Monday, February 25, 2008

Narrativising neoliberalism: Australian Bildungsromane of the Long Labor Decade.

One powerful way that the govermentality of neo-liberalism happens, and is contested, in Australia is through the narrative genre of the coming-of-age novel, or the Bildungsroman. In particular it is journalist, editor and historian Paul Kelly’s 1992 journalistic-history of Australian Federal politics in the 1980s – The End of certainty in which a narrativization of nation is written through key conventions of the classical Bildungsroman form, and which persuasively carry the discursive temporal forms of neoliberalism. Next I will suggest that the publication of the germinal Grunge fiction novel – Andrew McGahan’s Praise, in the same year 1992 - signals a literary fictional attack on the classical Bildungsroman form in a period when this key narrative genre of modernity and modernisation is being redeployed in the service of neo-liberalising Australia. Alongside Praise, Christos Tsiolkas’1995 novel Loaded also performs a failed bildungs, and both novels present symbols and figures of abjection and atopia – disease, drug trips and transgressive sex. These figures of illness and transgression can be read as symbolic forms complicating such tropes of neoliberalism as a healthy, growing, flexible economy or the clean float of the Australian dollar. The third part of my argument places Elliot Perlman’s 1998 novel Three dollars into a comparison with Kelly’s text, and I will argue here that Three dollars is ultimately unsuccessful in providing a literary fiction critique of neoliberalism because the ground from which its critique is issued has disappeared. The last section of my paper attempts to bring these four texts together, and argues that Andrew McCann’s 2005 novel Subtopia is a grunge Bildungsroman that in presenting its narrator/hero as deformed by disease, drug trips and transgressive sex – three key symbolic forms of grunge lit – decompresses the historical emergence of neoliberalism in the 1980s and early 1990s so that we might read how this now dominant mode of governmentality can deform the narrating subject’s life narrative.

So, neoliberalism as a mode of governmentality. For Wendy Brown, drawing on Foucault, Neoliberalism :
Is not simply a set of economic policies; it is not only about facilitating free trade, maximizing corporate profits, and challenging welfarism. Rather,neo-liberalism carries a social analysis which, when deployed as a form of governmentality, reaches from the soul of the citizen-subject to education policy to practices of empire. Neo-liberal rationality, while foregrounding the market, is not only or even primarily focused on the economy; rather it involves extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action, even as the market itself remains a distinctive player. (‘Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy’)

As Brown’s definition puts it, neoliberalism is not to be confused with the laissez faire economic liberalism of Adam Smith’s self-regulating invisible hand of the market, nor with the widely popular view that neoliberalism amounts to the deregulatory, dessertion of the economy by the State. Rather, neoliberalism is a mode of political reason or rationality that refigures the state, the social and the subject as entrepreneurial, and able to marketized. Nikolas Rose sums up neoliberalism’s key slogan as ‘obliged to be free’, a phrase which captures something of the redirection of regulation by an Ethical state which civilises and ameliorates the effects of capitalism, as Marian Sawer argues is the legacy of Social Liberalism in Australia, to one that engages in the formation of subjects who are self-managing, and self-regulating.

This sense then that neoliberalism operates in the formation of subjects would suggest that the shift from a social liberal and largely Labourist political culture informing a Keynesian project of macroeconomic management throughout much of the post world War II period in Australia, the shift from this culture to a neoliberal one is a shift that happens at the level of subject-formation, or bildungs.

In Paul Kelly’s The End of Certainty this bildungs is tracked both at the level of the key events of the 1980s:including the financialisation of the Australian economy; the rise of the New right and its associated Think tanks; the Prices and Incomes Accords, the dropping of Tariff protection – and, more importantly, this formation of neoliberal governmentality is narrativized in terms of the whole post-federation period. For Kelly,
The story of the 1980s is the attempt to remake the Australian political tradition. This decade saw the collapse of the ideas which Australia had embraced nearly a century before and which had shaped the condition of its people. The 1980s was a time of both exhilaration and pessimism, but the central message shining through its convulsions was the obsolescence of the old order and the promotion of new political ideas as the basis for a new Australia. The generation after Federation in 1901 turned an emerging national consensus into new laws and institutions. This was the Australian Settlement. Its principle architect was Alfred Deakin.

In Kelly’s post-federation story, the 1980s is the moment when the Deakinite, or as Kelly influentially rewrites it, the Australian Settlement, is being dismantled by the force of international markets, especially in finance, and provides the moment in which the nation can finally come of age:
Two trends coalesced during the 1980s – the internationalisation of the world economy in which success became the survival of the fittest; and the gradual but inexorable weakening of Australia’s ‘imperial’ links with its two patrons, Britain and America. The message was manifest – Australia must stand on its own ability. Australians, in fact, had waited longer than most nations to address the true definitions of nationhood – the acceptance of responsibility for their own fate.

The obsolescence of the old order is documented. Since Federation Australia has failed to sustain its high standard of living compared with other nations. Australia’s economic problems are not new; they are certainly not the result of the 1980s, the 1970s, or the 1960s. The malaise stretches back much further to the post Federation Settlement. Australia’s economic problem is a ninety-year-old problem. The legacy of the Settlement has been relative economic decline throughout the century. Australia is a paradox – a young nation with geriatric arteries.

Now, these quotes are from the introduction to Kelly’s book in which he sets out his framing-argument for the long-overdue modernisation of the Australian economy and political culture. This introduction expands on his key heuristic – the Australian Settlement Which is repeatedly accompanied by verbs such as remaking, demolished, dismantled in the text. Kelly’s story of the 1980s is widely circulated and has come to serve as a definitive story of the inevitable, necessary modernisation of the Australian economy in the 1980s is due to more than just the power of Kelly’s rhetoric and key position in News Limited’s national broadsheet, I think it’s due also to his skillfull deployment of the poetics of the Bildungsroman form.

What is interesting in this narrative genre is the time and space from when and where the historian/ narrator looks back on a youthful life – a young nation - making the transition into adulthood – coming of age. Knowing the self that has become what it was always going to become, gives the narrator, telling the story of the hero’s’ emergence into maturity, the vantage of an Olympian certainty with which to make evaluative judgements on the younger self. In Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, which Bakhtin considered to be the germinal novel in this genre, this narrating position is metafictionally presented in the text as being occupied by the Masonic, Aristocratic Society of the Tower. After his youthful wanderings, theatrical experiments, and brief romances, Wilhelm discovers that he has been engaged in an apprenticeship that has been directed and written by this Aristocratic Society. It is as though his formation, while presented in the novel as precarious and dramatic, was in fact scripted well in advance of these experiences by being written in this life-script. This narrating position has been described by Joseph Slaughter as a teleological-tautology: the hero is what she will become. Slaughter also calls this narrating position, narrating from the future-anterior.

In Part II of Kelly’s The End of Certainty ‘The economic crisis’ chapter 11 ‘The Banana republic’ the critical dramatic apex in the story is presented. Kelly writes:
The ‘Banana republic’ was a dose of shock therapy for the nation which for a while left a legacy of crisis which Labor could have utilised to impose tougher policies upon the nation. Labor felt it was heroic enough – its decisions were draconian by orthodox standards and its advisers were pleased. Hawke and Keating depicted themselves as bold warriors. But history will record that the times demanded more and would have given more.

It’s the strange mixture of temporality, history and times here that points to the position of Kelly’s evaluative voice as being issued from a future anterior, or in the mode of a teleological-tautology. Kelly is writing a history yet he defers his evaluative judgement of the policy responses of Hawke and Keating to the Banana republic crisis, to a history in the future, which Kelly knows with certainty will make the definitive evaluative judgement about what the times demanded: which is more. What I think is happening here is that this economic crisis, indexed by a 40% devaluation of the Australian dollar over eighteen months, is for Kelly a valuation judgement on the Australian dollar by the global currency market, whose demands about the future are registered in the investment decisions it makes in the present.

Kelly’s future anterior narrator shows its hand as being guided by neoliberalism’s market judgement. Effectively what Australia will become is to be judged by the degree to which neoliberal governmentality meets the needs of the international markets.

Michael Pusey has called economic rationalism a locust strike, and just to mix metaphors in an attempt at a segue, Pusey has also described economic rationalism as the process where the social is cast as a stubbornly resisting sludge that market rationality must be driven through. And so to Grunge.

If as, Franco Moretti argues in his study of the classical Bildungsroman from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship to Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education, that this genre uses youth as a symbol for modernity and modernisation because with the French and Industrial Revolutions Europe is plunged into modernity but lacks a culture, then Kelly’s text can be read as personifying the nation as a youth on the cusp of modernisation – of providing the nation with a narrativisation of formation - as a means of insinuating the culture of neoliberalism into an Australia culture still, in parts, stubbornly resistant. This shift in the poetics of politics, as Jenna Mead succinctly sums up a critical approach to this field of textuality, I argue is met with a politics of poetics in the form of grunge literature – which I’ll refer to as Grunge lit. I’m just going to very quickly set out the three main characteristics of grunge lit that I want to pick up again at the end of this paper.

Grunge Lit is concerned, as Joan Kirkby and others have argued, with abjection. In both Praise and Loaded the narrator/ heroes are both young men on the cusp of adulthood –prime subjects for the Bildungsroman. However, both Gordon and Ari, break the first rule of neoliberalism by refusing to be obliged to choose a job. If it is healthy to have a job, then this refusal is the first sign of illness. Disease is central to Praise and its romantic leads, Cynthia and Gordon both have atopic illnesses: Eczema and Asthma. Atopic disease symbolises the deferred and displaced effects of pollution and waste; capitalism’s abjected and used-up by-products. At the end of Loaded Ari reflects on his life in the sewer, amongst the sludge and waste. The second chronotopic set in grunge lit revolves around drug experiences. Gordon’s main drug is the stimulant nicotine, but he and Cynthia move through heroin, LSD and lots of alcohol. Loaded, as the title suggests, is structured around scoring and taking drugs – from marijuana to ecstasy to speed. Apart being transgressive these representations of drug experiences present accelerations and decelerations of tempo. The decelerations play against the speed up of modernisation, while the rapid acceleration of stimulants performs a battle to outrun and think compressed time. Thirdly, both grunge novels figure pornographic sequences. The effect here is to transgress a simple and dominant heterosexuality. The central point here is that in Grunge lit the narrator never abjects these contaminating and arrhythmic phenomena from their narrative. As there is no successful Bildungs or formation in either novel, these abject and atopic symbols remain threateningly proximate to both the heroes’s body and to their futures.

This proximity to the atopic and abject in Grunge is nearly completely absent in the narrator/ hero of Eliot Perlman’s novel of 1998, Three Dollars. Three dollars has a temporal span of about 30 years and traverses the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Eddie Harnovey, the hero and narrator, tells the story of his life from the moment in and at which he and his nuclear family is almost destitute – having only three dollars. Perlman’s novel is a celebrated one, having won The Age book of the year, shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and was recently voted best novel about Victoria (or maybe Melbourne) in a poll conducted by the Victorian State Library. A film adaptation was released in 2005 and it was at this point that Three Dollars began to act out its metafictional aspiration of becoming a literary narrative through which a critical rational discussion of economic rationalism would be staged. Keith Windschuttle used the novel to argue for the privatisation of the ABC as one way to closed down the sort of cultural elitism that he argued Perlman’s novel represented, while Greg Sheridan in The Australian pointed out how unrealistic this realism was when its hero could go from a reasonably comfortable middle-class existence to almost homelessness in the space of days. On the other hand Ken Gelder, in an Overland essay last year, invoked Mark Davis’ call for a genuinely popular critique of neoliberal marketisation; Leigh Dale also supported Davis’ call in an ASAL panel on postcolonialism. In this essay Gelder argues that while the novel might be taken up on the Left as the closest recent example of a critical political realism, its resolution is conservative with Eddie returned to his wife and child, safe and with the prospect of a job, high up in the human resources department in an unamed bank after being sacked from his Federal government job for leaking to the media his rejected critical report on proposed Smelter development.

Unlike the highly compressed temporal spans of Praise and especially Loaded (24 hours), Three Dollars spans around 30 years, and its critique of neoliberalism is both explicit and profoundly disabled by its formal politics – the politics of its poetics. The central problem with the novel is that it adopts the Bildungsroman convention of a future-anterior narrating position from which to tell a story not of the hero’s formation, but of the hero’s integrity while the Australian public sphere is de-formed by neoliberalism. Seemingly without irony Eddie tells us that ‘I understood that secular humanism, liberalism and social justice had not abandoned me . . . it was just that everybody had abandoned them.’ Eddie is not presented as emerging along with history, as Bakhtin argues is central to the Bildungsroman, but as already formed through the civilising Culture of an Arnoldian-Leavisite project enabling Eddie to retain a clean ethical grasp on his sense of civilisation and integrity: a capacity for ethical judgement which is metafictionally founded on Arnoldian touchstones like Shakespeare and the Hamlet plot that Eddie inhabits. Perlman’s narrator takes on the form of the future anterior but uses it to narrate from the fantasy of a universal and transcendent humanistic culture that is capable of providing the means for civilising capitalism. As Terry Eagleton argues in The function of criticism ‘What Scrutiny [the Leavis’s journal] represented . . . was nothing less than an attempt to reinvent the classical public sphere, at a time when its material conditions had definitively passed.’ Three dollars therefore doubles this melancholic longing for the classical literary public sphere that Leavis also struggled to revive.

While the classical public sphere relied on a naturalised and strictly policed distinction between Economy and Culture, neoliberalism functions through an enculturation, or formation, of the subject as entrepreneurial, flexible, productive, self-managing, and accountable. Culture, like the State, becomes an object of market political rationality in the 1980s and 90s and in Three dollars nearly all the main characters except Eddie become subject to this emergent structure of feeling, which manifests itself, most strongly, in Eddie’s wife Tanya’s depression. Tanya struggles with the onset of neoliberalism both as managerial practice at University and as the subject of her unfinished doctoral thesis on the death of political economics. While Tanya’s experience of neoliberalism is felt as depression, it is their child Abby’s epileptic-like fit that signals an analogy with what Paul Kelly calls the convulsions of the 1980s. But the diseases in Three dollars are always distant from Eddie, whose bildungs is not neoliberal but Leavisite, and therefore is able to redeem his family from its proximity to neoliberalism by staying true to his humanism and remaining unstained.

Finally, Andrew McCann’s 2005 novel Subtopia permits its hero/ narrator Julian Farrell to be proximate to the three aspects of grunge lit I mentioned before. Also a Bildungsroman that spans the 1970s, 80s and 90s, Subtopia is haunted not by the spirit of Leavis but by Adorno’s aesthetics. The novel begins with the story’s chronological ending, denaturalising the future-anterior of the classical bilduingsroman:
In the end, I had the disconcerting sense that I had started to outlive myself. I suppose that’s how I knew it was the end. It’s not much of a way to conclude. I should have grown up, come to my senses, come of age (as you do), or fucked off for good. I was pushing thirty, for Christ’s sake. But in the end, so the cliché goes, there is no end. At least nothing we can own up to. A bit of self-indulgent bullshit about perpetual becoming or mutual understanding, a nice rhetorical flourish, and no one seems to notice just how inconclusive our experiences really are, which is not to say that they aren’t also full of danger. (Subtopia)

As in Praise and Loaded disease, drug use and pornography are prominent and proximate symbols of: the abject and atopic; time-tripping and here the libidinal charge of terrorist-revolutionary politics, represented in the narrator’s sexual fascination with Ulrike Meinhoff and a mentally ill Berliner. Unlike Eddie in Three Dollars Julian’s attempted transitions from youth to maturity are never achieved.

The effect of using the Bildungsroman form, as McCann does here, without completing the hero’s formation and by drawing attention to some of the conventions of this genre, is to enable a reading that can raise questions about a National coming of age which appears to have already been written by the investment projections of the international financial markets: neoliberalism’s version of Wilhelm Meister’s Society of the Tower writing his life-script. Also by derailing the teleology of a naturalised coming of age pulled into the future, other more unsettling chronotopes are given the time to work into the narrative and perhaps provide ways to think around or even through neoliberalism’s dominant hold on culture.
[from ASAL July 2007 Conference, UQ]