Wednesday, January 14, 2009

After the hegeharmonics of the Australian Left

[An older post, recycled]

The more immediate overtones contribute more, the more remote contribute less. Hence, the distinction between them is only a matter of degree, not of kind. They are no more opposites than two and ten are opposites [ . . .] and the expressions “consonance” and “dissonance”, which signify an antithesis are false.’ And further on: ‘Much of what has been considered aesthetically fundamental, that is, necessary to beauty, is by no means always rooted in the nature of things, so that the imperfection of our sense drives us to those compromises through which we achieve order. For order is not demanded by the object, but by the subject.
A. Schonberg Theory of Harmony (1978): 21 & 29.

Hegemonic strategies establish a shifting and tense balance between contradictory powers and concede greater or lesser degrees of autonomy to discursive positions occupied by subordinate classes (although in yielding ground, such hegemonic strategies tend to define the terrain of struggle: to set the agenda of the thinkable and to close off alternative discursive possibilities). Hegemony is a fragile and difficult process of containment.
John Frow Marxism and Literary History (1986): 63

The echoes and resonances of a hegeharmonics dies hard in the ears and minds, in the thought, of those who constitute their activities and communal anticipations within and around it, after its moment has passed. I begin with this neologism – hegeharmonics – an amalgam of Gramsci’s concept of ‘hegemony’ and the aural notion of ‘harmony’ - as it seems to me a useful concept for the reading and writing of what is itself an amalgam: an attempt to write an aspect of Australian political-cultural history through interpretations of narrative fiction.

A hegeharmonics is that fictional orchestration which resounds, invites the forming of a harmonic bloc. That it is form, temporality, oscillation; that it promises a destination/ a resolution (harmony is both consonance/ dissonance), a healing which is able to be represented (in both the symbolic meaning and the political meaning), is what makes its passing so difficult to bear. Overdetermined? Perhaps, but it is the work of mourning that must seek to limit overdetermination so that a relation of autonomy can proceed.

Some limits and borders.

The key concern here is the rather monolithic concept of the Australian Left, and its moribund state at my scene and time of writing – late May 2006. An initial demarcation of the Australian Left would separate it out into the following: Labourism; social liberalism; Communism; the ‘New’ left; the cultural Left; psychoanalytically inflected Marxism; radical nationalist Left; the Keynesian Left; the Left libertarians; Marxists; the social democratic left; the third way Left. Clearly, such a demarcation, as above, is not exhaustive, and could also be subdivided along more institutional lines. For example, another taxonomy of the Australian Left could be: the Arena, Overland, Meanjin lefts; the ABC and Fairfax Left; the left that emerges out of the Sydney Push; the Foucauldian academic left; the post-feminist Left; the queer left; the Aboriginal left; the Deluezian Left . . .

Such a proliferation of ‘left’ assignations poses a definitional problem that could easily forestall any undertaking of a post-mortem or inquiry into ‘its’ demise, state, nature and so on. Indeed, some commentators argue that the term ‘left’ is itself useless in the current political-cultural dispensation; that ‘left’ is a residual concept that only confuses political orientations now. For such commentators, like David McKnight, we have moved beyond left and right, and politics now moves around issues of morality, biology, environmentalism and so on, rather than political economy. Social citizenship, even industrial citizenship, in McKnight’s view, are no longer arenas for ‘progress’ as they were within that amalgam of Australian labourism and Keynesian/ Fordist political economy. In other words, the Left has assumed the universality of a specific political-economic project that is no longer tenable. But to claim that such a project is residual, redundant might be to make time itself monolithic, whereas, time might better be thought of as being multiple, simultaneously enacting a variety of tempos and oscillations, structures.

There is no easy way of defining ‘what’s left’. One way would be to eschew the category altogether (and thereby to elide its ‘relatives’: right, centre, conservative, progressive). But such an eschewal carries within it a theory of history and time that would also jettison the return of traditional categories, that are still living now. For example, the heralded and triumphant imaginary of an end of history in which liberal democratic capitalism is normativised and naturalised assumes that there is a shared understanding of these three institutions which have been struggling, since the enlightenment, since the British revolutions of the c17h, since the French Revolution, to assert their fitness over and above socialism, communism, fascism, Marxism, and so on. And yet, in order to enter this terrain and temporality, this chronotope, that is beyond left and right we must admit that such a time-space is suffused with traditions that are more than ever in ‘play’; dominant and vitalised.

So, traditions are never really killed off, or die. They have play and purchase, and yet this is not to deny the power and constitutive force of newness, alterity, the event. In order to begin, in the middle as it were, I start with a few categories, institutions, narratives and social formations that seem specifically Australian, although not exclusively, and that seem to oscillate between the residual, the dominant and the emergent. And this is where and when the concept of a hegeharmonics seems to me to be a useful way of thinking (reading, writing, listening and speaking) what’s left, and how and why narrative fiction might be placed as a means to inquire into its state and becoming.

So, a hegeharmonics is that amalgam of leading ideas that garners the consent of a significant, critical mass of social formations, in such a manner as to unify these disperate groups into a bloc that has a ‘reciprocal’ relation to the state. Harmony: unity, consensus, compromise, alignment, conciliation, mutual exchange, equilibrium, equality. Harmony: noise, sound, the ear, the voice, resolution, concordance, accord, chords themselves, tonality, cadence, oscillations.

The hegeharmonics of the Australian Left is formed around the tonal centre of Labourism: its key signature is industrial citizenship. Its timbre is Fordist; its pathos a mixture Keynesian social-liberalism and the victims of our medieval past – those of the bush under imperial capitalism; its leading voices pastoral if not also mechanical. It doesn’t seek to end capitalism, but to lead it, to civilise it. But its civil score is male, patriarchal, industrial, folk-ist, pragmatic.

It is one of the key contentions of this thesis that it is a discourse of Australian Labourism (which alters over time), which is the most useful means for exploring these questions regarding what’s left, and how narrative fiction might track and enable such an enquiry. Australian Labourism as a centripetal force in a (my, our?) hegeharmonics.

These, then, are the broad terms in which the basis of my enquiry is to be set up. How fruitful such a basis is will be tested against the readings of selected narrative fictions, which will work both to complicate and articulate a political-cultural history, and its analysis, and to, in turn, articulate a prosaics of cultural-political history. Whether these two fields/ operations, narrative and analysis, have anything to say to each other, whether a conversation of sorts emerges, remains in the reading itself.


Anonymous said...

I am surprised at your interpretation of my views in Beyond Right an Left. For examle that I don't think political economy or 'industral citizenship' (?) is of any value.

Have you actually read the book?

David McKnight

Michael C said...

David, I haven't read your book but when I originally composed this post, back in May, 2006, I had read a number of your blog posts on your site and opinion pieces elsewhere, on which I based my sense of where your emphasis was.