Friday, May 15, 2009


[Another in a series of posts taken from the revised PhD thesis. These posts are from the introduction, and this is the last in a series of 5 which have been analysing four frameworks that are commonly deployed to interpret and make sense of Grunge fiction]


Joan Kirkby’s chapter “Literature”, in Americanization and Australia, is one of the few discussions of Grunge fiction to present an argument for its commensurability with Grunge musical culture. For Kirkby, the “distinctive rough, ‘dirty’, ‘sludgy’ sound” of bands like Nirvana were “in defiance of the comfortable, easy listening style of mainstream rock bands and were directed at a young generation disaffected with lifestyles no longer meaningful or available to them” (230). Kirkby builds her genealogy of Grunge fiction through an etymology of the term, finding that it is a US slang term: “a back formation of the adjective grungy [. . .] deriving from ‘a blend of GRIMY, DINGY & grunt, childish euphemism for defecate’ and as slang meaning ‘dirty, mess, disreputable, etc.; unpleasant in any way’” (229-30). In the Australian context Grunge is defined “firstly as ‘a substance of an unpleasant nature, especially dirt, scum or slime’ and secondly as ‘a guitar-based form of heavy rock music’” (230).

Kirkby works on the boundary where Grunge as musical culture meets the term as ‘sign’ to argue that “it is a useful term in the Australian context,” in part because it “arises in response to cultural issues that are both local and global [and] is part of a larger phenomenon characteristic of post-industrial, urban cultures” (233). It is also useful as it “is closely related to the abject, Julia Kristeva’s term for a visceral identity crisis in which the insides of the body erupt within signification in an obsessive imagery of ruptured bowels and wombs and excrement and slime, rendering unstable the subject’s sense of social and symbolic identity" (233).

Kirkby interprets Grunge fiction through the concept of the abject as a social and psychological process. She argues that “grunge [. . .] might be defined as the abject made conscious, owned, integrated and demystified” and that “[i]n The River Ophelia the narrator completely owns and demystifies the abject; in Praise the abject is no longer abject; and in Loaded the abject is powerfully manipulated as a social critique” (233, 235).

Kirkby’s essay has not been the only one to use Kristeva’s social-psychoanalytic concepts of the abject and abjection to read Grunge fiction with. While Kirkby argues that Praise “demystifies the abject, becoming an affirmation of the everyday and of bodies as the basis of subjectivity” (238) Vivienne Muller treats Praise to a

social protest reading [in which] the signifiers of the abject and grotesque pimpled bums, bleeding skins, flabby bodies, misshapen flesh, drug altered bodies and minds would appear to collectively symbolise revolt against the deterministic socio-cultural institutions (bureaucracies, hospitals, schools, police) with their moral directives towards the corps propre. [. . .] Such a reading of the grotesque body in Praise would also yield it as a site of contestation of the ‘official’ discourses of good and proper bodies with their ‘healthy’ imperatives of employment, heterosexuality, marriage, monogamy and parenthood. (152-53)

Unlike Kirkby’s reading of Praise Muller opens her interpretation to the social dimensions of identity formation, offering a reading of McGahan’s debut novel that permits it to be a critique of contemporary techniques of the self; a critique of, what Foucault calls, forms of governmentality. The abject, polluted, sexually faulty body of Gordon is contrasted for Muller to the “healthy body in middle-class terms [which] is also the employed body” (153). So, while Kirkby reads Praise’s thematisation of abjection on a purely psychological level, Muller is prepared to consider that this thematisation enacts a “postmodern scepticism towards the unified subject signalling a current crisis of identity for the young” where the “nihilism in grunge is read as a sort of refusal of the hegemony of the dominant capitalist ethic” (152).

Different again is Karen Brooks’ use of the term abject to chart readings of Grunge fiction. Brooks explicates a psycho-geography of the movement and becomings of characters across and on the interstitial zones between the city and the suburban. While Muller situates Praise within the time-space of global modernity and late capitalism, and Kirkby tightens the interpretive lens of abjection to bore down on individual identity formation, Brooks argues that in Praise and other Grunge novels “an understanding of the [human] subject is contingent on an interplay between the psychosocial, the body and the physical environment” (89). For Brooks the “characters who embrace the ambiguous, liminal and abject spaces that lie within and between sub/urban living become spatial vessels that are able to cross and recross the boundaries of institutional power, geo-political, psychosocial and psychosexual boundaries” (98). This reading of the possibilities of movement and spatial identity enabled by proximity to abjection in Grunge fiction is both libertarian and optimistically utopian.

What all three readings that use Kristeva’s concept of the abject as an interpretive instrument open up is a boundary on which Grunge fiction becomes an object of primarily psychological literary signification. Yet the genealogy of the concept of the abject also comes by way of Georges Bataille and Mary Douglas’ anthropology (Kristeva 64-66, 69). For Kristeva, Douglas argues that “filth is not a quality in itself, but it applies to a boundary and [. . .] represents the object jettisoned out of that boundary, its other side, a margin” (69). The materiality of the abject is secondary to the social fact of the boundary. Indeed, Douglas writes: “[m]atter issuing from them [the orifices of the body] is marginal stuff of the most obvious kind. Spittle, blood, milk, urine, faeces or tears by simply issuing forth have traversed the boundary of the body. [. . .] The mistake is to treat bodily margins in isolation from all other margins” (cited in Kristeva 69). The call to consider the social existence of the boundaries across which abjection occurs works to remind us that alongside “abjection [being] coextensive with social and symbolic order, on the individual as well as on the collective level [it also] assumes specific shapes and different codings according to the various “symbolic systems”” (68). Abjection is historical, as it “varies according to time and space, even though it is [also] universal” (68).


Part of what is abject about Grunge fiction is its status within the Australian literary canon. It is both inside and outside the canon, a topic in Australian literary history that proceeds, as we saw above when discussing Salzman’s writing on Grunge fiction, under erasure. Before moving into the theoretical section of this introduction it is worth dwelling on a powerful reading of a text from within the genre that could more justifiably be called the abjected form of Australian letters in the 1980s and 1990s: poetry. John Forbes’ poem “Watching the Treasurer” is the basis for a reading of Australian political culture through the mediated figure of the treasurer of the poem’s title, Paul Keating. While what Forbes and Morris have to say about Keating is formally distant, each draw attention to the utopian effects that were invited by Keating’s rhetoric. For Morris the utopias of Keating’s economic fundamentalist discourse enable an ecstasy for those who speak it. This ecstatic response, however, has its abject. Citing an evocative phrase from Pusey’s work that is cognate with Grunge, Morris writes that economic fundamentalism is “ a philosophy that treats society as a by-product (“Sludge”) of market forces tempered only by the actions of an elite cast of experts [who practise] a furious rhetoric of Reason” (1998: 180-1). What is abjected by “that utopia/ no philosopher could argue with, where/ what seems, is & what your words describe/ you know exists” are the “political alignments of a century [and] even those “new social movements” most critical of Laborism [sic]—feminism, anti-racism, environmentalism—[which] found themselves recast by its decline as “entrenched” and “vested” interests obstructing radical change (Forbes cited in Morris 1998: 158, 178).

While the four frameworks for reading Grunge fiction analysed above offer unorthodox boundaries on which to work new textual affiliations, Morris’ reading of Forbes’ poem, above all others, models the direction that this thesis heads in. What is exemplary about Morris’ reading is how it is anchored by a critical analysis of her own affective and intellectual investments in the subjects of her essay; and how a close–reading of a literary text can at once be so promiscuously horizontal and focussed; how it can be psychoanalytic and socio-historical, practicing rhetorical analysis and political-economic theory as it moves from one section to another. Above all Morris’ interests in Keating overlap with mine. Reading Keating as a figure of textuality which is situated by a specific historical sociology and in affiliation with Grunge fiction, forms the central section of this thesis. We will leave Forbes’ poem here and return to the “elegant apostle of necessity” below in chapter one (Forbes cited in Morris 1988: 158).

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