Reading History and Literary History: Australian Perspectives

By Tim Dolin • June 7th, 2008

[forthcoming in David Carter (ed.), Australian Literature: Theory and Criticism]

Far from being writers—founders of their own place, heirs of the peasants of earlier ages now working on the soil of language, diggers of wells and builders of houses—readers are travellers; they move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields they did not write, despoiling the wealth of Egypt to enjoy it themselves. Writing accumulates, stocks up, resists time by the establishment of a place and multiplies its production through the expansionism of reproduction. Reading takes no measure against the erosion of time (one forgets oneself and also forgets), it does not keep what it acquires, or it does so poorly, and each of the places through which it passes is a repetition of the lost paradise (de Certeau 1984, 174).

To anyone conversant with the history of European Australia, Michel de Certeau’s well known metaphor for reading may strike a distinctive and slightly uncomfortable note. Australians proudly identify themselves as a nation of readers, and still mythologize the resourceful bushman, the irreverent outlaw, the larrikin subversive: local pioneers, we might say, of de Certeau’s everyday practice. On the other hand, it is impossible for a settler-invader culture completely to disengage such a metaphor, of trespass and freebooting, from a history of relentless expansion across “lands belonging to someone else”. If we are a nation of readers, moreover, ours is not the experience of other “reading nations” (St Clair). For a long time we were prevented from developing a vigorous written culture of our own by the powerful interests of a globalized colonial book trade controlled from London, Sydney and Melbourne, for whom it was more profitable to import books into Australia than to publish them here. Our new chums were never founders of their own place, then, in the sense de Certeau means: that place was the Britain and Europe left behind, where writing came from. So while we anxiously waited on the arrival of a nationalliteratur that would define us as uniquely ourselves and reunite us with the best that had been known and thought in the (European) world, we waited more anxiously still on the shipments of written culture that would reconnect us with home. A notice in the Sydney Atlas in 1845 announced: “The mail brought by the Amelia from London, on Sunday last, was the largest ever received in this Colony, consisting of twenty-eight large bags, and containing nineteen thousand one hundred and sixty nine newspapers, and five thousand nine hundred and thirty-four letters” (“Untitled” 1845, 28). And for the first generations of settlers, it was as if the power of writing had abandoned them altogether. Here is Louisa Clifton, in a letter from Australind, Western Australia, in the early 1840s: “I never before experienced such an entire incapability of mental exertion; the sense of distance imposes a barrier to communication not as far as feelings are concerned, only in the verbal expression of them. My heart is just as warm as ever, but my pen is frigid and powerless” (Frost 1995, 70).

To conceptualize reading as “by definition … rebellious and vagabond” (Chartier 1994, viii), therefore, presupposes a metropolitan cultural space where writing and reading coincide, and presupposes the luxury of a readily available material culture of writing, a culture as solid, prosperous and plunderable as the bourgeoisie, constantly accumulating and restocking itself. The neglect of domestic book publishing in Australia for more than 150 years—where there grew up, by contrast, a prodigious local trade in ephemeral written culture: newspapers, magazines, handbills, directories and so on—prohibited any such luxury. Metropolitan institutions and practices of writing were separated by a vast oceans from colonial institutions and practices of reading, literalizing the imperial relationship implicit in cultural production: writer first, reader second; metropole first, colony second. Ours was a cultural time-space characterised from the beginning by distance and belatedness. Writing—thinking, imagining, creating—was always there and before, reading here and after. Writing belonged in that same elsewhere, just in the future, where everything—call it history—had already happened by the time we read about it here. Reading is therefore implicated in the “post-colonial predicament”—“a predicament revolving around the definition of Australia, the relationship of Australians to place, and the heterogeneous provenance, if not the very identity of Australian culture” (Ashcroft and Salter 2000, 292). For to forget ourselves in a book, or simply to forget; to realize that we could not keep what we had acquired and shipped at such expense; to repeat over and over the loss of paradise: these meant something different in the antipodes.

The antipodes are “not a place but a relationship”, Bernard Smith remarked (1998, 7). Nor is antipodality unique to Australia, although it remains a “very common anxiety in Australian culture”, where here is always imagined “in a relation to an elsewhere”, and the self “by its relation to a powerful other” (Wark 1995, 17). For McKenzie Wark, antipodality is an increasingly pervasive “feeling of being neither here nor there. It is an experience of identity in relation to the other in which the relation always appears more strongly to consciousness than either the identity it founds or the other it projects”, an experience amplified and accelerated, he suggests, by the “globalisation of trade flows and cultural flows” (17). For a long time this experience of identity bred a particularly tenacious form of colonial alienation and inferiority in Australia, known popularly as the “cultural cringe” (Phillips 1958) and later in art-historical discourse as the “provincialism problem” , which characterized us as stubborn custodians of our localism—antipodeans (see B. Smith 1975) —defending “the possibility and validity of ‘making good, original art right here’” whilst reluctantly recognizing “that the generative innovations in art, and the criteria for standards of ‘quality’, ‘originality’, ‘interest’, ‘forcefulness’, and so on, are determined externally” (T. Smith 2002, 114). More recently, however, Australian cultural cringe has been reinvented as “positive unoriginality” (Morris 1989, 108 and ff.): an anti-antipodal cultural mode, as it were, which does not give precedence to writing over reading, favours a postmodern aesthetic of appropriation and pastiche, and leapfrogs over the obstacle of a national culture to the open markets of the global “megaculture”. For some cultural historians, this has freed us up to reevaluate our past: to recognize that the “precondition” for European Australian culture has always been “its dialogue or negotiation with, its implication in, its appropriation, re-combination, indigenization or hybridization of, international cultures—even at the most mundane and local level, always in a context structured by local and national dynamics” (Carter 1999, 149).

From this point of view postmodern appropriation is only an historically specific manifestation of the “intertextuality that is a constitutive principle of all text making” (Morris 1989, 107), so it is no surprise that the growth of Australian cultural confidence closely parallels the elevation in the status of the reader in critical and cultural theory since the 1980s. We are the beneficiaries of Roland Barthes’s “death of the author”, which reimagined the literary work in the anti-authoritarian 1960s as a “text”, a “tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” (1977, 146), not from the unique experience of an individual author. For Barthes, “the text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination” (148). His reader, however, is finally a textual agent, a functional destination for the text’s multiple writings, and consequently not a person at all: “the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted” (148). The rise of Rezeptionästhetik in Germany and reader response theory in the USA in the 1970s and 80s, and the parallel narratological interest in the implied or inscribed reader, did little to reconcile this textualized reader, of interest to literary studies, with the empirical audience of interest to cultural history (Price 2004). Yet the interdisciplinary field of reading history, whose founding may be dated to about 1990 (Darnton), nevertheless merged the characteristics of the Barthesian reader with de Certeau’s enterprising poacher: readers “read between the lines” and “subvert the lessons imposed on them,” so that literary works, “especially the greatest works—have no stable, universal, fixed meanings. They are invested with plural and mobile significations that are constructed in the encounter between a proposal and a reception” (Chartier 1994, ix).

The resistant reader has become a familiar figure in empirical histories of reading. Leah Price lists some of the many large-scale studies that set out to show how “the implied reader differs sharply from what we know about the empirical audience”, so that, for example, peasant readers become consumers of aristocratic letter-writing manuals, working-class readers devour Edwardian public-school yarns, girls read Boy’s Own, and real readers are “conscripted” by the text to interpret it in particular ways, which they duly violate (Price 305: her examples are Chartier 1991, Rose 2001, Flint 1993, and Stewart 1996). In this sense, the readers of reading histories are like the theorized consumers of popular culture who, following Gramsci, are always potentially resistant to the influence of powerful culture industries (Fiske 1989; Willis 1990). In these theories, mass culture and its norms, values and ideas are not passively incorporated but actively used in a “grounded aesthetics” of common cultures (Willis 1990, 21). The idea of a grounded aesthetics is especially useful for understanding European Australian readers in the last years of the nineteenth century. Australia was then reaching a crucial stage in its national evolution just at the time when the first phase of global monopoly capitalism, together with the development of advanced mass-production techniques, was encouraging and catering for the emergence and then ascendancy of an international reading public for commercial fiction in the English-speaking world. The process of Australian nation-formation therefore coincided with the rise of a vast new readership for popular fiction that was indifferent to the boundaries of nation-states, and the rise of new publishing and marketing strategies by British and American publishers aggressively expanding into international markets in search of higher profits.

The overwhelming majority of Australian readers during this period read the fiction manufactured as commodities for these new markets: “standardized merchandise sold in large volume” (Williams 1982, 3) for mass consumption. This new generation of readers was, as Martyn Lyons notes, “little different from their counterparts in Birmingham, Boston, or the Cape” (2001, 336). They belonged to a new sort of reading community, one that spanned the English-speaking world, and seemed on the face of it to have been markedly at odds with the imagined communities of the nation-state or the British Empire. In Australia, however, these readers were in addition part of a new nationalizing culture vigorously differentiating itself from Britain in the 1890s and afterwards. The “cultural chauvinism” (Gellner 2006, 138) of Australia’s nationalist nineties claimed to preserve the folk culture of up-country settler colonists and bush-workers, but it depended for its success on three factors identified by Ernest Gellner: “homogeneity, literacy, and anonymity” (138). Nationalist ideology in fact helped “to build up [the] anonymous mass society” (124) that was soon constituted as an international market for commodities; and the forces that produced the literate culture needed for the dissemination of a distinctive national literature also produced a consumer culture disposed to the products of international cultural capitalism. Cultural identities in Australia were not formed out of the nationalist impulse to resist the homogenizing forces of mass culture, therefore, but out of a grounded aesthetics of cultural use, which combined internationalized narratives of mass culture with national or local narratives.

What were the consequences of this historical convergence of two powerful cultural processes, nation-formation (literature/writing) and globalized mass consumption (non-literature/reading), for literary history in Australia? A number of recent studies (Trumpener 1997; Aravamudan 1999; Cohen 1999 and 2003; Moretti 2000; Hutcheon and Valdes 2002) argue that national literary histories as they are presently theorized and practised are inadequate. These studies offer different approaches to formulating a “larger idea of literary history” (Moretti 2000, 207), but few of them are prepared to admit the activities of readers into literary history. For that we must return to the work of Hans Robert Jauss , whose influential “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory” (1978) reconceived literary history as an account of the “transsubjective” experience of a work’s readers, an experience retrievable not through the anecdotal evidence of individual subjective readers but through the objective analysis of changing “horizons of expectations” (Jauss 1982). Jauss’s important term, “aesthetic distance”, which describes the space between initial audience expectations of a work and later challenges to those expectations by subsequent works (which bring about changes in the meanings of the initial work), is useful for thinking about the distance between metropolitan production and colonial reception. The “horizon of expectation” is likewise helpful for understanding how colonial readers negotiated imperial and global-commercial cultural forms at a distance, because it bridges in a single term the operation of genres (which are defined by reader expectations: see below) and the function of what John Frow calls “regimes of reading”: the shared competencies, norms, and values that govern how we read and the kinds of value we attach to books—a concept similar to Stanley Fish’s “interpretive communities” (Fish 1980). “Just as texts are never one-of-a-kind but are always the partial repetitions of a kind,” Frow argues, “so reading is never simply an individual act, although it is always that” (2006, 139). There are regularities in the ways we “read and look and listen … that are shaped by our experience and our education” (139).

A literary history such as I have been sketching would therefore need to widen its focus “from texts to the reading formations through which those texts are perceived and institutionalized” (Aravamudan 1999, 10) , and in doing so unsettle the assumption that production and reception, when they occur in the same cultural moment, also occur within the same cultural horizon. We need a literary history of British—or American—fiction that takes account of Australian reading formations and their transsubjective experience. We also need a literary history of Australia that takes account of works that are simultaneously non-Australian and non-literary; one that is not bound by a nationalist historiography—by the job of producing a national canon. A revisionary literary history of the period would therefore break down national literary histories altogether. At the same time, such a project is implicitly concerned with reading differently, in the sense of acknowledging the historical existence of different readers and engaging differently with interpretation.

To take an example: what would a transnational literary history of Australia in the late nineteenth-century look like? It would not overly concern itself with Lawson in London, or the Australianness or Britishness of Rosa Praed, or the use of Australian characters and scenes in late-Victorian novels. It would take for granted that the history of a work is its world-wide history. It would need to ask what contribution non-Australian, non-literary works made to Australian culture. This is an important question, because popular fiction lacks aesthetic value—it is not, as Q.D. Leavis argued, serious reading (1932)—and it “lacks a national, symbolic value” (Corse 130): its publishers seek maximum investment profitability and need to find the largest, and least differentiated, market possible (10). But more than this, literary production defines national culture. Nations comes into being as representations, as narratives: “the power to narrate” (Said 1993, xiii) is the power to identify oneself; and the nation state is the “guarantor” of high culture: “’real’ or ‘authentic’ culture—especially if framed in an anthropological or post-Herderian context—is seen as that which is subjectively shared by a given community and therefore local” (Huyssen 2002, 363). Is it possible, then, to speak meaningfully about a reading culture—an inarticulate or mute reading culture, indifferent to the Australianness of Australian writing—as a national culture? Or is it only by self-narration, by independent, individual self-expression, that we can assert our separate sovereignty?

A transnational literary history of Australia would include cultural works that were never exclusively our own—materials we had to make our own as readers—among which were commercial popular novels produced for an undifferentiated global market. We cannot, however, adduce sustained examples of that process of appropriation, or decide on the basis of historical evidence what novels were important for what reasons. But we can know, in a very limited way, what novels Australians chose to read or not read at different historical junctures; and we can reread those novels and recover some of the ways in which they might have spoken to the specific social or cultural situations of Australians. We can reconstitute, if you like, an obscured antipodean point of view that was always part of the contextual meaning of those global cultural products—but which neither national literary histories nor historicist reading practices, working within national horizons of production and reception, can admit.

One approach to this is through genres, which, as Margaret Cohen has shown in her study of the rapid spread of maritime fiction across the Atlantic from America to Britain and France in the 1820s, are durable and adaptable, and travel extremely well. The novel has always “been fascinated with characters who refuse to stay at home”, and characterised by what Cohen calls an “itinerant poetics”: throughout its history, it has been shaped and reshaped through “cross-cultural and supranational transit, translation, and appropriation” (2003, 481). When “genres travel across space”, they address “social and/or literary questions that are transportable, that can speak to divergent publics or a public defined in its diversity, dispersion, and heterogeneity” (482). This is possible, Cohen suggests, by taking a materialist view of genre:

Generic features of a text are features that extend beyond the text, that are recognized by readers and appropriated by writers. If genres appeal to an audience … it must be because they can do something for this audience, that they offer a compelling solution to some of the unresolved questions that structure its horizons. These unresolved questions can have to do with the state of the literary field and … the ideological and social contradictions shaping society as a whole (482).

The itinerancy of genres challenges “the powerful tradition” in literary studies of “subsuming the novel to the study of nationally based literary formations” (481). But genres are assumed to travel, in Cohen’s formulation of them, only when they are reproduced in new works written for a new audience on the other side of the ocean. In colonial and post-Federation Australia something of this kind certainly happened. In the mass-marketplace, genre entered the “brand-name system” of the market economy (Jameson 1981, 107) and became a tool for differentiating and targeting specific non-national cultural markets: men and women readers, readers of spy stories and Westerns, and so on. The genre of the racecourse mystery, for example, popularised by Nat Gould in Australia in the 1890s, was rapidly transported to Britain and USA.

But something else was also happening. In Australia, as we have seen, works themselves were more quickly and easily transportable even than genres, which could not mutate under local conditions because Australian publishers profited from the British monopoly. It was cheaper to import printed books, boxed up and shipped, than to publish new ones. To say that genres travel across space therefore means something more literal in this context than Cohen intends: they have a material historical life which needs to be traced through libraries and among readerships, as well as in histories of Australian literature. What I would like to suggest, therefore, returning to Bernard Smith, is that we look at British and American popular fiction of this period as “globally negotiable” (1998, 29), and try to understand the role of this fiction in constituting another nation, on the other side of the world, as an imagined community.

As a brief example of what I mean, consider Dracula—an “English” novel: that is to say, a novel published in England, by Constable, in 1897; but written by an Irishman of petty bourgeois Anglo-Protestant background who lived and worked in London fashionable society and whose self-repressed Irishness, whatever it might mean, is not unmeaningful. Dracula is also a novel about transnational mobility, its perils and strategic rewards; and it is, significantly, a novel about the battle between different kinds of mobility: the superior mobility of information and ideas over the mobility of bodies and things, as Thomas Richards so persuasively argues (1993, 62). Moreover, as we now know, Dracula manages to exploit just about every potent social anxiety at large in Britain in the 1890s, including the apparent fragility of the idea of national identity in the encroaching age of mass-immigration, the social empowerment of women, the rise of rival capitalist and imperialist leviathans, and the threat to liberalism from monopoly capitalism.

Dracula has also, in its busy recent critical history, become something of an exemplary historicist work. Like its shape-changing eponym, this novel is “an all-purpose allegory for a series of distinct contemporary discourses on the state of the British people and society (degeneration theory, reverse colonialism, criminal anthropology, inversion theory, and the like)” (Valente 2002, 1). Sometimes it feels as if Dracula has taken over the world of late-Victorian academic literary studies, an Irish outsider moving in on the fin de siecle, multiplying new readings uncontrollably. But he is also famously evasive. Is he a servant? Is he the master? Is he a bourgeois? An aristocrat? An Asiatic? A Jew? If nothing else, he is a representative of the extraordinary transnational mobility of critical ideologies. He appears, makes himself known, then slips out of sight again. We see him everywhere—except, of course, in the mirror, where he cannot, we suppose, be Australian.

“Vampires go where the power is”, Nina Auerbach observes (Auerbach 1995, 6), so it is significant that Dracula, a product of the decline of British world domination, should make the move, in the course of the twentieth century, across the Atlantic to the USA, where he turns up in all the major after-texts of Stoker’s novel. It is significant, too, from that point of view, that he should bypass Australia. But is Auerbach’s Dracula rather too mobile? In reality, as Richards argues, he is actually unable to move long distances unassisted by intermediaries: he is “less a moving body than a point of inertia” (1993, 62). It is easier to imagine him, in fact, being transported as an inanimate object—as dead as a box of dirt, or a box full of books—and deposited in various locations throughout Australia. One of those was the Tea Tree Gully Institute Library in South Australia, where a copy of the 1897 Hutchinson Colonial Library edition—in almost every way identical to the Constable first edition—was already on the shelves in 1897: testimony to the speed and efficiency with which the print products of Paternoster Row were dispatched around the world.

Without a strong tradition of our own, or a separate language, we were, after all, vulnerable to attack; and it is that extreme vulnerability that makes Dracula more relevant to accounts of our Australian national past than many of our own national texts. For the same reason, it also poses a threat to that past because it does not belong in the national community being forged by local writers for the fledgling nation state. Dracula is the name we have come to give to our fear of a generalised, incoherent threat from outside the nation state—and the fear that this threat may already be entrenched; may be invisible or indistinguishable from us. It is not a threat that necessarily takes a human form: it may be the threat of monopoly capitalism, for instance. In Australia, it was the threat to social and political progress posed by two powerful forces: first, the ideological residue of the decayed feudal order of the old world—vividly present in the succession of inept, effete colonial Governors; and the ready availability of cheap non-white labour. Alfred Deakin and other apologists for Federation were deeply schooled in Theodore Roosevelt’s American Ideals and Other Essays, where this conjunction is forcefully polemicised:

Nineteenth century democracy needs no more complete vindication for its existence than the fact that it has kept for the white race the best portions of the new worlds’ surface, temperate America and Australia.

Had these regions been under aristocratic governments, Chinese immigration would have been encouraged precisely as the slave trade is encouraged of necessity by any slave-holding oligarchy, and the result would in a few generations have been even more fatal to the white race; but the democracy, with the clear instinct of race selfishness, saw the race foe, and kept out the dangerous alien. The presence of the negro in our Southern States is a legacy from the time when we were ruled by a trasn-oceanic aristocracy. The whole civilisation of the future owes a debt of gratitude greater than can be expressed in words to that democratic policy which has kept the temperate zones of the new and the newest worlds a heritage for the white people (Roosevelt 1897, 289)

The defeat of Dracula speaks eloquently to the “radical act of racial expulsion” with which the “Australian nation-state was inaugurated” in 1901 (Lake 2003, 98), just a few years after the novel was published. Dracula and White Australia tell much the same story: of the triumph of collective white masculinity—or, in our terms, unionized social democracy—over what Engels called “the vampire property-holding class” and the racial degeneration their values would risk through the deregulation of wage labour. The energy of the coalition in the war against Dracula is secured through the power of sentimental social bonds—unified and democratised social bonds—that extend beyond the boundaries of the continent towards an Australia “for the white man”.

If the itinerancy of novelistic genres challenges a powerful tradition in literary history, a tradition of “subsuming the novel to the study of nationally based literary formations”, as Margaret Cohen suggests (2003, 481), the material commerce in fiction challenges the still more powerful tradition in literary history which omits the reader. Because of the virtual suppression of a local fiction publishing industry in nineteenth-century Australia, the evolution of an Australian imaginary depended vitally on the importation of cultural goods, among which novels were paramount. What were the consequences of this for Australia, and what can it tell us about the real-world relations between culture and imperialism? A literary history that is sensitive to reading histories can challenge the view that settler colonial readers were docile front-line agents in long-distance political domination. They were not empty vehicles for the dissemination of ideas, attitudes and values through written cultural works that normalized and neutralized the real-world colonial activities of exploitation and cultural destruction. Recovering something of the specificity and complexity of the uses which Australian colonial communities made of both the “great cultural archive” (Said 1993, 23) and the mass-circulation culture of empire , allows us to rethink literary history, and through it to reevaluate the history of antipodality.

Works Cited

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