Framing Culture: Criticism and Policy in Australia (xxand another title)

Stuart Cunningham

In an interview recently published on the occasion of his 80th birthday, George Woodcock remarked that the one country he could never conceive of writing about was Australia. Its nature--"450 species of identical gum trees"--is "monotonous," and its initially matey inhabitants inevitably "turn a bit nasty." While boredom, discomfort, and betrayal are themes much appreciated by contemporary connoisseurs of travel writing, Woodcock's reactions are also reminiscent of the nineteenth-century Europeans who regarded Australian landscapes, Aboriginal people, and convict society with horror. Australia, a "terra nullius," lacked not only colour, variety, and comfort, but the redemption of gentle European nature and indeed all order and meaning. This was hell on earth. The echoes of early European responses to our bleak acres of snow are unmistakable.

What makes this reaction now seem antiquated in Woodcock, and not just subjectively bewildering to another traveller to Australia, is that it was Woodcock's own generation of writers, artists, and public intellectuals in Australia who created strong new ways of seeing their country. Like Woodcock's struggle alongside his peers in Canada to create a space for Canadian literature, in the imagination as well as in the bookstores, the Australian public intellectual, Donald Horne, played a role in his country in doing away with the "cultural cringe" that had Australians deferring to Britain and Europe in matters of taste, expression, and self-knowledge. The present generation of Australian cultural studies academics finds itself in a situation regarding "national" culture, public cultural subsidy, and the regulation of culture and the media that is very much the legacy of that generation. The place of popular culture, problematic Anglo-centric definitions of Australian nationality, and the questioning of state cultural bureaucracy are preoccupations of this generation that have joined (not replaced) the elders' search for a post-colonial identity.

Stuart Cunningham's Framing Culture was written in the hope that it would become an agenda-setting book in the context of Australian cultural studies and cultural policy. A professor of media studies at the Queensland University of Technology, Cunningham brought to his project his experience as a researcher at the Communications Law Centre. Since the book was published he has also become a member of the regulatory body, the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal. Framing Culture is concerned primarily with television, and with the strategies cultural studies and communications scholars should adopt in intervening in TV policy. It includes chapters on television advertising, pay television, and the regulation of violence, each of which is linked to such regulatory dilemmas as foreign content and new media services.

Cunningham makes it clear that his concern is as much with the field of cultural studies as with policy debates. He provides this additional clarification in an October-November 1993 Arena Magazine response to reviews of his book. In that article Cunningham makes recommendations for changes in the field, such as "cultural theories of advertising [for a] policy oriented account of the positive contribution which television may have made to Australia's national identity," and in the interest of understanding "communications futures," "experimental modelling, options analysis, and normative argument rather than post facto critique." The reason for the adoption of these perspectives and techniques is what Cunningham feels is the realpolitik of cultural administration: an acknowledgement of the federal government as mediator between international market forces and Australian cultural consumers, and as facilitator of whatever "public" sphere will be available to citizens surrounded by "deregulated and increasingly convergent communications forms." Questions of "information richness and poverty" are being addressed mainly in telecommunications futures research, Cunningham argues, and for this reason academics with any pretension to an interest in the public good must familiarize themselves with this work and combine it with their heretofore textual and ethnographic critiques of the media.

If it is crucial to learn the language of the information "autobahn," it is also vital to understand that one's position on policy for culture must necessarily, according to Cunningham, be allied with one of two attitudes. One is postmodernist, global and local, fragmented and alert to the creative possibilities of "microcultures"; the other is a "modernist Habermasian defence of a national public sphere," a sphere which in countries like Australia and Canada is whatever we are permitted by "oligopolistic" public and private broadcasters. The strategy Cunningham recommends to cultural studies academics is, if I have understood it correctly, to display a certain agility in moving back and forth between these positions. One can, for example, develop refined methods of measuring (and planning for) pluralist audiences, or a cultural history of advertising in Australia (interesting examples of both are given), while assuming as both desirable and likely the ongoing present relationship of state authority to national and transnational media enterprises.

As Cunningham intended, Framing Culture captured national attention. On television policy, only Richard Collins' Communication, Culture and National Identity has been as provocative in Canada. There are some similarities between the books, most notably the equation of the public sphere (and a national--or perhaps more accurately nationwide--culture) to a national television service. But Cunningham's reduction of the "national" public sphere to television services, and (for all his talk of citizenship) the essential identification of viewers as consumers are the greatest problems with the book. Some of the responses Cunningham encountered in cultural studies colleagues reluctant to take up the policy challenge were a kind of misguided moral squeamishness and disciplinary xenophobia. But the approach he puts forward often seems to have more to do with cultural administration than cultural policy, and his "public" merely the aggregate of national television audiences. These are grounds for declining the invitation on a more thoughtful basis. In the Canadian context, the relationship of the public or publics to media policy has received far more thoughtful attention from Mark Raboy in Missed Opportunities. There he examines the role of the state, the problem of the "national," and, most importantly, alternative models for public media involving policy decision-making on the part of viewers.

In the same 1993 review of his reviewers Stuart Cunningham also makes the extraordinary remark that "cultural policy advocacy and formulation tries to ensure that a basically anthropological grounding of cultural activity is maintained in the context of a mixed economy--cultural policy does not enter into questions of aesthetic valuation." This description, or prescription, may be intended to show the mutual interests of commercial broadcasters, students of popular culture, and bureaucrats frightened by valuations other than those in dollars. Certainly it appears to construct the requisite break with previous generations of Australian intellectuals and artists, those who sought to replace English cultural "valuations" with Native--that is mostly Anglo-Celtic Australian--ones, the legacy with which Cunningham and his peers are both cursed and blessed. This is a stance that can accommodate Canberra bureaucrats as well as the voices of Aboriginal Australians and more recent immigrants, without necessarily championing any particular cultural values. The suggestion that cultural administration can stand above or outside the culture, above the fray where cultural values are determined, or that it is not already saturated with often contradictory cultural values, is especially confusing coming from Cunningham who has also been an historian of cultural policy and Australian cultural life and institutions.

Graeme Turner's Nation, Culture, Text, on the other hand, acknowledges its concern with cultural valuation from the outset. Turner makes the academic case for Australian cultural studies in his "Introduction" on the basis that we need to hear--for the sake of intellectual rigour--from the post-colonial contexts tormented by insecurity and self-examination, so different (?) from the British and American cultural studies traditions that "effortlessly rather than deliberately universalize [themselves]" (p. 4). Turner argues that cultural studies has, just, eluded a perilous situation in which British and American cultural studies threatened to achieve total intellectual domination but were repulsed by the margins, thus confirming the "multiplicity and mutability" of cultures that is a tenet of cultural studies faith. How accurate his assessment may prove to be remains to be seen since Turner's examples of the challenge from the margins are recent conferences in Australia which, to many participants, seemed inscribed within the dominant Anglo-American axes of cultural studies institutionalization.

But the perils of conferences notwithstanding, the book provides evidence of a strong and complex culture and cultural analysis, meaningful beyond Australia because it is so grounded in Australian experience. Wisely, Turner allows Meaghan Morris and Eric Michaels, brilliant individualists both, to pursue in depth and at length their opening essays: Morris' around the televised Australian Bicentennial celebrations of 1988, and Michaels' on "ethnographic" film and video in a Warlpiri (Aboriginal) community. These are essays that deserve the name "essay"; they are explorations and evocations of culture as much as they are rigorous and deeply questioning analysis. Meaghan Morris traces the lineage of the panoramic display of Australian-ness from the writing of Ernestine Hill ("imperialist, white supremacist and a patriot") and author of The Great Australian Loneliness. Michaels situates the question of the self-reflexivity of ethnographic media practice in a Warlpiri community which has been markedly affected by the selective record and perspectives of the film of a Fire Ceremony of 20 years ago. This leads him to propose a very serious, but unromantic, thesis of the role of media in indigenous communities, concerned with cultural maintenance but on terms which can best be determined by contemporary indigenous media practitioners whose work "resists nostalgic sentiment and troubles our desire for a privileged glimpse of otherness."

Three further sections in the book are concerned with the construction of the national, the analysis of culture, and popular culture. The essays on the national by Tony Bennett, Tom O'Regan, and Elizabeth Jacka are particularly strong, representing as they do just part of a fluent body of work by each author. Also of interest are Noel Sanders' work on the Lindy Chamberlain case and Helen Brace's on the culture of the business press, surely an underresearched topic.

The energetic Australian struggle with dominant Anglo-American intellectual traditions and with the experience, common also to Canadians, of internalizing the image of oneself as other, is exciting to encounter. It is, in contradistinction to Woodcock's impression of the gum trees, anything but monotonous. Australian publications in cultural studies are more numerous than Canada's and Australian academics are deservedly among the stars of the cultural studies world. The persistent framing of the Australian contribution in the canonical genealogy of Cultural Studies Inc. (not all anthologists take this route) might lead one to the impression that the "cultural cringe" survives. But I would argue that if it survives in the enterprise and institutionalization of this corner of academic life, it is markedly less evident in the substance of cultural analysis.

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