Monday, February 25, 2008

Distant Reading: the fiction of Frank Moorhouse and Amanda Lohrey across the Long Labor Decade

[* See below for keys to graph, or click on graph for larger, clearer image]

The long Labor decade (1983-96 ALP in Government) has a pre-history: The Whitlam period and Whitlamism. I’m less concerned with the so-called New Right of the long Labor decade than with how the ALP talked to its Left wings: the New Left, the social movements, the academic and cultural left, the ex-communist Left. In particular I’m interested in how Gough Whitlam’s legacy was written and spoken about.

The Post-Whitlam period was a despondent time for the cultural and political left: Amanda Lohrey and Frank Moorhouse write about this time and write through the long Labor decade- both address it in a number of non-fiction pieces and I think they narrativise it in their fictions as that structure of feeling which is loss: Lohrey in The Reading Group and Moorhouse in Forty-Seventeen – both published around 1988-89.

It’s one thing to perform a close-reading of two novels by different authors published close together, and detect a structural homology. It’s another thing to track each author’s movement as a trajectory or trend-line through this moment in order to see how the loss, the work of mourning, does its subsequent work – and also to get a better idea of what it was that was lost. Rather than a close-reading, I’m producing what the Stanford University literary historian Franco Moretti calls a distant reading. So my version of distant reading is a graph that quantifies data in a way that invites an explanation. Answers to the question: What forces are impelling the shape of this graph?

But firstly, why these two authors? Frank Moorhouse was raised on the South Coast of NSW, emerges from a small business family and comes to the left-libertarianism associated with the late-Sydney Push. Alongside his fiction writing he continues his journalism and moves into international diplomatic work. As he crosses over from Left-Libertarianism to international diplomacy, he stands on the steps of the Sydney Opera House in 1975, alongside Gough and Manning Clark and admits that, yes, this government was actually a good one, and I want it returned. This is a turnaround for Moorhouse whose libertarian politics up to this point damned all political parties as authoritarian.

Lohrey is born into a 1940s working-class labourist family from Battery Point, is President of Young Labor in Tasmania, and marries a Labor politician before she moves into teaching creative writing. She has described the Whitlam period as opening up possibilities in the same manner as fiction. So, my introduction has a biographical backdrop, but it’s the politics in their texts that I’m interested in and how these politics change over time.

The Graph

So, what you can see is a fairly straightforward graph. The Moorhouse texts are represented by blue diamonds, the Lohrey texts by red squares. The horizontal axis is divided into years of publication – Futility and other Animals is published in 1969, Camille’s Bread in 1995. The vertical axis quantifies the ratio of the two poles of governmentality: the State and the Subject, or the social-individual. I give The Morality of Gentlemen a ratio of .7 (or 7 to 10) – the novel begins with a speech by Prime Minster Robert Menzies, and its focus on an industrial conflict traverses parliamentary and political institutions. Its politics are very public, although sections of the novel are centred around an illicit sexual relationship and domestic-family conflict. Camille’s Bread I’ve plotted as .3. Its politics are intimate, domestic and largely focused on the right way to feed and treat the individual body. Moorhouse’s The Americans, Baby (1972) is marked-up as .3. Its politics are largely those of a libertarian sexuality. Its Labor and anti-American politics form some of the focus, but these are satirized as confused and naive: the drive of party-politics to seize the state is here presented as a sexual will-to-power; another form of authoritarianism to be resisted. Moorhouse’s first instalment in his League of Nations trilogy - 1993’s Grand Days - plotted here with a .7 ratio, is fundamentally focused on the emergence of the international legal and diplomatic apparatus of the League’s attempts at an inter-state. His heroine’s bildungs is a forming of cosmopolitan sexuality and cultural education that emerges alongside the hopeful, idealistic, and diplomatic internationalism of the League.

From the graph you can see one advantage of a distant reading – these trajectories (which are here trendlines) of representations of governmentality cross-over: they emerge at opposite poles and then keep moving away from the initial pole toward the other. Why?

Some explanations then. Two novels gather around the years 1988-9, and, as the plotting of them indicates, I think they sit around the middle of the continuum in their equal focus on both state-based government and self-government. Both are also works of mourning: The Reading group an elegy for the post-Whitlam left intelligentsia; Forty-Seventeen for the character that will become the heroine of Grand Days Edith Campbell Berry. who, in her 70s, is killed by a stray bullet in Lebanon. Forty-seventeen’s work of mourning extends also to the narrator’s loss of his first wife, who dies of cancer, and loss of his youthfulness, which dies when his seventeen year-old girlfriend leaves him. The point at which each trajectory crosses the other, I think, can help us to better fix the nature of their lost objects of mourning: in other words what I’m arguing for here is that in order to set-up my thesis’s introduction, it’s important for me to have a literary history of that period against which the long Labor decade was most measured during the long decade: the Whitlam Government.

What then might the trajectories of these works of mourning have to tell us about the lost objects of Whitlam’s government? Why was The Reading Group preceded by a novel of state-governmentality and proceeded by one of subject-governmentality? Why is Forty-Seventeen preceded by novels focussed on techniques of the self – government of the self – and proceeded by narratives of the governmentality of the first inter-nation-state?

A short answer is that Lohrey’s labourism propels her through the narrative work of mourning to the emerging techniques of self found in East-Asian Medicine and food preparation, and propels her also to the classical and cyclic time of the Demeter-Persephone myth: the Mother-daughter plot. To take Lohrey’s trajectory further, her 2004 novel, The Philosopher’s Doll, indicates that literal birth – as the prime instance of physical human emergence – has become a contested discourse around which problems of control, timing and the reading of biological signals clash with professional careers, routines, and putative freedoms. If the long Labor decade saw the decline of the industrial citizen – valorised because productive as a wage-earner – Lohrey’s trajectory indicates that the loss of Whitlamism has been replaced by a reproductive politics of giving birth, nurturing, and re-making the political body from the inside-out.
Conversely, Moorhouse’s trajectory is from a Left-Libertarianism that initially disavows the positive role of state-governmentality and that performs its narrative politics in a formal pluralism mirrored in micronarratives of the problems of sexual freedom. This trajectory then tracks through the 1980s toward a sustained work of mourning: the League of Nations trilogy. The third novel in this trilogy, Moorhouse has indicated, is set after the World War II, and the heroine returns to Canberra to help build the city during its ascendance as a civil-service capital under the (really) Long Menzies hegemony.

What forces then are there in Moorhouse’s trajectory? The loss of youthful hopes invested in Whitlam are less significant for Moorhouse than the ghosts of a cosmopolitan and internationalist history that is buried. Much more of a loss than the cultural modernity, the cosmopolitan and internationalist sophistication, that Whitlam offered, the demise of the League of Nations and the destruction brought by the Second World War places a high premium on international diplomacy, international relations, the work of committees – a mix of internationalism and cosmopolitanism.

What can provide the conditions in which to practice the techniques of self that Moorhouse begins his fictional writing with and Lohrey progressively moves toward? Alternatively what techniques of self-government enable us to move into those public and civil spaces that are also traversed by the state’s governing techniques that Lohrey sets out from and Moorhouse moves toward?

I’m left without much of an answer to these two questions, nor a satisfying explanation for the cross-over in trajectories, except to say that rather than the long Labor decade being a loss of just Labourism in Australia, as Lohrey’s trajectory indicates, Moorhouse’s signals that Liberalism itself underwent a significant crisis in the 1980s. The rest of the thesis looks more closely at how a different generation, into the 1990s, writes the fiction of the long Labor decade and deals with this, perhaps, double loss and the possibilities such loss opens.
[From Postgraduate Work-in-Progress Day SEJEL, Utas December 2007]
Keys to graph:
*Governmentality: from the late period of
Foucault's research, meaning a political rationality
or set of techniques by which power is enacted,
which functions at the level of the state as
well as at the level of the citizen-subject. 'The conduct
of conduct'. Under neo-liberal governmentality:
'governing at a distance', 'self-management',
or 'the obligation to be free'.

The vertical axis measures the extent of
the text's representations of the two poles
of governmentality along a continuum:
from 1.00 for an exclusive
focus on state - centric institutions and their
personnel, to 0.00 for a focus on intimate ,
private-sphere relations and the politics of
the personal; especially where libidinal and bodily
forces are a primary focus.

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