Writers Behaving Badly: Stead, Bourdieu and Australian Literary Culture

By Rooney, Brigid | Australian Literary Studies, May 2001 | Go to article overview

Writers Behaving Badly: Stead, Bourdieu and Australian Literary Culture


Rooney, Brigid, Australian Literary Studies


IN his poem `Demo', published in the collection Subhuman Redneck Poems, Les Murray writes:

   No. Not from me. Never./Not a step in your march,/not a vowel in your
   unison, / bray that shifts to bay .../I grant you no claim ever,/not if you
   pushed the Christ Child/as President of Rock Candy Mountain/or yowled for
   the found Elixir/ would your caste expectations snare me. (Subhuman Redneck
   Poems 94)

In an application for a postdoctoral fellowship, which was prefaced with this quotation, I argued that

   this wry refusal to be press-ganged into politically-correct
   `demonstration' sits uneasily with events in the author's own public
   career. In a spectacular coalescence of literature and politics, poet Les
   Murray was last year invited by Prime Minister John Howard to assist him in
   drafting the much-debated constitutional preamble. This is the latest
   example of the (as yet) largely untheorised connection between literary and
   wider public cultures in contemporary Australia. It also displays the
   opportunities sometimes afforded to writers like Murray to intervene in
   public issues, to perform the role of public intellectual. Responding to
   recent debate concerning the role of elite classes and groups in Australian
   society, as well as to renewed focus on Australian national identity, my
   project undertakes a materialist feminist analysis of contemporary
   Australian writers as public intellectuals.

I went on to explain how I would seek to identify what is at stake in and what can be understood by recent public performances by selected contemporary Australian writers such as Helen Garner and Les Murray. This would involve drawing on and critically evaluating concepts of cultural production elaborated by Pierre Bourdieu. My argument also anticipated the objection that under the seeming demise of both nation and high culture, any idea that the relation between literary and political elites remains either significant or enduring can seem at best anachronistic. Yet, I continued, the level of media attention focused on the Murray episode - however scandalised - also suggests that claims as to the death of literary culture and/or nation may well be premature. Even if viewed as a farcical repetition of the past, the Murray preamble episode is evidence of the durability of the reproduction of secular nationhood through the sacred realms of literature and art.

In this present discussion, however, I will diverge from my study of `Australian writers as public intellectuals' to deploy the politics of my own proposal (and the self-positioning in the academic field it necessarily represents) as a way into the conundrum of how the wilfully obscure writings of Pierre Bourdieu can be applied in literary and cultural studies. This endeavour can, I believe, illuminate not only the logic of individual writers' practices, but also the operations of cultural and literary fields which condition such a study. This will entail considering the opportunities afforded by Bourdieu's theories of cultural production to revalue relations between Australian literary culture and the space of nation. To demonstrate the ways in which Bourdieu's framework can apply in practice, I will use the case of Christina Stead to highlight the logic governing her seemingly contradictory performances. This will lead into some closing reflections on how the cultural critic might position herself in relation to that badly-behaving writer, Helen Garner.

I first turned to Bourdieu's theories in the course of my research on Stead. I had been searching for a way to resolve the manifest contradictions between Stead's fiction and her difficult authorial persona, particularly in attempting to understand the ways in which her political views had shaped her fiction. Stead projected a notoriously recalcitrant persona, especially in interviews in the 1970s when she vigorously combated any attempt to label her fiction as feminist or as political (eg. …

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