In 1992 I decided to buy a house, after many years of living in a rented flat. This decision was part of an effort to locate myself. After about eight years in Melbourne, I decided to commit myself to the city as the place I inhabited, my town. I had originally come here to work, and the city had never seemed sympathetic to me, or — with one or two exceptions — beautiful. But it came to seem a waste of time and energy to live so long in internal exile.
As soon as I looked for houses, I realized that I wanted to live in one suburb in particular: Clifton Hill. The deeper reasons for this preference were not all clear to me, but a couple stood out. Clifton Hill was far enough from my workplace to give me the opportunity to have a life outside the university community — not always easy for a slightly workaholic academic living alone. But it was still close to the ‘inner city’: to art cinemas, bookshops, record shops and galleries, as well as restaurants and cafés — centres of cultural consumption firmly tied into minority-taste global distribution networks. My newfound embeddedness in the local was predicated on access to what was global but not, as media theorists used to say, massified.
Clifton Hill — or at least the area in the suburb I was interested in — also had a large park that was quite unlike the other parks I was familiar with in Melbourne. It ran along Merri Creek and joined the Yarra. It was wild (notices said ‘Beware of snakes from October to March’), and there were cliffs, and what the eighteenth century would have called grottoes. In one particular place, which I would later come to know as the Quarry Site, the park opened out to a bare, windswept space on a hill, with spectacular views of the city to the south and of the Dandenong ranges in the eastern distance. In these views, by some accident of geography and urban development, the signs of human habitation were almost hidden.
In a word, Clifton Hill contained, for me, elements of the beautiful and the sublime. Not the sublime of Salvator Rosa or Turner; not the beautiful of Constable, let alone an aesthetic theorist like Edmund Burke but still the sublime, the inner-city suburban sublime. I was excited by my discovery of this landscape, and delighted when I finally bought a small house opposite the Quarry Site with views of the eastern vistas from the front, admittedly through a picket gate. As the real-estate placard said, it was ‘an inner city house where you can imagine you live in the country’. A short walk out the front gate onto the bare grass and the small incline, with no houses in the way, and I could see all of Melbourne city spread in front of me. A further walk took me down to the river and the inner-city sublime.
Two things complicated my everyday enjoyment of Clifton Hill. My pleasure in the place was mingled with a certain self-suspicion. Why did I respond so strongly to those commanding city views? Because they enabled a vicarious, phantasmal sense of command? Why did I walk so often down on the river path? Because of a compulsion for solitude and its attendant forms of self-pathos and self-regard — something that literary intellectuals tend to live through, even while they know its cultural history and moment of origin in the late eighteenth century? Second, the response that the Merri Creek and Quarry Space called up in me did not exclude other kinds of aesthetic responses to other kinds of spaces and situations. The kind of eighteenth-century subjectivity I am dealing with here is compatible with a taste for modernist cityscapes or bohemian streetlife. Rhetorically, cultural-politically or logically these responses may be in contradiction, but not as they are lived.
The next act of my story began when I learned, about six months after moving in, that the local council — the City of Collingwood Council — had been granted federal money to develop the Quarry Site, mainly to turn it into an adventure playground, but also to fence some of it off into ‘community gardens’, to place a little stream and flying foxes through it, to build barbecues, picnic sites and so on.
I discovered this when I turned up at a sausage sizzle organized by the consultants contracted to plan the development. This firm specializes in developing public land from the perspective of a particular political philosophy. They are committed to developing sites in harmony with their settings, and providing facilities closely tied to community needs. They ascertain these needs by a series of research and feedback techniques, which in this instance involved holding public meetings in the local scout hall, going to schools, taking school kids to the site and asking them what they wanted and, finally, holding the sausage sizzle, at which plans for various layouts and facilities were presented to the community for comment. For me as an academic, the rhetoric of these designers’ politics was rather like that of early cultural studies, of a certain side of Raymond Williams, for instance — the Raymond Williams who in ‘Britain in the Sixties’ argued that the strongest riposte to ‘mass culture’ and global capital was to work against ‘social poverty’ by improving the places where you live and work. If it comes to that, the designers would have no problems with the line taken by Sharon Zukin in her recent book Landscapes of Power, which turns around the concept of ‘public value’:
public value suggests that there is an irreducible minimum balance that should be maintained between natural and social forces in the landscape — between built and unbuilt spaces, or new and old construction. Preserving public value by limiting development is also democratic to the extent that it permits growth but regulates it by local control … public value mandates a discussion on the basis of citizenship rather than ownership.1
The designers had the luxury of being more concrete than Zukin. They did not have to worry about the theoretical relation between the global, the national and the local, which is ultimately Zukin’s concern; they simply wished to fine-tune their designs against standardized assemblages, and to make manifest the neighbourhood’s wants and needs in their shaping of the site.
When I saw the projected designs, however, my immediate response was one of anger. The plans involved turning quite large areas of grass into hard surfaces for skate-boarding, tennis practice and so on. Large play apparatuses would break the skyline, replacing grass with tall structures and cement paths. What I loved about the space — its openness, its sense of not being touched by the human — was being spoiled.
I became political. I talked to neighbours, complaining about the development; I approached the official community representatives for the project; I drew up a petition and doorknocked with it; I spent a weekend hanging about the Quarry Site with my petition, talking to people and asking them to sign. I got a few neighbours on side, and we attended Council meetings. The petition and letter attracted the attention of the local press, and a neighbour and I were interviewed by the Leader and the Melbourne Times.
I learned a great deal in the process. To begin with, I discovered quite a lot about the area, of which few printed historical records are easily available. Some of this was rather unexpected, and helped explain people’s attitudes. Until a few years ago the Quarry Site itself had been the Collingwood rubbish tip; hence its bareness and interesting inclines. So much for an untouched landscape. That the site had once been a tip influenced people’s attitudes against us: ‘It’s only the old tip, so why are you worried about it?’ The Merri Creek area behind it had long been a wilderness, and was one of the last places in Melbourne where the local Woiworrung people had lived outside of Western-style housing; in the 1840s there had been a Baptist mission where the Merri meets the Yarra, half a kilometre south-east of my house. One old man who had lived in the area all his life told me that he remembered seeing Kooris camped by the creek when he was a boy, which would have been in the 1920s, I guess.
It also turned out that there had been two previous environmental campaigns in the area, both of which mobilized much more support than our own. One, a campaign to have the tip closed, had been successful; the other, to prevent the construction of the Eastern Freeway which now divides Collingwood from Clifton Hill, had failed.
I also quickly learned that even this kind of political action does not take place within the kind of public sphere that might enable decision-making to be based on rational policy debate and a calculus of public value. Both sides constantly appealed to a more or less imaginary community will. The designers were in contact with the community through their democratic/ethnographic work at the sausage sizzle, schools and scout hall. Our side were in contact with it as we touted our petition around — and anyway we didn’t have to represent it; we as residents just were (a part of) the community will. But when I tried to argue that the fifty-odd signatures I had received meant that there was considerable public opposition, I was told that the plans had found unanimous approval, and that petition-signing was meaningless. ‘Pass around a petition to paint all possums pink on Hoddle Street and you’ll end up with signatures,’ said one local polly, who had obviously said it before. Furthermore, the categories of public and private were unstable: my politicking turned the private into the public. Some of my neighbours were quite vituperative about our efforts, so that I felt that my house and car were publicly marked — available, at extremes, for tyre-slashing and so on. The common land became a site of contestation, and the designers’ first inroads were actually vandalized by one of my neighbours as an act of private protest.
The kinds of categories that early cultural studies or the postmarxist left often use to form the basis of political agency were inapplicable here. An example is Jürgen Habermas’s statement at the end of his book on the public sphere:
Under conditions of the large, democratic social-welfare state the communicative interconnectedness of a public can be brought about only in this way: through a critical publicity brought to life within intraorganizational public spheres, the completely short-circuited circulation of quasi-public opinion must be linked to the informal domain of the hitherto nonpublic opinions.2
As our campaign’s failure became more and more obvious, nonpublic opinion seemed pretty much to define me. I was an eccentric spoiling voice without much capacity to enter into dialogue with the politicians’ and consultants’ modes of rationality. Yet, while the designers were interested in democratically taking informal, hitherto nonpublic opinion into the public realm, and using the needs and wants they uncovered to determine land use, in fact another short-circuit seemed to have been established. The designers had their own image of community, and defined community needs by retrieving what they had imaged in the first place.
What I found, as we campaigned to save our ex-tip, ex-wilderness piece of the inner-city sublime, was not a community that had articulable needs, or even articulable varieties of needs, but a complex politics that turned around entangled differences of class, lifestyle, ethnicity and taste. To begin with, the City of Collingwood as a political and administrative district is inhabited by very different kinds of people. There are migrant groups — especially Vietnamese — living in public housing, Anglo-Celtic working-class people living throughout but concentrated in Collingwood and Abbotsford rather than Clifton Hill, and more middle-class households, who are generally called yuppies. In terms of this classification I am a yuppie. Because self-recognized yuppies don’t form a majority in Collingwood, demographically or on Council, their views are suspect and do not usually win political debates.
When I went to the local library to find out more about Collingwood, I discovered that this division between working-class, migrant Collingwood residents and those who lived literally above them in Clifton Hill had waxed and waned since the 1860s. Collingwood had always been poor, but Clifton Hill was sometimes perceived as markedly middle-class, sometimes not. The opposition was originally fixed by geography, as Clifton Hill was elevated above the floods and sewage disposal problems that plagued Collingwood. Now, when those problems are long past, Clifton Hill is once again perceived as bourgeois in relation to the low ground.
So I found myself in a form of class war, in which I and the few neighbours who joined me were defined as yuppies, and our opponents, who had the power, sometimes defined themselves as workers or battlers. In fact the positions involved were much more complex than this. The Labor councillors, many of whom seemed personally middle-class, tended to speak for the migrant community. We were told, for instance, that the allotments were planned because the Vietnamese, many of whom lived in high-rise government flats, were used to having vegetable gardens in Vietnam, and this was an ideal chance to allow them to garden again. I don’t know how true this is, but no Vietnamese people or members of other migrant groups were involved in discussion over the site. And then, as I doorknocked, I found that Clifton Hill yuppies were far less likely to object to the development than the many workers and old residents (including migrants from Italy and Greece) who still live in this supposedly middle-class part of Clifton Hill. The yuppies were more likely to have children, so a play area appealed to them; they also tended to have a more instrumental attitude to land use, and were more likely to think of the Quarry Space as underperforming, while the old inhabitants had memories attached to the way the site used to be, and opposed changes that helped destroy those memories.
The Quarry Site debate also turned into a struggle between people living different kinds of domestic lives. The public that the designers contacted, and imagined as community, was very largely a public constituted by families, but the actual community was not dominated by families at all. My neighbours on one side were two gay men; on the other an old retired man living by himself; next to him was another mover and shaker in the protests, a woman who is a lesbian and a feminist and who also lives by herself. The designers and the official community representatives claimed that we were unable to appreciate the plans because we didn’t have children, and didn’t recognize that the area had a crying need for more play areas.
But the real difficulty I found was that my aesthetic response to the park and the old tip site could not be shared or communicated. I think of the area abstractly as beautiful, as sublime, though I do not think I was ever stupid enough to use the term ‘sublime’ in public. I suspect it is a word that today can only be used in the academy, by and around theorists or historians. Even my allies in the struggle did not seem to think of the site in these terms. They were worried about increased traffic noise, parking problems and unwanted visitors, especially male adolescents, who might pose security problems. They were irritated by the community representatives’ and designers’ heterosexualism and familialism (to coin a phrase). The closest anyone else came to the kind of aesthetic language in which I expressed my anger was the statement that the built structures and fences would ‘block the view’.
I think we can generalize out from this. What I found in this piece of local political action was not that the politics of everyday life are likely to place the kind of people who theorize about such things (like me) in uncomfortable positions — as yuppies against the workers, as Anglo-Australians against the multiculturals (another term used unselfconsciously in discussions), or even as non-family people against family people. What I found was a movement back from the kind of job and money that allowed me to buy a house in Clifton Hill to the kind of subjectivity associated with at least one side of my job, which is teaching culture and literature affirmatively. I’ll call this, crudely enough, aesthetic subjectivity: a subjectivity constituted by internalized techniques and dispositions, and through which one can view the world aesthetically, judging it, being moved by it in terms of its beauty and sublimity, among other categories. This kind of subjectivity is at least partly produced and reinforced by reading canonical literature and viewing traditional art images, as well as reading or watching certain popular cultural texts and movies new and old — Anthony Mann Westerns, to take an example almost at random.
In this situation I began to theorize a little, and came up with an abstract proposition, a rule of thumb, to cover what was happening. It states that aesthetic subjectivity is more or less unavailable for dialogue and negotiation in the kind of local political action that those who professionalize their literary subjectivity are likely to be involved in. I can present this proposition, I guess, at the very least as distilled experience that may help members of my profession to orientate themselves to politics at the somewhat neglected level that I am dealing with now. This level of politics is becoming more important as local neighbourhoods, especially inner-city ones, become addresses on global networks, so that the global/local opposition is less sustainable. It is all the more important when national and international politics provide few occasions for involvement by ordinary citizens, and the politics of identity mobilized around gender, class and ethnicity is quickly becoming bureaucratized and centred around thankless political-correctness debates.
My rule of thumb operates where certain tendencies in cultural theory intersect with certain current tendencies in political theory. Let us agree that political action or discourse grounded in large and abstract collectivities such as feminists, gays, Aborigines can do violence to looser groupings and individual differences; that there are many zones in which these kinds of collectivities and the identities granted through them can’t be used or counted on, or anyway don’t work productively; and (a slightly different kind of point) that high-cultural preferences and tastes are not goods in themselves and are attached to specific social groups or types of people. If we limit ourselves to affirming generalizations that aren’t excluded by these propositions, then it seems to me that the kind of rule of thumb that I have just outlined crystallizes what ‘we’ can come up with. It is a rule that covers a ‘we’ that is largely limited to cultural producers, humanities academics, and arts students and ex-students. And that ‘we’ is unified, though not defined, by the fact that its members share, within a range of variability, a particular economic and social status and all that goes with it, and also by a particular if various set of tastes and capabilities — for reading, for thinking analytically, for taking cultural consumption seriously and so on.
Of course this ‘we’ can be further broken down, and my rule of thumb only covers a small sector within it. For instance, some academics live in posher areas than Clifton Hill, and only some of us are what I am calling aesthetic subjects. Nevertheless, despite the fact that my rule of thumb does not cover even all academics working in the humanities, it does come closer to articulating the kinds of action and possibilities involved when what we are and what we do connects politically with where we are likely to live. And it does so in ways that make as few claims as possible about the non-academic collectivities we as individuals may belong to or feel we represent, but which, as my example shows, are not able to be brought to bear on at least some concrete political situations.
I was irritated and humbled by the incommunicability of my tastes, of my aesthetic subjectivity, among my neighbours and political representatives. The fact that words like ‘beauty’ and ‘sublimity’ have limited currency in politics and policy debates is no news — even Paul Keating has complained about the failure of town planners and other land-use policy makers to consider aesthetic questions. But the impossibility of bringing aesthetic criteria to bear was painful, especially when failure meant a markedly less beautiful, less purposeless (to use the Kantian term) environment to live next to.
In failure, what began to interest me was the history of the tastes that were driving me into community politics, and making it harder for me to function easily and anonymously as a member of the community. This interest was not finally academic; it was motivated by my being an inhabitant of Clifton Hill who had been drawn into neighbour politics, and it had a certain therapeutic value. As soon as I began to research the topic, unsystematically and unprofessionally, I found to my surprise that my Clifton Hill was a rough and scaled-down double of another Clifton Hill that played a part in the British history of my own tastes and lifestyle. This Clifton Hill was part of Clifton, which is now an expensive suburb of Bristol, but in the eighteenth century was a small town famous for its spa, the Hot Wells, and fashionable, as far as I can discover, from the 1760s to the early 1830s.
My Clifton Hill was named after that Clifton Hill by John Hanlon Knipe in the 1840s. I assume that he was drawn to the name by the fact that both sites were on hills at a distance from a port city, and were bordered by rivers and cut into by gorges and rocks. I am not now concerned with the violence and frauds by which Melbourne’s Clifton Hill was acquired by the colonizers, or with the irony of attempting to model a basically working-class suburb of Melbourne on a former upper-class resort outside Bristol. I am more interested in the way this doubling was working on me, and how doing a little research helped me to rethink my local politics, and made it easier for me to contextualize my suspicions of my own response to the space.
Clifton Hill had a precise place in the cultural topography of eighteenth-century Britain. Developed at the moment when the suburban way of life was being expanded, it was situated at the border of country and city. It was an extension of the civil into the wild; or, to put it the other way round, it brought the sublime into almost urban space. It was probably also important that Bristol was the last English staging post to a centre of the British sublime — the internal colony of South Wales — and to the African slave coasts and the West India trade. It may even be important that Bristol was, despite its commercial interests, a progressive Whig electorate. In 1774 Edmund Burke, already known to serious readers as the author of On the Sublime and the Beautiful, celebrated his election victory at Clifton’s Hot Wells.
As far as I know, Clifton enters literary history in a poem by William Whitehead, published in 1751 as ‘A Hymn to the Nymph of Bristol Spring’. It is a strange poem, mixing baroque imitations of Homer on nature with marketing hype for the resort and flashes of Cowperesque proto-romanticism. Its tonal shifts respond to a wild but agrarian landscape that is being presented for affluent leisure uses and spectatorship. Yet the poem has passages that speak to me quite directly. Not, admittedly, passages like this, where Whitehead watches the nymph of the spring’s sisters ‘Mirth serene’ and ‘peace’:
Nor less intent
Their fairy forms I view, when from the height
Of Clifton, tow’ring mount, th’ enraptured eye
Beholds the cultivated prospect rise
Hill above hill, with many a verdant bound
Of hedge-row chequer’d.
Now on painted clouds
Sportive they roll, or down yon winding stream
Give their light mantles to the wafting wind,
And join the sea-green sisters of the flood.
Despite everything, the following passage touches me with its emphasis on how Clifton Hill appeals to isolated subjectivity, and triggers an inner-life interpenetration of literature and landscape, the material and the phantasmal:
Happy the man whom these amusive walks,
These waking dreams delight! No cares molest
His vacant bosom: Solitude itself
But opens to his keener view new worlds,
Worlds of his own: from every genuine scene
Of Nature’s varying hand his active mind
Takes fire at once, and his full soul o’erflows
With Heaven’s own bounteous joy; he too creates,
And with new beings peoples earth and air,
And ocean’s deep domain. The bards of old,
The godlike Grecian bards, from such fair founts
Drank inspiration. Hence on airy clifts
Light satyrs danc’d, along the woodland shade
Man’s mystic pipe resounded, and each rill
Confess’d its tutelary power, like thine.3
Here is a belief in an energy that flows from the rugged landscape into those who walk through it alone — an energy that triggers a creative break with ordinary life, a capacity to perceive what is not ‘really’ present.
After Whitehead, and probably because of him, Clifton Hill became a reference point for novelists of the period as they attempted to map the geography of British social and moral distinctions and styles. Let me take a couple of examples from the 1770s. The central characters in Smollett’s Humphrey Clinker stay at Clifton Hill, and it is here that his heroine, Lydia Melford, discloses her love for the strolling actor who follows her around on her tour. She first expresses her feelings through her feelings for the place, writing to a friend:
I begin to be in love with solitude, and this is a charming romantic place. The Air is so pure; the Downs are so agreeable; the furze in full blossom; the ground enamelled with daisies, and primroses, and cowslips; all the trees bursting into leaves, and the hedges already clothed with their vernal livery; the mountains covered with flocks of sheep and tender bleating wanton lambkins playing, frisking, and skipping from side to side; the groves resound with the notes of blackbird, thrush, and linnet; and all night long sweet Philomel pours forth her ravishingly delightful song …4
This is a take-off of the sentimental literature of the time; Lydia’s gushing clichés show how close the pieties of the conventional topographical poem came to self-parody. But the passage is not simply ironic; Lydia’s love is true, her joy affirmed by the novel. And it is no accident that this passion is first experienced at Clifton Hill, figured as what Leo Marx called a ‘middle landscape’, defined as both nature and culture — and here, more specifically than in the poetry of the time, associated with a resort patronized by the upper classes and appreciated by sensibilities that promise that the strolling actor will at last turn out a gentleman.5
Clifton also figures in Fanny Burney’s Evelina, published only six years after Humphrey Clinker but belonging to a new literary generation. Here Clifton stands against London, where life is lived in public. London public life is especially threatening to women, who are exposed to sexual violence, and also threatens class hierarchies, because different social groups mix indiscriminately. Clifton represents a more ordered space, one that again allows true love to flower. But for Burney, Clifton’s beauty is itself open to abuse. The nouveau riche Mrs Beaumont has a ‘beautifully situated’ house on the hill at Clifton (the name Beaumont tells us as much), and she is attempting to convert the natural beauty of the lands and views she owns into personal status, an attempt for which Burney has no sympathy. For Burney status is a matter of genealogy and landed estates, not capital and taste. After Whitehead and Smollett, this is rather sobering: it makes it harder to ignore the class hierarchies that underlie the doubling by which English Clifton Hill supplied its name and attempted to supply its aura to Melbourne’s Clifton Hill — hierarchies that no doubt, at a distance, help organize my own response as a yuppie.
Clifton Hill enters the narrower literary history of the sublime in another now forgotten but once quite popular work, Mary Robinson’s Walshingham or the Pupil of Nature, published in 1797. By the sublime I am not referring here to anything as specific as Kant’s or even Burke’s theories, but rather to the concept as it was first articulated within the popular knowledge of the time, with two different emphases. The first emphasizes the sublime’s relation to the Gothic, as in Richard Hurd’s influential Letters on Chivalry (1762). Here the category is called on to describe those moments when the fancy breaks with rationality and realism, and disengages from the processes of social modernization to conjure a supernatural world of ghosts, demons, fairies, spirits — in a word, of magic. For Hurd the sublime breaks through the restraints of modernity; it allows individual imaginations to suspend disbelief in the magical agents of old stories. The second emphasis is articulated best by Friedrich Schiller in his short essay ‘On the Sublime’. Here, to be touched by the sublime is to view nature as offering no moral lessons, as destructive, as meaningless, and then to steady oneself by recognizing that what is true for nature is not true for human beings. What is remarkable about Schiller’s essay in relation to Kant’s Critique of Judgement, say, is that for Schiller nature’s terrors and destructiveness are so powerful that the steadying balance of rationally generated moral laws seems almost impossible to achieve.
Here is a passage from Walshingham that operates within the borders set by these notions of the sublime. The following description of Clifton Hill appears just after the hero, Walshingham, has glimpsed the corpse of a woman he once raped:
The day became gloomy, the wintry wind howled among the stupendous rocks, and the rain poured in torrents down their craggy sides; while I, scarcely knowing whither I bent my way, continued to walk rapidly along the narrow path which winds beside the Avon. — The phantom of Amelia seemed to follow me — her voice in imagination met my ear amidst the loudest whistling of the storm, and my mind was agonized to frenzy. I threw my feverish form at the foot of a jutting precipice, and resigned myself to the very misery of sorrow. The elements conspired to aid the dreadful chaos of my bewildered brain. I had outraged the very laws of Nature, and her dreadful artillery was pointed at the devoted wretch who had been her pupil, and was destined to become her victim.
Walshingham’s feelings, in this rather cloggy piece of prose, do not mirror anything in my own experience, although his plight now comes back to me sometimes as I walk through Clifton Hill’s rock formations and little gorges along with Whitehead’s satyrs and nymphs. Yet a careful reading of Walshingham and its context does have something to say to my political predicament in Clifton Hill, Melbourne.
Mary Robinson’s Walshingham is a so-called Jacobin novel, which expresses certain of the ideals of the French Revolution. It also explicitly thematizes and politicizes aesthetic subjectivity. Walshingham is a Rousseauistic child of nature, brought up in the wilds of Wales and addicted to solitude. He is also a voracious reader and a poet — not completely unlike the kind of man Whitehead imagined walking at Clifton Hill. For Walshingham, Bristol is a town sublimely haunted by ghosts, but these are now the phantoms of the great modern literary solitaries and authentic aesthetic sensibilities: Richard Savage and particularly Thomas Chatterton. Walshingham fervently cites Chatterton’s line, ‘every thing was within the power of man, if he would but stretch forth his arms to reach it’. Walshingham is drawn to the sublime, not like Schiller because it is the sign of a gap between ontology and reason, but because it is the sign of a gap between social codes and psychic structures, or, if you like, between law and desire — society’s laws, his desire.
This story of the disjunction between society and human nature engendered intense feelings in 1797, mainly because of its author’s relation with her public. Mary Robinson was one of the most famous women of her time. She was a poor but well-educated woman who spent her childhood in Bristol and Clifton, and married a gambler and womanizer when she was 15. To escape the debtors’ prison she became an actress, famous for her breeches (i.e. trouser-wearing) roles. She was extraordinarily beautiful, and doted on public attention. In the early 1770s she became the Prince of Wales’ first mistress, after he saw her in The Winter’s Tale playing Perdita. Eventually the Prince ditched her, and broke a promise to pay her £20,000. Finding that her reputation made it impossible to return to the stage, Robinson went on to become mistress to a series of other famous men. Her affairs became public scandals, grist to the mill of contemporary caricature and satire, including a particularly nasty lithograph by James Gillray, who showed her in a whirligig, an apparatus used to mete out punishment to army prostitutes. In the 1780s she began to write poetry and novels, changing her literary modes with the fashions. At one point she came into contact with William Godwin’s circle (under whose influence Walshingham was written) and also with the young Coleridge. So she returned to the public sphere, this time as an author.
Walshingham is partly autobiographical, except that Robinson narrates her life as if it had happened to a man. Her scandalous sexual lapses become Walshingham’s rape and infidelities. Walshingham ends up marrying a woman who has lived as a man all through the novel, in another gender reversal that points to one of Robinson’s messages: the kind of life I lived would not have damaged me so much if I had been a man. For me, however, the more important point is that the character Walshingham stands as a reproach to society, not just as an embodiment of gender inequities, but because he is driven by passions that arise from his sense of social injustice — passions of which his reading, poetry and love for sublime scenery form a part. In the novel this is given; it is what he is, as a ‘pupil of nature’. The ‘nature’ of which he is a pupil — exemplified by the landscape of South Wales and Clifton — has overtones of the Schillerian sublime. It cannot be contained by established social codes, but provides no basis for alternative moral principles either. In this it is located on the dark side of secular modernity and post-Humean morality. Yet, in the light of Robinson’s career, her character’s literariness and love of the sublime seem as much a strategy as a given; they seem a way of excusing and escaping her own life, and of making her way back into the public sphere after the whirligigs and obscene pamphlets.
Which has a moral for me. It makes it easier for me to see my own aesthetic self as founded on self-interested strategies, though those strategies share little with Robinson’s. In particular, it becomes easier to read my own tastes — my hatred of fences and adventure playgrounds and noise, my literary love of solitude — as a motivated flight from one kind of social world into an imaginary world, and simultaneously into a profession. The flight into an imaginary world that hovers round my Clifton Hill, a world inhabited by a jumble of different entities — fictional characters like Walshingham or Evelina, forgotten celebrities like Mary Robinson, abstract concepts like the sublime, the ghosts of the garbage trucks that once dumped trash in the beautiful grassed incline opposite my house — my capacity to imagine those worlds is inseparable from the effort to secure an academic salary and a presence as a particular kind of intellectual. If that profitable flight can’t find a language to convince my local community, whose problem is that? Not necessarily the community’s.
Let me end by striking a rather different note. Since the adventure playground was approved and, indeed, since I embarked on this essay, new threats have emerged to the Quarry Site and its surroundings. Some time in the middle of 1993, Collingwood Council circulated a plan that marked the Quarry Site for housing development. This document made a mockery of the plans for allotments, picnic sites and so on. Just how this confusion occurred I don’t know, especially as, in the uproar that followed. Councillors went into (off-the-record) denials, declaring that the park would never be sold off for houses. But it is clear that the new plan, along with other recent rezonings and approvals for high-density housing in the area, is intended to fulfil the spirit of the federal government’s urban consolidation policy (a.k.a. ‘better cities’ programme), a policy that meshes neatly with the State government’s moves to encourage the privatization of public land (including the Fairlea Prison site on the other side of Merri Creek) as well as the local council’s need for revenue.
The new federal policy is based on the belief that it is cheaper to increase the density of inner-city and suburban housing than to build infrastructure for new housing at urban margins. This belief may in fact be misguided: there is some evidence that the policy relies on a false image of how the CBD is actually used by those who live in outer suburbs or satellite centres, and that the economic advantages of inner-city consolidation have been overstated. But this is not quite the point. The point is that urban consolidation must take into account aesthetic questions, which in the real world open out quickly into negotiation between people with various lifestyles and values, and hence into local politics. It would be disastrous if urban consolidation meant not just degradation of the inner-city environment, but, more specifically, a failure to take into account differences in particular neighbourhoods’ histories, life practices, housing stocks and so on — in a word, their atmosphere or ‘feel’.
Given these new pressures, it is especially crippling that aesthetic discourses are so politically ineffective. But let’s be optimistic. Maybe a discourse about cultural heritage holds promise in this context. Is there a way of effectively articulating how the Quarry Site and Clifton Hill, for instance, are peopled with memories — there where the Woiworrung jostle with Mary Robinson, and Schiller with the garbage of decades of Collingwood residents? Is there a way of disseminating cultural memories and styles of perception so the space increases its aura and therefore its public, even its economic, value?
Image credit: djs
- Sharon Zukin, Landscapes of Power from Detroit to Disney World (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1991), pp. 273-4.
- Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger (Polity Press, London, 1989), pp. 249-50.
- William Whitehead, ‘A Hymn to the Nymph of Bristol Spring’, in The Works of the English Poets from Chaucer to Cowper, ed. Chalmers., 21 vols (J. Johnson et al., London, 1751), pp. 17, 211-12.
- Tobias Smollett, The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, ed. Angus Ross (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1967), p. 55.
- For a useful account of the ‘middle landscape’ see Thomas J. Schlereth, ‘Chautauqua: A Middle Landscape of the Middle Class’, in Cultural History and Material Culture: Everyday Life, Landscapes (University of Virginia Press, Museums Charlottesville, 1990), pp. 219-35.