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]

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Morality of Gentlemen and the Hawke-Keating Governments: some approaches for a dialogue

This paper--below--was presented at the UTas School of English, Journalism and European Languages work in progress day, in late 2006. I'm republishing it now as I'm working towards a another paper/essay which compares the novel that is its focus with Sylvia Lawson's 2003 historical fiction The Outside Story. In this 2006 paper I was attempting to overlay a reading of Amanda Lohrey's first novel--The Morality of Gentlemen (1984)--onto the personnel and key decisions of the start of the Long Labor Decade: in particular the 'characters' of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, and the two key decsions taken in 1983: the float of the $A and the institution of the Accord (Prices and Income). There are some problems with this paper, not least in its simplistic attempt to set up a critique of political history through the terms suggested by a novel, but a problem also in not theorising, and thereby justifying, why literary critique is at all necessary in what is also a critical political history. In retrospect the problems here would have been dissipated by loosening up the hold of positivism on the political history; a history which I now consider to be less real , less determinative, and more itself fictional, more itself responsive to forces and discourses that impact in different ways in different fields. What I'm trying to say is that rather than using literary fiction to read (political) History, I now tend to read Fiction and (political) History as being differently determined and produced by textuality (the operations of genre, language, discourse), the forcefields of culture and materialism, and from the unconscious. In hindsight the attempt here is within the zone of what Edward Said would call an affiliative reading: a directed historicism.

Another point is that I was on a mission at this time to give some history of the Hawke-Keating government to my colleagues in the school. There is a profound dearth of economic understanding in the humanities and postgrads who have lived for much of their lives in an economic boom (1994-2008), like the baby boomers before them, tend to accept that the conditions of their boomtime are natural ones. Labourism is central to Australian history, and yet no one talks about it in the literary humanities! On the other hand I had more personal reasons for this encounter with labourism: while my formation was in small business, and its classical- and neo-liberalism, I had just become secretary of the University's Postgraduate Association in the aftermath of the VSU legislation. So, I had first hand experience of the value of Unionism and the desire to persuade others, and myself, to the cause of unionism in a time of neoliberal arrogance. Oh yeah, Workchoices Mk I had been legislated too!

These points aside, Lohrey's novel is a thrilling story and also a lesson in how the politics of form informs a reading just as much as the content's morality and politics.

I’m going to sketch a methodological problem in my research arising out of the question of what sort of literary history works for this project. In order to sketch this problem and set out a preliminary response to it I will firstly outline the periodisation I’m employing, the long Labor decade, and fill in some of its key characters, events, themes and projects. Secondly I will then move to an individual novel, Amanda Lohrey’s debut novel The Morality of Gentlemen, published in 1984, give a quick prĂ©cis of its plot, and its key formal attributes. My argument, or hypothesis, is that Lohrey’s novel provides a model with which to read the long labour decade. The methodological problem I’m currently working through is this: is this type of reading a form of literary history or is it something closer to a political-sociological history that is emptied of its substantive historical forces in order to submit its textuality to literary criticism? Or on the other hand is it a social-political reading of a literary text which reduces its literary textuality in search of History.

My research project aims to write a literary history of the long Labor decade: that 13 year period of the federal ALP government, 1983 to 1996, that begins with former ACTU President Bob Hawke’s messianic ascendance over Malcolm Fraser, and ends with John Howard’s Lazurus-like return, defeating Paul Keating. The semantic shifts between Hawke’s and Keating’s election slogans are a useful way into the changes in political projects over this period. Both Hawke in 83 and Keating in 96 have their three ‘r’s: Hawke promising Reconstruction, Recovery and Reconciliation, and Keating promising a Republic, Regional engagement, and Reconciliation.

Hawke’s three arghhhs directly address the crisis atmosphere that surrounded the recession of 1982, the worst since the Great Depression, and the industrial conflicts that also mark this moment. Recovery and Reconstruction, evoke a war time sense of crisis, demanding sacrifice, nation-building measures and unification. Reconciliation, for Hawke, is not a promise aimed at indigenous recognition and justice but instead aspires to industrial harmony and consensus. Hawke’s 1979 Boyer Lecture had the utopian title The Resolution of conflict, and this personal belief in his capacity to bring all Australia together and heal its divisions through a national consensus, finds its codification in the agreement struck in early 1983 between the then opposition Labor party and the ACTU: the Prices and Incomes Accord or the Accord Mark I.

The Accord was a compromise between the political and industrial wings of the Labor movement which hinged on two central compacts: firstly, that the ACTU would minimise its wage claims and industrial activism, which were held to be inflationary and increasing unemployment, in return for an increased social wage, tax cuts, and a revival of Whitlam’s universal health insurance scheme, in the form of Medicare. The second compact agreed that once in Government the Party would move in concert with the ACTU to intervene in industry policy.

In the fine print of the Accord was an agreement for a Labour directed modernisation of Australian industry, especially those parts involving manufacture and technology, which would open the door to the transition to a planned economy. Here was the utopian opening for ex-communists, socialists, and social democrats in the labour movement, who believed that capitalism could be more than civilised, or compromised with.

Keating’s three r’s, at the coda of the long decade, signal a rhetorical shift from industrial and economic crisis, to a cultural, even post-colonial project. While regional engagement with Asia certainly, or rather necessarily, had its economic purpose, Keating cast this relationship in terms of a post-colonial maturity that interlocked with indigenous reconciliation and independent republicanism. Settled, mature, prosperous and cosmopolitan, Keating’s cultural big picture vision for Australia belied his 1980s image as the head-kicking world’s greatest Treasurer, who had liberalised and opened up an anachronistic, inward-looking Fortress Australia.
Did Keating morph over the long decade or was he actually both a cultural and economic moderniser? To invest in Keating as a hero of the cosmopolitan left and heir to Whitlam’s legacy of cultural modernisation requires that you repress Keating the treasurer. What returns over and over throughout the long decade is the signal act upon which Keating’s name as Treasurer was made: the deregulation of banking and the float of the currency in late 1983. There is still a debate over the degree to which this decision was forced by global financial necessity or came out of ideological belief but either way, the decision to float, effectively releasing the currency onto the open seas of global markets, opened up a new means of measuring our national worth: were we competitive? Would we sink or swim? What did the world think of our prospects, our economy, us? Could we win?

The victory of Australia II in the America’s cup yacht race, 10 weeks before the decision to float was taken, symbolically confirmed that on the rough seas of global competition we could beat the best of American technology, money and entrepreneurship. Yet by 1986, Keating warned us, and also informed the global financial markets, that things were so bad we were in danger of becoming a banana republic. By 1987 the America’s cup was unbolted from Freemantle, and a new Accord had been negotiated: Accord mark II.

The two decisions at the start of the long Labor decade, the Accord and the deregulation of finance and currency controls, operated out of two contradictory logics. The Accord was Labourist, and in its fine print was the opening for the redirected hopes of political economists and ex-communists, especially those operating in the Amalgamated Metal Worker’s Union, for a transition to a Labor planned socialism. On the other hand, financial deregulation unleashed the logic of postmodern capital, which had scrutinised this fine print and by 1986 declared it too expensive.

Amanda Lohrey’s novel, The Morality of Gentlemen, was published in 1984, although its period of production belongs more to the 1970s. It’s an historical novel working on two narrative temporalities: one time frame concerns the dramatic story of an industrial conflict on the Hobart Docks in the mid 1950s, which is based on the Hursey case and the other frames a set of interviews of witnesses to these events and reflections on these by a Labor historian, in the 1970s. The central plot turns on the Waterside Worker’s Union and its majority decision to demand a political levy payable to the Labor Party who it is hoped will remove the anti-unionist Menzies Government. Three members refuse to pay the levy, arguing that union membership should not cancel out the liberal political right to exercise their individual consciences. The leading unionists argue that solidarity is a greater value.

The plot moves through a sequence of dramatic escalations in this conflict, which widen into a battle between the Communist party organizers active on the Waterfront, in league with more labourist Unionists, a State governing Labor party hoping that the conflict will go away, and an historic bloc struck between Liberal party parliamentarians, the dissenting unionists, the Catholic church hierarchy, the anti-communist Movement within the wider set of Unions, and the Shipping company which employs the waterside workers. The drama heightens with a union picket line at the docks, preventing the dissenters to sign on for work, which sees small outbreaks of violence before moving into a court case where the dissenters’ rights are upheld. The last event in this plot is the High Court’s decision to overturn the Tasmanian judge’s ruling, affirming the industrial right of Unions to determine who political levies can be paid to.

This novel would appear to lend itself to a socialist realism form where a class-based conflict is staged in a workplace and a heroic working-class character chooses to align themself with the revolutionary proletariat, its political formation and the teleological certainty of the transition to that realm of freedom after capitalism. Lohrey however is writing in the 1970s, after the New left critiques of the Old Left, and opts for Bertold Brecht’s, rather than Georg Lukacs’, formal methods. Brecht is anti-realism. He argues that realism provokes a reader or audience to identify with characters and situations and aims to elicit a catharthis which contains then purges any politically conceptual response to the work or text. Rather than identify with the text Brecht advocates an alienation effect, which aims at denaturalising the positions that realism invites the audience to enter into. Lohrey’s deployment of Brecht’s epic theatre methods work to constantly destabilise any identification the reader might have with typical and heroic working class figures, or against evil bourgeois employers and their political class. The morality of the novel’s gentlemen also is not aligned to any political position. These destabilisations work through a continual shift in the narrative’s focalisations as well as through a metafictional questioning of the reliability of the witnesses that the narrator interviews in the more recent timeframe. The novel asks that we choose our own positions based on the political arguments of the text.

The Morality of Gentlemen was re-published by The Vulgar Press in 2002 and Lohrey gave a lecture to re-introduce and re-appraise her first novel. She talked about the contradiction of two narrative logics she was cast into from a young age. On the one hand her extended family was Labourist, committed to union solidarity, and belief in the evils of capitalism. On the other hand her mother had enrolled her in a Catholic school, which during the Cold War 50s, was a site where the school’s hierarchy would attack the atheist, communist menace that had infiltrated the Labour movement. The novel aims to contest the narrative and rhetorical legacies of the Menzies hegemony, which were revived in the anti-unionist and even Cold War rhetoric of the Fraser period.

To conclude, how does this novel work as a model with which to read the long Labor decade? I think there are two readings enabled through the novel, and a third that I’m fishing around for. The first concerns the roles and uses of Labour traditions in licensing and legitimating party policy. The Accord discloses two competing Labourist traditions: firstly, that strong trade unions should support the party into government where the party can protect workers and their wages through legislation and budget decisions. This tradition is presented in The morality of Gentlemen by the right of a Union to direct political levies to the party. But in Lohrey’s novel the Waterside Worker’s Union is presented as a democratic organization which refuses to be guided by the State Labor party’s Premier into relinquishing this core principle of solidarity. The tradition Lohrey represents here indicates that Unions need not always sacrifice their demands for the sake of getting the party into government. Secondly, the Accord invokes a Labourist tradition of aiming to socialise industry. The novel examines this labour utopia through New Left ideas about the libidinal and personal, rather than rational and public, sources of a revolutionary negation of capitalism. The novel highlights the personal nature of grievances and conflicts that are channelled into political action. It also tracks a sub-plot in which a key communist party union organizer provokes the libido of the Union lawyer’s wife. Lohrey’s next novel, The reading group, is a more sustained exploration of the libidinal and unconscious drives underlying revolutionary desire and its utopias.

So, was the Accord, on this reading, doomed? Only to the extent that the Union movement choose to bind itself to the party in government at nearly any cost. More acute is the novel’s critique of a productivist, socialisation of industry, utopia. There are other alternatives to capitalism, and Lohrey’s writing career has consistently explored these emerging forms, beyond labourism.

The second reading model enabled concerns character realism and the Brechtian method employed to destabilise its orthodoxies. Hawke’s messianic, folk hero glow seems straight out of Australian socialist realism’s central typecasting. Hawke had a larrikin, sports loving, persona, which was sanctified by his successful and popular Presidency of the ACTU. Hawke had the form and feel of a Labourist folk hero who invited emotional identification, even love. Hawke’s capacity to heal a divided nation, to negotiate grand new compromises through summits and consensus, masked the extent to which a whole set of other collective actors and institutional forces would set the terms upon which consensus could be reached. Consensus is a formal or abstract device which, as Peter Beilharz argues, amounted to the ethos that, ultimately, people should be nice to each other. This is not to say that Hawke had no social justice principles or commitments, but rather that his consensual approach meant that nearly all the Labour traditions were up for re-negotiation under his leadership.

Thirdly, the subject of Keating’s economic realism. The decision to float the currency and deregulate banking can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand the government had no choice – it was an act of necessity forced on it by the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in the early 1970s, the rise of neo-liberal economic policy as the only alternative to the failure of Keynesianism and the decisions of America and other developed countries to float their currencies prior to Australia. In other words it was a mature act of economic realism, rather than idealism. The lessons of Whitlam stood here as a counter-tradition, advising Labour to get smart about the new conditions for economic management. On the other hand this decision was based in a faith in one of capitalism’s utopias: that a free market is the best mechanism for producing and distributing goods and services.

So, Keating’s founding act as Treasurer can be viewed as an ambivalent one: realist and utopian. Read through the formal politics of Lohrey’s novel this act’s realism becomes denaturalised and its supposed necessity recast as a decision of narrative form. The question then is does global capitalism itself make decisions about narrative form? I’ve got no answers to this.

Finally, reading Keating’s market utopia through the novel. This is perhaps where the novel reaches its limits as a model for reading this event. Lohrey’s novel is concerned with her own traditional narratives, which are filtered through Brecht’s modernist aesthetics and New Left ideas about the politics of the libido and the entwining of the personal and political spheres. However the logics and forces unleashed by late capitalist finance are perhaps postmodern and better left to be read through other novels written in the wake of the float such as Anthony Macris’ Capital, volume One, or Kate Jennings’ Moral Hazard.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Don't worry about the government

Not really. You should be very worried about the government.

But this title of a Talking Heads song from their '77 LP is an invitation to visit my underused Wordpress blog Bildungs and Food (see the connection with Talking Heads?) Anyway, there's a new post up over there--Distant and close-reading in the Anthropocene--which circles around some recent developments in literary studies, tying these to ideas from Dipesh Chakrabarty's recent essay "The climate of history" and heading toward a reading of Andrew McGahan's latest novel Wonders of a Godless World.

I've been enjoying and learning from Timothy Morton's iTunes course Environment and Literature University of California Davis Campus, and this discussion of the problems with disavowing the abstractions in the concrete is interesting and a good reminder of the dangers of the rush to posit the concrete in the face of the fictions of financial derivatives etc.