Why Australia? or against the Fragmentation of English Literary Studies

By Priessnitz, Horst | Australian Literary Studies, May 2000 | Go to article overview

Why Australia? or against the Fragmentation of English Literary Studies


Priessnitz, Horst, Australian Literary Studies


THE concept of Australian literary studies is becoming increasingly the object of critical debate as exemplified, for instance, by the forum in the previous issue of ALS and in Southerly (Carter; Dale; I. Henderson; M. Henderson; Hughes-D'Aeth; Moore; Syson; Treagus; Whitlock). However, in the academic circles that study the variant languages and literatures known as English, certain topics are more likely to be avoided than confronted. One of them is the question why European scholars should devote themselves -- if possible exclusively -- to one and only one extra-canonical literature, for example that of Australia? What objective mason, as opposed to perfectly legitimate motives of personal interest, can there be for such a demand -- and it is one made more or less insistently by numerous supporters of what might be called the national perspective in literary studies?

The question may be provocative. Students of `English literature', however, have to concern themselves not only with Britain and the United States, but (albeit in a different way) with the literary cultures of many other countries. In 1996 the Commonwealth of Nations consisted of 53 states with a total population of 1.6 billion (Learning Appendix 7); if to this one adds those non-Commonwealth countries which also form part of the anglophone world -- viz. Ireland, the USA and to some extent the Philippines -- one arrives at a total of 56 countries with a population of 1.9 billion people spread across the globe. Not all of these have developed a significant literary culture, but many have in recent decades been honoured with the Nobel Prize or other acclaimed literary awards and gained a correspondingly high international reputation -- higher indeed than some traditionally-minded departments of English may long have wanted to recognise. No anthropological evidence exists to suggest that some nations might be less suited to the creation of literature than others, and the consequence is that in a world that has long since transcended the old Eurocentric cultural matrix and seems increasingly unwilling to accept the new American one, European academics find themselves confronted with a confusingly broad spectrum of literatures which until now have existed outside the accepted canon. That canon alone has always provided sufficient work for the academic, and so it is, if one wants to stray into these regions at all without succumbing to an insuperable volume of reading material, that one comes to select a certain area -- and comes inevitably to question the rationale of that selection. Why Australia, rather than New Zealand, India, the Caribbean, Singapore, Canada, South Africa or Nigeria? And what indeed has Australia to offer that cannot be found equally well -- frequently better and almost certainly with less trouble -- in the literatures of Great Britain or the United States?

Those who propagate the study of national cultures and literatures (Treagus 18 and 19; Wimmer), whether in Australia or elsewhere, have not been deflected by questions such as these. And why should they be, when all they have been doing was reacting to the dominant British and American canons, whose own origins are less than ideologically neutral? Until shortly before the First World War and its outbreak of patriotic nationalism, English literary studies in Great Britain was pan of comparative literature; earlier still English had been a department of classical philology (Milner 5). The birth after World War II of Australian literary studies as an academic discipline was no less the fruit of nationalist ideologising -- if by the same token no more so. With its goal of ad maiorem nationis gloriam it stands as a model of its kind. Leaving aside some early stirrings, the beginnings of the movement can be dated to the decade between 1960 and 1970 (Walter 103), when the preparations for the bicentenary provided the Labor government with a welcome opportunity to emphasise Australia's political and cultural autonomy vis-a-vis the British motherland.

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