Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Introducing Ross Chambers

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Introducing Ross Chambers

Article excerpt

It isn't an easy thing to introduce someone who has changed the course of your life. Given the honour of presenting Ross Chambers for his keynote address to the 2012 Cultural Studies Association of Australasia (CSAA) conference at the University of Sydney, I was so nervous and excited that I lifted his papers from the podium as I scurried to sit down. Beneath the dome of MacLaurin Hall there is vast space for embarrassment; people were calling out to me but I couldn't hear a thing. As Ross would mention during his lecture, MacLaurin can open up a 'memory hole' with a capacity to trouble the present materially for those who once read there (as he had when it held the Fisher Library) or faced exams there (as I did as an undergraduate). Flustered, I finally saw Ross saying 'you pinched my talk!' Then on my way back with the purloined papers I fell through forty years to a moment of stumbling in to his office, myself an ungainly student in an over-size T-shirt hugely proclaiming GAY LIB.

I have no idea why that particular moment of awkward visibility floated up from what Ross calls in this essay, 'the slow build up of silt we call life'. Certainly there were futures in that moment of 'minor trouble-making' from the early 1970s, futures that are past now and much more significantly his than mine. I may have been in his office to discuss writing a thesis on enunciation in eighteenth-century French women's novels, something I soon went on to do in a small way (and in bad French) in Paris. I would most certainly have been nervous. Professor Ross Chambers was overwhelming to Sydney students as the author of exotic critical works in the field of poetics: Gérard de Nerval et la poétique du voyage (1969), La comédie au chateau: contribution à la poétique du theatre (1971), and he must have been writing Spirite de Théophile Gautier: Une lecture (1974). In those days we did not commonly have professors who wrote books, let alone books in French, and it was hard for us to know what to make of this achievement. Later, Ross wrote in English from the United States a set of major works transforming literary theory into an urgent, difficult practice of cultural thought about the politics of 'poetics' in life. These included Facing It: AIDS Diaries and the Death of the Author (1998) and a magnificent book on the material effects of atrocity and witnessing in history, Untimely Interventions: AIDS Writing, Testimonial and the Rhetoric of Haunting (2004). Facing It was in part inspired by Unbecoming (1990), the diary of dying in Australia written by Eric Michaels, whose 'gay ethics of back-to-the-wall oppositionality' is the subject of a chapter in Untimely Interventions too.1 As some of you will know, Michaels was an American anthropologist whose brilliant studies of Warlpiri media practices had a shaping impact on cultural studies in Australia, in particular through his 1986 report for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (AIAS), The Aboriginal Invention of Television: Central Australia 1982-1986, and his tough, sassy essays that were mostly first published in our unrefereed little cultural magazines before being collected by the University of Minnesota Press in Bad Aboriginal Art: Tradition, Media and Technological Horizons (1993). Some of those magazines had their roots in 1970s social movements including Gay Liberation.

Not everyone doing cultural studies in Australia today does know these works and the political as well as historical links between them, and I think my time plunge after pilfering 'Toil and Trouble' had as much to do with the situated occasion of the conference brief as with the infantilising site of MacLaurin Hall. The 2012 theme was 'Materialities: Economies, Empiricism and Things' and, as the organisers have written elsewhere, one aim of the proceedings was to reflect on the recent resurgence of interest in materialism while remembering our discipline's 'long history of investigating material practices'2-not least by inviting keynote speakers, including Ross, who had substantially contributed to writing that history. …

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