Good Readers and Good Citizens : Literature, Media and the Nation

In recent decades nationalism has sometimes been classed in the same category of immoral behaviours as racism and sexism. Reading from the historical and literary record, nationalism often appears to have been little other than racism and sexism. Race was the very basis of the national settlement in early twentieth-century Australia; how profoundly, I think, is something we still have to learn. How far are we from thinking in terms of First Nations as a way of acknowledging Indigenous Australia? Our easy familiarity with and moral superiority to pre-1967 Australia and the White Australia Policy means that there are many degrees of Australian racism that remain hidden from commonplace historical knowledge. Australians still tend to think of South Africa as belonging to another time and place altogether, another moral universe and historical trajectory. This was not a mistake that colonial Australians made. The parallels will become less and less resistible.

The critique of nationalism has been a defining enterprise of both Australian studies and Australian literary studies since the 1970s. One side of the work has been the recovery of writers, texts and genres excluded from the nationalist canon; another has been the recovery of an adequate 'national' literary history against the exclusions of the post-war ethico-formalist canon. Both kinds of work, the former no less than the latter, have often been motivated by the idea of the nation, by the possibility of repairing or completing the national history or culture, even when rejecting utterly the forms that nationalism had taken. Feminist criticism has been the single most important force reshaping Australian literary studies since the 1970s, but much of its work, too, has inevitably been work on the nation. Even though the steps in the argument exposing nationality's homogenising and exclusionary effects are by now thoroughly familiar and routine- we rehearse them annually in first-year subjects- we still need to renew the critique because we are still discovering the range of the nation's historical and textual forms. Their weight and pressure still bear on the present, and not merely as a residual force.

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Published 1 October 1999 in Volume 19 No. 2. Subjects: Australian culture, Australian identity, Australian literary criticism, Australian literature and writers, Critical theories & approaches, Mass media, Nationalism, Popular culture, Postcolonial criticism.

Cite as: Carter, David. ‘Good Readers and Good Citizens : Literature, Media and the Nation.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 19, no. 2, 1999. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.d9cd094fbf.