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Arena at 40

Guy Rundle

In the seventeenth century, a magazine was a store of ammunition, a journal, the record of an individual’s travels, perceptions or memories in situ. By the nineteenth, these original definitions had been added to. The journal was now a record of meetings and meanderings in a new situation, that of networks of writers and thinkers now independent of all ties to religion or court; and the magazine, in an era when differing parties purported to have abandoned arms for parliament and debate, became a store of ideas.

For two centuries, magazines and journals have been at the centre of revolution and reform, from the Rambler to the Edinburgh Review to the Nineteenth Century to the Bulletin, the New Statesman and right up to Meanjin, Private Eye, the Nation Review and the one you are now reading. Their purpose has been not only to advocate a way into the future, but also to record the pathways taken that have become the past. With their letters and replies, they imitate a conversation, but they are not one — they either begin or approach the condition of permanence, an argument about how things were, or were understood at the time. They preserve gestures and acts as effectively as a shower of volcanic ash on a city.

No-one bothers to store ammunition with total indifference to its use. The most effective magazines have always been those whose general point of view has been formed prior to its first issue, but which is willing to have those views partially or substantially transformed by the debates which flow through it. No honest editor can be indifferent to evidence as it comes in, but no editor can be effective who looks out on the world without a set of formed and framing beliefs. Effective magazines drew groups around them that were halfway between being readerships and being parties; they did not know each other, did not meet, but knew that their differences would occur within a shared framework. In pursuit of that form of abstract community, which was recognised as a prerequisite of political effectiveness, they entrusted a series of decisions about what would be published to editors who, with integrity or otherwise, shaped what was seen and read.

For better and worse, that is now changing. The magazine was a product not merely of modern, urban politics; the latter was shaped by its material form. The seventeenth century had been the era of the pamphlet — painstakingly composited and printed on platen presses, often by their authors — in their tens of thousands, arguing the nature of the true commonwealth and Man’s relation to God. Innovations in typesetting and rolling presses in the next century saw the birth of economically viable newspapers and — with spine stitching and linocut, among other things — the substantial magazine. Now its dominance is being undermined by a revolution more important than all of these and the possible equal of printing, that of electronic word media or the internet. Where a printing press and the apparatus — social or material — of a journal was hitherto a source of power, the ‘net’ offers a form of ‘publishing’ (really, uploading) whose labour-value and price approaches zero. Where magazines (and newspapers) set the rhythm of news — and, to a degree, the rhythm by which things happened — the net offers the possibility of instantanous and continuous uploading, which makes the idea of an ‘edition’ a fiction. Where the slowed pace of writing and publishing turned exchanges of ideas into a process whereby reflection could occur within dialogue, the net offers the possibility of real-time exchange. The absence of physical limits means that anything from a one-word comment to a book-length article can be published, one hanging on to the next. The internet has already changed the form of both magazine and journal — online magazines/forums like Slate combine traditional selective and shaping editing with instantaneous debate and chains of argument and discussion. Academic publishers are increasingly using electronic publishing to supply individual articles online, so that an expanding catalogue replaces the journal per se. More radical forums such as the Indymedia sites abolish the editor/reader distinction almost wholly, becoming a new media form — something between magazine, graffiti wall and conversation.

To talk about the pros and cons of this would be akin to discussing the pros and cons of the coming of industrialisation. It is a broad historical movement that offers a new context in which the struggle for a reconstruction of a fully rounded human life must occur. Naïve accounts of this new historical form have believed it to be the carrier of a society in which power is distributed equally, as it breaks down the distinction between authority and audience. In fact, it could be no more than one level of a new way of life in which forms of association between people were reconstructed so that the commodity or the image did not dominate less mediated and abstracted ways of living and working together. Whether that be called socialism or communism matters less than the understanding that political and economic forces alone, let alone technological ones, cannot bring it about.

However, that does not mean there will not be radical changes brought about by these new forces, especially in intermediate forms. Will the magazine be a casualty of the electronic word media? Will the authority of the book and its assumptions — the single author, the delimited individual consciousness — cease to be? Will the idea of a party, as the dominant mode of political activity  — not merely the tightly-defined Leninist type, but also the more general idea of a large common and hierachically ordered group based on a set of common principles — survive this revolution? Or is it merely a particular form of close human association, which has a more general nature and can be expressed in other ways — as, for example, the manner of mixing manual and mental labour, ongoing association and work in the world — that this group has sought to achieve? It is easy to become confused by this transformation. Does the internet fragment the public sphere, the global social movement? The answer is that it allows for and facilitates the creation of multiple forms of social self-identification which make old style party politics impossible — but it also facilitates the transcending of the fragments when the situation challenges our values at a universal level, such as occurred in the mobilisation of the global anti-war movement. What we can say is that for every gain there is loss, but that this process itself is not unchanging — it can be transformed by memory.

At the heart of the seventeenth century, amid the contestation of thousands of pamphlets, Cromwell dispersed Gerard Winstanely and the Diggers and a certain historical possibility — the real Commonwealth, a society based on worked land and learning — was lost to the advance of the city and the machine. Had that event occurred otherwise, would we now live in a different civilisation, in which technology and the city had a different role? To what degree has the seemingly autonomous progress been shaped by these political defeats? A benign form of state socialism was not achieved in the historical form — modernity — in which it could occur, and now any idea we would recognise as full socialism is passing away. To those who still yearn for that, the paradox of post-modernity is almost unbearable — the global North is so weak in many ways that any systematically organised radical left political force would have excellent prospects of success. But the very nature of persons within that society makes the organisation of such a force impossible.

That the magazine is losing its authority to organise ideas, ammunition, the order of battle in such a period is the least of effects. The Roman empire produced Christianity, the universal humanism that would destroy it. The mechanism that underlay the Jacquard loom also brought forth the presses that would produce, in sufficient volume, the Communist Manifesto. The networks of military communication have produced the device by which there is a global anti-war movement.

We know this but we forget it, believing that what is slipping away is not Politics, but politics, because all that we knew it by is changing. That simply means that the outer expressions of a radically human project — its means but not its ends — are changing, and that the latter should not be confused with the former.

In this issue, Geoff Sharp reflects in depth on the overall history that this group and its publications made and was part of. Here I want to say only a few words about the particular one you are reading. When we made the old Arena over into two publications in the early 1990s, there were at least two other Australian magazines who pursued a more traditional left agenda. Both those magazines collapsed soon after we began and nothing replaced them. We took on more of the role suggested by our name — a general meeting place of contestation — than we had intended. Looked back on with pride, regret or grateful astonishment, it could be said that these ten years, and a few more ahead, are part of a transition in the history of the project opened to the future. That there are other places for the conduit of general left commentary, and even of its systematic selection and organisation, is increasingly clear.

Also becoming clear to many, albeit in an inchoate, half-grasped form, is that a new contest for control of our own destiny and being is coming, although its distance from us can be measured in decades, at least — unmediated by religion, estate, manifest destiny or class, but simply as living humanity, over against the opposite of both. Perceiving that we are leaving the era when this could be achieved by parties, magazines, journals, we can yet maintain a continuity that stretches back not to 1848, 1789, 1517, 33AD or 335BC but still further to the very point where the search for community and for the truth of being human intersect. At every point in history where these revolutionary moments have opened up, the stakes and possibilities have been higher than before. In an era that will be shaped by biotechnology, post-human beings, surveillance, and modes of media and production which go beyond all existing boundaries, the possibilities for a human global society which is both reflexive and grounded, equal and free, is as possible as a catastrophic fall. But new media will only aid us in the achievement of human freedom if they are not confused with it. In the years to come, our changing and evolving form — as a publication, as a group — will reflect an attempt to more fully grapple with the new world and the new possibilities.