Vale Roger Sandall

Roger Sandall, the editor of Quadrant in 1988-89, died after a long illness on August 11, aged seventy-eight. He was one of Australia’s best essayists and most profound thinkers. What is largely unknown today is that he also had an early career in cinema and at the 1968 Venice Film Festival became one of the first Australian film-makers to win an international award for a film which, for political reasons explained below, has never been seen since.

Roger was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, in December 1933, and spent his childhood there and at Palmerston North in the North Island. He came from a well-educated family where there were always plenty of books in the house—mostly Penguins, he recalled. Before the Second World War his father was head librarian at Massey Agricultural College, and later at the University of Auckland. Roger went to Takapuna Grammar School in Auckland but he always thought his most formative education came in the school holidays he spent on a farm and the gap year he spent labouring at the Auckland meatworks, sugar refinery and docks. “This psycho-proofed me,” he said, “against social sentimentalism. Those who have seen hogs butchered do not sentimentalise rural life. Those who have caught their fellow stevedores deliberately smashing open cases of nylon stockings to sell in waterfront pubs are disinclined to sentimentalise the workers.”

As a young man he retained a probing intellect and was an avid reader. Even during his three months of compulsory military training, he carried about Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, a possession which, when discovered by fellow trainees in his kitbag, drew much derisive laughter. The book that most impressed him at the time was Erich Fromm’s Fear of Freedom, which steered him towards the study of psychology.

However, a full course in that subject was not available at Auckland University so when he graduated four years later the major in his BA was anthropology. Two influences there shaped much of his future. One was his professor of anthropology, Ralph Piddington, an Australian who spent most of his career at Edinburgh, a “truly distinguished and attractive figure”, Roger said, who gave him a grounding in the concepts and approach of the British school of anthropology. The other influence came from three American postgraduate students who were in Auckland on Fulbright scholarships. In the 1950s, almost everyone in New Zealand or Australia wanting to study abroad looked to Britain, but Roger’s Fulbright friends told him things were more interesting in the United States. So, not for the last time, Roger broke the mould and took their advice. In 1956 he accepted a fellowship for a masters degree in anthropology at Columbia University in New York.

At Columbia he became a student of Margaret Mead, who was in what he called the Grand Celebrity phase of her career. “Though her manner as a kind of High Priestess was forbidding,” Roger said, “Mead could not have been more practical and down-to-earth as a fieldwork instructor. One project required attending a Catholic mass, simply as a naive observer, and providing a minute description of this exotic event.” Although he also sat at the feet of American academic luminaries such as Leonard Schapiro, Joseph Greenberg and Marvin Harris, his interest in the social sciences gradually waned and he switched his studies at Columbia to cinematography. He was especially taken by the work of the new and innovative North American and French documentary film-makers of the realist or cinéma vérité school. Their long, uncut takes and their aspiration for truth-telling rather than showbiz were strong influences on his own idea of actuality film-making. In 1962 he graduated from Columbia with a masters degree in fine arts.

During the early 1960s, Roger had a series of casual jobs in the New York film-making industry, both as cameraman and as screen editor. He made two visits to Mexico and on the second worked with a pair of anthropologists making a documentary film about agricultural life in the Sierra Madre mountains of south-western Mexico. The experience helped disillusion him about the motives of academics. The anthropologists intended the film to express the fervour of the peasants for a new, bloody Mexican revolution. But, under the cover of darkness, the poor peasant farmer they chose as their central character came to Roger with a different project. He wanted help to get the papers he needed to emigrate to the USA where ordinary people lived prosperously and well, without the prevailing local corruption that kept him in poverty.

The Mexican film eventually attracted the approval of the curator of cinema at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Willard Van Dyke, a man with considerable clout in the international film industry. In 1965, when the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies advertised for its first full-time documentary film director and received more than twenty applicants, Van Dyke’s letter of recommendation helped Roger secure the position. The brief for the job was to capture on film important aspects of the traditional Aboriginal way of life, which by then was in steep decline.

Roger’s initial office and cutting room was in an abandoned building attached to the University of Sydney. But once he had ordered and equipped a Toyota Land Cruiser suitable for cross-country travel, he spent much of the next seven years visiting remote locations in the Northern Territory. Here, the last remaining rituals of hunter-gatherer Aboriginal society could still be practised, albeit by performers then domiciled on missions and welfare settlements but who could still remember the meaning and performance of the ceremonies. He had a number of anthropologists as collaborators and advisers, in particular Nicolas Peterson of the University of Sydney.

The ethnographic films that emerged from these field visits fulfilled the Institute’s aims. They were some of the last extant records of genuine, traditional Aboriginal ceremonial life. Several attracted attention at international documentary film festivals. One of them, Emu Ritual at Ruguri, won the Lion of St Mark, the first prize at the 1968 Venice Film Festival. The doyen of Australian anthropologists, W.E.H. Stanner, described another 1968 film, Walbiri Ritual at Gunadjari, as “in some respects a little masterpiece”. All up, during his time at the Institute from 1965 to 1973 Roger made nine films, plus another two he put together in 1975 and 1976 after he had left. Eight of these documentaries were chosen for screening at film festivals at Venice, Florence and the Australian Film Awards.

Roger explained his approach to ethnographic film-making in a 1972 article for the journal Sight and Sound. It was important for the scientific integrity of what he called “observational cinema” to preserve the “structural integrity of the event”. Instead of editing shots to enhance the dramatic effect and entertain audiences, Roger’s notion of making a fact-finding record had the ultimate purpose of allowing others to share observations one had made oneself. This was fundamental practice within mainstream science and hence this kind of ethnographic film-making could aspire to the status of scientific observation too.

Despite the accolades he attracted, Roger’s career as an ethnographic film-maker came to an abrupt end in the early 1970s. By this time, many Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory were falling apart, succumbing to chronic alcoholism and neglecting traditional culture. Few elders remained to perform traditional rites for the cameras. More far-reaching, however, was a policy change by his employer. The anthropological profession came to a consensus that films of Aboriginal ceremonies should be kept from certain audiences who in tribal life were barred from seeing the real thing, especially Aboriginal women and uninitiated youth. Moreover, the profession decided it was best to err on the side of secrecy and prevent anyone else from seeing them either, with the sole exception of the original participants. To Roger’s dismay, and despite his protracted efforts to prevent it, the Institute decided to remove from public access the best of his existing films, including the Venice Film Festival winner, and lock them in a vault. They remain there today, unseen for forty years.

Roger regarded this as a betrayal of both his work and the scientific principles that anthropology should have upheld. He was not the only one whose work was withdrawn. Aboriginal political activists and their academic sympathisers called for the books of several prominent Australian scholars to be censored on similar grounds. The most infamous case was the 1976 withdrawal from sale of Charles Mountford’s monumental tome Nomads of the Australian Desert, the product of fifty years of fieldwork.

To Roger, the growth of this movement was a disaster for the profession. Anthropologists were transformed, he said, from practitioners of scholarship and conveyors of education to guardians of sacred rites, images and myths that could never be disclosed to anyone outside an inner circle of believers. Instead of producing a science of the human condition, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies had ended up merely as custodian of tribal religious practices and superstitions.

When he thought about it later, Roger recognised that, as well as an academic policy shift, there was another, more enduring reason for the expurgation of his films: their realism offended the romanticism about Aboriginal people and culture held by increasing numbers of the white, left-leaning middle classes. He later wrote: 

It must be recognised that nudity, the copious blood-letting some ceremonial activities entailed (human blood from opened arm veins was spilled on various sacra, was spurted as an elixir into the mouths of elderly participants, and was also widely used as a fixative for building emblems), along with the overtly sexual nature of some scenes, all made such records discomfiting for those who want a sanitised, euphemised, and romantically falsified version of the Australian Aboriginal past, and who find such records deeply embarrassing.

In 1973, Roger left the Institute and became a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Sydney. He remained there for the next twenty years. He maintained his career as film-maker, producing three documentaries in India on subjects as diverse as a travelling theatre, life in the harem of an Indian prince, and conflict over land between nomadic cattle graziers and sedentary cotton farmers. He also moved to Sri Lanka to produce a film about life in that ethnically and politically-riven country. This exercise left him sympathetic to, but pessimistic about, the prospects of the Tamil minority.

During this period, he took up writing in earnest and eventually turned himself into one of the most profound and critical thinkers this country has known. He began this new career in 1976 with a 1000-word article, “A Curious Case of Censorship”, outlining the fate of his films and canvassing the reasons they had fallen so quickly from favour. He wrote it as a short commentary on an earlier article in Encounter, then the world’s leading conservative intellectual journal of opinion. It struck a chord with the magazine’s editor, Melvin Lasky, who accepted it on the spot and published it in his July 1976 edition.

Roger’s outing of the new, censorious turn in Australian anthropology in a prominent international journal caused a break with most of his academic colleagues. It widened further after the publication of his next piece for Encounter, “On the Way to the Pig Festival”, which was partly a critique of the growth of romanticism about tribal society—this time in the New Guinea highlands by a fashionable leftist professor of drama at New York University, Richard Schechner; and partly an ironic commentary on the pretensions of several fashionable sociologists and literary critics. This time, Lasky was even more enthusiastic: “A true Encounter essay! Please send us anything you write!” When the August 1978 edition reached Australia, Roger found himself on the cover alongside such big intellectual names as Sidney Hook, Robert Conquest, Max Black, Golo Mann and Peter Porter—to the pique and utter mystification, he recalled, of the “philosophers’ table” at the Sydney University staff club.

He took up Lasky’s invitation and for the next twelve years provided him with a steady stream of articles. He also became a frequent contributor to other conservative journals including Quadrant, Commentary (USA), New Lugarno Review (Switzerland) and later the New Criterion (USA), American Interest (USA), Salisbury Review (UK) and Merkur (Germany). By the time of his death he had written more than forty major essays for these publications plus numerous reviews, opinion pieces and commentaries in the press. I was very pleased to have his support over the last decade in both newspapers and journals during the controversy over my two volumes of The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. He also contributed to academic journals such as Mankind, Visual Anthropology and Social Science and Modern Society but preferred magazines that appealed to intelligent but non-academic audiences. Indeed, he once said, “The only place I felt entirely comfortable was Encounter, where you could really let yourself go satirically.”

In the 1980s he published two articles in that journal that made his break with anthropology irreparable, both intellectually and personally. He had decided there was a fundamental flaw at the heart of the American school of anthropology over the concept of culture. A decade before the American political philosopher Allan Bloom published his best-selling book The Closing of the American Mind in 1987, which laid out a critique of cultural relativism, Roger had wrestled with the same concept. In fact, he was the first scholar to realise the implications of the fundamental difference between American and English notions of culture that had by then emerged. The English version derived from the poet and essayist Matthew Arnold’s account in Culture and Anarchy (1875), which defined culture as “the best which has been thought and said in the world” and which hoped that by educating people to know what these thoughts and words were, they would lift humanity to a higher, more civilised status. The American version came from the anthropologist Franz Boas, the founder of Columbia University’s school of anthropology, who defined culture as the totality of human behaviour within a social system. In place of Arnold’s concept of a cultural hierarchy, Boas substituted a value-neutral, radical egalitarianism: all cultures were prized by the people who inhabited them, no cultural values could be judged better than any other, hence all cultures were different but equal.

By the 1980s, the triumph of the American anthropological conception of culture over the Arnoldian conception was all but complete. This was as true of cultural assessments in the arts—where Italian opera could no longer be judged superior to Chinese opera, or the theatre of Shakespeare better than Kabuki, just different—as it was in moral values—where cultural practices from which most Westerners instinctively shrink, such as human sacrifice, the incineration of widows, and genital mutilation, were now accorded their own integrity, lest the culture that produced them be demeaned.

On a sabbatical at Oxford University in 1979–80, Roger wrote his first major essay on this topic. Entitled “When I Hear the Word Culture … from Arnold to Anthropology” it appeared in Encounter in October 1980. At the end of his life, he still regarded it as his most serious and academically substantial article. Its targets included not only the left-leaning American school of anthropology but also the conservative poet and critic T.S. Eliot and his endorsement of culture as an organic social whole, as well as the Marxist literary critic Raymond Williams and his concept of class-based cultural relativism. Roger pointed out that the anthropological view of culture was not new. It represented a revival of eighteenth-century German romanticism, especially the ideas of Johann Gottfried Herder and his notion of the German Volk, a people then distributed across several princedoms of Europe but bound together organically by language, religion, education, poetry, songs and ritual. Herder’s ideas were influential in the eventual unification of the German nation in 1870. In Weimar Germany in the 1920s, this Kultur, with its roots in the blood and soil of the chosen Volk, was promoted as the German alternative to British and French concepts of civilisation. In the 1930s it became the rationale for the expansion of the Reich under Adolf Hitler.

By the time Roger wrote his critique, the tribalist nature of German cultural nationalism had been critically analysed by historians and political philosophers. Its responsibility for the Second World War and the Holocaust was clearly identified by some. However, in anthropology its relationship with the cultural relativism of the American school was recognised only rarely. Roger pointed out that American anthropology began with the same set of ideas, introduced to the academy by German immigrants or their children, especially Franz Boas, Edward Sapir and Alfred Kroeber. However, of more concern to Roger was the damage that Western academic sentimentality about tribal life was doing to people still trapped in pre-modern societies. From the strength of his field experience in Aboriginal Australia, Mexico, India and Sri Lanka, he argued that the Western middle classes who romanticised tribal culture only did so because they had never experienced the real thing. They never understood the appeal of modernity to those locked within tribal cultures:

Whether we are talking about Indian untouchables in Calcutta, or farmers in Thailand, or peasants in Spain, all of these people want to enter the modern world and are usually quite happy to jettison the crippling cultural baggage which holds them back. Instead, the ideological defence of local and backward cultures—the promotion of the doctrine of “my culture, right or wrong”—has overwhelmingly been undertaken by radicalised Western middle-classes, on behalf of an ethnic clientèle which may or may not approve their efforts, driven by a masochistic contempt for their Western heritage, and almost as often for the lands of their birth as well.

Roger also wrote a damaging critique of the anthropologists who brought this about. Titled “The Rise of the Anthropologue” (Encounter, December 1986) it argued that while early anthropologists had studied tribal life as disinterested observers, by the 1980s the “anthropologues” had ulterior motives, of either a political or salvationist kind, seeking means of personal redemption or models for their own political or ideological hopes. Above all, they were afflicted with a dreadful piety: 


Like that prototypical anthropologue, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, they are driven by a deep emotional necessity to dignify everything in the pre-industrial world. The laughable must be made grave; the repellent must be made somehow endearing; and the downright revolting must be swathed in a language so latinate and extraordinary that it is often hard to know exactly what is going on. Words like sacred, sacral and ritualistic may be called on to produce a vaguely sanctifying effect; and if this is successful, then plain speaking about African tribal life will always seem tasteless, and usually irreverent as well.

The article reserved its most scathing criticisms for the French author Claude Levi-Strauss and his celebrated work The Raw and the Cooked: Introduction to a Science of Mythology (trans. 1970). It was a study of myths but, instead of the science of the subtitle, Levi-Strauss disarmingly announced that it too should be regarded as mythology, more like a piece of music, in fact an “overture” to its own “confused and indigestible pages”. Roger observed that this kind of anthropology could all too easily be regarded as little more than “the telling of tales about the tales other people tell”. According to the rules of this game, there could be no such a thing as a false tale; nor could research that was successful be distinguished from research that had failed. Once this was accepted, he said, anthropology became an intellectual disaster zone.

From that time on, one of the very few anthropologists in whom Roger found a kindred spirit was Ernest Gellner, the Czech-born English academic. Gellner began his university career as a philosopher and made Islam and the Middle East his specialty. What appealed most to Roger was his rejection of cultural relativism and his defence of the notion of civilisation. Gellner introduced Roger to Karl Popper’s two volumes, The Open Society and Its Enemies, an intellectual history from the ancient to the modern world written during Popper’s sojourn in New Zealand during the Second World War. His aim was to distinguish the totalitarianism regimes of Hitler and Stalin from the civilisation of Western Europe and its offspring. Totalitarian regimes, he argued, preserved the worst features of the closed tribal societies of the pre-modern era. Popper said there was a big historical ditch between tribalism and civilisation. There was a sharp contrast between the “closed societies” of tribalism, with their tribal justice, tribal knowledge, and tribal ideas of truth and of right and wrong, and the “open societies” of the civilised world, which accommodated human diversity through representative institutions, universal moral values and the rule of law, which had protected individual liberty from the solidary warrior states of antiquity and their modern revivalists.

Combined with his own analysis of the victory of the American notion of culture over the British, these ideas gave Roger the framework for his book The Culture Cult, published in the United States by Westview Press in 2001. Its subtitle, Designer Tribalism and Other Essays, focused his critique on those people who inherited a world where civilised values prevailed but who were led by contemporary fashion to shift their allegiance to the idea of tribalism without recognising what they were doing.

The book also made a trenchant critique of the cult of bohemianism, especially in the work of Europe’s most notorious bohemian, the eighteenth-century author Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who Roger saw, along with Herder, as the original populariser of romantic primitivism. Rousseau’s writings were influential in the United States, especially in the work of Roger’s old lecturer at Columbia, Margaret Mead, who emerges as one of his book’s chief reprobates. She not only manipulated the anthropological evidence about Polynesian sexual practices for the book that made her famous, Coming of Age in Samoa, but did so primarily for the effect it would have at home. She was on a crusade against American middle-class Puritanism and sought to demonstrate how natural was the feminist, bisexual, promiscuous life she herself led as a bohemian in New York’s Greenwich Village in the 1920s. “It is certainly true,” Roger argued, “that bohemianism is more deeply hostile to the values of the bourgeoisie than Marxism ever was.” In the long term, her work led to the institutionalisation of bohemian values within mainstream Western society.

The Culture Cult was received well in conservative circles in Australia and helped earn Roger a Centenary Medal in 2003 for his contribution to letters. However, it gained most accolades in the United States where his name and writings were probably always better known than in Australia. In 2008, the American journal Social Science and Modern Society devoted an entire issue to a symposium on The Culture Cult, attracting essays from Robin Fox, George Crowder, Peter Wood, Daniel Chirot, Bryan Turner, David Stoll and Joseph E. Davis. These authors were by no means all friends, admirers or political sympathisers. Chirot, Professor of International Studies at the University of Washington, took offence at Roger’s identification of leftist academics and writers as a principal cause of the decline of Western values, arguing that the threat from the American right’s “xenophobic nationalism” and “obscurantist religion” was a greater influence today. Nonetheless, he agreed that Roger had got the nature of the threat from the culture cult right. He wrote: 

Sandall is right to be outraged and fearful. Unless the West can maintain Enlightenment values at the core of its political and moral philosophy, the rest of the world will abandon all movements towards the liberating individualism, toleration for dissent and human rights, and free thinking that has made life better for a growing proportion of the human race.

Roger Sandall is survived by his wife, Philippa, and his two children, Richard and Emma. His works can be read on his website,

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