SMART CASUAL by Oliver Watts

As is the Australian tradition, to follow British tradition, we speak more directly when it comes to titles; instead of Adjunct Professor we have Casual Lecturers or Casual Tutors, or Casuals for short. The term casual in terms of labour in Australia is in contrast to full-time or part-time positions that have a more fixed term contract, and the benefits that flow from that like holiday pay and study leave. It is difficult to pin point, but most suggest that 50% of all teaching at Australian universities has been casualised.[1]

The casual is in fashion: from casual sex, to casual Friday (when work wear turns into “smart casual”) to the informality of our working and living arrangements. The casual academic is the resort wear of academia. In fashion circles for the last few years the importance of resort wear has been on the rise, “Resort wear is no longer the afterthought.”[2] As the CEO of Chanel stated “Karl [Lagerfeld] was visionary. He was the first one to perceive the growing importance of the cruise collection.” So whether you call it cruise wear, resort or inter-seasonal Spring, the move towards more basic, easily consumable and wearable fashion has taken the place of haute couture. Instead of the heavy lifting of creative pursuit, fashion has been moving towards the refreshingly commercial. Paul Smith suggests, “Casualwear on the catwalk is a reflection of the times. A lot of people are in jobs where they are allowed to dress in a more casual manner. I wear a suit every day, but I wear it with a denim shirt and sneakers.”[3]

This approach to a life, the easy breezy, devil-may-care lightness of an interminable cruise, was something I understood deeply. Instead of the humanist call for a man for all seasons, I was the order society’s man for all inter-seasons. At one point like a more localized jet setter I would move effortlessly between 5 institutions in the city of Sydney in one “session”. As I embraced my status as a purified version of the flexible worker I started to think of myself in Romantic terms. The contingency of the new scholar class was a return to a more hermetic tradition of solitude and distance. I pitied the poor HR managers that needed to make sense of and maximize the utility of our new approach to scholarship and teaching.[4]

In the Sydney context I would find myself like Wordsworth staring at sandstone cliffs from a stolen rowboat, emoting. I found solace in the epitome of Australian masculinity, the itinerant farm worker: the Rover or swagman.[5] Here the casual worker is raised to the highest cultural position, a wanderer who is servant to no-one, a lone wolf with the chiseled looks of Hugh Jackman. Indeed Australia’s unofficial national anthem is Waltzing Matilda, a ballad of a “jolly swagman”, where waltzing means travelling on foot.[6] In this anthem the swagman nobly commits suicide rather than give himself to the police and the landowner [a metaphor for bourgeois society and tenure respectively.]

But in a contemporary, postcolonial Australia, it was to our Asian neighbours that I found the best model of the new scholarship. In the Chinese tradition and borrowed by the Japanese, in particularly the Kamakura-Momoyama period, there was a form of eremitism that was neither religious or philosophical but largely aesthetic; this mode of “aesthetic reclusion” was called in Japanese, suki no tonsei. Characteristic of this mode was an incomplete eremitism that maintained a subtle connection to the court; the scholar dissented against what he saw as a corrupt authority and society by commending rituals of refined elegance, learning and appreciation of nature. The casual lecturer shares many of the important traits of suki no tonsei: conviviality and community (rather than solitary wandering); self-effacement; the need to be above and away from the court; and symbolic poverty (a characteristic I have taken up whole heartedly). It was important that the scholar were propertiless hermits without ambition.

However Kendall Brown’s erudite study on the subject The Politics of Reclusion, highlights the ambivalent characteristic of this mode of scholarly refusal and the way it maintains a relationship to the court:

Yet, because their rejection of politics in favor of devotion to self-exploration through the arts does not directly threaten the political order, it actually serves to support that order by providing a safe outlet for potentially subversive men marginalized by political struggles or by their philosophical views.[7]

This disconnection from real politics was highlighted to me when as a “senior casual” [my own term having taken on an unsolicited leadership among casuals after my decade of service] I strayed away from the tenet’s of aesthetic reclusion and did in fact enter the political fray. When a university in Sydney began paying casuals 60% of the agreed fee (under the universities own contract of employment) I insisted upon a review; the review was successful and I was able to change the pay for 20 casuals that semester. However I was never again rehired into a course I had help found.

I realized then that it is not the scholar’s role to actively engage with the politics of the situation. I instead took myself to the State gallery, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where there is a scholar’s rock (gongshi) on which to meditate. Gongshi is a separate art form in the Chinese tradition, where the hermit scholar chooses a rock for its particular beauty and/or meaning.[8] Recently the Australian Chinese artist Ah Xian has brought these rocks into his contemporary art practice and they sat provocatively next to the authentic ancient stone. What I meditated on was not necessarily nature but how like the bonsai, the scholar’s rock fits in a liminal space between nature and culture, between the scholar’s neglect of society and the Emperor’s who traded them in order to bring to themselves the elegance and prestige of learning (a piece of controlled otherworldliness but merely for show).

[1] Klopper, C. J., & Power, B. M. The Casual Approach to Teacher Education: What Effect Does Casualisation Have for Australian University Teaching?. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 39(4), 2014

[2] Meenal Mistry The Little Season that Could, WSJ, Dec 2, 2010

[3] Paul Smith quoted in Oliver Horton The Casual Cool, The New York Times, Feb 13, 2004.

[4] See Walsh, T. ‘Flexible labour utilisation in the private service sector’. Work, Employment and Society’ Vol. 4, no. 4, December, 51’7-530, 1990; Mallon, Mary, and Joanne Duberley. “Managers and professionals in the contingent workforce.” Human Resource Management Journal 10.1 (2000): 33-47.

[5] See in relation to the visual imagery of this type: Three Ages of Man: Masculine Sexuality in Australian Art”,in Paul Patton and Diane Austin-Broos, eds., Transformations in Australian Society, Sydney: Research Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences, 1997, 1-31

[6] O’Keeffe, Dennis, Waltzing Matilda: The Secret History of Australia’s Favourite Song. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2012

[7] Brown, Kendall H. The Politics of Reclusion: Painting and Power in Momoyama Japan.Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1997.

[8] Spirit Stones: The Ancient Art of the Scholar’s Rock, Jonathan Singer, Kemin Hu, and Thomas Elias, Abbeville Press, 2014.

3 Comments on SMART CASUAL by Oliver Watts

  1. Marcus Aurelius // September 6, 2015 at 4:16 pm // Reply

    “The casual is in fashion…”

    This does not mean it is a good trend, or that we should subscribe to it.
    As I see it, the loss of all formality, propriety, decorum is regressive.


  2. Nice article!!
    I guess this explains my love of Kamo no Chomei and Chanoyu


  3. Reading your reviews exert a double effect on me: I really like them and find 'em interesting … but make me feel a great nostalgia of Prague.I've been there in November, and I felt in love with the city.Bye (:


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