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Does Australia need a culture?

“To begin uncontroversial: some philosophers live in Australia. The question is whether that fact makes any difference to the way in which they philosophise. It is sometimes said that it cannot, since philosophy is a cosmopolitan subject. But we talk without hesitation about ‘British philosophy’, ‘French philosophy’. Is this just shorthand for ‘philosophy in Great Britain’, ‘philosophy in France’? Let us suppose that it is not. There might still be special difficulties in talking about ‘Australian philosophy’. Should we take special steps to cultivate an indigenous philosophy, or, at least, to link philosophy in Australia more closely to other forms of culture in Australia.”

John Passmore, “Australian Philosophy or Philosophy in Australia” abstract of paper, Australasian Association of Philosophy Conference, Uni. of WA, 1988. The paper has since been published in Essays on Philosophy in Australia ed. Jan T.J. Srzednicki & David Wood.

Some artists, fashion designers, writers, etc. live in Australia but this does not necessarily mean that there is Australian art, fashion, literature, music, etc. An arbitrary political boundary does not imply that a different culture exists within that boundary.  I have serious doubts that there really is an Australian culture, many more doubts than I have about the existence of Anglophone or Francophone culture or, even, hippy culture. And the more that the politicians try to manufacture one, with Australian citizenship tests, “Australian values”, etc. the more dubious I become because cultures grow organically and cannot be manufactured.

When ever the need for a national style is mentioned I always think of art nouveau, which was intended by the architect Victor Horta to become the national style of Belgium. As a successful style of architecture it inspired many other architects and designers and became a successful international style. Local styles and traditions are only the marginally successful styles, surviving due to local traditions and tastes, but unable to successfully spread any further.

A culture is more than just an identity, as you can have identity without an accompanying culture. A culture is “not a heap of unrelated phenomena but an organic whole” that “is extended in time”, conscious of its past and present and projecting itself into the future. (R.A.D. Grant, A Companion to Aesthetics ed. David Cooper, Blackwell, 1992, p.100) A lifestyle is a temporal heap of unrelated phenomena that may be more or less manufactured. Traditions are not a culture, as traditions do not project themselves into the future but remain fixed in the past. There may be Australian lifestyles, Australian traditions and Australia slang but those things alone do not imply an Australian culture.

What does Australia need a culture to do? And, can a culture do this? Irish, Scottish and Greek culture was needed to prevent complete assimilation into larger alien empires. Hippies saw their proto-culture as a viable, competitive, environmentally sustainable, alternative to the conformist consumer lifestyle. Culture could be described is a kind of mass reaction to a perceived threat that attempts to equip its members to combat the perceived threat. In doing this it is clear some cultures support some horrible and stupid ideals, including racism, sexism, homophobia and violence; it is less clear, what good, if any, any culture does.

Although shallow nationalism might be very popular in Australia there is no taste for deeper cultural analysis. So I am asking readers to comments if they think that Australia needs a culture and, if so, what it needs this culture to do. I would suggest that instead of debating whether Australia has a culture it would be better for the people in Australia to be concerned about the extent that Australia is civilized. Civilized by having a constitutional protection of human rights, civilized in its treatment of refugees, civilized in keeping its word when signing international laws and treaties, the kind of civilization is more important than any culture.

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About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

2 responses to “Does Australia need a culture?

  • rore

    Perhaps having a culture is unavoidable because of the diverse nature of human behavioural patterns. The existence of subcultures and gangs points to a less developed social environment in the sense that individual development is absorbed and can be hampered in the overwhelming desires of the groups need for definition and it’s development of traits and bevavioural exclusives, which in turn remove the rough edges that are developed by individual character development.

    To me it seems that culture is just the behaviours and attitudes of these gangs, the bigger it get the more it is magnified and can become held as a ‘national” culture. To think that there is a uniform culture is maybe treacherous to unbias opinion but perhaps there is certain national attitudes in existence. I doubt it though with consideration of the diverse range of personalities in Australia.

    As to Australia being civilized I highly doubt it. And Australia may not ever be civilized. Perhaps it could be measured against common morals to see where it stands as moral laws could be a good measure for the country’s degree of civilization. Intolerance would be a good development. The acceptance of same sex marriage would be a positive development against ignorance and outdated church fingerings in the law system. Acceptance of alternative opionions to monogomy which can rid us of the bullshit of sanctity in monogomous union, which would allow acceptance of the the more prevalent forms of human interaction.
    Ban all plastic toys that are made from petrochemicals and employ local people to build them out of driftwood thus creating a sustainable local industry and removing support for fossil fuels.
    Remove advertising from television.
    Free University Education for those that want it.
    Every Building In australia must have solar or wind generation methods where applicable.
    Stop of Urban Sprawl.
    Development of aethetically good and energy efficient apartment complexes in new developemt areas with heavy emphasis on community gardens and market systems all made easier by larger popoulations in smaller locations, to rid dependancy on supermarket systems which are destroying positive farming practice in the name of productivity and profit.
    Double the Price of Fuel to what it would have been before George bush invaded iraq to secure the cheap bubble of petroleum we now sate ourselves with.
    Remove the persecution of naturally occuring or botanical drug use and approach with outlook to re-educate instead of criminally label.
    Raise the standard of community housing to establish self worth and a confirm our own humility towards the marginalised in our culture.
    IF we achieve some of these i guess it would be on the path to the golden gates of civilization..?

    Starts with little changes.

  • Mark Holsworth

    Thanks Rore for the great list of ways that Australia could become more civilized. I think that a curious but amicable engagement with a wide variety of people with different views is one of the best ways to become more civilized – only listening and working with people from within your own group is one of the best ways to become a barbarian.
    I agree that the development of cultures is natural within groups the question then becomes how homogenous is Australian society (like you I have my doubts) and how the idea of a singular majority is used politically (like the idea of the “moral majority” or “working families”).

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