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This is the author’s version of a work that was submitted/accepted for publication in the following source: Graham, Philip W. (1999) Understanding nonsense : breathing life into shibboleths and killing critical thought in higher education. In ASFLA ’99. Proceedings of the Conference, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Qld. This file was downloaded from: http://eprints.qut.edu.au/43774/

c Copyright 1999 [please consult the author]

Notice: Changes introduced as a result of publishing processes such as copy-editing and formatting may not be reflected in this document. For a definitive version of this work, please refer to the published source:

ASFLA 99 - Phil Graham

Understanding nonsense: Breathing life into shibboleths and killing critical thought in higher education Philip Graham School of Communication Faculty of Business Queensland University of Technology Email: [email protected] Draft Only: Please do not quote without my permission Warning! This paper contains offensive language. Abstract In this paper, I focus on the growing "nonsense industry" which is most apparent in the writing typical of business, government departments, and the financial press. This writing, like technical writing, is characterised by heavy reliance on grammatical metaphor. It endows shibboleths - for instance, "globalisation"; "efficiencies"; "competition"; "modernisation"; "consumer sentiment"; "reform"; and so on - with anthropomorphic qualities. These anthropomorphic artefacts of technocratised language are then presented as having immutable powers over people. Thus they become banal public excuses for negligent practices in both business and government. The higher education system is, to some significant degree, culpable in this process. It appears, from an informal analysis of writing in undergraduate and postgraduate classes, that students are infused with the assumptions that fuel this textually manufactured nonsense, even before they arrive at university. This linguistic trend would not be of any great concern if it did not have damaging consequences for society, but it does. I will show the features of this linguistic virus, its origin and consequences (past and current), and I will suggest ways that lecturers and tutors in higher education might help overcome its growing virulence. I will also clearly identify the consequences of the rationality that the "nonsense indsutry" entails.


ASFLA 99 - Phil Graham

Understanding nonsense The higher education system is falling increasingly under the auspices and logic of business. The trend towards managerialism in the public sector, and neo-liberalism on both sides of the political spectrum, is adding further impetus to this trajectory. In certain respects, this ought to pose no problems whatsoever. After all, with high unemployment, a technological revolution, and an increasingly competitive labour market, why wouldn’t there be a need for a more “real world” approach to education? Indeed, why should the higher education sector be protected from competition? If you find credibility in those last two questions, you have just been conned by the very nonsense I’m going to talk about here. Education cannot cure unemployment; the labour market is a linguistic aberration that treats people as things so as to cheapen their cost; and the higher education system, if it can ever be conceived of as an homogenous “thing”, has always been subject to competition of many types, mostly ideological. This last remains the case today. There is no comparison between what business supposedly does and what higher education supposedly sets out to do. There is certainly some overlap: law faculties produce qualified personnel for the legal industry, engineering schools for engineering firms. Of course, if you believe me, you’ve just been flim-flammed again. There is no “legal industry”; there is a legal system in which some qualified persons practice law, but they do not produce the law, just as they do not (necessarily) produce justice, and most of the persons in the “industry” are not lawyers. Laws are made by legislative assemblies; justice is an abstraction that is rarely seen in the “real world” (as if there were another kind). Furthermore, graduates are not “produced”. If they are, then the education system is doing its students a disservice. Nor, on the other hand, are students clients in any sense of the word. If they are, then they are getting a bad deal. All the nonsense currently being generated as a by-product of an increasingly absurd, increasingly corporatised social system is becoming part of the way we think about ourselves, whether as citizens, teachers, students, or whatever – as people, human beings, or societies. What defines us as human is language, a self-reflexive form of linguistic behaviour. We can interact with and manipulate our own descriptions of our sense-perceptions of the world. These interactions are invariably mediated by the multiple lenses of multiple cultures and sub-cultures. The immediate effect of this ability is that it allows us to “make up” things that don’t exist anywhere other than in language. Thus, these “things” also exist in minds and societies as material effects, as words, habits of perception, habits of thought, and so on. In some cases, these reified “things” are endowed with the status of social determinants. An excellent example of this is is “globalisation” (see appendix 1: DFAT, 1997, pp. 1821). In the section of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade [DFAT] document that apparently sets out to explain globalisation, it appears in at least 16 guises:


ASFLA 99 - Phil Graham

THE SOCIAL GUISES OF GLOBALISATION (PRELIMINARY RESEARCH NOTES) 1. As a periodising characteristic without a specific beginning: Globalisation characterises an historic period, but is not new. 2. As an inevitable and immutable process without a definite end: Globalisation will continue. 3. As an object that is largely defined by business practices: ‘Globalisation is defined by the way in which businesses [firms] do business [operate]’. 4. As an object with vague defining characteristics: ‘Globalisation is not merely economic’. 5. As the possessor of important multi-dimensional, abstract characteristics (and perhaps, therefore, “unimportant” ones): ‘Globalisation has important political and social dimensions’. 6. As a dynamic object, the trajectory of which is determined by important, abstract, extrinsic, states, things, and processes: ‘Globalisation is driven by a liberal trading environment; technology; goods and ideas; and the mobility of people’. 7. As an obscuring agent that acts directly on perceptions of policy: ‘Globalisation blurs the division between domestic and external policy’. 8. As the creator of a compelling force for global integration: Globalisation ‘makes further economic integration with the global economy essential to advancing Australia’s national interests’. 9. As a disciplining agent that creates imperatives for change and dictates matters of policy: Globalisation makes reform of the Australian economy essential. 10. As NOT autonomous, or having a specific trajectory (but it might be if it were not restrained by negative forces): Globalisation is not ‘a single unified trend, or an inevitable march towards global political interdependence’, but it might be if not for ‘resurgent nationalism’, ‘ethnic rivalries’, and ‘inward-looking regionalism’. 11. As NOT an effective agent in determining certain aspects of the nation state (implying that it does affect others, and that it may perceivably determine those particular aspects that DFAT says it does not): Globalisation ‘has not caused the nation state to be displaced as the primary force in international relations’. 12. As an agent that has NOT yet destroyed national economies (implying that it has the power to do so, or that it may perceivably have done so, or may do so in future): ‘Globalisation has not swept away national economies’. 13. As an agent with a specific trajectory that causes phenomena which are related to its movement. These phenomena are retrospective to the movement of this agent implying that it moves in advance of society: ‘Globalisation brings difficulties for political and economic management in its wake’. 14. As an agent that may potentially be perceived as a threat; a thing that may be feared: ‘Some see Globalisation challenging economic sovereignty’. 15. As an agent that creates the fate of individuals and groups: Globalisation ‘creates winners and losers’. 16. As a phenomenon with inevitable and problematic, though manageable, aspects: ‘Managing Globalisation will be a major challenge over the next fifteen years’. After paragraph 48, ‘trade liberalisation’, previously identified as a major driving factor of globalisation, takes the place of globalisation as the active agency that is, paradoxically, not fundamental to the perceived problems mistakenly attributed to its own workings, but rather, is fundamental to the solution of these problems, which, after all, are merely illusory according to DFAT. DFAT states, then, that globalisation is a multi-dimensional thing; a process; a state of historically specific “being” without a beginning or an end; an autonomous, active, phenomenonologically extant agent with a specific speed and trajectory, which is accelerated by improved communications, and directly creates the fate of persons. For some, it as an observable threat to economic well being, but while it is problematic, it is manageable. It is a powerful force that is assumed to be both inevitable and desirable. When viewed as an abstract, phenomenologically evidenced, immutable, active, disciplining, ultimately beneficial agent without a beginning or an end; that dictates matters of policy (rules and disciplines which must be obeyed), creates fate itself; which (potentially and/or implicitly) has the power to destroy national economies (whole countries), that should be feared, and which demands continual reform (repentence or correctional treatment), globalisation begins to take on the status of a religious deity, a God. The intermediaries between this immutable God, and the fate of the nation state (Australia), are business, their goods and ideas, technology, the mobility of people, and, most importantly, trade liberalisation. That is because these “things” define and propel globalisation. Thanks largely to ‘trade liberalisation’, the nation has been spared the worst problems that globalisation appears to cause, but of course does not, because it is inherently beneficial. However, we are told, things will get worse if trade liberalisation is not pursued as a matter of policy. Thus, ‘trade liberalisation’, which drives ‘globalisation’, must be pursued if we are to avoid the worst effects of globalisation, which, in turn, is driven by ‘trade liberalisation’. In the end, globalisation remains undefined by DFAT. It merely is, was, and will be.


ASFLA 99 - Phil Graham

Colonising the discourse of students: Examples of protononsense The following are excerpts from student essays. I am not quoting these to pedantically highlight grammatical, spelling, or punctuation errors, but to highlight their semantic contents. The first is written by two Masters students, both of whom have high GPAs. The driving force of technological change has allowed the banks to handle greatly expanded numbers of customers; substantially reduced the real cost of handling payments; cut the banks free from traditional constraints over time and place and allowed banks to introduce a whole range of new products and services’. (Masters student essay).

When I marked this, I wondered if the authors had ever tried to clear a cheque, worked in a bank, or lived in a rural town. Time and space constraints have most certainly not disappeared. In fact, for many people, they have increased (Bauman, 1997). In the sentence above, The driving force of technological change is, all at once, Theme; Medium; Subject (logical, grammatical, and psychological); and Actor. It allows the banks to do all those things, in fact, it may as well do them as far as the text is concerned. But all the advantages it apparently confers on banks are simultaneously disadvantages for many of their customers and former employees. Translated to slightly more congruent language, the sentence might read: Banks use computers to reduce their costs by firing employees and closing branches; to operate larger business units by merging (thus increasing their customer base); and to invent new ways to gamble enormous amounts of other people’s money on shakily contrived, abstract, speculative financial instruments which they call “new products”.

Granted, mine is a cynical view, but I think it is a much more realistic and concrete description of the phenomenon that the students are talking about here. The surface difference between the translation I have put forward and the students’ description is less reliance on grammatical metaphor and the absence of euphemism. But at a more fundamental level, it highlights a disturbing trend. The driving force of technological change is a derivative of one of the major shibboleths of techno-gobbledegook that actually demands mastery from students who wish to engage in the nonsense business. The students breathe life into these shibboleths, unwittingly engaging in grammatical metaphor without understanding what they are doing. They abolish society in the process. In the language of DETYA, mastery of techno-gobbledegook might be termed a “core competence”. The following is from a less polished proponent, a final year undergraduate student: Communication technologies, is part of a wider vision of the communication superhighway which encompass emerging communication and infromation infrastructure. There is no argument that communication technologies impact all aspects of society; from business, work, and recreation to social interaction. (Undergraduate research paper)

I need not point out the alarm that such a poor control of language from a final year communication graduate might raise, but this is all the more disturbing when I say that this is not at all an atypical piece of writing. But, again, poor grammar and punctuation is not the point here. The content, or rather the lack thereof, concerns me more. Consider the following two pieces in light of what these students have written: 1. In the global information economy, no one, no market, no information nothing we may need or want is beyond reach. The information economy opens up to us unprecedented convenience, flexibility, and choice about how Australians will live, learn, work, create, buy and sell.


ASFLA 99 - Phil Graham

2. Twenty-five years from now, after more than five decades of development, the microprocessor, information technologies in general, and networks will probably have penetrated every aspect of of human activity. Many parts of the world will be wired, responsive and interactive. Beyond simply accelerating the pace of change or reducing the cost of many current activities, the use of these high-performance digital tools opens up the possibility of profound transformations.

Here we see the same semantic relations that pervade many of my students’ writing. They even share very similar lexical resources. But these texts are written by the propaganda departments (1) of the Australian National Office for the Information Technology [NOIE, 1998a] and (2) of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD, 1998]. Just as in the students’ more and less amateurish attemps, technology facilitates easier x, y, z things; allows/opens up a, b, c processes; cheapens p, q, r products, and so on. They pervade every aspect of human activity. They are alive, active, and conscious forces. They change how we work, play, associate, and buy. Like “A Mars a Day” they help you “Work Rest and Play”. Sing the jingle, chant the mantra, buy the product, devour it whole. The jargon of techno-hyperbole is premissed on the fact that the ‘empirical usability [sic] of the sacred ceremonial words makes both the speaker and the listener believe in their corporeal existence’ (Adorno, 1964/1973, p. 7). Indeed, ‘[w]hoever is versed in the jargon does not have to say what he [sic] thinks, does not even have to think it properly’ (pp. 8-9). It ought not be surprising that today’s students are infused with this crap. It’s everywhere. It is pure advertising claptrap: high-powered snake-oil: complete bullshit. It obscures the real capabilities of communication technologies, and their actual social implications and effects. By making the relationship between globalisation, trade liberalisation, financial markets, communication technology, and society familiar and simplistic, the words and phrases in this mantric gobbledeygook become “understandable”, “accessible”, familiar, and, consequently, even desirable concepts for the public at large to grasp and consume: The fact that a specific noun is almost always coupled with the same “explicatory” adjectives and attributes makes the sentence into a hypnotic formula which, endlessly repeated, fixes the meaning in a recipient’s mind. He [sic] does not think of essentially different (and possibly true) explications of the noun[s]. …It is a well-known technique of the advertising industry where it is methodically used for “establishing an image” which sticks to the mind and to the product (Marcuse, 1968, pp. 81-82).

The techno-corporatist propaganda that has infused students; multilateral, national, and state policy centres; and the financial media, then, may be viewed as the slogans, mantras, and “jingles” concocted by and for vested interests. In advertising, slogans and jingles gain their purchase upon the social consciousness through repetition; and through repetition they are publically reinforced, rendered recognisable and, thus, the products they refer to, along with the images they create, are “sold” and consumed. As with musical jingles for consumer goods, the familiarity of techno-corporatist discursive forms ‘becomes a surrogate for the quality ascribed to it’ (Adorno, 1991, p. 26). Here are some more examples of the same sort of nonsense from quite divergent fields of production throughout the developed world: 1. Technological developments in recent times have enabled us to overcome many of the barriers imposed by distance and, in the process, broaden our horizons and create a truly global marketplace. Social and business interactions can be now conducted entirely in a virtual world with the aid of communication and information technologies. The widespread availability of these new


ASFLA 99 - Phil Graham

technologies and the services they enable has the potential to change forever the way Queenslanders work and play, and the way business is conducted. (QDCILGP, 1999, p. 1) 2. Information technology has been vital to the prosperity achieved by many nations this decade, including ours. The people of the world have never communicated better or more easily, and that has spurned [sic] countless new ideas and opportunities. (Clinton, 1999) 3. Ever since personal computers invaded the workplace, it has changed the traditions, boundaries and definition of work and the workplace … These technologies are now at the forefront of IT in the office. The Internet has become synonymous with communication technologies and probably impact society and business the most. (Undergraduate research paper) 4. The advent of information and communication technologies (ICTs) is contributing to the rapid transformation of the world into a global market place. ICTs are revolutionising the way in which societies interact, conduct their business, compete in the international arena, setting national economic and human development agendas. (Undergraduate research paper) 5. The information age, the information revolution, electronic commerce – we are becoming used to the words that invoke the future. Rapidly over the next twenty years or so, electronic commerce will transform the way we do business – in Australia and right around the world. Its greatest impact will be in shrinking the distance between suppliers and consumers, and the emergence of a commercial environment where geographical and political boundaries are much less significant than they are in a paper-based world. (NOIE, 1998b, p. 3) 6. “Communications technology sets this era of globalisation apart from any other. The internet, mobile phones and satellite networks have shrunk space and time”, the [United Nations] report says. Worldwide, the report values e-commerce at $2.6bn in 1996, and forecasts that this will rise to $300bn by 2002 – transforming the way business is done around the world. (Balls, 1999)

Predictably, the link between technology, globalisation, and the profit motive has become increasingly pronounced over the last two years; it has come out of the closet, so to speak. This is where education comes in: Our education system must provide the tools for lifelong learning so that all Australians are able to benefit from the changes happening around them. This commitment will embrace all levels of education and training, from schools to workplaces. Not only will a well educated and information-literate population understand and respond to the information economy more effectively; it will also enable the information industry to flourish here, and attract to Australia overseas firms looking for a base for their entry to the information economy. Education and training about new technologies and new ways of doing business will allow Australians to create and innovate in the new environment, and realise our full potential in global markets. (NOIE, 1998b, p. 6) Information technology is changing not only the way students access information but also the way they learn. Literacy now means digital as well as print skills. Schools are becoming places where students learn rather than places where teachers teach. Formal teaching continues but the emphasis has shifted. Learning will still lead to clearly documented outcomes held up against benchmarks. It will not become haphazard. (Education Queensland, 1999, p. 10).

But this language and rationality is not concerned with jobs and profits alone. Improved communications have hastened the pace of globalisation and will significantly drive economic and social change over the next fifteen years. The effective use of these new technologies will be a key determinant of economic competitiveness, as well as military capability. (DFAT 1999)


ASFLA 99 - Phil Graham

As Halliday (1993) points out, what we are concerned with here, as is usual with any “big” news item, is ‘discourse, dollars, and death’ (p. 65): The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist – McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnel Douglas, the builder of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. “Good ideas and technologies need a strong power that promotes those ideas by example and protects those ideas by winning on the battlefield,” says the foreign policy historian Robert Kagan. “If a lesser power were promoting our ideas and technologies, they would not have the global currency that they have. And when a strong power, the Soviet Union, promoted its bad ideas, they had a lot of currency for more than half a century.” (Friedman, 1999, p. 84)

The hyperbolic and hopeful celebrations of new communication technologies that I have provided above are not without their historical parallels: We want a radio that reaches the people, a radio that works for the people, a radio that is an intermediary between the government and the nation, a radio that also reaches across our borders to give the world a picture of our life and our work. The money produced by radio should in general go back to it. If there are surpluses, they should be used to serve the spiritual and cultural needs of the whole nation. If the stage and publishing suffer from the rapid growth of radio, we will use the revenues not necessary for the radio to maintain and strengthen our intellectual and artistic life. The purpose of radio is to teach, entertain and support people, not to gradually harm the intellectual and cultural life of the nation. One of my main tasks in the near and more distant future will be to keep a reasonable balance in this regard. I am convinced that the radio as well as the stage, publishing and film will benefit. (Goebbels, 1933).

Goebbels understood the full potential of new communication technologies, especially as they related to his social and political environment. Undoubtedly, the radio changed the way everything was done in Germany, if not throughout the World: We live in an age that is both romantic and steel-like. While bourgeois reaction was alien and hostile to technology and modern sceptics believed the deepest roots of the collapse of European culture lay in it, National Socialism has understood how to take the soul-less framework of technology and fill it with the rhythm and hot impulses of our time. (Goebbels, 1939, in Bullock, 1991, p. 440)

The immediate question I raise here is whether or not I am justified in comparing the discourses of 1990s techno-corporatism with the words of a Nazi propagandist. Obviously, I think I am, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. But my purpose for doing so may not be as obvious, it may appear to be purely rhetorical. Let me outline my reasoning: The Fascist regimes of the 1920s-40s were not a “simple” matter of anti-semitic, anticatholic, anti-gay, and anti-Slavic atrocities, and the populism attributed to these. As terrible as the crimes of Mussolini and Hitler were, they actually eclipsed the very real and, I think, more important history of their development. In fact, it seems that the majority of German people did not know what was going on at the time, even in the upper echelons of the regime: [I]n Hitler’s system, as in every totalitarian regime, when a man’s [sic] position rises, his isolation increases and he is therefore more sheltered from harsh reality: that with the application of technology to the process of murder the number of murderers is reduced and therefore the possibility of ignorance grows; that the craze for secrecy built into the system creates degrees of awareness, so it is easy to escape observing inhuman cruelties. (Speer, 1970, p. 170)

In the blurred hindsight provided by heavily skewed media histories, it might appear as if the whole of Germany and Italy (a recent invention at the time) turned fascist and started committing heinous crimes. This is not the case. It might seem like fascism was an irrational blip in the very rational and democratising progress of humanity. This is also not the case. As a


ASFLA 99 - Phil Graham

mass movement, fascism was a corporatist movement. It sought to reconcile irreconcilable interests. It valorised work as an end in itself, and turned the education system into a training system for business (Bullock, 1991, pp. 343-347). It forced labour into agreements with Capital. At their very roots, the fascist systems were dedicated to being productive, efficient, and professional – all in the national interest1. Goebbels was all for a flatter management structure, accountability, transparency, and productivity –all the shibboleths that are familiar again today: Excessive organization can only get in the way of productivity. The more bureaucrats there, the more obscure the internal structures, the easier it is for someone to hide his inability or incompetence behind some committee or board. And not only that. Excessive organization is always the beginning of corruption. It confuses responsibility and thus enables those of weak character to enrich themselves at public expense (Goebbels, 1933).

And, today, similar assumptions pervade our public institutions, including education: As we approach the new century, the long established, consensual view of public education as a public good that sustains social justice, community and the public interest, is under threat. It is giving way to a concept of public education as a safety net for those who, in an age of competition and social hierarchy determined by wealth, can’t pay extra. Supporters of this view would argue that this is a consequence of the impact of global markets. The meaning of public education has also been blurred. A high proportion of the operating costs of some non-government schools is paid from public funds. Funding based on whether schools can attract students is engendering competition. A simple definition that ‘public education is paid for by government in the public interest’ is no longer meaningful … There can be no return to a mythical ‘golden age’ of public education in response to these threats. It is not possible to pretend that markets do not exist and that competition is not occurring. Similarly, it is wrong to rail against ‘narrow vocational education’ when the future job prospects of students in the knowledge economy are so important. (Education Queensland, 1999, p. 5)

Why? What have all these non-sequitur shibboleths got to do with each other? The short answer is: absolutely nothing. We are being swamped by nonsense produced by unimaginative, powerful, and, consequently, dangerous people. Markets and competition have always existed. There is nothing new about change. We should at least remember that much. But History has become Huxleyan ‘bunk’, and the ‘hedonistic nihilism of Huxley beckons toward a painless, amusement-sodden and stress-free consensus’ (Hitchens 1999). Heidegger: ‘No dogmas and ideas will any longer be the laws of your being. The Fuhrer himself, and he alone, is the present and future reality for Germany’ (1933, in Bullock 1991, p. 345). At least Heidegger had the benefit of a real person to whom he could attribute all social realities. Rationality notwithstanding, today’s most “rational” education “exectives” might, were they to deliver such a short, blunt statement, say: ‘No dogmas and ideas will any longer be the laws of your being. The Market, Technology, and Globalisation is the present and future reality for Australia [or any other social organisation]’. The absence of a person makes the discourse all the more strenuous, both in its execution and in its forgetfulness. Heidegger, Hitler, and Goebbels understood the importance of community consciousness - Volksgemeinschaft - and knew that faith, will, symbol worship, and mass communication could transform people’s consciousness, especially the young. Heidegger was


The text in appendix one shares this title. “In the national interest” was the major premiss for the worst of Hitler’s atrocities (see, for example: Hitler, 1937).


ASFLA 99 - Phil Graham

instrumental in designing a new education system. Education under Heidegger became training; training became training for community spirit (Volksgemeinschaft), work experience (Erlebnis), and party objectives (Bullock 1991: 343-45). No longer would knowledge for its own sake play a part in German education. Education would mean training for work, and thus for “authentic” citizenship. Anything that didn’t add to the GNP was either ideology or dissent and was dealt with accordingly. Call me a reactionary or an alarmist, but my answer to you will include a reference to Maggie X: When Maggie X died, the home [Morpeth Castle, Northumbria, UK] decided that her savings of £450 was insufficient to pay for the funeral and asked the council to pay. It refused and the owner of the home appealed to the Local Ombudsman. In his comments to the latter, the council Chief Executive, wrote that ‘without wishing to appear insensitive, one could argue that from a commercial viewpoint residents of a home are its income producing raw material. Ergo, from a purely commercial view, deceased residents may then be regarded as being the waste produced by their business’. Since, he continued, the resident’s body was ‘controlled waste likely to cause pollution of the environment or harm to human health’ the home had, under the definition of controlled waste as defined by the Environmental Protection Act, ‘a specific duty’ to dispose of the remains. Disposal, under the definitions of the Act, was ‘a business cost’. (Doig & Wilson, in press)

Doig and Wilson highlight the direction in which corporate managerialist logic drives conceptions and expectations of any organisation: raw material in; waste out; profit or loss is the only quantifiable, categorically recognised outcome. No other considerations are allowed. This simple, narrow, quantitative approach can thus fit any system once it is categorised as a business. Qualities are an unnecessary distraction. Viewed as a whole, society can be shoehorned into such a system, just as the totalitarian regimes of Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini showed us (cf. for example Bullock, 1991; Eatwell, 1997; Hobsbawm, 1994, 1998; Horkheimer & Adorno, 1947/1998). Of course, there are very good reasons not to look to history. Apart from its putative irrelevance and the “fact”, according to the likes of Fukuyama (1995), that history has already ended, the present, when placed in an historical context, is utterly terrifying: A communications revolution; rampant idealism; a global recession; inordinate amounts of speculative activity; historically unprecedented inequality; nationalist backlashes throughout the world as a result of multinational extortion and repression; the push throughout the developed world for a consensual Third Way between Socialism and Neo-Classic Liberalism; and a dogged refusal to acknowledge the negative effects of these combined conditions engender a blind optimistic faith in speculative economic activity and managerialist values. I am not only describing the current socio-political milieu, these conditions prevailed throughout the developed world in the 1920s and 30s. The horrors of Fascism and Stalinism emerged from these conditions less than a century ago, and nobody seems to remember. History, indeed, is bunk. Statements and arguments contain logical and discursive bases; foundational premisses and assumptions. The ability to think critically is the ability to penetrate the foundational premisses and assumptions of statements and arguments, and empirically weigh their coherence with each other, and with the realities to which they refer (“what must I believe for this to be true?”). Forward looking utopianism is safe in this respect, insofar as it cannot be tested until it is too late: “If you’re a good little Christian, you’ll go to heaven when you die”; or its equivalent: “If you’re thrifty and use technology to its fullest potential, we’ll have a prosperous and ecstatic future”. And so it goes.


ASFLA 99 - Phil Graham

In the mainstream public sphere, critical thought, if it exists at all, is increasingly rendered invisible in the swamp of consensual dogma that emanates from the vested interests of giant media monopolies, and multinational and multilateral organisations. But of course, it has become taboo to speak of such things as class. Class-based critique went out of fashion once the intellectual and political revolution lost its nerve. Military-Industrial-Capitalist muscle, as the revolution found out, has much more substance to it than do idealistic notions of social justice, equality, and so on. Plus, the messy and blatant inequities of the Capitalist system seem so much more logical than do, say, vague notions of equality. What we are dealing with here is a valorised and commodified dialect: technocorporatist discourse. It conflates the historical modes of symbolic domination, themselves technologies and techniques, which have been overlaid in a helical manner to produce whatever form of symbolic domination it is that we are currently suffering under as a society. Technocorporatism combines the symbol worship and abstractions of myth and religion (priestliness) with scientific rationality (expertliness); militarism (violent, ruthless, strategic, and singleminded Heroism); and managerialism (blind dedication to the profit motive). The more rigid this commodified and valorised dialect becomes, the more easily it is transposed from one social domain to the next - each one increasingly more intimate than the last - and operationalised. Techno-corporatist language looks conciliatory because of its emotional barrenness; it looks objective because of its “expert” pedigree. It uses words and phrases like “arbitration”, “conciliation”, “cooperation”, “positive development”, “strategic presence”, “international community”, “globalisation”, and so on. It is euphemistic and logically nonsensical. It takes imagined concepts and dresses them up as immutable, impenetrable “things”, as Gods. If we, as citizens in a democracy, or as teachers and students in an education system (which has been one of the world’s best), don’t aggressively defend the arena of public debate, and nurture critical thinking skills, we will descend, as a society, inexorably towards the bottomless, authoritarian void of informationalism, a high-tech fascism that is increasingly closing in on itself with disastrous consequences. Another point: the option of hopefully subverting the dominant discourse with such warm and fuzzy notions as “Social Capital”, “Environmental Capital”, and so on, are useless. By endorsing the logic, you endorse the system, regardless of whichever theoretical niceties and nuances the logic is couched in. It all amounts to the same thing: an appeal to narrow, nasty, self-interested rationality. Know the system and fight it at its foundations: the education system. As systemically and socially informed language scholars, we are well suited to this challenge. We at least have tools for looking at language, at what it means, at what its historical relevance is. This is no small thing during an age in which every nook and cranny of “wired” life is infused with the profit motive, its grotesque and bloated linguistic forms, and its totalitarian imperatives. Of course, resistance and subversion are not easy tasks, neither as individuals nor collectively. It may even be the case that this trajectory needs to work itself out as catastrophe, as has previously been the case. Whichever, we need to challenge our students’ assumptions when they “talk the talk”, even if it is just to see whether they have thought the meaning of their language through, or whether they are just singing along with the jingle. This is at least one critical imperative for teachers in higher education.


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References Adorno, T. W. (1991). The culture industry: Selected essays on mass culture. Routledge: London. Adorno, T.W. (1964/1973). The jargon of authenticity. (K. Tarnowski & F. Will, Trans). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Balls, A. (1999, July 12). Information revolution ‘risks further dividing rich and poor’. Financial Times International [UK], p. 4. Bullock, A. (1991). Hitler and Stalin: Parallel lives. London: Fontana. Bauman, Z. (1998). On glocalization: Or globalization for some, localization for others. Thesis Eleven, 54, 37-49. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. (1997). In the national interest: Australia’s foreign and trade policy white paper. Barton, Australia: Commonwealth of Australia. Doig, A. & Wilson, J. (in press). Ethics, Integrity, Compliance and Accountability in Contemporary UK Government/Business Relations - Till Death Do Us Part. Australian Journal of Public Policy. Eatwell, R. (1997). Fascism:A history. London: Verso. Education Queensland. (1999). The next decade: A discussion about the future of Queensland state schools. Brisbane, Australia: Education Queensland. Fukuyama, F. (1995). Trust: The social virtues and the creation of prosperity. London: Penguin. Goebbels, J. (1933). The radio as the eight great power (R. Bytwerk, Trans.). [Text of a speech at the opening of the 10th Radio Exposition: On line]. Retrieved September 15, 1999 from the World Wide Web: http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/goeb56.htm. Calvin University. Halliday. M.A.K. (1993). Language in a changing world. In R. B. Baldauf, Jr (Ed). Occasional paper number 13. Applied linguistics association of Australia: Deakin, ACT, Australia. Hitchens C. (1999, January 22). Goodbye to all that. The Australian Financial Review [Review]: 1-2, 10. Hitler, A. (1937, January 30). On national socialism and world relations (H. Müller & Sohn, Trans.). [On line: Speech delivered in the German Reichstag]. Retrieved September 15, 1999 from the World Wide Web: http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/hitler1.htm Hobsbawm, E. (1998). The age of extremes: The short twentieth century 1914-1991. London: Abacus.


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Hobsbawm, E. (1998). On history. London: Abacus. Horkheimer, M. & Adorno, T. W. (1944/1998). The dialectic of enlightenment (J. Cumming, Trans.). New York: Continuum. Marcuse, H. (1968). One Dimensional Man. London: Sphere Books. NOIE. (1998a). Towards an Australian strategy for the information economy: A preliminary statement of the government’s policy approach and a basis for business and community consultation. [On-line policy statement]. Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved November 27, 1998 from the World Wide Web: http://www.noie.gov.au/reports/index.html NOIE. (1998b). Building the information economy. Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia. Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. (1998). 21st century technologies: Promises and perils of a dynamic future. Paris: OECD. Speer, A. (1970). Inside the third reich. London: Macmillan. Literature informing the analysis in Appendix 2 Argy, F. (1998). Australia at the crossroads: Radical free market or a progressive liberalism. Sydney: Allen & Unwin. Bauman, Z. (1998) On glocalization: Or globalization for some, localization for others. Thesis Eleven, 54, 37-49. Bewes, T. (1997). Cynicism and postmodernity. Verso: London. Graham, P. (1998) Globalist fallacies, fictions, and facts: The MAI and neo-classic ideology. Australian Rationalist, 46, 15-21. Habermas, J. (1975). Legitimation Crisis. (T. McCarthy, Trans.). Boston: Beacon Press. Habermas, J. (1987). The Theory of Communicative Action Volume II Lifeworld and System; A Critique of Functionalist Reason. Boston: Beacon Press. Halliday, M.A.K. (1994). An introduction to functional grammar (2nd Edn.). London: Edward Arnold. Halliday, M.A.K. & Martin, J.R. (1993). Writing Science: Literacy and Discursive Power. London, Falmer Press. Kennedy, P. (1998) Coming to terms with contemporary capitalism: beyond the idealism of globalisation and capitalist ascendancy arguments. Sociological research online, 3 (2). Available online at: http: //www.socioresonline.org.uk/socioresonline/3/2/6.html Lemke, Jay L. (1995). Textual Politics: Discourse and Social Dynamics. London, Taylor and Francis.


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McKenna, B. (1997). How engineers write: An empirical study of engineering report writing. Applied Linguistics, 18, (2), 189 - 211. McKenna, B. & Graham, P. (forthcoming). Techno-corporatist discourse: A primer. [In preparation]. Martin, J.R. (1986). ‘Grammaticalising ecology: The politics of baby seals and kangaroos’. In T. Threadgold, E.A. Grosz, G. Kress, & M.A.K. Halliday (Eds. ). LanguageSemiotics- Ideology. Sydney. Sydney Association for Studies in Society and Culture. Marx, K. (1981). Capital: A critique of political economy (Vol. 3). D. Fernbach (Trans). Penguin: London. Pusey, M. (1991). Economic rationalism in Canberra: A Nation-building State changes its mind. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. Pusey, M. (1996). Economic rationalism and the contest for civil society. Thesis Eleven, 44 69 - 86. Rifkin, J. (1996). The end of work: The decline of the global labor force and the dawn of the post-market era. Putnam: New York. Saul, J.R. (1997). The Unconscious Civilisation. Ringwood Vic, Penguin. Tetzlaff, D. (1991) Divide and conquer: popular culture and social control in late capitalism. Media, Culture and society, 13,: 9-33.


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Appendix 1 - Globalisation Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. (1997). In the national interest: Australia’s foreign and trade policy white paper. Barton, Australia: Commonwealth of Australia. (pp. 1821). [Paragraphs are numbered as per the original manuscript]. 37. Globalisation has characterised the latter part of the twentieth century and will continue into the twenty-first. A defining feature of globalisation is the way in which business operates: firms increasingly organise their activities on a global scale, forming production chains, including services inputs, that cross many countries and greatly increase global flows of trade and investment. Globalisation is not new, nor is it just an economic phenomenon: it has important political and social dimensions. It is driven by many factors, of which technology, the related mobility of people, goods and ideas, and a liberal trading environment are perhaps the most important. 38. The increasingly global activity of firms has implications for trade and policy. It reinforces the importance of open markets and focuses attention on national regulatory structures as potential obstacles to the efficient allocation of resources through international trade and investment. It creates pressures on markets to be more open to competition, and it makes globally-based trade rules and disciplines even more important. 39. A global economy is emerging at an unprecedented pace. This is reflected in part in a massive increase in international financial flows; the rate of growth of international trade, especially in the services sector, which is expected to account for 27 per cent of world trade by 2010 compared with 21 per cent now; the growth of transnational corporations (30 percent of world trade is intra-firm trade); the increasing ease of business travel and the international movement of labour; and increases in foreign direct investment flows, which have grown more rapidly than trade during the last ten years. [Graph titled: “World trade and investment grow faster than the world economy”] 40. New technology makes linking financial markets and processing massive volumes of financial transactions ever cheaper. It engenders new forms of electronic trading, including through the Internet. It links currency markets more completely and enables financial markets to judge instantly the policy settings and decisions of national governments. Fundamentally, the communications revolution means that no economy stands alone. 41. Improved communications have hastened the pace of globalisation and will significantly drive economic and social change over the next fifteen years. The effective use of these new technologies will be a key determinant of economic competitiveness, as well as military capability. 42. An openness to technology, a culture which promotes innovation, and a well-educated population will become critical competitive advantages. So also will be access to the centres of technological innovation, which over the next fifteen years are likely to remain predominantly in the United States, and to al elsser extent in Japan and Europe. Countries which nurture their intellectual infrastructure will be well positioned in the information age. The distinction between the technology-rich and the technology-poor will be sharp. 43. Globalisation blurs the division between domestic policy and external policy. Not only are national policy settings judged by the international marketplace, individual companies –irrespective of whether they are exporters–are increasingly subject to the disciplines of international best practice. Globalisation makes further integration with the global economy even more essentaial to advancing Australia’s national interests. It also makes reform of the Australian economy essential: continuing reforms are crucial to the international competitiveness of Australia in a global economy. [Sub-heading: Globalisation, interdependence and national sovereignty] 44. Globalisation is not a single, unified trend, nor is it an inevitable march towards global political interdependence. One the one hand, global communications and global markets bring the world closer together, reinforcing interdependence. On the other, contrary forces such as resurgent nationalism, ethinic rivalries, and inward-looking regionalism are also at play.


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45. Technological change facilitates the spread of ideas. Easier cheaper, fastere and more widely available communications make it possible for proponents of policies and plans to disseminate their ideas more rapidly and more broadly than ever before. Wider access to to timely information makes government policy more contestable. This has implications for the way in which governments formulate and communicate policy. 46. However, globalisation has not caused the nation state to be displaced as the primary force in international relations. Nor has it swept aside national economies. The international financial market is not ungovernable, and law making is still the prerogative of states. National governments must still endorse international agreements. The power of national governments may become more circumscribed in the future but the nation state is far from dead, and sovereignty is still cherished. This is unlikely to change over the next fifteen years. 47. Globalisation brings in its wake many difficult issues of political and economic management. Some see it challenging economic sovereignty. It creates winners and losers. In developed economies there is already a growing sense of resistance to what is perceived as the ceaseless demands of the market for restructuring and cost-cutting. Unemployment caused by economic change has led some questioning of policies of trade liberalisation and, in a few quarters, to calls for a return to protectionism. 48. Managing the politics and economics of globalisation will be a major challenge over the next fifteen years. The benefits and importance of outward-looking policies need to be explained and communicated more effectively. Staying the course on economic and trade liberalisation is crucial to the pursuit of Australia’s national interest. 49. Although there is abundant evidence that trade liberalisation and an open economy contribute significantly to economoic growth and job creation, often the public perception is the reverse: that reductions in tariffs and other trade liberalisation measures lead to job losses. This is because the benefits of liberalisation are usually more widely spread and are often less immediately apparent than the costs of liberalisation for particular firms or industries, even though the net effect is beneficial. In addition, rapid technological change, structural adjustment and ongoing improvements in productivity drive a continuous process of change and turnover in employment. 50. This is a trend in all industrialised economies. Without export growth, however, unemployment rates could have been even higher during this period of exceptionally rapid change and adjustment. Trade liberalisation, far from being part of the problem, is very much a part of the solution.


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Appendix 2: Analysis of DFAT document from McKenna & Graham (forthcoming) Please note: this is a partial analysis only This text fails, with exquisitely up-to-date sophistication, to explain globalisation and its effects on Australian society. In the following section, we present the results of our analysis of the DFAT text as a textual exemplar of techno-corporatist discourse. The results are presented under the four main discursive features that we have identified: Use of the nominal and the nominal group: The text is lexically dense because of the role of nominals or nominal groups in technocratic discourse. In its 900 words, the text contains 145 nominals and nominal groups that use 591 words: a mean average of 4.1 words per nominal. Sentence 9, for example, a 91-word sentence, contains 12 nominal groups in the following order: a massive increase in international financial flows; the rate of growth of international trade; the services sector; 27 per cent of world trade; 21 per cent; the growth of transnational corporations; 30 percent of world trade; intra-firm trade; the increasing ease of business travel and the international movement of labour; increases in foreign direct investment flows; the last ten years. These are connected by three passively-voiced processes and one verbal group. The longest nominal group is 12 words in length: national regulatory structures as potential obstacles to the efficient allocation of resources. Of the nominals, only eleven are single-word nominalisations: Globalisation (5 times), technology, firms, attention, interdependence, and implications (2 times). The rest of the nominals are groups. The most obviously active nominals in the text, that is, those that are allowed to engage in material processes within congruently structured sentences, are, predictably, globalisation, communication technology, financial markets, and trade liberalisation. This can be seen in the following sentences: Technological change facilitates the spread of ideas [Sentence 27]; and … global communications and global markets bring the world closer together, reinforcing interdependence [Sentence 25].


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Limited use of verbs Because the DFAT text relies mostly on nominals and nominal groups, there are only 79 finite verbs in 900 words of text. The finite verbal component is 115 words (or 12.7% of the words in the text). The largest process type is the material group (n = 32; 40.5%). Most of these are abstract materials such as increase, reinforces, compared and grammatical metaphors such as is driven, focuses and have grown. Many are processes indicating causation: make[s] (4 times); caused (2 times); bring[s], meaning to bring about (2 times); lead, has led; engenders, contribute, drive, creates. The next largest process group is the relational (n = 29; 36.7%). Eighteen of these relational processes are attributive, mostly appearing as the verb to be, although one occurs in the form has characterised and one occurs as has. The ten identification relationals are mostly in the form of the verb to be, although one occurs as are to remain and one as may become. The nine existential verbs (11.4% of processes, are mostly forms of to be, although four, will continue, is emerging, means, and has are not in this form). Although mental processes occur only six times (7.6%) in the text, their usage bears close consideration. One type of usage involves judgment, which is presented as disembodied objectivity: This is reflected in part in a massive increase in international financial flows; the rate of growth of international trade, especially in the services sector, which is expected to account for 27 per cent of world trade by 2010 compared with 21 per cent now ….

or where the judgment is made by an abstract Thing, not people Not only are national policy settings judged by the international marketplace, individual companies –irrespective of whether they are exporters–are increasingly subject to the disciplines of international best practice.

Mental processes are also used to denote perception, but in both cases where it is used in this way, it is used to state a mis-perception which is about to be corrected by the voice of authority: Some see it challenging economic sovereignty In developed economies there is already a growing sense of resistance to what is perceived as the ceaseless demands of the market for restructuring and cost-cutting.

This gives credence to the claim we made earlier in this paper that incorrect, oppositional discourses are often cast as a mistaken ‘common sense’ idea that is supposed to defer to the more intelligent techno-corporatist understanding. Where the verbal processes (communicate[d]; explained) are used, the text indicates that the problem of globalisation is not so much to do with it as a political-economic phenomenon as a phenomenon that needs to be ‘sold’ to the polity through better communication. Absence of human agency The DFAT text contains no human agency whatsoever. While people are mentioned, they are rendered as a subaltern part of a nominal group. The two nominal groups in the text that contain references to humans are: the related mobility of people; the increasing ease of business


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travel and the international movement of labour. Here, people merely characterise the nature of a particular type of global mobility. Semantically circular DFAT’s explanation of globalisation is entirely circular. In fact, globalisation, as an active agent, and a characterising attribute, takes on sixteen different roles within the text. Upon inspection, globalisation begins to look more like a religious deity than a scientifically verifiable phenomenon. According to DFAT, globalisation is a multi-dimensional thing; a process; a state of historically specific ‘being’ without a beginning or an end; an autonomous, active, phenomenologically extant agent with a specific speed and trajectory that is affected by the quality of communication, and which directly creates the fate of persons It creates winners and losers [Sentence 39].

For some, DFAT say, globalisation is as an observable threat to economic well being. But while globalisation is problematic, it is manageable. It is a powerful force that DFAT assumes is both inevitable and desirable. However, when viewed as an abstract, phenomenologically evidenced (though not apparent as an embodied entity), immutable, active, disciplining, ultimately beneficial agent without a temporal beginning or end that dictates matters of policy (rules and disciplines which must be obeyed); that determines the fate of persons (creates winners and losers); that (both potentially and implicitly) has the power to destroy national economies (whole countries); that should be feared, and which demands continual reform (repentance/correctional treatment); globalisation clearly takes on the characteristics of a God. The intermediaries between this immutable God, and the fate of the nation state (Australia, in this instance), are business, their goods and ideas, technology, the mobility of people, and, most importantly, trade liberalisation: Trade liberalisation, far from being part of the problem, is very much a part of the solution: [Sentence 50].

According to DFAT, thanks largely to ‘trade liberalisation’, Australia has been spared the worst problems that globalisation appears to cause, but of course cannot, because globalisation is intrinsically beneficial. However, DFAT tells us, things will get worse if trade liberalisation is not continually pursued as a matter of policy. Thus, according to DFAT, ‘trade liberalisation’, which drives ‘globalisation’, must be pursued if we are to avoid the worst effects of globalisation, which, in turn, is driven by ‘trade liberalisation’, and so it goes, in a vicious, impenetrable, intractably circular logic. Of course, globalisation remains undefined by DFAT, it merely is, was, and will be.


Appendix 3: “WANK Words”

Do You keep falling asleep in meetings? Here’s something to change all that. WANK Words How to play: Simply tick off 5 WANK Words in one meeting and shout BINGO! It’s that easy!


Take that offline

Strategic fit

Fast track


At the end of the day


The full 9 yards


Cutting edge


Game plan

The coming millenium

Kick a goal

Reinvent the wheel

In the national interest

Value adding

Ducks in a row


Community consultation

Draw a line in the sand


Bottom line

Touch base

The big picture

Core business

Global perspective

Strategic goals



Results Driven


Proactive not reactive

Equity issues

Quality driven

Managing for diversity




Think outside the square

Whole of Government

Whole of Client

Put this one to bed


Managing for outcomes

Level playing field

Move with the times

Bread and Butter