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What is progress? There are histories of progress that chart its meanings from ancient times to the present. There are treatises that explore its moral and spiritual dimensions, its eschatological origins, its apocalyptic fulfilment. 1 There are the familiar economic definitions, of course, as well as attempts to factor environmental health and human happiness into the calculations of the number crunchers. 2 But the most detailed studies of progress have been undertaken within the history of ideas, where JB Bury’s 1920 definition still provides a useful point of reference. Progress, Bury asserts, ‘is a theory which involves a synthesis of the past and a prophecy of the future. It is based on an interpretation of history which regards men [sic] as slowly advancing… in a definite and desirable direction, and infers that this progress will continue indefinitely’. 3

Based on such a definition, historians have pieced together a generally accepted life history of progress. It is, as Bury notes, a surprisingly modern invention, having its birth alongside science itself amidst the intellectual ferment of the Renaissance. The idea gained strength through the Enlightenment, as thinkers wielded the power of rationalism to stake their claims over the future. A counter-thrust by the Romantics was swept aside by the nineteenth century, when progress seemed evident not only in the society’s growing technological might, but, through evolution, in the very being of humankind. 4 By the late nineteenth century, progress was ascendant. In history, science, technology and commerce, civilisation seemed set in the path of conquest and expansion. No end was in sight. The twentieth century brought new doubts, however, as thinkers began to question the implicit linearity of progress and assumed dominance of rationalism. 5 But it was the carnage and destruction of World War One that finally dispelled the confidence of the nineteenth century. Since then a lingering sense of pessimism has tainted any assertion of progress—are things really getting better? Recent decades have brought the strongest critique, with cultural theorists identifying progress as one of the sustaining metanarratives through which the modern state achieves legitimation and control. It is in the questioning of progress, some argue, that we declare ourselves as defiantly post-modern. 6

However, once we lapse into imagining that progress has a life of its own, we are in danger of ignoring the complexities of its historical expression. The assumption that there is a specific ‘idea’ which we can readily label ‘progress’, encourages us to perceive it as something monolithic and unchanging—the idea possesses the people, not the people the idea. William Lines’ book Taming the Great South Land observes the influence of the idea of progress upon Australia’s history. 7 Progress is portrayed like a deadly virus, carried to Australia by European invaders only to wreak horrific damage upon the land and its indigenous inhabitants. Any sense of complexity or context is lost amidst the parade of stick-figure baddies driven by their devotion to this dangerous idea. Lines’ book offers a powerful and timely polemic, but as history it is unsatisfying because it takes the very meaning of progress for granted. This thesis argues that progress did not merely exist in the minds of thinkers, in the workings of evolution, the machinations of the state, or the greed of developers, it was experienced, resisted, elaborated or rejected in the daily lives of people negotiating their own meanings and purpose.

Michael Roe examines some of this complexity in his book Nine Australian progressives. 8 Although his progressives share a broad vision of improvement, there is no easily defined program or set of beliefs. What emerges from his biographical studies is an awareness of the diversity of their enthusiasms, as well as a recognition of their common concerns. Nationalist fervour is mingled with the fear of degeneration, and confidence in the power of technology sits beside a passion for the natural world: Roe reveals that a commitment to progress can emerge from a mass of contradictions, opinions and uncertainties.

Studies of ‘development ideology’ in Australia have tended to focus on its role within conservative politics, though Lenore Layman has demonstrated that local context can also be significant. 9 Judith Brett, like Roe, has used biography as a means of plumbing the deeper meanings of progress and security, reflected in Robert Menzies’ appeal to the ‘forgotten people’. 10 ‘Political language faces two ways’, she argues, ‘outwards to the audience being addressed and support being wooed; inwards to the politician’s own emotions and biographical experience’. The challenge, Brett continues, is to find ‘the points through which personal desires can flow through into the public ideological forms of the day’. 11

John Murphy has also sought to recover a sense of contingency and complexity from the clichés and stereotypes that dominate our impressions of the 1950s. 12 This is, of course, the era most closely associated with the Atomic Age, and one to which we readily ascribe a naïve devotion to the wonders of progress. But Murphy’s research reveals a much more fragmented and fearful society. The prospect of economic prosperity was undercut by lingering fears of depression; the image of a happy family life was menaced by the threat of global conflict and continuing shifts in gender roles. Our ‘contemporary imaginings of the fifties as stable, complacent and prosperous’, Murphy argues, ‘have obscured aspects that are much more dynamic and contradictory’. 13

Just as we look to the fifties as a time of ‘monocultural certainties’ against which we can measure our own acceptance of diversity, so we imagine that progress itself is an idea that we can, and have, outgrown. Once we assume the monolithic character of progress, we are able to imagine its rejection as a symbol of our own increasing sophistication. Postmodernism proudly brandishes its prefix as a sign that we have moved beyond the delusions of the past—progress, like modernity itself, has been stripped of its disguise. 14 However, such confidence displays the same sort of temporal certainty expressed in the supposed dawning of the Atomic Age. Both imagine a succession of old by new, of ignorance by enlightenment. As we begin to explore the nature of progress, we should perhaps admit that we cannot easily do without the feeling that our understanding of progress has progressed.

In his 2001 Boyer Lectures, Geoffrey Blainey reminded us that there was no single peak on developmental enthusiasm from which we can chart the dwindling of national optimism. 15 The excitement of ‘Australia Unlimited’ in the 1920s faded somewhat with the Depression and a gradual acceptance of the limits of the nation’s potentialities. But it was resurrected in the postwar years with the added power of an atom-enriched science. In the 60s and 70s such confidence faced increasing suspicion, particularly with the rise of environmental concerns. But like Paul Boyer’s cycles of activism and apathy, our engagement with progress has been marked not simply by growing cynicism, but by bouts of unconscious repetition. Even as we celebrate our onward march into the future, we regularly rediscover past ideas and visions as new. The nature of progress is closely bound to our experience of time.

‘Time is the very stuff of history’, Graeme Davison writes, ‘as fundamental to its character as land to geography or matter to physics’. ‘Historians constantly shape and reshape time, arrange events within it, make metaphors for it’, he adds, but ‘they seldom direct their attention to time itself as a basic dimension of social life’. 16 Davison, like Stephen Kern in his book The culture of time and space, is one of the few historians to specifically address the role of time in the construction of historical experience. While neither is directly concerned with the relationship between time and progress, it is clear from their studies that the mastery of time has been perceived as central to the pursuit of progress. Whether through the power of standardisation to exert control at a distance, or in the obsession with efficiency that Taylorism marked as the benchmark for industrial success, the precise manipulation of time offered opportunities for development and expansion.

The entwining of time and progress can be traced back to the modern ‘invention’ of time in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. 17 As chapter one of this thesis describes, a series of historical changes brought a shift in the experience of time. Time was divided and regulated, its passing marked with increasing precision by the ticking of the mechanical clock. But these discrete moments were also added together, enabling Enlightenment thinkers to assert their distance from the past. The passage of time came to be understood in linear terms as a journey through a metaphorical space—a journey given the name of progress. As Walter Benjamin argues: ‘The concept of historical progress of mankind cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogenous empty time. A critique of the concept of such a progression must be the basis of any criticism of the concept of progress itself’. 18

This thesis argues that rather than being an ‘idea’ that we can simply disown or outgrow, the characteristics of progress are embedded within the timekeeping practices that we still use to structure our days, imagine our histories, and construct our narratives. The idea of progress as a journey interspersed with significant turning points or crises, is a reflection of the way in which time itself is forged through a dialectic of accumulation and disjunction. It is this structure of ‘disjunction, and irreversible sequence on either side of the disjunction’ that Deborah Rose observes in the temporality of the Australian frontier. 19 The way in which progress is elaborated and experienced as a combination of both practices and ideas, is specifically addressed within the first three chapters which examine turning points, journeys, and the contrast of old and new.

Andrew Ross similarly argues that the ‘maintenance of cultural and economic power’ rests ‘upon a dialectic of change and constancy, innovation and stability, progress and conservation’. 20 But Ross observes this dialectic, not in the workings of time per se, but in the growth of science against ‘an intractably stable order of nature’. It was not merely time and progress that emerged together from the seventeenth century. As Ross reminds us, this newly-imagined journey was one marked by the increasing power of science and rationalism. ‘To focus on the ever-modified shape of that dialectic from moment to moment’, he continues, ‘is to reject the explanatory power of ultimate linear narratives about progress’. 21 It is in the history of Australian science that this thesis seeks to observe this dialectic at work.


  1. For example: J B Bury, The idea of progress: an inquiry into its origin and growth, Macmillan, London, 1920; Sidney Pollard, The idea of progress: history and society, CA Watts & Co, London, 1968; John Baillie, The belief in progress, Oxford University Press, London, 1950.
  2. For example: Clive Hamilton, and Richard Denniss, Tracking well-being in Australia: the Genuine Progress Indicator 2000, Discussion paper no. 35, Australia Institute, Canberra, 2000; Richard Eckersley (ed.), Measuring progress: is life getting better, CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne, 1998.
  3. Bury, The idea of progress, p. 5.
  4. For more on the role of evolutionary thought in the idea of progress, see Peter Bowler, The invention of progress: the Victorians and the past, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1989.
  5. Stephen Kern, The culture of time and space, 1880-1918, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1983.
  6. Lyotard famously defined postmodernism as an ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’, of which the modern belief in progress is a prime example, see: Jean Francois Lyotard, The postmodern condition: a report on knowledge, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1984.
  7. William Lines, Taming the great south land: a history of the conquest of nature in Australia, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1991.
  8. Michael Roe, Nine Australian progressives: vitalism in bourgeois social thought, 1890-1960, University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, 1984.
  9. Lenore Layman, ‘Development ideology in Western Australia’, Historical Studies, vol. 20, no. 79, 1982, pp. 234-60. See also: Lenore Layman, ‘Development’, in Graeme Davison, John Hirst and Stuart Macintyre (eds), The Oxford Companion to Australian History, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1998, pp. 184-6; P Loveday, ‘Liberals and the idea of development’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol. 23, no. 2, 1977, pp. 219-226.
  10. Judith Brett, Robert Menzies’ forgotten people, Sun, Sydney, 1993.
  11. ibid., p. 26.
  12. John Murphy, Imagining the fifties: private sentiment and political culture in Menzies’ Australia, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2000.
  13. ibid., p. 5.
  14. For an examination of the supposed monolithic character of modernity, see Bernard Yack, The fetishism of modernities: epochal self-consciousness in contemporary social and political thought, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1997.
  15. Geoffrey Blainey, This land is all horizons: Australian fears and visions, 2001 Boyer Lectures ABC Books, Sydney, 2001, ch. 1.
  16. Graeme Davison, The unforgiving minute: how Australia learned to tell the time, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1993, p. 2.
  17. Samuel L Macey, Patriarchs of time: dualism in Saturn-Cronos, Father Time, the Watchmaker God, and Father Christmas, University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia, 1987, ch 4.
  18. Quoted in Jonathon Boyarin, ‘Space, time, and the politics of memory’, in Jonathon Boyarin (ed.), Remapping memory: the politics of timespace, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, p. 1.
  19. Deborah Rose, ‘The Year Zero and the North Australian frontier’, in Deborah Rose and Anne Clarke (eds), Tracking knowledge in North Australian landscapes, NARU, Darwin, 1997, p. 27.
  20. Andrew Ross, Strange weather: culture, science and technology in the age of limits, Verso, London, 1991, p. 232.
  21. ibid.

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