Saturday, May 16, 2009

Watching the Treasurer Reconfiguring the Boundaries of reading Grunge fiction

[Final part in a series of introductory posts on the critical reception of Australian Grunge fiction]

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; how a close–reading of a literary text can at once be promiscuously horizontal and focussed; and 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.

There is a dense network of tracks through which Keating’s textuality circulated. Morris’ essay travels over this dense network in ways that make the four framework essays analysed above appear suburban. Yet Morris’ essay nowhere mentions Grunge fiction, which is not on her horizon. Her practises of boundary work, while exemplary, do not articulate Grunge fiction to the largely media and theoretical texts that she moves through to form her reading of Keating and Forbes’ poem. Moving toward Morris’ practices requires the four modes of boundary work analysed above to be both pushed further into their existing zones, and shifted into new interdisciplinary zones. In these new zones, especially, our understanding of Keating’s rhetoric and textuality can take soundings of Praise’s poetics and textuality, and interpreting Praise’s feelings of structure will assist in explaining the structures of feeling that Morris and Forbes, for example, hear in Keating’s talk. This understanding, interpretation and explanation are what will be performed in chapter 3.

The boundaries on which the four frameworks through which Grunge fiction has largely been received are in need of being reconfigured so that Grunge fiction can be read in ways that approximate Morris’ reading practises. The literary generationalism that Davis and Leishman detect and critique has been understood as a trope which has worked to deflect and displace public debates about, and new responses to, new social, economic, and political conditions. While Leishman brings Bourdieu’s sociology of the literary field into the ambit of her reading of Grunge fiction, Davis argues that postmodern practises of knowledge have been marginalized by the culture war use of generationalism. For Davis we need to push the trope of generationalism aside in order to hear what these young novelists had to say, while for Leishman we need to understand what these young novelists have to say through the notion that the inevitable turnover in literary generations is a battle of content and form, as much as of personnel. On both accounts Grunge fiction is innovative: neither old nor new dirty realism, but a new type of realism.

Both authors seek to divert us from the trope of generationalism in the name of experiences and practices that this culture war figure has worked to conceal. Yet, Grunge fiction can also be read as using the specific cultural forms of generationalism to present a problem in the dominant models for becoming-adult, or coming-of-age, circulating in the culture. In other words, rather than bypass the trope of generationalism in order to access the real meaning of Grunge fiction, reading Grunge fiction with and through the symbolic form of youth as a transition period on the way to becoming-adult – which has been a literary chronotope since Goethe’s Bildungsroman, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (Moretti 2000a: *) – further opens up the practises of boundary work and the range of texts that can be affiliated with those of Grunge fiction.

Syson’s boundary work reads Grunge fiction through the changes he detects in the political economy of the literary publishing industry. The fragmenting and alienation of working class identity during a period of market intensification and dismantling of the forms of historic compromise in Australian political culture – conducted, ironically, under a Labor government – is most clearly registered for Syson in the economy of the literary field. He reads these changes back into Grunge fiction, which returns his soundings in the form of “the rumblings of a structure of feeling that is being demolished at its deepest levels” (26). His central and influential claim is that Grunge fiction is a form of resistance and critique, responding to “a growing economic rationalist spirit,” a predatory capitalism that “is about ransacking communities and their cultures and patterns of behaviour in order to commodify and privatise them” and “the prosecution of the Thatcherite dream of destroying society and replacing it with a world of consuming individuals” (23 and 26).

While Syson’s boundary work is suggestive his dismissal of Grunge musical form is symptomatic of the persistence of the generational trope. As I argued above, there is an occasional deafness in the Australian literary field when it comes to thinking sound. My reading of Cobain’s guitar solo in “Smells like Teen Spirit” sought to open up a boundary across which the sociological concepts of Fordism and post-Fordism can be used to articulate Grunge fiction and Grunge musical form. Syson’s refusal to take Grunge music seriously as a cultural form is a symptom of a conflation in which cultural forms about youth are dismissed as youthful cultural forms which are further reduced to commodities. What is occluded in this way of reading is analysis of the specific, meanings of the symbols of youth that are operative in the local culture, and that cultural forms like Grunge fiction and Grunge music are working with, on and against. Taking Grunge cultural form as concerned with the problems of making the transition from youth to adulthood in conditions of post-Fordism raises questions about the precise nature of the historical conditions of society in the 1990s. Syson’s allusion to Michael Pusey’s historical sociology of economic rationalism in Australia indicates one text through which to make these historical conditions more precise, more local, as Morris does in “Ecstasy in Economics”. Morris’ further boundary work, however, takes us into the human capital theories of Chicago School economist Gary Becker, reading these back into Keating’s talk. As her textual affiliations are more promiscuous and horizontal than Syson’s it is toward Foucault’s theories of Neoliberalism, rather than the concept of Thatcherism or economic rationalism, that this thesis will affiliate with the literary and non-literary texts considered below. Such affiliative boundary work, however, will require a sustained consideration of the textualisation and historical conditions of the period in Australian political culture that Grunge fiction emerges from and through. This consideration will be conducted in chapter one.

Finally, the theme of the abject in reading Grunge fiction was analysed and these readings were placed into a dialogue with Morris’ claims about the abjected waste that economic fundamentalist discourse both produces and construes society as and as it ecstatically travels into areas previously protected from market rationalities. Placing Morris’ reading of Neoliberal ecstasy, and its sludge by-product, into the zone of Brooks, Muller and Kirkby’s more individual and psychological readings of abjection in Grunge fiction, shifts the boundaries across which Grunge fiction can make textual affiliations. This shift provides the openings for aligning Grunge fiction with fundamental changes to Australian political culture that can be interpreted and explained through a more historically specified, and more sociologically localised, set of texts than were available in the 1990s when these writings emerged.

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