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.

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]

Sunday, February 24, 2008

'The silent language of infrastructure' - a rhythmanalysis

A very interesting post that I'm still digesting from Continental Drift about two recent research-video installations concerned with South Eastern Europe: Corridor X and Black Sea files. Brian Holmes asks what sort of knowledge is being produced here? How do we think the forms? What sorts of space-time are represented?

These precisely conceived investigations of the southeastern periphery of Europe, and of its continual transformations since the end of the Cold War, takeus far away from any purely aesthetic definition of art. The ambition is clearly to develop a new mode of inquiry and expression, yielding results that are
qualitatively different from those obtained either by artists or by social scientists. As Ursula Biemann remarks: “In my understanding of the practice of art, images and text are inseparably interwoven in their common purpose to produce knowledge.”But the question is, what kind of knowledge? All the works in the project are carefully researched, yielding a synthesis of existing disciplinary studies; and particular efforts have been made to to integrate the precise distinctions of the social sciences into a broad and consistent narrative. Yet there is also a critical examination here, not so much of the “text/image relation” that formed the semiological stock-in-trade of concept art, but instead of the more pragmatic confrontation between analytic discourse and cultural performance. Analysis, in short, is brought up against the lifeworlds of Southeastern Europe. And while the discriminatory power of objectifying analysis reaches deeply into the existential singularity of the encounters – and into the warp and weft of the video editing – it also serves to bring out a fundamental heterogeneity. One could say, in the spirit of French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, that the logic of capitalist rationality is inscribed into the sensuous material of art, and that the incongruity of the two points beyond the informational level of representation, toward other human realities whose promise is rarely voiced.

Later in the essay, Holmes invokes Lefebvre again in order to draw closer to the tempos and rhythms of image-editing:

The principle of the two-screen installation works perfectly with this editing philosophy, allowing for parallel narratives and historical contrasts, but also drawing on the play of repetition to generate singular affective rhythms which could never precisely be named, but which pass distinctly through the landscapes, the faces and ourselves. To quote Lefebvre once again, this could be the material of a “rhythmanalysis.” As he wrote at the very end of his life:

In the social sciences we continue to divide up time into lived time, measured time, historical time, work time and free time, everyday time, etc., that are most often studied outside their spatial context. Now, concrete times have rhythms, or rather are rhythms – and all rhythms imply the relation of a time to a space, a localized time, or, if one prefers, a temporalized space. … Let us insist on the relativity of rhythms. … A rhythm is only slow or fast in relation to other rhythms with which it finds itself associated in a more or less vast unity. … Every more or less animate body and a fortiori every gathering of bodies is consequently polyrhythmic, which is to say composed of diverse rhythms, with each part, each organ or function having its own in a perpetual interaction which constitutes a set [ensemble] or a whole [un tout]. (Rhythmanalysis 89)

Could there be any higher ideal for practitioners of video recording and non-linear montage? Like Charles Baudelaire in his “petits poèmes en prose,” Lefebvre gleaned his inspiration “from frequent contact with enormous cities, from the junction of their innumerable connections.” Indeed, the polyrhythmical metropolis of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was the great resource of differentialism and multiplicity. The works of the “B Zone” embrace a larger scale, extending the rhythmanalysis of the city to an entire region and its history. A politics of precise and detailed information is exposed to its affective and dialogical dimensions, in a process of trans-subjective editing that traverses a continent.

I've extracted the Lefebvre quote sections in a way that does no justice to Holmes' essay. But I think the point is made: that a rhythmanalysis provides a way into knowing the movements, and indeed polyrhythms, of representations emanating from neoliberal capitalist infrastructure building and use, and representations and affects involved in attempts to know and feel these movements.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Mmmmm, feels like being in power again.

Australia's federal Parliament was extended from four to five days this week. The carboard cut-out being propped up here by the Liberal-National Coalition (LNC) opposition is of the newly elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, leader of the Australian Labor Party(ALP). The cut-out was part of a stunt intended to demonstrate that this fifth sitting-day was itself a gimmick because Rudd and nearly all government ministers weren't in attendance. A reverse camera shot would reveal a next to empty front bench: a bad image for a new government seeking to portray itself as hard-working, regardless of the real reasons for extending sitting days and the travesty that the LNC made of parliamentary procedures, especially after it had won control of both houses in its last term.

As Mark Bahnisch at Larvatus Prodeo comments,

while Lindsay Tanner [Govt. Minister of Finance] may well be right that the behaviour on show yesterday resembled what you might expect from Young Libs after a few too many g&ts, there’s a serious problem for the government here. The lack of the ability to hold a division means that rulings by the Speaker or Deputy Speaker can’t be properly enforced, and it also incidentally disables the opportunity for tempers to cool during the lengthy process of actually holding a division. Whether or not the public blames the Libs for the risible scenes visible on the news last night, a smart Leader of the House should have a rethink.

However, the photo above really is too good an opportunity to be missed for some captioning :

We're keeping him until all his 70% popularity rubs off on us!

We bought this one on ebay - can we go back to being in charge now?

[Photo Source: via Larvatus Prodeo]

Thursday, February 21, 2008

un-Hooked on Classics: Beethoven and the Higher Disco after Adorno

Professor Robert Walker from School of English, Media and Performing arts University of NSW, Sydney responds to Mark Bahnisch's opinion piece in The Australian 'Fable of the Cultural Elite'.

Walker isn't interested in the political and social context into which Bahnisch's essay is situated: the current round of culture wars that are in play, albeit with less vigour than before the ALP victory last November, and how battles in these wars turn around issues of public funding, the politics of recognition and redistribution, and History and English curricula. Walker's riposte instead contents itself by rehearsing the Kantian discourse of judgement of the sublime: the discourse which Pierre Bourdieu has done so much to historicise and to analyse for its use in the reproduction of stratified social classes. Walker will have none of this sociological infection invading the religious experience of sophisticated art: the sort of art that only an emotionally, intellectually, musically and aesthetically educated, and thereby sophisticated, person is capable of understanding and appreciating. Not the three-minute pop song (philistine, rubbish, appealing to the base emotions), but rather a Beethoven symphony.

I have some sympathy for Walker's view. I'm interested in literary and musical form, too. But Walker's Adorno-esque disdain for 'uneducated-art' stops short in a number of ways. Walker's elitism is ignorant of the sociology of form.

An example. Adorno's sociology of musical form saw him support Schoenberg's modernist innovations in advancing musical form into a break with harmony and tonality: twelve tone music. How an audience heard this music would, of course depend on how they heard the tonal music of Beethoven. That said, Adorno wasn't content to talk of the sophistication and education of the experience of Schoenberg's performances (where Walker ends his formal-cultural lessons). For Adorno the break with tonality marks a break with the logics of commodity exchange and reificiation.

Now the point here is that there is a homology established between musical and social forms, and that the dominant nexus (harmony and commodity exchange) is broken by a new organising logic: twelve-tone music. But while Adorno's sociology of musical form is exemplary it is only one version of how the logic and order of harmony and tonality in musical form is broken with.

Robert Fink has written, in the shadow of Adorno (the new musicology), about the emergence of pulse-pattern-minimalism music: Steve Reich's compositions, for example. Fink's argument, which sits alongside that of Jacques Attali's in Noise: the political economy of music, is that Reich's music is a form in which we can think the media sublime. The way Fink puts this is to argue that Reich's Music for Eighteen Musicians, like Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder's "Love to love you baby", are both musical performances of a refiguring of the desires that advertising's repetitions play through us.

Anyone that has heard that extra-diegetic musical section (music that is incidental to the action) in an American sit-com, or movie, even in Australian movies and dramas, where mallett instruments (vibraphones, xylophones etc) play a motiff that is counterpointed and repeated (often signifying the repetition of everyday cyclic time, and often what is experienced in a city-office job) will have heard the after-echoes of Reich's piece. This form has entered popular culture and it's condescending for Walker to invoke the elitism of his Kantian judgement while not recognising that we use the forms of Reich's, and let's admit it, disco's, music to make sense of a world in which media repetition is constantly shaping our desires.

Another break with tonality is that which arises out of the drone-noise movement, of which John Cale's mentor, Lamonte Young, was a practitioner. Cale, trained as a classical viola player, moved into the Andy Warhol Factory orbit in the mid 1960s, joining up with Lou Reed and formed the popart band the Velvet Underground. While the VU did employ pulse pattern music ("Waiting for my Man") it was Cale's electrified viola drones, overdriven valve amplifier noise, that has had such a lasting influence on popular music. The drone and noise, also break with the tonality which Walker's examplar - Beethoven - would, on this (the post-Adorno sociology of musical form) account, be locked into. And the drone, the electrified noise, are now commonplaces of popular music.

That we make sense of the contemporary world through the forms of popular music that we experience through TV shows, as disco and its afterwards, as the electrified noises and drones of a million pop songs, doesn't mean that we cannot experience the sublime. It's just that unlike Walker, we learnt how to live with, sometimes resist, sometimes negate and get around the media and commmodity sublimes of the contemporary world by taking these forms and putting them to work in our everyday lives. To call us lovers of the pop sublime uneducated, philistine, capable of only appreciating the *spits* music of base instincts is precisely the performance of distinction that Bourdieu exposed as deelpy imbricated in class stratification.
Loosen up Professor: there's not much you can do for the barbarians have long ago moved into the house of fine music and locking the gate won't stop us from getting out.

Friday, February 15, 2008

We have always been at culture war: Fables of the reconstruction- reconstruction of the fables

Larvatus Prodeo is one of the more livelier, open group blogs on the Web. Largely concerned with Australian federal politics, it also surveys cultural events, low and high, and debates. I'm an avid reader and enjoy the dialogue. There are some hilarous and learned posters here, and some trolls whose provocations bring out the wits and bitchery (or the bits and witchery - don't know what this means, I just like the sound of it).

It sometimes needs to be said, however, that LP is a generator of left populism. This is not a problem, and I'm on board with the project. Indeed, after nearly 11 years of neo-liberal/neo-conservative hybrid leadership in the Australian federal parliament, the battle to generate and disseminate such left populist terms as 'working families', 'mortgage stress', and the 'kitchen table' (where the lived economy is experienced), were part of the verbal-armoury that Rudd's social liberal/ neoliberal team have fought, and mostly won, the public debate with.

This was and contines to be no easy struggle. The hegemony formerly ascendant in the reactionary conservative ex-Government Gazette (as posters at LP named it) was one fought through a right-populism that claimed to speak on behalf of ordinary Australians. The GG's ordinary Australians (aka Howard Battlers), it was claimed, supported Prime Minster Howard in such matters as: joining the COW in Iraq, in turning away the Tampa, and in refusing an apology for the Stolen Generations. Indeed, Howard seemed to often take his tunes from the songbook at the ex-GG: running battlefronts, in this round of the culture wars, along the terrain of High School History and English curricula - especially Australian history.
The loss of government for Howard's coalition, in late 2007, was one which many ordinary Australians, and now Howard Government ministers, attribute to the anti-egalitarian regulations of the Workchoices Industrial Relations legislation introduced, then slightly retuned with the addition of the 'fairness test', during the last parliament. That the GG commentariat, and their bloc in Quadrant, at the CIS and IPA, reaching into the talkback radio waves and others in the News Ltd. fold, were chief spruikers and backers for Workchoices (I & II) must now leave them feeling as though their finely tuned attennae for discerning the feelings and thoughts of ordinary Australians were out of whack. These Howardistas, we now know, were practicing right-wing populism: they weren't speaking for the majority at all - not on Workchoices!
Who were they speaking for then?
Maybe it's less important to talk of constituencies, as groups of citizens that media figures (writers, journalists, TV interviewers and hosts, talkback radio hosts, and, of course, politicians) attempt to persuade, than it is to talk of constituences who are mobilised into identifying themselves as a particular type of citizen because of the appeals made to them through language and signs. Judy Brett, for example, has pointed out that Robert Menzies' use of the radio, as medium for his speeches, and his term 'the forgotten people', which was mobilised within a broader set of terms animated by the morality of the middle-class, together enabled him to draw out the idea of the citizen as private-sphere, homeowning and thrifty. (This argument is influenced by Capling, Considine, Crozier Australian Politics in the Global Era 1998). And if it's language and media that largely constitute politics, then how we communicate what ordinary Australians, in this case, are thinking and feeling is how politics occurs.
Debate and language are important, and this is why threads in the culture wars have been animated over issues of terminology: stolen or rescued generation? The black armband, or white blindfold view of Australian history? And this battle to naturalise terms, the normalization of language, is probably happening less in the broadcast and mainstream media, than on the Web: on sites like Larvatus Prodeo.

On LP the debates and posts are, of course, open to contest, evidence, logical and rhetorical reshaping and it would be reductive to argue that the aim of many of the posts on this blog are driven by a desire to shape public debate only in terms of a demonisation of the enemies of the Labor party and its bloc. There is more to LP than this. But the left populism is certainly there. Which brings me to the culture wars.

It's been odd, to say the least, to have watched Tony Jones, host of ABC1's Lateline, this week in the context of the National Sorry statement. Jones framed significant sections of his panel (with Prof. Henry Reynolds and Gerard Henderson) discussion, and subsequent interview# with Prime Minister Rudd, around the culture wars. Jones asked repeatedly if the Apology signalled that these divisive wars, said to be a phenomenon of the Howard period, were now over? I think this is certainly a question that needs to be asked, but it needs to be qualified: is this round in the current culture wars now resolved?

Mark Bahnisch, Larvatus Prodeo's lead writer, has recently used the findings of a British sociology study on class and taste to argue that charges of cultural elitism, in Australia during the 'culture wars', now, if they ever did, have no basis in fact. The argument for charging people with cultural elitism runs something like this: a taste for chardonnay and lattes is what inner-urban, university educated middle-class, social-liberals who controlled public institutions like the ABC, the humanities departments in Universities, Arts bodies, and the Other broadsheet producers in Australia, have. Such 'tastes', so the imputation went, married class to consumption: the elite controlled public spending by virtue of controlling the judgement of taste. And part of the cultural elite's judgement was their moral judgement on ordinary, tax-paying, hard-working Australians.

Bahnisch is right to point to research in order to argue that the charge of cultural elitism was a right-populist smokescreen. Sure there are examples of university research projects that seem arcane, ABC radio hosts that might stretch political correctness too far - but how arcane research at universities is cannot be judged by reading headline summaries of ARC grant proposals online, and what might seem arcane now might prove to be centrally significant in 10 to 50 years time: that's the nature of research. Similarly, the boundaries of civility, not to mention legality, in talk-radio impose correctness to the kinds of speech permissible. The ridiculousness of the claim of there being a cloak of political correctness which unjustlty censors one's right to voice ignorant, sexist and racist hate, is like arguing that I have a right to offend whoever the fuck I want, and you are being offensively condescending if you try and stop me.

So, the culture wars have been fought on some of this turf. The fabled cultural elites, as Bahnisch argues, is indeed a fable. The smokescreen under which capital has been accruing to the new and old bourgeoisie whose elite power we should be holding up to scrutiny.

But the broader point is that I don't think that the culture wars, per se, are over. There is, as I listed above, a vocabulary of left populism. Who can really argue that the new Industrial Relations legislation is a victory for anything except a more socially concerned neo-liberalism? The culture wars have shifted, and the Apology marks a new affective terrain on which they will be fought. The danger is to fall, at least unknowingly, for any populism: especially from the Left.

# Rudd's posing of a series of his own questions and answering them during an interview needs a new term. I propose 'the intraview': Good to be with me!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Labor (representation) ->Value (representation) -> Money (transformation) -> Capital & the Generative mise en abyme

Fragments of citations posted here that I'm attempting to seam together in order to think the form of Anthony Macris' 1997 Capital, volume one: to think the form of it as 'the work of the negative' and an 'open-endedness of textuality' that is not indifference, but is 'indequation, rupture'.

From Spivak's 'Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value' (In Other Worlds)

"This textualization can be summarized as follows: the utopian socialists seemed to be working on the assumption that money is the root of all evil: a positive origin. Marx applies the dialectic to this root and breaks it up through the work of the negative. At each step of the dialectic something seems to lead off into the open-endedness of textuality: indifference, inadequation, rupture."(160)

‘It is not in the unilinear progressive account of the emergence of the money-form . . . that is Marx’s main “discovery”. It is in the full account of value-formation that the textuality of Marx’s argument (rather than the recuperable continuist schema) and the place of use value is demonstrated, and the predication of the subject as labor-power (irreducible structural super-adequation – the subject defined by its capacity to produce more than itself) shows its importance.” (157)

Anthony Macris 'Claude Simon and the emergence of the generative mise en abyme', AUMLA 99 May, 2003: 50-66)

"We can, in fact, think of contemporary capitalism as a kind of machine that writes itself into existence: as one vast, multi-functional, ever-expanding Gmea [Generative mise en abyme] that produces objects and services, images of objects and services, verbal descriptions of objects and services, and that configures and reconfigures them again and again in an endless series of variations driven by the valorisation cycle. Caught up in this vast system, the novel form circulates throughout it as a commodified linguistic entity, its characters and situations often reflecting the world through which it moves. And not only the novel: narratives of all kinds circulate throughout it, moving all the more quickly if they are for realising profit for their producers. . . .The capitalist image machine creates whole after whole, miniature after miniature, pumping out texts that mix differing orders of signification and materiality, playing out its endless mise en abyme across the entire urban landscape."

"To sum up the novelistic Gmea is broadly characterised by the following features:
1) An implosion of hierarchy between framing and embedded novel elements.
2) An emphasis of those elements on market processes, especially those related to capitalism's scriptural, image-producing and organisational technologies.
3) Forms of novelistic textuality that overlap and interface with originary capitalist texts.

4) A generativity of such intertextuality driven by the valorisation process." (63)

Spivak's argument is that Marx discovers, in the movement from Labor to Value to Money to Capital, not a continuous chain, not an origin from which value emerges ex nihilo [out of nothing], but rather the discontinuity, the ruptural, the endless/origin-less generativity of textuality. Marx's key insight - via spivak's reading - seems to be that exchange value is surplus to use-value, and the the social labor expended in producing the commodity, has the possibility of a superadequation, an excess of balance between use and exchange value, for the labouring subject. It is the emergence of the possibility of there being a superadequation that Spivak hones in on, and which she considers to be an operation of textuality: of linguistic creation.

For Macris the generativity of this textuality is both an aspect of consumer capitalism (post-fordist capitalism), and a formal technique that can be theorised and practised in fictional narrative. Thus the creation, or better, the generation of Value (whether aesthetic or ethical), is almost web-like across our culture by virtue of cultural-capitalism's colonisation of aesthetic and ethical fields. Macris might be suggesting, in his novel, that in order to generate Value (aesthetic and ethical) that is not stamped with commodity fetishism we need to go into the underground of the Value creating machine and witness its less than shiny working machinery; its exhausts and pressure ducts; the dirt and grit. This is the work of negation: to present a phenomenon as negative in order to clear the way for something else.

The question is, what possible opportunity for the re-presentation of this alterity when the method of presentation is negative-critical? This question brings up the rhythmanalysist's perspective. Rather than posit a new system of value, perhaps the work of the negative is multiple - there are older tempos and temporalities that reappear & re-presence in the time-space vacated by the force of the work of the negative. Derrida's hauntology in his reflections on disjointed time in Specters of Marx is another way to articulate this notion of multiple-rhythms constellating so as to sound their movement toward a rhythmic harmony.

It seems counter-intutitive to talk of harmony and negativity together. In musical terms we associate harmony with together-ness, euphony. This is not, however, technicallly accurate. Harmony, or tonality, is both consonance and dissonance. In order to think beyond harmony we can turn to Adorno's writings on Schoenberg's innovations with 12-tone music. Alternatively, we can turn to the polyrhythms of Steve Reich's, or Philip Glass's pulse-pattern repetition music. Another sounding of this non-harmonic polyrhythmia can be heard in the Necks' pieces.

What then might it mean to suggest that fictional narrative could generate a movement of rhythms that are, yes, negative but that such negations are how the movement is impelled, and that the eurhythmia that might be felt [see Lefebvre on the body - first post] is felt in patterns that have no use for judgements on the negativity of their initial provenance? [I'll come back to this - and go and listen to The Necks!]

In Mark Sanders' introduction to the theories of Spivak, he amplifies hre insertion of a textual dimension to the transition from labour power to exchange Value and, importantly, use value in Marx's writings. Key to Spivak's understanding of Marx after Derrida, is that money is the unrecognised supplement, which shows all the marks of writing. further, Derrida fails to distinguish between commercial and industrail capital: that money and circuits of exchange, are secondary to labour-power and production. This can lead to a mistaking of Marx's understanding of use-value's basis in labour power. For in the sphere of production "There one finds ' the necessary and essential super-adequation of labour-power to itself: it is in the nature of labour-power to create more value than it consume.'" (Spivak from 'Speculation on reading Marx' cited in Sanders Live Theory introduction: 55)

For Spivak exchange-value is a text and a representation: it has a differantial [sic] chartacter:

"This means that use-value, which Marx defines as what is left over when exchange-value is subtracted from the thing, is a theoretical fiction."

And for Sanders, Spivak next refers to "the definitive passage in the canon':

"In the exchange-relation of commodities their exchange-value appears to us as totally independent of their use-value. But if we abstract their use-value from the product of labour, we obtain their value, as it has just been defined. The common element that represents itself in the exchange-relation or exchange-value of the commodity, is thus value."(Capital, 1: 128)

The key terms here are 'abstract' and 'represent'. The answer to the question, not what is Value, but how is it produced, is, for Spivak, tied to how value abstracts and represents itself out of labour power. This representation and abstraction is textual: it works through supplementarity, through differance (the deferrals and differences of meaning that structure and move signs - as understood as signifiers.)

What sort of labour power is present in narrative fiction? Its writing is production, and yet such a production is made in the consumption, or reading. As Roland Barthes, in particular, argues, there is the doxa of a reading that accepts the conventional expectations, into which a text plays, as being those through which the reading is consumed: for Barthes this is the readerly response. Alternately, there is the reading that is impelled to effectively write the text, not least because the forms of the text exceed conventional consumption: the writerly text. Making the text run is the allusive term Barthes deploys to connote this writerly production. While 'run' summons up a thread loosened from a garment, or human locomotion , it is also machinic - like a generator. The text that 'runs' comes close to evoking the dynamism that Macris locates in the Generative mises en abyme of some of Claude Simon's work. I think, also, Macris's own novel, where the dynamism of a text that dances, more than runs, that at times sounds like eurhythmia, rather than the fordist clunk and grind of Chicago-blues based rock (from Muddy Waters to Nirvana), is that textuality of a labour power that is super adequate because it is, also, a machine for generating negations.

The questions I leave this post with are: What is this desire for unalienated labour - for an unmediated utility (or use-value)? What does labour act upon - what are the raw materials - of spectacular capitalism: the capitalism of the post-Warhol world?

What use is Macris' 1997 Capital, volume one?

PS: More thoughts on Marx's theory of value here at Roughtheory. org [link]

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Rufus Wainwright's Ineffable oscillating chamber music

We went to see Rufus Wainwright last night at the Wrest Point Casino. I'm a big fan and so is SO. Report following . . .

We got there in time to catch the beginning of support act Leena (Thavisin). With a strapless black evening dress, glittering, chandelier-length ear rings, and mostly capo-ed steel-string acoustic guitar, Leena is, as they say, a package. Well-tanned, elegantly svelte and with model looks, the girl can sing and write a song.
I gave her three songs to see if she could change gears from the mixture of wistful, wistfully defiant, and defiantly wistful songs she began with. No.

But that's the postpunk in me.Having supped at the alt.folk and altars of Gram Parsons, and Gillian Welch, and the junkyard cocktail-jazz-blues of Tom Waits, no Jewel-esque, post-Waifs ingenue will resonate much beyond platitudes like - 'She'd win Australian Idol, on looks alone.' Is she one to watch? Well, if you like Missy Higgins, or Jewel, then worth a look and listen, but I found her sophisticated folk-pop twee. She might end up on screen though.

And so, we left the flat-carpeted Tasman Hall, headed out to the foyer for a couple of overpriced 15oz Cascade Draughts and looked out onto Sandy Bay toward Hobart, some Pacific Gulls perched high on the roof behind us, squawking, and waited for Rufus.

When he did appear on stage, a simple grand piano in the front-centre and microphones over both the piano and closer to the foldback speakers near the edge, his boyish flop of hair and long sideburns sat neatly on a Peter Allen-style outfit: milkybar white jeans and a multi-colour short-sleeved body shirt, tucked in. 'I'm trying to get in the summer-feel' Rufus told us, comparing Hobart to the similarly changeable (cold) summers of his former hometown of Montreal. A touch of the warmth of Rio - especially with his first shirt-button ajar.

This was to be a solo performance, played mostly from the piano, although there were about seven or so songs perfomed on a variety of steel-string acoustic guitars - the crowd-favourite 'California' being one.

Rufus, rufus, rufus! The man can sing, write a song - lyrics and melody, and he can accompany himself on piano, exquisitely. There were moments here: the French-lyric tune with a waltz-time piano underneath that was performed with such a singular feel for tempo that I couldn't believe that the flowing vocal-melody was in the same time; and yet it synchronized, perfectly. Another highlight was a song from Release the stars sung in a falsetto, giving us the chance to hear his higher register, which was beautiful - not so much wistful, as transcendent.

But what struck me most was that his baritone vibrato, his perfect pitching melded with either guitar or piano mostly sounded orchestral. What I mean to say is that the harmonic overtones that are produced by and in his voice, I think, set in play oscillations and rhythms that counterpoint those emanating from the other instrument. Descriptions like, full, rich, orchestral, resonating, don't do justice to this sound. This is not to say that his baritone vibrato, especially at the volume we heard it, didn't at times become repetitive. It did, and when the third beer had me up and out the Hall doors, upon attempting to re-enter mid-song I was stopped by an usher who was then told by another patron that 'He's too nasal, for me', it hit me later that Rufus' nose is a key resonating chamber that can grate, sometimes, but mostly promotes this ineffable oscillating chamber-music. Another cliche that comes to mind is that the song begins to sing itself, and there is a choir of voices audible, and a chamber of instruments supporting.

And what songs - melodies that move with such certain grace, and lyrics that are by turns wry, ironic and vulnerable. I would liked to have heard 'Poses' or 'Tower of learning' from the Poses LP, but we left Wrest Point, satisfied. The sound of his voice, still resonating in my ears and, a little, in my blood.

[Image of Rufus from Sydney Morning Herald 31.01.2008 Photo: Domino Postiglione]

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Upright citizens and other grace notes

Local news was good today. The little community hall currently houses a decrepit upright piano. The top layer of 'ivory' is missing from most of the white keys, there are large chunks in the veneer, and it sounds like strings are missing and out of tune. Some old pianos can simulate a tack-piano or bar room sound (a sound that Tom Waits can sometimes deploy: 'It's not me it's the piano that's drunk'). Well, this ol' pianner is due to move on - maybe finding itself in a local home.

The good new is that the Auxiliary group in the Hostel have raised the funds to buy a new (brand new, perhaps) upright and so are looking for a home for their existing piano. Apparently the old one can't be tuned to concert pitch, but can still be tuned to itself. The old piano - the good old one - was donated by Lions Club and we have sent off a letter asking them if we could have it donated to the Hall.

I wonder how a Jimmy Webb tune like 'Witchita Lineman' will sound in the Hall.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Debating postmodernism and postmodernity

Who are you talking (back) to? What's this address? What are the (inter- or) con-texts of this debate, this diagreement, this conversation?

In debates about postmodernism's genealogy, its meaning, its designs on curriculum in High School education, I think the first questions that need to be asked are those above. So, here I'm writing back to an essay published on Adrienswords blog May 22, 2007 'Postmodernism is/not a dirty word'. This writing back is also in anticipation of a promised subsequent essay from Adrien on related issues; in particular a diagnosis of contagions in Humanities discourse, especially the viral influence of the needless complexity of Judith Butler's writing.

Firstly some positions. I come to this debate after having been a dismissive skeptic on the value of postmodernism. Not having understood what this term meant, its genealogy and various definitions, I had swallowed an empiricist - Old Left - view (Boris Frankel's in From the Prophets the deserts come -1992). In this definition postmodernism was a theory and practice of writing in which language is posited as being as close to reality as human-beings got. Language is reality. This assertion is more properly one of structuralism or poststructuralism, although there is considerable crossover between these various 'isms' and schools of writing.

Having taken an Arts degree at UNSW in the 1990s, majoring in Australian and postcolonial literatures, literary criticism and literary theory, I was exposed to poststructuralist ideas much more than postmodern ones. This makes sense, as it was compulsory to take a semester of Linguistics in first year, and the compulsory literary theory component was centred on first learning the methodology of structuralist analaysis, then post-structuralism. In hindsight my interest in Marty Heidegger's Being and Time, was a response to the desire to anchor the groundless methodology of structuralist analysis into the finitude of death. That such an anchoring has problems, mostly arising from its individualism, was something that encountering Marxist philosophies of history has helped to solve. Walter Benjamin's Messianic time, as the 'time' at-in [prepositions start to break down at this point!], the whole of history is redeemed, enables a way into thinking the finitude of Heidegger's being-toward-death as social.

However, its no longer 1994 and after a hiatus I have returned to University - UTas - to complete a doctorate in recent Australian Literature. The second book my supervisor advised me to read was Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism:or the cultural logic of late capitalism. Further on I also read David Harvey's The condition of postmodernity. An essay that's influenced my thinking on these matters is by John Frow 'What was post-modernism' from Time and commodity culture, and the writing of Zygmunt Bauman in his 'liquid modern' (see Liquid modernity) phase has profoundly shaped my thinking about periodisations, and about how the post- in post-modernism, or post-modernity, is merely a marker for a new, or different, type or phase, of modernity. Thus for Bauman, the shift in recent times has been from solid to liquid modernity, from heavy to light capitalism. While Bauman is attempting, successfully I think, to address a wide public through this simple conceptual schema, his writing is conceptually dense, and leavened with illustrations and citations. But the suasive force of his intervention (replacing post- with liquid -) can be seen in the connotations this term has in the language of our times: financial liquidity, global flows, mobility and flexibility. It won't have gone unnoticed that Bauman alludes to Marx's poetic image of capitalist-modernity: all that is solid melts into the air.

This is a Marxist-influenced list of texts on modernism, modernity and what comes after. And this is what I think needs to be spelled out in this debate: that for these writers postmodernity is descriptive and their work attempts to explain and critique this descriptive. Far from the commonplace view, that postmodernism is a viral normative project, I'd like to emphasis the critiques and attacks on postmodernity, on the normative postmodernism(s), that these thinkers and writers made and make.

Still, there is confusion here and this sense of misunderstanding is due to questions in the field of the philosophy of history. These questions are very rarely posed in the mainstream media, because thinking about time and history is so ingrained and normalized. Indeed, while we might read about developing nations, or the Western tradition, the Enlightenment, even modernity, in the MSM, what are we talking of precisely when these phrases appear? Was there one Enlightenment? Or is Enlightenment an attitude, manifesting an operation of thought whereby we can say that Enlightenment thought is like religious thought, it is a specific practice rather than a period that forever changed how and what we think and practice. Or, take the commonplace terms of developing and developed nations. This historicism sets up a teleological shape to human history which is also universal: all nations are, or aspire to be, heading in the same direction: liberal-democratic-capitalist (to take the most obvious example of this form of historicism from the post-1989 period).

Some fragments to be expanded on later:

But the keyterm here is modern and its extensions: modern-ism and modern-ity. In order to beigin to understand the post- versions of this word, we first need to focus on its root.

One assumption in this debate-conversation is that the only value of a discourse on/of postmodernism/ity centres on Secondary Education and the teaching of disciplines in the Liberal Arts/Humanities. This assumption is not unwarrented, but can easily limit the debate to the sorts of terms and understandings that 'Parents' claim as their right.

Similarly, if your understanding of the politics of postmodernism-ity comes out of Camille Paglia then you've no real claim to be setting yourself up as an expert on the arguments of those engaged in the discourse surrounding postmodernism-ity. Again we come to philosophy of history. And from my reading of those who are influenced by this [i.e Paglia and such] culture war polemic style of writing-thinking, the concept of history promoted is one of dualistic spiritual battle (eros vs thanatos, or Apollonian vs Dionysian), or biology vs culture contest.

Another set of problems:

a. The history of cultural studies - here, Peter Osborne in his The Politics of Time [see link in sidebar], makes a vital link in the chain, when he asserts that Cultural Studies is a/one political legacy of Surrealism (p185);

b. The history of English as a discipline;

c. The disciplinary methods-boundaries: the ethnographic claims of cultural studies, the close-reading and critical claims of literary criticism/English.

Friday, February 1, 2008

On Churning: the Mammalian State

For about 10 years I was a nicotine-head. From tailor-mades to roll-your-owns. From the occasional social-cigarette at the Marble Bar, with a few schooners of draught, to being propelled out of bed with dawn dying for a fag or five.

The constant splutterings, wheezing, fears of lung cancer and disintegrating gums, increasingly restrictive smoking areas, strange sensations in my limbs, and the dang cost of it all gathered force toward quitting.

And so it was done.

Gradually.With 2 relapses since getting off the patches. 1 year now - yay!

Smoking cigarettes has a kind of punctuation function. After dinner - the close of a chapter. Opening a phone conversation with my bank - light one up, capital letter, new paragraph. After enduring a hostile customer on the phone - full stop. Flipping out to Sydney Post Post-Punk quartet Peg playing Second Skin live -grab a pre-rolled and draw: double exclamation mark!!

Problem is my body isn't a palimpsest that can be screeded clean after writing all over it with nicotine and carbon monoxide and all the other chemicals that I don't wanna know about.

So, I quit. Moving from nicotine gum to nicotine patches, then nought. Without the fags different punctuations, different rhythms emerge. In the mornings I'm no longer propelled out of bed at sparrows', but lie there and drift in and out of sleep (I'm a university PhD student - we keep odd hours!) with a single ear piece transmitting ABC Radio National talk and news - occasionally music.

This morning on its Life Matters one hour slot, the subject was the (Australian) Middle Class. Unfortunately (or maybe not) I snoozed through much of Clive Hamilton [a paper he co-wrote wihile still at the Australia Institute on the 'state' of the Australian Middle Class - here - in pdf form: 38 pages, 364kb], but was lucid through Peter Saunders from the CIS (Centre for Independent Studies) debate the evils of churning with Opinion page editor from the Sydney Morning Herald, Lisa Pryor who held up the Welfare state side of the argument, after Hamilton had left.

Saunders' main barrow is the evil of churning, and this emeritus Professor of Sociology puts his case in terms of illustrative examples, arguments from first principles and qualifications. The first principles are choice and efficiency, the qualifications are the role of government in providing much needed physical infrastructure and the illustrative example is a model of monetary circulation in which the wealth-earner's rights to choice and efficient use of their wealth are the values illustrated - back to first principles. Indeed, the CIS, which was founded in 1976, seeks to affect the discourse through which we conceive of government: its roles, our relationship to it, how it should just get off our backs . . .

Churning, in this discourse, is the unecessary circulation of wealth: a wage earner with dependent children pays income tax which is then recirculated back to the wage-earner's family through family payments and childcare subsidies, for example. Sounds simple. As this wealth circulates it passes through government collectors' hands who take their cut. In this narrative of churning the tax collectors are the beneficiaries of the circulation of a private wealth that is inefficiently and unfairly redirected to those predetermined services that eschew the sovereignty of choice.

In figurative terms churn, in this discourse, creates foam and spume; the waste byproducts of too much agitation, or circulation. Better to have less redistribution, and more direct flows. Yet if we maintain the analysis at this figurative level there is the churning that we associate with the production of butter, and cream. Here food, nourishment, relies on churning. Thirdly there is the churning which is expressed as 'churning out' - 'churning out writing' , with its connotations of prodigious quantity and poor quality.

The first and third meanings seem to apply to the Churning as wasteful, and as illiberal, discourse that Saunders seeks to advance. And yet it's the butter and cream byproducts that are being bypassed here: those dairy products that mammals are nourished by.

The problem with churning discourse is its assumption that the wealth-earner can only nourish itself, and its domain of responsibility (the family). Yet alongside the foam and sometimes too large, too ineffective bureaucracies that churning produces, there is nourishment for others outside of the self and its nuclear family. As Nicholas Gruen argues,

there’s method in the madness. Our tax system raises revenue according to
individuals’ capacity to pay. Our family payments system focuses on need and
assists people according to their household income and the number of dependents.

Tax churning is the logical result of each system doing its job tolerably well. We could reduce churn by cancelling the Joneses’ family payments and distributing the proceeds as general tax cuts. But we’d lose the targeting, making the Joneses much worse off. In funding general tax cuts, their family payments would in effect be shared with single and wealthy people.

What’s not being shouted from the megaphones of the anti-churn bandwagon is that our family payments system has been incredibly well targeted to relieve poverty and help families.

It's the relief of poverty and the capacity to target - the mammalian, rather than nanny, state (if you like) - that makes churning a source of nourishment for those most in need. For Saunders all taxpayers are the same and all that is at stake is their minimising of tax and sovereign capacity to choose. Those most in need of nourishment are abjected from this discourse as it begins to make a liberal problem of the so-called Nanny State: a form of control which needs to be resisted in order to for the resistant to be freer. But what sort of freedom is one that figures the state as only a supplier of services that money can buy more directly? What sort of liberalism disavows the role of the state in nourishing the weak and poor?

One of the lures of smoking cigarettes is that it's such a personal and private concern: drawing the smoke into your lungs, feeling the nicotine dart around your bloodstream, spreading to your brain. Having quit, my circulation has flowed more freely - I can give more to concerns outside of the closed, nicotine feedback-loop that I had to maintain at a tight tempo. My blood was able to churn again, to move around the veins and arteries of my limbs so as to reconnect me to my body-self, and to the world in which it is a becoming. In this churning I feel more nourished, more like the mammal that is my species being.
Sure, foam and the by-products of mechanical overproduction are the sorts of churn we need to minimise. But this liberal governmentality of the discourse of churning, a governmentality in which we seek to rule, or govern, our selves rather than have to have the state take its cut and make choices for us, is one that is prepared to diasavow and abject those who need the state's nourishment. To give up on that is to give up on the mammals that we are.