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Philistine invasion is cringe-worthy indeed



In 1950, A. A. (Arthur Angell) Phillips — a teacher at Wesley College in Melbourne and an essayist of growing repute — wrote a piece entitled 'The Cultural Cringe' for the literary journal Meanjin. Phillips was intrigued by a regular ABC radio program:

University of Technology Sydney (Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)'The Australian Broadcasting Commission has a Sunday program designed to cajole a mild Sabbatarian bestirment of the wits called Incognito. Paired musical performances are broadcast, one by an Australian, one by an overseas executant, but with the names and nationalities withheld until the end of the program. The listener is supposed to guess which is the Australian and which the alien performer. The idea is that quite often he guesses wrong or gives it up because, strange to say, the local lad proves to be no worse than the foreigner. This unexpected discovery is intended to inspire a nice glow of patriotic satisfaction.'

Phillips's coinage — 'cultural cringe' — struck such a chord, seemed somehow so precisely to nail a particular Australian social and intellectual trait, that it passed into the language. As Sydney University historian Rollo Hesketh describes it: 'Coined in 1950 in the pages of Meanjin, the term has come to refer to Australians' inherent lack of faith in their own culture ... Phillips wished to create a national culture that conceded no inferiority to Britain, and indeed was unembarrassed to be Australian ...'

In much the same way, Donald Horne's title, The Lucky Country, lost its original meaning. His proposition was that 'Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck. It lives on other people's ideas, and, although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.'

This confronting opinion has been so continuously misinterpreted that Horne was moved to re-state the position in his Death of the Lucky Country (1976), where he expressed his exasperation with how the title phrase had been misused. 'I didn't mean that it [Australia] had a lot of material resources ... In the lucky style we have never "earned" our democracy. We simply went along with some British habits.' Nevertheless, the ironic edge of 'lucky' was lost among the paeans of national praise that the phrase was so egregiously employed to validate.

As far as the 'cultural cringe' was concerned, Phillips had unquestionably noticed and identified a genuine Australian cultural trait — the tendency to deprecate what was local and native in favour of what was international, usually English. As Phillips saw it, Incognito had rightly diagnosed 'a disease of the Australian mind'. He especially objected to the distressing notion 'that in any nation, there should be an assumption that the domestic cultural product will be worse than the imported article'.

Phillips's incisive, witty essay lit a fuse that flickered along through the decades, gaining strength and cogency as Australia's creative artists — writers (in whom Phillips was especially interested), painters, dancers, actors, musicians, conductors, composers — commanded attention, admiration and wonder for their accomplishment, originality and daring. Which was not to say, however, that the idea of cultural cringe disappeared.


"Ring the bells, lock the doors. If you can't keep the bastards honest you can at least keep them out!"


The cringe is still detectable but much disguised. Simon Birmingham's recent vetoing of 11 humanities research projects is a good example of the cringe's transmutation into a version of populist philistinism. Here's his tweeted explanation: 'I'm pretty sure most Australian taxpayers preferred their funding to be used for research other than spending $223,000 on projects like "Post orientalist arts of the Strait of Gibraltar".'

Such intellectual rigour! He's 'pretty sure', his un-sampled research group is 'most' taxpayers and, though it's not evident or admitted in his tweet, he has dropped the first two words of the project. (It actually reads, 'Double Crossing: Art and politics at the Strait of Gibraltar'.)

Birmingham has picked his marks, however. Why are they all from the humanities? The answer is that many humanities research projects, unless explained in detail, can seem precious or far removed from ordinary experience and are sitting ducks for philistine attacks from 'university of hard knocks' critics who, like Birmingham, base their opinion on the title of the project or some version of it.

As Walter Benjamin pointed out, experience is gospel for the philistine who never grasps that 'there exists something other than experience, that there are values — inexperienceable — which we serve'. (Scientific and medical research projects are sometimes even more opaque to the uninitiated but usually safe from ignorant criticism because their importance is assumed.)

Political philistinism in our country has some more recognisable faces: Craig Kelly and Tony Abbott assure us that fossil fuels actually protect us; and there was Barnaby Joyce's assertion that people in K-Mart don't care about climate change (what about Woolies I hear you cry, what about Aldi — this is Simon Birminghamesque research); and there is the Prime Minister's cringeing recourse to ockerisms (well, forget it cobber, we tweet @davenmabel nowadays); and, of course, there was that last graceful week in our national parliament.

Ring the bells, lock the doors. If you can't keep the bastards honest you can at least keep them out!



Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Main image: University of Technology Sydney (Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Simon Birmingham, humanities, cultural cringe, Tony Abbott, Barnaby Joyce



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Existing comments

I am not sure I agree with Brian Matthews here. It seems to me to be the prerogative right of a Federal Minister to veto research projects not deemed to be in the national interest (however defined). A Minister's somewhat arbitrary criteria of merit or worth besides, their obstruction seems hardly a symptom of philistinism. I would think that anybody who is already working in a government-financed place in a university would already have ample resources at their disposal to conduct research in the humanities. Most research requires no more than an internet connection, a desk and long hours of compilation, contemplation and work. That one would require thousands, tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to conduct research in history, English, or sociology (which is presumably on top of their government salary) seems to me to be an overly excessive demand. One would have to justify quite strongly the need to travel, for a research project considering that much is already digitised, and the humanities generally don't have overly large fixed capital costs for research.

Jordan Heckendorf | 17 December 2018  

Undergraduate degree in humanities: 3 years Honours (first class): 1 year PhD: 5 years Working for the university on a casual contract, living off cup noodles, waiting for the big break: 10 years. Hours of unpaid work behind-the-scenes: countless. What you do when sneering executives deny every request for a properly-paid position, because they don't like the title of the research: cry. What you do when they defund your department, shrinking your casual hours lower and lower: cry. What you do when finally, ultimately, they shut down the humanities departments for good: start kicking down doors.

Jordan | 17 December 2018  

What’s concerning is that the Minister just read the project title, and made a decision without reading the full project description. A catchy title is not the sum total of a project. If he’d looked at this project it is an examination of trade history, and that has implications for current ideas on trade routes and agreements. It’s a simplistic and populist call by the Minister, but then few politicians are interested in knowledge and ideas.

Rosemary Sheehan | 18 December 2018  

I loved this article and I agree there is a tendency to sneer at anything arty or intellectual in the current government. It is not about the merits of a particular study, but about the ridiculing of ideas as being lefty and 'latte-sipping'. If we continue on this path, Australia could end up being very unlucky indeed.

Suzanne Hemming | 18 December 2018  

I completely agree with Brian and Jordon yet beg to differ with Jordon Heckendorf. Studies in the humanities is a vital part of our development as a nation. I spent three decades teaching senior history and Geography with the aim of developing in my students a desire to explore the world of the past and the present , with a learned eye for the future. The Minister needs to read the whole proposal not just the cover/title!

Gavin O'Brien | 18 December 2018  

Well, we now know something about Jordan Heckendorf. He has never studied humanities at a University. Also, Minister Birmingham's intervention in the award of research grants (that have been decided after a long and rigorous process) suggests that he has applied the pub test. Pity he didn't use the pub across the road from Melbourne University.

Brian Finlayson | 18 December 2018  

Brian Matthews is absolutely right. Isn’t it truly pathetic that the same so-called Conservatives and self-appointed saviours of “Western Civilisation” who now bloviate over the alleged “leftist collective” opposition to the Ramsay Centre have either stood by in silence, or actively participated in, years of huge cuts to university Humanities departments, particularly Classics, Music, Literature, Languages and History. Have they ever made any noise about the dumbing-down and removal of the ABC’s once proud cultural content over recent decades? While they’ve belligerently acted on their own narrow party political self-interest in their bullying obsession with alleged left-wing bias, they’ve done absolutely nothing to stop the philistine management of the ABC from replacing the types of programs for which the broadcaster was originally founded (by a Conservative government!) with third rate, faux-commercial content that has even lower ratings. What a pathetic bunch of poseurs they really are. Even Menzies would have disowned them.

Simon Healy | 18 December 2018  

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