Peter Beilharz is Professor of Sociology at La Trobe University where he edits Thesis Eleven, an interdisciplinary academic journal on theories of modernity. Here he offers his perspective on the way south.
My planned research includes a co-written book on the life and work of the founding mother of Australian sociology, Jean Martin; a book on the peculiarities of Australian modernity across the twentieth century; a shared book on the history of rock music in Australia; and a study of the work of Robert Hughes, to follow on my book on the work of Bernard Smith, Imagining the Antipodes. All this work is animated by the idea of thinking about the antipodes, rather than the south; and by the idea that culture works through cultural traffic . These concerns cross over with some of the agendas of our journal, Thesis Eleven. The Thesis Eleven Centre pursues some of these interests with collaborators in India, the Philippines, Thailand, and New Zealand. We would be very pleased to take them into South America. In addition, I have cause to consider my own location in all this – Australia and el Norte – as we construct the hundredth issue of Thesis Eleven, and begin to narrate our own stories, and as I work with Sian Supski , who is writing about my own work in its antipodean inflexions .
I find Bernard Smith’s thinking both interesting and innovative. Innovation often happens on the edges, and goes unnoticed . For Smith, the antipodes matters as a relationship rather than a place: wherever we are, we are always here and there at the same time. And then, culture is best understood not as emanation of place but as the negotiation of these relationships .
I can see the effectivity of the idea of the South as a political slogan, but it has limits that cause me to have reservations. Culture does not map neatly onto geography . Much of the south is in the north culturally, and the other way round. What interests me is the traffic between peoples, cities and regions. We have a great deal to learn by looking sideways. I would like to see more dialogue on a southern axis, across Australia, New Zealand, South America, South Africa. But all these worlds are co-constituted by other worlds, and cannot be separated out from these entanglements any more than el Norte can be understood without reference to us. In this context I do not have especial priorities – everything should be open for discussion, where stories can be told in a comparative way, and actors can feel comfortable talking about experience or intellect in ways that get the sparks of imagination flying.