Melbourne, postmodernism and how today’s politics were born in the 1980s
One winter evening at the very end of the 1980s, we gathered in the main room of the old Arena building in Melbourne’s Fitzroy, a triangular wedge at the point where Brunswick Street became St Georges Road. It had once been a funeral parlour, with a huge front door wide enough to bear out the bereaved—and for us to take in printing equipment—and Arena’s output was sufficiently heavy at the time for there to be unkind comparisons from some of our detractors. ‘Arena, you live in a funeral parlour’, one rejected author threatened to spray paint on the white walls. He was a big Smiths fan.
We were … well, who were we? It was a floating group of 25 or so leftists, radical leftists, ultra-leftists from around Melbourne Uni, people dressed in black, a style still univocal and of a post-punk form: hair close-cropped around the edges, but piled high, boys wearing black jeans and black or dark-blue shirts, buttoned to the neck, girls in a near-compulsory style for a few years: black tights, black skivvy, a highly patterned, op-shop–derived, short skirt over the tights, and a haircut in which one side was shaved, and the other half grew long to the shoulder, bobbed. It appears to have returned a few years ago as a style—in our era, one among a hundred—but for a couple of years it was semi-compulsory, at least among our gang. Then it was the only game in town. Gender fluidity, which had been around in the seventies, had retreated, even with the success of The Cure. We were looking to … well that was the question.
It was a meeting called to discuss the possibility of a project that was about projects as a way of conceiving of politics, something anchored to our situation, but not defined by it. People suggested various things, simple analytical essays, artworks, performances, that were all in turn pulled apart conceptually. I suggested that the ebbs and flows of bodies determined by the architecture of the university would be a way of understanding politics on the ground. An uncontroversial idea here now, and overseas then, it was greeted with stifled guffaws. As the talk wound back and forth, Kate, an old friend of mine, who had passed through leftism to a mix of that, Buddhism and relentless bodily discipline through circus skills, burst out with, ‘Look, I don’t think it matters if anything is produced, what matters is the process’, and at that point half the room mentally recommitted all the more, and the other half made a mental note never to attend again.
The ostensible subject matter for the never-defined project, the ‘current condition’, was the wave of change sweeping Australian universities under the hand of John Dawkins, Labor’s higher education minister. Australia’s university system was being shaken up in an unprecedented manner. For more than a century, to the 1950s, there had been one university in each state capital, and that was it. In the early 1960s a second and sometimes a third had been added. In the 1970s the Whitlam government abolished fees entirely, and for about 15 years the 20 or so universities had been a sort of archipelago you could drift between, doing a course or two, working on the student paper, doing a bit of theatre. The vast majority of students didn’t do anything like that; they went to lectures, ate in the cafeteria—great gloops of stew and soup dished out by uniformed staff onto trays slid along a metal ‘race’—and took the tram home. Those who took advantage of free education to live in it for six, seven years, a decade, became one arm of the elite.
This was not the law/commerce kids hustling their way through on the way to political adviser and McKinseys jobs, those who would go on to run all the other stuff, culture and left politics and NGOs and bureaucracies. For them, for us, Melbourne Uni acquired a different form. You lived close, five, ten, at most 15 minutes walk away, so you could come and go three or four times a day. The student union wasn’t crowded, the upstairs coffee lounge became a second home: its vast window onto the courtyard, courtesy of a fifties modernist rebuild, chunky wooden tables, the oval cups of sudsy cappuccino and mocha mounting up—God, we still drank cappuccinos, and a hideous coffee-substitute called ‘caro’, which one suspects the Wehrmacht drank at Stalingrad.
Time is elastic when you’re on the edge of 20. In this place, it simply ceased to flow altogether, became something more like space, sprawling out to the Baillieu Library, with its vast stacks of obscure works still on site, and to Carlton and Parkville beyond. It was about to end, and at some level we knew it, but at some other level we didn’t at all.
The Dawkins changes were mild enough as far as fees went: a $250 admin charge, which was clearly a way of reintroducing the idea of paying fees, ahead of what would become HECS. The real changes were in the way universities were paid by the government, and in what their aims and intentions were supposed to be. The ‘middle system’ of the 1970s and 1980s had inherited the idea that universities were meant to be disinterested and yoked some left-wing thinking to it about raising consciousness: that university was meant to be a place of personal development and growth except, of course, for engineering students. Dawkins’ intention was to make universities more closely attached to a specific national purpose: a social democratic economy based on growth and redistribution.
For the student left, this external attack came at a time when it was not required—we had as much internal attack as we could locally produce. The glory days of the student left were long over. It had collapsed in the late 1970s, as the global left had collapsed, and then staggered on somehow into the 1980s, besieged by renewed forces of the right, B.A. Santamaria’s last crop of desperados. This crowd had acquired a style all of their own, and a swagger that announced their purpose. The boys wore suits—not even commerce students wore suits then—and beneath them, button-down shirts, usually unironed. The girls took a defiantly archaic approach, with Toorak Village ’dos, twinsets and skin tone tights, and I seem to recall a fashion for tartan skirts, with a faux kilt-pin. Do I project it, or did these eastern suburbs shock troops have a sad air when they glanced over at us?
They were in the ascendant though. In the early 1980s the Australian Union of Students collapsed as SRCs were taken over by the right, or Labor pulled their unis out. The student left had been, for the previous five years, pretty thoroughly Marxist-Leninist, Maoist and anarchist. The AUS had become famous for putting rhetoric and money behind the Palestinian struggle, then in its most violently terrorist phase; many of its leading lights were Maoists who had kept faith not only with the recently departed chairman, but also with his ally Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. The discrediting of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and then revelations of the horrors of Kampuchea, had kicked the guts out of the left.
The election of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher sealed the deal across the world. In Australia, the Communist Party of Australia split in two over the idea of ‘eurocommunism’ and the parliamentary path, and the surviving entity was a stump of a party. Labor had been steadily moving towards the centre since about 1980, after brutal branch-stacking wars between left and right, which the left lost. There were no Greens as yet, and the Democrats were a hybrid party of manufacturing-based economic nationalists and inner-city progressives (in its beginning was its end).
For sections of the student and radical left, parties and power were becoming impossibly distant. As Marxism-Leninism faded as an organising principle, and less ideological people drifted to the social movements, those still interested in radical emancipation, in liberation through theory, had been drawn ineluctably towards approaches that questioned Marxism and the possibility of any theory whatsoever; indeed of any change at all. In France, after the collapse of the May 1968 uprising, radical left thinkers had begun to question the very narrative they had been espousing. Jean-François Lyotard wrote a short book that inaugurated the period of postmodernism as an explicit intellectual movement, arguing that Marxism was nothing other than one more ‘grand narrative’ that sought to explain the world in a manner simpler than it was (it took decades for people to notice that the thinker Lyotard most resembled was Edmund Burke, a product of the siloing of academia). Lyotard went further—there was no Archimedean point to stand on, morally, to judge the world. Obvious horrors were clear cut; but there was no metaphysical guarantee that capitalism was bad or a negated other of humanity to be overcome.
Jean Baudrillard, a sociologist at Nanterre (Paris VIII University), where the ’68 uprising had started, went further: the great illusion of our era had been the notion that revolutionary working class remained or had ever been anything other than something of a fantasy projection. Marx had misread capitalism by developing the bogus concept of ‘use value’, and from that the idea that there was a ‘base’ or real, from which the superstructure and ideology of society were somehow reflected. Once that all falls apart, in an era of mass media—Baudrillard, especially, was drawing on McLuhan—then strange things happen. The notion of ‘representation’ disappears.
There is no real, simply a series of images and images of images: a precession of simulacra, the simulacrum being an image without a referent. Baudrillard advocated a thorough nihilism, of method, of expunging all hope of some form of transformative revolution that would make everyday life immediate, full and unalienated (he was the inspiration for the Matrix’s concept of ‘the desert of the real’). He was a trickster of sorts—how can an image possibly be without representation? If it is, it’s simply an assemblage of colours and lines, and if his aim was to get radical forces to rethink their politics for renewed militancy, he did not let on about it. Which may have been part of the trick. Or not. See what I mean?
These two thinkers had been introduced to Australia principally by art theorists working outside the university—such as the magazine Art and Text, which in retrospect has the air of a Countdown video clip, all pinks and greys and trapezoid shapes, but was then pretty fierce—and one or two French studies departments (Arena had been one of the first journals to take them seriously, albeit from a critical point of view). They were brought in by PhD students returning from Europe, rare volumes stuffed in their bags and spread above all in the art world, which was unconstrained by the residual moral pull of Marxism.
The new material had been taken up most vociferously by the Sydney Marxists, who were just beginning the long—but fast—trek out of Marxism and into meeja studies. The two nihilists—Baudrillard would visit Sydney in 1982, for the Futur* fall conference—were soon joined in the canon by Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, whose work began to filter through English departments, as an interpretive device. Foucault argued that frameworks of thought—discourses—did not map any deeper material real (as Marxism argued they did), and were capable of producing ‘objects’, discursive ensembles drawing things together in different ways in different discourses.
Take the idea of the ‘nervous breakdown’, current from the 1920s to the 1980s, superseded by the ‘panic attack’ and then by ‘PTSD’. All of these are different but related; they overlap. But they are produced not by observation but by the other discursive objects that surround them in a period. And the argument that they all share an underlying, observable neurological base is itself discursive. From this, Foucault had argued that our notion of liberal progress across the centuries could not be sustained, with the example of punishment illustrating it. Torture, drawing and quartering, appears to us barbaric, hideous; but a slow passage of non-being in a solitary cell, based as it is on ideas of continuous surveillance, forced penitence and the negation of the living body could be as bad or worse. The cruelty of modern punishment wasn’t incidental, but essential to its practice. This in turn illustrated how the human body itself was not a given, but a field of discourses.
Common agreement—most people have two feet—was trivial. It was the characterisation of the body’s being that presented as if it were obvious, yet varied radically between discourses, as made visible, most eye-poppingly, in The History of Sexuality. There, Foucault accumulated examples of the particularity and incommensurability of sexual practices and assumptions across the ages, his aim above all being to dethrone the modernist ‘liberation’ narrative—that we had, culminating in the 1960s, simply thrown off layers of repression, to reveal a raw and unmediated sexual being beneath. Foucault’s argument was that the Victorians had invented a thing called ‘sexuality’ and by thus demarcating and defining it, had produced, well, sexiness. First published in English in 1976, this world view was working its way through a core group of future thought—and social—leaders, at the same time as the modernist/Freudian/Cosmopolitan view (sex as liberation from hidebound moralities) was working its way through the general population. It established a deep suspicion of claims to abandon, wildness, release and a complementary emphasis on frameworks, rules and strictures as productive of a way of life.
Foucault provided a manual for living. Derrida was something else, the real china white of this movement, the zero point of the ability to say anything declarative. Having begun as a technical philosopher, he had become immersed in Heidegger, Husserl and structuralism, and burrowed his way out of it with three books published in 1967, drawing on each but overturning them. There was no ground of ‘Being’, no fully present phenomenon, and no stable division of oppositions structuring world-comprehension.
Texts were not only unstable—right-wing blimps made much of the use of the word ‘text’, but it dates from second-century theology—there was nothing ‘outside’ them. To read a text was to make another text—or to add to the ‘intertext’, the sea of texts that moved across and within one another. This reading method, which Derrida called ‘deconstruction’, was unquestionably effective. By applying it to ‘strong’ texts—those that made a rhetorical gesture to being the truth about the world, economics, God and so on—one could show that their asserted categories and divisions were like one of those Escher cubes where the arms match up only by twisting possible reality. Whether that meant the text fell apart was another question—a consensus rather than correspondence theory of truth gets you out of a few of the knots—but we didn’t ask it.
Derrida’s work was beguiling, intoxicating, a trip, a revelation. I remember reading Of Grammatology, one of his many magnum opuses, sitting in a ratty beanbag in a terrace house in Drummond Street, Carlton, one of those student places that smelt perpetually of seagrass matting and warm milk. Noticing the light at the bottom of the wall as I started, when I next looked up it was top and to the right, a sundial measure of five hours or so. It was early evening. I had barely noticed a minute pass, but I had read barely 15 pages. Derrida was pulling apart Levi-Strauss’s notion of how nature and culture intertwine in the creation of social life—not by critiquing it, but by showing that the argument works only by the terrain shifting continually beneath what the words were assumed to mean. His case, resisted at first, was undeniable.
But it was also, of course, gnostic in spirit. To crack his difficult writing, to work out what he was saying—a non-deconstructive thing in itself—was to gain the secret knowledge, that the very atoms of meaning were … well no-one in the humanities much liked the comparison with quantum mechanics, but there it was. In science and the arts there was no point at which reality cohered to a thing. Difference was prior to identity.
Deconstruction raced through Australian universities in the 1980s, hitting Melbourne and Sydney first—the postmodernists had got their first attention here in left-field places such as Macquarie and RMIT—and spreading outwards like a proverbial rabbit that was not itself. From English and language departments it headed on to politics, history and philosophy. Visual arts held out for a while. Economics eventually succumbed. I presume by now agricultural science students somewhere are being told that a planting schedule undermines itself by presuming the seed to be prior to the crop.
An older generation resisted, hanging on to Leavisitism and psychoanalytic politics—the previous enfants terribles, who had challenged philology and political science—but there were new superstars, straight from Europe and Britain. Our tutors, all doing PhDs in such things, could only focus on such things. You’d have to say it was not pedagogy at its finest. Deconstruction, after all, relies on there being a there. They somehow forgot to include that, so effectively communicated deconstruction as a first philosophy, a way of interpreting the world. This was as irresistible as it was incoherent, and over the course of the mid 1980s a strange but compelling politics began to take over, one in which a highly moralising politics—a Marxism that judged the world as fallen, a feminism that had become increasingly focused on images and symbols, their effects and their management and control—was combined with a de facto metaphysics that said ‘there was no Truth’.
Much of this in Melbourne was happening at Melbourne University. Less so than was later said, but there was some truth in the accusation that ‘The Shop’ (as bourgeois Melbourne had once known it) was an overwhelmingly upper middle-class place, much of it, and its left, drawn from the major private schools; students drawn to radical leftism as much for its assault on a sense of all-pervasive alienation, of a denial of humanity’s full humanity, as in defence of a particular class.
At places such as La Trobe there was more of a class mix, and the realities of classed social life didn’t have to be learnt via faux pas and mimicry. Nor was there much quarter given. Going to La Trobe on student politics business was like being piped aboard a pirate ship. It was a place where everyone seemed to be walking around with a knife held between their teeth. But it too was in the spiral, it was simply corkscrewing in a different direction, its radical left passing into a kind of Althusserianism, which took the mad master’s expanded notion of ideology—that it is everywhere, and that most social institutions are apparatuses that reproduce it—to create a type of postmodern Marxism of the fall, in which true human liberation, that of full presence in the world, by mutually free human beings, was buried in so many layers of alienation and the Imaginary, from Lacan, the poststructuralist psychoanalyst, then the junior member of the poststructuralist triumvirate, such as to suggest Dante more than Danton.
That funnelled many out of politics altogether, and into administration, especially the pseudo-business of academia; others went to heroin, which ripped through a section of the national ultra-left in the late 1990s. Meanwhile, in the inner city the mainstream Trotskyists still had a brio to them, an optimism borne, as optimism is, of lack of information, and they had a working-class discipline and proletkult style. The com-peting far-left groups—the Democratic Socialist Party/Resistance and the International Socialists—at this stage still had a proportion of members who were industrial workers in factories (there were still factories) and a fairly simple and direct form of Marxism, which could see a clear path to liberation.
But it was hardly surprising that, from different directions, people were converging on a politics of impossibility, of negation, of a cool nihilism. There was no more static decade of the twentieth century than the 1980s, and none that was such a dumper of great hopes. No-one saw the steady internal changes in the USSR led by Mikhail Gorbachev as much more than minor alterations to a creaky but viable superpower. Almost no-one believed it would wink out of existence. The assumption on which we did political work was that it would be in existence in its given form for decades.
It was irrelevant to left hopes and after the collapse of radical socialism in the third world and before AIDS (almost unknown outside San Francisco and New York and called GRID) came the herpes scare—the explosion of an incurable STD linked to the promiscuity of the seventies, that AIDs would render trivial, but which looked then like the end of the world. When AIDS became globally visible in 1982–83 it more or less coincided with the appearance of ‘acid rain’, the product of chemical industrial pollution. ‘What can you say to a generation that learns that sex is death and rain is acid?’ Hunter S Thompson remarked in 1982, adding that after that ‘there’s nothing much but TV and relentless masturbation’.
Thus, politics turned inward. The Trotsky-ist groups still spoke of a pure revolution; they were buoyed, in a properly dialectical fashion, by the impossible odds that a few hundred people could stage a revolution that would set fire to the world; everyone else found the spectacle immensely depressing. Some joined the Communist Party of Australia, which was no longer connected to the USSR—that franchise was held by the Socialist Party of Australia, which ran a small bookshop at the top of Elizabeth Street called the New Era, which it wasn’t, unless the smell of post-capitalism was going to be mothball fustian. The CPA was kinda cool, still had organising power, but one couldn’t help but feel that the main motive for a 19-year-old to join it was sheer perversity, the pleasure of doing poster runs that featured pictures of the Politburo and the slogan ‘Thanks comrades for suspending SS-20 missile testing’, none of it ironic.
The truth was there was nothing to join of any size, no organising principle. So through politics we turned on each other, but with this difference: under the tutelage of post-structuralism, we did not denounce each other for possessing the truth, but rather for slipping into a belief that there was a truth. Meetings became consumed not with the highly concrete and particular denunciations of today’s intersectional era—that something is sexist, racist, transphobic, white-woman feminist, for example—but that an order of any sort was being dictated by the very act of suggesting a course of action. That is an exaggeration, but the fact that it’s not much of one is a measure of the trouble we were in.
Thus for a time, meetings of radical left politics were consumed by a process in which the basic procedures of meetings themselves came under question. The process had a name, which came out of Derrida’s and Lacan’s work. Derrida had called ‘logocentrism’ the process of believing that a single meaning could anchor the meaning of a text. Lacan had taken that, and combined it with his notion of the ‘phallus’, an adaptation of Freud’s positing of the concept of ‘penis envy’. Freud had seen it as a historical fact of bodies: that girls believe themselves to have been castrated and that this had permanent cultural and psychological effects. Freud was criticised for the assumption at the, ah, root of penis envy—that the vagina was nothing other than the absence of a penis—but Lacan answered that by suggesting this was what anchored our notion of presence and absence and the way we hierarchised those two fundamental states of entities. The phallus was not the penis, it was not even abstract male power. It was the idea that discourse had a unity, a presence, an order: or, as Derrida called it in his deconstruction of Lacan, ‘phallogocentrism’.
Thus was it applied, without necessarily naming it, as in the late eighties mainstream politics appeared to have declined to administration, the market had become the dominant form, though not yet in the nakedly psychopathic fashion of mature neoliberalism, and the source of order had become the thing in question. That meeting we gathered for at the Arena space that night was perhaps this motion through a certain time and a certain space, at its height. As mainstream politics had become ever more instrumentalised, we had taken the most basic principles of political life to the point where every means had become an end, a virtue in paralysis.
For those of us lucky enough to have got to the University of Melbourne—it had its drawbacks, but no-one was holding a gun to our head to stay there—this small political world sat within a larger habitus, and a smooth area of time-space and common practice. The suburbs around Melbourne Uni were filled with terraces as yet unrenovated, many owned by migrant families that had left for the burbs. You could live in Parkville or Carlton for a song, and those who had stayed and were starting to renovate were not substantially wealthier or sitting on a real estate goldmine that would inspire envy or division. Share houses were essentially networked by walking, and thus by the intersecting friendships of people living there.
By the 1980s the share house as a mass form of living was about 30 years old. It was quite a different social institution to the one that had preceded it, student ‘digs’, largely male, often ruled over by a landlady. The share house was a found environment; ancient, unrenovated places being let out as they were, because the demand for them as whole intact family homes was not yet there. My sense of it is that the share house, as a mass form, lost a presumptive sense of being a male chaotic domain only in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and within that an evolving ethic and aesthetic developed. It became standard to have a share house budget, not to have separate food, to cook and eat together. Many share houses didn’t have televisions. Possibly the geographical closeness dictated a social form: the stretch between Carlton, Parkville, the western side of Fitzroy and the southern end of Brunswick felt like a large village.
The period, ending I guess, in the late 1990s, was probably the last time that could have occurred. If the houses themselves were fixed in form—old features such as serving hatches, internal Corinthian arches and burnt-orange seventies kitchen redos left intact—so too was the furniture we brought in from op shops, which seems unlike the modular minimal low-cost Target options favoured today. The heavy, hire-purchase wardrobes and bedheads—art deco curved-front things, pseudo-baroque extravaganzas—that people had scrimped and saved to buy in the 1930s and 1940s now lodged in houses they might have lived in, humped there by hand, and often as not chucked when the household dissolved.
It seems not unlikely that this added to the sense of the postmodern, of an afterthought to a great era, when even your furniture haunted you. Eighties postmodernism, it should be said, was but a prelude to the vast process of inmixing and pastiche that would become popular culture from the late 1990s onwards, as the internet began to shift the supply of past culture towards abundance. The 1980s and 1990s were the ‘last decades’, the time when there was a still and banded, specific notion of what the culture was. The mix tapes, then burnt CDs played at house parties—not yet called that, and perhaps looming larger in life then (as opposed to going out) than they do now—had songs chosen from a smallish palette, with an emphasis on precision and control: New Order, the Pixies, The Communards, REM, The Breeders, with the occasional retro number thrown in.
But a tape that took music from every era, which had no centre, would have been vexing and bewildering, a mood killer. New Order’s ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ appeared to many to be the keystone, the irreducibly perfect song. I recall being in a corridor at a party once in a terrace house, hearing it start up, and the packed lounge room going wooooo in appreciation of what they’d heard a hundred times, and seeing a woman I was quite keen on lean back against the wall, moving one stockinged leg up, beneath a filigreed, intact Victorian arch, and thinking Christ, I’ve got to remember this, I’ve got to, this glory in self of youth. And so I have.
You walked to uni, you went home for lunch, back to a mid-afternoon lecture, and so on. There was no internet, no mobiles, and many of the single landlines at such houses had no answering machines; so political meetings were either rigidly fixed or entirely ad hoc. The books we were reading were scarce, a limited number imported into Australia by distributors such as Manic Exposeur. The black-jacketed ‘Semiotexte’ books produced out of New York were a major source (the series co-edited by the as-yet-unknown Chris Kraus); photocopies were passed around. Someone gave me Baudrillard’s ‘Precession of the Simulacra’ like that at a party. That sounds like a dangerous substance warning and maybe it was. Bohemia’s shift from the modern to the postmodern shadowed a geographical move. Lygon Street had lost its cachet, an extension of the city ‘where people from Malvern came to buy clothes’, as someone said.
That was even before the shopping court, and the Nova cinemas. In Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, something else was happening. Amid a particularly tired working-class strip—old furniture stores, boarded-up milk bars, shopfront of leatherworkers—a new cohort eager for the cheapest place to live had moved to Melbourne’s first sub-urb, a place eight blocks wide with its own league team, streets of brothels, and small factories and workshops shoved between terraces. Fitzroy had its own radicalism, borne of left union politics, working-class anarchists and the Koori community that had never left there.
But those are someone else’s stories to tell. They had provided a framework for ‘proto-postmodern’ outliers: the TF Much ballroom; Sweeney Reed, cursed son of the Heide founders, had opened a gallery there; Stephanie Alexander had a restaurant featuring ‘nouvelle cuisine’; the Comedy Café and Flying Trapeze. Maybe it was only when Roar studios moved there in 1982 that things began to take off. They were a collective rather than an agency-gallery, and they tended towards the neo-expressionist style that was superseding conceptualism and rejecting the notion of a progression in modernism, a purification towards the uncommodifiable idea. Such a simplistic periodisation will make people howl with rage, so it’s probably true.
In 1982 former Last Laugh performer Henry Maas and others opened the Black Cat, a café in an old milk bar on the corner of a late Victorian block, and crammed with every artefact of twentieth-century kitsch, from spangle formica tables to Tretschikoff ‘blue lady’ prints, old mambo LP covers, cakes piled surreally high with icing and cream, and a menu specialising in ice-cream spiders of dizzying complexity, from the bodgies’ blood on up. Tacky photos of cactuses, old signage, clocks set to the times of the world. The Black Cat must have been as tiresome to the locals—whose unironic cafés were scenes in themselves—but to me and a bunch of us, not everyone, it was like nothing else. It was Baudrillard written down in an interior of accumulated tat, confirmation that the decade in which we had come of age was little more than a gully trap for everything else that had come before. It was a divided feeling, unusual in its dual certainty: that everything that could have been history was over, a disastrous time to have been born into, but one that gave a certain sense of superiority; those who came before might have been fooled, but we weren’t. Everything would be the same for ever and ever.
Another French theorist, Paul Virilio, argued that space had replaced time in this post-historical; there were no longer movements, there were vectors through ensembles of the present. Much of this sense of post-histoire had come from the influence of Alexandre Kojeve, a French Hegelian scholar who had given a particular interpretation of the master in the 1930s, and then, arguing that his lectures constituted the end of philosophy, left the profession altogether (he became a bureaucrat and played a role in founding what would become the EU). Don DeLillo’s White Noise, about a professor of Hitler studies in a Midwestern university town, whose wife teaches ‘eating and drinking: basic parameters’ to senior citizens at the local social centre, and who has survived what the authorities call an ‘airborne toxic event’, captured the sense of disjuncture that was beginning to grip in the United States as its cities and towns were wholly made over in the image of capital and monopoly, the coming world of malls and cable TV, which has now itself died.
• • •
The Face magazine introduced a new style of typography, heavy on sans serif fonts and geometric shapes, put together by Neville Brody, a god of the time—he would later redesign the Guardian—and, as the Apple Macintosh came into use through the decade, the raw material for untold party invites that would at one time have been phoned around. Art fads followed design: the high-sheen nihilo-futurism of Mark Kostabi, for example, and the typofeminism of Barbara Kruger attained cult status and were then consumed by the ferocity of the reaction, leaving little cultural trace.
The sense of a dual culture persisted because scarcity had not yet died. It wasn’t only obscure French texts that were hard to get. TV was four and a half channels; video ‘libraries’ only got going in the mid 1980s, with studio comedies in two formats; ‘cult’ cinema was still a category of found and retrieved movies, shown, amid art movies, at the Valhalla in Richmond, an ex-Temperance Hall. Drinking was in pubs, many of them dying, none serving coffee, and to get something after 11 meant going to places like Little Reatas, a Mexican restaurant in Little Collins Street, where margaritas could be ordered with food until two, the table thus piling high with oozing tacos, like a Dalí installation.
Indeed it has only occurred to me in writing this that the 1980s were closer to the 1950s than to now, and certainly than to the 1970s. Moralism, or moral search, permeated the radical vision. The sexual revolution—which had paralleled second-wave feminism but was not identical to it—had been discredited, not merely by the early 1980s explosion of STIs, but also by the obvious chaos it had created, chaos that a seventies culture had sought to deny. Later, a new more fluid sexual culture would dawn, in which some of the experimental spirit of the 1960s and 1970s would return.
But the 1980s were substantially the period of what came to be labelled as ‘serial monogamy’; the spoken and unspoken thought was that the seventies culture of totally casual sex had been an expression of male power, turning women to men’s will. Talking about this always risks being told that something was going on and you didn’t know what it was, Mr Jones, but the eighties seem to have been less sexually radical than the seventies and more like the fifties, in an emphasis on the seriousness of human commitment, and the dangers—rather than possibilities—of wild abandon.
Nothing could be put in terms of biology or human nature—they had been deconstructed—but in so denying them, a somewhat twisted model of subjectivity was put into place, one that prized women’s autonomy yet verged on a celebration of universal victimhood. The period was one in which feminism’s hold on a wider mass culture—in the seventies through magazines such as Pol and Cleo—had started to slip, symbolised no better than by the success of Madonna, in her ‘Material Girl’ phase, a song and video that managed to suggest that choosing to be dependent on men as a sex object was a self-liberating act of free choice. But again, aside from these few remarks on its externalities, this is someone else’s tale to tell.
These themes and obsessions would fade in the 1990s, reappear, disappear again, and are now back in full force, as the #MeToo/intersectional movement. This is its third full iteration since the social revolution of the 1960s started this long historical cycle. Now, it is the doctrine of a rising class with great social power; then it was the possession of a smaller group who were yet to become a class in their own right; who were an adjunct, still in the sway of revolutionary Marxism, trying to slot things into a base-framework; who were confined to a few central areas in a few cities. It was all about running into other people; like all bohemias it was the reconstruction of a village in a city. When such a world goes online, when connection becomes increasingly intentional, things change. There is a radical break between the present and the past, centred on the fast proliferation of the web and the internet in about 1996–98.
What was important to this whatever-it-was of the 1980s was that it was still a bohemia embedded in a recognisable mass society, structured around a working class–bourgeois division. The first Hawke–Keating governments had been elected and the attack on protectionism had begun; but the 1990 bonfire of all tariffs had not yet occurred. Fitzroy and Collingwood were still places where you could smell the shoe leather and ammonia used in bleaching and dyeing. On grey mornings in Smith Street, Collingwood, you passed dustcoated women on their way to work—walking to work because they lived in the terraces nearby.
This had been going on in these places since their founding. I find it impossible to believe they are gone beyond gone, that a mixed community became a routed one, and a working class world swept away, replaced with the new bourgeoisie, the knowledge class, refashioning the places in their own image. The resulting culture, hipsterism, is to a degree a meta-bohemia; it is what happens when bohemia becomes turned on itself, and a sort of eternal recursion occurs. Once such a culture can see nothing but itself, it becomes as turned inward as a Mandelbrot set, and that is where we are now.
When your politics is caught up in the phallogocentric nature of orderly meetings, the fall of the Berlin Wall was not much more than a car backfiring outside. The actual demise of the USSR was something else. Some treated it as a liberation of Marxism; some as liberation from it. Everyone knew something was up.
By this point I had joined Arena. I’d been out the other side of Marxism by the age of 17; its overarching social theory—base, superstructure, ideology—seemed to me to explain almost nothing about the world; it was a clunky bit of nineteenth-century tinkering that Marx had put in place while he got ‘the economics shit’ out of the way.
Postmodernism attracted me as much as it did anyone in 1985. The term, at that time, was inherently paradoxical. But unlike many coming through English studies or film, I came to it through European continental philosophy. This is everywhere now, but systematic teaching of it was rare in Australian philosophy departments at the time. As well as the thrilling, and genuinely liberating, work of Sartre, I’d been exposed to the hard stuff: the meticulous phenomenonology of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, writers who could take 30 pages to work out why we see a box as a three-dimensional thing rather than a flat square.
The translation of Derrida and Foucault from critical reading techniques into ‘first philosophies’ struck me as logically incoherent from the start. Nevertheless, there were people going round saying there was ‘no truth’, and then offering as a moral-political program a set of rigid prescriptions, any alternative to which was unthinkable. How was it possible you could somehow hold to both junk deconstruction and a socialist critique of global capitalism? Wasn’t it obvious that capitalism was the great deconstructor, a global autonomous process in which all fixed and framed meanings were rendered fluid and imaginary by the commodification process?
Arena had been developing a material theory of that, drawing on the notion of material abstraction implicit in Marx’s theory of the commodity, in the Durkheim–Mauss–Levi-Strauss tradition of structural anthropology and—in ideologically reversed form—in postmodernism itself. The theory, dubbed ‘constitutive abstraction’ in the 1980s, appeared not only to place Marx’s approach to high capitalism as a subset of a more general historical process, but also offered a critique of state socialism and emergent identity politics as well—and thus a steering for a political practice that maintained the belief that there was a form of human being of depth and uniqueness to be ‘liberated’ from ‘alienation’. There have been times over past decades when I’ve wondered to what extent being convinced by this was due to it being close to hand, a living tradition in a single city. I came to the conclusion that it largely wasn’t, that the theory—which overlapped to a degree with those of writers such as Alfred Sohn-Rethel and Moishe Postone—is extraordinarily persuasive, compelling, and important. It’s an opinion I still hold.
Meanwhile there were others who were not taking the onset of neoliberal globalisation lying down. In Oaxaca in Mexico, first peoples’ groups led by a philosophy professor who had styled himself ‘sub-commandante Marcos’ had attacked government institutions the day the NAFTA treaty was signed in 1994. They would soon gain a coterie of supporters in Europe—it was said with hushed amazement that they had ‘a website’—and they would form the nucleus of the movement that would organise the first anti-globalisation protests in Europe in 1998.
By then I had moved to London, and was at one of the first, J18—18 June 1998—in ‘The City’, a protest that started cute and then turned into an attack on random bankers. The movement, springing up in dozens of cities, thus recruited thousands of activists, many of them high school/first year/second year entrants. They were entering into a zeitgeist ably captured by Naomi Klein’s No Logo: that questions of the exchange of symbols had been replaced by a new question of how they had been created, a corollary of the fact that in Collingwood you would no longer stagger past factory workers heading off to a shift on an early morning drunk, because there weren’t any. Production had been globally outsourced.
The new crowd had not slogged it out in the trenches of deconstruction, which was by now a passé intellectual movement, they were—women, non-whites—more assured of their speaking position, feeling less need to make the meeting itself a political encounter. They were more interested in getting things done than in the process that attended it. They were foot soldiers of the new revolution, which would burst forth at S11, the carnevale of protest that saw 15,000 activists descend on Crown Casino as the World Economic Forum attempted to meet there. It was a multifaceted protest organised with attention to collective interaction and detail, and not a hint of the fashionable nihilism we had indulged in for a decade.
Which leads to the question, what did we think we were doing? And, prior to that, who were ‘we’? Although much of the theoretical action focused on ‘decentring’ subjectivity, those doing the decentring remained pretty much in the middle of things. The decentring underway now, the real shifting of who gets to speak and of what, seen in terms of race, gender, a gender–sexuality amalgam, bodily form and so on for better and worse, would appear to be the particular movements coming out of the 1960s, infused by the general method of the 1980s. Thus black power, women’s lib, gay lib—movements whose names make clear that one thing they sure ain’t questioning is the unity of their own identity—have been succeeded by movements that see themselves as much as interrogators of the discourses by which power puts itself together as full-frontal assailants on it.
The queer movement that became globally visible in the 1990s with a series of books, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble the most prominent, and the decentred movement advocated in Laclau and Mouffe’s Post-Marxism, were the bridge between then and here. What fell away was materiality, as the great economic question—how we make ourselves human—came to have an answer that allowed for nothing other than administration. Class ceased to be spoken of as a social category, in part because the class divisions proposed were so archaic. This forgetting of the materiality of life happened on the world dematerialising itself in the new markets, the internet and much more.
The simplest way to put it would be that this was the point at which the world was starting to recompose itself with a new pace and intensity, a process brought about not only by the rise of the new technologies but also by the beginnings of what would come to be known as neoliberalism. One thing about the years in the trenches of postmodernism was that one was ready when the world flipped wholly into the mode of the spectacular and simulated, with the rise of Trump, the fantasies of Brexit, the Daily Telegraph and the like. Liberal humanists remain bewildered by it; to any reader of Lacan and Baudrillard it is obvious that the champion against the elites is a New York shyster who lives in a gold tower.
The question of what truth could be, and what power was, not merely of who could speak, but what it was to say anything, had come into question. The process, not the product had indeed become what mattered. It opened up a politics that has now come to be at the centre of the way many millions think about the dilemmas of their life. How strange and familiar the period seems. It turned out that many of those ideas were as much symptom as diagnosis. Nevertheless, I think of those times and the people we were with generosity and even tenderness. •
Guy Rundle is a commentator and author, correspondent-at-large for Crikey, and a former editor of Arena Magazine.