Friday, May 30, 2008

Public sphere and publicity: a violently desirous speculation on bodies?

What role can 'culture' and its criticism play in terms of a Liberalism which has an ethos of separate realms for culture and the private sphere; realms which stand apart from the mass-market and the state? This question is one addressed by Jurgen Habermas in his study of the genesis of the modern political public sphere. For Habermas the critical-rational techniques that are publicly addressed to private people, firstly through criticism of epistolary novels like Richardson's Clarissa, model the means by which the police [in Foucault's terms - i.e. policies] of the state can be debated and decided. The autonomy of 'culture' thus serves as a 'space' into which such critical-rational debate can form spheres of public discourse. Something like this process can be currently seen in the multiple and overlapping debates, position-takings, affective testimonies and analyses surrounding photo-artist Bill Henson's work.

Henson's photo-models, in particular the becoming-adolescent female nudes, are both vulnerable, transforming individuals and mass-mediated images. The liberal rights of the models - to consent, to privacy, to restrict the uses of their image in the future - are in conflict with those of artistic autonomy: the rights of art to be free from state censorship and free to provide the impetus for rational-critical debate. Part of this debate is fuelled by anxieties about privacy and publicity in a time of accelerating mass-mediation with narrow-casting, networking and broad-casting image circulation coupled with increasing access to technologies for recording and disseminating 'private' information-image-text-sound globally.

For Habermas rational-critical debate in a public sphere that was no discriminator on grounds of differentials in class, status, race, gender, sexuality and education is an imaginary of the late c17th and c18 in Western Europe based on print-cultures. In his Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere it is print-culture (newspapers, journals, novels etc) that provides the means and forms for creating and circulating public-ness and public-ity. The transformation of this ideal open-ness comes, in part, from the infiltration of advertising publicity into this sphere of public-ness. Yet this narrative of decline - of the corruption by mass-culture and advertising of a once pure, neutral sphere of rational-critical debate which decided on the basis of the best arguments and evidence - was always predicated on its male, bourgeois, white, educated entry codes and conditions. That said the shifts from print- to image-based to multi-media cultures, from 'i-read therefore i am' to 'i-pod therefore i am', is not so much a decline in (print-)culture and its attendant rational-critical debate, as a transformation in forms and technologies that carry publicness. And thereby altering what we think and feel to be legitimate forms of privateness and the limits and objects of rational-critical debate.

Letter I.

Miss Anna Howe to Clarissa Harlowe
Jan. 10.

I am extremely concerned, my dearest friend, for the disturbances that have happened in your family. I know how it must have hurt you to become the subject of public talk: and yet upon an occasion so generally known, it is impossible but that whatever relates to a young lady whose distinguished merits have made her the public care, should engage every body's attention.
[Samuel Richardson Clarissa -1748. Opening lines - note the use of the two terms proceeding 'public': talk and care]

Is Liberalism then capable of adapting its critical-rational modes to our contemporary culture; a culture in which images and affect can circulate like forest fires or influenza through the social body? Is art capable of bringing moralities into question when it is itself, at moments in its social life, a commodity? Can art stand separate to modes of publicity which aim to sell? If controversy is an arm of modern PR, then to what extent is the choice of a controversial subject-form intended to generate publicity? Do we engage with these art-commodities as consumers or citizens?

These questions, I think, boil down to the criteria on which we try to separate public-ity from public-ness (open-ness). This brings us to Australian Cultural Studies academic John Frow's thoughts and his recent (1999)historicizing of Liberalism and what he, among others, sees as the transformation of classical Liberalism into a new form. Are we after Liberalism? Is neo-liberalism a form of classical liberalism or does the prefix 'neo' signify that the break with Locke's and Mills' (for example) liberalism is a ruptural and radical one?

In "Cultural Studies and the Neoliberal Imagination."
[The Yale Journal of Criticism 12.2 (1999): 424-30] Frow argues that American Liberalism "fails - constitutively, not accidently - to think three modes of historical transformation in the course of the twentieth century."

These three historically emergent blindspots of Liberalism are (concerning corporations, state, subject-citizen):

  1. the transformation of corporations into forces radically transcendent of any one individual will. Liberalism simply has no good way of thinking about the overwhelming force of concentrated and deregulated capital other than as a system error or imbalance, and that means it has no good way of thinking about the complicities between its vision of cultural openness and the forces in the world that make for closure;

  2. the transformation of the state into something more complex and differentiated than the site of sovereignty, such that it may under certain circumstances be available as a vehicle for the protection of individual freedoms, for the regulation of capital, and for the economic protection of those who lose out in the play of market forces - as well as continuing to be under other circumstances and perhaps also under the same circumstances a vehicle for oppression;

  3. the transformation of the subject of citizenship into the mass-mediated and mass-interpellated subject of the culture industries and of the social-imaginary of consumption.

While Liberalism may have these three blindspots, neo-liberalism publicizes itself as "locating its vision of freedom in an expanded realm of economic transactions rather than in a separate realm of culture [and thereby it] has less of a problem in . . . coming to terms with a form of citizenship grounded in consumption rather than in the sphere of political judgement." [424-5] And rather than posit a separation between market and culture, between a domestic-intimate private-sphere and a commerical- corporate private-sphere, neoliberalism seeks to flatten this separation so that the idealised practice of rational choices exercised on the basis of entering freelyand equally into contracts of exchange in unfettered markets becomes the model for such events as marriage, going-to-war, visiting the dentist, buying a David Bowie Greatest Hits CD.

I take this to mean that in neoliberalism public-ness is the limited circulation of information that precedes contract-exchange in order to attract your attention and to provide the sorts of information that can enable a more rational choice when assessing a contract and its commodity. Publicity might be disseminated widely but it is aimed ultimately only at what will be consumers. Our interest in publicity is effectively our interest in consuming what is being publicised.

Can then public-ness be distinguished from public-ity in this time of neoliberal governmentality? For Frow, following Michael Warner, 'the public' in the term public-ness is predicated on an attitude of indifference to our own particularities and partialities: the public subject is a technology of the self which imagines through "a fiction of genericity, and is therefore a rhetorical fact" that the ordinary and public self are continuous [427].

For Warner the rhetorical fact of this public-ness is built on the classical rhetoric of disembodiment; a rhetoric which is challenged by mass consumption and its modes of publicity. Frow:

From this moment the political public sphere and mass consumption are at once alternatives and yet increasingly resemble and shape each other: publicness in the West henceforth has to do with iconicity, a rhetoric of embodiment, the display of bodies for the purposes of "admiration, identification, appropriation, scandal, etc; and public figures "increasingly take on the function of concretizing that fantasmatic body image, or in other words, of actualizing the otherwise indeterminate image of the people" (Warner, 385 &388) [428]

There is now a tension in the political realm between the generalized abstraction of the public subject in its classical form and "the always inadequate particularity of individual bodies," and it is this tension that generates the contemporary public sphere's dedication to "a violently desirous speculation on bodies" (Warner 397). [428]

I take Frow to be asking whether or not the public sphere can be said to exist if its founding rhetorical fact - print-culture based indifference to the self's particularities and partialities: disembodied self - is 'returned to' the representation of embodied identities. Frow questions whether Warner's argument for such an embodied public sphere is nostalgic, and whether or not it is "overdetermined by the sphere of commodity consumption and become the site of a fantasmatic identification." [428]

There are a few points here that Frow is seeking to make. I'll summarize these before attempting to apply some of them to the Henson art scandal.

Firstly, in terms of cultural studies Frow is seeking to defuse the project of subculture-liberation of minorities strand that comes out of parts of the Birmingham 'School'. For Frow these studies of subcultural formations are almost identical to the principles of neoliberalism, and any such studies need to attend to the rationalities and technologies of neoliberalism as a complementary study in order to discern whether or not a subculture's creative resistance is actual or based on the freedom-resistance nexus central to the imaginaries of neoliberalism.

Secondly, he aims to dissolve the barrier separating political and cultural fields through a consideration of liberalism and neoliberalism's blindspots and founding modes of subjectivity: the myth of equality and freedom in contract exchange.

Thirdly, the dream of a common public culture, which occurs in some forms of cultural studies that derive from Raymond Williams's writings, needs to take these developments in publicity's mass culture and mass consumption into account, and in particular the imbrication of the political and mass cultural fields. "When do we imagine that politics was ever a matter of dispassionate and rational judgement?" [429]

An yet Frow maintains the Habermasean imaginary of a rational-critical public sphere is still a viable and valuable one and that we shouldn't "give up on rational debate and on the critical analysis of social interests, or . . . reduce political action to the working-out of fantasmatic identifications." [429]. And its participants might register that "[t]his mass culture is no longer, for the main part, a print culture, and it is perhaps this shift that most distances us from the liberal vision of a common public culture." [429]

The Henson scandal is a dense web of desires, anxieties and rational-critical speech and text. I would like to just touch on those aspects of it that are highlighted by what I have taken from John Frow's essay; in particular the tension or contradiction between an embodied and disembodied identity that, in print-form, arguably founds the generic fiction of a public-ness that can function outside of public-ity.

The internet circulations of the photo that has generated the most attention are both public-ity for and instances of public-ness. Any framing of the photo, in itself, can't decide for us as citizen-subjects, between these two modes of the public. In other words whether or not the image is construed as publicity or as an artefact of public-culture is not finally immanent to the image nor able to be directed by the textual commentary or framing of its display. This indecidability is on the one hand an opening into our freedom to choose its meaning - this might be its libertarian and liberal dimensions and this might also be due to our capacity to disembody the subject of the photo. On the other hand this indecidability opens the photo to meanings and affects which are imputed to its embodiment of pubescent breasts framed by the body from thigh to crown of the head. This is construed as publicity: a display of an embodied privateness which must not be disembodied. It must not be disembodied because this will enable pedophilia, subsequent shame, the destruction of innocence.

That we are dealing here in photo-images circulating through the Web 2.0, through mobile phones, and able to be recorded points to how far from the print-culture roots of the classical public sphere we are. These technological-media conditions would be feeding into the moral panic that also traverses this debate. Yet to what extent is our imaginary of a rational-critical debate predicated on moralities and affects that are so normalised and naturalised as to count as the neutral ground upon which indifferent reason can do its work? If our idealised political public sphere was one created out of a conflation of two modes of private-ness (private commerical/property and private domestic-familial-intimate) then what affects or feelings are structured into this model of rational-critical debate in order that rationality can declare its forms and logics?

Is it more than a coincidence that Habermas's argument about the formative role of the epistolary novel in the creation of forms of publicness used by the political public sphere has as its central subject a young woman whose morality is at stake?

*Open letter of Support for Bill Henson here. *

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Notes. Barry Hindess on Governmentalities

Some notes from
Barry Hindess. Discourses of power: from Hobbes to Foucault. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

Foucault maintains that . . . there is a certain continuity between the government of oneself, the government of a household [oeconomy] and the government of a state or community. Linked to this continuity, he argues, is the fact that the principles of political action and those of personal conduct can be seen as being intimately related. He suggests, for example, that successful government of others depends, in the first instance, on the capacity of those doing the governing to govern themselves. As for the governed, to the extent that it avoids the extremes of domination, their government must aim to affect their conduct - that is, it must operate through their capacity to regulate their own behaviour. In this respect too, successful government of others is often thought to depend on the ability of those others to govern themselves, and it must therefore aim to secure the conditions under which they are enabled to do so. [105]

[W]hat matters in the study of governmental power [from the perspective of government as the regulation of conduct] is not so much the state itself, considered as a more or less unified set of instrumentalities, but rather the broader strategies of government within which the instrumentalities of the state are incorporated and deployed. [109]

For Hindess there is also another more specific and precise form of Foucault's use of the term government: "'the particular form of governing which can be applied to the state as a whole.'" [Foucault cite. 109]

Government, in this specific sense, is not to be confused with the rule of the prince, feudal magnate or emperor, or even with the collective rule over themselves that is often said to have been excercised by citizens of the independent Greek communities and of the Roman republic. [109]

The government is based on intrinsic rational principles- reason of state - and has as its main object population. Population has 'its own regularities, its own rate of deaths and diseases, its cycles of scarcity, etc' [and it emerged due to an understanding of it] as characterized by its own aggregate phenomena, irreducible to those of the families contained within it. [Foucault cite. 111]

Population "comes to appear as above all else as the ultimate end of government. In constrast to sovereignty, government has as its purpose not the act of government itself, but the welfare of the population, the improvement of its condition, the increase of its wealth, longevity, health, etc.; and the means that the government uses to attain those ends are themselves all in some sense immanent to the population. [Foucault cite. 111-2]

3 'approaches to the general problem of government: discipline, pastoral power, liberalism.' [112]
3 rationalities of government.

1. Discipline
'A productive power par excellence: it aims not only to constrain those over whom it is exercised, but also to enhance and make use of their capacities.'

The idea that the conduct of others (and of oneself) can be subjected to instrumental control is clearly predicated on an orientation which Heidegger describes as 'the essence of technology'. This orientation treats the world as consisting essentially of forces that can be harnessed, at least in principle, to human purposes. Human individuals and human aggregates, too, will thus be seen, like all other phenomena, as if they were a standing reserve of energy to be put to use. But before this can happen, what it is that will be used in this way - what Heidegger refers to as 'a calculable coherence of forces' - must first be defined and identified. For this reason, Foucault insists that the expansion of discipline in this period goes hand-in-hand with the invention of the humanist subject; that is, of the conception of the human individual as endowned with a soul, consciousness, guilt, remorse, and other features of an interiority that can be worked on by other agents. This humanist subject came to be seen as the locus of usable energy and, therefore, as the focus of instrumental control: the focus, in other words, of discipline. [115]

Such discipline requires techniques of knowledge about and concerning the human subject. Thus discipline is knowledge/power. Techniques of disciplinary power include: surveillance, regimentation, classification. [118]

2. Pastoral Power (Shepherd-flock game): police, confession, guidance and self-examination

a more continuous and more intimate form of government than consensual ones: "to promote the well-being of its [a government's] subjects by means of detailed and comprehensive regulation of their behaviour. [. . . ] Pastoral power . . . is concerned more with the welfare of its subjects than with their liberty." [118]

Three facets of pastoral power: i. "Shepherd governs a flock and each of its member, rather than a territory and each of its inhabitants. [ . . . ii] the flock exists in and through the activity of the shepherd: remove the shepherd and the flock is likely to collapse into a mass of dispersed individuals. [ . . . iii] the shepherd cares for the flock both individually and collectively, attending to the needs of its members." [119]

Hindess summarizes Foucault's reach into older meanings of 'police': It referred both to an area of government administration - covering everything apart from justice, finance, the army and diplomacy - and to the objectives of that administration. In effect, police was responsible for the comprehensive regulation of social life in the interests and development of society and the improvement of individuals, and it was expected to pursue these objectives in the most rational fashion . . ."a good national 'police' was not to be achieved solely by politicians or by a professional corp of 'police', but by publicly concerned, philanthropically minded citizens." [Andrews cite. 120-121]

"The theory of police exemplifies the comprehensive responsibility for the welfare of the flock and each of its members that is central to Foucault's account of the 'pastoral' rationality of government." [121]

The early [Christian] church developed models of pastoral power which were later adapted by 17c 'Confessional' states in Europe.
"[T]he 'pastoral' ise of confession, self-examination and guidance continue to be found today, not only in Christian churches and sects, but also in the work of a variety of specialized state agencies and private charitable and philanthropic organizations, in may kinds of counselling, therapy and techniques of personality modification . . . In such cases, the training of individuals in the exercise of self-government serves as an instrument of the government of their conduct. . . . [T]he 'pastoral' use of confession, self-exmaination and guidance of conduct should be seen as instruments of government that work in part through the formation of individuals who can normally be relied upon to impose an appropriate rule on their own behaviour.[122-3]

3. Liberty and the Liberal Rationality of Government

From one, orthodox, perspective "[t]he fundamental problem of liberal government . . . is to build the appropriate restraints into a system of government that nevertheless remains sufficiently powerful to secure the liberty of its subjects." [124]

Foucault's very different perspective on Liberal rationality begins from his tenets that wherever power is freedom (to some extent) is always already there, and that governmental power works through the behaviour [conduct] of free persons. For Foucault the fundamental rationality of Liberal government is that it should promote the freedom of its subjects rather than see such freedoms as threats to its governing. Thus Liberal government seeks to secure what it considers as natural conditions for the generation of this freedom; security of markets-economy, population growth. At the heart of liberalism, in this view, is an interventionist state. [124-5]

Two Liberal critiques of police:
I. "the comprehensiveness of police attempts at regulation - the fact that they are aimed at the entire population - must be rejected on the grounds that the primary objective of the state should be the defence of individual liberty not the pursuit of happiness." [126]

II. Foucault's analysis of liberal critique of police focuses through something similar to Adam Smith's critique in which police=regulation=dependency=conditions for degeneration. cf "nanny state" critiques in which welfare is seen to blunt self-reliance, independence and moral improvement. Here the market comes shining through as that self-regulating and 'natural' realm, or sphere, in which these attributes can best be generated in a condition which is 'state-free'.

So, "[i]n Foucault's terms, then, the liberal rationality of government regards the liberty of its subjects as an indispensable element of government itself." [129]

Governing through a freedom that is regulated indirectly: through the formation of selves that is the aim of education. Or the formation of selves that occurs through enculturation, or what in German is called Bildung: often the first term in the literary genre class the Bildungsroman, or the formation or coming-of-age novel.

One research problem in my thesis is this: if neo-liberalism, a newer form of governmental rationality best summed up in the texts of the Chicago School political-economic intellectual Milton Friedman, becomes ascendant over the long Labor decade then how does its regulation through formation of selves appear in Australian literary fiction and in Australian Labor party discourse? In other words, is there an Australian inflection to the Bildungs of neoliberalism? Some previous thoughts here.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The (welfare) state is dead. Long Live the (neoliberal) state.

Another Thomas Lemke quote below, which helps me to get a better grip on Neoliberalism as a political rationality:

For Foucault the state itself is a "technology of government"; since it is "the tactics of government which make possible the continual definition and redefinition of what is within the competence of the state and what is not, the public versus the private, and so on, thus the state can only be understood in its survival and its limits on the basis of the general tactics of governmentality." The perspective of governmentality makes possible the development of a dynamic form of analysis that does not limit itself to stating the "retreat of politics" of the "domination of the market," but deciphers the so-called "end of politics" itself as a political program. The crisis of Keynesianism and the dismantling of welfare state forms of intervention lead less to a loss of the state's capacity to govern than to a reorganization or restructuring of technologies of government. This theoretical stance allows for a more complex analysis of neoliberal forms of government that feature not only direct intervention by means of empowered and specialized state apparatuses, but also characteristically develop indirect techniques for directing and controlling individuals. The strategy of rendering individual subjetcs (and also collectives, such as families, associations, etc.) "responsible" entails shifting the responsibility for social risks such as illness, unemployment, poverty, etc. and for life in society into the domain for which the individual is responsible, transforming it into a problem of "self-care." This form of individualization is therefore not outside the state. Likewise, the differences between the state and civil society, national regulation, and transnational agencies do not represent the basis and limits of practices of government, but rather function as their elements and effects.

Thomas Lemke

So, in contrast to political theories and projects which position, so as to critique and oppose, economic rationalism as the abandonment of supportive and social justice roles of the regulative state through deregulation and privatisation, the advantage of Foucault's 'governmentality' concept is that it explains what always seemed to be the contradiction of a deregulating and privatising government (I'm referring here to the Liberal-National Party Australian Federal Government - 1996-2007), increasing in size and increasing its regulatory regimes (eg. The phone book thick deregulatory industrial relations legislation: Workchoices) while presenting itself as the party of freedom from state interference.

Foucault understood neoliberal technologies of government as a transformation of the social rather than its end. The concept of governmentality allows us to call attention to the constitution of new political forms and levels of the state such as the introduction of systems of negotiation, mechanisms of self-organization, and empowerment strategies . . . [O]n the basis of the concept of governmentality, it can also be shown that privatization and deregulation do not follow economic imperatives so much as political strategies. Paradoxically, the critique of neoliberalism itself most often falls back on economic models of argumentation. The concept of governmentality proves to be useful in correcting the diagnosis of neoliberalism as an expansion of the economy into politics which takes for granted the separation of the state and market. The argument goes that there is some "pure" and "anarchic" economy that has to be "regulated" or "civilized" by a political response by society. Marx already demonstrated that such a position is untenable in his critique of political economy. Foucault's "critique of political reason" takes up the lines of this tradition. The transformation of the relations of economics and politics are therefore not to be investigated as the result of objective economic laws, but from the perspective of a transformation of social power relations. In short, instead of the power of the economy, the analytic of governmentality returns the focus to the "economy of power."

The key point here is that Lemke is distinguishing between the social democratic critique of neoliberalism which figures a monolithic economic and financial machinery that forces nation-states to comply to its demands for labour flexibility and minimal environmental and capital controls, and a critique of neoliberal governmentality which figures the state (and citizen-subject) as constituted by techniques of market political reasoning and rationality. For example, within the current Federal Opposition leadership team, the Leader - Brendan Nelson - and shadow treasurer - Malcolm Turnbull, were referred to on ABC radio as the Opposition's key salesmen. The rationality, or logic, of this figuring of political technique in market terms is that the sphere of publicness in which these two representatives of the Opposition political party in Australia's Westminister-based Constitutional democracy are performing is actually a market-place where the citizenry are actually customers buying brands and goods. As Wendy Brown argues neoliberalism as political rationality is profoundly de-democratizing.

Critiques that seek to re-regulate what has been painted as de-regulation miss the extent to which neoliberalism's "economy of power", as Lemke puts it, is also operated through the semantics of not just "flexibility", but everyday "risk-assessment", "fitness", and "self-management." These are terms of 'mentality' in Foucault's 'govern-mentality', and comprise modes of subject-formation, or Bildungs, under neoliberalism.

We need a semantics and discourse, narratives too, that make claims on states, including the coming transnational ones, to regulate and govern without resorting to justifications in terms of market rationalities and without being always measured against the chronotope of the perfect commodity exchange with its atopian model of instantaneous, transparency under conditions of exact equality. But perhaps we first have to experience such forms of claim-making as rhythms, and follow Jaques Attali's lead in considering that music is prophecy.

I'd like to think that after neoliberalism there is the possibility of sustained sequences of eurhythmia - when social temporalities harmonise - which sounds like the Necks.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Thomas Lemke on neoliberalism - the semantics of flexibility

Over at Recording Surface Wendy Brown's illuminating essay on neoliberalism as a political rationality [“Neo-liberalism and the end of liberal democracy.” Theory and Event 7:1] is under consideration.

Brown draws on Thomas Lemke's writings for key concepts with which to think neoliberalism as a political rationality and form of governmentality. Lemke has an excellent website with many of his journal articles available to read and download.

Here's Lemke from 'The birth of bio-politics': Michel Foucault’s lectures at the College de France on neo-liberal governmentality.':

[T]he theoretical strength of the concept of governmentality consists of the fact that it construes neo-liberalism not just as ideological rhetoric or as a political-economic reality, but above all as a political project that endeavours to create a social reality that it suggests already exists. Neo-liberalism is a political rationality that tries to render the social domain economic and to link a reduction in (welfare) state services and security systems to the increasing call for ‘personal responsibility’ and ‘self-care’. In this way, we can decipher the neo-liberal harmony in which not only the individual body, but also collective bodies and institutions (public administrations, universities, etc.), corporations and states have to be ‘lean’, ‘fit’, ‘flexible’ and ‘autonomous’: it is a technique of power. The analysis of governmentality not only focuses on the integral link between micro- and macro-political levels (e.g. globalization or competition for ‘attractive’ sites for companies and personal imperatives as regards beauty or a regimented diet), it also highlights the intimate relationship between ‘ideological’ and ‘political-economic’ agencies (e.g. the semantics of flexibility and the introduction of new structures of production). This enables us to shed sharper light on the effects neo-liberal governmentality has in terms of (self-) regulation and domination. These effects entail not just the simple reproduction of existing asymmetries or their ideological obfuscation, but are the product of a re-coding of social mechanisms of exploitation and domination on the basis of a new topography of the social domain.

Thomas Lemke “'The birth of bio-politics': Michel Foucault’s lectures at the College de France on neo-liberal governmentality.” Economy and Society. 30.2: 190-207. p203. Emphasis added.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Meaghan Morris - said it best . . . Spectres of Keating

The media figure of Paul Keating, Treasurer in the Hawke Labor government of 1983-91, and Australian Prime minister 1991-96, became central to my effort to understand popular debate about history. Widely represented as embodying economic rationalism and globalization during the 1980s, Keating “morphed” in the 1990s into a bearer of history and nationalism. The critical, revisionary accounts of colonial history admitted to the mainstream during the Bicentenary became, for four brief but heady years, institutionally dominant accounts. They even crept into the tourist industry: most obviously through museums, and the promotion of Aboriginal culture, but also through state support for an export image of Australian as an urbane, socially liberal, multiculturalist heaven.

Given that the contradictions between this culturalist program and the economic realities of life for most rural and working-class people had been obvious for a decade before the “Keating era” had began, it is not surprising that the era ended with a devastating defeat for Labor at the federal election of March 1996. For historians, it will be a long time before this period can be seriously evaluated. As a cultural critic, however, I am concerned with the role played by images and stories of the past in the conflicts of the present. For me, analyzing both phases of the Keating mythos, “economics” (the 1980s) and “history” (the 1990s), is that it shows how profoundly so-called “local” and “everyday” issues of identity, community, and cultural power – so acutely raised by the social pressures of a tourist economy – are shaped by and responsive to the “global” struggle over the future of the nation-state.

Meaghan Morris "Introduction: history in cultural studies" from Too soon, too late: history in popular culture. (1998) : 13.

Two of my favourite quotes from Australian cultural critic Meaghan Morris, and ones which have an odd resonance now, after the return of the Labor Party to government, and on the day after the first budget this new government presented.

What feels strange is that during the Hawke and Keating period, even into the Howard era (1996-2007), politics was bursting with narrativity. Keating's struggle to overcome Hawke was a biographical narrative that had Shakespearean echoes, while the struggle to reform and modernise the economy (so that story goes) was a narrative full of danger, thrills and conflict. The end of the Howard era saw his deputy oddly annointed as the successor in such a controlled and bloodless manner that the aggressive campaign to sieze power that Keating and his coteries waged cast Costello's feeble plotting as weak and lacking drama.

And yet here we are around 6 months into a new Labor government and to use a term like mythos about Kevin Rudd, let alone about the Treasurer Wayne Swann, seems more than inappropriate. Mark Bahnisch gets it right when he argues that Swann and Rudd's lack of charismatic magnitude, their repetition of phrases like "working families" (a meme that Obama has picked up), are not due to lack of imagination or ineptitude, but rather arise out of a mode of forming and speaking to a constituency not mediated by the punditocracy or the commentariat.

Keating, on the other hand, did speak as though the commentariat was important, albeit with increasing selectivity after his 1993 election win. Notorious for his blue shouting down the phone at journalists who got the story wrong or made an enemy of him, Keating once Prime Minister, as Morris analyses it, morphed from vector of economics to history: his big picture now had cultural-historical reform painted alongside the modernisation of the economy.

And so the narrative often told of this period of transition from Labor to Liberal, a period marked by the intensification of teh culture wars, is that Keating alienated the battlers and ordinary Australians, once by economic rationalist reform (high interest rates, bankruptcy, manufacturing restructures) and twice by interpellating them as guilty, unsophisticated, conservatives. Howard, so it goes, listened, fought back against the cultural elites, declared that minority interest groups, the "X" industries (insert minor identity group), the cosmopolitan elites, the republicans.

The heat and stakes in that contest and conflict now seem to have been grossly inflated. Rudd and Swann, Deputy Prime Mnister Julia Gillard too, calm, technocratic, eschewing narratives aimed at the commentariat for catchphrases, like lines from haiku, repeated . . . repeated . . . repeated . . . relaxed & comfortable.

Does Keating hover over this weird calmness, as a spectre? Indeed has governmentality started to shift away from that phase informed by the myth of neoliberalism as deregulation toward a form of governing which clamly states and recognizes that even deregulation is a form of regulation?

On the other hand what was missing from the budget was any narrative forming responses to climate change. I wonder how Keating would have narrated a story about Australia's Green future?


John Forbes

I want to believe the beautiful lies
the past spreads out like a feast.

Television is full of them & inside
their beauty you can act: Paul Keating's

bottom lip trembles then recovers,
like the exchange rate under pressure

buoyed up words come out -
elegant apostle of necessity, meaning

what rich Americans want, his world is
like a poem, completing that utopia

no philosopher could argue with, where
what seems, is & what your words describe

you know exists, under a few millimetres
of invisible cosmetic, bathed

in a milky white flourescent glow.

From The Stunned Mullet & Other Poems