Saturday, November 29, 2008

Payback: Debt and the Shadow side of Wealth

Emperor Rupert's Boyer Lectures have so far centred on whipping Australia's inflexible culture so that it can face the challenges of the golden age before us as neoliberal globalization lifts all boats and technology creates a growing global middle-class where we all partake of the fruits of a free-trade modernity where enterprise has trumped the disempowering welfare state and . . . well you know the rest. Blairite self-empowerment bullshit with more neoliberal governmentality demanded and a wondrous world just over the horizon.

But the Murdoch vision has all gone to shit recently, hasn't it? Governments are pump-priming demand and have had no choice but to become interventionist: investing in collapsing child-care centres in Australia and considering dropping a sly wad of largesse on the US car industry. But in the midst of all these bail-outs and ersatz Keynesianism the social forms of debt that appear to be at the heart of the current convulsions are largely left unexamined. Some Neocons have found a scapegoat, in the minor lending practices to poorer Americans, for the whole darn mess. If this falsehood is accepted then it follows that, as the Neolib-Neocons argue, we are governed too much and the world financial system will return to its marvellous wealth-generating machinations just as soon as the do-gooders are abjected from their pathological government interventionism.

Yet the problem with this version of Neoliberalism is that it still wants the state to encourage, enable and support the key organs in the body of finance capital. And to ensure that those corporations too big to fail are kept alive. Moral hazard is a luxury in times like these - so this line of reasoning goes.

If we are seeing merely a reconfiguration of Neoliberal Global Capitalism, then Murdoch's lecture is one long News Limited op-ed that argues its case, with all the narrative sweep of a stuttering collection of sentence long paragraphs and nationalist cliches about the Australian pioneer spirit that might have less to do with a public lecture series and more with Murdoch's Fox produced movie epic STRAYLA.

Shame on the ABC for giving Rupert such a prestigious platform.

More timely and less a case of self-interested rank bullshit are Margaret Atwood's Massey lectures -- the Canadian equivalent of the Boyers -- on Debt as a social form. The lectures can be listened to on the CBC website here. A recent interview in the New York Times is here.

From the CBC site introduction:

Legendary novelist, poet, and essayist Margaret Atwood delivers a surprising look at the topic of debt. In her wide-ranging, entertaining, and imaginative approach to the subject, Atwood proposes that debt is like air - something we take for granted until things go wrong. And then, while gasping for breath, we become very interested in it.

Payback is not about practical debt management or high finance. Rather, it is an investigation into the idea of debt as an ancient and central motif in religion, literature, and the structure of human societies.

Margaret Atwood writes “These are not lectures about how to get out of debt; rather, they’re about the debtor/creditor twinship in the broadest sense – from human sacrifice to pawnshops to revenge. In this light, what we owe and how we pay is a feature of all human societies, and profoundly shapes our shared values and our cultures.”

Friday, November 28, 2008

Vertigo: oscillations of emergence

***Spoiler Alert: below is a review of this novella which discusses aspects of the plot***

Lohrey’s fifth major fictional work is, unusually for this novelist, of novella-length. In her previous four novels Lohrey turned her acute vision to fictional critiques and portrayals of the political and ethical lives of contemporary Australians, making use of the longer novel form to build size into an aspect of the narrative: the minutae of renovating and interior home design in The Reading Group (1988); the techniques of macrobiotic food preparation in Camille’s Bread (1995); the complex informal social and political network of 1950s Labor politics in The Morality of Gentlemen (1984); and the fine sifting of questions of timing a pregnancy in The Philosopher’s Doll (2004). Starting from a focus on a more publicly and male-based form of political content in her earlier novels, which are treated to astringent Brechtian alienation techniques, Lohrey shifted to a concern with more domestic and intimate forms of politics, de-intensifying the acidic effects of Brechtian presentation which were replaced by a more allusive, dream-like layering of narrating levels and tones. This shift is most notable between 1988’s The Reading Group – an elegy for an ensemble of the cultural Left in Australia who in the post-Whitlam interregnum are no longer able to read the politics of the time: the old body politic has passed, the new is yet to be born – and 1995’s Camille’s Bread – in which a triadic ‘family’ negotiate the politics of the body and the formation of new techniques of self. Indeed, Lohrey’s fictional trajectory can be said to begin with Left critiques of (political) Labourism moving into narratives heavy with (physical) labourism: from works of mourning into works of emergence.

Vertigo as both a shorter novel and coming after a novel concerned with the timing of a young professional couple’s reproduction would seem to offer no way of furthering the direction of this trajectory, for what comes after a novel about birth?

First things first. Lohrey’s voice is a distinctive one and in Vertigo the distancing tone – that in her earlier novels was at times harshly misanthropic – and sly humour are still present though there is an affection for her central characters and the community life they find after leaving Sydney, arriving in a small fictitious NSW Southern Coast town, that is increased after the rather cold portrayal of the couple in The Philosopher’s Doll. The constant narratorial distance present throughout much of the novella is, as its mysteries are revealed, seen as a technique to delay the re-connection of the central characters into their mournful emotional lives after the devastation of a miscarriage.

Vertigo is, like The Reading Group, elegiaic in tone. Unlike her post-Whitlam political work of mourning, Vertigo resolves its loss through a cathartic bushfire that opens the central couple up to working-through the pain brought by the loss of their boy, who appears throughout the novel as a ghostly child. Vertigo is a pastoral narrative that ascribes a spiritual force to the land that these young sea-changing escapees of Sydney experience as a terrifying power and as a cathartic spur to mourn a loss, enabling them to find a redemptive hope by the end of the story.

The novella is dramatically structured by the bushfire and by the effects that its aftermath has on the grief of the central couple. If there is a stunted emotional life drawn for the couple then the break-though into grief-saturated feeling near the story’s end is clearly meant to have been built toward through the more distancing narratorial tone prior to that moment. This technique of shiftnig the tone was unsuccessful on first reading as it seemed too transparently designed to promote a readerly catharthis as feeling rushes back into the narrative via the narrator closing the distance from which the lives of the central characters are presented. I actually think that this novel is profoundly conservative as it aligns reproduction with nature-land. If what the couple do in their new village is of any political consequence then we are not given any presentation of this form of politics. Surely if Lohrey’s interest in the demographics of sea-changers and tree-changers in terms of how these new forces are producing new social forms, or even hybrid social forms, then the focus on the emotional life of a grieving couple and their encounter with the redemptive power of the Bush is to present a portrait of politics that is Romantic and subject to the vitalist powers of nature. There seems to be a complete lack of what sort of social forms such stories of migration might presage or be emblematic of, except that there is the beginnings of such a paradigm shift. Lohrey has become a writer of new beginnings. The disappointment is that these conditions for new or even hybrid techniques of self are only ever part of the continuum of governmentality: techniques of self are connected to techniques of state. No one can escape the public world and a condition of the freedom to have nature cleanse and purge grief – as occurs in Vertigo – is that practices and rationalities of government extend from the preparation of a property for bushfire, the care of blackbirds and magpies to the Land Planning acts and local council regulations that fundamentally affect the Bush that is so capable of producing epiphanies and metamorphosis. In increasing her novelistic focus on emergence and re-birth Lohrey’s earlier concern with the techniques of state – the other end of the continuum of governmentality – has fallen away.

In one sense a corrective to the lack of narrativising those public-political concerns of her earlier novels in her more recent ones has been Lohrey’s non-fiction essays. Her Quarterly Essay on the emergence of the Greens in Tasmania, when placed alongside Vertigo, does indeed plug some of the gaps that the novel leaves. The poor reception of The Reading Group, which in lacking conventional narrative closure seemed to strike some reader-reviewers as thereby unsuccessfully incomplete, might explain why Lohrey abandoned the acrid Brechtian presentation of what is her most accomplished and richest novel: to have a readership.

Yet Vertigo, like The Philosopher’s Doll, lacks the warmth that dropping the Brechtian mode could allow more room to radiate. The slewing off of the negating and critical orientation in her earlier novels seems to have been exchanged for a slow diminution of a broader conception of politics in her fiction. Where in The Reading Group the loss of Social-Liberal-Labourist governmentalities is presented as a tear in the continuum of practices of self and state, in her more recent novels, techniques of self have come to dominate the narratives. The implicit project of The Reading Group -- to begin the work of mourning so as to repair and re-form a new continuum -- seems to have been placed aside and each new novel or novella has become a repetition of a scene of emergence that is never developed, or drawn into practices and rationalities of state that hover in the background, unsaid, invisible and off-stage. Where in The Reading Group these rationalities and techniques were front of stage -- the novel's bushfires symbolizing a permanent crisis of state security -- in Vertigo the bushfires are symbols of nature's sublime power to re-birth and heal, albeit a spiritually local and Australian nature. It seems jarring then that apart from the naming of the fictitious town there is little Aboriginal presence in the novel. In Vertigo nature's sublime power is specifically local, Australian and has had its indigenous history abjected.

Vertigo hints at a new forms of governmentality, but Lohrey has been hinting at emerging forms since 1995. Hopefully her next long-form work of fiction sees her return to the poetics of politics that The Reading Group dropped its readers into. If there are ways out of Neoliberalism then narratives of beginnings and emergences while good starts need to be developed. The tear in the continuum of governmentality presented so forcefully in The Reading Group is yet to be sutured. I hope her next work attends to such work as we need her voice in these times.

The Howard Years - the key points

The 4 part documentary currently screening on your ABC - The Howard Years - has been getting summarised on the 7:56 Report segment by the hilarious John Clarke and Brian Dawe. You'd have to watch the ABC doco episode to catch the allusions, but while Labor in Power (1993) was dramatically structured by the Hawke-Keating contest, the Howard years, so far, is structured by a sour never-challenger -- Peter Costello -- and cabinet ministers and minders like Panto-despicable Peter Reith and Alexander Downer, and spin meister Graham Morris, all giggling and blushing as they tell us how seriously pleased Howard or Jannette was with some act of bastardry they'd accomplished.

As I said, you can watch the long version, or get the shorter version here:

Part 2 here.

An excerpt focusing on the Tampa incident:

JOHN CLARKE: The sense was we were about to be swamped by hoards of people landing on our shores.

BRYAN DAWE: And were we?

JOHN CLARKE: No, you're not listening. The sense was that we were.

BRYAN DAWE: And where did people get that idea?

JOHN CLARKE: I don't know where people got that idea from. No idea!

No, I don't think the Navy were happy about it the all. I mean they were up there; this was dangerous.

So someone in the office thought of some tin pot place up there somewhere.

Well, we slipped them a few bucks; they signed a few documents, problem solved.

I'll tell you something I have only previously told my teddy bear. He was seriously pleased with me!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Leaving the Long Labor Decade

Thought I'd put the conclusion to the thesis that is currently under examination up here. It begins with some quotes from Keating and Christos Tsiolkas before closing the circle -- the thesis open witha ficto-critical piece that attempts to draw my own coming-of-age into the national Bildungsroman that I argue forms the basis of a dominant version of the narratives of the long Labor Decade -- with a short anecdote from a time just after the period the thesis has analysed, then moving into a summary consideration of other fictions of the period and other trajectories for the literary history not taken in the PhD but which are suggested by it.

This conclusion was a bit risky on my part, but I had decided a while ago to mix sections of anecdote and autobiography into the thesis as my engagement with Praise was initially mediated through musical culture. I also wanted to 'unpack' the term Grunge, as it is a literary genre term which has stuck - for better or worse. The tired argument that Grunge was assigned as a marketing term, while true, is somewhat to miss the opportunity of making links between postpunk cultural form and the literary forms presented in Praise and Loaded. I wanted to try and give Grunge fiction links into the postpunk musical culture that I had grown up with as having shared structures of feeling: it seemed like the best way of making this link was through some life-writing.

[W]e got this cultural shift by exposing ourselves to necessity. That is the essence of it. There remain a few people on both sides of politics who disagree, but the fact is undeniable – only by establishing an environment of necessity did we get these changes. Nothing else would do. The recognition of necessity has driven change in the past decade and it will drive it in this one. There is no greater weapon against the tendency to inertia. No better way to expose and defeat those without ideas and policies or the will to realise them. (Keating)

Being an adolescent at the moment of punk and postpunk music, succumbing to the aggressiveness, revolt and atonality of the music, influence the rhythms and tones and expression of what I wanted to write. (Tsiolkas, 2008)

We had travelled up the Pacific Highway from Sydney in our Rover Quintet, stopping at Grafton to vote, before arriving at Kangaroo Point on Friday October 2nd, 1998. The rest of “Crow” arrived that evening in the Tarago, three of my bandmates and our manager, spilling out of the bubble-van with the cigarette smoke. We had come up to Brisbane to play a short set at the Livid festival at the RNA Showgrounds along with about fifty other bands and acts.

It was a blazing heat that hit us as we set up on the Zoo stage that Saturday. We had worked our way through most of the beer rider that afternoon before going on stage, and Robert Forster from the “Go-Betweens” was gliding between the rooms of the old shed, dressed like the Great Gatsby in a linen suit and Panama hat, letting us know that we denizens of Sydney and Melbourne were close to the tropics.

When I turned around to catch my breath after the fifth song of our set, I knew that we had just been in the midst of a run of songs when the band’s power and grace, its grain and breath had for once gelled and fired. It felt like flying off a cliff.

Later we took half a pill and swooned to the "Underground Lovers", before heading back to load the van as the music stopped and the crowd leaked out. It was about nine-thirty and we were all in the Tarago ready to leave the Showgrounds when the results of the Federal election started to be called over the radio. It was lost. Pauline Hanson, the reactionary populist from South-East Queensland, had failed to win a seat in the lower house, but Labor had failed to win back Government. There was crying in the van.


After the long Labor decade the Howard years: eleven long years of an intensified Neoliberalism allied to a reactionary social conservatism. These years coincided with a long boom, partly as a legacy of the 1990-91 recession which had burned Neoliberal governmentalities into Australian political culture in ways that made them appear second nature. The early Howard years were marked by the ascendance of the reactionary populist Pauline Hanson, whose tone of grievance and appeal to a blunt equality captured that segment of the population who had felt unrecognised, unprotected and even discarded during the later years of the long Labor decade. Hanson’s culture-war appeal was pandered to by the Liberal-National Coalition who set about the slow process of reeling in her new-won constituents and undermining her through legal attacks on her party structure.

Two novels from 1996 and 1997 come out of a similar moment to Hanson: David Foster’s The Glade within the Grove (1996) and David Ireland’s The Chosen (1997). Both novels can be described as satirical pastoral, although Foster’s has a radical ecological edge (Blaber, 2006: 62). What ties these novels to the long Labor decade and the rise of Hanson is their shared sense of a rural crisis which is felt most by some deformation of masculinity. Hanson spoke to and for the men damaged not only by the recession, but by the collapse of the culture of Labourism and the political economy that had been its bulwark. In The Chosen the narrator is employed by the Lost River Council to interview one town member per week and from their stories to fashion a weaving that connects into a patchwork of stories from the ‘chosen’. The town has recently been subject to a murder and the narrator is also mourning a lost love who ghosts the narrative. What emerges from the stories is a violent patchwork of individuals whose traditions keep them from collectively unravelling at the same time as they are incommensurable. The damaged man here is Davis Blood the narrator whose work of mourning is the tapestry, which brings the plural subjects of the rural town together. Ireland’s novel suggests that if the long Labor decade produced damaged men then their best hope was to both mourn the loss of the political culture that had underwritten their centrality and to listen to the collective stories of the diverse people in their towns rather than to scapegoat as Hanson and her acolytes did, those who had never enjoyed the centrality and privileges of white, wage-earning men.

In Foster’s The Glade within the Grove a counter-mythology of settlement is presented and the birth of an eco-religion is recounted in which the men of the commune castrate themselves. Here the damage to men is a self-sacrificial offering to a spirit of reforestation. Far from Hanson’s petit-bourgeois ressentiment, the damaged men in Foster’s novel are acts of reparation to the ecosphere. The governmentalities practised in this novel are far removed from those discussed throughout this thesis. In terms of the ascendance of Hansonism Foster’s novel abjures Government, so that while Hansonites demand recognition from Government, the denizens of The Glade are part of the birth of a religion: outside the state.


The stories of feminine sexuality in the fictional texts of the long Labor decade appear infrequently in the body of the thesis above. Cynthia Lamonde in McGahan’s Praise is presented as having a voracious sexual appetite: a libidinal drive which is placed in proximity to the literal abjection of an abortion and the incidence of cancerous genital warts. In other words Cynthia has a dangerously diseased sexuality. In Justine Ettler’s The River Ophelia (1995) a highly self-conscious set of metafictional allusions are paraded through the narrative. Less concerned with deploying abjection as social critique Ettler’s Grunge novel could be said to be seeking to claim the symbolic capital in the Australian literary field for a novel that is itself abject in relation to other novels in the field (Kirkby,1998: 239). Linda Jaivin’s Eat Me (1995) qualifies as a Grunge novel on the basis of its depiction of graphic female sexuality. Its Libertarian sexuality is presented with humour but the subjects of the stories are so comfortably situated in their inner-city milieu that the playful sexual fantasies, while enjoyable, amount to an ephemeral text.

Although mentioned in passing in chapter 1, Lohrey’s Camille’s Bread is a substantial novel of the long Labor decade. Read through the concerns that this thesis has thematized, Lohrey’s novel presents what could be called a world beyond Labourism. The novel’s central female character has taken a year off from her job to spend time with her asthmatic daughter Camille. Into their lives enters Stephen, a public servant who is attempting to refashion himself as a Shiatsu masseur and who has entered wholesale non-western techniques of self, most notably by way of a macrobiotic diet. The coming together of these three poses fundamental problems over how: to move beyond Labourism for Stephen, whose past contains some un-worked through rage; to reconcile practices of single-mothering with those of self for Marita; and for Camille to learn to negotiate with a father-figure. What is of particular salience for this thesis is how Stephen’s attempts to move beyond those Labourist governmentalities he practices as union representative in his public service job, shadow his renewed self as he finds himself the object of an intrigue initiated by Camille’s estranged father, a merchant banker with a heart arrhythmia. Realising that he has been played he attacks Camille’s father, his new non-violent practices of self abandoning him as rage erupts. In this brief reading of Camille’s Bread the utopia of the reformed body, a theme carried through from Lohrey’s work of mourning The Reading Group, is shown in the character of Stephen to be carrying a kernel of unresolved rage that such a refashioned self cannot easily abject. To read Stephen’s story as emblematic of the fortunes of Labourism across the long Labor decade, we might say that while the Labourist-Social-Liberal consensus is a lost political project, a residual Labourism remains a strong core within sections of Australian political culture. The repudiation of the Neoliberal Workchoices industrial relations laws at the 2007 Federal election, the election at which Prime Minister Howard was unseated, points to this residual Labourism in Australian political culture, which may be less a lost formation than an ethos awaiting new articulations, new forms of governmentality to animate it.


This thesis presented a two track reading of key themes and genres in the textuality of the long Labor decade. Off to the side of the thesis some music could be heard: Ari’s eurhythmic dancing in Loaded; the sound of David Bowie in Capital, volume one; perhaps at some points "Nirvana’s" Smells like Teen Spirit caught your ear. While the boundary work of this thesis has shuttled between fictional and non-fictional texts, there are other boundaries to be worked, not least that between the music of the long Labor decade and its texts. Indeed, in Bob Blunt’s Blunt: a Biased History of Australian Rock (2001), the Seattle-based genealogy of Grunge music is challenged by the acknowledgement that “US Sub Pop bands like Nirvana and Mudhoney [. . .] were openly avowed fans of [Australian band] the Scientists” (151). In the short pop-song length Excursus of this thesis I gave a punk version of an alternate genealogy of musical form in which Fordist culture was presented as viscerally impacting on the formation of the proto-punk band "the Stooges". From the brief excavation of the uses of musical sociology in genre policing that was presented in the Excursus, there is surely work to be done on the boundaries between the historical sociology of musical and literary form.

Another trajectory for future research would be to perform a set of more extensive distant readings over the long Labor decade. The focus in the thesis on two Left writers could be multiplied to investigate a larger set of Left-wing texts which thematise government differently, or similar practises of distant reading could be applied to Social-Liberal writers, those whom Mark Davis argues work within the paradigm of literary Liberalism. Other themes could be the focus of distant readings including ones that take an ecological form as their unit of data, such as the use of trees in novels like Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus and Foster’s Glade within the Grove.


Finally, this thesis has sought to analyse and interpret the language of economics through its figures of speech and narrative instantiations. Recent novels like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (2001) and Kate Jennings’s Moral Hazard (2002) perform their own boundary work, shuttling between the discourses of the economic and the self. The complex temporal narrativity of financial derivatives must surely be the equal of any labyrinthine multi-temporal plot. In order to understand these products so that we can track their movements better narrative specialists like literary critics are well-placed to produce models that can analyze and interpret these dangerous ‘instruments’. As Keating reminds us: “They go on with all this bullshit because they won't admit it's an art, not a science” (cited in Edwards, 407). Bringing economics back into the domain of the arts by focussing on its narrativity, as this thesis has done, is one research trajectory urgently in need of extension.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

My end of Certainty

This blog has been a bit silent of late. Apres PhD I've felt less inclined to throw up pointer posts -- posts that expanded on a particular concept, or worked through a line of argument that I thought would subsequently by useful as the draft was composed -- although the rush of posts that came in the wake of what might be called the shuddering convulsions of the financial crises have lessened as the US Election neared and the economic crises have metastasized into aspects of the real economy. In Australia a couple of private childcare companies are in receivership, partly due to the financial convulsions but also due to the imbrication of a heavily state-subsidized childcare industry into some of the dodgier financial practices of recent years. It is early days for the federal government's response to these collapses, but how it deals with these will give some indication of the direction that the Rudd Government will head in as it seeks to present its alternative to what Rudd has termed extreme capitalism.

I'm back on campus tomorrow for a Work-in-Progress day: where the school's postgrads and supervisors gather for the postgrads to report on the state of their research. I'm on a completions panel and have been helpfully given a set of questions in advance that the Postgrad co-ordinator will ask a couple of us completees. So, as an exercise in preparation, and in case you might be interested, I thought I'd work through these questions in this post.

1) Did your research project change from the one you scoped in your
preliminary research plan? If so, how? How late did those changes
occur? What will / would you do in planning your next project as a
result of this experience?

The basic concepts contained in the preliminary plan remained, but the specific readings shifted considerably. My initial frame was to marry citizenship studies with the politics of Australian literary fiction in the period 1984 to 1996. So, my plan was to read around public sphere theory, theories and histories of citizenship, political theory, and Australian realist fiction. The changes occurred in the attempt to merge literary and political history with citizenship theory. For example, Habermas' history and theory of the public sphere contains an interesting theory about the importance of the epistolary novels of Samuel Richardson to the formation of the form of privateness and publicness that, in effect, provided the pre-conditions for the bourgeois or political public sphere. This is a similar argument to the one the Benedict Anderson makes in Imagined Communities: that the novel is a social form that makes nationalism through its address to a shared public who imagine that who they share the reading with forms the nation. So, it was the attempt to merge political theories like Habermas', which is elegiac -- mourning a fallen rational-critical culture -- with the imaginative and aesthetic nature of the novel that impelled me to move away from the directions I'd initially thought I'd be heading in. Luckily my supervisor could see well into the future of my project and pointed my almost immediately toward Pierre Bourdieu's Rules of Art which gave me a very useful model for blending sociology and literary aesthetics.

There were a number of other major changes from the preliminary plan to the final submission. The most significant were learning about the sociology of literary form -- rather than attempting to read fiction as sociology -- and becoming increasingly interested in and persuaded by the governmentality school as a way of approaching both the concept of citizenship and Neoliberalism as the dominant governmentality of the period.

My supervisor had also, wisely, lead me toward Franco Moretti's more recent quantitative methods for literary history, and this, in turn, helped to bring me to Moretti's earlier work on the Bildungsroman. In terms of the literary side of the thesis reading, applying and adapting Moretti's explanations for the rise of this literary form to the generationalism, contests over youth and coming-of-age novels that I was studying gave me a grammar and vocabulary for articulating a historical sociology of literary form. What was then opened up for me was how the political history and speeches of the period were also traversed by conventions of the Bildungsroman. This was a real breakthrough and a fairly late development: early in the third year. It meant that I had to get through Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship -- fairly hard going -- and Flaubert's Sentimental Education -- which reminds me that I should read this again soon, as it was so funny -- which is also the key novel in Bourdieu's Rules of Art.

The main thing I'd do differently, in terms of preliminary planning, would be to read more fiction, especially novels like the Goethe and Flaubert, as you don't really consent to the literary history, literary sociology arguments until you have a feel for the works through which these arguments are being made.

(2) How long did the process of "finishing your thesis" take? What
did it feel like? How did your relationship with your supervisor
change during this period?

The whole process is 'finishing'. I know that there were milestones which did help to punctuate the process -- giving conference papers, and passing annual reviews -- but there is a background anxiety that is really the sense that you are always slowly moving towards finishing. This anxiety, however, does intensify. Having given up smoking cigarettes in the beginning of the fourth year, I found that the shock of adrenaline that came during those acceleration periods in the final six months had to be produced out of unfamiliar parts of the body, so that when it was time to face down the deadline I didn't really know how to get moving. I put this lack of body-knowledge down to quitting smoking. So, what I mean to say is that the finishing end-game was trance-like and involved a self-game of will that was new to me and that took a long time to intensify. To be honest I had to mourn the thesis: to let it go and to say goodbye to it in order to write it. That was hard.
The relationship with my supervisor shifted along the plane of authority: I became more capable of arguing for my method and arguments and as what I had initially imagined as the reach of the research shrunk to a slice I became more the expert on the terrain of that slice. What also changed, as a corollary, was that I came more to appreciate my supervisor's areas of expertise and to gain a realistic sense of his understanding of areas that were newer to him.

(3) What would you tell yourself at the beginning of your
candidature, if you could travel back in time?

The winners of the last four years' Melbourne Cups.
To do a course in Word Processing a lot sooner. To always make notes after reading something, so to avoid having to read a chapter or essay over and over again. To use some system of book page-tagging and annotation. To use Abebooks for cheap second hand books. To take accurate bibliographic notes. To read more fiction.

(4) What is key thing you've learnt about yourself in the process of
finishing a thesis?

That I try to save up the actual practice of the literary reading until the very last minute; that's what I love doing but I try to prolong the pleasure of it, as much as possible, by over-reading the non-literary histories and theories. That I need to trust the value of my previous work more: I kept thinking that I could start afresh every time I sat down to draft a chapter, but I learnt that the guy that made those notes a couple of years ago had some idea about what he was doing and he was actually doing the same project.

(5) What is the key thing you've learnt about academic work in the
process of finishing a thesis?

That it's excruciatingly hard and pleasurable at the same time.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The real New Deal

Paul Krugman today in the NYT: "Suddenly, everything old is New Deal again. Reagan is out; F.D.R. is in. Still, how much guidance does the Roosevelt era really offer for today’s world?"

Krugman argues that contrary to Neoliberal orthodoxy FDR underspent:
Now, there’s a whole intellectual industry, mainly operating out of right-wing think tanks, devoted to propagating the idea that F.D.R. actually made the Depression worse. So it’s important to know that most of what you hear along those lines is based on deliberate misrepresentation of the facts. The New Deal brought real relief to most Americans.

That said, F.D.R. did not, in fact, manage to engineer a full economic recovery during his first two terms. This failure is often cited as evidence against Keynesian economics, which says that increased public spending can get a stalled economy moving. But the definitive study of fiscal policy in the ’30s, by the M.I.T. economist E. Cary Brown, reached a very different conclusion: fiscal stimulus was unsuccessful “not because it does not work, but because it was not tried.”

Yes! I love this line of argument. It completely inverts the Austrian economics orthodoxy which rejects the need for social-liberal regulatory politics in the face of the finance capital convulsions because, they argue, it was government intervention that fostered the sub-prime mess in the first place. Krugman, instead, argues that the New Deal was never as interventionist as it has been painted by the Neoliberals. The US is yet to try the real New Deal.

Falling in love with democracy again?

IN TWO pointer posts below Mike Davis and Guy Rundle respond to Obama's election with, on the one hand, an almost cynical pre-emptive Left mourning and, on the other, with a star-burst of Left falling-in-love. These politics of affect comprise a tricky subject for some, especially Australians who like to think of politics as pragmatic and never symbolic; driven by costed and measurable policies and never by emotions; hard, tactile and masculine -- doing something -- and never rhetorical, verbal and temporally complex. But in the elevation of Obama there is a danger, for the Left, of oscillating in huge arcs between a pre-emptive mourning and falling-in-love.

Can our political attachments -- and many Australians are heavily invested in US politics -- move beyond this binary of a pragmatic, because intelligently reflective, despair and romantic, mindlessly ephemeral, overinvestment in political leaders and projects? Can we oscillate in a more sustainably rhythmic cycle: more like a clock pendulum than a wrecking ball?

Supervalent Thought asks whether political optimism necessary leads to mindlessness; whether political happiness must be equated

with shallowness and emotional darkness with truth and profundity.

Oh yes, about Obama, the neoliberal, gay-marriage compromised, “market guy…” Here’s what makes me politically happy about the event of Obama. He is the first mainstream politician in decades who loves the political process. He does not confuse “Washington” with politics. His organization’s practice of training other organizers demonstrates his commitment to producing skills for political world-building beyond his campaign.

In this way the event of Obama has already massively advanced the skills for democracy in the United States. In other ways he seems committed to constraining and even undermining what that might entail concretely. Protesting and appreciating, though, are some of what we do to maintain the optimism of any attachment. They keep you bound to the (political) scene, to the cognitive and affective difficulties of remaining critically present to desire.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

crow at the factory - video treats

Reformed late 80s and 90s Sydney post-punk band Crow have been doing a few shows, and are even recording sparkling new material. Even though I spent a few years playing keyboards ('keyboards' still sounds wrong, don't it? But it's preferable to 'piano and organ sampler', I think) with them, this is the classic & best Crow line-up with the incredible John Fenton on drums and the muscular guitar-playing of Peter Archer providing the foil to P. Fenton's scratchier axe-sound and amazing songs.

One of their recent performances -- at the Factory: 29th August, 2008 - - was videotaped, and uploaded here. Peter F is in fine voice and me ol' mucker James D Woff keeps the whole thing anchored and the engine-room humming. [check out the 'crow bar' which is cheekily situated on the left of the stage. Manned by inner-west legend Lobster.]

Link provided via The Lost and Found Music Library. Well Worth visiting.

Rundle - a victory of the global left

Below is an extract from Guy Rundle's post to Crikey today. I think Rundle puts his finger on both a sense of shift to the Left and a wary optimism in Obama's election.

Let's be clear about what this victory means, and why it means so much. It is not simply the victory of a black man as President. A Colin Powell becoming the new Republican Eisenhower of 2008 would not arouse a hundredth of this enthusiasm. Nor is it a victory of the left. A Dennis Kucinich, by some bizarre cosmic accident, becoming President would not arouse this level of passion.

What makes it powerful is that it is a victory of the global left in the incarnation of a black American, that it is a double blow to power and skin-privilege. Will President Obama be a programmatically radical leader? Of course not. But will he be a shivering neurotic Jesus-freak sycophant like Tony Blair? No, equally.

His achievement before anything has occurred is this: that every vector of power -- money, race, media -- has been defeated in the US, the declining but still regnant capitol of the world. That what won was the idea of wisdom, judgement, intelligence, prudence and audacity, conservatism and radicalism, a measuring up to the demands of the world. That, as opposed to past Democratic campaigns, this was not a party machine insider -- a Tennessee grandee or a billionairess's husband -- presenting themselves as the least-worst option.

It was someone who, by his own account, had come through the world of the radical left, of radical black action, to the realisation that any change in America had to come not against its traditions, but within them, and who therefore drew on the strengths of every residual radical and progressive notion of this one-time revolutionary society. It was an achievement, but it was also a channelling in to a deeper moment of historical shift.

In the USA this has been greeted, even by conservatives, as a historic transcendent moment. Why? I am reminded of the Jorge Luis Borges essay about Buenos Aires during 1940, when it looked like the Nazis -- who had a lot of support in Argentina out of hatred of British imperialism – would win. Borges, a resolute anti-Nazi, was visited by an Axis supporter.

"France has fallen," he said, "nothing can stop them now!" And then Borges notes:"I realised he was as terrified as I was".

In other words -- and am I not breaking Godwin's law -- there are moments in politics when, on one side, no-one really wants to win. That was the curse of the McCain campaign. Deep down they knew that McCain's moment was 2000, and that it had passes. But they kept going, against a historical moment which, deep deep down, most of them -- and that may well include John McCain himself -- wanted to happen, and, deep deep down, did not want to stand in the way of.

For those of us who committed ourselves to the left, whatever that means, these are great days not because of what Obama will do, but because of what he will not do -- because he will normalise progressive, moderate, multilateral, modernised politics in the US and in the western world, and that is the context in which we will work.

If you want to see some graciousness in that moment, read (sections of) the US conservative press. If you want to read bitterness and incomprehension about it, read Albrechtsen and Sheridan in The Oz today.

For the rest of us it is tears and laughter, laughter and tears. For all the people I've marched with, argued with, whatever, this is a moment. I have no compunction at all about feeling part of this in however distant a manner. For the right, globally, you will have to reinvent yourselves. You are the Whigs in the 1850s. You are about to cease to exist.

Tears and laughter and laughter and tears.

to salvage and reorganize shattered hopes

Some thoughts on Obama's election from Mike Davis via Socialist

Below is a pessimistic or, maybe more, a realist view from Davis on the elevation of the Democrats and Obama to power which holds that the Neoliberal revolution has been so complete that Obama will come nowhere near challenging its key practices and logics of governmentality. Davis' pessimism of the intellect presages a collapse of the ephemeral optimism currently invested in Obama, and thereby
"[t]he great challenge to small bands of the left is to anticipate this mass disillusionment, understanding that our task is not "how to move Obama leftward," but to salvage and reorganize shattered hopes. The transitional program must be socialism itself."

Mike Davis
Writer, historian and socialist activist Mike Davis is the author of several books, including Planet of Slums, In Praise of Barbarians and City of Quartz.

FORTY YEARS ago this week, the Democratic Party (the party of Jim Crow and the Cold War, as well as the New Deal) shipwrecked itself on the shoals of an unpopular war in Vietnam and a white backlash against racial equality.

The "emerging Republican majority," as Nixon's Machiavelli, Kevin Phillips, famously branded it, was always episodic and often paper-thin in national elections, but it was galvanized by impressive ideological and religious fervor, as well as lavishly subsidized by an employer class everywhere on the offensive against New Deal unions and social programs.

Republicans, although more often than not the minority party in Congress, dominated agendas (the New Cold War, the tax revolt, war on drugs and so on) and led the restructuring of government functions (abolition of direct federal aid to cities, deliberate use of debt to forestall social spending and so).

The Democratic response to the Reagan revolution from 1981 was not principled resistance but craven adaptation. The "New Democrats" under Bill Clinton (whose personal model was Richard Nixon) not only institutionalized Nixon-Reagan economic policies, but sometimes surpassed Republicans in their zeal to enforce neoliberal doctrine, as with Clinton's crusades to "reform" welfare (in fact to create more poverty), reduce the deficit and implement NAFTA without labor rights.

Although the New Deal working-class core continued to supply 60 percent of the Democratic vote, party policy was largely driven by the Clintons' infatuation with "new economy" elites, entertainment industry moguls, affluent suburbanites, yuppie gentrifiers and, of course, the world according to Goldman Sachs.

Crucial defections by Democratic voters to Bush in 2000 and 2004 had less to due with Republican manipulation of "family values" than with Gore's and Kerry's embrace of a globalization that had devastated mill towns and industrial valleys.

This week's election paradoxically augurs both fundamental realignment and fundamental continuity.

The Republicans now know what 1968 was like for the Democrats. Blue victories in formerly bedrock Red suburbs are stunning invasions of the enemy's electoral heartland, comparable to George Wallace's and Richard Nixon's victories more than a generation ago in Northern ethnic-white, CIO neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the desperate marriage-in-hell of Palin and McCain warns of the imminent divorce of mega-church faithful and the country-club sinners. The Bush coalition built by Karl Rove's thuggish genius is breaking up.

More importantly, tens of millions of voters have reversed the verdict of 1968: this time choosing economic solidarity over racial division. Indeed, this election has been a virtual plebiscite on the future of class-consciousness in the United States, and the vote--thanks especially to working women--is an extraordinary vindication of progressive hopes.

But not the Democratic candidate, about whom we should not harbor any illusions. Although the economic crisis as well as the particular dynamics of campaigning in industrial swing states finally drove Obama to emphasize jobs, his "socialism" has been far too polite to acknowledge vast public anger about the criminal bailout or even to criticize big oil (as has off-and-on populist McCain).

In policy terms, what would have been the difference if Hillary Clinton had won instead? Perhaps a marginally better health care plan, but otherwise the result is virtually the same. Indeed it might be argued that Obama is more a prisoner of the Clinton legacy than the Clintons themselves.

Waiting in the wings to define his first 100 days is a team of Wall Street statesmen, "humanitarian" imperialists, ice-blooded political operatives and recycled Republican "realists," which will thrill hearts from the Council on Foreign Relations to the International Monetary Fund. Despite the fantasies of "hope" and "change" projected onto the handsome mask of the new president, his administration will be dominated by well-known, pre-programmed zombies of the center-right. Clinton 2.0.

Confronted with the Great Depression of globalization, of course, the American ship of state, whatever the crew, would probably sail off the edge of the known world.

Only three things, in my opinion, are highly likely:

First, there is no hope whatsoever of the spontaneous generation of a new New Deal (or for that matter, of Rooseveltian liberals) without the combustion of massive social struggles.

Second, after the brief Woodstock of an Obama inauguration, millions of hearts will be broken by the administration's inability to manage mass bankruptcy and unemployment, as well as end the wars in the Middle East.

Third, the Bushites may be dead, but the hate-spewing nativist Right (particularly the Lou Dobbs wing) is well-positioned for a dramatic revival as neoliberal solutions fail.

The great challenge to small bands of the left is to anticipate this mass disillusionment, understanding that our task is not "how to move Obama leftward," but to salvage and reorganize shattered hopes. The transitional program must be socialism itself.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Eat yr prefab sprouts

A couple of longer posts are brewing: I'm reading and enjoying Mark Davis' The Land of Plenty (although finding some dispute with sections of its arguments) and will post on it soon. And the Sun-King has been handed the ABC's Boyer Lectures, perhaps by the Board of the ABC which includes 2 right-wing culture warriors, and is chaired by the head of the privately owned Australian Securities Exchange: clearly all specialists in PUBLIC broadcasting.
Emperor Rupert's introductory lecture in his series of six - The Golden Age of Freedom - was issued last night and 'twas a dog's breakfast of generalisations including Blairite platitudes on neoliberal-globalisation and appeals for the Australian pioneering Bush myth to be updated via an "education revolution" in Australian human capital. Why Rupert needs a forum like the Boyer Lectures I just don't know: News ltd copied his first lecture online and his flagship broadsheet summarised it in its editorial. Considering that among Murdoch's key warnings to Australia were that it should discourage "bludgers" and "big government", surely he could have got off his regal arse and just published his own thoughts through, I don't know, one of his own companies rather than via one of dem corporations that are GOVERNMENT funded. Fucking hypocrit.
Davis' book and Murdoch's lectures are both concerned with "Australia in the 2000s". Expect a post entwining them in the near future.

Anyhow, in the meantime and in the interests of spreading the love here's some tunes from Prefab Sprout from their Thomas Dolby-produced 1990 LP - Jordan the Comeback

Carnival 2000

Carnival 2000 lives come and go but life no denial is always in style
Welcome to Carnival 2000 loves come and go but love above all is belle of the ball

Looking for Atlantis

You should be loving someone and you know who it must be
Cause you'll never find Atlantis 'till you make that someone me