It looks like that may have changed with her most recent contribution: an article republished in the Australian after original publication in the UK. Based on her most recent visit--to publicise her appearance in the Quarterly Essays series--Greer blasts the usual targets: the destruction of Australian forests and soil; and the marginalisation of Aboriginal life and wisdom from the main currents of Australian life. But now there are further targets: the bulk of the Australian population who live in replicas of Neighbours' Ramsay Street that spread 'like oil stains on water', populated entirely by people who never discuss a book or a movie', 'do not know their neighbours or care about them' and so on; Australian wages look high, but have less buying power than UK wages; the formerly swankiest streets are full of discount stores, etc. etc.
What is it about this tirade that leaves such a sour taste in the mouth for so many? Partly it is the simple disregard for basic fact-checking--as in the simply incorrect assertion that the buying power of the average UK wage is higher than that in Australia--a sloppiness that also marked her recent Quarterly Essay, which was riddled with factual errors. There's also the willingness to see environmental degradation as somehow unique to Australia, rather than being a global crisis of development.
But, overwhelmingly, what strikes one is the elitism masquerading as social critique in the attack. After all, there are many things to say about the manner in which suburban existence serves the needs of speculative builders rather than residents, or how it is shaped by a social form that separates work and living, but Greer's target is not suburbia, but suburbanites. In fact, it's the opposite of critical interpretation, because there's no interest in the degree to which suburban life is a mixture of chosen and unchosen circumstance--there is simply a disdain for the people who live there and their allegedly unbookish ways (another error: book reading is higher per capita in Australia than the UK, whatever importance one may place on that as a measure of the good life).
This bare snobbery has shocked many who considered Greer to be of or from the Left in some manner, but there's no reason why it should. Of all the leading second-wave feminists, Greer was the one who bought most deeply into the civilisational critique as developed by the writers of the Frankfurt School and other Freudian-influenced critics such as Wilhelm Reich. Underwriting her attack on female eunuchery was an attack on the predicament of the human being in industrial civilisation--the former a particular expression of the general deformation of free, spontaneous, creative existence caused by the latter. The fate of the Frankfurt schoolers in the 1960s demonstrated that such a critique could come from very different sources--while Marcuse never lost his sympathy for present political movements and the manner in which people sought to remake their lives on the ground, Adorno passed into a conservatism that he saw as preserving what remained of civilisation. Greer has combined an elitism with a naive Rousseauist celebration of Aboriginal people as repositories of authentic human existence, unburdened by any complexity of contradiction or cultural context. Inevitably, the result is that anyone who lives between these two imaginary poles is an 'oil stain on water'--a disgusting and shameful metaphor of human beings as waste product more characteristic of the far Right than anything else.
But, above all, what may finally convince many people that Greer no longer speaks for them, or is part of what they think of as a political communality, is that it does not appear to be without ulterior motive. Many have resisted the idea that Greer's pronouncements about men and woman and the world have a personal psychological dimension, but the conclusion is pretty much unavoidable. The lashing of Australia is another chapter in a continuing psychodrama which has seen Greer move from the advocacy of sexual liberation in her youth to a bluestocking puritanism later on, from a type of radical leftism to a petitioning of the establishment--the move each time, like the Pope, from one state of infallibility to another. In its current form, this trashing serves in part to strengthen Greer's self-branding--as a renegade antipodean--in the London commentary market, and there is a nasty sycophancy towards the UK in the piece ('In fact, I do return. I probably spend more time in Australia than [Russell] Crowe does, but I always come back to Blighty'). One is left with the inescapable conclusion that in this simple and unreflective hatred, the real Australia (in favour of an imaginary pre-contact Australia cleansed of its suburban human pollution) is a stand-in for a disappointment rooted deeper in personal life than a denunciation of river salination would suggest. In this, she increasingly resembles that other critic of Australian civilisation, Barry Humphries, while managing to be less honest about the source of her discontents.
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|Title Annotation:||Bites: brief notes on news & views from around the world; Germaine Greer|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2004|
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