Issue 1, 2006 | David Ritter

Critics, Old and New

Can the spirit of an age be one of déjà vu? The comparison between the noughties and Australia’s ‘long’ nineteen-fifties is well-made and often repeated. Howard is the new Menzies and the ALP is again the perennial loser at a Federal level. Tampa echoed Petrov. We are once more fighting wars at the behest of the USA. The ‘war on terror’ is the new Manichean substitute for the long struggle with the Soviet Union. All over again we seem to be experiencing that strange duality of experience that characterized the Cold War, ‘an era which saw economic stability and growing affluence and personal comfort’, but accompanied, curiously, by ‘growing uncertainty and fear’, deliberately fed by the ‘rhetoric of threat and crisis.’

In contrast to the barren binaries of the formal politics of sixties, the decade saw a proliferation of overtly-political cultural activity, with Australian thinkers evidently no longer prepared to trust in the luck of the country. The Critic, a journal of the University of Western Australia which was published from 1961 to 1970, was a local manifestation of a national feeling of deepening unease. Today, Australian liberal culture of the right, left and centre, is again contesting a status quo that seems to some to be both sterile and malignant. The editors of The New Critic, then, have self consciously gone looking for an old case that was put away in the cupboard when The Critic closed in 1970.

Yet to glance at the historical clock and dismiss the time as being ‘about a quarter to 1960’, would be to overlook that, as familiar as the times may seem, we have not been here before. We (West Australians, Australia, ‘the West’, humanity) face, for example, putative crises of unprecedented proportions in the breakdown of the Cold War nuclear system and the various deepening possibilities of global ecological collapse. Increase in human technological capacity continues to accelerate. If you feel like you have been here before, perhaps it is because the image was prerecorded on a mobile phone or a webcam. In our carnival society, the existential crisis can apparently be postponed by digital channels, offering the ability to pause the action, ‘in real time’. You can record the zeitgeist and watch it later and perhaps photo-shop yourself in to the frame. You can be seen to have been there and done that without having left your seat.

As some possibilities expand, there are also contractions. Speed is valorized and quantification seems triumphant as a method of assessing worth. What cannot be done swiftly, or in the interests of a pointy-headed vision of the ‘good society’, may be the subject of denigration. The current dominance of managerial ideology leaves reduced space for learning through the graduated accumulation of experience, or the idea that some knowledge is of entirely contextual value, or indeed the recognition that to accomplish something more quickly or cheaply may be a wholly false economy, when the principal result of more speed is the abbreviation or diminishment of human happiness, understanding or potential.

Yet vulgar narratives of dissatisfaction and decline should also themselves be met with interrogation. The majority of Australians are healthy and wealthy. Our problems are largely those of the opulent. In general, we ‘have’. Adopting a position of denial or shame at national prosperity seems entirely disingenuous, particularly given the efforts of past generations in redressing material inequality. No, not all Australians are doing well and the poor may be getting poorer and more desperate and permanent in their poverty, but it is impossible to deny that the majority of the population is neither an oppressed industrial working class nor an indentured peasantry. The middle class continues to rise and expand.

In such times, what does The New Critic stand for? Criticism, criticism and criticism once more: not in the sense of vulgar carping or simple oppositionalism, but the relentless interrogation of intellectual positions, in vigorous and rigorous but civil dialogue. In the spirit of the Institute of Advanced Studies’ broader mission, we seek balanced inquiry into the arts, sciences and professions, reaching out to a community of scholars, students, and indeed to all interested, inquiring and curious people. We seek span. We are suspicious of convenience, myths and complacencies. We believe in creativity for its own sake. We intend to publish articles that are questioning, analytical, inquisitive and contemplative, from both emerging scholars and established voices. We conceive of history, art, politics and society as democratic conversations; a multiplicity of debates without end. We are conscious of the convergence of the local with the global and the cosmopolitan. We see importance in both the tiny and the enormous.

We acknowledge The Critic of old and we salute the new critics of 2006.

David Ritter, for the editors of The New Critic