Project Synopsis

‘Find your voice!’ There is no more emphatic demand in contemporary literature, or the education system that feeds into it. But what do we mean when we insist on this? Where do our voices come from, and under what conditions do we speak? In many cases, there is an implication of singularity in this demand: a belief that each writer already possesses such a voice and needs only to locate it within him or herself. We project a similar unity when we speak of distinctly Australian voices, those voices that form our national literature. Yet if one of the ironies of ‘national literature’ is that it invariably comprises a combination of the local and the international, this is in part because each voice contains the echoes of many, from other places and other times. With this in mind, we might consider voice a complex point of intersection, both at the individual and national levels. Indeed, this intersection renders the individual and the national, the local and the global, impossible to disentangle.

One of Australia’s best-loved intellectuals, the late poet, critic and philosopher Martin Harrison (1949-2014), epitomised this cosmopolitanism. Born in Britain, educated at Cambridge, Harrison lived for a number of years in New Zealand before migrating to Australia. Further, not only did Harrison also live and work, at various times, in the United States, Spain, Italy and France—nations whose languages he spoke—but the range of influences we find in his writing stretch back into the deep time of multiple histories. From Sappho to Heraclitus to Heidegger, sensitive to Australia’s indigenous legacy as well as that of colonialism, creatively engaged with Chinese dissident poets and twentieth-century American and continental philosophical movements, Harrison drew on a global history of writing and ideas to form a body of work that is yet to be fully published and appreciated. The voice that we find in that work not only responds to such complexity, but is a site of constant construction and flux: the reflection of a mind engaged in, indeed constituted by, a responsive play with the world around it. In his role as a scholar, teacher, and public intellectual, Harrison sought to transmit a more nuanced approach to voice, and a sense of the broader possibilities and implications of writing, to a generation of Australian poets and artists.

Part biopic, part film-poem, part documentary essay, The Distribution of Voice will explore these complex processes of transmission, examining the ways in which teaching and mentorship open spaces for individual writers to flourish, for creative communities to be established, and for a national literature to emerge. Drawing on Harrison’s own work, on archival material, and on original interviews with colleagues, friends, students and critics, as well as painting cinematic portraits of the locations, both Australian and international, that feature in and occasioned Harrison’s work, The Distribution of Voice will offer an intellectual-biographical study of this important contemporary figure. But it will also pursue its own philosophical inquiry into a set of questions about the relationship between poetry, ideas and pedagogy; about the communities that can develop around writers and teachers; and about the state of the institutions that underwrite them.

The global scope of philosophical and literary influence predates the concept of cosmopolitanism by millennia, and in this way we might see the distribution of voice as the history of philosophy and literature. Without the repeated copying of papyrus and codex, their dissemination by exponents, what we have from the cornerstones of Western thinking and literature—the works, for example, of Aristotle and Plato—would be negligible. The same holds true throughout the history of thought. But this inheritance also reflects a process of selection, both deliberate and otherwise: only those texts deemed worthy were copied out and handed down; many, meanwhile, were lost by accident or destroyed by design. The distribution of voice across history is, for this reason, an issue fraught with ethical questions, and its many points of transmission remain sites of frequent conflict.

In his teaching as in his writing, these questions remained at the forefront of Harrison’s work. They interrogate not only the nature of writing and representation, but also the jointure of the individual life to its community and environment. For Harrison, they drew together conversations about ecology and poetics, and necessitated a critical relation to the discourse around teaching and institutions of education. In tracing the trajectory of his thought and describing the ethos of his work, we too are driven to confront these questions. What should we receive and repeat from our history? To which ideas and values ought we give our voice? And, more broadly, in an episteme obsessed with information, what does literature know? In an era that increasingly sees education as a commodity and students as customers, what can poets teach?