There has been a spate of death notices circulating in the Australian public sphere over the last few years. Essays and articles reporting both the death of the literary novel and the death of social democracy continue to proliferate in journals and broadsheets. Regarding these social democratic death notices, this tradition of mourning echoes back at least to Mark Latham’s 1998 third-way manifesto Civilising Global Capital where he argues that ‘The need for a fresh assessment of the politics of the Left has rarely seemed more urgent . . . Large slabs of post-war social democratic thinking have been made moribund by the new political economy of globalisation’ (Latham xxxvi). More recently, in a Quarterly Essay titled ‘What’s Left? The death of social democracy’ Clive Hamilton, writes that:
In the early 1970s, a crisis in the world economy caused a tectonic shift in the realm of politics. In short, social democracy was mugged by stagflation – a combination of high unemployment and high inflation.
In Australia, the Whitlam government was a spectacular casualty of th[is] new dispensation. Whitlam’s prediction on the 11th of November 1975 that nothing would save the Governor-General proved incorrect: the Dismissal was not just the end of a government that had dreams grander than “responsible economic management”, it also marked the beginning of the end of the era of social democracy. The ghost of the Whitlam government has stalked the Labor party ever since, turning visionary reformers into cautious economic managers desperate to prove that they can be trusted to put their hands on the economic levers.
These post-mortems on the death of Left politics, which are haunted by the ghost or spectre of a political leader and his government, are also accompanied by reports on the death of Australian literary fiction. For example, journalist and non-fiction writer, Mark Mordue in a 2003 Sydney Morning Herald essay titled, ‘Is the novel dead?’ answers: ‘Fiction is dead. Long live non-fiction’ (Mordue par. 1). Mordue argues that similar articles expressing anxiety over Australian literature’s death are often a call for a literary fiction which is social realist in form and content: a political fiction that engages with the real contemporary world of social class and working lives (Mordue par. 19). In this vein Malcolm Knox, in a recent essay in Overland, writes that ‘Original writing derives from real life, from the real world, from the concrete’ (11). Knox ties this production of, and reading sensitivity to, original writing to a call for a renewal of a politically Left literary aesthetic: the truth that will defeat the lies of the Howard Government is formed from defamiliarising the banalities of literary fiction’s stock images (Knox 11). Mordue, however, questions fiction’s capacity for such a return to the real; it’s former reading audience now finding their desire for it increasingly fulfilled in non-fiction:
was [there] a growing conflict between the nature of “art” and the project of engagement in this country? The boom in non-fiction certainly suggested some missing connection, a breach in fiction’s ability to commune with a public it had somehow forgotten or left behind. (Mordue par. 7)
Taking a more materialist line on this death of fiction debate Mark Davis ties the two deaths together:
the decline of the literary paradigm can be understood in terms of broader social and governmental shifts related to globalisation, such as the decline of post-war consensus (‘welfare state’) politics and their supplanting by a new consensus based on around free-market notions of deregulation, privatisation and trade liberalisation, and the rise of the global information economy. Seen in these terms the decline of the literary paradigm isn’t simply to do with literature; it’s to do with a broader reconceptualisation of the public sphere itself. (Davis 5)
What to make of these two, perhaps connected, deaths – of social democracy and literary fiction – is what I will explore here through Amanda Lohrey’s 1988 novel The Reading Group. In particular I will follow two suggestions already made in the death notices above: firstly, Clive Hamilton’s suggestion that Whitlam’s ghost haunts the contemporary Labor party, and secondly, Mark Davis’ suggestion that the decline of the literary paradigm is entwined with the public sphere itself being reconceptualized.
The ghost of Whitlam.
Amanda Lohrey was born in 1947 and raised in Hobart in a working-class family that had strong connections to the trade union movement (Mead par. 3). Her first novel, The Morality of Gentlemen, published in 1984, revisits a Hobart waterfront dispute from the 1950s in the middle of the Menzies era, when the spectre of communism was cause for intense political battles for the hearts and minds of the industrial left, resulting in the split of the labour movement. Lohrey was educated at the University of Tasmania, taking a degree in Political Science and received a scholarship to study at Cambridge University, where she read social theory (Mead par. 3). Her husband, Andrew Lohrey held a seat in the Tasmanian House of Assembly, as a Labor Party member, from 1972 to 1986 and was for a time Minister for Primary Industries (Mead par. 3)
Her second novel, The Reading Group, reflects these biographical traces, and one aspect of its political mimesis was considered defamatory enough that a writ was served and the initial print run scraped and republished with the offending lines removed (Wilde 475).
The Reading Group can been called an elegy for the intellectual left. It is certainly that, but it is also a novelistic post-mortem on a specific social formation after–Whitlam. The novel tracks, through a series of almost discontinuous tableaux, the lives of eight former members of a reading group who have lost the utopian and revolutionary hopes that they previously invested in the labour movement. After-Whitlam time, in the novel, is a time of privatised utopias (Lohrey, TRG 268-9), of drought and permanent bush fires (41), of menacing plague-bearers(63), and a new patriotism that is fiercely marketed (45-6). Liberalism is condemned as indecisive and weak by a conservative poet in late-night television monologues (54), and the state vacillates over whether or not to declare a state of emergency (248-54). Meanwhile, the former reading group members continue on, channelling their revolutionary desires into: Don Juan-like conquests (26-8); restoring a home to an idealised Victorian purity (10-11); seeking the moment of an amalgamated political-poetic-sexual conversion (221-8); a knightly crusade to save just one of the underclass (89-92); attaining political power through being an indispensably coherent ministerial advisor (42-3). The novel ends with the fires still burning, decisions of state deferred, bombs exploding. No one really develops, no one comes to any transforming decisions or self-knowledge, the aporias and contradictions of their uoptias passed over, the menace remains.
The novel’s final word goes to the potential pederast high school teacher, Lyndon Hughes, who tells us :
I don’t sneer at utopia. I’d never be that crass. It’s just that I live for the utopia of the present. It’s a utopia of space, not of time. It’s a life lived with an intense awareness of its own space. Of where my body is now. Who’s the philosopher here? I’m the philosopher. (268 emphasis added)
A spatial utopia makes literal sense, as utopia is of space rather than temporality. But in our imaginations utopias are usually before or behind us: their perfection haunts the present from the past as much as from the future. In modernity utopia is usually before us - in the future - and its promise is mostly cast in terms of revolution, rather than evolution or reform. When the planets are aligned, and things fall into place, there is potential for revolution. This alignment is timely and thereby temporal. Time becomes full and opportune, ripe for decisive action (kairos).
The slogan of Gough Whitlam’s 1972 election campaign was ‘It’s time’:
Men and women of Australia!
The decision we will make for our country on the 2nd of December is a choice between the past and the future. There are moments in history when the whole fate and future of nations can be decided in a single decision. For Australia, this is such a time. It’s time . . . (Whitlam par. 1)
The Reading Group is allegorical and symbolic in its settings and temporalities: a place like Hobart but not quite; and a time in the near future like the Fraser years, Labor’s interregnum, before the coming of Hawke, the messiah. But maybe Hawke is part of that near future too (Lohrey, TRG 202-4). This elusive disjointedness could be called after-Whitlam time for the intellectual left. Whitlam’s ghost haunts the characters like the ghost of King Hamlet haunts Hamlet . After-Whitlam, after Whitlam’s timeliness, time is out of joint for the intellectual left.(Derrida)
The public sphere of letters.
Speaking to a reading group at Sydney University after the publication of her novel, Lohrey gave some background to her own motivations in writing this elegy for the intellectual left after-Whitlam:
Some of us were young at a time when there was a great Utopian vision and didn’t want to grow up to be Yuppies. What a let down. There was this great flare in Australia. This brief flare in the 70s. Whatever you think of Whitlam and his extraordinary Government, there was this great flare of, “Goodness it’s all possible! Let’s change the National Anthem, let’s perhaps think about republicanism. Let’s get out of Vietnam. Let’s recognise China. Let’s do all these things and see what happens!” You know, it was almost like a fictional process. Let’s shuffle the deck. And people got very excited and felt the sense of possibility, of trying out the new. And then it all imploded. It all deflated for various reasons and we’d all have our own stories to tell about that, depending on our experience. (Lohrey, Writers in Action 210)
The Reading Group is Lohrey’s story about the aftermath of a political time, Whitlam time, that was so full and ripe with the promise of possibilities that it was almost like a fictional process. Although only 10 when Governor General Kerr dismissed Whitlam the promises of Whitlamism still haunt me.
Lohrey’s novel asks: How do we read and write after this promise has died? And it begins to answer this question by asking what a reading group, and by extension, what writing fiction, can actually mean and do for Left politics. In Mark Davis’ terms this amounts to a fictional inquiry into the literary paradigm. In Jurgen Habermas’ terms, an inquiry into the literary public sphere, or the public sphere of letters.
For Habermas the mature, or political bourgeois public sphere of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries develops from a new sense of privateness represented in epistolary novels such as Richardson’s Pamela (Habermas 43, 48). The psychological intimacy of the letter form makes its way into novels and these intimate, and yet publicly addressed, forms provide the means with which the rising bourgeoisie will judge, reflect and learn in order to work out what models and implications their new privateness promises (Habermas 48-51). This literary precursor public sphere develops in the institutions, such as journals, periodicals, salons and coffee houses, through which literary models of a new privateness become a question to be answered through critical judgement and reason (Habermas 31-43). In an age when monarchical, church and aristocratic power was being challenged by the rising capitalist class, public authority, no longer paraded before subjects and no longer practised in secret, was opening up to such critical judgements (Habermas 27-31). The political public sphere, for Habermas, evolves out of its literary precursor as this new privateness becomes essentially human: located in the intimate domestic family home and thereby separate from the ascendant constitutional, administrative and military state (Habermas 51-6). The mature political public sphere, which is a powerful imaginary or ideal in liberal democratic capitalism, is a virtual space where private people come together to deliberate the terms and decisions of public authority and its regulations (Habermas 27).
What I’m interested in here is Habermas’ suggestive notion that it is the child that gives birth to the adult public sphere. To put this idea back into Lohrey’s terrain and temporality, what hope is there for a literary public sphere after-Whitlam? In other words if, as Habermas suggests, a mature public sphere is developed out of its literary precursor, then what sort of new privateness, after-Whitlam, might this precursor public sphere generate?
‘They used to have a reading group. It had been a waste of time really, an old fashioned idea that no seriously active person would ever bother with’ (Lohrey, TRG 29). In the time of the reading group they are all still members of the Australian Labor Party, although their participation is experienced as a laborious, frustrating grind (Lohrey, TRG 32). The novel hints at what Peter Beilharz calls the labour movement’s mania for policy in this interregnum period between Whitlam and Hawke: the disciplined factional machinery of the party preparing it for government; the discourse of economic rationalism filtering down into the branch level; the Accord and the deregulation of finance are just around the corner (Beliharz 102-30).
They attempt to read political philosophy mainly, so as to work out the rationale underlying the Labor party machine (Lohrey, TRG 33-34). The political organiser and academic Sam argues that such collective reading will help them to learn the dance-steps of politics; to anticipate and perhaps lead:
Sam [said] that politics was a form of dancing: you had to know the steps. And the steps changed all the time; so that just when you’d learnt one set the formation would change, or the formation would stay the same but the tempo would alter . . .
Renata had asked the obvious question: she didn’t see how reading could improve your dancing. Listening, maybe, but to what?
Well, said Sam, you had to know how to listen, you had to know how to interpret the code, and since all concepts came back to words, reading could help you to anticipate. And in any form of dancing, any structured form of dancing, he’d corrected himself, every step has a name.
So, you could teach yourself dancing from a book?
Sam didn’t see why not; after all, you could teach yourself yoga from a book.
Yes, said Renata, but yoga isn’t done to a beat, except that of your breathing. In music there was a rhythm that the body had to experience for itself.
True, but you didn’t have to hear it played; all you had to do was to learn how to read music.
Renata had given up at this point. There was something wrong with this argument of Sam’s, she knew, but she couldn’t pinpoint it, not towards the end of a meal with a head hazy from Andrew’s Beaujolais. (29-30 emphasis in original)
Renata’s doubts cast aside the eight reading group members push on. They struggle to read Gramsci and Plato in the living room (34); it soon falls apart:
[T]here was something faintly ridiculous and Victorian about a reading group. Reading groups were for fanatics or Trotskyists, people who were fringe or impotent, or for middle-aged housewives who had nothing better to do with their time. Reading with other people was unsophisticated, uncool: reading was something you did alone. (33-4)
This desire for a reading group, especially one that reads political philosophy, is structurally in keeping with Habermas’ narrative of the genesis of the mature public sphere. In a sense such a desire is like a ghost in the machinery of modernity, returning periodically in different places, in different times. But in this novel the intellectual left after-Whitlam finds that such a collective reading is too spectral to make that transition from the literary to the political public sphere. Their utopian energies, their desires for revolution, turn inward. Unable to read the rhythms of their own desires as a relation between the private and the public, they are both not in and out of time. They lack a felt-sense of the rhythms of the times: the revolutionary time they heard in and projected onto Whitlam(ism) becomes the lost object of a Left melancholy that breaks out in the novel’s proliferating moments of mania.
Stephen Knight, in his Scripsi critique of The Reading Group, argues that the novel’s politics are created formally: that its (near) futurism; allegorical context; and deployment of Brecht’s alienation technique, interrogate the expressive realism of its characters, situations and institutions (Knight 204-5). These formal politics make any mimetic reading of the novel impossible.
So, finally, on the one hand, by interrogating the relations between reading, writing and public-political activity, Lohrey suggests that the moment of Whitlamism’s social democracy and its complementary literary paradigm is a dead or lost object against which the work of Left mourning can begin its labour. On this reading the novel is a work of mourning that rather than presenting the positive objects and projects of new political-libidinal investments, negates such a presentation through the dystopia of its allegorical contexts. This technique of negation, Knight argues, gives the novel the power to think (Knight 204-5). And yet, on the other hand, the novel’s formal politics is also a politics of temporal rhythm which suggests that the time of revolution might be less an opening called out by, and read off from, escalating crises than by the structure of rhythmic feeling writing and reading listens for and works to perform: perhaps a new set of relations between the intimate private and the political public spheres represented in the public sphere of letters.
Stephen Knight ends his untimely critique of The Reading Group arguing that he finds in Lohrey’s novel her hope for a writable future for radical Australia (Knight 207). But a writable future that dances in step and time with the present, that thinks rhythmically, sounds even more promising. The Reading Group makes such a promise.
Beilharz, Peter. Transforming labor: labour tradition and the labor decade in Australia. Oakleigh: Cambridge UP, 1994.
Davis, Mark. “The decline of the literary paradigm in Australian publishing.” [see sidebar for link]
Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: the state of the debt, the work of mourning and the New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Habermas, Jurgen. The structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Trans. Thomas Burger. Cambridge: Polity, 1989.
Hamilton, Clive. “What’s left? The death of social democracy.” Quarterly Essay 21 Melbourne: Black Inc., 2006.
Knight, Stephen. “A writable future.” Scripsi 5.2 (1989): 203-207.
Knox, Malcolm. “The case for ‘Original’ Australian fiction.” Overland 182 (2006): 4 – 11.[see sidebar for link]
Latham, Mark. Civilising global capital: new thinking for Australian Labor. St Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 1998.
Lefebvre, Henri. Rhythmanalysis: space, time and everyday life. Trans. Stuart Elden and Gerald Moore. London: Continuum, 2004.
Lohrey, Amanda. The morality of gentlemen. Chippendale: Picador, 1984.
___. The reading group. Chippendale: Picador, 1988.
___. ‘Amanda Lohrey: The reading group’ Ed. Gerry Turcotte. Writers in action: the writers choice evenings. Paddington: Currency, 1990. 205 – 224.
Mead, Jenna. ‘Amanda Lohrey’ entry in Dictionary of Literary Biography. [awaiting publication]
Mordue, Mark. “Is the novel dead?” Essay, 25 January 2003. Sydney Morning Herald. 11 July 2004
Whitlam, Gough. “It's Time For Leadership.” Policy Speech for the Australian Labor Party at the Blacktown Civic Centre, 13 November 1972. 8 May 2006
‘Lohrey, Amanda’ entry in The Oxford companion to Australian literature. Ed. William H. Wilde, Joy Hooton, and Barry Andrews. 2nd ed. Melbourne: Oxford UP, 1994: 475.
[From ASAL 2006 Conference paper]