ has been internalised.

To play analyst then, most would identify these reforms as representative of the shift of the university from public institution to corporation, or to use my terms, from art object to mere kitsch. However what I want to focus on is the outcome of this reform for criticism. While Dawkins wanted greater participation in higher education, I suggest that the real effect of the reform was its specific separation of the institution from the public domain and therefore from art.

The man and his work we are celebrating today, alongside dozens of contributors, entered the institution precisely as outsiders. Were it not for the conditions of Art & Text, which is the enabling of a cross-over, I wonder whether many of the people we have here with us would have developed their expression in the way that they did. Or to return to my first question, would these writers have achieved the kind of mobile, lively expression they were able to, were they party to this referee system? Because, as students and researchers, we are actively discouraged from writing for non-refereed journals and many of us hesitate before contributing to non-refereed publications as it won’t contribute to our CV. Further, almost all of us are enrolled in post-graduate courses and our writing has had to adopt the expected tone and style, and the research must fit into the charted canon. What effect does this have on writing and criticism?

Art, as Alain Badiou reminds us, educates because it ‘teaches of the power of infinity held within the demented cohesion of form’.9 While Dawkins was to allow greater access to education for all people, his method of doing this fixes the notion of what the university can mean, stripping the university of the possibility of history—of continued trajectory—and reducing it to the status of icon. If we follow the trajectory of Art & Text, we find within its apathy and radical indifference an uncertified criticism, one that can challenge the meaning of University on its own terms, reorientating it from revered icon back to artwork. Our current melancholia as it stands, following what Amelia Barikin suggests in her article on artist Ash Keating, need not render us into a state of paralysis or neurosis, it can, rather, be harnessed, not sublimated. Encrypted with art ‘so as to trespass through time’.10

Of course, to ensure I remain apathetic to my own argument, and to ensure I am not simply conducting an easy witch hunt, it should be noted that I am sitting here before you giving this paper, we are having this conference, there are magazines like Discipline and un which sit at the cross-roads of intellectual culture and art, just as Art & Text did. Further there is still a strong intellectual community in Melbourne (and I hope elsewhere in Australia) that does not foster institutional dogmatism or denigrate those from the ‘outside’. However, I feel that the push toward ‘the future’ as a fixed destination is still too strong. We must look back to Paul Taylor and Art & Text as an affirmation of the importance of maintaining that cross-over and remain always apathetic to the institution and avoid the push to reduce our university to mere icon. We must retain its sublimity rather than foster veneration and witchcraft.

Lauren Bliss is a PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne, researching the figural criticism and theory of French film scholar Nicole Brenez.

1. Justin Clemens, ‘Writing Art Writing’ in Minimal Domination (Melbourne: Surpllus, 2011).
2. Art & Text, #6, 1982.
3. Paul Foss, ‘Antipodality’ in Art & Text, #6, 1982, p. 84.
4. Imants Tillers, ‘Locality Fails’ in Art & Text, #6, 1982.
5. This paper was delivered in the transitional year when the ERA (Excellence in Research for Australia) journal ranking system was scrapped and replaced with non-coded ‘journal quality indicators’ conducted by the REC (Research Evaluation Committee). Nonetheless, the intense pressure for quantitative measures of performative outcomes, which exists at the level of the ARC, the institution overall and individual departments and schools, continues. As I see it, a culture obsessed with the application of statistical units of measurement as means to justify humanities and arts based research, education and criticism is quite simply censorship in administrative and economic form. Beware of acronyms!
6. A.J. Bartlett, Badiou and Plato: An Education by Truths (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011).
7. My thanks to Meaghan Morris for imparting the historical impact that the Dawkins reform had on Australian universities.
8. John Dawkins, ‘The Challenge to Higher Education in Australia’, Department of Employment, Education and Training (Canberra: Australian Government Publication Service, 1987).
9. Alain Badiou, Handbook of Aesthetics, trans. Alberto Toscano (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).
10. Amelia Barikin, ‘Time Shrines: Melancholia and Mourning in the Work of Ash Keating’ in Discipline, #2, Autumn 2012, p. 22.