Thursday, November 27, 2008

Leaving the Long Labor Decade

Thought I'd put the conclusion to the thesis that is currently under examination up here. It begins with some quotes from Keating and Christos Tsiolkas before closing the circle -- the thesis open witha ficto-critical piece that attempts to draw my own coming-of-age into the national Bildungsroman that I argue forms the basis of a dominant version of the narratives of the long Labor Decade -- with a short anecdote from a time just after the period the thesis has analysed, then moving into a summary consideration of other fictions of the period and other trajectories for the literary history not taken in the PhD but which are suggested by it.

This conclusion was a bit risky on my part, but I had decided a while ago to mix sections of anecdote and autobiography into the thesis as my engagement with Praise was initially mediated through musical culture. I also wanted to 'unpack' the term Grunge, as it is a literary genre term which has stuck - for better or worse. The tired argument that Grunge was assigned as a marketing term, while true, is somewhat to miss the opportunity of making links between postpunk cultural form and the literary forms presented in Praise and Loaded. I wanted to try and give Grunge fiction links into the postpunk musical culture that I had grown up with as having shared structures of feeling: it seemed like the best way of making this link was through some life-writing.

[W]e got this cultural shift by exposing ourselves to necessity. That is the essence of it. There remain a few people on both sides of politics who disagree, but the fact is undeniable – only by establishing an environment of necessity did we get these changes. Nothing else would do. The recognition of necessity has driven change in the past decade and it will drive it in this one. There is no greater weapon against the tendency to inertia. No better way to expose and defeat those without ideas and policies or the will to realise them. (Keating)

Being an adolescent at the moment of punk and postpunk music, succumbing to the aggressiveness, revolt and atonality of the music, influence the rhythms and tones and expression of what I wanted to write. (Tsiolkas, 2008)

We had travelled up the Pacific Highway from Sydney in our Rover Quintet, stopping at Grafton to vote, before arriving at Kangaroo Point on Friday October 2nd, 1998. The rest of “Crow” arrived that evening in the Tarago, three of my bandmates and our manager, spilling out of the bubble-van with the cigarette smoke. We had come up to Brisbane to play a short set at the Livid festival at the RNA Showgrounds along with about fifty other bands and acts.

It was a blazing heat that hit us as we set up on the Zoo stage that Saturday. We had worked our way through most of the beer rider that afternoon before going on stage, and Robert Forster from the “Go-Betweens” was gliding between the rooms of the old shed, dressed like the Great Gatsby in a linen suit and Panama hat, letting us know that we denizens of Sydney and Melbourne were close to the tropics.

When I turned around to catch my breath after the fifth song of our set, I knew that we had just been in the midst of a run of songs when the band’s power and grace, its grain and breath had for once gelled and fired. It felt like flying off a cliff.

Later we took half a pill and swooned to the "Underground Lovers", before heading back to load the van as the music stopped and the crowd leaked out. It was about nine-thirty and we were all in the Tarago ready to leave the Showgrounds when the results of the Federal election started to be called over the radio. It was lost. Pauline Hanson, the reactionary populist from South-East Queensland, had failed to win a seat in the lower house, but Labor had failed to win back Government. There was crying in the van.


After the long Labor decade the Howard years: eleven long years of an intensified Neoliberalism allied to a reactionary social conservatism. These years coincided with a long boom, partly as a legacy of the 1990-91 recession which had burned Neoliberal governmentalities into Australian political culture in ways that made them appear second nature. The early Howard years were marked by the ascendance of the reactionary populist Pauline Hanson, whose tone of grievance and appeal to a blunt equality captured that segment of the population who had felt unrecognised, unprotected and even discarded during the later years of the long Labor decade. Hanson’s culture-war appeal was pandered to by the Liberal-National Coalition who set about the slow process of reeling in her new-won constituents and undermining her through legal attacks on her party structure.

Two novels from 1996 and 1997 come out of a similar moment to Hanson: David Foster’s The Glade within the Grove (1996) and David Ireland’s The Chosen (1997). Both novels can be described as satirical pastoral, although Foster’s has a radical ecological edge (Blaber, 2006: 62). What ties these novels to the long Labor decade and the rise of Hanson is their shared sense of a rural crisis which is felt most by some deformation of masculinity. Hanson spoke to and for the men damaged not only by the recession, but by the collapse of the culture of Labourism and the political economy that had been its bulwark. In The Chosen the narrator is employed by the Lost River Council to interview one town member per week and from their stories to fashion a weaving that connects into a patchwork of stories from the ‘chosen’. The town has recently been subject to a murder and the narrator is also mourning a lost love who ghosts the narrative. What emerges from the stories is a violent patchwork of individuals whose traditions keep them from collectively unravelling at the same time as they are incommensurable. The damaged man here is Davis Blood the narrator whose work of mourning is the tapestry, which brings the plural subjects of the rural town together. Ireland’s novel suggests that if the long Labor decade produced damaged men then their best hope was to both mourn the loss of the political culture that had underwritten their centrality and to listen to the collective stories of the diverse people in their towns rather than to scapegoat as Hanson and her acolytes did, those who had never enjoyed the centrality and privileges of white, wage-earning men.

In Foster’s The Glade within the Grove a counter-mythology of settlement is presented and the birth of an eco-religion is recounted in which the men of the commune castrate themselves. Here the damage to men is a self-sacrificial offering to a spirit of reforestation. Far from Hanson’s petit-bourgeois ressentiment, the damaged men in Foster’s novel are acts of reparation to the ecosphere. The governmentalities practised in this novel are far removed from those discussed throughout this thesis. In terms of the ascendance of Hansonism Foster’s novel abjures Government, so that while Hansonites demand recognition from Government, the denizens of The Glade are part of the birth of a religion: outside the state.


The stories of feminine sexuality in the fictional texts of the long Labor decade appear infrequently in the body of the thesis above. Cynthia Lamonde in McGahan’s Praise is presented as having a voracious sexual appetite: a libidinal drive which is placed in proximity to the literal abjection of an abortion and the incidence of cancerous genital warts. In other words Cynthia has a dangerously diseased sexuality. In Justine Ettler’s The River Ophelia (1995) a highly self-conscious set of metafictional allusions are paraded through the narrative. Less concerned with deploying abjection as social critique Ettler’s Grunge novel could be said to be seeking to claim the symbolic capital in the Australian literary field for a novel that is itself abject in relation to other novels in the field (Kirkby,1998: 239). Linda Jaivin’s Eat Me (1995) qualifies as a Grunge novel on the basis of its depiction of graphic female sexuality. Its Libertarian sexuality is presented with humour but the subjects of the stories are so comfortably situated in their inner-city milieu that the playful sexual fantasies, while enjoyable, amount to an ephemeral text.

Although mentioned in passing in chapter 1, Lohrey’s Camille’s Bread is a substantial novel of the long Labor decade. Read through the concerns that this thesis has thematized, Lohrey’s novel presents what could be called a world beyond Labourism. The novel’s central female character has taken a year off from her job to spend time with her asthmatic daughter Camille. Into their lives enters Stephen, a public servant who is attempting to refashion himself as a Shiatsu masseur and who has entered wholesale non-western techniques of self, most notably by way of a macrobiotic diet. The coming together of these three poses fundamental problems over how: to move beyond Labourism for Stephen, whose past contains some un-worked through rage; to reconcile practices of single-mothering with those of self for Marita; and for Camille to learn to negotiate with a father-figure. What is of particular salience for this thesis is how Stephen’s attempts to move beyond those Labourist governmentalities he practices as union representative in his public service job, shadow his renewed self as he finds himself the object of an intrigue initiated by Camille’s estranged father, a merchant banker with a heart arrhythmia. Realising that he has been played he attacks Camille’s father, his new non-violent practices of self abandoning him as rage erupts. In this brief reading of Camille’s Bread the utopia of the reformed body, a theme carried through from Lohrey’s work of mourning The Reading Group, is shown in the character of Stephen to be carrying a kernel of unresolved rage that such a refashioned self cannot easily abject. To read Stephen’s story as emblematic of the fortunes of Labourism across the long Labor decade, we might say that while the Labourist-Social-Liberal consensus is a lost political project, a residual Labourism remains a strong core within sections of Australian political culture. The repudiation of the Neoliberal Workchoices industrial relations laws at the 2007 Federal election, the election at which Prime Minister Howard was unseated, points to this residual Labourism in Australian political culture, which may be less a lost formation than an ethos awaiting new articulations, new forms of governmentality to animate it.


This thesis presented a two track reading of key themes and genres in the textuality of the long Labor decade. Off to the side of the thesis some music could be heard: Ari’s eurhythmic dancing in Loaded; the sound of David Bowie in Capital, volume one; perhaps at some points "Nirvana’s" Smells like Teen Spirit caught your ear. While the boundary work of this thesis has shuttled between fictional and non-fictional texts, there are other boundaries to be worked, not least that between the music of the long Labor decade and its texts. Indeed, in Bob Blunt’s Blunt: a Biased History of Australian Rock (2001), the Seattle-based genealogy of Grunge music is challenged by the acknowledgement that “US Sub Pop bands like Nirvana and Mudhoney [. . .] were openly avowed fans of [Australian band] the Scientists” (151). In the short pop-song length Excursus of this thesis I gave a punk version of an alternate genealogy of musical form in which Fordist culture was presented as viscerally impacting on the formation of the proto-punk band "the Stooges". From the brief excavation of the uses of musical sociology in genre policing that was presented in the Excursus, there is surely work to be done on the boundaries between the historical sociology of musical and literary form.

Another trajectory for future research would be to perform a set of more extensive distant readings over the long Labor decade. The focus in the thesis on two Left writers could be multiplied to investigate a larger set of Left-wing texts which thematise government differently, or similar practises of distant reading could be applied to Social-Liberal writers, those whom Mark Davis argues work within the paradigm of literary Liberalism. Other themes could be the focus of distant readings including ones that take an ecological form as their unit of data, such as the use of trees in novels like Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus and Foster’s Glade within the Grove.


Finally, this thesis has sought to analyse and interpret the language of economics through its figures of speech and narrative instantiations. Recent novels like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (2001) and Kate Jennings’s Moral Hazard (2002) perform their own boundary work, shuttling between the discourses of the economic and the self. The complex temporal narrativity of financial derivatives must surely be the equal of any labyrinthine multi-temporal plot. In order to understand these products so that we can track their movements better narrative specialists like literary critics are well-placed to produce models that can analyze and interpret these dangerous ‘instruments’. As Keating reminds us: “They go on with all this bullshit because they won't admit it's an art, not a science” (cited in Edwards, 407). Bringing economics back into the domain of the arts by focussing on its narrativity, as this thesis has done, is one research trajectory urgently in need of extension.

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