Saturday, March 29, 2008

Citizenships on the track: social-liberalism after TH Marshall

[1952 Helsinki Olympic Games - 5,000M]

The ‘return’ of the heuristic and problematic of citizenship in the academic humanities (sociology, cultural studies, political science, philosophy) is often attributed to the disappearance of actually existing socialism, the onset of the ‘New World Order’, the triumph of neo-liberalism, the demise of the Fordist-Keynesian Welfare-State, the rise of globalisation. Lacking a modernising project, the Old and New Left, so the narrative I’m rehearsing goes, sought to re-invent, rehabilitate, resharpen the language and discourse of rights: the language of citizenship.

Most of this literature of the last 17 years or so references British sociologist T.H.Marshall’s influential theory of citizenship. Marshall’s 'Citizenship and social class' is: a narrative of the development of citizenship; a typology of the three forms of citizenship; and an argument concerning how what he names social citizenship works to ameliorate the class inequalities that the other two forms reproduce. So, while the heroic gains made by c18 British civil, or legal, rights are followed by the similarly expanding gains of political rights, in the c19, the stage of the c20 is populated by social rights. Written in 1950 Marshall’s triad of citizenship forms is presented as three runners on a track who have, up till ‘now’, never run alongside each other. However, in Marshall’s estimation, the onset of the Welfare state under Keynesian conditions of government permits the three runners to synchronise for the first time; to draw even and move in time.

We are some distance from such a hoped-for eurhythmia, in 2008. Not only have the three runners on Marshall’s track fallen to an arrhythmia, other runners circle: industrial and cultural citizenship also partake in the race of citizenship discourse, although the first is perhaps now as residual and winded a runner as social citizenship. To a large extent these two residual forms of citizenship – how they became residual, and why – fills the central section of this thesis, especially during the long Labor decade (1983-96). But in order to approach such a narrative of these two fallen runners, it’s first necessary to watch them on the track, pulling even, pulling ahead during Whitlam’s (1972-5) period.

And yet the notion of cultural citizenship, a relatively recent addition to the language of and discourse on citizenship, deserves some extended comment as its recent discovery brings into focus something of the post-colonial heuristic with which I also set this thesis in.

In Peter Beilharz’s essay ‘Rewriting Australia’ Beilharz sets out six (and a seventh) dominant frames within which Australian historiography has been written. Beilharz argues that for much of the twentieth century it has been the Left (old and New) which has controlled the terms and terrain of such writings, moving through:
i. Australian as social laboratory;
ii. Australia as nation-building;
iii. The Bush myth and radical nationalist traditions;
iv. New Left critiques of Australia as bourgeois and racist;
v. Social movement history;
vi. the centrality of racial exclusion; and finally, under the Prime Ministership of John Howard,
vii. a right-wing historiography based on a de-labourised nationalist populism: everyone as ‘mates’, entrepreneurs, family-oriented, aspirational.

Looking at the forms of historiogrpahic frames, from iii. to vi. evinces a growing concern with citizenship less as expanding along the axis of the social dimension, than towards the cultural (even in Howard’s ‘writing’ of the nation, cultural citizenship is a central concern). Questions of postcoloniality, thereby, come more and more forcefully present, especially over the related issues of immigration, official multiculturalism, and race relations regarding the legacies of British settlement and the institutional and everyday cultures that resonate with imperiality.

The post-colonial literary imagination, then, can be approached through Culture as a form of citizenship, although to limit cultural citizenship to merely the post-colonial problematic would bracket out much that cultural citizenship claims within its domain (sexuality, youth subculture, informational rights, aesthetics etc). But, the post-colonial (literary) imagination can be subsumed within the rise of cultural citizenship as a newly discovered problematic and set of claims for rights, if not also responsibilities, in the post 1970s Australian world.

Definitional, borders and limits, arise in attempting to demarcate the social from the cultural. How is cultural citizenship different to social? Is it - cultural citizenship - a rupture in citizenship formation, or merely a development in social citizenship? Is cultural citizenship not so much a new discovery of a new phenomenon, but rather a new discovery of an old phenomenon? What is citizenship, anyway? Does the new discovery, and related projects of, cultural citizenship arise out of melancholy, nostalgia for solid cultural identity (participation, status, belonging) in an age of liquid self-hood or cultural activity as increasingly colonised by commodization etc? What is ‘culture’ in relation to citizenship?

[Global bird tracks]

Finally, to loop back to TH Marshall's three runners on the track - legal, political and social citizenship - pulling even after over two centuries of modernity, synchronising during the take-off of the long boom and its Keynesian Fordist Welfare-State conjuncture. Will such a convergence, or even harmonised rhythm be possible again? For whom? Is such a eurhythmia an imaginary, or can it be realised, this time with the rhythms of the biosphere also in play?

Friday, March 21, 2008

The sick machine: Paul Keating's discourse and Praise

Over the last couple of weeks the skin of the Australian mass media has tingled and shivered as Princess Mary and her Prince were breathed in and sighed out: our collective lungs happy for the hint of her fairydust and reminder of the magic wand of serendipity. Less welcomed were another set of figures which felt more like a rash or a tightening of the chest as the Reserve Bank raised interest rates and a string of national accounts and economic indicators sent out a more anxious shiver through the body politic. Statistical data seemed to come in a jumbled rush: record Current Account deficit, a blow-out in the Foreign debt, low consumer confidence, inflation low, slowing Gross domestic product growth, low unemployment. After the statistical symptoms were examined the diagnoses began: bottlenecks, speed bumps, supply-side constraints, skills-shortages, inflationary pressures, infrastructure roadblocks, a light touch on the brakes. Amidst the prognoses, assurances and cures, from a time of another fairytale Princess, an older semiotics, seemingly ready made for times like these, announced itself. With talk and images of Banana Republics and "The recession we had to have" this older discourse seemed to act as temporal compass points against which to locate when we are.

Just as he had done when he issued the 'Banana Republic' warning in 1986, in another time of ill figures, Paul Keating spoke again to John Laws on radio, a few weeks ago, his rhetorical skills still sharp:

LAWS: It seems to me the government is absolutely paranoid about deficits.

KEATING: The problem was, I inoculated a whole generation of state treasurers with a surplus needle and none have found the antidote - that's the problem."

Keating continued, offering his own diagnosis and cure for the problems with the economy:
It's like an old car, you've got to keep servicing the motor. . . If the government decides they can just keep running and putting petrol and oil in, but never give the car a service, you know we'll end up with less performance.

Throughout his public life Keating has invoked figures like those of 'inoculation', 'antidote' and the 'family car', to diagnose, economic and social problems and prescribe economic solutions. In the 1993 election campaign he called a vote for John Hewson's GST:' like a vote for influenza . . .a debilitating, parasitic tax.' In his 1988 Budget speech he stated that, 'While the balance of payments deficit is Australia's number one economic problem, inflation remains Australia's number one economic disease' and he also said, 'markets can be an efficient mechanism for all sorts of economic and social purposes.' This aspect of statecraft, or political rhetoric, was employed by Keating to explain, convince and persuade mainly the domestic, polities, publics and markets, and also, the international markets and polities, that something was sick and broken down in the Australian nation, or that his political opponents would infect the social body. The corollary of this was that Keating and the ALP, would make this something that was sick, become healthy by overhauling and re-engineering key economic and social institutions.

The 13 years of ALP Government from 1983 to 1996, was the period when Australians seemed to become vastly more economically literate, understanding how, for example, inflation related to the exchange rate and how to read the economic indicators. It was a time of macro- and micro-economic reform where the post-war Keynesian model of regulation allied to a project of government nation-building and welfare state expansion gave way to deregulation and privatisation of government controls, services and businesses, the accelerated removal of trade protection, the creed of budget surpluses, the floating of the currency and the deregulation of the banking and finance sector. It was also a government that installed Medicare, and had wages and income accord agreements with the trade union movement and the corporate sector. It presented itself as a Labor Government who put forward and implemented a plan to reform the economy along economically rationalist lines, without sacrificing its social justice beliefs. More than anyone else in that 13 years, first as treasurer, then Prime Minister, Paul Keating came to embody that dual project of economic rationalism with a social democratic heart. Meaghan Morris reads Keating's television performances as an attempted fusion of this dual project at the levels of form and content:

Any treasurer can promise the economic discourse has a magic power of "closing the gap that separates language from the experience it encodes", in order to satisfy longing; such closure is the aim of policy. However, the gap between Keating's hypercoded Labor vocality and his managerial language paradoxically also promised that his discourse could narrow the gulf between the social values (egalitarian, solidary, compassionate) mythically upheld as national ideals in white working class popular memory, and the realpolitik of economic rationalism - elitist, divisive, competitive.

(Ecstasy and Economics)

To some extent this attempted fusion in the dual project that Keating embodied can also be read from his linguistic metaphorics; his deployment of analogies within his discourse that appear to congeal around two distinct sets: metaphors of the body and metaphors of the engine. What I'm going to do now is explore each in turn before heading on to explore something similar operating in Praise.

Metaphors of the engine

The idea that an economy is analogous to a machine, an engine, and especially a motor car, seems almost a natural one. Like a motor, an economy has mechanisms, working parts, it can be kick-started, slowed, fine-tuned, overhauled, powerful, efficient, productive, overheated. The engine in the private car can perform, turn, accelerate, crash, stall, grind to a halt, hit a speedbump. Governments can pull its levers, steer it, touch the brakes, add fuel, change the gearing, read the dashboard instrument panel. Cars can be economical. A car leaves somewhere and arrives. It promises mobility and can carry passengers. It can be safe, protective and absorb shocks. Perhaps it can also be sick and healthy: cars after all have bodies too.

In Keating's discourse the engine and car metaphors are analogues of the utopian economy that economically rational reform will achieve: a productive, efficient, powerful, high performance engine. The old, inefficient, spluttering motor that the ALP Government must work on when they come into office, is transformed, in Keating's discourse into something new :

[we'll] get the economy ticking over like it should with the new motor Labor had given it, get the republic, get reconciliation, get everything wrapped up into a really nice little society to go with the economic motor.

Not long after he became Prime Minister in late 1991, Australia still in recessionary conditions, Keating tabled the 'One Nation' statement in parliament: a set of policies designed to continue with the economic reforms of the 1980s, but with some measures for the unemployed, and a big increase in public spending, especially for building infrastructure for transport links throughout the nation. While there are policies and sympathies expressed for the struggling and unemployed, the statement is mainly an acceleration of economic reform expressed in terms of a nation-wide, interconnected transport grid, that will 'speed recovery' with, "Measures big enough to kickstart the economy and get things going."

The statement is peppered with terms like: 'speed', 'energy', 'efficiency', 'big', 'strong', 'spark', 'moving',' closing the gap', making 'links', 'among the fastest growing economies in the world.' One reading of this statement is that the motor that the ALP government has built, can overcome recessions that are necessary - the recession we had to have - if it can be bigger, more interconnected, travel faster, more productive.

Keating's metaphors of the engine portray an unswerving utopian faith in the economically rational model:"Labor believed that markets can be an efficient mechanism for all sorts of economic and social purposes."

It's not that Keating appears to abandon what could be called the policies and values of Labourism or, his social democratic soul. In areas like Medicare, the Accord, the Mabo legislation, his Creative nation funding, family support payments, aspects of Labourism survive. But perhaps that something alluded to in the metaphors of the economic machine, has a logic of its own that Keating's discourse can't quite excise,

it was an unprecedented period of deliberate and often brave reform in which the government and the people strived to make Australia a first rate country - a place with a powerful economic engine and a soul to match.

Metaphors of the body in Keating's discourse.

In 1993, not long before Keating would defeat the Coalition leader John Hewson, the man Bob Ellis dubbed a 'feral abacus', Don Watson recounts in his Keating biography,

Earlier in the day I had tried to persuade him to tell an audience that voting for the GST was like voting for influenza. He liked the idea but he wanted to say cancer - that it would eat the white blood cells of the country. He wanted to say that the GST would be the 'killing fields' of the Australian family.

(Recollections of a Bleeding heart: a Portrait Paul Keating Prime Minister)

In this example, Keating seems to be playing with the metaphorics of cancer, stretching it into connotations with Pol Pot's regime in Cambodia, with the implication that Hewson, and his GST, would do what Pol Pot had done. This is quite a rare metaphor of illness from Keating in that it affects a murderous, painful dystopia. Most of his metaphors of the body, however, are of more general, curable illnesses, which sit within his big picture narratives.

One class of Keating's metaphors of the body operate within his ALP Government legacy narratives - not so much the big picture, but the big story - the national story. These stories, told after 1996, share a similar structure: heroic major reform was necessary because the social body was terminally ill prior to 1983. This reform made the nation healthy by opening it up, getting it moving, flexible and getting some air into its lungs. These metaphors of the body are not so much about specific diseases, like cancer or influenza, but rather some unameable condition close to death:

When I look back on those thirteen years of Labor government I think of the period after the summit as the intensive care ward.

I think we can . . say that in opening Australia up, in peeling the tariff wall away and removing exchange rate controls and giving the country some real breath and life inside it, we have turned Australia to our neighbourhood, reoriented it to the world.
Eschewing the closed and closeted approach, with a sclerotic financial market, and a country ring-fenced by tariffs, the Labor Government 1983 to 1996 opted to peel back the layers of introspection and protection.

And so began the ambitious program of opening Australia up. Of internationalising the economy, internationalising the financial and product markets and seeking competitiveness the real and genuine way - by a marked upward shift in productivity.
And productivity could only come from a competitive structure - one in which we had true flexibility within and between sectors; with an open financial market, with competition and innovation coming from the great financial centres; and, in the product area, with the astringent, tonic effects of competition from imports allowed freely into the economy, without needing to jump an arbitrary domestic price hurdle.
We finished with a more healthy and robust country and a Labor Party that would never be the same again.

The key body metaphors here are 'peeling', 'breath', 'opening up' - corresponding to skin, lungs and the cavities or porous openings of the body. I want to return to these metaphors of the body later in regard to Praise and suggest that the ill bodies in Praise can be read back into this process of reform.

In these 'ALP in Government' legacy narratives, Keating's discourse not only invokes the analogy of the body politic, or rather, the social body, he is also aligning its health to economic reform. The health of the social body is an effect of economic health. One reading of this story is utopic - the government finds the social body in a dystopic condition: closed in on itself, underdeveloped, overprotective, lacking energy, almost sullen, hiding from the world, in terminal decline. Over those 13 years, the ALP Government, makes it grow up and develop, lose it fears, gain energy, become flexible and responsive, become confident, face the world and compete in it: let the world in. The promise of economic rationalism is that this new energy and openness is how a settler culture like Australia, which has never industrialised to the degree of most western nations, can finally grow up: by instilling the disciplines of the global marketplace.

In this utopic narrative the recession of the early 1990s is a necessary 'growing pain', but Keating slowly comes around to acknowledging, again through metaphors of illness, that the health of the social body may not entirely be an effect of economically rational health,

When market economies are left alone in a recession, the economy's influenza becomes pneumonia for a proportion of the unemployed. And for some of these there is no quick cure when the winter is over for the rest of us.

There was a lacerating recession which bore down heavily on people who deserved better, many of whom had accommodated the economic changes, seized the new economic opportunities, who had put their faith in us.

Again, Keating is talking in particular about the lungs and the skin - influenza, pneumonia and laceration. Placing these 'recession' illnesses, against the 'peeling', 'breathing', and 'opening up' curatives of economic reform, also featuring the lungs and skin, produces a kind of metaphoric dissonance; a kind of wheezing, or rash. Less like influenza or laceration which are acute events and can usually be healed. But something more of a mixture of the chronic and acute: more like asthma or eczema.


I mean, what was Labor, really in economic terms, before 1983? As a party, it believed in regulation. It believed in regulation of the banking system. It believed in regulation of the exchange rate. It believed in tariffs. We had abysmal rates of productivity, of labour productivity and factor productivity. We had low profits, therefore low investments. We had high unemployment. I mean, what did we abandon? It's like losing an eczema.

The GST would apply to 'even the things that people rely upon to give them that comfort like asthma medication ventolin.

It could be argued that it's the recession of the early 1990s that starts to produce this dissonance in Keating's metaphors - a sort of rupture in the utopic movement of the grand story of economic reform. This story as Don Watson, writes, was not quite seamless in the early 1990s:

Keating said the previous ten years was a story of bravery and collective goodwill that had saved Australia [and the other story, to be told after the election win, was] the 'inclusive' story, the big picture with people in it . . .the emerging story of an Australian Republic in the Asia-Pacific. . . .He said the two stories were really one. They joined somewhere in the middle with the recession, but the recession was not so much a chapter as a diversion, a lengthy footnote or appendix.


In this period of the footnote, the recession of the early 90s, another story was circulating in the social body, although this one was hardly addressed to a mass public like Keatings' was: Andrew McGahan's 1992 novel Praise. Praise is generally considered to be the first example of Australian grunge fiction, and has been variously evaluated as 'typing - not writing', 'young, sexually charged, contemporary, angry, ahistorical, amoral, nihilistic writing', 'all action, no consequences' and a 'novel of the bored, middle-class university dropout'. Told through the first person lens of 23 year old asthmatic, Gordon Buchanan, Praise, reads like a sequence of realist journal entries, which describe, in a quite flat, yet wry and very graphic prose, Gordon's gritty life on the dole in Brisbane, and the torrid, doomed sexual affair he enters into with a recovering heroin addict, Cynthia Lamonde.

Gordon, an asthmatic, aspires to be a writer, but in spite of already writing a novel and short stories, has little ambition for anything but depressing poetry about sex and violence. He is marked by a sense of sexual failure He has moved to Brisbane from his family home in Dalby, a rural town outside of Brisbane, in order to attend university, from which he soon drops out. Along with the old Holden Kingswood that he has inherited from his parents, he also brings to Brisbane a torch for his grand teenage love Rachel, who lived on a property near his family's and also now lives in Brisbane. She is part of his circle of friends that drink and take drugs together, at pubs and parties and nightclubs in Brisbane.

Atopic diseases

Cynthia, who is also 23, suffers from atopic dermatitis, or eczema, a condition related to asthma, and is from the southern metropole of Sydney . She has come to Brisbane with her parents to escape the sex and drug addictions of her life there and worked at the same pub as Gordon did, the Capital Hotel, before a dispute between staff and management led to a mass walk-out. Cynthia quits, while Gordon, after discovering that he is expected to cover the shortfall by working extra shifts, quits as well. Her father is in the army and about to be transferred to Darwin when she calls up Gordon and invites him over for a drink. They quickly exchange frank personal and sexual histories and proclivities, and details about their diseases, including how they both fail to avoid allergic substances, how Cynthia's cortisone has severe side effects, and how they both exacerbate their conditions by smoking and drinking. They fall asleep that night and Gordon awakens with an asthma attack which he medicates with ventolin, followed by a cigarette, while Cynthia's face and skin is livid red, and bleeding. They rise, eat breakfast then take a drug called Catovits, a prescription drug for Cynthia's depression, which is an amphetamine, and then back to drinking beer. And so their warts, literally, and all affair begins. They move into Gordon's flat in a run-down boarding house, full of older men who drink all day, steal each others belongings and occasionally beat up the weaker amongst them. The communal bathroom in the boarding house is never cleaned, and in an early scene Gordon and Cynthia, after injecting heroin, sit in the filthy bathtub there for hours, and then have sex in one of the dirty cubicles. This is all described in frank, clinical detail as is the violence and other diseases, like cancer, that start to appear. Their relationship progresses then deteriorates.

Praise creates a kind of literary bohemia, but one without the poetic epiphanies and moments of transforming transcendence, normally associated with an artistic underground. Gordon and Cynthia move through the marginal and liminal zones of Brisbane and their bodies, experimenting with desires, sex and drugs. But there is no romantic transportation in Praise. Their derangement of the senses leads to less, rather than more, insight, more danger, more disease. There are momentary glimpses of utopia in Praise, but these are narcotic and hallucinogenic experiences which fail to transcend the dangers to and diseases of their bodies which grow and accelerate.

Gordon eventually pulls out of the relationship by refusing Cynthia sex. He wants to stop the increasingly unregulated derangements and desires within which he oscillates in widening, less balanced and more violent arcs and cycles. He finds that he swings from being a passive masochist to an active sadist, becoming more depressed, more diseased, more prone to asthmatic attacks; more consumed and violent: more out of control.

Freeing himself from Cynthia, he and his utopian teenage love, Rachel, start to move toward each other. But unlike Cynthia, Rachel is too rational, too regulated, too mature for her and Gordon to manage their sexual and romantic exchanges. The economy of their relationship can't find a common currency. She won't invest anything in Gordon, because he has nothing to offer her but his presence. They fail to move forward together.

The penultimate scene is set at a bacchanalian party after which Gordon' s body crashes. His body is choked by a near terminal asthma attack. His luck runs out. Someone had put dishwashing liquid in the cocktails:

There was no air . . .Nothing went in. I was over the edge, I was going. . . .I became deeply annoyed. My body was letting me down. I wasn't going to make it on my own. I was going to have to seek medical help. [p269]

I still couldn't breathe, but I wasn't worried about that now. It was out of my hands. The system was taking over and for once I was glad. [p271]

The sick machine

Gordon's bodily crash has an homology with the figure of his car - an old Holden HZ Kingswood from the 1970s - an old motor from the time before the ALP installed the new one. This car has been handed down to him through his large rural family - it's his family inheritance - a link with the Old Australia: the National car from that different era of protection and tariffs, nation-building and regulations.
The Holden car carries two very different meanings in Australian culture. On the one hand it is symbol of a successful Australian manufacturing industry aligned with Ben Chifley, the ALP Prime Minister who spoke of the Light on the hill and also tried to nationalise the banks. On the other hand it's a symbol of a set of more troubling myths of Australian identity: masculine, aggressive, pragmatic, white.

In Praise, Gordon's Kingswood becomes a metaphor for his body:

I knew nothing about my car. I neglected it. I drove it badly. I let drunken fools do what they wanted with it. And yet it kept on going for me, mile after mile. Year after year.

In one scene, Gordon and Cynthia go on a joy ride while hallucinating on LSD. Cynthia is driving, as they head out of Brisbane:

Cynthia picked up speed. Eighty, a hundred, a hundred and twenty, a hundred and forty - it was as fast as the old Kingswood could go. We were on a road that rolled up and down the hills. We bounced along. I stuck my head out the window. Sucked in the air.
Cynthia said, 'Watch this.'
We hit the top of the hill. I could see the road stretching down. Then Cynthia flicked off the lights. She floored the accelerator. We roared down in pitch darkness. I screamed. Cynthia screamed. The car bottomed out and started climbing. Cynthia flicked the lights back on. We were on the wrong side of the road, verging on gravel. Cynthia righted the car and we breasted the hill.
She pounded the wheel. 'This car has wings.'
Down we went and out went the lights. This time the road, in the moment I'd seen it, hadn't looked so straight. It curved. It curved ninety degrees.
'Turn the f ing lights on!' I screamed.
Cynthia laughed, a banshee laugh. I looked at the speed. A hundred and fifty.
She did it. We were off the road, two wheels in the dirt.
'Shit!' said Cynthia. She braked, swung the wheel. The back slid out. We were spinning. I felt the car tilt, knew it would roll. I clutched onto the door. We went round once, twice. We started round again and then it stopped. We were on the road, facing back the way we'd come, clouds of dust billowing past us.
Cynthia was laughing, shrieking. 'Did you see that, did you see that!'
I let go of the door.
'You crazy bitch. You f-ing crazy bitch.'
'Oh shut up, we're all right.
'All right?!'
She turned the ignition, hit the accelerator.

On another joyride Gordon's car eventually crashes:

We crawled home. By the time we hit Brisbane it was almost dawn. The engine was overheating and the wine was all gone. We drove to Frank and Maree's house and parked. . . .I looked at the Kingswood. It was depressing. The only thing, perhaps, that I truly loved without question - and there it lay, dying in the cul de sac.

Gordon's Kingswood survives the crash, gets stolen and found again, its body slowly getting more damaged, but still reliable: an old motor still ticking over in spite of the powerful economic engine Keating has installed.

What I want to suggest is that Praise can be read not so much as a dystopian footnote to Keating's utopian stories of the grand adventure in economic reform: the powerful economic engine producing the healthy economic and social body, but more as an atopian one - economic rationalism isn't so much a dystopia - it's more of an atopia - like asthma and eczema.

Atopic conditions, like asthma and eczema, effectively displace and defer the acute events of skin disease and suffocation: diseases of the lungs and the skin. Atopic conditions are quite singular. They are neither terminal nor acute and temporary. They can be mostly, conditions of infancy and childhood, but also, increasingly in the developed world, conditions of adults. There is a mystery surrounding these atopic conditions - sometimes they are genetic hypersensitivities to antigens that others have no trouble accepting into the body; sometimes it's the antigens themselves that trigger the attack . Atopic conditions, are so named because the symptomatic event - the rash and sores, the asthmatic inflammation and suffocating, the choking of lung deflation, is not caused by direct contact with the antigen - the cause is from nowhere/ no place - the cause and the effect is displaced and sometimes deferred. Another interesting factor is that stress, psychological factors, can exacerbate the conditions - as can the conventional treatments - ventolin and cortisone.

Interestingly, asthma and eczema, are more prominent in childhood, hence Keating's allusion to 'losing an eczema'. But, contra- to Keating's eczema metaphor, in which the ALP engineers a developed, mature, grown-up economy, eczema and asthma are singular in that they are diseases on the increase in the developed world - especially America. Reading the two metaphorics against each other, seems to produce another dissonance: losing an eczema is mature deregulation, in Keating's dicourse- but eczema is more a disease of the developed world than the undeveloped. Maybe there is something childish in late-capitalist consumer culture : not so much a maturity in the developed world but a profligacy, a wantonness and wastefulness - a libidinal desiring machine that is addicted to pleasure, stimulants, and easy finance capital. A consumptiveness that defers costs - we'll pay for it in the future - and displaces costs - they'll pay for it now, or in the future, it's not global warming, it's just climate change.

One way of reading these atopic bodies is to thread two aspects of the reforms of the ALP government through them. Cynthia - the peeling of the skin. Cynthia is the subject of the opening up of the economy - the borders are opened to goods and services, the pores are opened up - they are bleeding. Cynthia is affirmation of desire - she consumes and possesses Gordon, she dominates him. She introduces him to injecting heroin - the most powerful narcotic. Cynthia is out of control - diseased. Cynthia is the external accounts - the BOP, the foreign debt, the CAD - she spends her energy, she honours her libidinal flows, she is open to the world, she likes to be penetrated, or rather uses the world to penetrate her - she is addicted and addictive.

Gordon on the other hand, is passive. He has low energy and low motivation - he is not so much closed in on himself, but is very much the pre-1983 Keating model of the terminal,unhealthy economy. He refuses work, lives with relics, the detritus of the those who didn't make the translation to the new economy. He abuses the welfare state. Gordon, doesn't like efficiency, rationality, clarity, reciprocal exchange - he prefers violence, debasement, degradation, entropy. Gordon is un-masculine. Gordon is about passive regulation and occasionally, active negation. To some extent he is a symbol for the major lever of the regulation of finance capital - the Reserve Bank - key symptom: inflation. While in the Keynesian model the Reserve Bank focussed on unemployment, primarily and also inflation, the goals of the Reserve Bank altered in the ALP govt period from exchange rate interventions, to Current Account Deficit to inflation: effectively controlling the lungs of the economy by choking it and releasing it. This movement can be seen as a response to the shaping of the world economy by the needs and demands of finance capital - which displaces and defers its costs, thereby insulating itself from risk - what the economists call a situation of 'moral hazzard'.

Nearly 22 years after the Australian dollar was floated, when Australia plugged and intermeshed its financial markets into those of the global system, and a new cultural logic started to move through society, we still believe in fairytales of utopia, that our luck will hold, that we are healthier now than ever, and that the car won't crash.

As Kate Jennings, writing in 2003, puts it:

We need rules of the road; why not rules for the financial markets? The financial markets are no longer the equivalent of a manageable two-lane highway; we're talking a hundred lanes or more. One person or firm careering down that highway or even just driving distractedly can cause a god-almighty pile up. (from Speech to the Sydney Institute)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Gordon Ramsay - Kung Fu** man?

I love reality TV shows. The current fascination in our household is for Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares: USA and UK versions. These two shows share the makeover convention of the reality TV genre, but if there is a game show element in these formats it's the 'this is as real as it gets' competition that is the market in restaurant-trading.

How do you win? Survive. Accumulate.

But how do you survive and accumulate?

As influxus, commenting on a post at sOmetim3s, writes:
I’m thinking about the Ramsay tv franchise Kitchen Nightmares and the operation of its foodie show status in spreading violent meritocracy, military-style discipline and property-makes-right to the scale of small restaurants.

Ramsay has been called a celebrity change-management consultant in a recent review of his US version of Kitchen Nightmares in The Age. Exactly. Having trouble managing? Let Gordon and his (hidden) team give you a make-over, sort out where the (pyschological or physical) blocks are in your enterprise and make it make money for you. Modernize. Flexibilize. Believe. Win.

Ramsay's neoliberalizing of the scloretic practices of restaurants, like Bonapartes in Silsden, West Yorkshire, is presented in the form of a compressed change-management master-class shown on TV. In order to unblock the barriers to success, Gordon sets out to shock chefs, floor managers, owners with stunts and volleys of vulgarity. One effect of these interventions is to humble and humilate those who work in these places. This is part of the perverse pleasure of watching the show. And yet after the Ramsay-fication of Bonapartes, for example, these media vectors of humilation into the Restaurant's owners and staff didn't dissipate. After Ramsay's salutary humbling there is a danger that others in the local community might jump on the vector and follow Ramsay's lead: after all one lesson from Kitchen Nightmares is that to survive in the lean & modish market-place of floggin' food, you can never get above your customers or too up yourself. If anger unblocks the energy of enterprise then the byproduct of humilation is what consume.

In the song Rise, PIL's John Lydon sang 'Anger is an energy'. This post-punk anthem continues a theme and method that Lydon began his punk career with: that anger is means of negating an unlivable situation. And from such a negation new possibilities might emerge. Ramsay too uses anger to beak-down people and systems to first negate then to re-form the psyches of these broken-down people, and their systems, with the techniques of neoliberal rationality. (see Wendy Brown here - pdf)

Ramsay tears down pride, sloth, and nostalgia and in this space inserts a realism about profiting from restaurant trading. So, in place of Chef-pride we get simple, cheap, local cuisine, quickly prepared and simple to serve; for sloth we get efficiency motivation, and flexibility; and for nostalgia, Ramsay modernizes - often through a physical renovation, nearly always through a menu reduction and alteration, and by often changing the restaurant's name.

Is this a spiritual exercise?

A strange question for a TV show that is viewed in-between advertisements for shirts, cars, other TV shows . . . Yet, Ramsay's motivational visits to ailing restaurants are both times for healing and for imparting the wisdom of the way. But mostly I think that Ramsay's is a spiritual practice because of the meme at the end of the British shows: the lights in the Restaurant are still on, it's night and the last guests are filtering out. Ramsay might talk to that spot just to the left of camera, a last minute piece of motivational-reportage, on the pavement. The camera pulls back, Ramsay's back is to us, as he pulls his jacket collar up and walks off, as if once more out into the desert or the urban jungle: walking the lone path of the way.

Gordon Ramsay, Kung Fu man?

Will the road rise with Ramsay? What happens to all the model citizens that Gordon hot-wires? Is there something beyond restaurant-neoliberalism? Is my fascination with these shows healthy?


I could be wrong
I could be right
I could be wrong

I could be wrong
I could be right
I could be black
I could be white
I could be right
I could be wrong
I could be white
I could be black

Your time has come
Your second skin
The cost so high
The gain so low
Walk through the valley
The written word is a lie

May the road rise with you
May the road rise with you
May the road rise with you

I could be wrong
I could be right
I could be wrong
I could be right

I could be wrong
I could be right
I could be wrong
I could be right
I could be black
I could be white
I could be right
I could be wrong
I could be black
I could be white
They put a hot wire to my head
Cos of the things I did and said
They made these feelings go away
Model citizen in every way

Monday, March 10, 2008

Capturing lives in liquid modern times

The Necks performing LAW [pdf file of performance poster]

Ross Gibson’s essay ‘The Rise of Digital Multimedia’ in Cultural Studies Review (12:1 Mar 2006) sets out a useful and brief thumbnail sketch of two moments in the historical sociology of cultural forms which he uses to buttress his claim that his co-composed digital multimedia project Life After Wartime (LAW) is perhaps a cultural form suited to our transnational-globalized moment.

The first moment in the history of cultural forms for Gibson, Ian Watt’s 1957 The Rise of the Novel is ‘a classic of cultural history’, whereby
In seeking to understand why the novel emerged so quickly and with so much influence during the early eighteenth century, Watt started from the premise that artistic forms often mimic the psychological, social, and political conditions prevalent in the particular era that gives rise to them. He contended that early novelists such as Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding developed literary techniques for dramatising the emergence of the bourgeois individual, with its private sensibility, its responsibility to create opportunities for itself and its need for self-reflective interior monologues with which to access the relationship between self and the world.(141-2)

For Gibson, following Watt, the study of new cultural forms like the novel affords ‘insight into periods of psychic, political and philosophical flux.’

‘Cultural forms tend to get invented and become popular at exactly the time they are needed.’(142)

Next Gibson, rightly I think, argues that the novel’s capacity to perform the work that it did for reading publics in the c18 and c19 became exhausted perhaps because of the limits of its potential to innovate being reached, but more importantly because it was superseded by the kinetic cultural medium of cinema, which was better equipped and suited to mimick the experience of urban modernity and its time-space compression:

With the machine age and the urban explosion it caused, the modern world was being newly defined by the way energy was expressed urgently within a newly compressed world of speedy, mechanical rhythm. And cinema mimicked this shift in impetus.(143)

If for Gibson the novel’s emergence occurs alongside that of the Western Bourgeois individual-self, and it’s forms of privacy/ private property (following Benedict Anderson in his Imagined Communities nationalism should really be added to the social-forms that Gibson lists as emerging with the novel), then the emergence of cinema accompanies that of the social masses and the c20 national-popular nationalisms:

Consider Australia circa 1901, at the inauguration of the federal government: cinema enabled people in Gympie, Sydney and Adelaide, let’s say, to share a perceptual and a conceptual frame where they had previously been dissociated. (143)

So, Gibson argues that these cultural forms are reflective of and help to create ways of making sense of the epochs in which they are put to work:

But cinema has its limits. Understanding this, we can start contemplating the rise of digital multimedia systems in our own era. A definitive characteristic of the movies is the way they ‘lock off’ their several dynamic parts into a final version, the ‘release print’. This ultimate inflexibility of cinema is similar to the way most national-scale communities responded to the turbulence of modernity by insisting that their societies first synchronise energetically to the machine world and then stabilise permanently once the new political state was realised. (143-4)

As cinema is to nationalism, DM (Digital multimedia) is for transnationalism (or globalisation) because DM is unfinished, not locked off ‘explicitly provisional’(144).Gibson:

Because of the dynamics of its file structures and the integrating, evolving codes that get applied to those files, any digital multimedia configuration is a contentious event in a continuous process rather than a completed, content-full object; it is always ready to be dismantled and reassembled into new alignments as soon as the constituent files have been federated in response to momentary prevailing ‘world conditions’. (144-5 emphasis added)

Digital Multimedia (DM) then, in this case Gibson's collaborative project Life After Wartime (LAW), is a form for our transnational-globalised moment, or so Gibson argues.

Responding to an extraordinary collection of crime scene photographs belonging to the New South Wales Police, LAW is a ‘story-engine’ or speculative ‘conjunction-machine’ that restlessly combines still images plus haiku-like texts plus musical sound files plus stimulus from the interactive user. The original archive is a jumble of evidence associated with actual people who have been caught in painfully real outbreaks of fate, desire or rage. (145)

The conclusive texts (verdicts, prosecution and defence case etc) are withheld. The ‘user’ is operating as an 'investigator', rather than 'reader or receiver': to engage is to compose with found materials. Encouraging ‘a forensic rhythm in the imagination, the intellect, the spirit.’ (147)

While it's interesting and even persuasive that he invokes something like a polyrhythmic function for DM, I find the social-historical homology between the form of this multimedia and our putative transnational moment to be undertheorised: that the effects of 'transnational-globalisation' might be experienced unevenly, that glocalization might be experienced as time-space de-compression, or that the forms of DM might be what we use to solve or live with a contradiction, or to provide a means of living with asynchronies - all these considerations are not entertained by Gibson's essay.

I want to come at this issue of form-history another way. Two Australian novels published last year, Andrew Hutchinson’s Rohypnol and Malcolm Knox’s Jamaica portray a hyper-masculinized ruling class (and its nouveau bourgeois contestant) whose power is not practised solely in the exercise of accumulated cultural capital, nor completely in their use of financial capital, but rather their class dominance resides in the practice and capacity to control time-space: to be able to evade capture - to not get caught - when Others are after you (effectively to compress time-space, to fly out at a moment’s notice); and inversely to decompress time-space: to languidly luxuriate in the opulent no-places of resort cultures and the entertainment fortresses of private homes.

These sociological concepts are from Zygmunt Bauman's Liquid Modernity:

Domination consists in one's own capacity to escape, to disengage, to 'be elsewhere', and the right to decide the speed with which all that is done - while simultaneously stripping the people on the dominated side of their ability to arrest or constrain their moves or slow them down. The contemporary battle for domination is waged between forces armed, respectively, with the weapons of acceleration and procrastination . . .Light modernity let one partner out of the cage. 'Solid' modernity was an era of mutual engagement. 'Fluid' modernity is the epoch of disengagement, elusiveness, facile escape and hopeless chase. In 'liquid modernity', it is the most elusive, those free to move without notice, who rule.(120)

Now, Gibson's historical sociology of cultural form - here DM - would seem to be only a celebration of transnational-globalisation (also cosmopolitanism) rather than also being a critique of its rationalities. And yet the dominant operational genre of LAW is investigation: piecing together (or what J Attali in Noise names the fourth order of musicking - composition) narratives from fragments of text, photographs etc. The goal or game here is to generate assemblages composed of technique, evidence, narrative, hunch, hypotheses, mood so as to catch or nab the perpetrators of the crimes these archival photos from 1945-60, and archival text, are evidence for and in.

Is the operational goal, then, of LAW (investigating and generating a narrative of a crime, using DM) to provide us with, potentially, the skills of capture in a liquid modern globe? If getting caught is a crime in neoliberalism then playing the LAW-game might help us develop both the formal skills of composing captures, but also of making evasions.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Toward a sound theory of Australian Grunge fiction


If we understand Grunge simply as some ephemeral moment of literary fashion or nihilistic rage then we sell it short. And, while the age, ethnicity, gender and sexuality of its various authors is crucial, the various works are not limited to authorial designs or single issues. They articulate the rumblings of a structure of feeling that is being demolished at its deepest level.1

What the hell is Grunge anyway? I think I know what Grunge music is. It’s the child of punk, thrashing out pain and despair and alienation . . .But what is Grunge in the literary context?2

Liner notes

One of the marginal themes to emerge from the debates over so-called Grunge fiction in the Australian literary public sphere was how literary critics, academics, even those writers who themselves were placed within the Grunge genre, thought and wrote about musical Grunge culture. Creeping out from the literary journals the more public debates over what Grunge fiction named occurred from mid-1995 and into 1996 when a slew of new Grunge novels were published.3 In the wider media-sphere sustained articles in the national broadsheets The Weekend Australian, The Australian and metropolitan The Sun Herald surveyed and attempted to discern what might be an emerging generic and generational rupture in the Australian literary field.4 While attempts to interpret these novels oscillated between prior generic labels (Beat, punk) and the more damming critiques which centred around accusations of adolescent literary concerns and technique allied with cynical marketing pushes by the publishers (The Great Grunge fiction Swindle?), the notion that Grunge fiction and Grunge music might name a shared response to significant currents in (western) global political culture is an absent one in these broadsheet surveys. Instead, the question of whether any connection between popular musical culture and fiction has any hermeneutic value was voiced most clearly in the more contained world of the Australian literary public sphere.

Michael George Smith’s 1992 review of Praise produces the most engaged attempt to ‘sympathetically’ think this homology between the musical and literary fields.5 Considering that Smith was at the time associate editor of the Sydney musical street press newspaper, The Drum Media, such an attempt to ‘read’ Praise, as springing from the same psychological and sociological conditions as a musical sub-culture, is understandable. The problem, though, is that Smith’s chosen musical sub-culture is not Grunge rock, but instead a particular reading of Punk musical culture. Beginning with an epigram from cultural historian Jon Savage’s 1991 England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock : “In this gap left by the failure of hippie idealism . . . a new kind of vicious teenage nihilism was breeding” what is most striking in Smith’s deployment of a fragment of Savage’s text is also what is most symptomatic about how Smith and other critics and commentators think and write the question of any homology between musical and literary culture: the elision of large chunks of political-cultural history, and the promotion of a discourse of rock as authentic/ expressive realism at the expense of other understandings of rock and pop music which hear and see it as artifice and knowingly sophisticated in its use of form, image and text.6

For to return Savage’s elided quote to its textual context produces an entirely different meaning to the one that Smith uses to draw a (highly compressed) linear genealogy between a stiffly socio-psychological reading of punk and Praise’s transparent, repeated reflection of this 1975 moment of teenage nihilism, vacancy and boredom. The original quote (here restored to its paragraph) reads:

In a fragmented market, Bowie made an ambitious attempt to codify a new pop generation: the artificial, trebly shriek of the Spiders From Mars deliberately alienated the older hippie audience. Apart from the wish-fulfilling power of Ziggy Stardust, his most resonant record was as producer of Mott the Hopple’s ‘All The Young Dudes’. In the gap left by the failure of hippie idealism, so its script went, a new kind of vicious, teenage nihilism was breeding: ‘Is it concrete all around or is it in my head?’7 (emphasis added)

While I could be accused of also taking this quote out of its context8, to know that Savage is here talking about one of the key manipulators of 1970s pop, Bowie, and, more specifically, a song lyric rather than a psycho-sociological reading, undercuts the notion that punk musical culture can only be read and heard as an authentic expression of teenage alienation, anger and boredom, rather than also being an artificial and formally innovative response to the political-cultural environment of its time.

A second citational example from Smith’s review of Praise again performs a de-contextualising move that shuts down a key component of Savage’s hermeneutics of punk: the thinkers in punk were engaged less in nihilism than negation. Smith’s second Savage citation appears in the context of his first paragraph, a discussion of the song Blank Generation written by the New York ‘punk’ Richard Hell, which Smith interprets as “an anthem for a generation of young people [that] seemed to sum up the feelings of disillusion in a world that had quite obviously not been changed by the ‘Summer of Love’.”9 Smith continues, drawing the Sex Pistols, the emblematic punk band, into his frame,

In England too, the optimism of youth had soured into what would become the punk movement, whose anthems came with titles like No Future and Pretty Vacant courtesy a band called The Sex Pistols [sic]. As Jon Savage elaborates, their songs and others like them seemed to present a new aesthetic, “the attractions of vacancy: not just of being bored, but the deeper vacancy of the subconscious.”10 (emphasis added)

Again it’s worth placing this quote from Savage back into its textual context, because to do so reveals the extent to which Smith, either consciously or not, is promoting a specific discourse of punk – as authentic, unmediated youth revolt:

Early in 1975, Hell wrote a protean song of escape. The idea was borrowed from an early sixties beat cash-in, Rod McKeun’s ‘Beat Generation’, but Hell was ambitious, attempting to turn fake culture – for what, in the saturated 1970s, was not mediated, and therefore suspect? – into real culture. ‘Blank Generation’ laid out the attractions of vacancy: not just being or looking bored, but the deeper vacancy of the subconscious. In one chorus, Hell removed the word ‘blank’, leaving a pause before the following ‘generation’: nothing was defined, everything was up for grabs.11

The final sentence in this paragraph makes it clear the Savage is specifically not discussing the Sex Pistols, and more importantly that here ‘vacancy’, or ‘blankness’, is less an unmediated reflection of youth alienation, than it is an invocation, staged in pop music, of the possibilities of negation. What Smith misses or elides from Savage’s text is the notion that punk nihilism can be a script (“so its script went”) framed by negation. This distinction is critical, as Greil Marcus makes clear in his writings on the Sex Pistols,

Nihilism means to close the world around its own self-consuming impulse; negation is the act that would make it self-evident to everyone that the world is not as it seems – but only when the act is so implicitly complete it leaves open the possibility that the world may be nothing, that nihilism as well as creation may occupy the suddenly cleared ground. The nihilist, no matter how many people he or she might kill, is always a solipsist: no one exists but the actor, and only the actor’s motives are real. When the nihilist pulls the trigger, turns on the gas, sets the fire, hits the vein, the world ends. Negation is always political: it assumes the existence of other people, calls them into being. Still, the tools the negationist seems forced to use – real or symbolic violence, blasphemy, dissipation, contempt, ridiculousness – change hands with those of the nihilist.12 (emphasis added)

What, then, is at stake here in this close reading of what is at most a marginal critical review of Praise? Two things. Firstly, Smith’s realist discourse of punk operates to frame Praise as passé pop, positioning McGahan’s novel as a simulacra of a failed revolution (punk); not so much untimely as anachronistic. For Smith Praise is a punk novel, at least 15 years too late,
Not that the pervasive boredom consequent in that sense of vacancy [see Smith quote above] is ever specified or extrapolated [in Praise], but it’s there, the legacy of the ‘punk revolution’, the last significant social movement to spring from that nebulous and increasingly fragmented entity society lumps under the category of ‘youth’. Where a case could be made for a claim of some residual sense of innocence in the sixties, for all the media hyperbole of the ‘sexual revolution’, cynicism has been embraced by more and more young people as the nihilistic icons of punk and its successor styles have displaced those earlier pop icons.13

Secondly, the realist discourse of punk operates in Smith’s review to interpret Praise as authentic youth revolt: attempting to shock the parent culture with a nihilist and cynical delinquency, that is born out of alienation. Praise here is read, again, as teenage sociology, rather than fiction,
Gordon Buchanan’s ultimate failure to gain appreciably any emotional growth or insight from his experience in some ways places him as the latest addition to another longstanding literary tradition, that of the classic picaro. His is, however, an emotional retardation increasingly symptomatic of today’s cynical youth.14

Smith’s review is worth such a close reading as it is one of the more articulate attempts to read a Grunge novel through musical culture. That Smith’s sense of cultural history in this review rarely moves out of the 1970s is not so much problematic as curious. Where did the 1980s go to?

While Smith is operating prior to the label ‘Grunge’ being attached to new Australian novels, the debates in the Australian literary public sphere after the suicide-death of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain in 1994, have more reason to at least allude to the ‘Grunge’ musical-fiction homology.

Linda Jaivin, in 1995 also curiously evacuates the 1980s when she responds to the question, “What the hell is Grunge anyway?” by stating that “It expresses a revulsion towards the over-blown overdrive of bands like Kiss, who lift rock heroism and commercialism to self-parodying proportions.”15 That Jaivin would assert that bands “like Kiss”, whose high point of popularity is marked by the 1979/ 80 success of their Dynasty LP and “I was made for loving you” single, might be the object of Grunge revulsion points to, again, a strange instance of temporal compression that misses the obvious objects of opposition for Grunge rock, such as Guns’n’Roses, or Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Prince, and instead summons up the sort of stadium glam act that punk groups from the 1970s would’ve listed as being reason to revolt against. Like Smith’s review, we are stuck again in a 1970s script. And like Smith Jaivin, takes on the “punk as authentic realism” discourse, this time assimilating Grunge music to this discourse’s version of punk:

I think I know what Grunge music is. It’s the child of punk, thrashing out pain and despair and alienation.

So, Nirvana and bands like it have put a flannelette shirt around every waist and the word ‘Grunge’ on every pair of lips. The absorption of the punk aesthetic by the mainstream has meant that Fiona [McGregor] and I can get our hair done at any number of inner city salons.16

And while Smith goes to a decontextualised Savage for his interpretive authority in seeking homologies between musical and literary culture, Jaivin, in seeking to answer the question: “But what is Grunge in the literary context?” cites from the canonically rockist journal, Rolling Stone,

I’m not sure that we really have anything that’s quite the literary equivalent of Nirvana’s Grunge classic ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’. This is a song about which writer Anthony De Curtis observed in a June 1994 Rolling Stone:
A political song that never mentions politics, an anthem whose lyrics can’t be understood, a hugely popular hit that denounces commercialism, a collective shout of alienation, it was ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ for a new time and a new tribe of disaffected youth. It was a giant fuck-you, an immensely satisfying statement about the inability to be satisfied.It was also about a brand of deodorant, but that’s another story.17

Here Jaivin moves beyond a ‘Grunge music as realist punk’ discourse, and promotes one of the fundamental rockist interpretive moves: that not only is Grunge a spectral return of punk, but that, ultimately, all roads and train lines lead back to the Rolling Stones, and that these British Rolling Stones are themselves adepts in homage and a fidelity to the electric Chicago blues of Muddy Waters, the British band taking their name from one of Waters’ songs.

Again, in the context of a discussion of how to think Grunge fiction we find an attempt to articulate the limits and concepts of a homology with popular music – this time more firmly engaged with Nirvana and the label of Grunge music. While Michael Smith, presciently, and perhaps influentially, heads to a particular reading of punk (See Simon Frith and Horne on ‘punk realist discourse’ in From Art to Pop) from which to frame and think McGahan’s Praise, Jaivin has the opportunity to engage with the congealed musical generic term of Grunge, and yet appears to follow in Smith’s ‘punk realist discourse’ steps, seeking to further reduce Grunge music to a simulacra of the Rolling Stones. Nirvana’s Nevermind is loosened from 1991/92, to be re-located back in time and place to London 1977 (where it actually makes sense), only then to be dis-anchored once more towards 1965 as the echo of ‘Satisfaction’ (where it really actually makes sense).18

Jaivin, however, is defining Grunge music to a different end than Smith, who wants to draw Praise and a realist discourse of punk together as a hermeneutic tool towards a sociology that seems frozen around the mid-1970s:

The things most disturbing for me in Praise is that the attitudes and even lifestyles described seem barely to have changed since the late seventies when Javo stuck a needle in his arm in Monkey Grip.19

Jaivin, reads Grunge culture through a discourse from the same script as Smith’s punk realist one, and De Curtis’ rockist moment of roots authenticity, so as to distance her definition of Grunge music from her fiction. For Jaivin, the label Grunge, in the literary sense is “completely irrelevant.”20

I have focussed so heavily on a close reading of these two discussions of Grunge fiction and its possible homologies with musical culture because I think it might be interesting to begin again, and attempt to answer Jaivin’s initial question, “What the hell is Grunge anyway?” through alternative hermeneutics. Instead of a ‘punk realist discourse’ it might be more productive to think Grunge through punk as pop art, or punk as avant- garde discourses. It might also be more productive to resist the urge to re-locate Grunge back to prior, supposedly more fully present, moments – 1977 or 1965 London – instead letting the popular force of Nirvana’s moment remain in that two years of the First Gulf War, of the collapse of the Soviet Union, of the aftermath of the late 1980’s recessions, of the rise of the internet and Microsoft.

While it is undeniable that the naming of a sub-genre in the Australian literary field – Grunge – smells of market spirit 21, it is equally undeniable that posing apparently meaningless questions about musical and literary homologies, and then being surprised by how meaningless the question is, grounds a line of hermeneutics that might proffer a sound theory of Grunge fiction. Re-asking Jaivin’s question from her ‘Grunge Unplugged’ paper: “But what is Grunge in the literary context?” Syson sets up the straw man thus:
“Maybe it’s a bit like trying to work out what the difference is between realist and modernist electric guitar solos – the question doesn’t make any sense.” 22 & 23

What doesn’t make sense, for Syson, is that form in pop(ular) music warrants any serious consideration: that “the rumblings of a structure of feeling that is being demolished at its deepest level” might just as substantially be ‘heard’ in pop music as read in literature.

1 Ian Syson, ‘Smells like Market Spirit,’ Overland 142 (Autumn 1996): 21.

2 Linda Jaivin, Linda Jaivin on ‘Grunge Unplugged,’ Australian Book Review 177 (December 1995/ January 1996): 29.

3 These included: Christos Tsiolkas’ Loaded, Justine Ettler’s The river Orphelia, Claire Mendes’ Drift Street , Linda Jaivin’s Eat Me, Andrew McGahan’s 1988 and Edward Berridge’s Lives of the saints.

4 Murray Walden, “Lit.Grit invades Ozlit.” In The Australian Magazine, The Weekend Australian, June 24-25, 1995: 13-17; Barry Oakley, “Disappointed generation finds a voice.” In The Australian, September 20, 1995:1; and Marjory Bennett, “The grungy Australian novel.” In The Sun-Herald, September 24, 1995: 118-119.

5 Michael George Smith, ‘Compulsive reading: the attractions of vacancy, Overland 128 ( 1992): 87-88. (The definition of “homology” employed here is: the condition of being “similar in position, structure and evolutionary origin but not necessarily in function.” The Oxford Dictionary of English)

6 Smith 87.

7 Jon Savage, England’s dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk rock, (London :Faber and Faber, 2001) (revised edition): 76.

8 Interestingly, the wider textual context here is a discussion of the pre-Sex Pistols criminal life of guitarist Steve Jones, who, in a bizarre form of homage and necessity, stole musical equipment from one of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust Hammersmith Odeon concert, which was to be filmed by D.A. Pennebaker. Savage argues that Jones’ criminal gang, which included future Sex Pistols’ drummer, Steve Cook, “had stolen from the groups they wanted to be like: their criminal catalogue illustrates the sort of pop that was attractive to working-class males in 1973.” Savage 75-6.

9 Smith 87.

10 Smith 87. While Smith does qualify these anthems as being ‘aesthetic’, the sense that the Sex Pistols had aesthetic ideas isn’t carried over into the sociological interpretation he performs on Praise. That ‘vacancy’ might be a pose, an artifice, is not considered here.

11 Savage 90.

12 Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A secret history of the Twentieth Century ( Berkeley: Faber and Faber, 2001): 9.

13 Smith 88.

14 Smith 88.

15 Jaivin 29.

16 Jaivin 29.

17 Jaivin 29.

18 Nevermind, displaced Michael Jackson’s Dangerous at the apex of the American long play record charts in early 1992. Sex Pistols’ ‘God save the Queen’ reached number 2 on the British singles chart in mid 1977. ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ was a trans-Atlantic number one 45 r.p.m. record in mid- 1965.

19 Smith 88.

20 Jaivin 30.

21 Syson 21.

22 Syson 21.


Monday, March 3, 2008

If the Prime Minister were real estate: Mourning Liberal Democracy

Wendy Brown, Professor of Political Science at University of California, is always interesting to read. I've been reading her essay 'Neoliberalism and the end of Liberal democracy' again (properly) recently in an effort to better understand neoliberalism as a political rationality. Brown writes that,

neoliberalism is not simply a set of economic policies; it is not only about facilitating free trade, maximizing corporate profits, and challenging welfarism. Rather, neoliberalism carries a social analysis that, when deployed as a form of governmentality, reaches from the soul of the citizen-subject to education policy to practices of empire. Neoliberal political rationality, while foregrounding the market, is not only or even primarliy focused on the economy; it involves extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action, even as the market itself remains a distinctive player.

(from Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics, Princeton Up, 2005: 39-40 emphasis in original. [see sidelink for a related essay 'American Nightmare' in pdf form])

An illustration of how this political rationality operates in contemporary Australian broadsheet commentary is given today by David Burchell, a lecturer in the school of Humanities and Languages at the University of Western Sydney. Burchell admittedly is writing in the dominant organ of neoliberalism in Australia and would be shaping his language for this paper and its audience.Yet as a historian of the Australian Labor Party and also an academic intellectual his essay, perhaps surprisingly, participates in the operation of neoliberalism, as Brown defines it, by 'extending and disseminating . . . market values to all institutions and social action'.

In 'Intellectuals and Ideologues'Burchell begins his essay with the fantasy-analogy,

If the PM were real estate, he'd be in an auction. And there would be a bevy of anxious professionals, all rectangular spectacles, sharp haircuts and Calvin Klein leisurewear, their hands fluttering skywards as they fought off rival bids for those charming leadlight windows and the gleaming courtyard.
On one side of the nature strip, by the shrubbery, you'd find Robert Manne and his fellow contributors to that quaint epistolary novel, Dear Mr Rudd, all furiously trying to attract the auctioneer's attention so that they can "resume the conversation between public intellectuals and government". (Whatever exactly that means.) Over the way, beside the Sulo bins and recycling containers, you'd find the conservative columnists and the business writers, each lifting a knowing finger nosewards as they bid for a slice of Rudd's inherent cautiousness and conservatism.

That auctioning the PM is an idea that seems so reasonable is an index of the ascendance of neoliberalism as political rationality. That Burchell continues to employ the language of market-talk throughout the essay is indicative of the embedded nature of public intellectuals like Burchell (or maybe Burchell aspires to the ranks of those like Paul Kelly Guy Rundle has named power intellectuals [Arena essay link]) who seek to judge other public intellectuals by pretending that common sense is based on market valuations and all other judgement is elite moral vanity.


But government is a voracious and furious business that allows precious little space for critical reflection. When it does, it presents the universe in a different light to that refracted through the essentially negative cast of the academic mind.

I'm not sure if Burchell would meet those attributes of the power intellectual that Rundle finds in Paul Kelly: "Kelly constructs himself as the practical type, the empiricist, connected to power and aware of its complexities, over against the abstract and alienated intellectuals." Burchell would seem to be an aspirational power intellectual: not embedded like Kelly, but working in the same register of pragmatic, op-ed empiricism, and with a nose for the smell of elites both social liberal and economic rationalist. As Gary Sauer-Thompson writes today over at his Philosophy blog,

That 'hybridity' [of neoliberalism with social demorcay in Tony Blair's New Labor] sounds just like Rudd Labor in Australia. My judgement, after Rudd Labor's 100 days in office, is that the neo-liberal project is the dominant one.

The point of Burchell's essay is more acute than the focus I'm placing on the neoliberal language used in it. Indeed, Burchell argues that economic intellectuals are, like the social liberals in Dear Mr Rudd[pdf extract], ideologues too. Yet, in order to make his points Burchell, as Wendy Brown argues, naturalises the social analysis of neoliberal political rationality:
People can try to own a piece of the PM, in short, but it's not obvious why he would sell. He owes nobody anything. He's fully capitalised.

If the policy solutions to the social and economic problems that Burchell advocates are best left to the policy makers who are at the centre of selling solutions in the marketplace of Australian society then commentators like Burchell seem to believe their role is to promote the naturalization of neoliberal rationality, rather than to question its bases; to figure public discourse in terms of 'capital', 'buying' and 'selling': the only true means of determining value. The similarity with Paul Kelly's naturalisation of the market as the final arbiter of value is worrying.

Later in her essay Brown, switches from defintions of neoliberalism to the implications of its ascendance for the Left. Drawing on Walter Benjamin's notion of Left Melancholy [link to Brown essay from 1999 invoking Benjamin's concept], Brown sets out the psychology of the waning of Liberal Democracy for a Left that has always formed much of its identity in relation to Liberalism: its economic, cultural, social and political institutions and creeds. Brown argues that Liberal Democracy is becoming residual and that

[w]e are not simply in the throes of a right-wing or conservative postitioning within liberal democracy but rather at the threshold of a different politial formation, one that conducts and legitimates itself on different grounds from liberal democracy even as it does not immediately divest itself of the name. (56)

The ascendance of the formation of neoliberalism and the passing of that of Liberal Democracy produces a loss and,

a twofold challenge for the Left. First, it compels us to consider the implications of losing liberal democracy and especially its implications for our own work by learning what the Left has depended on and demanded from liberal democracy, which aspects of it have formed the basis of our critiques of it, rebellions against it, and identity based on differentiation from it. We may also need to mourn liberal democracy, avowing our ambivalent attachment to it, our need for it, our mix of love and hostility toward it. The aim of the work is framed by the second challenge, that of devising left strategies for challenging the neoliberal political-economic formation now taking shape and an intelligent left countervision to this formation. (57)

Burchell's essay does invoke the name of social democrat HC 'Nugget' Coombs as a better model for engaged intellectuals seeking to influence government policy. But if we take seriously Brown's analysis, then in the current conjuncture an imitation of Coombs' politics would be hard pressed to find the bedrock Keynesian-Welfare state ground upon which his liberalism worked. And in seeking to participate in the polemics surrounding the culture wars from an academic perspective by deploying the key motiffs of neoliberal political rationality Burchell undercuts any claims to produce vistas from which a left countervision might be seen: the social democratic values Burchell advocates are subsumed by the neoliberal language from which they are advanced and figured.

Rather than talking about governance in terms of "the health of the engine", as Burchell argues should be the goal of government, any Left Countervision might talk of the health and value of bodies: human, terrestrial, social, animal, of water. And a left countervision might be accompanied by a Left eurhythmia, where the moving human body is valued, rather than the growth-machine for which it is to be sacrificed, and spat out as waste.