Wednesday, January 28, 2009

W.A.A.I.T.T & C.R.C

'We are all in this together.'

Kevin Rudd's Citizenship Ceremony speech on Australia Day repeated this phrase, which has been getting a fair bit of work lately.

The other trio of key terms getting a workout in the prime ministerial speeches of late is:

'what are the values that have shaped this vast land into the great nation that it has become? I believe there are three – courage, resilience and compassion.'

Courage, resilience, compassion. Three great values that anchored in the realisation of a fourth, and that is that we are all in this together. We are all in this together. Business, unions, bosses, workers, government, the community, governments federal, state and local. Those who have come to this land 200 years ago, those who are welcomed into the nation’s family today. Indigenous Australians, non-Indigenous Australians. We are all in this together.

To our Indigenous leaders, and those who call for a change to our national day, let me say a simple, respectful, but straightforward no.

We are a free country and it is natural and right from time to time, that there will be conversations about such important symbols for our nation. It is equally right as a free country that those of us charged with political leadership provide a straightforward response.

There is much controversy in many lands about national days. Examine the history of France, of Spain, of Italy, of Germany, of the United States. The Declaration of Independence at a time when one third of the American colonists supported the British Crown. There’ve always been controversies about national days.

But this is not the point. The central point is what we then resolve to fashion as a nation? That is the central point. And whether the nation we fashioned through our resolve, our energies and our efforts is a nation which includes all, not just some. And that is why I support this, our national day. Because in Australia, we have resolved to build such a nation. A nation for Australians all, not just for Australians some.

A nation which has apologised for the mistakes of the past, and there have been many. But a nation now resolved to close the gap. A nation now resolved to close the gap in education, in health, and employment, and those things which matter in people’s daily and practical lives. A nation of Australians all. Not just of some. So let us embrace this great practical challenge which lies ahead in closing the gap. Embraced and supported by the goodwill of all Australians, to get behind this great project, so that the gap that exists between us in the life opportunities which present themselves can be closed.

To those of you who join us today as members of the Australian family for the first time, can I say welcome. Welcome to the nation’s family. When citizenship was introduced by Ben Chifley 60 years ago, it was to reflect this great wave of migration which came to our shores after the last world war. And Chifley and those who worked with him said among themselves, let us embrace formally this construction of the new Australian nation. No longer British subjects past, but Australian citizens future.

And today you join their ranks. And as Prime Minister of Australia I am so glad that you are doing so, because you bring with you dynamism, you bring with you determination, and you bring with you diversity.

The great spirit of Australia has been this - to fashion unity from diversity. And to do so through tolerance and respect, and through the energisation of the nation. And that is what your joining us today does for the year ahead and for the future.

As we have done throughout our national history, resolving afresh to fashion a nation for a continent, and a continent for a nation, and you our newest members. The values on which this nation has been built and which will guide us for the future – courage, resilience, compassion, and to add that fourth to realise that we are all in this together. And shaped with these great values that have guided us so well in the past, let us proceed with absolute confidence, with absolute confidence to embrace the challenges that now face us for the future.

A happy Australia Day to you all.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Synth-pop on Stray-yar day

The Reels from 1979 - Love Will Find a Way

There's a swag of Stray Leane music clips over at bildungs & food.

Gordon's Boils: 1988 and the body of Australian writing

It being Australia Day, I've posted below an excerpt of my still being exmained PhD thesis that touches on some of the resonant themes arising out of Andrew McGahan's often 'misunderestimated' second novel 1988. The excerpt is from the second chapter and follows sections on McGahan's Praise, Christos Tsiolkas' Loaded, which both come after an analysis of former prime minister Paul Keating's language and story-telling.

The link between these political and literary readings is the argument that a close-reading of Keating's language divulges a narrativisation of Neoliberalism via the tropes and narrative structure of the coming-of-age genre: the Bildungsroman. This embedding of Neoliberal rationalities of government into Australian political culture is resisted through the Grunge novels of McGahan and Tsiolkas, among others -- resisted through refusing a successful coming-of-age. And in such refusal Grunge novels refocus the expectation of narrative closure around a successful maturation towards forms of 'development' that are diseased, drug-fucked, perverse. No development at all, but rather forms of time and space that are abject, atopic and arrhythmic.

1988, McGahan's wry 'prequel' to Praise, gets funnier with each subsequent reading. Yet its humour is presented in an Australian voice: taking the piss, laconic, not up itself, bordering on farce. Lacking sentimentality it offers a self-parody of the limits of the white body of Australian writing circa 1995 which is still relevant today.

There are a number of pasts that crises, like the current financial crisis, call back to in order to make sense of the present. The 1930s and the Great Depression and New Deal response in the USA is one. The moment in 1995 when Grunge literature emerged in the wake of the 1990-91 Recession is another. Its dismissal as marketing hype and immature writing, submerged beneath the Demindenko hoax and First Stone culture wars also of 1995, buried the consideration of aspects of Grunge fiction as employing youth-to-adulthood narrative form as a politics of literary form. The politics of such negation and refusal of literary coming-of-age is not mere rebellion but resides in the understanding of what neoliberalism abjects: a making of waste as is now more than apparent.

Australia day 2009 marks a point at which storms are gathering around tenets of Australian exceptionalism: that Australian trade was directly coupled to the decoupled Chinese economic growth miracle; that the contagion of financial collapse was contained over there . Unemployed, underemployed, and employed, it seems to me, are the identities that will increasingly come to define the next few years. When unemployment last reached 10%, in the wake of the 1990-91 Recession, Neoliberal techniques of governing conduct were intensified. Grunge fiction presents this intensification as forming the self: as Bildung. As unemployement grows, we could do worse than turn back to Grunge fiction for some cues as to the insiduous embedding of some Neoliberal techniques of governing. And how to understand and resist them.


I had nothing else to do. I sat there thinking about time. It was 1988. Australia’s Bicentennial year. The country was two hundred years old. I was twenty-one. (McGahan, 1995b: 42)

I was a writer, not an economist (144).

If the long Labor decade was in Paul Keating and Paul Kelly’s narratives of nation the time when Australia came of age, the two-hundred-year anniversary of the physical settlement of British Australia in Sydney in 1988 was an event and year potent with similar meaning. 1988 is a significant year in Australian history. There was a mass media and government-directed set of celebrations, focussed on 26 January (Australia Day) commemorating the Bicentennial of British settlement (Bolton 1990: 282-86, Turner 1994: 66-92). These celebrations were met with protests against the legacies of what has become known, since 1988, as Invasion Day (“Invasion”). In cultural studies and critical analyses the Bicentennial year has been framed in terms of its representations and elisions of the violent legacies of colonial settlement and changes to the technology of national broadcast media and political economy that are present in the Australia Live: Celebration of a Nation television spectacular (Turner: 83-8, Morris, 1993).

These events and the investments made in them by Government prompted the selection of the year as a periodisation end-marker in a variety of histories. The fifth volume of the Oxford History of Australia, The Middle Way: 1942-1988, first published in 1990, terminates with the Bicentennial year, which Geoffrey Bolton presents as both a moment for reflection on the ambivalences of Australian modernity, and affirmation of a wary optimism: “there might in time arise a decent self-confidence in national identity” (291). The Penguin New Literary History of Australia (1988) was “assisted by The Australian Bicentennial Authority to celebrate Australia’s Bicentenary”, its ‘New-ness’ having to do with methods of literary history based on a “consciousness that it is written out of the present, and that the needs of the present must cause us to reassess ways of looking at the past (Hergenhan: ii, xii). Thus in the theory of history to be practised in this collection we can see a need and desire to revise Australian literary history on the basis of challenges that recent, new cultural forces pose. These new forces are also present in Ken Gelder and Paul Salzman’s The New Diversity: Australian Fiction 1970-88 (1989). The Bicentennial year is inscribed into the title alongside a description of the period that is reflected in its heterogeneous eleven chapters. Here a diverse assemblage of themes and forms results in some novels reappearing through different guises when placed under another interpretive rubric. The effect of this technique of literary history is to multiply interpretations; to pluralize any monologic narrative of literary progress. Instead the progress of Australian fiction is itself toward pluralism.

These three ‘Bicentennial year’ histories share an optimism concerning the prospects for an Australian future that is pluralised: ethnically, culturally and textually. This optimism was tied into the sense that the nation was modernising in ways intensified by the reconsideration of White beginnings and Aboriginal endings two hundred years prior. Ken Gelder writes, “200 years on, every white Australian must confront this [Aboriginal] other, recognize it, listen to it and [as represented in Aboriginal writing] read it” (1989: 205).

This optimism in a pluralising Australia, however, sat atop an ambivalence over the social and cultural implications of the changes in economic government of the federal state under the Australian Labor Party from 1983:

Australians [. . .] had a strongly developed tradition of equity which tempered many of the harsher manifestations of modern capitalism in difficult times.
This tradition of equity seemed in danger of eroding during the 1980s. As the gap grew between poorer Australians and the very rich no major political party seemed able or willing to curb the process. This was in part a reaction to the uncertainties of the world economy since the early 1970s, which had impelled corporations into multinational growth and nations into more strongly organized trading blocs. Australia’s traditional economic strengths and skills no longer seemed sufficient to ensure relative security. Unable to deliver prosperity, many public figures contended that Australia could no longer afford the redistributive policies which created greater equity: the less well-off must practice restraint in order that the powerful might succeed better in their attempts to create wealth. (Bolton, 1988: 290)

This was a pluralizing then also of structures of feeling. Specifically there was an optimism signalled by 1988 as the period marker of an ending for Australian colonialism, and thereby beginning of post-coloniality, that was articulated to a manic manifestation of that ‘ecstasy’ released by the enacting of Neoliberal political rationalities that Morris explicates. A more pessimistic structure of feeling centred around losses ranging from that of the political and cultural centrality of white working class men, to the hopes invested in Labor by a bloc of social formations which carried a nostalgia for the previous Labor Government and especially its leader, Gough Whitlam (Morris, 1998).

1988 is also the year when the 1987 radical reforms that Michael Pusey speaks of became embedded in bureaucratic cultures. In 1987 “a minor revolution” occurred with “Prime Minister Hawke’s Bastille Day announcement of sweeping structural changes to the administration of government” which reformed the structure of the federal Treasury and Finance departments (1991: 146-53). These changes centralised decision-making power within these departments and thereby enforced leaner and more efficient budgetary controls on what were seen as plump ministerial portfolio areas, such as the Higher Education sector, and increasingly inflicted codes of managerial practice on the administration of government (146-53). In late 1987 the Efficiency Scrutiny Unit, set up to report to Prime Minster Hawke on the status of the Public Service Board (that body that had for generations functioned to select and train all public service appointments), began its report with a preamble that rehearses the now familiar terms of the Neoliberal critique of government:

[t]he unit advised that reducing and removing unnecessary controls and interventions would generally enhance the competitiveness of the economy. It recommended that this problem needed to be addressed in a fundamental way after the election [11 July, 1987] and that the public sector, as one of the major areas of the economy which was generally sheltered from external pressures, must play its part in the adjustment process.
[T]he concepts and principles employed by successful private sector companies in becoming more competitive by becoming leaner, reducing excessive layers of management and decentralising decision making should be applied to the public sector. (cited in Pusey, 1991: 152)

For Pusey what his survey and questionnaire respondents considered to be emergent and “’mainly cosmetic’” shifts in the style of administration in aspects of the Federal Bureaucracy around 1985, had, by 1988 and 1989, become “fundamental shifts in the normative and structural foundations of public administration” (153). 1988 was thereby the year in which Neoliberalism continued its march through the state as well as through the citizen-subjects that comprised the population it Governed and secured.


Andrew McGahan somewhat oddly authored not the next instalment in the life of his Praise hero, Gordon Buchanan, but the story of the episodes prior to Praise by taking this ‘epic’ year as a focus for his second novel. On the surface this decision to present a prequel leads to an expectation that some explanation for Gordon’s lethargy and fatalism would be revealed. 1988, however, is, like Praise, a novel wherein generic expectations are refused not simply as acts of literary rebellion but so that other elements of the narrative can come to the foreground. If Praise is like a sequence of episodes in a larger failed Bildungsroman then 1988 holds the promise of placing this failed fragmentary unbecoming-of-age novel into a longer chronological sequence by way of which a pattern of development emerges. Indeed, hints in Praise about Gordon’s literary past are given fuller exposition in 1988 as Gordon’s attempts at writing are a central part of this prequel’s plot. 1988 is generically a künstlerroman: an artist formation novel. It is also a negation of the genre, as we read 1988 through its historical future when Gordon’s writerly ambitions have been left behind. 1988 is thus formally a double refusal: of the artist and the man. These refusals direct our attention toward those discourses surrounding the Bicentennial year that themselves lean on temporalizations of completed formation and organic development. The politics of form in 1988, taken together with those of Praise, focus our attention toward what lies at the edges and limits of the dominant narratives of the Bicentennial year: what times, spaces, bodies, elements and stories lie in the liminal zones of this year of national coming-of-age. If Praise is a de-formation novel, a highly compressed failed Bildung then McGahan’s prequel, 1988, is a failed künstlerroman: a failed artist formation novel. Like Praise, 1988 takes a narrative form, and uses an un-becoming temporal structure through which to bring forth a series of liminal and problematic cultural themes and concerns. Illness again is a central trope of the narrative, but here mobility is thematised alongside the freedom that Gordon and his weather station co-worker Wayne attempt to attain. This is an inversion of settlement, and the encounters with the Asian invasion at the novel’s opening and with the Aboriginal settlement near Cape Don are both emblems of 1788 and 1988 and two key narrative themes of Australian European settlement. McGahan uses conventional narrative structures, which set up expectations – of a successful formation, or becoming an artist – only to negate them. But his purpose isn’t nihilist. Into the negation, rather, is placed Gordon’s techniques of self – Gordon’s attempts at avoiding normalised ways of becoming an adult white Australian male – the industrial citizen, or the Bush type – which require that he upset and unsettle these modes of formation.


In the earlier section of this chapter I read Gordon and Cynthia as symbolic of the national economy. 1988 parodies and probes at the limits of the territorial nation, its White history and textual archetypes. It is a novel concerned with the textuality of White Australian modernity: invasion and settlement; Aboriginal communities; fears of Asian invasion; the bush myth; industrial citizenship; and the land itself, subject to weather that has complex temporalities. Again, the limits of the bodily self are placed alongside those of the territorial nation. Importantly there is a failed artist formation, or künstlerroman narrative in this novel, inviting us to read Gordon’s six months at Cape Don, including the trip there, as an allegory of a failed novel of nation: as a failure to write the novel of nation as a story by a formed artist. And yet metafictionally the fact of the novel itself is an argument for reading 1988 as a narrative of the Australian nation produced by an artist-writer in the form of McGahan.

As a Grunge novel 1988 rehearses the familiar representations of a failed formation of youth, here presented in the form of a failed artist-formation, as well as graphically depicted sex scenes, and sick bodies, with Gordon smote with boils alongside his asthma condition. The grunge tropes and chronotopes have a similarly unsettling effect on the narrative to those in Praise and, in part, in Loaded. As I argued in regard to Praise, a particularly productive way of reading the bodies in McGahan’s fiction is to read them as allegories of the national economy. Here I will argue that McGahan’s primary concern is metatextual: he is interested in the body of writing that constitutes the narrative of nation. If James Ley is right when he suggests that McGahan’s “novels can be seen as attempt to break down Australia’s recent history into its basic structuring narratives” and that he consistently “symbolizes [. . .] guilt [. . .] as a kind of disease” then we can see that Gordon’s duplicating boils are a type of emotional displacement and sometimes release for his failure to write at the same time as they symbolize blots on the body of the National text: “something huge inside me. Something dark and tight and swollen. A giant boil. Pus-ridden with denial. Pain was the only way to burst it, get rid of it forever” (Ley, 36, McGahan, 1995b: 298).

1988 is clearly a novel concerned with the legacies of colonialism and Aboriginal modernities. In order to make a case for this point I first need to draw the connection between Gordon’s failure to write and his development of boils. This connection is arguably established in chapter twenty eight when Gordon says,
[w]e were in our own limbo, stagnating under the dry season’s sun. Wayne wasn’t painting very much, I wasn’t writing at all. I slept and read and smoked. The smoking was my only form of progress. I’d mastered over ten cigarettes a day, and I was only enjoying them a little now. I’d acquired some style. My only worry was the asthma. I kept waiting for the attack, the deathgrip, but it never came.
Instead I developed a boil. It was on the back of my knee. (193)

Here the recent decision to begin smoking, brought about by frustration over his lack of writing and shame at having masturbated and fantasised about Eve, the partner of the Aboriginal ranger couple also living in the compound, is itself a displaced symptom of the failure to write and shame over his sexually violent and debasing fantasies. Thus the development of the boil on his body is a symbol and symptom of a diseased body of writing. The boil is a trope representing part of the political unconscious.

Late in the novel after Gordon’s attempts to write have failed, he ends a long day of intoxication, drinking beer and smoking joints, by entering the ranger Vince’s house, one of the three houses within the Cape Don Lighthouse and weather station compound, and with some self-loathing and envy begins to direct his hatred at the books on the shelf: “I suddenly felt an utter hatred for every writer who had held on long enough to finish something. I never would. The hatred was physical, it was a sickness” (238). Due to the “five active boils” that made “[t]he sheets of my bed [. . .] spotted with blood” Gordon has stripped for comfort, and after unsuccessfully attempting to masturbate himself to climax, catches sight of his body in the bathroom mirror:
I was hideous. Huge and round and white. Streaked with grime. My erection poked out from under my belly. It was tiny. Ludicrous. There was a bandaid tangled in the pubic hair. And there were boils everywhere. Red pus oozed from their heads. My eyes were pink, my face covered with a dirty, ginger fuzz. It was disgusting. I was a monster. (239-40)

Terrified of the monster he’s become, and full of self-disgust, Gordon returns to the run-down house he shares with Wayne and tries to sleep. In the morning he awakes to some noise and goes to the verandah: “I stood there, naked, boil-ridden lost. I realised who it was. Allan Price. Chairman of the Board of the Gurig National Park. ‘Excuse me,’ I said. Then I went back inside to get some clothes”(241). In this scene familiar tropes from Grunge fiction are present: the sick body in an abject state, porous and open, and excreting pus, intoxication mixed with sex, albeit of the solo kind. Also located on the territorial edge of Northern Australia Gordon is both on the border and in the abject zone. And it is here that Gordon at his most abject is naked and diseased before the effective ruler of the Gurig National Park: Allan Price. The novel’s textual encounter between the white, young male narrator and Aboriginal statesman is presented through Gordon’s boil-ridden body: the body that gets written rather than the novel. If Gordon’s body is symbolic of the body of Australian writing then its boils are that illness caused by his failure to textualise the Gurig Aboriginals and caused by the violence of his sexual fantasies.

To some extent this reading of Gordon’s boils complements the sentiment and main ideas behind Keating’s “Redfern Park” speech. A key section of the speech, which was given on 10 December 1992 to launch the Year of the World’s Indigenous People, is this passage:
It begins, I think with an act of recognition. Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us. With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds. We failed to ask, how would I feel if this were done to me? As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us. (cited in Watson, 2002: 288-89)

Although not an apology and delivered four years after 1988, Keating’s speech was, in the words of its primary author, based on the principle “that the problem could only be solved by an act of imagination” (289). For Watson, “[t]he speech did not say that our history was a story of unutterable shame” as some took it to mean (290). Nor did it imply “that the modern generation does or should feel guilt about what had happened” (291). Like Gordon’s boils, Keating’s Redfern Park speech put the problem of the invasion and its long aftermath into the body of Australian writing in an indirect and ambivalent fashion.

McGahan also parodies events in the national story. The novel begins with a domestic Asian Invasion where two Chinese students moving into a small apartment Gordon shares in Brisbane grow such that “[i]n the end we had nine Chinese students living there” (10). On arrival at their Cape Don house Gordon and Wayne survey their new vista, and Gordon invokes the failed Bush free-settler myth: “[t]here was no sea breeze, no taste of sea air, no sound of surf or seagulls. It didn’t feel like we were anywhere near the ocean. It felt like we were on some back lot scrub block. One that was going broke” (99).

By subverting the künstlerroman through Gordon’s failure to complete, or even substantially write, his planned novel, this structuring plot-line is cut loose and other temporalities emerge. One temporality usually given minor status in narratives of the Australian nation is that of the weather surrounding Cape Don, which Gordon and Wayne are employed to textualise: to encode cloud and other weather patterns. Writing the weather during an approaching cyclone presents a narrative of nation that is opened to more than flows of trade:
The first thing I did was check the wind meter. Maximum gust, 91kph. What would 180 be like? 220? Then it was to the barometer. I peered at it, blinking drops of water out of my eyes. 976. Four points in three hours. That was about as fast as a barometer could drop. That was plummeting. (139)

Arriving back in Brisbane after his six-month stay at Cape Don, Gordon is unsettled by the development in Brisbane, especially on the Expo site, and around New Farm which is beginning to be gentrified. The novel ends with Gordon working at the Capitol Hotel as he meets Cynthia working at the bar. The prequel has formed a continuum with Praise. But we know how that ends.


To hear Keating’s voice is to hear one tonally certain, commanding, and seductive. The voices of Gordon Buchannan and Ari Voulis are honest and holding to a structure of feeling expressed in their tone but never presented as a positive programme for their futures. In the case of Praise Gordon’s voice presents a structure of feeling that seeks to hold steady while the waves of Neoliberal practices of self-formation roll into his life. In Loaded Ari’s voice is held together by his refusals and angers, and by the passions of his sexual desires. Drug intake in Loaded is thematized, being the means by which rhythm and tempo are manipulated towards the end of an interlocked layering of mind-body, or psychic-somatic, speeds and beats. The voice remains constant, not as in the Bildungsroman where the narrator, in the past tense, tells the story of the successful formation and development of their self from the temporal perspective of the completed formation (Slaughter, 2006: 1415). Rather, in these Grunge novels, there is no certainty of voice that comes by way of being issued from a historical present in which the past that the narrative is recounting has already been settled in the favour of the present narrator (Bakhtin, 1986: 23). This is the advantage and disadvantage of the fusion of the organic passage between youth and maturity, and the twin tasks of achieving autonomy and socialisation, in the Bildungsroman form. It is an advantage in so much as the fact of presentation of the backward-looking narrator who has achieved autonomy and socialisation by virtue of telling a story of development, stamps the nature of the development, the nature of the coming-of-age as successful. As Joseph Slaughter argues, this is a teleological tautology: a technique for narrativising forms of governmentalities, forms of the conduct of conduct, through the organic symbolism of human maturation fused to those governmentalities prescribed as, tautologically, mature (1415). We will come to a more extensive analysis and set of explanations for the use of the Bildungsroman form in embedding and contesting Neoliberalism below in chapter 3.

Grunge fiction is too temporally compressed to be considered as Bildungsromane. Ari’s story in Loaded occurs over the period of twenty-four hours, while Gordon’s stories occur within the period of a year in each novel. Compared to the durations in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, and even in David Malouf’s Johnno, Grunge fiction is closer in form to a three-minute pop song than the epic and symphonic duration of the coming-of-age novel. And yet it is precisely this temporal compression that makes Grunge fiction a potent contestation of the symbolic forms that are being narratively embedded into Australian political culture.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Oz's resident burnt-out leftie

I wrote a while back about The Oz's op-ed columnist David Burchell and his use of Neoliberal language. Burchell is a political science academic who specializes in the Australian Labor Party, and whose recent appearance in The Australian as an opinion-page cultural warrior is puzzling, especially as his pieces are consistently aimed at what the right in the cultural wars present as being the soft, liberal and cultural left.

Today's column is firmly within the culture warrior genre, with the upcoming US Presidental inauguration made the backdrop to Burchell's critique of US Left cultural war attacks on George W Bush. That there might have been a Right-wing front to the US, and Australian, culture wars is not mentioned in the article. Maybe this is because the assumptions of the Right's culture war forays have been:

they started it

we won

they want to take our freedom away

what the pseudo left call culture we call morality.

I've been tempted to write another post about Burchell's articles in The OZ but after reading Guy Rundle's piece from Crikey today, this paragraph puts it better than I could:

David Burchell [is] the resident burnt-out leftie in the Oz, whose current role in life seems to be to make Gerard Henderson pleasant-reading by comparison. Burchell's sneering, snide, exhausting tone is sour grapes, raised to the level of vineyard status -- joining the Communist Party well after Prague '68, editing the Australian Left Review until it died beneath him, then developing a Foucault-obsession, and a political mancrush on Mark Latham, the sole argument of this lifelong inner-circle editor and academic is that he's a voice against the elites. For Burchell, Obama's popularity will melt as surely as Rudd's has done in Australia.

Quite possibly, but you have to be seriously ignorant of what's happened in America -- or only interested in denying the legitimacy of any political event that passed you by -- to believe that much comparison between Rudd and Obama is of much use at all. Quite aside from the historical import of the Obama election as an event – if nothing else happened, it would still be significant -- the situation of America, of US society, is so fundamentally different that the challenges and possibilities presented to Obama are of a different order. To make some modest reforms to the US health system -- something achievable given the corrupt US set-up of, well, everything -- would save tens of thousands of lives, and alleviate a great deal of unnecessary uffering and fear for tens of millions of people.

For America, the odest and centrist administration proposed by Obama is radical, because it is rational, and we haven't had much of that in the past eight years. Some cultural liberals may well be disappointed, but so what. The Obama victory was a mass movement, not a few articles in the New Yorker (though it's easy to think so if ou confuse the limits of your study with the limits of the world). Burchell sounds like most of the US right, and they didn't get it either, which is why
they lost.

Burchell's trajectory is an interesting one that, as Rundle recognises, passes through the Foucauldian governmentality school. That such a passage could lead to the Neoconservative camp is perhaps not so surprising. Mitchell Dean argues that for all its followers' claims to it being neither "descriptive nor normative but 'analytical and diagnostic'" the governmentality approach to considerations of political power is indeed normative and descriptive. For Dean, the usefulness of governmentality as a heuristic

is limited unless combined with a set of minimal presuppositions about the nature of the political and the project for governing society. Otherwise, the study of governmentality will tend to be captured by its own privileged object, the governmental discourses found in liberal democracy (Governing Societies, 2007: 50-51)

Burchell, on this account, has not so much moved away from the Foucauldian method of governmentality analysis as let the animating presuppositions of a Neoconservative culture war backlash, which aim to restore the damage down by 30 years of Neoliberal consensus, appear as the commonsense of his op-ed articles.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Notorious-Boys from Brazil

Audio only of Simple Minds' 'Boys from Brazil' from 1981 LP Sons and fascination.

Not really a fitting soundtrack to the movie we watched last night -- Hitchcock's Notorious -- but there is a sinister glamour the song and movie share.

Still from Notorious (1946)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

After the hegeharmonics of the Australian Left

[An older post, recycled]

The more immediate overtones contribute more, the more remote contribute less. Hence, the distinction between them is only a matter of degree, not of kind. They are no more opposites than two and ten are opposites [ . . .] and the expressions “consonance” and “dissonance”, which signify an antithesis are false.’ And further on: ‘Much of what has been considered aesthetically fundamental, that is, necessary to beauty, is by no means always rooted in the nature of things, so that the imperfection of our sense drives us to those compromises through which we achieve order. For order is not demanded by the object, but by the subject.
A. Schonberg Theory of Harmony (1978): 21 & 29.

Hegemonic strategies establish a shifting and tense balance between contradictory powers and concede greater or lesser degrees of autonomy to discursive positions occupied by subordinate classes (although in yielding ground, such hegemonic strategies tend to define the terrain of struggle: to set the agenda of the thinkable and to close off alternative discursive possibilities). Hegemony is a fragile and difficult process of containment.
John Frow Marxism and Literary History (1986): 63

The echoes and resonances of a hegeharmonics dies hard in the ears and minds, in the thought, of those who constitute their activities and communal anticipations within and around it, after its moment has passed. I begin with this neologism – hegeharmonics – an amalgam of Gramsci’s concept of ‘hegemony’ and the aural notion of ‘harmony’ - as it seems to me a useful concept for the reading and writing of what is itself an amalgam: an attempt to write an aspect of Australian political-cultural history through interpretations of narrative fiction.

A hegeharmonics is that fictional orchestration which resounds, invites the forming of a harmonic bloc. That it is form, temporality, oscillation; that it promises a destination/ a resolution (harmony is both consonance/ dissonance), a healing which is able to be represented (in both the symbolic meaning and the political meaning), is what makes its passing so difficult to bear. Overdetermined? Perhaps, but it is the work of mourning that must seek to limit overdetermination so that a relation of autonomy can proceed.

Some limits and borders.

The key concern here is the rather monolithic concept of the Australian Left, and its moribund state at my scene and time of writing – late May 2006. An initial demarcation of the Australian Left would separate it out into the following: Labourism; social liberalism; Communism; the ‘New’ left; the cultural Left; psychoanalytically inflected Marxism; radical nationalist Left; the Keynesian Left; the Left libertarians; Marxists; the social democratic left; the third way Left. Clearly, such a demarcation, as above, is not exhaustive, and could also be subdivided along more institutional lines. For example, another taxonomy of the Australian Left could be: the Arena, Overland, Meanjin lefts; the ABC and Fairfax Left; the left that emerges out of the Sydney Push; the Foucauldian academic left; the post-feminist Left; the queer left; the Aboriginal left; the Deluezian Left . . .

Such a proliferation of ‘left’ assignations poses a definitional problem that could easily forestall any undertaking of a post-mortem or inquiry into ‘its’ demise, state, nature and so on. Indeed, some commentators argue that the term ‘left’ is itself useless in the current political-cultural dispensation; that ‘left’ is a residual concept that only confuses political orientations now. For such commentators, like David McKnight, we have moved beyond left and right, and politics now moves around issues of morality, biology, environmentalism and so on, rather than political economy. Social citizenship, even industrial citizenship, in McKnight’s view, are no longer arenas for ‘progress’ as they were within that amalgam of Australian labourism and Keynesian/ Fordist political economy. In other words, the Left has assumed the universality of a specific political-economic project that is no longer tenable. But to claim that such a project is residual, redundant might be to make time itself monolithic, whereas, time might better be thought of as being multiple, simultaneously enacting a variety of tempos and oscillations, structures.

There is no easy way of defining ‘what’s left’. One way would be to eschew the category altogether (and thereby to elide its ‘relatives’: right, centre, conservative, progressive). But such an eschewal carries within it a theory of history and time that would also jettison the return of traditional categories, that are still living now. For example, the heralded and triumphant imaginary of an end of history in which liberal democratic capitalism is normativised and naturalised assumes that there is a shared understanding of these three institutions which have been struggling, since the enlightenment, since the British revolutions of the c17h, since the French Revolution, to assert their fitness over and above socialism, communism, fascism, Marxism, and so on. And yet, in order to enter this terrain and temporality, this chronotope, that is beyond left and right we must admit that such a time-space is suffused with traditions that are more than ever in ‘play’; dominant and vitalised.

So, traditions are never really killed off, or die. They have play and purchase, and yet this is not to deny the power and constitutive force of newness, alterity, the event. In order to begin, in the middle as it were, I start with a few categories, institutions, narratives and social formations that seem specifically Australian, although not exclusively, and that seem to oscillate between the residual, the dominant and the emergent. And this is where and when the concept of a hegeharmonics seems to me to be a useful way of thinking (reading, writing, listening and speaking) what’s left, and how and why narrative fiction might be placed as a means to inquire into its state and becoming.

So, a hegeharmonics is that amalgam of leading ideas that garners the consent of a significant, critical mass of social formations, in such a manner as to unify these disperate groups into a bloc that has a ‘reciprocal’ relation to the state. Harmony: unity, consensus, compromise, alignment, conciliation, mutual exchange, equilibrium, equality. Harmony: noise, sound, the ear, the voice, resolution, concordance, accord, chords themselves, tonality, cadence, oscillations.

The hegeharmonics of the Australian Left is formed around the tonal centre of Labourism: its key signature is industrial citizenship. Its timbre is Fordist; its pathos a mixture Keynesian social-liberalism and the victims of our medieval past – those of the bush under imperial capitalism; its leading voices pastoral if not also mechanical. It doesn’t seek to end capitalism, but to lead it, to civilise it. But its civil score is male, patriarchal, industrial, folk-ist, pragmatic.

It is one of the key contentions of this thesis that it is a discourse of Australian Labourism (which alters over time), which is the most useful means for exploring these questions regarding what’s left, and how narrative fiction might track and enable such an enquiry. Australian Labourism as a centripetal force in a (my, our?) hegeharmonics.

These, then, are the broad terms in which the basis of my enquiry is to be set up. How fruitful such a basis is will be tested against the readings of selected narrative fictions, which will work both to complicate and articulate a political-cultural history, and its analysis, and to, in turn, articulate a prosaics of cultural-political history. Whether these two fields/ operations, narrative and analysis, have anything to say to each other, whether a conversation of sorts emerges, remains in the reading itself.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Paul Keating on his unfinished business

From The Monthly's slow tv a video of Paul Keating's address at the launch of Unfinished Business: Paul Keating's Interrupted Revolution by David Love.

Here we have about 50 minutes of Keating at the podium launching David Love's almost hagiography (but since Keating's ego is sizable, his own commentary on the salient points of Love's political biography, are going to make the history sound like hagiography**).

Keating's main point about the value of the book is that Love has a few years under his belt: Love was around during the Menzies period and so lived through what Keating describes as the 'Age of Hopelessness' (a.k.a 'the age of incrementalism'). This is in contrast to the 'revolutionary,' (as in the book's title) and heroic period of structural reform performed in the long Labor decade.

The revolution in structural reform is three-pronged: the 'clean' float of the $A; the move to Enterprise Bargaining; and the Superannuation Guarantee Charge (SGC). The unfinished business, of the title, is the extension of the SGC from 9 to 15%.

Love's longer perspective is valuable, for Keating, as it places the 'revolution' against the slower moving lethargies and reticences of the Menzies government and of the Howard decade.

Keating makes some telling points: that the amount in the 'Debt truck' that the Liberal-National coalition drove around in the 1996 election campaign, 'demonstrating' the failure of the ALP Government to contain foreign and private debt, grew threefold in the Howard decade (from $190 bill to approx. $600 bill) and that treasurer Costello willfully conflated private with public debt, paid down the public debt (an easy task according to Keating as tax revenues increased), but did nothing to reduce private foreign debt. For Keating, Costello and Howard (C & H) renegged on a promise to lift the SGC to 15% which would've increased domestic savings and thereby reduced foreign debt and probably reduced the current exposure of Australian interests to the credit crunch. For Keating, H & C refused to extend the SGC because that would've given Trade Union based superanuation schemes power over capital, and H & C were not only antipathetic to Union control but to ordinary working people having more control over capital.

Hearing and watching Keating speak arouses mixed feelings in me: the appearance of mastery and control over economic government (how to conduct the economy) is convincing - I want to believe. John Forbes begins his poem Watching the Treasurer with 'I want to believe the beautiful lies.' The Left populist attacks on Howard and Costello (slow, stupid, lazy, safe, establishment) resonate and yet Keating's left populism grates against the deeper (Australian) Labourist structures of feeling and generic conventions that proceed by an attack on capitalism and advocacy of government protection for the less fortunate and structurally underprivileged as a means of ameliorating the predations of capitalism's atopic* operations.

Meaghan Morris ends her essay on Forbes' poem and study of the coming of neoliberalism through economic governance to Australia by treating Keating's discourse as ambivalent:

double-edged, two faced. On the one hand, nostalgia for "the Economy" as a source of sovereignty and self-determination - a precious myth that proved hard to sustain in the aftermath of financial deregulation - was rampant in the ebulliently macho bombast of politicians identifying their own discourse with the power of market "forces," and denying the social reality of limits to (their mastery of) economic Reason; the government could seem never more securely in control of the nation's future than in the very moment of losing it. On the other hand there was, in all the speculation about the social meanings of "Keating" (his voice, his narrowness, his rehtoric), as it resonated over the decade with other images and stories of the decline of the Left and the epic collapse of socialism, a kind of sadness for that utopia, always known to have an "only ideological reality," that [Craig] McGregor calls "the great humane ideals of the Labor movement.
In knowing its object, however (perpetually demystified by historians and critics and activists from all sides of politics, and so perhaps impossible to lose), this sadness was less strictly a form of nostalgia than the economic ecstasy that shaped it, and, in its feeling for the beautiful lies that help people to act, more like a way of seizing against the helplessness a"chance for continued survival."

"Ecstasy and Economics.” Too Soon Too Late: History in Popular Culture. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1998a. 158-194. 194.

*Atopic - from atopic diseases like eczema and asthma, where chronic symptoms caused by the antigen (allergy-causing matter) are displaced and deferred. Thus capitalism, like eczema, displaces and defers the illness and disease that it causes. A good example of the metaphorics of illness that capitalism forces into consciousness through the poetics of politics is the commonplace of the subprime crisis as a contagion or virus.

** Alongside 'hagiography' there is a case for the term 'econography': where a treasurer's (or other economically important figure's) life is written through the simultaneous emergence of 'globalisation' or economic modernisation, such that the economy and the individual life merge into a single dramatic and narrative shape.

Moral Hazard

Kate Jennings in her novel Moral Hazard (2002) layers the decline from Alzheimer's of her heroine-narrator's husband Bailey with the late 1990s financial crisis working its way through the Wall St Investment bank where she works as a speechwriter: a job she's been forced to take to pay for her husband's care.

This is a brutally moving and unflinching novel that takes the idea of Moral Hazard from insurance and finance and parlays it into her own crisis which centres on the moral hazard of not euthanasing her deteriorating husband.

Almost a novella in length Jennings writes epigramtically in this timely work. Well worth reading in the current climate as a way into grasping through literary fiction the structures of feeling that the bewildering temporal world of CDOs and other derivatives present: a sort of Alzheimic perpetual present that defers and displaces any tallying up of obligation, consequences and meeting of debts.

It also provides definitions such as -


Hellishly complicated, computer-generated financial contracts, derivatives are the brainchildren of those maths pointy-heads known in Wall Street lingo, as “quants” – from the words “quantitative analysis,” I’d guess. Derivates and the regulation of them were particularly contentious in the early nineties, although, as one old-timer commodities trader told me, sniffily, they’d been around, in one form or another, since the Sumerians. “Once upon a time, it was commodities, then futures, now derivatives,” he’d opined, delicately shooting his cuffs. “It’s all structured finance. It’s all aimed at neutralizing risk by parceling it up, selling it to someone else. Quanting around, nothing new in that.(5)

Cathy finds company-expert Mike to give her quick lessons in understanding the novel financial products:

"The mathematics can be awesome. You have to admire the mathematics. And they can be an excellent risk-management tool . . .” He trailed off, obviously wondering whether he should continue. “Well, it helps to look at derivates like atoms. Split them one way and you have heat and energy – useful stuff. Split them another way, and you have a bomb. You have to understand the subtleties.”

Understand the subtleties. God is in the details. Cracks me up (7-8).

Monday, January 12, 2009

Australian literary libertarianism and Neoliberalism

There are some old posts analysing Frank Moorhouse's literary fiction and its relationship to Libertarianism and the rise of Neoliberalism at my new blog: bildungs & food.

There is some imbrication of Foucault's analysis of neoliberalism from his The Birth of Biopolitics lectures in these renovated posts. My approach to Neoliberal governmentality is through an historical sociology of literary form which is informed by Australian specifics in literary, social and political history.

For a highly schematic summary of Birth of Biopolitics icite is laying the lectures out in a generous, clear and useful manner. Thomas Lemke's work on the lectures is also useful, while Mitchell Dean's recent book Governing Societies comes at biopolitics and, indeed, governmentality from a sceptical orientation. Also see Pinocchio Theory in this recent post on Biopolitics.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Such a drag to want something sometimes . . .

Oh but it's hard to live by the rules
I never could and still never do
The rules and such never bothered you
You call the shots and they follow

Talk of the Town - The Pretenders (1980)

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Australian cultural warrior Keith Windschuttle, currently editor of the formerly Cold-War conservative journal Quadrant (but of late key cultural organ of Neocon-Neoliberals), has been one of the more prominent power intellectuals of the past 12 years in Australia. He waged a concerted war against New Historicist influences on Australian history and ran a News Ltd-backed campaign against historians of Aboriginal history, who he claimed -- in some cases with justification -- had falsified mortality figures and exaggerated such figures thereby working up a genocide when none had existed. Windschuttle's key counter-claim was that white settler intentions in Tasmania -- the written archive of which he based his meta-historiograhpic study on -- were good: there was not explicit record in the settlement archives of a systematic plan to 'remove' Tasmanian Aborigines. The (Australian) history wars are ongoing, with events today opening up a small front. But I'll come to today's events in a moment.

Windschuttle's postivist, mean-spirited exercise in forensic whitewashing linked into a similar ethos and policy orientation during the Howard government (1996-2007) and captured a key aspect of the national mood during the Australian sequence of the culture wars which reactionary populist politician Pauline Hanson did much to ignite. Windschuttle's success in the culture wars can be seen as being rewarded by appointment to the board of the national Broadcaster, and as editor of Quadrant.

Quadrant was once edited by the conservative poet-academic James McAuley, who with Harold Stewart perpetrated Australia's most notorious literary hoax -the Ern Malley Hoax - where they sent bricolage-style poems, aping what they saw as the worst elements of modernist poetry, to a journal sympathetic to modernist art -- Angry Penguins -- and invented a poet to authenticate the ruse. The journal published the poems, considered by some to be examples of post-modern pastiche, and was hauled into court over obscenity charges. The sour taste that the scandal left in Australian culture did much to diminish the post-war reception of modernist art in Australia.

So, there is some symmetry to discover today that a hoax of sorts has been conducted through Quadrant, with Windschuttle the target. Admittedly this hoax -- involving an article on the political correctness, in left-wing areas of the media, preventing acceptance of mixing human and plant genes in the furtherance of food production -- has little sting compared to the Ern Malley one, but Windschuttle's hyper-forensic standards have been shown up as ideologically compromised ones.

The black swan has trespassed. Again.

Durer: Innsbruck, 1495 - Ern Malley. (remixed)

*** Breaking news - Identity of hoaxer revealed by Crikey cartoonist, First Dog on the Moon (also scroll over the eliminated short-list of 'Sharon Goulds') *** More seriously, there is a growing blogosphere consensus emerging over the hoaxer's id.

Friday, January 2, 2009


Peter Gowan's essay in the latest New Left Review -- Crisis in the Heartland: consequences of the New Wall Street System -- is an interesting read not least for the clear way in which he lays out some of the more complex elements in those credit market operations that have been at the heart of the GFC (Global Financial Crisis).
I found the following passage (below), especially the argument proferred in the second paragraph, nailed the false binary opposition between regulation and deregulation. Neo-liberalism, however, is not just an ideology --here used in the sense of an imaginary or false set of ideas that mystify and cause people to act against our own better interests -- but can also be seen as rationalities and techniques for conducting conduct: governmentality. Where Gowan writes:

The problem with this explanation is that, while the New Wall Street System was legitimated by free-market, laissez-faire or neo-liberal outlooks, these do not seem to have been operative ideologies for its practitioners, whether in Wall
Street or in Washington.

Wendy Brown argues, instead, that this contradiction between practice and belief/ rhetoric is consistent with Neoliberalism as governmentality:

Neoliberalism can become the dominant governmentality without being dominant as ideology -- the former refers to governing practices and the latter to a popular order of belief that may or may not be fully in line with the former, and that may even be a site of resistance to it. ("Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal
Democracy" Edgework: 49)


Prevailing theories

Much of the mainstream debate on the causes of the crisis takes the form of an ‘accidents’ theory, explaining the debâcle as the result of contingent actions by, say, Greenspan’s Federal Reserve, the banks, the regulators or the rating agencies. We have argued against this, proposing rather that a relatively coherent structure which we have called the New Wall Street System should be understood as having generated the crisis. But in addition to the argument above, we should note another striking feature of the last twenty years: the extraordinary harmony between Wall Street operators and Washington regulators. Typically in American history there have been phases of great tension, not only between Wall Street and Congress but also between Wall Street and the executive branch. This was true, for example, in much of the 1970s and early 1980s. Yet there has been a clear convergence over the last quarter of a century, the sign of a rather well-integrated project. [30]

An alternative explanation, much favoured in social-democratic circles, argues that both Wall Street and Washington were gripped by a false ‘neo-liberal’ or ‘free-market’ ideology, which led them astray. An ingenious right-wing twist on this suggests that the problematic ideology was ‘laissez-faire’—that is, no regulation—while what is needed is ‘free-market thinking’, which implies some regulation. The consequence of either version is usually a rather rudderless discussion of ‘how much’ and ‘what kind’ of regulation would set matters straight. [31] The problem with this explanation is that, while the New Wall Street System was legitimated by free-market, laissez-faire or neo-liberal outlooks, these do not seem to have been operative ideologies for its practitioners, whether in Wall Street or in Washington. Philip Augar’s detailed study of the Wall Street investment banks, The Greed Merchants, cited above, argues that they have actually operated in large part as a conscious cartel—the opposite of a free market. It is evident that neither Greenspan nor the bank chiefs believed in the serious version of this creed: neo-classical financial economics. Greenspan has not argued that financial markets are efficient or transparent; he has fully accepted that they can tend towards bubbles and blow-outs. He and his colleagues have been well aware of the risk of serious financial crisis, in which the American state would have to throw huge amounts of tax-payers’ money into saving the system. They also grasped that all the various risk models used by the Wall Street banks were flawed, and were bound to be, since they presupposed a general context of financial market stability, within which one bank, in one market sector, might face a sudden threat; their solutions were in essence about diversification of risk across markets. The models therefore assumed away the systemic threat that Greenspan and others were well aware of: namely, a sudden negative turn across all markets. [32]

Greenspan’s two main claims were rather different. The first was that, between blow-outs, the best way for the financial sector to make large amounts of money is to sweep away restrictions on what private actors get up to; a heavily regulated sector will make far less. This claim is surely true. His second claim has been that, when bubbles burst and blow-outs occur, the banks, strongly aided by the actions of the state authorities, can cope with the consequences. As William White of the bis has pointed out, this was also an article of faith for Bernanke. [33]

iii. systemic options
The real debate over the organization of financial systems in capitalist economies is not about methods and modes of regulation. It is a debate between systemic options, at two levels.

A public-utility credit and banking system, geared to capital accumulation in the productive sector versus a capitalist credit and banking system, subordinating all other economic activities to its own profit drives.
An international financial and monetary system under national-multilateral co-operative control versus a system of imperial character, dominated by the Atlantic banks and states working in tandem.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

More Blogs about . . .

Tempted by the wordpress blog designs and wanting to punctuate the submission of my PhD dissertation (while I wait in limbo for the examiner's reports to land) a new blog of sorts is up and stuttering at bildungs & food.

At present it's host to unedited chunks of the thesis and the odd Talking Heads you-Tube.

All good wishes for 2009, when gaining and keeping reasonably paid employment is what I'm aspiring to and hoping for.