On Institutional Belonging

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about institutional belonging.

You see, in January I moved from Melbourne to Sydney (my partner got a new job). I wouldn’t have so readily left Melbourne had it not been for the upcoming move to Sweden for my Endeavour project. I figured seven months in Sydney could be a good excuse to write a lot and avoid the multitude of distractions that inevitably come with being embedded anywhere for long enough.

It turns out that holing yourself up in a foreign city can drastically improve productivity! But while eliminating familiar distractions has proven to be beneficial for my writing, I couldn’t have anticipated the sense of loss that has accompanied it.

See, I have spent the better part of my adult life at La Trobe University. I started in 2010, arriving from Perth at barely nineteen years old. In the seven years that I lived in Melbourne, through all the rental properties and share houses (seven in total), the career changes (just one), the casual and part-time jobs (many), and the countless friendships, heartaches, tragedies and adventures, the La Trobe campus at Bundoora has been the most constant fixture in my life.

It might just be nostalgia, but I find myself thinking often of the humble brown brick structures, surrounded by bush, where watching the local wildlife (turtles, swamp hens) thrive and grow with the seasons is a favoured daily past-time. I miss the greasy flavourless comfort of Ping’s Chinese, and the freezing winter dash from Carpark Three to the David Myers Building when no amount of jackets is quite enough. I think of the undergraduate lectures that I, and my mother many years before, attended in the iconic East Lecture Theatres, as well as the joy and terror of giving my first lecture there in 2016.

It was timely indeed when a few weeks ago I attended a seminar about Institutional Histories as part of the ‘History Now!’ seminar series at the Australian Centre for Public History, University of Technology Sydney (UTS). There, Tamson Pietsch recalled a Griffith Review piece from 2016 where she described universities as institutions that “…hold us in time and [they] connect us to each other”. In her spoken paper, she described the ‘classroom, library and laboratory’ as public spaces where we encounter difference, and where civic relations are formed which hold us in time and space.

Though her point was more about the enduring power of public institutions in the era of individualism, I couldn’t help thinking of my own life (ironic, I know), and how influential La Trobe University has been in my becoming so far. Although many ideas were already germinating when I arrived, my time at La Trobe – which is known for its radical tradition – has only strengthened my commitment to a more just and equal society; my solidarity with leftist politics and labour movements; and my belief in publics including the idea of the public good, public spaces and institutions, and public knowledge.

But before I get too misty-eyed about La Trobe, we know all too well that universities, and institutions generally, have uniquely painful ways of letting us down. We have all experienced the myriad of ways that they can disappoint, frustrate, belittle, embarrass, anger, and sadden us, particularly lately.

On this, Pietsch quotes Hugh Heclo’s On Thinking Institutionally (Oxford University Press, 2011); “[i]n a backhanded way, our capacity to feel betrayed speaks to a residual trust in institutional values.” She adds; “Getting angry at the way institutions fail us is not a sign we want to do away with them, it is an indication that we want them to be better.”

As I get closer to departing for Sweden and forming new institutional relationships at Umeå University, I am drawn to reflect upon the sudden loss of collegiality and belonging that I’ve experienced since leaving my home institution. In Sydney, I’ve been incredibly privileged to work at the Australian Catholic University, and to have spent time both at UTS, and the University of Sydney, each with proud traditions and unique institutional cultures.

And yet, I wonder about the many thousands of PhD students whose institutions held them together, and who worked ceaselessly towards submission only to abruptly discover the sense of loss that surely must follow. To La Trobe University, I am grateful for those well-treaded grooves across time and space bounded by the experience and borders of the institution, that I now, and we all inevitably, must make anew.

What does it mean to bear responsibility for that which has never been my fault, or my deed?

In the first few pages of Terra Nullius (2005) – Swedish author and provocateur Sven Lindqvist’s book on Aboriginal dispossession in Australia – the author recounts a memory from his youth. In the summer of 1951, the young Lindqvist disembarked from the fishing vessel on which he was employed, at the Trondheimfjord in Norway on-route to Iceland. Amongst the Norwegians, Lindqvist and his Icelandic crew members were welcome visitors, and the mood in the early-summer evening was jovial as they shared refreshments together. That is until he was revealed to be Swedish. Silence ensued. Faded smiles. The ‘great-grandmother’ eventually intervened in the silence; “Swedish, eh?”, she asked. “Well what about the 1942 transits?” Lindqvist replied tongue-in-cheek; “I was ten in 1942. They didn’t ask me.” But with each passing moment, Lindqvist became increasingly uncomfortable. The great-grandmother eventually responded; “But big enough to share the booty.”

This is a recurring theme in Lindqvist’s writings, at least in the major English translations to which I am referring. He asks repeatedly; what does it mean to be responsible for past actions, in-actions and wrong-doings? What if that past is something I have no memory of? That which has never been my fault, or my deed?

I first read Lindqvist as an undergraduate in then Professor Robert Manne’s capstone course ‘Politics in the Twentieth Century’. I was fortunate to be taught by Manne in his final semester of teaching at La Trobe University. It was a formative experience which disrupted my worldview and instigated a change of life path (I decided to pursue further studies in history rather than law).  At the heart of Manne’s teaching about the history of the twentieth century as imagined through some of its foremost thinkers (Hobsbawm, Kundera, Arendt, Orwell, Levi etc.), was a moral question about the extent and nature of personal and collective culpability for the many destructive events that have come to characterise the twentieth century.

The beginnings of Lindqvist’s attention to difficult histories and questions of ethical responsibility are clear in his first publication The Myth of Wu-Tao Tzu (1967). The young Lindqvist lived in China for two years during the 1960s, not out of political commitment but rather dedicating himself to the study of calligraphy and language, seeking respite from the consumerism of the West. The myth that gives the book its title is that of an artist who painted a landscape so sublime that upon completion he stepped into it, disappearing forever. The book follows Lindqvist’s quest for truth and beauty in art, mysticism and simplicity through China, India and Afghanistan, but which is sidelined by the overwhelming impoverishment, harsh labour conditions and corruption that the young, idealised Lindqvist encounters and which spark his political awakening. The book descends into an angry, self-defeating kind of polemic, where he denounces his faith in art and its capacity for inspiring truth and beauty in life, as well as his own literary style. He subsequently announces his commitment to political writing. Lindqvist’s early encounters with Western imperialism in India and China, are the beginnings of his sustained attention to the legacies of European colonialism, racism and extermination, which culminate in a remarkable trilogy of books published during the 1990s; Desert Divers (1990) Exterminate All the Brutes (1992) and A History of Bombing (1999).

Lindqvist’s best known and most acclaimed book is Exterminate All the Brutes. The book was inspired by the young Lindqvist’s reading of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness where he was struck by Kurtz’s apparent foresight in his proclamation to ‘exterminate all the brutes’. He takes Conrad’s insight into the racist and exterminatory logic of Western imperialism, as a premonition of the Holocaust, and in tracing this complex intellectual history, argues that in exterminating the Jews and other minorities, the Germans were enacting the same imperialist logic that had been pervasive throughout Europe in the previous century

I am reminded of Lindqvist’s dilemma this week, 10-years after Kevin Rudd’s National Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples. In particular, I am drawn back to Manne’s classroom wherein Lindqvist’s ascription of historical responsibility was keenly embraced by my classmates with respect to the exterminatory policies of the European powers in Africa, but had much less purchase in discussions of Australia’s own violent and destructive policies. Now, that may well correspond to some extent with the comparatively poor standard of research and argument in Terra Nullius as opposed to Exterminate All the Brutes. However, the question remains, as Danielle Celermajer has thoughtfully phrased;

“How to illuminate the wrong that lies at the feet of all us who silently or implicitly consent to a world where particular acts of grave wrongdoing are rendered normal and even invisible?”