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Introduction – Issue 45/46 ‘Cold War to Hot Planet: Fifty Years of Arena’

This issue of Arena Journal emerges from a day-long symposium held at the University of Melbourne in 2013 marking fifty years of publications by the Arena group. The event was composed of diverse presentations, some from among the original editors of the first series of Arena, some by contributors to that first series and others by editors and contributors from more recent times. The day was marked by an unusual vitality as well as recognition of a unique contribution made by the publications, not only to Australian political and cultural history but also to the development of a theory of social transformation not found in publications elsewhere. There was a strong sense that something of this contribution needed to be reflected upon in a further publication looking back on those past fifty years.

This issue of Arena Journal emerges from a day-long symposium held at the University of Melbourne in 2013 marking fifty years of publications by the Arena group. The event was composed of diverse presentations, some from among the original editors of the first series of Arena, some by contributors to that first series and others by editors and contributors from more recent times. The day was marked by an unusual vitality as well as recognition of a unique contribution made by the publications, not only to Australian political and cultural history but also to the development of a theory of social transformation not found in publications elsewhere. There was a strong sense that something of this contribution needed to be reflected upon in a further publication looking back on those past fifty years.

The Arena Publications editors approached a number of writers to develop chapters dealing with topics that have been significantly reflected in the pages of both the first series of Arena and the two publications that emerged after the first one hundred issues of Arena twenty-five years ago: Arena Magazine and Arena Journal.

Readers will be aware that these fifty years spanned momentous events and developments: significantly, the Cold War and the transformation of warfare by nuclear weapons; the demise of the communist movement; the rise of the student and social movements; the slow loss of vitality of working-class movements and union organisations; the contradictory waves associated with Indigenous relations, from land rights to the Intervention; the renewal of the capitalist market and profound shift towards globalisation in the 1980s; the collapse of the Soviet Union; the Global Financial Crisis and its aftermath; the growing realisation of the depth of social crisis implicit in our destructive relationship to our environment.

In relation to all these developments the Arena editors have argued the case for the emergence of a distinctive material social force in the world that has largely been overlooked by other writers and approaches.  While many acknowledge the importance of the sciences in material processes, there has been no sustained attempt to theorise the techno-scientific turn in late captitalism in terms of the distinctive social relations that contribute to the transformation of material relations in the world, and capitalism in particular. This has been carried out in various ways and with different foci over the last fifty years by the editors, all influenced in more or less profound ways by the work of Geoff Sharp.

Many readers will be aware that Geoff died in 2015. This has been a deep loss to the Arena editors, as well, of course, to his family and friends. Given the transformations now occurring on a world scale to which Geoff was so able to give unique meaning, it is a serious loss to many far beyond his immediate circles of association. The editors wish to dedicate this issue to Geoff.

The main way in which Geoff influenced people was through face-to-face discussion, as his many students would testify. This influence, always in a rational mode combined with a strong sense of the implicit and intuitive, ran very deep. He was not a writer of books although he was most definitely a devoted contributor to the journal, with its cumulative effects over time. His short comments and, especially in the last twenty-five years, his expanded articles, combined complex argument with a process that allowed the reader to see the world in new terms. His capacity to convey expanded meanings by bringing into relation unlikely events, objects and imagery was often the catalyst for intense discussion and debate with other Arena editors. These combined efforts would forge what has become known (for better or worse) as the ‘Arena thesis’; a distinctive and wide-ranging framework for analysis and interpretation. This work emerged over time in debate about and development of Geoff’s highly original work on social networks—the distinctive form that relations between intellectuals take—as analysed by Raewyn Connell in her essay in this volume. The ‘Arena thesis’ went through various stages of development over Geoff’s lifetime, elaborated in part by other editors and stimulated by the practical and institutional developments of the period.

As Alison Caddick noted in her editorial in Arena Magazine after Geoff’s death, the relation of social practices to nature, including their capacity to re-configure the natural world, was an ever-present theme in his work.

Geoff pointed to a common tendency to reconstitution of the natural across many domains—Anthropocene climate change, post-human biologies, nuclear fission, new communications technologies—and read in those changes a general social principle, trajectory or logic that had a deep common source. [1]

To take this up it was necessary to formulate a notion of social abstraction only found, however undeveloped, in the first chapter of Karl Marx’s Capital on the commodity abstraction. Geoff did not wish to deny the force of class in capitalist society but did seek to have recognised an emergent social force that pursued a logic of another kind. This social process, one not captured by social class arguments, was hidden in cultural assumptions, as opposed to social structure. In other words social class analysis was seen to sit within a larger realm of cultural assumptions that class analysis tends not to focus upon. To use a crucial example, class analysis typically takes the practices of intellectuals in their own right for granted, merely attach them to political support bases like the Establishment or the capitalist class or the organic working class. This approach, among other things, could not give technological change a social basis.

Geoff believed this collapse of a distinctive social process into class ignored how the social formation of intellectuals, especially after the techno-scientific revolution first clearly associated with Einstein, had a material/practical implication. It not only changed the context of class divisions but was also beginning to break up their familiar elements. Intellectual practices, in the form carried by the intellectually-trained, now represented a new material practice in the world and this required a conceptualisation that could grapple with practices that were both socially abstract and the product of social, not individual, practice. Given the historic rise of intellectual practices that had begun to transform received nature, capitalism could be said to have changed its spots: with profound implications for our future, it now needs to be thought of as joined with intellectual practices.

To capture the formation of intellectuals (and the intellectually-trained) Geoff developed a theory of social networks as forms of abstract association facilitated by various mediums. This theory was taken up and developed in a variety of directions by the editors: Nonie Sharp in relation to Indigeneity and cultural development; Doug White in relation to education movements; John Hinkson in relation to postmodern economy and markets; Gerry Gill in relation to the media; Paul James in relation to the nation; Alison Caddick in relation to the body and feminism; Simon Cooper in relation to post-structuralism; Guy Rundle in relation to the self, personal crisis and   .) Perhaps the most basic idea is that emergent forms of social relations were increasingly abstract—not as in an abstract thought but rather practically abstract: a lived abstraction effected socially. Social networks, emerging from the key practices and location of intellectual practices in the present period, are the key to understanding this development because they allow social relations to proceed in the absence of the physical presence of others through technologies that extend human action over time and space. Indeed the key to understanding the multiplication of networks in the late twentieth century is the enhanced range of scientific technologies (or techno-sciences) that support and shape them.

Abstract relations, in which persons are not physically present, are crucial in many human affairs but they necessarily carry the limits of the medium on which they depend. For one, they must provide only a limited selection of the human senses for their efficacy. Intellectuals’ primary form of association, texts, for example, are relatively fixed and necessarily ignore sound and smell. Social context is secondary in terms of what is exchanged; and also in terms of understanding the persons who created them. Any sense of social context, including generational history, has to be conjured up and constructed by creative imagination. More recent digital technologies (including the iPhone) convey visual images and introduce movement and sound but still lack touch and smell. They allow the appearance of ‘looking someone in the eye’ but they still lack context, indeed are predicated upon it, and can be said to promote a less condensed form of connection and communication. All textual and new communication technologies, by definition, displace touch and a tactile relation to nature and others. The more abstracted social relations facilitated by such technologies add to the diversity and complexity of human affairs as an integrated whole, but this is only a social positive if physical presence remains a substantial reality in social life.

To put it the other way round, substantial physical presence in social relations, or tangible community, lies at the core of the formation of homo sapiens; it sits, at the core of human being in the natural world. Physical presence is inevitably drawn into, and its meanings constituted through, language and culture. But physical presence —between persons or between persons and the object world—draws upon all of the senses in the round; it is a ground for rational capacities and cultural creativity, and crucially for a strong sense of tangible reality and for our capacity to empathise and feel for the needs of others.

As indicated earlier, Geoff began his work on networks by addressing the practices of the intellectual culture. Here was a culture that developed via the (abstract) interchange made possible by print. Hence the book and the journal were artifacts that allowed a culture (with distinctive values) to develop substantially around absence (with occasional or only secondary  presence). That is, relations between thinkers were mediated by the technology of the printed word, and hence absent relations were typical. It was also a culture abstracted from, yet simultaneously dependent upon, the broader cultural world as a reference point, which remained overwhelmingly one of face-to-face social relations, even if these were enmeshed in complex cultural meanings and social hierarchies. The intellectual culture historically was crucial to the functioning of the larger social totality, its more abstracted qualities allowing special insight into the conflicts and contradictions of that larger culture, helping to systematise it and legitimise it, and at times challenge and change it.

Money markets, especially elaborated in modernity, are also a kind of network: a social absence made possible by the technology of money. If intellectual practices are typified by an internal value orientation of equality and honesty of interchange necessary for social absence to work adequately (a ‘community of scholars’ for instance), money markets can be said to pursue equality and inequality simultaneously. On the one hand money tears down barriers (think of the redistribution between nations inherent in the process of globalisation), while on the other hand providing the social space for unequal distribution and participation via the complexities of power facilitated by absence in the money relation, as in the commodification of bodies as ‘labour’ within capitalist property relations.

It was the need to address the rise of the social movements so influential in the 1960s and 1970s that led Geoff to emphasise the significance of the network. The technological revolutions of the time—essentially related to a revolution of high technology, to the information revolution and cybernetics generally—saw concurrently a massive proliferation of the network form and advocacy for radical change to traditional institutions. This broad development led to shifts in education policy, significant expansion of the university sector, and change in the profile of jobs. Crucially, there was a change in the balance of social networks over against more traditional social groupings. The industrial worker, for example, faced a transformation that gave an enhanced role to a professionalised and educated workforce. This was the beginning of an increasingly elaborated relation between capitalism and the intellectual institutions that would over time become almost wholly oriented towards material production.  These observations and analyses were concretised in the short piece by Geoff Sharp and Doug White, ‘Features of the Intellectually Trained’ (Arena, no. 15, 1968), and were subsequently developed in later issues of Arena, with profound implications for our understanding of historical universities but also for the way of life of everyone in this context.

The technological revolution lies behind the spread of more abstract networks of association. But this was not a revolution that happened and then stopped. It has been an ongoing process, with novel developments each decade since the Second World War. From the standpoint of networks nothing compares with the significance of computerisation for the enhancement of abstraction in social life. Computerisation promoted basic changes in the media and profoundly changed how intellectual work is undertaken. If the printed word supported intellectual work historically, email and the communication of images and exchanges online has moved into the foreground of intellectual work today. And if media communications made inroads into family and community fifty year years ago in television and advertising, today technological convergence and social media now structure familial spaces and the subjects who inhabit them in very direct ways. Abstract social networks are constitutive of what is distinctive in contemporary life.

Globally, these processes captured by the notion of the social network can also be seen in the transformation of the market into the global market today. The global market is able to be differentiated from the modern market of Smith and Marx by its reliance on networks that, via computerisation, change the character of market behaviour. As a structure it is more rapid, it has greater breadth (more effectively globally) and more depth (it has the enhanced power to reach into all aspects of everyday life).  The global market cuts through relations grounded in presence far more profoundly  than  modern markets were able to do. It places under threat all the social institutions based in the relative fixity of modernity, and in pre-modern relations.

This rampant capacity of the global market draws upon the capacities of the techno-scientific revolution to further transform the social order. Reaching into the taken-for-granted natural world the techno-scientific bio-technologies even begin to unravel the settled structures of biological nature. It was the genome project that most captured Geoff’s attention, although all the bio-technologies are of significance. And it is important to see how these technologies are also interwoven with social experimentation made possible by social abstraction, which has ‘broken free’ of social relations based in presence. The displacement of the family based on male and female is one example: an historical break in the nature of the social.

It became more and more clear that while analysis based on the notion of  abstract networks was able to capture much of the social transformation of the times it also needed a broader frame of reference if the nature of transformation at a societal level was to be conceptualised. This brought to the fore two other conceptual developments, which are probably the most difficult to comprehend. Arguably they offer a profound grasp of contemporary social prospects: societies and individuals composed of levels of social abstraction, and the notion of cultural contradiction.

There is not the space here to elaborate these notions adequately. They first appeared in print in the article ‘Constitutive Abstraction and Social Practice’ (Arena 70, 1985, pp. 48 – 83). While most people have found this writing dense this is consistent with others finding it worth the hard work needed to come to terms with Geoff’s argument. The idea of constituted levels of social abstraction basically sees all societies and persons as composed of different levels of social abstraction, in combination. This means, for example, that intellectuals live a combination of more than one level of social abstraction within their personal formation and social  practice. The balance or composition of these varied forms can shift, and become unbalanced, over time. While intellectuals are defined by the socially abstract relations that work through absence discussed above, and are shaped by them, they are also shaped by substantial relations grounded in the face-to-face, or relations of presence; for example, in their growing up in families and in local communities. But they combine these levels, in a different balance from other members of society.. In communities predominantly based in presence, the social form of life is experienced more closely in relation to, and elaborated in terms of, the natural world. These cultures are formed in concert with the full range of the senses. The point is that some groups and individuals within a society, and some societies, can have a more socially abstract composition (more absence, less presence) and this marks them relative to others.

To take a societal example from western history, when the west entered that eruption called the Enlightenment it carried, by virtue of the expansion and elaboration, as well as radical insights, of the sciences and philosophy, an enhanced socially abstract composition. This, together with its enhanced practical powers, marked it off experientially from other societies, one expression of which has been called, triumphantly, western exceptionalism. This sense of western superiority, often felt towards other cultures, and one source of the west’s shameful treatment of Indigenous cultures in the imperial age, points to the social possibilities (if not quite cultural contradictions) inherent in social abstraction, still alive in attitudes to other cultures today. Here social abstraction, as a product of new intellectual practices and their foundation in social absence, can be seen in two expressions: exciting ideas oriented to ‘freedom’ and ‘progress’ on the one hand, and the supremacist and murderous practices of capitalism and colonialism on the other.

‘Cultural contradiction’ accompanies the idea of a combination of levels or forms of social abstraction. It points to situations where a dominant level of social abstraction not only displaces or restructures a prior level, but does so in a way that threatens unacknowledged but deeply valued and formative aspects of social life. The idea focuses on the threat of contemporary practices that, in their extreme abstraction, can be argued to undermine the foundations of social life. To take current social realities linked to globalisation we might observe the emergence of techno-scientific practices in a global market that threaten many biological taken-for-granteds (for example, the child-bearing of women), or the demise of intergenerational social life as such implicit in the over-development of social media that points towards a post-human society. If these taken-for-granteds are regarded as crucial (cultural) foundations of our humanity, one can speak of a cultural contradiction.

Of course these are matters of disputation. But these examples are a reflection of how contemporary social abstraction has moved to a phase where the presence of others in our social formation might become redundant or an empty residual. The crucial point is that social abstraction, supported by high technology, is taking a form where essential elements of our humanity are tending to be displaced, and at a rapid rate. If work is regarded as an unavoidable socially formative experience then the universalisation of robotisation, another expression of contemporary intellectual practices, points to a cultural contradiction. Like the bio-technological projects that seek to radically transform our being in nature, this draws us towards a post-human form of life.

In this context, Geoff and the editors have seen the critique of the contemporary university and the intellectual practices that support it as a core element of their work. Again, as noted in relation to Geoff’s work:

It is not just that our relation to nature is reconfigured but that Nature itself is being remade, as we know in the recomposition of Earth’s biosphere, in the atomic bomb, or in biomedical reconstructions of bodies and bodily processes…[And] the ‘centre of [this] power [is] not the neoliberal nation-state apparatus…or the transnational company or global elite, as such, but rather the universities and research institutes, which [are] the scientific and ideological levers to the new world.[2]

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It may be a surprise to readers that these ideas, which are often regarded as difficult, or perhaps too abstract to be practical, were indeed oriented towards social practice in the world. An orientation to practice can easily be a dogmatic requirement as found in some theoretical circles. But from the earliest days in Arena theory was somewhat different in the way it emerged, linking it to practice in the very method of thinking about social life. In other words theory was never developed as a set of discrete ideas apart from the practical world. Rather it was thought through as a step in the process of thinking about emergent practices, practices that did not easily fit with pre-existing theory.

Of course, this is always a matter of judgement. Are the intellectually-trained to be categorized as a segment of the working class or does their distinctive behaviour demand a break with prior social categories? Is IVF a mere variation on historic forms of child-birth or are the emergent processes so significantly different that they need deeper reflection? In taking things up in this way there is no simple assertion that theory should be practical. Rather there is a prior point that is crucial here: that the practical world and the categories and theories that help illuminate developments in that practical world are in constant interrelation and movement. The question is what are the active social forces in the world and under what circumstances do these issue in social contradiction. If this practical inquiry calls into being forms of theory that is further distanced from common sense than found with received theory, it does not follow that it is not oriented towards practice. This is a method which was important to the editors and was pursued as a form of natural reflection by Geoff throughout his life.

And related to this approach to the social and practical world Arena responded to the movements of the day – on the one hand the attempt to break with an overly technologised and urban society found in the 1960s counterculture which romanticized ideas of humanity and nature, often taking an anti-technology stance, but also to emerging theories of post-structuralism and post-modernity which over-generalised the abstract flows of technology and information. Critically responding to these fetishisations of the concrete and the abstract Arena posited a model of social life as an ensemble of constitutive layers, each of which could distinctively frame value and modes of human exchange. Crucial to this ensemble of layers was an overcoming of the split between intellectual and manual labour as separate class and culturally grounded activities.

In Arena’s immediate circles it found expression in a decision to establish the beginnings of its own ‘breakout’ – although always conceived more complexly in terms of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ practices vis a vis wider society. Arena’s setting in the country, its building activities, its gardens and orchards, its own printery and, from 1974 onwards, its decision to typeset, print and publish their own journal and related publications, its regular discussions; its establishment of a culturally engaged drama group in the 1980s focused on the dangers of nuclear war: all were aspects of its internal and external world.  Arena has always been preoccupied by the attempt to realise how a social life composed of the more and less abstract – the intellectual and the manual, the urban and the rural, the individual and the social could be materially lived out – all set within the terms of what is a viable relation to the natural world. More than ever these are the issues of the day.



[1] A. Caddick, ‘Reconfiguring Nature’, Arena Magazine, no. 137, August-September, 2015, p.  4.

[2] Caddick, ‘Reconfiguring Nature’, p.  4.


[All Arenas — the first series of Arena, as well as Arena Magazine and Arena Journal — are available in print from the Arena office (). All issues of Arena Magazine and Arena Journal are available electronically from Informit. Selected writings of the editors from the first series (not available electronically elsewhere), including those of Geoff Sharp, can be found here.]

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