Feminist icon and intellectual Germaine Greer will be a special guest of the Hawke Research Institute this April.
Feminist icon and intellectual Germaine Greer will be a special guest of the Hawke Research Institute this April. The institute’s Director Anthony Elliott explains why he has invited Greer to present a public lecture (Earth can survive without people; people cannot survive without earth) on Wednesday, April 15. The Irish writer and poet, Oscar Wilde, once commented, “An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all”. Wilde’s remark was, of course, said approvingly rather than disparagingly. But this is not how it is in our own time, where short-termism promotes a fascination with the concrete or utilitarian, and brilliant new technologies push ideas towards the functional. Consider, for example, the place of ideas in universities. In an age of online degrees and hefty student fees, the focus today is arguably less about ideas and more about jobs. While one might be forgiven for thinking that the words “ideas” and “academics” are inextricably intertwined, there are indeed plenty of instances where academics now pursue their teaching confident in the knowledge that they won’t have to trade with “ideas” in any traditional sense. The critic Terry Eagleton has noted that the word “academic” has come to mean “doesn’t really exist” – as in “the distinction is a purely an academic one”. And, after all, in our era of instant messaging and just-in-time deliveries, who now has time for the power of ideas? Ideas seem then to have fallen on hard times. But, thankfully, our society’s fascination for ideas is not wholly dependent on academics. Today it is arguably intellectuals, rather than academics, that seek to bring the power of ideas into direct engagement with our everyday lives and political worlds. It is intellectuals, from Freud and Wittgenstein to Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag, who have sought to bring the force of critical ideas to bear on our culture as a whole. This is why I invited Germaine Greer – public intellectual, and icon of the feminist movement – to visit the Hawke Research Institute in Adelaide in April. Greer trades, and has always traded in, critical ideas. Her ideas have been provocative, edgy, disturbing. She disrupts, and always has. In her pioneering bestseller The Female Eunuch (1970), Greer boldly proclaimed that the modern nuclear family represses women’s sexuality. According to Greer, the women’s movement needed to supplement its economic focus on women’s oppression through specific attention to gender and sexual ideology. If our unequal sexual world is replicated through oppressive social practices such as job discrimination and unequal wages, argued Greer, it is also profoundly shaped by envy, aggression and hatred in gender relations. The Female Eunuch had a profound global impact, catapulting its Australian author to prominence as an inspiration to the feminist movement. Increasingly lauded, Greer was charismatic, formidably clever and probably one of the most electrifying public speakers Australia has ever produced. But Greer didn’t stand still; such was her commitment to the power of dangerous ideas. Her open-endedness has been remarkable, and she has penned books on literary criticism, the politics of fertility, ageing and menopause, a diary and travelogue about her father, a history about the beauty of teenage boys, and most recently eco-feminism. Ironically, Australia has sometimes needed reminding that Germaine Greer is an Australian. While her fame is global, and she has lived in the UK for several decades, Greer is often seen as merely a visitor down-under. Sure, she appears occasionally as a guest on the ABC’s Q&A. But she is not regularly celebrated as one of our own. One part to understanding this is that Greer has long courted controversy, and sometimes brazenly so. Her media appearances in the UK routinely come in for a great deal of criticism. So too, her views on, say, trans-sexualism, ecofeminism or anarchism have been the subject of critical attack. But another thread is that her ideas continue to disturb and disrupt. Many Australian men feel intimidated by her arguments, while some Australian women simply don’t like her. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise, since Australia has always had trouble with intellectuals. Greer herself hasn’t made the reception of her work exactly easy, such is her endless crossing of boundaries between intellectual disciplines. For the most part, she has written in a language which rejects all bounds, crossing effortlessly from Mary Wollstonecraft to menstrual blood, and the politics of aesthetics to the destructive power of multinationals. In an age which has fetishised the functional, Greer’s ongoing enquiry into the state of culture and the possibilities for sexual freedom remains bold. This is what interests us at the Hawke Research Institute: her commitment to ideas – often provocative, always engaging. Greer has been one of the most significant voices in the discourses of feminism, freedom and equality, and her full-blooded challenge to today’s political orthodoxies remains disturbingly fresh. Germaine Greer will present a public lecture – Earth can survive without people; people cannot survive without earth on Wednesday, April 15 at 6pm in the Allan Scott Auditorium at the University of South Australia’s City West campus. She will explore how we might redress the degradation of the earth by retraining ourselves and acquiring the skills and knowledge to reverse the process. Admission is $20 and bookings can be made online at unisa.edu.au/germainegreer Professor Anthony Elliott is Director of the Hawke Research Institute at the University of South Australia. He is the author of some 40 books, translated in over a dozen languages.