A Wank On the Wild Side - Not!

review by Barry Westburg

The Virtual Republic: Australia's Culture Wars of the 1990s
McKenzie Wark
Allen & Unwin
RRP $19.95 314 pp.
ISBN 1 86448 520 5



I was there, too, that evening, the very night Helen 'Demidenko' was awarded the Gold Medal of the Australian Studies Association. The storm had not yet broken. All I remember was that I was astonished that someone of her young age could be awarded such an august award by such an august body in the month of August. Maybe the quiet guy at the dinner table (there were eight of us, only one of whom was a stranger to me) was Ken Wark himself, the very man whom, on his book jacket is touted as the guy who 'makes postmodernism sexy.' Had I but known that such a sex-beast was seated there - if he indeed was, and that it was not Ken Wark does not really matter in either a postmodern or a Pickwickian sense - might I have reacted differently when Darville/Demidenko and her young male blond brute of a companion marched up and asked to join us? I knew that at least three of the folks at the table were Jewish, so I preserved a timid silence while they indicated as politely as possible that two tall, slim, blond aryans could unfortunately not be accommodated just now. So Darville and her Muscular Christian cohort stomped out of my life forever. (Tall, slim, blond: tall like Goebbels, slim like Goering, and blond like Hitler, nicht wahr?) But it was not until reading Wark that I discovered I had at that moment missed the train for the - Virtual Republic!

--Virtual Republic? What's that, son?

--You'll never dig it, Daddy-o!

Ken Wark, you see, is a defender of Demidenkoism (demidenko: scientific term for the smallest particle of truth). I am not a very good Virtual Republican because I agree too much with everything I read. I agree with almost everything that Wark writes, on most subjects, particularly on Demidenko, which he takes as a test case for proving that Australia is a fully-functioning 'Virtual Republic.' A virtual republic is a take on Society that sees it as something like a democratic forum in which ideas circulate freely and are just as freely criticised, and that means everywhere, not just at august gatherings and not just in universities. It is a postmodern republic, where a thousand voices contend in myriad mediated forms. This old Internet is a perfect example of a site where the virtual republic can realise itself.

The first half of the Wark work is called 'Roots' and that's where you find the theory bits, along with the autobiography of the theoritician himself. Wark is good at constructing sexy chapter headings, and I guess that is a postmodernist skill. The content beneath the headings I found to be uneven in quality, and were there time I would be a worthy Virtual Republican and engage in counter-argument. Two things I would look into, if I did not have an important lunch engagement today with Professor Bogart and if the deadline for this review were not yesterday:

The apparently unexamined valorisation of the Young - call it 'age-ism' if you will be unkind - that permeates the book. Perhaps only codgers, 'sixties leftovers will bridle at this, or even notice it. One is better than one's masters (except for the very young ones and the females), but one's students are better (streetwiser?) than oneself - never mind why. To mix a few metaphors, this apparent prejudice adds a bit of chili con carne to his cultural target practice: by sticking to the familiar cultural sphere, the Public realm, he takes on easy targets like David Williamson and others who call into question the sanctities of cultural studies and postmodernism in general. (He lets Helen Garner off lightly, on this occasion, and fangs the male miscreant instead).

The other thing I would look into, were I in a fit state after lunch at the T-Chow, is Wark's polyanna-ish view of what our universities have become since the fading of the Whitlam era and the ensuing double whammy of Dawkins and Vanstone policies. There is also his claim that Political Correctness, postmodernism, and feminism have never done any documented harm to their opponents. Here Wark should have applied the same criteria that he rightly extends (in the adjacent chapter, the one on Demidenko) to the Holocaust sufferers. It is wrong and inhuman to expect documentation from the silenced victims. Even if there were no documented lives lost in the academic wars, there might be other kinds of injury, abuse and cultural loss: as one small instance of this, see Europe: A History (written by a 'young' historian, no less), where Norman Davies analyses what happened to the Stanford University history department when it decided to accommodate the demands of student activists.

But - hey - read this book and relive the eighties and nineties! Look back in anger, look forward in angst! The important chapter for teachers of writing is the one on Demidenko, because it opens up the arena of the Possible for writers. The future of writing in a media age is worth rethinking along Wark's lines. Perhaps even more valuable for writers and students of writing is the chapter 'A Secret History', where good examples of postmodernist writing show it to be alive and well - at least until post-postmodernism comes slouching from Bethlehem, crying to be born. Or is it already here, in the 'young' writing that some call 'grunge'? (Alas, all I can personally hope for is an era when geriatric grunge might become the dernier cri.)

And so to lunch.


Barry Westburg's most recent publication is Rage of Angels, a collection of short fictions published by Wakefield.


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Vol 2 No 1 April 1998
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady