Thursday, December 23, 2010

on Meanland

A summary of the articles and discussions at Overland's site about the Meanland project: Reading in a time of change.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Literary politics in the Anthropocene


Below is a fairly unaltered copy of a paper presented mid-year at the Australasian Association for Literature's  'Literature and Science' conference. Seeing Ian McEwan's Solar in a bookstore window, recently, reminds me of this paper and one of its central purposes: to place Solar against Andrew McGahan's much more interesting novel about the connections between climate, libido, madness, magic realism and sublime geological experience. 
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Can we understand the geological sublime? Ian McEwan's Solar and Andrew McGahan's Wonders of a Godless World.
A quick precis before offering the detail of this paper. Firstly, I’ll outline historian Dipesh Chakrabarty’s recent essay on the challenges to historical practice posed by anthropogenic global warming, and focus in particular on his argument that placing human species history in conversation with histories of capital—a conversation or dialogue that he claims is necessitated by climate change—is an exercise in probing the limits of historical understanding.  In the second part, I’ll draw on one of the central arguments in Paul Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative: which is that whether in fictional or historical form, narrative can work with, and on, the aporia produced by thinking cosmological and phenomenological time together. The hypothesis that is built out of the first two parts of the paper is that fiction’s capacity to refigure time provides distinctive resources in pushing the limits of understanding.
The third and final parts test this hypothesis against two recent novels that take climate change as a central subject: Ian McEwan’s Solar and Andrew McGahan’s Wonders of a Godless World. Finally, running through these last two parts will be my claim that in spite of it not being explicitly concerned with anthropogenic global warming, McGahan’s novel more successfully addresses itself to the ways that fiction can partake in the politics of climate change because its key characters are intimate with geological time and have degrees of geological agency. Effectively, they have understandings of dimensions of geological time and space that might usually be experienced as sublime.

1. Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Climate of History.

Chakrabarty’s essay “The Climate of History: Four Theses” is a series of cumulative arguments which set out the ramifications of climate change for human histories. I’ll quickly outline the first three theses, before unpacking the fourth a little more.
Thesis 1: Anthropogenic explanations of climate change spell the collapse between the Age-old distinction between natural and human history.
Chakrabarty argues once you accept anthropogenic global warming, or other human-induced causes for climate and geological change, then the human history/natural history dichotomy collapses due to human species being considered geological agents: a force of nature in the geological sense akin to those events when there has been mass extinctions of species. So, rather than nature being portrayed as the unchanging, seasonally cyclic backdrop to the theatre of political or social history, these backdrops have come to life and must be presented as more dynamic and enmeshed in human history than before.  The inverse is also true: that natural histories that cover the last 250 years need to take our geological agency as a species into account.
Thesis 2: The idea of the Anthropocene, the new geological Epoch when humans exist as a geological force, severely qualifies humanist histories of modernity/ globalization.
For Chakrabarty humanist histories of modernity and globalization place freedom at their centre. The story of the last 250 years of human civilization is, he claims, thematically centred on the development and spread of freedom. Yet, the last 250 years has also been periodized as the new geological epoch of the Anthropocene. The previous epoch of the Holocene, stretching back around 10 to 12, 000 years, provided a rise in temperature conducive to agrarian civilization. But since the onset of the industrial revolution, the affect on the earth of fossil fuel use has shifted it into a new set of conditions in which human species are geologically potent. To place geological and human time scales together like this is quite unsettling, and one implication of this polyrhythm is we are led to conclude that, to quote Chakrabarty, “The mansion of modern freedom stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil fuel use.”
Thesis 3: The geological hypothesis regarding the Anthropocene requires us to put global histories of capital in conversation with the species history of humans.
The argument here is that it is at the level of species, and not nations, for example, that humans have become geological agents in the last 250 years. This argument, however, is not compatible with global histories of capital in which uneven development and intra and inter-national inequality mean that the benefits of industrialization have not been enjoyed in a just manner. Similarly, within recent histories of globalization the problems posed by climate change are a matter of a crisis in capitalist management. Chakrabarty poses the question “If capitalism were to mutate beyond its current forms or even to end, would climate change still pose a problem?” His answer is that it would and it does because there are certain boundary or parameter conditions, such as temperature bands, which once crossed spell the end of the species, whether our dominant system is capitalism or not. We therefore can’t subsume species history of humans to histories of global capital but instead need to place them in dialogue.
We are now at the fourth and crucial thesis, which is




Thesis 4: The cross-hatching of species history and the history of capital is a process of probing the limits of historical understanding.
This cross-hatching or conversation between species history and history of capital throws up the enormous problem of historical understanding. Chakrabarty is using understanding here in a technical sense, derived from the hermeneutic tradition, where the primary technique of interpretation in human sciences, like history, is the practice of re-imagining or re-enacting the life experience of others based on your own life. Humanist history is also based in the technique of explanation—a technique it shares with the natural sciences. But the argument here is that while we can give explanations for what caused, say, the depression of the 1930s, and while we can understand what it might have been like to have lived through those times—explanations and understandings that are available to us in histories of capital—we can offer only explanations for how human species are and have become geological agents. The reason we cannot understand ourselves as human species is because we can never experience ourselves as a species. Chakrabarty: “Even is we were to emotionally identify with a word like mankind, we would not know what being a species is, for, in species history, humans are only an instance of the concept species as indeed would be any other life form. But one never experiences being a concept.” As he also puts it: “ There can be no phenomenology of us as a species.”

2. Time and Narrative

The problem Chakrabarty develops is dealt with on a more general level in Paul Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative. Ricoeur wants to know, alongside other questions, if we can reconcile our lived or phenomenological experience of time with what can be called, objective, cosmological, or universal time. These two forms of time map fairly neatly onto the problem that Chakrabarty puts his finger on: namely, how can we reconcile phenomenological time—the time of understanding—with human species and geological time—the time made available through quantification and explanation? Ricoeur’s response is that narrative can figure time in ways that enable degrees of understanding and explanation, which help us to bridge these two poles of time. Ricoeur makes a series of distinctions between historical and fictive time, two of which will help make the transition in my argument here toward its discussion of Solar and Wonders of a Godless World. Unlike narrative historical time, fictive time removes a set of constraints on the narrator who as historian needs to re-inscribe lived time onto cosmic time through reference to such temporalizations of time as calendars, generations, and archival traces. Secondly, and related to the first point, fiction can explore new figurations of lived time that can be related to cosmological time in new ways. Freed from some of the constraints of historical time, fiction can, perhaps, assist us to imaginatively understand what a conversation between human species history and a history of capital can be, or to understand what the geological agency of human species might be like to experience.
So, the hypothesis built here out of the first two parts of the paper is that fiction’s capacity to refigure time provides distinct resources in probing the limits of understanding. I now turn to the third and fourth parts of the paper, which will test this hypothesis.


3. Solar 


Ian McEwan’s Solar, published earlier this year, takes climate change, its politics and economics, as its central topic and focus for a comic satire. Its central literary techniques are narratorial irony and synecdoche, in particular the fleshing out of the central character—Noble prize winning physicist, Michael Beard—as a despicably, all-too-human assemblage of sins and flaws which is part of a whole humanity unsuited to the altruism called out by the challenges of climate change. His is a part of the glutton-ness, slothful, proud, lustful, greedy, wrathful and envious whole. A whole beholden to Neoliberal capitalism with little altruism to recommend it. McEwan’s narrator focalizes the narration through Beard and his numerous adventures, varying the level of irony to achieve satiric effects, and to oscillate between a distancing and drawing close to Beard who we are invited to both despise and empathize with. This oscillation in narratorial distance combined with its satirical aims, make Solar a realist comic apocalypse novel. Again, the apocalyptic allegory runs through Beard, whose appetites—one too many sandwiches or packets of chips, one too many sexual affairs—are speeding up his own end, which we are encouraged to think of as an allegory of the end of the species. His appetites are, however, not tragic but comic flaws, for in spite of his sinfulness, he has some redeeming attributes, and is himself sometimes victim to the sinful drives of others.





Solar’s presentation of technological innovation, biophysics research, institutional (bureaucratic, academic, state) politics, and capitalist entrepreneurialism, provide both the novel’s targets for satire and its pathway through to a more redemptive and hopeful opening, emblematized in the central character, Beard’s, ambivalent ‘final’ feeling: an intensely strong emotion, which is either a last heart attack/stroke, or his paternal love for his young daughter, whose long future, his efforts—almost as a by product of his drives/sinfulness—in the field of photosynthetic energy production, might well ensure. 

Solar has been received and marketed within the framework of the politics of climate change. McEwan appeared on ABC’s Lateline commenting on the Copenhagen Conference, for example. But how, if at all, does it refigure time? Does it help us to understand the sublime dimensions of a geological time that is now affected by human species activity?
Solar offers one figuration of time with which to develop an understanding of the relationship between human species time and geological time. This scene comes at the start of part 2 as Beard’s plane prepares to land at London, in 2005. As it descends, Beard has a geographically wide-angled and longue duree vision of the city and its surrounds which juxtaposes key events, relationships, places and concerns in his life with the rise of industrialization and modernization. “The hot breath of civilization. He felt it, everyone was feeling it, on the neck, in the face. Beard, gazing down from his wondrous and wonderfully dirty machine believed in his better moments that he had the answer to the problem. At last, he had a mission, it was consuming him, and he was running out of time. “ (Kindle version location. 1756-63). The central metaphor in this scene is his own apartment, which is full of spore-infested food and unwashed dishes. This trope becomes an emblem in the final passage of this section, when he wonders “how could we ever begin to restrain ourselves? We appeared, at this height, like a spreading lichen, a ravaging bloom of algae, a mould enveloping a soft fruit – we were such a wild success. Up there with the spores!” (loc. 1833-47). Human species spreading over the rocks as lichen. It’s a nice image but not one that really opens up a way of understanding geological agency in the Anthropocene.
Solar doesn’t really help us to understand what living in the Anthropocene means, except that human species, in spite of ourselves, might have a future by virtue of a liberal techno-scientific-capitalism that we hope will function to produce new energy sources. The logics of physics and the market seem to lie outside this comically corrupted human species, and these are, it seems, what we might best place our faith in. Solar’s comic apocalyptic mode, avoids the fatalism, even biocentrism, of some ecological discourse, and provides a more pluralistic and provisional set of openings to the problems of the Anthropocene than a novel written with the conventions of a tragic apocalypse. But unless you can stretch the allegory so far as to see Beard’s body as an emblem of the geological body of the earth, I don’t see how Solar can be read within the problematic that Chakrabarty draws attention to.








4. Wonders
Andrew McGahan’s 2009 novel Wonders of a Godless World—which will be shortened to Wonders—is oriented around the relationship between madness, geological human agency, and geological phenomena. There are very few comic moments in this mix of science fiction and magic realism, and it treads a more tragic apocalyptic generic terrain than Solar. Its central literary techniques are the use of alternating third and second person narrative voices, which are crucial in how the novel’s characters become able to experience and communicate sublime dimensions of geological phenomena and time. 

The plot involves a young woman known as the orphan, who is on the cusp of coming-of-age and who works in an unnamed island hospital with a range of mentally ill patients. A mysterious, almost constantly unconscious figure enters the hospital and her life—the Foreigner. The mythically titled characters extend to Four other inmates, all suffering from different forms of trauma-based madness, are given similarly mythic or archetypal names: the Duke, the Witch, the Archangel and the Virgin. The reason for these mythic and even fairytale-type names is that the orphan is almost completely aphasic: unable to express or understand speech and text. She has some linguistic facility, but cannot remember names. The third person narration of the novel is, somewhat magically focalized through her subjectivity, her thoughts. And here is where the plot develops, for the Foreigner, it transpires, can make himself understood to her and understand her through a type of psychic communication, which he performs in the second person narration of the novel. The Orphan’s possible madness becomes an undecidable question in the novel: is she hallucinating the dialogue with the Foreigner, who lies unconscious for much of the time of the novel, or is he engaged in a type of education for her which is a cover for a more menacing project?

The plot thickens when volcanic activity near the hospital is experienced by the orphan as a range of vibrations and felt forces, which she has the capacity to read in ways that are precise and predictive. If her linguistic aphasia is a form of madness, then this madness might be due to her astonishing geological literacy. The Foreigner is quick to detect these skills and begins his seduction of her, which includes a type of biospheric travel, where he and the Orphan leave their bodies, and travel together as shadow selves or ghost bodies to the freak climate and geological events that have caused him to die and be reborn 4 times.  In this string of 5 lives, the foreigner lives each life, motivated by his drive to either avenge or transcend his initial rejection by the earth, in a particular manner—as a rapacious mining venture capitalist, as a Gaia-worshipping conservationist, as a New Age transcendental Guru and solitary island dweller, and as an astronaut. In both these travels and in the stories the Foreigner re-enacts for the Orphan, we see phases in the history of capital, and see them start to act as geological agents. Indeed, the plot trajectory of Wonders is toward the Foreigner stoking then violently taking over the Orphan’s latent powers of geological telekinesis to enact his revenge on a malign earth, 

an immensely powerful beast. I saw the hard, carved faces carved faces of the continents, and the inexorable currents of the oceans flowing. I felt the atmosphere humming with electricity, and the inside of the planet bursting with suppressed heat. I sensed what a savage thing the world really is—strong, hot and driven by systems so vast that they dwarf mankind and all his works to nullity. (237)

In the final scenes of the novel, geological agency is embodied in these characters. Back in third person narration the Orphan attempts to act on the local volcano’s magma to assist in her benign scheme to thwart the Foreigner’s plot, by accessing
the aura of life enfolding the whole planet. So it wasn’t a matter of squeezing the power from herself, it was a matter of shaping her mind into a conduit through which the energy could pass—and then of inviting the power to flow from the planet’s vast supply.
The orphan took a deep breath, considered the magma once more. Then she breathed out, opened her mind, and asked . . .
And the living world answered.
Ha! It was like being accelerated to an incredible speed while standing still, it was like being lifted by a thousand warm hands. It was wonderful. And as the energy burnt though her, she turned it and focused it upon the underground reservoirs. The magma turned livid gold. And then to white hot, bursting upwards. (301)

In interviews McGahan has said his original intention was to write a novel with no human characters; only weather and geological events. Finding such a task outside the realm of the novel form, McGahan’s compromise is a novel where geology and climate are not so much ‘characters’ as intimately proximate and understandable phenomena. Finally, the Orphan’s “understanding” of natural energy systems seems to be based on principles (and feelings) of how phenomena act across dimensions of time-space different to those made available in the natural or human sciences. Her understanding, perhaps, is situated at the boundary between geological times and human species time(s).  She crosses that boundary, aided—for us as readers—by the Foreigner’s and the novel’s narrator’s narration of her thoughts and feelings, which push a fictional sense of understanding toward forms of madness that, in Aristotle’s theory of poetics, are a probable impossibility
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Seemingly locked into the closed circuitry of capitalist realism, a sustained political and cultural response to the challenges of climate change hits a number of walls. Understanding, rather than just explaining, that human species have been geological agents since around the time of the invention of the steam engine--for at least the last 250 years--confronts those fundamental liberal political rationalities that capitalist realism and its latest neoliberal phase are based in: that freedom is a function of the limits of the sovereign's or the state's capacity to promote security and growth; the corollary being that civil society and the 'market' are the spheres that 'naturally' produce security, growth and freedom. All three of these values of liberalism (biopolitics--the turn to life) are threatened by climate change: the physical conditions on which the life of human species depends are seriously under threat as temperatures rise. Liberalism's long rapprochement with a fossil fuelled capitalist economy is, it appears, unsustainable and no guarantee of the freedom, growth and security of the human species. Belief in the natural genius of the market, which is what underlies Neoliberalism's faith in non-government solutions to challenges, is what has led us into the anthropocene. Understanding that we have been in this new epoch for a while is surely a first step in forging a realignment of ethics and politics: new environmentalities, perhaps. 


Accepting the explanation of climate change in anthropogenic global warming, challenges our understanding of human and natural time, human and natural histories. Fictive narrative, myth, and even Big History provide ways into new realisms. These promise alternatives that can exceed the possibilities offered by the Neo-Lib/Neo-Con thinking that informs McEwan's glib, capitalist realist satire. 




Thursday, November 25, 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Player One: Massey Lectures 2010

Gen-Xer, Douglas Coupland, is presenting the Canadian radio lecture series--The Masseys--this year and they are to be given in the form of a fictional novel.  An excerpt is here.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Paradise

I had vague 1990s memories of the Melbourne-based band, Paradise Motel: noir, cinematic, slow, heroin-tempo soundscapes. But on the recommendation of a mate I took a proverbial punt and caught them last night on their Hobart leg of a national tour. They were a chakra-opening revelation.

The experience was supported by the venue decor: Sirens Ballroom up on the second floor in a wedding cake ceiling-rosed, vinyl-floored ballroom with plastered roof trusses, and a secreted balcony looking onto the stage area all creating a 1930s ambience, Berlin-esque. The support act was negligible: uninventive, melancholic, folk strains that suffered from a lack of guitar figures that broke from dull repetition.

The Paradise Motel, however, launched into "German Girl", building their soundscape slowly, seductively, before a spine-opening, crystalline shock entered the ballroom. I was smitten. At times they sounded like a acid doused waking dream. At others like the warm rocking of the womb.

As if the Triffids ran headlong into the Bad Seeds in the court of Nico.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Human Capital: abilities machines producing income streams

A great passage from Jodi Dean's essay "Drive as the structure of Biopolitics: Economy, Sovereignty and Capture".

Neoliberalism is [. . .] a governmentality wherein economic reason confronts, judges, and displaces governmental reason. Foucault’s primary examples are Germany and the United States. In each instance neoliberalism arises out of a critique of excessive governance (2008: 322), as a response to a mode of government that is erring on the side of too much and hence endangering freedom. The interesting twist is that where one would expect such a critique to urge the state to take its hands off the economy, it does something else instead: it subjects the state to the economy. German and American neoliberals reverse the equation, making the economy the legitimator of the state. ‘In other words: a state under the supervision of the market rather than a market supervised by the state’ (2008: 116).
This reversal intensifies and extends biopolitical processes and mechanisms. Insofar as neoliberalism emphasizes the market as a site of competition rather than exchange, it demands that the state combat anti-competitive mechanisms and work to spread opportunities for competition. Consequently, the state must be ever vigilant in these efforts as well as vigilant about its own efficiency in so doing. Such vigilance, moreover, is exercised not just with regard to government, as its operations and resources are privatized. Rather, neoliberalism entails a governmentality of ‘active, multiple, vigilant, and omnipresent’ intervention in society (2008:160). Society, too, must be opened up and subjected to the dynamic of competition. For neoliberals, this takes the form of the enterprise society, a vital, differentiated society of productive entrepreneurs, that is, individuals who take responsibility for their own success and well-being (hence, Foucault emphasizes their role as producers rather than consumers).
American neoliberalism was particularly effective in extending biopolitics via its theory of human capital. Human capital was the concept through which neoliberals grasped labor in its specificity, the way they sought to understand the meaning of labor means for the working person, the rationality underlying the worker’s choices. Treating income as a return on capital, neoliberals construed the worker’s income in terms of the capital he has in himself. Because of the multiplicity of factors influencing workers’ choices – mobility, quality of life, familiarity, capacities to adapt, aversion to risk – the theory of human capital enabled economic analysis to permeate a variety of new domains, domains previously the purview of the human sciences that developed around disciplinary institutions (sociology, psychology, demography, criminology, etc).
Foucault explains that there are two primary kinds of human capital, innate and acquired. Innate elements are heritable, genetic. A person concerned with her child’s innate human capital can take the proper steps toward finding an appropriate co-producer of this child. She can seek to secure a mate with desirable traits that might reduce her off-springs’ risks and enhance their competitive position. Genetic research is thus valuable to individuals in an enterprise society as it provides a knowledge they can use to plan for the future. At the same time, it gives rise to a complex of issues of screening, disclosure, prevention, and risk. Acquired capital refers to the skills and capacities that prepare individuals for competition. Health care, both infant and maternal, is important here, as are matters of health and hygiene, diet and exercise, relationships and opportunities. In this regard, the theory of human capital stimulates interventions in family life as it asks about the best ways to produce economic competitors. Neoliberalism’s emphasis on education as preparation for work similarly targets the worker as an ‘abilities machine.’ Rather than producing critical humanists or responsible citizens, the theory of human capital treats education as a means for instilling in the worker those specific capacities that render him sufficiently competent, competitive, and flexible.
Under neoliberalism, then, power gets a hold of individuals to the extent that they are little enterprises, abilities machines competing in the market.

References are to Michel Foucault's The Birth of Biopolitics. Thomas Lemke has an excellent summary of the lectures, here.

Friday, September 10, 2010

What's new . . . government intervention to spread the fragile market form

From John Protevi's essay "What does Foucault think is new about Neoliberalism"

Neoliberalism [. . .] Foucault insists, is something other than liberalism; neoliberals "break" with classical liberalism; we must "avoid at all costs" seeing neoliberalism as a mere "repetition" of classical liberalism after a Keynesian interlude. So for Foucault neoliberalism is a modification of the art of governing as an exercise of political sovereignty; it is another turning point in the history of the state seen through the grid of governmentality. Its novelty consists in an interventionist state which creates conditions for the artificial or purely competitive market in which homo economicus makes choices as rational self-entrepreneur.
For Foucault, neoliberal macroeconomics is not so much a shift from the Keynesian objective of full employment to the monetarist control of inflation (although it does of course entail that as well), as it is a change in government's relation to market structure. For classical liberals, the market was a natural mechanism for the exchange of commodities. For the neoliberals, the market is an ideal structure of competition, fragile and in need of construction and support. Thus neoliberalism is not laissez-faire, but interventionist, though neoliberal intervention into society occurs at the level of the conditions of market, and its intervention must take the form of the "rule of law".
Let us repeat the key contrast. Classical liberals want the market to be a free natural zone where government can't interfere, precisely to let the invisible hand provide for social benefits from individual self-interest. There's a whole anthropology here of the natural homo economicus as only an abstraction from concrete man living in civil society, of which the juridical subject is another abstraction. But the important thing for classical liberals, ignored by the neoliberals, is the Smithian analysis of moral sentiments and the need for government to provide the moral framework that the market erodes. So the classical liberal formula is "protect the market from government in order to allow social benefits from natural exchange." The neoliberals say we must proceed on two paths: (1) we must have government intervention at the level of the conditions of the market in order (2) to spread the enterprise form throughout the social fabric. So the neoliberal formula here is "use government to change society to constitute an artificial and fragile market."
For Foucault, the American neoliberals are more radical than their German counterparts. They share the desire to intervene at the level of market conditions to support fragile competition. But for government / market relations they also want to refuse to shield government from market relations: they want to submit all government actions to cost-benefit analysis. But this is just macro-level reflection of the move to insert market relations throughout the social fabric. This is not simply the drive to privatize government services; it also entails making the surviving government agencies into enterprises, so that we must ask what is bottom line for, in the American system, agencies such as Amtrak, the Post Office, the National Parks, and so on). And this is not just the drive to make any multi-unit organization into a collection of enterprises (each department in a university has its own bottom line and its own contribution to the university bottom line: e.g., loss of subventions for university presses). It goes further than that: each individual becomes an enterprise, a self-entrepreneur.

What we all Want

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Friday, September 3, 2010

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

"What Really Matters?" Becoming Volatile.

Australia's 2010 federal election is presenting with all sorts of symptoms of a political and cultural malaise. A primary symptom is the palpable disconnection between the citizenry and leading politicians, rendered nowhere so much as in the distaste many feel about the method of the previous Prime Minister's untimely dispatch by a Labor party spooked by falling opinion polls and a combined onslaught from News Ltd's national broadsheet, talkback radio and the grand wrecker of federal politics, Coalition leader Tony Abbott.  This disconnection is also due to a political reporting and commentating media culture that has been denuded of expertise in policy areas and which seeks to make 'gotcha' moments: where politicians are caught in a back-flip or inconsistency, or revealing slip. The failure of both major parties to stake out long-term, thought-through policy positions on a set of interconnecting problems and opportunities--a response to global warming and climate change, peak oil, physical and social infrastructure, health, water, population policy, alternative energy, indigenous citizenships--which are argued for, explained and narrativised is also a symptom of this malaise.

Some analyses of this illness in the body politic have honed in on the Neoliberal causes of these problems. Gary Sauer-Thompson has run a series of posts which link the malaise to the Neoliberal mode of governance that I've argued, as well, has come to dominate our political culture. Gary, points to an opinion piece by Overland editor Jeff Sparrow on the ABC's Drum Unleashed site, which diagnoses the sickness currently afflicting Australian political culture as being caused by the embedding of market rationalities into everyday life:

the commodity called 'politics' can only compete by adopting the forms used by the TV producers who specialise in reality programming. Channel Nine's decision to hire Mark Latham should be understood in those terms: it's the equivalent of livening up a dull episode of Big Brother by introducing a minor celeb into the house. But Gillard's pledge to henceforth be true to herself should also be familiar to television aficionados, for it's a common stage on the 'winner's journey' on every reality show. The huffing contestant on The Biggest Loser breaks down in tears and then, after a hug from Michelle, vows to dig deep and redouble his training: that's what makes good entertainment product.

Such is the dilemma facing political journalists. A reporter might be deeply fascinated by policy and its implications, but if he or she brings back footage of two middle-aged people arguing behind lecterns when everyone else screens the human drama of Kevin confronting Julia, the ratings will tank. 

The problem, then, is not about the media so much as about the market into which media is sold.

One of the most socially significant developments in Australian political and cultural life over the last few decades has been the evolution of neoliberalism from a fringe doctrine to a philosophy now largely ubiquitous. The neoliberal turn was always about more than pure economics, involving an insistence that notions of individual autonomy, consumerism, efficient markets and transactional thinking should be extended into all social relations, even - or, perhaps, especially - those that had previously been dominated by quite different rules. 

Not surprisingly, the results have been profound - and you see them very clearly during an election. 
I agree with all of this, but I think we need to specify what the dominant forms of markets are in the early twenty-first century. There needs to be greater recognition of the extent to which the embedding of market thinking and market techniques into political culture is increasingly modelled on markets in financial derivatives. This might sound like a slightly wacky, unreconstructed Marxist approach. But I'd like to just lay out some thoughts below and see what you make of them.

1. Neoliberalism and the drive: feedback loops.

In a much-anticipated and needed return to Crikey yesterday [pay-walled],  Guy Rundle analysed the malaise. Here's a key, summary section of his essay:


Twenty years ago, we — or the political elites — made a decision to shift the centre of gravity from public to private life, in a whole range of areas, from social expenditure, to pensions, to the question of work hours and wages, in every conceivable field. That is, of course, but of a larger global process — and one, to a degree beyond the control of individual governments — but we really ram-rodded it here, off a fairly collective base.
The result has been a certain type of society in which both the space for public life, and the means by which people without much social power could project themselves into it, has been diminished. Where in the 1980s we were talking — briefly — of the 35-hour week, we are now heading towards the 48-hour week (and two salaries, to afford a house), performed by people living in spec-built suburbs with little amenity, in under-serviced cities, and in conditions of diminishing, not increasing, social mobility for themselves and their children.
In these circumstances, the private choice — the cable TV, the McMansion, the retreat to the home space and to the defiant, antinomian cry (much heard in the UK election) “I don’t do politics” — becomes overdetermined, becomes the only real choice there is. Yet even as people pursue their lives in the wilderness of plasmas, they are privy to a never-ending cascade of information informing them that a) the current way of life is politically, economically, and ecologically unsustainable and b) the gap between their lives and the levers of power is so huge there’s bugger all they an do about it in the current framework.
Those things that need a public sphere in order to exist — such as the res publica, and a genuinely pluralist media — lapse into a non-democratic condition, the res publica
To blame the public for the changed conditions of their life, and the way that earlier decisions by an elite shaped their lives, is to finger the victim, not the culprit. A series of cave-ins, ducked battles, and soft options by the people who controlled parties, papers and powers, and a refusal to stand up to the genuinely malign, has brought us to this point. It seems distinctive in the world — there is a collapse of political legitimacy everywhere, but only in Australia have I seen this degree of total exasperation and frustration, combined with an inability, at the moment, to imagine how it could be done any other way. The topic is cancer, indeed.
What I want to hone in on is Rundle's notion of a round-about in which a media-political economy-political parties-pollsters-public circle just keeps rolling along: a sort of feedback loop in motion. Jodi Dean has analysed the connections between Foucault's  Neoliberalism (as the Birth of Biopolitics) and the Lacanian drive in terms of a turn towards life, and away from sovereign-state forms of power: a feedback loop without an object.

2. Sunday morning.

Rundle, in his Crikey essay, takes aim at Paul Kelly as Kelly has jumped on the bandwagon of bemoaning the lack of grip the political class has on what is happening in the election and yet Kelly has been at the helm of the Neoliberal onslaught for over 20 years. Kelly, until recently, appeared as the press corp doyen on the ABC's Insiders show. When Sunday morning TV used to be governed by regulations that demanded commercial stations have religious programming (from memory in the 60s and 70s) the intellectual leader of the Democratic Labour Party and mentor of Tony Abbot, Bob Santamaria, used to appear on Sunday mornings to give his culturally conservative, Catholic and agrarian socialist perspective on politics. Kelly had slid into this time slot and role in recent times. You could argue that Kelly is a right-wing Labourist, much like Santamaria, although they would disagree violently on the role between markets and the state.

So, it's been interesting to see who and what has filled this significant time slot on the Insiders recently. Kelly has been gone for a while, but now there is a segment called "What really matters?" which is hosted by Michele Levine the CEO of Roy Morgan Research. The slot is backgrounded with aerobics-style dance music--a trend in political reporting these days, along with the playing of songs whose chorus literalizes a personality characteristic--which signals a high-energy loop in which we do something that makes us fit, flexible, ready. Levine presents her analyses of marginal seat polling, which includes some qualitative responses, pop-psephology, and pop-demographics.

From Santamaria, via Paul Kelly, to political polling in marginal seat expertise. What is this drift signalling?

3. Sitting on the fence.

What circulates in loops like the one Rundle describes? If Neoliberalism has become the dominant set of techniques and ideas by which all kinds of objects, selves, institutions are conducted, guided, governed, then how are these forms of market reasoning coming to the surface in the current election campaign?Applying the methods of market research to political polling is one way we can see such embedding of market techniques in political culture. But surely such polling only registers what people think, feel or hope for? In case you think I'm about to run a media-manipulates citizens in the interests of capital line . . .well, I am. But rather than argue that what is going on is a conspiracy designed to dupe people, my contention is that we are all--the media, bloggers, politicians, the public . . .-- subject to the mentalities by which finance capital must continue to circulate around the globe; accelerating and with maximum income streaming potential. How do you obtain a financial advantage, how do you manage risk in your electorate, how do we seek investments in our electorate? Make your seat marginal.

The feedback loop of current politics finds its most symptomatic expression in the dialogue that occurs between marginal seat electors, the media, the pollsters and politicians.  That is the primary loop in our political culture, and it is governed by the logics of making an electorate, making yourself as an elector, volatile.

Watching SBS's forum show Insight, last night, which asked swinging voters from marginal seats to give voice to their opinions, I was struck by how little it mattered that they grasped policy or understood basic institutional functions and history. What mattered was that they were confidently undecided. They were swinging, they were certain that they were 'sitting on the fence'.  They were trading on their volatility as human capital. It didn't matter what implications policy had for anyone outside their business or family. What mattered was how they could attract the best investments in their human capital by wavering, swinging, fence-sitting.

4. Human capital: the subject as derivative.

Critiques of Neoliberalism often stall at the level of the state and forget about the embedding of market reasoning and techniques in everyday life. Similarly, the vantage provided by much Marxism is limited in focussing on the alienation caused by the commodification of labour. These are both valuable, albeit, restricted modes of critique and analysis. What Foucault's analysis of Neoliberalism as governmentality offers is an understanding of how liberal-capitalist practices and thought fundamentally shifted in the 1960s and 1970s.

These new or Neo-liberal forms reconceptualised human labour as human capital. This might appear as a minor ploy. But the shift from conceiving of the human subject as the seller of labour to an entrepreneur of one-self, and investor in one's human capital, is a profound one. This massive shift has coincided with and been caused by the exponential growth in financial markets, and markets in financial derivatives, which are traded not on the basis of underlying asset value, or their growth in value, but on the magnitude of their volatility. Edward LiPuma and Benjamin Lee write

The financial community's development of the concept and modelling of volatility was [an important] step in the objectification of risk. The central idea is that the market can best describe and predict the behavior of abstract risk by measuring its variability over time. The understanding is that the magnitude rather than the direction of change in the values for a specific derivative communicates all the financial information necessary to price it. Note that the measure of volatility tries to formally incorporate the contextual social information that had to be removed to produce abstract rick in the first place. The social is reintroduced in, and misrecognized as, the history of a derivative's volatility. The result is that all the complex socio-historical forces that shape the value of asset underlying a derivative are now simply a pattern of price movements. (Financial Derivatives and the Globalization of Risk, Duke, 2004: 146)

5. Becoming volatile

When political parties converge over primary questions of political economy, and their policies are conducted as auctions which require one side to take a seemingly opposite position to the other, and the question for parties is not how to break up the Neoliberal consensus but in what directions will we fiddle around the edges, pander to fears, makes promises that will be easy to break and hard to deliver, voters seek advantage in any opportunity.

They invest and sell their vote. Whether they sell short (bet against) or long (bet for), it doesn't matter anymore. They are selling to grow their income stream. They are advised and guided by the political stock-brokers, agents and analysts that people the assemblage of the pollsters-media-politician machine. They are in a constant state of  trading the volatility. Becoming volatile.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Monday, June 7, 2010

From East to Arcane

On the 30th anniversary of Australian pub-rock band Cold Chisel's LP East and in anticipation of the release of Crow's Arcane, here's "Cheap Wine" (below, at this post's end). Indeed, with the wine glut in Australia and having maintained a permanent rash of greying ginger beardiness for a while now, I can relate to the chorus.

East itself is thematically unified by a blues and reggae-tinged isolation and anger; an uncertain masculinity coming to terms with Asia and the demise of the Labourist-social-liberal armature in Australian political culture. It still bites. And swings, with a lyrical and romantic lushness that comes out in Barnes and even Moss's voices and in Moss's classy blues guitar lines, these elements at times given spot-on support by the spaciousness of the arrangements. It's the link between the piano and the drums that work so well and I think I was, not consciously at the time, going after this feel and reverbating sound when I played with drummer and musical production powerhouse Richard Andrew in Crow.

On one of Chisel's comeback tours--Yakuza Girls (I think it was called)--Crow played support in the concrete arena of Sydney Entertainment Centre. We set up on our small allotted space--which was massively large in comparison to other venues like the Globe or Annandale--and were introduced by Chisel's keyboard-playing lead songwriter Don Walker. Walker asked the Chisel audience to give us a go, and praised Pete Fenton's songwriting.

True dat, Pete Fenton is a fine songwriter, up there with Robert Forster, David McComb and Don Walker. And Pete Archer, now back in the My Kind of Pain era line-up, is an outstanding songwriter and six-stringed soundscaper. Reunited with Jim Woff and John Fenton on bass and drums, whose sophisticated feel for rhythm and arrangement brings the band into the ambit of a dynamic power, subtlety and depth.

Crow are now in the midst of launching their reformation LP, and while I'd like to be there with them I'm looking forward to Arcane and hope it's what they were hoping for and that it proves for those who see them as heirs to Chisel, the Birthday party (and even Midnight Oil), that they have always spoken their own musical language.

Once I smoked a Dannemann cigar . . .

Governing the biosphere

One of the problems with implementing national and global policy regimes toward mitigating carbon pollution is that while we can agree with how and even why such regimes are necessary, we are at the limits of current knowledges in attempting to understand anthropogenic global warming. This is Dipesh Chakrabarty’s essential argument about the disconnection between climate scientists’ almost universal urging of polities to take significant action to mitigate carbon pollution and the recent u-turn away from such political action after the Copenhagen Conference and in the face of a concerted attack on this climate science consensus by a small band of contrarians and so-called skeptics, aided, in Australia at least, by the immensely influential News Limited.
The complexities and, it must be said, uncertainties of climate science—a science which relies on limited data and whose findings are often projections into the future—have increasingly entered into what we might still want to call a public sphere, where they must compete with deeply embedded discourses that are antithetical to any project that takes anthropogenic global warming as its starting point. Before I get to what I think these discourses are, a more obvious point to make about why a policy response to anthropogenic global warming is currently fading is that media can more easily frame and tell a story of small heroic individuals holding onto their critical independence from a monolithic conspiracy in which government and self-interested scientists attempt to dupe a gullible public into implementing an authoritarian left-wing form of anti-market control. If media seek to dramatise events so that we more readily consume its productions, then the recent climate science believers versus skeptics battle can be seen as one example of this media form. Of course, the dramatizing of this debate into a two-sided battle has other motivations beyond the drive to sell newspapers and, ultimately, advertising to media consumers. There are other discourses at work in such Manichean oppositions, and it is to a consideration of these that I now want to turn.
It is important that we historicise this debate, and it is no surprise that the first periodizing move I will make is to assert that we are in the age of Neoliberalism. Still. Because despite what Kevin Rudd wrote in his Monthly essay about Neoliberalism back in 2008, and despite claims that the Global financial crisis is the death knell of Neoliberalism, as a set of practices and techniques that are combined with forms of reasoning and goals, Neoliberalism continues as the dominant governmentality, if not as the dominant ideology. The distinction I am making here between ideology and governmentality is essentially a Foucauldian one, and it seeks to cut through the seeming paradox of an essay in which Rudd professes his social democratic beliefs, offering a critical genealogy of Neoliberalism, while his government continues to practice key Neoliberal techniques of governing our conduct, such as an unemployment services sector where the unemployed person is subject to a barrage of self-monitoring and self-governing actions designed to empower and enable them to make choices through which a more flexible and entrepreneurial self is formed. I’m not arguing that the regime of deregulation, privatization, financialization and so on is not Neoliberal. Rather, I’m seeking to make what I think is an important distinction between the social democratic or even Marxist critiques of Neoliberalism—whose essential argument is that the state has abandoned its protection of the citizenry while the capitalist market has been given free reign—and the Foucauldian critical genealogy of Neoliberalism, which seeks to understand it as the governmentalisation of the state rather than its shrinking and disappearance. It is not so much that under Neoliberalism the market is what governs us as the social state has vacated the field, it is that in many of the significant spheres of life we are conceived of as human capital, and thereby we are conducted to be entrepreneurs of ourselves: to risk manage our lives, make investments with our time, to manage a portfolio of interests and activities, to seek to appreciate our assets. As individuals as human capital under Neoliberalism, so too the state. And what I’m arguing here is that the various arms of the state in Australia and in the Anglosphere, has not ceased to be Neoliberal in these senses that I’m outlining.
Climate science enters the contemporary public sphere under a number, but primarily, these conditions: under Neoliberalism seemingly in retreat as ideology but remaining as dominant governmentality. And it fundamentally challenges key components in the assemblage of Neoliberalism. Rather than conceiving of humans as individual atoms of capital, climate science sees humans as one species among many, but that species which now are affecting the global climate. For some scientists this aspect of human species history’s impact on earth’s geology and climate requires a new periodization in geological time from the Helocene to the Anthropocene.

**
We are at an historic opening. What needs to be settled on is how we govern the future. If Neoliberalism is the cultural and political logic of financial capitalism in a time of digital technology, then its techniques of future management have failed. As the Global Financial Crisis continues to ramify and we move from states bailing out private wealth to states bailing out other states, as is evident in the response to Greece’s sovereign debt crisis, there is an opening for new forms of future management, new forms for governing the future. Such a project presents a profound challenge to the liberal political project. This is due to the liberal project’s reliance on a tight coupling between negative freedom—defined as freedom from the state—and an epistemology in which a non-state sphere of human interaction—under Neoliberalism: the market, under earlier forms of liberalism: civil society, or society—produces its most liberating, productive and efficient results when no one entity seeks to understand and explain how it functions and how to improve it. This second component in this coupling is emblematized by Adam Smith’s invisible hand: a force akin to nature, one that is sublime to the extent that it can’t be understood and explained by a sovereign, and that if let be will promote these liberating, productive and efficient results.
Of course, the corollary of this liberal coupling is that individuals are autonomous, self-governing. Thus Hayek’s Neoliberalism, as some commentators observe, is a type of liberalism mixed with a set of conservative injunctions about the importance of slow change, and the traditions embodied in the family and other institutions. What distinguishes Hayek’s (Neo)liberalism from classical versions like Adam Smith’s is that, unlike Smith, Hayek believes our freedom is produced by a realm of artefacticity: a type of cultural activity in which institutions emerge with the weight of tradition and the flexibility that comes from being produced by free people. This realm lies between that of reason (which codifies laws) and that of nature. While Smith sees the invisible hand as natural, for Hayek human civilization is produced in this in-between realm, where traditions mix with radical freedom, mediated by that most free of structures: the market.
What, then, are the implications of this understanding of Neoliberalism’s coupling of negative freedom with an epistemology that disavows the sovereign’s knowledge of society for the politics of climate change? Under Liberal rationalities, markets will naturally produce solutions to climate change, rather than governments. Under Neoliberalism, markets will artefactually produce solutions. At this conjuncture, we are left at the mercy of the delay that suits industries of mining and fossil fuel-based energy manufacture. This delay is justified by a commitment to growth and the trickle-down of jobs and shareholder equity.
What is at stake is the future and that is problematic in a global system still governed by a future in which short-selling and complex derivatives circulate and structure our basic orientations toward time.
It is only when we can sort out the financial culture that has come to be so dominant a forcefield since 1973, that we can begin to articulate a politics of the future outside of that which stymies and panics the present. Coming to terms with and surmounting the autumnal post-1973 global financial system, are prerequisites for dealing with the internalisation of carbon in a system of exchange which seeks neither to defer or displace its waste.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Dancing the arrhythmia of financial derivatives

I've just started to dip into Gillian Tett's 2009 narrative Fool's Gold: How unrestrained greed corrupted a dream, shattered global markets and unleashed a catastrophe. Tett's book tells how J.P Morgan bankers "developed an innovative set of products with names such as 'credit default swaps' and 'synthetic collateralized debt obligations' which fall under the name of credit derviatives" in the 1990s and 2000s. Ok, the subtitle is a bit 'tabloid screamer' and any 'dream' in the world of financial capital is hardly going to be pure or innocent prior to its corruption by 'bad people'. But I'm interested in gaining a better understanding of contemporary finance and financial derivatives, in particular, and Tett--whose PhD was in social anthropology--has written a book that comes with a reputation for offering graspable explanations of phenomena in the arcane world of credit derivatives.

At this early stage of reading, I'm getting my head around the definitions.

As the name implies, a derivative is [. . .] nothing more than a contract whose value derives from some other asset -- a bond, a stock, a quantity of gold. Key to derivatives is that those who buy and sell them are each making a bet on the value of the asset. Derivatives provide a way for investors to protect themselves, for example, against a possible negative future price swing, or to make high-stakes bets on price swings for what might be huge payoffs. At the heart of the business is a dance with time.

Say, on a particular day, the pound-to-pound exchange rate is such that one British pound buys $1.50. Someone who will be making a trip from England to the US six months from now and thinks the exchange rate may become less favourable might decide to make a contract to ensure that he can still buy dollars at that rate just before his trip. he might even enter into an agreement to exchange 1,000 [pounds] with a bank in six months' time, at $1.50, no matter what the actual exchange rate is by then. One way to arrange the deal would be to agree the deal must happen, no matter what the actual exchange rate is at the time, and that would be a future. A variation would be that the traveller agrees to pay a fee, say $25, to have the option to make the exchange at the $1.50 rate, which he would decide not to exercise if the rate actually became more favourable. (10-11)

In this next set of quotes, Tett is recounting the emergence of "a bold new era of derivatives innovation" "in the late 1970s" (11).

[T]he best way to insulate against such volatility [in currency prices and inflation, as was present in the post-1970s period of the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system of pegged exchange rates and inflationary pressures caused by the OPEC oil shocks] was to buy diversified pools of assets. If, fore example, a company with business in both the US and Germany was concerned about swings in the dollar-to-Deutschmark rate, it could protect itself by holding equal quantities of both currencies. Whichever way the rate might swing, the losses would be offset by equal gains. But an innovative way to protect against swings was to buy derivatives offering clients the right to purchase currencies at specified exchange rates in the future. Interest rate futures and options burst onto the scene, allowing investors and bankers to gamble on the level of rates in the future.

Another hot area of the derivatives trade [. . .] was the highly creative business [. . .] known as 'swaps'. In these deals, investment banks would find two parties with complementary needs in the financial markets and would broker an exchange between them to the benefit of both, earning the bank large fees.

Say, for example, two home owners have $500,000 ten-year mortgages, but one has a floating rate deal, while the other has a rate fixed at 8 per cent. If the owner expects the rates to fall, while the other owner expects them to rise, then rather than each trying to get a new loan, they could agree that each quarter, during the life of their mortgages, they will 'swap' their payments. The actual mortgage loans do not change hands, they stay on the original banks' books, making the deal what the bankers call 'synthetic'. (12)

And the final quote for the time being concerns what is the central concept of contemporary finance capital: risk. For any British readers, you'll probably already hearing that a hung parliament and minority government are bad for business because business doesn't like uncertainty: it proposes too great a risk. Coming from Tasmania--a small state at the far south-east end of Australia--our proportional representation system of voting has recently allowed a symmetrically hung lower house parliament to be voted in: 10 Labor [sic], 10 Liberal [cf. American Republicans and British Tories] and 5 Green.

Prior to the election, voters here were warned that a hung parliament would be bad for business and the delay in establishing a minority Labor government with Green support was met with cries from business groups that capital investment in the state was being lost due to this uncertainty. But if, as Foucault cogently argues, neoliberalism is that form of governmentality in which the human being is recast as an entrepreneur of him or herself, then it should follow that the rewards from investing one's own human capital in such a system are commensurate with the level of risk involved. Surely, successful entrepreneurs are those best able to live with and take advantage of risks and uncertainty?

According to Tett, however, capital wants it both ways:

Players also had different motives for wanting to place bets on future asset prices. Some investors liked derivatives because they wanted to control risk, like the wheat farmers who preferred to lock in at a profitable price [when making a futures contract]. Others wanted to use them to make high-risk bets in the hope of windfall profits. The crucial point about derivatives was that they could do two things: help investors reduce risk or create a good deal more risk. Everything depended on how they were used, on the motives and skills of those who traded in them. (14)

This doubleness in the function of derivatives and in the discourse of contemporary finance capital reminds me of one of Zygmunt Bauman's key ideas in his long sociological essay Liquid Modernity [Link here is to a pdf file, containing a lecture by Bauman, where he writes on the idea of liquid modernity. See here, for the book]. For Bauman, the power of the global elite resides not just in their finance-enabled capacity to not get stuck in any one place; to move quickly and flexibly around the world, making lightening-fast investments, exploiting opportunities before others even know they exist, able to avoid legal systems. Their power lies also in how dense and solid they can become, how they can materialize and make the world material to their needs, desires and drives. Neoliberal techniques of flexibility and fluidity are, in Bauman's understanding, complemented by something like a business sublime: an awesome, monolithic, material power that digs itself into a territory, which it defends and advances.

Is it the capacity to do both, to be both solid and liquid, to seek to eliminate risk and cultivate it, that makes contemporary capitalism so disorienting and difficult to understand? Coming to terms with the conceptual form (their temporality, in particular) of what I think are neoliberal capitalism's leading instruments--financial derivatives--should help to better grasp the present conjuncture and ways out of and through it. If, as Tett writes, "[a]t the heart of the business is a dance with time", then perhaps it is the rhythms of these forms that we need to hear and feel in order to play them differently; in ways that take the pulse of all those times that are, have and will be abjected.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Shattered into a thousand pieces: Anglophone Literary Studies c2000

Rob Dixon's essay on Boundary Work and Australian Literary Studies--here--circles around Julie Thompson Klein's Crossing Boundaries: Knowledge, Disciplinarities, and Interdisciplinarities (1996) which is an important work in interdisciplinary studies, and proposes the concept of boundary work and contains a very interesting chapter on the genealogy of interdisciplinarity in (North American) Literary Studies. Klein's genealogy is a relatively familiar one, especially with its account of the ruptions that, what Americans call, 'Theory' brought in its wake. But Klein's account halts around 1992 with Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn's edited collection Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies (1992) providing the more up-to-date resource she draws upon.
So, for a more contemporary and Australian-inflected assessment, I've been drawn back to re-reading Australian Cultural Studies academic John Frow's inaugural lecture as Regius Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, a version of which was published as 'Text, Culture, Rhetoric: Some futures for English' in Critical Quarterly 43.1 (Spring 2001): 5-18.
Frow seems more pessimistic about Literary Studies than either Klein, or Rob Dixon for that matter. Yet Frow's disciplinary trajectory has long been entwined with the more sociological side of textual aesthetics - what he calls the social relations of textuality (a.k.a cultural studies). Some extended quotes then, below, and a kicker at the end when Frow turns back (if he ever turned away) towards aesthetics and close-reading, giving a model of boundary work that is like a musical loop that alters with each reflexive playing: a circling between text and frames, where any knowledge of what frames the meaning and uses of a text (the illocutionary force of writing and speech) must always come out of an encounter with its figurative and organisational specificity, and not just be read off from another text. Before this more positive ending, Frow begins with a sharply, critical diagnosis of the state of what he calls his home discipline: Literary Studies.

In its frequent complicity with a commercial apparatus for which it is an underpaid source of publicity, and in its acquiescence in the fetishisation of literary value, literary studies in the university has paid the price of certain lack of reflexivity, a certain lack of political conscience. For at the same time as Literature, with a capital L, flourishes in the great world, literary studies is in disarray as never before.


The great structuralist project - enunciated in the work of Tynjanov and Jakobson, of Makarovsky, of Barthes and Genette and Todorov - of a systematic poetics, a project whose lineage goes back to Aristotle, to medieval poetics and to Renaissance iconology, has disappeared without a trace; the notion that we could produce a cumulative body of knowledge grounded in agreed-upon principles and categories, in a continuing and coherent conversation, is like a remembered dream. The discipline of literary studies is now shattered into a thousand pieces, the most vivid emblem of which is perhaps the myriad entirely unrelated panel sessions at the annual meetings of the American Modern Langage Association.


The poststructuralist complication of the project for a systematic poetics failed - for complex political and conjunctural reasons - to work as its continuation, and in its wake the discipline of literary studies has been split between[:]
[1] a barely theorised 'ethical' criticism, the idiot scion of the classical and neoclassical pedagogies of ethical formation, which generates an endless stream of thematic commentary around the category of the (unified or disunified) 'self';

[2] a deconstructive criticism now enfeebled and demoralised since the disgracing of Paul de Man - an event, however, which perhaps only confirmed an exhaustion that had already firmly set in;

[3] a 'political' criticism whose routine practice is grounded in the category of identity and for which textuality is deemed to have an expressive or instrumental relation to race or gender or sexual preference;

[4] a historicist criticism, now more empiricist that Foucauldian, for which the literary archive has a merely documentary value;

[5] and a chattering belletrism - dominant in all the literary reviews with their obsession with Sylvia's diary and Kingsley's letters and Martin's autobiography - which has mush more to do with gossip than with the sytematic study of texts. In one sense the discipline of literary studies is flourishing as never before; in another, it has become lost in irrelevance. [7-8]


Allowing for ['the relative contingency of the reception and uptake of texts'] is crucial, because the effects of texts cannot be read off from their structure. All we can do with this kind of tension [between the textual and the public lives of texts], I think, is try to make it work productively, by seeking to move backwards and forwards between detailed textual analysis and analysis of the framing conditions under which texts are taken up into the complexities of public cultural space. And this is in part how I understand the project of contemporary cultural studies. [12]


A series of decisions about how and what to read is thus framed by this [series of overlapping regimes of value contingently present as a] regression of frames, and it is this series itself that then becomes an object of attention. But it does not yield itself to a sociological or literary-historical description: the framing conditions of textuality are not to be thought of as general and objectively transposable structures which can be apprehended in their own right; they are extrapolations from an act of reading, and they can be defined only a posteriori. Textuality and its conditions of possibility are mutually constitutive and can be reconstructed from each other in a kind of hermeneutic bootstrapping which precludes conclusion and the perspective of a total understanding. [13]