Meditations on the crisis engulfing the flagship Australian literary journal Meanjin.
I was first alerted to the news that Sophie Cunningham had resigned as Meanjin editor late last week after reading an article in the Melbourne Age newspaper by Peter Craven, a renowned Australian writer and cultural figure. Whilst I am not party to the details of what has unfolded between Cunningham (who has been an excellent, innovative editor ) and Melbourne University over the future of the publication - and thus will refrain from commenting on the politics of what has unfolded there - I do think it is clear that what is happening to Meanjin has profound symbolic dimensions related to the ways in which ideas/critique etc. are transmitted to audiences in the new 'digital and print' publishing world.
Quite apart from Craven's comments re: the intricate political situation at Melbourne University (embroiling it seems MUP), his article was extremely dismissive of the 'web' - terms such as 'arid desert' and '[im]permanent' were (as I recall) used. The unexamined assumption seemed to be that the WWW in no sense allows for sustained intellectual examination of cultural phenomena in the way, say that Meanjin and other flagship Australian literary journals have done for so many years.
This tack, from such a leading Australian literary figure, left me with ambivalent feelings - indeed the article itself represented both the strengths and the weaknesses of figures deeply embedded in the old 'print' paradigm now under such sustained pressure from what we may term the new 'digital' paradigm represented by the world wide web, e-book devices, POD books, global distribution systems, online bookshops, etc. etc.
From my perspective the technology of writing has been undergoing a profound revolution these past twenty or so years, and, as McLuhan pointed out so many decades ago, every new media brings with it new ways of viewing the world - new paradigms, new ways of thinking, new ways of encountering artefacts and culture generally. More importantly, once a population shifts decisively to embrace new media forms it becomes the job of artists, thinkers, writers etc. to keep up as best they can. There is no going back on the digital publishing revolution, there is no ignoring now the vast new literary world opened up to 'writers' and contributors to cultural commentary as a result of these new technologies - no going back to the more centralised, localised, perhaps personality driven, book (print) based 'culture' that founded Australia as a nation (after the invasion of Aboriginal lands).
The digital revolution certainly has its problems - oligarchic and monopolistic elements in the IT world ... the monopolistic impulses represented by search engines and online bookshops ... the speeed of change (digital file formats mutating at speed, reader device monopolies, etc ) ... the amount of 'information noise' ... the phenomenon of 'flitting' rather than reading deeply ... the hyper-capitalism apparently implicit to the new media ... consciousness dispersal ... problems with uninformed cultural democracy (drowning out 'the more informed (best/specialist?) minds') etc. During such a period of transition it is natural to be concerned as key institutions once charged with maintaining 'civil society' start to topple in quick succession: print journals today, print publishers (as traditional gate-keepers) tomorrow, newspapers the day after, universities (at least in their traditional form) the day after that ... All these traditional cultural regulators/ mediators/ gatekeepers are either disappearing, being marginalised or being completely transformed as I write.
I suspect that Peter Craven, along with other members of Australia's established print-based intelligentsia, know only too well that the death or transformation of Meanjin signals the beginning of the end for the social pact that allowed certain people to act as representatives of disciplines like literature, social commentary, etc. and the greater public (and for many decades). Like Craven, I'm concerned that new institutions capable of focusing a community's attention on important social and cultural issues have not yet developed (or proven themselves) as examples of a new and effective pact between the new intellectual (making use of the new digital media) and the new 'public'. Unlike Craven, however, I don't think there's too much point in lamenting excessively over what has passed - there is simply too much to do. It is precisely the job of writers and intellectuals concerned at the social instabilities potentially accompanying the cultural, and ultimately cognitive, changes associated with the 'new media', to work diligently to ensure that the changes work to promote and nurture 'civil society', human rights etc..
As I see it at present, the verdict is still out as to whether the new writing technologies will become tools for furthering human rights agendas, or weapons in the arsenal of a futuristic Orwellian dictatorship ... There is no time to lose: the new literature, and the new audience for the new literature exists ... for better or worse all writers contribue these days to a global 'supermind', a kind of 'meme organism' ... i.e. the ultimate mutation of the technologies of writing and communicating that were once under the dominion of deities such as Thoth, Nabu, Hermes, Mercury, etc.
To read Peter Craven's arcticle go to: Meanjin 2011?