Two or Three Things I Know About
Tom O’Regan


My first impressions of Tom O’Regan (1956-2020) were not positive. I believe my very first encounter with him occurred at the Foreign Bodies: Semiotics In/And Australia conference in Sydney, 1981. In the break between sessions, I (aged 21 at the time) had set up a table to sell cheeky T-shirts (designed by Philip Brophy) adorned with a celebrity photo of Roland Barthes hanging out with a few young boys at what looked like a disco. Tom idled up to my stall, looked over my wares, and then muttered “Come in, spinner!” – a very Aussie reference to illegal gambling which I interpreted as a gnomic gesture of snobbish disdain.

Probably during the following year, while delivering a talk at another conference, I noticed something else about this O’Regan fellow: he could not stop talking to neighbouring audience members all throughout my disquisition. I took it as a sign of rudeness, and a general indifference to anything anybody else had to say – a character trait which, in that period, I associated, fairly or not, with a number of teachers at Griffith University, where Tom had done his formative studies.

On all these points of character judgement, it turned out that I was completely mistaken. By the mid 1980s, I had come to know Tom a little. When I reminded him of the ’81 incident, he swore that his utterance had been in admiration of my larrikin entrepreneurship. And I had figured out for myself by then that Tom talked all the way through other people’s presentations because he was perennially excited by whatever he was hearing. A single sentence or phrase, even just a word, could set Tom’s mind spinning with connections, associations, extrapolations. He was in a constant state of brainstorming, and in time I joined the plentiful ranks of those who had the regular opportunity to be intoxicated by Tom’s prodigious trains of thought.

What I was most wrong about was the snobbishness. Tom had not a sliver of cultural or academic snobbery in him, on any level. His approach to the world was founded on the idea that good, exciting, useful ideas can come from anybody and at any time – so you had better be open, ready and receptive. Academic qualifications, cultural hierarchies of good and bad art (or good and bad taste in art), career CVs – none this meant a jot to Tom.

In all the time I knew him – almost 40 years – I never once heard him dismiss a person, a theory, a method or a concept as not worth publishing or listening to. Everything deserved to be seriously entertained – because, somehow, it could be made to fit into the complex mosaics of knowledge and experience that each of us build. Tom prized, in the work of others, the personal voice, the unusual angle, and the kind of research that came from deep obsession as much as from thorough, scholarly reading.

Tom lit up upon hearing almost anything that anybody could tell him – you could see the wheels spinning in his head, instantly. I vividly recall his delight when I conveyed to him a story told by the American filmmaker Tim Hunter on the DVD audio commentary to an episode of the TV series Mad Men – how Hunter, as director-for-hire working under a powerful showrunner (Matthew Weiner) would only be allowed two or three elaborate crane shots per episode, each of which he had to argue for at length. For Tom, this was the type of anecdotal detail that crystallised everything: the sometimes conflictual, ever-negotiated relations between film and TV as media, between the auteurs of an earlier era and the strictures of the audiovisual industry today, between aesthetic creativity and pre-set formats, between the proud, individual creator and a well-oiled, professional team.

There was no story, no piece of gossip that could not illuminate some social-historical-cultural conjuncture for Tom. That was his brilliance, his gift. He did not seek any grand, unifying theory of media in society, but he did proceed on the assumption that everything was interconnected – and that illumination could spring from the smallest spark in a network. He was the most genuinely multi-factorial thinker I have ever met.

A detail from an email exchange I had with Tom in 2015. I politely pointed out an error he had made in an essay draft he sent me: “Quentin Tourneur”, an evident confusion between Jacques Tourneur the (great) filmmaker and Quentin Turnour, the noted Australian film programmer-archivist. Tom could turn even a typo into a fine reverie:

Oh dear. And here was I trying hard to be a proper scholar! But, on the other hand, it is amazing how these slips happen and what they produce. That QT would have been quite a guy and should exist! But I am very pleased that real QT does exist, too. I just want them both.

The period in which I collaborated most closely with Tom ran from the late 1980s to the release in 1992 of Film – Matters of Style, a hefty, book-length issue of Continuum that I edited. (For more on Tom’s publishing agenda in this period, see my 1988 piece “The Western Australia Project”.) Let us pause to review the particulars of this situation. In those years, I had no teaching position, and no university degree. I had never appeared, to that point, in any peer reviewed publication – let alone edited one. In fact, in my early 30s, I was writing tiny capsule ‘movies on TV’ reviews for a Melbourne newspaper.

None of this mattered to Tom; he never mentioned it once. There was never any problem of credentialism for him. He had been following my writing in various magazines – and talking excitedly during my conference presentations – for a decade already; he liked my stuff, and was convinced that, with my contacts across the board, I could whip up an exciting bunch of papers for Continuum.

This type of opportunity could not have happened for me in the academic world circa 1990 without the intervention of Tom (and, alongside him, the support of Brian Shoesmith, who also died in 2020); it would be utterly unthinkable in today’s professionalised university context. To borrow a line from Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995), Tom “took a chance on an unknown kid”.

My issue of Continuum was no outlier; time and again, Tom would gravitate toward people – those that others in the academic sphere might class as difficult or eccentric – that he would either promote to guest-editor status, or consistently publish. He encouraged so many writers, thinkers, artists, scholars and students in exactly this generous way. Not because he was determined to be politically inclusive (he was that, too, almost as an after-effect); but because he genuinely detected the possibilities, the novelties, that each person could contribute from the position of their unique context and life experience.

That’s why the journal seemed to morph, during Tom’s reign, from one issue to the next: in the page count, in cover design (no graphic uniformity for Tom!), in the structure of contents. It was also the case that no topic was considered a priori out of bounds: I well remember the gleam in his eye when I once suggested that no one had yet written or assembled an international history of right-wing film criticism (since most of us in the field self-identify as lefties) ­– I think he was seriously considering taking it on!

Prompted by Panizza Allmark (current Senior Editor of Continuum where this tribute first appeared), I have chosen a particular text by Tom to comment on: his 1994 “Two or Three Things I Know About Meaning” (Continuum, Vol. 7 No. 2). It is a massive piece – almost 20,000 words – but, even before online publishing blew open word-length protocols, Tom was never afraid to run epic articles (there are several in Film – Matters of Style, including my own!).

I select this one, out of many possible Greatest Hits by Tom, because I believe it punctures a certain, lazy preconception that one sometimes encounters about his work: that, predominantly, his concern was a comfortably Cultural Studies preoccupation with industrial contexts, or ‘discourses’ circulating around ‘objects’ (aka ‘texts’). In her Continuum tribute to Tom (Vol. 35 No. 3, 2021), Meaghan Morris rightly dismissed the “nonsensical opposition between ‘text’ and ‘audience’” that has “dominated much Cultural Studies debate” – and indicates the way that Tom sidestepped this unhelpful abyss during the hottest episodes of the Australian debate on cultural policy. Her comment offers a general insight into Tom that I believe can be taken further.

Tom’s writing was not at an antipodes to textual analysis, film criticism, or any other generic term we might use to encapsulate close engagement with cultural objects. Apart from penning a few fine short review pieces in 1980s issues of Filmnews – and we know how the loose institution of film reviewing became a major focus of his later research undertaken with Huw Walmsley-Evans – there is a good deal of detailed discussion of movies in his milestone Australian National Cinema book of 1996.

And so the project formed in Tom’s mind, during the early to mid ‘90s, to articulate a methodology of meaning in texts, a way of looking at it or for it. As I came to realise while assembling my Continuum issue under Tom’s gentle guidance, he often gradually thought out his major essays over a period of many years, mentally accumulating concepts and references for several such projects simultaneously. When the eventual moment came to commit these far-flung trails to the page, it’s little wonder he found it hard to keep the word-count down (he would sometimes appeal to me for advice on how and where to cut them!).

True to his essay title, Tom hits off with an evocation of Jean-Luc Godard.

In 1966 Jean-Luc Godard made Two or Three Things I Know About Her. It is an essay film about a host of different things: city buildings, public spaces, sex, love, prostitution, capitalism, the Viet Nam war, Paris ... filmmaking. A quite opinionated commentary on these different things is sometimes spoken, sometimes whispered over appropriate and inappropriate images alike.

Already I sense the profound overlap between the brainstorming, montage-making styles of Godard’s and Tom’s minds! Wildly different topics pile up and somehow combine; both “appropriate” and “inappropriate” modes of address are toyed with. Tom continues:

This chapter also voices an immodest position – on nothing less than the politics of meaning. Grouped here are those matters at stake in: the instability of meaning, the distribution of texts and their arrival and non-arrival at their intended destinations (their adestination), the designing of texts for readers and viewers, reading strategies, and questions of truth and relativism. Like Godard’s film it finds connections between things, sites and textual technologies normally kept separate.

There is an entire corpus of work from (at least) the 1960s onwards underpinning Tom’s reflection on the question of meaning (remember that he was instrumental in publishing Ian Douglas’ highly linguistic-semiotic PhD, Film and Meaning: An Integrative Theory, under the Continuum imprint in 1988). Tom had worked alongside scholars in that tradition including Horst Ruthrof, Rita Felski, Ien Ang and Alec McHoul. He knew well the claims made for both structured meanings and poststructural, polysemous ones; and, by the dawn of the ‘90s, he was fully cognisant of a nasty paradigm-shift, engineered within the burgeoning field of Cultural Studies, from texts to contexts: especially, the notion (popularised by John Fiske among others) that spectators made whatever use they wished of the texts they encountered, so damn any finicky ‘close reading’ to the Hell of oblivion, the dustbin of history. Tom did not follow that self-immolating path. Umberto Eco, Laura Mulvey, Sylvia Lawson, Paul Willemen, Eric Michaels: all this and more was in his toolkit.

His essay begins, however, by citing four major, “guiding” influences in a somewhat surprising (and Godardian) array: Ruthrof’s Pandora and Occam, Bruno Latour’s Science in Action (Tom was an early adopter, or adapter, of Latour), Michel Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge, and Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. Tom mines and cross-references this diversity of theorists in order to address an even more diverse set of texts – or, as he puts in his Godard-infused opening salvo, his essay “fabricates a continuity between: film and television production, film and cultural criticism, policy development, science, and the popular comic’s concerns to create polysemous resources for future uptake”.

Tom’s “fabrication of continuity” is, in a provisional spirit, not dissimilar to Edgar Morin’s grander and more ominous-sounding “theory of complexity”. The impulse, at least, is the same: to take in and interrelate all inputs, no matter how seemingly trivial or inconsequential. That’s why Tom excluded nothing from his research, and why he read so voraciously across such a bewildering array of specialisms: everything from the most banal, bureaucratic economics report to the heaviest philosophical tome could unlock a “hidden node” of meaning for Tom.

Closer to my (imaginary) home, “Two or Three Things I Know About Meaning” is dedicated “for Bill” – I safely assume this is our mutual friend Bill (William D.) Routt, often published in Continuum during Tom’s time as editor – and this is not insignificant. A central thread in Bill’s work has always been the understanding of texts not as static objects but dynamic events – and, moreover, events that deliberately, knowingly play with indeterminacy of meaning (or adestination, as Tom terms it).

Reading (in all senses) is never a simple or unilateral decoding. In place of a prevalent media-studies language of subjection, interpellation and submission (which he knew well from the ‘70s), Tom preferred to evoke hit-and-miss processes of seduction, cajoling, playing, second-guessing. At last, I can return the muttered compliment: come in, spinner! Because spin, in its public-relations sense, is what processes of meaning are all about for Tom: trying to angle a message, missing the target, seeing it divert elsewhere to a place previously unforeseen – and then trying to exploit that wayward “uptake” in order to generate a next step in the (very serious) game of culture.

Spin was, in the best possible way, also part of his own everyday, professional rhetoric, and his way of inhabiting and shaping the institutional situations he worked in. I vividly remember his sage editorial advice to me back in 1991: “Don’t insult people so openly in your texts, Adrian – your critique will cut much deeper if you pretend to be civil!”

I will not vainly attempt to summarise and annotate all 20,000 words of Tom’s epic essay, which would be a book-length project – indeed, I have so far hardly made it past discussing the first few pages. Early on, Tom flags his conclusion: “The relations between meaning stability/instability, uptake and dissemination are critical to social practices which handle inscriptions, whether the concern is to maximise or minimise subsequent interpretative play”.

Like Giorgio Agamben, Tom was a thinker not really concerned to take a side in a dispute or solve a given problem; rather, his task was to define the horns of a particular dilemma, to grasp the vacillation that might be hampering us as we ping relentlessly between the opposing poles (such as “stability/instability”) of an argumentative or semantic field – and to ease us through, wherever possible, into a more complex and inclusive way of understanding the issues at stake. That, too, was part of his enduring gift to us.

I remember the first time I encountered Tom, and also the last time. I was riding on a train with him back from Monash University at the end of 2018 Screen Studies conference in Melbourne; he was chatting warmly with me and my partner, film critic and audiovisual artist Cristina Álvarez López. I remember the light streaming through the wide window behind him, his smile, the landscape rushing past. On he talked, brainstorming and free-associating: it was, once more, a scene from a mid ‘60s Godard movie. Tom was on top of the world that day.


© Adrian Martin January 2021

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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