"Notes" at a Conference:

...being a comment on some aspects of the "Local/Global" Conference held at UWS Nepean on 25th June, 1997


Kelvin McQueen


I went to a "Conference" the other day.

The first paper was given by a globetrotting gentleman who said that he was glad that he could use the "Conference" as an excuse to come to Sydney. That put we, the audience, and the "Conference", firmly in our places; we were an excuse, and the "Conference" was a simulacrum of a conference. Wonderfully post-modern. The whole thing was an exercise in a highly objectified, cynical game.

That cynicism seemed rather extraordinary considering that the earnest fellow's paper was about the problematic of objectification, of the creation of the "Other". In no uncertain terms, and with no sense of irony from our lecturer, we definitely became the "Other", with little consideration by the speaker in his presentation for civilised courtesies like transparent vocabulary, clear logical development, or even speaking on a topic of general interest (or of any particular interest, as far as I could see).

But we mustn't complain, we were in the hallowed presence of "Cringe". You see, the speaker came from the university of a southern city of an exotic European country, and he was English! Indeed, he looked like some etiolated remnant of an imperial decadence that under difficult circumstances had had to leave home to find intellectual acceptance and fecundity, or more likely, to find a job. He was a sort of E. M. Forster meets Death in Venice.

We endured his paper; his positing of "Contradictions" (which seemed more like confusions) between "Self" and "Other", between the "Regional" and the "Cosmopolitan", between "Linearity" and "Hybridity", between "This" and "That", between "Here" and "There". Ho, hum. Indeed, here my supercilious characterisation of his presentation is in fact far more lucid than anything the speaker said.

The whole piece was a nice performance, upon which two of my friends commented, centred around a fey (and faux) series of mea culpas suggesting that merely by existing, those engaged in the "Enlightenment Project" (which probably meant you and I) were guilty of creating the "Other". This seemed, apparently, and there were a lot of caveats so that everything "Seemed" rather than was, to be not a good thing. We were all implicated in the horrors of the Enlightenment; we were hung, drawn and quartered from the lectern.

In passing (but isn't that always the case with this kind of post-modernism?) "Development" was also not a good thing because it stemmed from "Modernism's" philosophical inability to treat less developed countries as anything other than the "Other". At the precise moment that this trite philosophical profundity was being uttered, a real civil war was underway in Zaire (a real underdeveloped country!) arising from an imperialist struggle between the USA and Europe (spearheaded by France) for control of Central Africa. American puppet Mobutu had left, European puppet Kabbila entered, next door the Congo erupted as the US attempted to remove the European-supported leadership and restore the regional strategic balance. I wondered how our speaker's paper would go down among those troubled masses whose "Otherness" (that is, "Otherness" in general, not specifically the Congolese, but then, what is "Specificity"?) seemed to so concern him. How relevant would they find his gibberish, his "Cartography", to their "Situation", or, even better, to their "Site"? Indeed, I'm sorry to say that the relevance of the speaker's paper with regard to the problems and successes of real development, real regionalism, real globalism, which were, in fact, both the conference's and his paper's topics, completely escaped me. However, I have forgotten, I was not at a conference, but at a "Conference".

Of course, the lack of relevance was the whole point of our learned "Colleague's" address. His style was a querulous quibbling over simplistic philosophical contrarieties, and an existential generalisation such that by our presence as a too polite audience he managed to ever-so-nicely associate us with his insipid guilt regarding the (rather mysterious) creation of global "Otherness".

The guilty one's irrelevance could have been remedied easily by the use of some hard-edged terminology to characterise globalisation and "Otherness", if those were to mean imposed inferiority, which wasn't at all clear from the author's meanderings. But then, terms like "hard-edged" and "inferior" might offend the soft-edged and superior. Nevertheless, there actually exists a currently little-favoured term for the real cause of the process of global differentiation and subordination. It is imperialism. You will notice that the term "imperialism" was not in inverted commas in the previous sentence. That was because our orotund orator never used the term, nor placed it in the inverted commas he reserved for "Significant" words, signalled by flicking his fingers in the air beside his head like a parody of a myxomatous rabbit's ears. You would think that the "Absence" of the term "imperialism" would seriously hinder an address about regionalism and development, but not for our intrepid prosaic poetaster (I know that's a contradiction, but wasn't that the point?). Why use such "Authoritarian" terminology, when the speaker could use a lot of stylishly-placed rabbit's ears for our edification during his performance? He even spelt out the word "Site" (s-i-t-e) for we illiterates in the audience who might have been confounded by his drivel.

He also suddenly declared after a ramble about "Charts", "Terrain", "Home" (and "Away"), that "This is Space!". In fact, that was the most oratorically assertive that he became. I wondered what Albert Einstein would have made of the speaker's two dimensional characterisation of that most difficult concept. Still, Einstein was probably just part of that "Linear" "Enlightenment Project", and could be safely and profitably ignored. That was unlike the speaker's intellectually admired Martin Heidegger, whose initial blunder of creating a "Regionalist" philosophy and supporting the Nazis had to be counterbalanced with his later intellectual distancing from the Thousand Year Project and the beauties of his subsequent philosophical disquisitions. But I thought Heidegger distanced himself from the regime (without him ever emphatically saying so) because he found the Nazis in practice to be a bit too unphilosophical, and, besides, isn't supporting a bunch of blood-thirsty psychopaths an honest mistake that any decent academic could make?

But the above is really something of a digression (you see how the permanent digression of post-modernism is contagious) from the real point of the address made by our carrier of the guttering torch of "Civilisation" (although he didn't seem too certain about the status of that term). "I don't know", "I'm not sure that this answers your question", he responded to enquirers at the end of his peregrinations, and then proceeded to tell us exactly what he did know and seemed quite sure of, which tended to be a considerable amount, for better or for worse.

You see, the whole act was quite authoritarian in its assault on the audience's patience and intelligence. We were there, we had to listen. We had to waste fifty minutes of our time, for which we had paid, to be made the passive powerless recipients, the real "Other", of a dissertation on the anxiety of a desiccated intellectual about whether "Otherness" could be overcome (at least philosophically). Well, I reckon, apart from the faux feyness, he made no bloody attempt to overcome our estrangement from his purpose. We were the rubes, the suckers, paying to be demobilised, to be diverted, to be futily angered by someone who positively thrived on the formalism of the style of a conference address which in the wrong hands can be used to cover the potentially oppressive function of the academy.

But why? Why are such self-satisfied petty oppressors thrown up, and thrown in our faces, by the international academic system? I feel that the whole process has a very direct, material cause.

"I fear for my ontological security", this Kurtz-like creeper on the moral razor's edge quavered. Well, I didn't know about that, but I could see that he certainly didn't fear for his epistemological or material security - his schooled accent, tweedy attire, global junketing and evident good salary showed that he was doing quite nicely, thank you very much. And the university in the economically depressed region he came from and the one strongly situated among the working class of western Sydney where the conference was held, were both paying for the privilege of listening to him moan about his insecurity. Oh, to be so insecure.

He was the epitome of the ideological excrescence of an insecure, troubled and restructuring imperialism. Here was the anxiety of the relaxed and comfortable middle class defender of the indefensible; his economic comfort and intellectual vacuity were paraded before us while the plight of the masses he was geographically among (he even showed us slides of some of those places) passed unremarked upon by the contrite one. Here was an apologist for an imperialism that was so insecure that it was safest for its hirelings to say nothing, and plenty of it, because to say anything concrete, anything real, anything solidly material, would chance it spilling over into a full-blown critique of the whole system. When imperialism in practice ostentatiously and unapologetically wears no clothes, as is currently the case, then for its toadies in any way to reflect on its observably naked exploitation might cause them to hesitate in the project of phoney intellectual solemnity, to perhaps surrender to real doubt about their academic purpose, for a disbelieving grin or an angry grimace to crack the expression of hopeful optimism worn by the members of the Inner Party. Imperialism's name must never be spoken clearly because to speak its name is immediately to conjure it as the truly illegitimate "Other", as the real interloper, as the inhuman global system of capitalist accumulation, bolstered by the increasing state repression of the masses. And it should be remembered that the academy is an important part of the state.

How should we respond to academic pretension that serves to mask the "Imperialist Project" (sorry, those are my inverted commas and capital letters)? What is to be done about the oppressors hiding in academic costume? And have no doubt about it, when sycophants of imperialism strut their dissimulation, they are actively engaged in the demobilisation of those attempting the study of real social problems, and the serious search for real social solutions. If academics are spending time treating the idle tautological flatus of post-modernists seriously, then that is time spent away from a search for a thoroughgoing analysis of the real causes of deprivation and oppression. And if we do not spend time learning through that search, then how can we teach? n

Kelvin McQueen, School of Education, University of Western Sydney


© 1997 Education Australia


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