Friday, May 29, 2009

Acapella Beach Boys

Left Melancholy and Whitlam's Ghosts

Some notes on Walter Benjamin's concept of Left Melancholy from various sources below:

Walter Benjamin, in a short essay published in 1931, spoke of a Left-Wing melancholy, a concept that American political theorist Wendy Brown has more recently taken up. Left melancholy applies to those no longer attached libidinal investments and commitments that ‘we’ make in political utopias and formations, especially to the socialist projects of the c20th that were given their (premature) death notices by Francis Fukuyama, among others, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dismantling of the Soviet Union, 1989-91. If for Freud “[m]ourning is commonly the reaction to the loss of a beloved person or an abstraction taking the place of the person, such as fatherland, freedom, an ideal and so on, [i]n some people, whom we for this reason suspect of having a pathological disposition, melancholia appears in the place of mourning”(2005. 203). If the loss of an ’object’ is worked-though in mourning a working-through whereby “the libido as a whole sever its bonds with the object” (204),

[m]elancholia is mentally characterized by a profoundly painful depression, a loss of interest in the outside world, the loss of the ability to love, the inhibition of any kind of performance and a reduction in the sense of self, expressed in self-recrimination and self-directed insults, intensifying into the delusory expectation of punishment. We have a better understanding of this when we bear in mind that mourning displays the same traits, apart from one: the disorder of self-esteem is absent. (204)

Benjamin intensified this sense of melancholia in a review of poetry published in 1931, where he aligns melancholy’s response to loss to a cultural form and political formation’s position in Weimar Germany. Of this formation he acerbically asks:

What, then, does the "intellectual elite" discover as it begins to take stock of its feelings? Those feelings themselves? They have long since been remaindered. What is left is the empty spaces where, in dusty heart-shaped trays, the feelings - nature and love, enthusiasm and humanity - once rested. Now the hollow forms are absentmindedly caressed. A know-all irony thinks it has much more in these supposed stereotypes than in the things themselves; it makes a great display of its poverty and turns the yawning emptiness into a celebration. For this is what is new about this objectivity - it takes as much pride in the traces of former spiritual goods as the bourgeois do in their material goods. Never have such comfortable arrangements been made in such an uncomfortable situation.
In short, this left-wing radicalism is precisely the attitude to which there is no longer, in general, any corresponding political action. It is not to the left of this or that tendency, but simply to the left of what is in general possible. For from the beginning all it has in mind is to enjoy itself in a negativistic quiet.
(1999: 424-5)

Rehabilitating and historicising Benjamin's concept Wendy Brown asks:

[I]f we are slipping from liberalism to fascism, and if radical democracy or socialism is nowhere on the political horizon, don't we have to defend liberal democratic institutions and values? Isn't this the lesson of Weimar? I have labored to suggest that this is not the right diagnosis of our predicament: it does not grasp what is at stake in neoliberal governmentality - which is not fascism - nor on what grounds it might be challenged. Indeed, the left defense of the welfare state in the 1980s, which seemed to stem from precisely such an analysis - "if we can't have socialism, at least we should preserve welfare state capitalism" - backfired from just such a misdiagnosis. On the one hand, rather than articulating an emancipatory vision that included the eradication rather than regulation of poverty, the Left appeared aligned with big government, big spending, and misplaced compassion for those construed as failing to give their lives proper entrepreneurial shape. On the other hand, the welfare state was dismantled on the grounds that had almost nothing to do with the terms of liberal democracy and everything to do with neoliberal economic and political rationality. We are not simply in the throes of a eight-wing or conservative positioning within liberal democracy but rather at the threshold of a different political formation, one that conducts and legitimates itself on different grounds from liberal democracy even as it does not immediately divest itself of the name.

This formation produces a twofold challenge for the Left. First, it compels us to consider the implications of losing liberal democracy and especially its implications for our own work by learning what the Left had depended on and demanded from liberal democracy, which aspects of it have formed the basis of our critiques of it, rebellions against it, and identity based on differentiation from it. We may also need to mourn liberal democracy, avowing our ambivalent attachment to it, our need for it, our mix of love and hostility toward it. The aim of this work is framed by the second challenge, that of devising intelligent strategies for challenging the neoliberal political-economic formation now taking shape and an intelligent countervision to this formation. (2005: 56-57)

In order to resituate these fragments on Left melancholy into the period and context of the object of my research here - the affects of the rise of Neoliberal governmentality on literary production and reception during the long Labor decade in Australia - we may first have to dispense with the notion of a single modernity, and with its complementary concept of a global historical vanguard that drags the so-called developing world in its wake. Of course, the idea of a universal, progressive history is what Benjamin, and following him, Brown critique as ‘historicism’:

[Thesis] XVI
A historical materialist cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time stands still and has come to a stop. For this notion defines the present in which he himself is writing history. Historicism gives the “eternal” image of the past; historical materialism supplies a unique experience with the past. The historical materialist leaves it to other to be drained by the whore called “Once upon a time” in historicism’s bordello. He remains in control of his powers, man enough to blast open the continuum of history.

Historicism rightly culminates in universal history. Materialist historiography differs from it as to method more clearly than from any other kind. Universal history has no theoretical armature. Its method is additive; it musters a mass of data to fill the homogeneous, empty time. Materialistic historiography, on the other hand, is based on a constructive principle. Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystallized into a monad. A historical materialist approaches a historical subject only where he encounters it as a monad. In this structure he recognizes the sign of a Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past. He takes cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history – blasting a specific life out of the era or a specific work out of the lifework. As a result of this method the lifework is preserved in this work and at the same time canceled; in the lifework, the era; and in the era, the entire course of history. The nourishing fruit of the historically understood contains time as a precious but tasteless seed.
(“Theses on the Philosophy of History” 262-3)

Writing on his historical materialist antidote to the chain of empty homogeneous time(s) in historicism, Brown takes Benjamin to be intending a

staging [of] the present in terms of a constructed historical-political consciousness that itself blasts the present out of the continuum of history. A present figured as fecund rather than as determined on the one hand or as theologically presided over by empty time on the other produces what Benjamin famously calls “ a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past. Only a chance, but a revolutionary one: this struggle over what the past could mean in the present is at the same time a struggle for the future. (2005: 13-14.)

The aim of the work of untimely political critique is, for Brown, “to contest settled accounts of what time is, what the times are, and what political tempo and temporality we should hew to in political life” (4). I want to underline this point about unsettling temporalities by drawing attention to the diverse ways in which Left-melancholy and Left-mourning happen and, as a consequence, sharpen the alterity between how Neoliberalism happens in Australian political culture and how it emerges and ascends in North America, South America, the United Kingdom.

Brown's essay is addressed to an American academic left audience, and one reading in the wake of the Neoconservative turn of the Bush administration after the 11 September, 2001 attacks, for whom the civil rights of their liberal democracy were and are more fundamentally under siege than similar rights in Australia in the wake of 9-11 and the bombings in Bali. Also it’s worth pointing out how what Brown in a later essay calls the present dangers of decontainment of the church from borders separating it from the state under neoceonservative political rationalities in North America is a minor phenomenon in Australian civil culture, as Amanda Lohrey has persuasively argued in her 2005 Quarterly Essay “Voting for Jesus: Christianity and Politics in Australia”.

So, while an Australian-based citizen-subject like me can certainly relate to similar articulations in a more locally experienced conjuncture it needs be recognised that American liberalism is different in significant ways to Australian liberalism, not least due to the historic compromises of the Deakinite Settlement and the establishment of the Court of Arbitration, the principle of the (white male) living wage, and their interlocking in a system of Protection (tariff and immigration). In the post-war period this assemblage combines with the commodities boom and Keynesian demand management to form the Labourist-Social-liberal armature. The organised Australian Labour movement was present at the inception of the Federation in 1901 and remained a strong cultural force, especially in nationalist print-cultures, throughout the c20th. Also, as Marian Sawer argues in her The Ethical State? Social Liberalism in Australia : "[i]t was fortuitous that the peak influence of social-liberal philosophy [. . .] coincided with Australia's nation-building period [c1890-c1914]. This conjuncture meant that these ideas were built into the design of the new national institutions and continued to influence later developments through path dependence" (35).

Closer to the present, the Neoliberalising of the economy and polity that the States underwent through Reagan's (1980-88) George Bush I's (1988-1992) presidencies was inflected through the morally and socially conservative cold war mentalities of the Republican party and its bloc in ways that weren't replicated in Australia until the culture wars of the mid-1990s. In some ways tha afterlife of these culture wars lingers like a lost limb for the Left: we still want to win them, even after all the light and heat has been taken out of such battles as were fought over the History of Settlement and refugee policy in the 1990s and early c21st. But under these skirmishes and battles lies a deeper problem of loss, that is knotted up in the Whitlam Government and its fall. The loss of that future - the spectre of progress that shimmers just ahead of us - is, I think, still to be worked through. And perhaps in working through it, something other than that Neoliberal future of a return to and from appreciating investments in one's self, can emerge.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Labourist-Social-liberal armature

(Another PhD extract. This one is from the historical sociology section of the PhD. The concept of the armature is counter to the notion of consensus, or social contract, that is contained in Paul Kelly's Australian Settlement. Again, any comment will be welcomed)

The Labourist-Social-liberal armature

Australian Labourism was primarily articulated to Social-liberalism throughout the twentieth century. We can see and feel this articulation through the heuristic of an armature. This armature generated, protected and provided the framework for fashioning the white male productive wage earner as the citizen-subject and thereby primary object of government. It was a complex structure of feeling centred around the concepts of protection and the just wage, the driver for a set of institutional tools – centrally the Arbitration Court – and increasingly those utilities that provided education, health, and housing services through the welfare state, during the post-war period. It brought together a harmonic convergence of political actors who enacted and were emboldened by its forcefield and energy.

The Arbitration Court was the key state institution which both directed energy into the armature and was in turn driven by it. The court was given dynamic institutional weight through the Harvester decision made by the head of the court Social-liberal Henry Higgins who, in 1907, judged that employers should pay wages according to the need of the male employee in so far as such need was measured not on the bases of an employer’s capacity to pay but rather on the basis of what a nuclear family required to live reasonably: the living wage (Sawer 58-9, Castles, 2002: 44). Sawer calls this decision “the defining event of Australian social liberalism” (58).

The establishment of this court and the Harvester decision might sound like distant, minor events in the long Labor decade, but any sense of the depth of change in the long Labor decade must account for the loss that the evacuation of the commitment to this institution wrought. Combined with the Social-liberal practices of Keynesian government which dominated the post-World War II period until 1973-74 and which were articulated also to the institutions of the “New Protection” – tariffs and racially based labour migration limits – the Arbitration Court’s governance of social citizenship through industrial techniques melded Labourist and Social-liberal tenets into a forcefield that established a hegemony surviving numerous challenges until the 1970s when it began to break down.

Higgins’ 1907 Harvester Judgement and its significance for the long Labor decade was seen in the choice of H R. Nicholls for the name of a political society whose main goal was to “promote a debate on industrial relations and to promote the system’s reform”: meaning to expunge the Arbitration Court and thereby this central institution of the Labourist-Social-liberal armature from Australian political culture (Castles, 2002: 43 and Kelly, 1994: 253, 260-2). Nicholls was editor of the Hobart Mercury newspaper and won a contempt of court case against Higgins after labelling Higgins “a political judge” in 1911 (“Nicholls, Henry Richard”, Nicholls cited in Kelly, 1994: 260). A group of businessmen, lawyers, academics, intellectuals and politicians formed this New Right society in 1986; its invitation to join was co-signed by future federal Liberal Party treasurer and deputy leader Peter Costello, and it read in part: “[w]e would probably have to go back to the early days of Federation, and the debates leading up to the passing of the Conciliation and Arbitration Act, to find a precedent for this debate” (cited in Kelly 260). Ironically, Costello held the federal lower house seat named after Nicholls’ enemy, and it was Costello who earned his New Right political reputation as an industrial barrister in the Dollar Sweets case where common law was successfully used to break a union strike in 1985 (Kelly, 1994: 258). This case and others like it weakened the power of the Arbitration Commission and the Unions (255-9).

This movement in the long decade away from the institutions and forms of the armature struck at the core political arrangements that had provided the protective forcefield and framework for much of Australia’s post-federation history. These arrangements have been described by Francis Castles as composing a “wage-earner’s welfare state” (Castles, 1994: 8). Castles’ conception is, for Beilharz, based on “the relative strength of the local labor movement, linked together with a largely economic or material conception of wellbeing, [which] saw the development of political and welfare arrangements which functioned primarily in the interests of men as workers rather than of citizens as such” (Beilharz, 1994: 7).

Castles has four axioms for the Australian wage-earners’ welfare state:
occupational welfare has been more important than state expenditure [;] collective saving for social security provision has been outweighed by private saving for owner-occupied housing [ ;] the preferred model of social services financing has been progressive taxation [; and] women have had a different and lesser status than men. (12-15)

He argues that it survived into the 1980s despite the changes to its central axioms that the social movement for women’s equality, the collapse of the White Australia policy and the diminution of the role of wage regulation all brought (16). Castles notes that while “the Whitlam government flirted with more European notions of social insurance as well as beginning Australia’s disengagement from high levels of tariff protection,” the “post-tax dispersion of male wages from employment as egalitarian as any in the advanced world” remained a central pillar of the wage-earners' welfare state into the mid-1980s (16).

Writing on what he calls “the Labor decade” Castles declares any interpretation of Labor’s impact in the area of Social protection to be “paradoxical” as the government’s “policy activism” promoted managerial and economic rationalist techniques in administration which did little to change the “policy norms” in the area of social protection (17). Castles argues that Hawke-Keating Labor adapted rather than overturned the wage-earners' welfare state, with the reintroduction of universal health care and introduction of the S.G.C (Superannuation Guarantee Charge) being cases of social and industrial citizenship respectively (21). Yet the living standards of average wage earners over the Labor decade – which in a wage-earners' welfare state must be the prime metric – decreased, the use of the Arbitration Court decreased and the financialisation of the Australian economy produced forms of market-based income other than wage-earning ones (22-23). The key change, though, is in the loss of male full-time jobs due both to the steady increase of female labour force participation and to changes in manufacturing brought about by “structural reforms,” striking at the central pillar of the wage-earners' welfare state: protection of the white wage-earning male (22).

While Castles sees the wage-earners' welfare state as being “refurbished,” rather than demolished, his 1994 essay is not interested in the regimes and techniques by which citizen-subjects are themselves refurbished (25). In order to enter this characteristic of the Labourist-Social-liberal armature, and to begin to analyse how citizen-subjects were being reshaped and re-sculpted in the long Labor decade we need to bring the discussion and analysis to this level and consider industrial citizenship.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

'Round Midnight

I've been searching for this clip of Monk for a while. From memory it's also from the biopic Straight no Chaser. Glorious sound and visions: Monk looks and sounds like he's having a ball.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Neoliberalism: ideology & practice

From the first paragraphs of Leo Panitch and Martin Konings in the latest New Left Reviw (57). "Myths of Neoliberal Deregulation" (Subscriber access)

If a single root cause has predominated in explanations of the current global financial crisis, it is ‘deregulation’. Lack of state oversight of financial markets is widely cited—not only in the opinion columns of the financial press, but by left-wing commentators, too—as having permitted the perilous over-leveraging of financial institutions, based on weakly securitized debt, that has brought about the present debacle. This diagnosis of the cause of the crisis also steers towards a particular solution: if deregulation allowed markets to get out of control, then we must look to re-regulation as the way out. Thus Will Hutton sees the subprime crisis as the result of decades of laissez-faire policies, resulting in excessive financial growth and instability; now that ‘Anglo-Saxon financial capitalism has suffered a fundamental reverse’, he looks forward to the return of Keynesian regulatory policies. Eric Helleiner also hopes that ‘the crisis may be pushing us toward a more decentralized and re-regulated global financial order . . . more compatible with diverse forms of capitalism’ that would ‘sit less comfortably with an entirely liberal set of rules for the movement of capital and financial services’. By contrast, Robin Blackburn’s analysis of the crisis makes the point that ‘financialization was born in a quite heavily regulated world’, and he questions whether ‘more and better regulation’, even while needed, will ‘be enough’. But his account of the crisis mainly emphasizes rampant financial innovation in an unregulated shadow banking system.

For many authors, this focus on ‘deregulation’ in explaining the current crisis is closely associated with a Polanyian understanding of the shifting boundaries between state and market, which would see markets as having become 'disembedded’ from the state. From this perspective, we may now be witnessing the start of a movement whereby the market will be re-embedded in public norms and regulatory institutions. As Robert Wade recently wrote in these pages:

Governmental responses to the crisis suggest that we have entered the second leg of Polanyi’s ‘double movement’, the recurrent pattern in capitalism whereby (to oversimplify) a regime of free markets and increasing commodification generates such suffering and displacement as to prompt attempts to impose closer regulation of markets and de-commodification.

The central problem with this perspective is the tendency to analyse the financial dynamics of the past decades within the terms of that era’s hegemonic self-representation—that is, through the key tenets of neoliberal ideology: the retreat of public institutions from social and economic life, and the return to a pre-Keynesian era of non-intervention. But it was only on the most stylized and superficial reading that the state could be seen to have withdrawn. Neoliberal practices did not entail institutional retreat so much as the expansion and consolidation of the networks of institutional linkages that sustained the imperial power of American finance. Of course it has become commonplace to assert that states and markets should not be seen as really counter-posed; but such claims have tended to remain rather perfunctory, and most research has remained guided by the notion that financial expansion has been accompanied by the attenuation of the state. A concrete account of the many ways in which the us state and financial markets are mutually constituted must necessarily involve an awareness that the practical effects of neoliberal ideologies are not well represented in those discourses themselves. Neoliberalism and financial expansion did not lift the market out of its social context; rather, they embedded financial forms and principles more deeply in the fabric of American society.

This is not to deny that changes in the mode of regulation played an important role in the developments that led to the crisis, but rather to argue that these should be situated within a wider context of financialized class relations. [pages 67-8]

Sunday, May 17, 2009

On the Historical Sociology of Literary Form II

Fredric Jameson’s ideology of form and the Political unconscious

[H]istory is not a text, not a narrative, master or otherwise, but [. . .], as an absent cause, it is inaccessible to us expect in textual form, and that our approach to it and to the Real itself necessarily passes through its prior textualization, its narrativisation in the political unconscious. (Jameson, 2003: 20)

Like Moretti’s, Jameson’s literary criticism is based on a Marxist historical materialism. While their methods and periodisations are largely compatible there is a significant difference in how each conceives of the relationships between symbolic, or literary, forms and the phenomena of the historical Real that such forms seek to represent. So, while Moretti, builds his historical sociologies out of a range of sources as wide as Darwin’s theory of evolution, to Goethe’s philosophy of form, Jameson’s historical sociology is relentlessly anchored and drawn back into the orbit of the totality of history. There is also a considerable variation in their approaches to the uses and subsumption of psychoanalytic theories in their work. In this area Jameson, unlike Moretti, has subsumed and seeks to work with the theories of post-structuralist linguistics and psychoanalysis that culminate in Lacan’s re-reading of Freud, and in Althusser’s appropriation of Lacan’s psychology for his theories of Marxism.

For Jameson literary criticism and literary history are practices of working through levels of hermeneutics whereupon the subsequent levels seek to reinterpret, and even remake, the text against a widening horizon of social and historical significance. Interpretation takes

[p]lace within three concentric frameworks, which mark a widening out of the sense of the social ground of a text through the notions, first, of political history, in the narrow sens of the punctual event and chronicle-like sequence of happenings in time; then of society, in the now already less diachronic and time-bound sense of a constitutive tension and struggle between social classes; and. Ultimately, of history now conceived in its vastest sense of the sequence of modes of production and the succession and destiny of the various human social formations, from prehistoric life to whatever far future history has in store for us. (Jameson 2003: 60)

The first “narrowly political or historical” horizon of interpretation grasps “the individual work [. . .] essentially as a symbolic act” (61). At the second hermeneutic level the individual text falls away “to be reconstituted in the form of the great collective and class discourses” and “the ideologeme [. . .] the smallest intelligible unit of the essentially antagonistic collective discourses of social classes” becomes the “object of study” (61). Finally, along the orbit of the third concentric circle, “the ultimate horizon of human history as a whole” is the totality against which particular social formations are posited and relativised in relation to “their respective positions in the whole complex sequence of the modes of production” (61). In this final level of interpretation, Jameson writes, “both the individual text and its ideologemes know a final transformation, and must be read in terms of what I will call the ideology of form, that is, the symbolic messages transmitted to us by the coexistence of various sign systems which are themselves traces or anticipations of modes of production” (61-2).

As was noted above in the case of Moretti’s universalising and Eurocentric conceptions of modernity, this thesis seeks to read Grunge fiction against a much more compressed and localised historical sociology than what Jameson wants to move against in his third hermeneutic framework. Indeed, the perspective that Jameson calls for – effectively one at the end of history – is highly fraught. And the fragility of its status can be seen not least in the notion of a prophetic, even messianic, transmission to us through the text of future modes of productions.

What, however, Jameson’s model of a widening series of concentric hermeneutics does offer is a means by which to take a psychological and individual reading of a text and re-position such literary fictional phenomena as mourning and melancholy, for example, as responses to socially significant loss. The advantage of Jameson’s approach over Moretti’s, in this domain, is that he re-configures aspects of Lacanian pyschology – itself a re-reading of Freudian psychology – into a theory of the political unsconscious. The political unconscious is the realm of the Real of history, that can only be approached by moving through a text via the concentric circles of the three hermeneutics and their widening horizons listed above. In chapter four I take Jameson’s first and second hermeneutic frameworks, and his notion of the political unconscious, and apply these to the reading of the post-Grunge novel Three Dollars.

A final point of comparison between Moretti and Jameson’s historical sociology of literary form concerns the concepts of mediation and homology. For Jameson, the key to Marxism as a theory with which to grasp the relationships between aesthetic – or symbolic – forms, and forms active in the mode of production, is to remember that Marxism is not a mechanical but an historical materialism (30). It is thus the “isomorphism, or structural parallelism” of a mechanical conception of homology which makes rigid, determinist relations between levels of society, rather than those of the “text and its social subtext [that are represented] in the more active terms of production, projection, compensation, repression, displacement and the like” that a historical materialism more fruitfully enables (28-29). While Jameson finds utility in the notion of homology he is wary of the manner through which it can be used to make a too literal pairing of forms, such as that of the production of texts with the production of commodities (30).

Moretti, also sets aside the mediating concept of homology. Rather than “equating,” for example, the structure and function of a text when considering how to practice a sociology of literature, Moretti writes,”[w]hat is in question is correlation, not necessarily homology” (2005: 130). For Moretti something like the Althusserean relative autonomy of levels keeps the concept of homology as isomorphism from gaining any firm hold on those relationships of literary morphemes to social phenomena that he prefers to characterise using the figures and terms that arise in the dialectic between interpretation and explanation (153-54). I will follow Moretti’s example in this thesis and seek, where possible, to generate the figures of mediatory relationships out of the terms of the texts themselves. In chapter two, for example, my reading of Praise’s main characters’ diseases – asthma and eczema – is abstracted through the medical classification of these both being atopic illnesses. This form of illness is then read across to the Neoliberal practices of economic government that I have chosen to affiliate with Praise, specifically, and Grunge fiction more generally. This reading across extrapolates from the figures of youth that both Grunge and Paul Keating’s language share. Rather than a present an homology between Gordon’s asthma and financial government, what I will do here is shuttle between the Australian political body of Gordon’s illness and the ill body politic that Keating narrates as becoming healthy, in order to explicate the one of the specific ways that Neoliberalism became embedded into Australian political culture.


Moretti’s methods of literary history share much with Fredric Jameson’s Marxist periodisations and views on the history of modernity and capitalism’s various stages. The key to the historical sociology of literary form, for both Moretti and Jameson, is genre, concerning which Jameson argues that

the strategic value of generic concepts for Marxism lies in the mediatory function of the notion of genre, which allows the coordination of immanent formal analysis of the individual text with the twin diachronic perspective of the history of forms and the evolution of social life. (2003: 92)

While accepting the specific claim made here by Jameson concerning the “mediatory function” of literary form, the notion of an “evolution of social life” has a too portentiously teleological direction and universality for this thesis, which seeks instead to work ‘closer-to-home’ by focussing on a small number of texts and nationally inflected instantiations of Liberalism, Labourism and Neoliberalism.

In order to avoid the lure of Moretti’s zeitgeist fallacy, the fragilities of the total view of history from which Jameson purports to be moving in his final concentric hermeneutic circle, and to instead move horizontally and promiscuously into that affiliative network of texts that Grunge fiction is a contemporary of but has rarely been read with, this thesis will jump tracks and move into a localised and tightly periodized hermeneutics of the texts of the long Labor decade. By working through the writing and textualisation of the long Labor decade we will be ready to begin to read Grunge fiction on those boundaries that require a more exacting historical sociology to make the affiliations occur. It is to that labour that this thesis now turns.

On the Historical Sociology of Literary Form I

*More PhD revision introduction material. This is part of the methodology section. Any comments will be appreciated*

Franco Moretti's Rhetoric of Fiction

[F]ormal patterns are what literature uses in order to master historical reality, and to reshape its materials in the chosen ideological key: if form is disregarded, not only do we lose the complexity (and therefore the interest) of the whole process – we miss the strictly political significance too. (Moretti, 2000a: xiii)

In key essays from the collection Signs Taken for Wonders (2005), in his analysis of the Bildungsroman in European Culture in The Way of the World (2000a), in Modern Epic (1996), and even through his more recent “quantitative turn” in Graphs, Maps, Trees (2007a), literary historian Franco Moretti has consistently performed his literary studies from a Marxist-based theory of the historical sociology of literary form.

For Moretti literature is neither fully autonomous from the society out of which it emerges and into which it circulates, nor is it determined by the mode of production in the last instance, as is claimed in the literary theories that base their metaphysics on the Althusserian problematic (Jameson 2003: 25-6). Literature, instead, works through a morphological bricolage that brings various symbolic forms, conventions of narrative, together in a single text (2000a xii, 5). These forms, or narrative morphemes, are generated out of “rhetorical innovations, which are the result of chance” (1996: 6). And yet the forces impelling which of these innovations are selected and how they are combined to enact the morphological bricolage of the individual literary text is a matter of “social selection” (6). These forces of selection point to “the idea that literature follows great social changes – that it always ‘comes after’. [Where] [t]o come after, however, does not mean to repeat (‘reflect’) what already exists, but the exact opposite: to resolve the problems set by history” (6).

In Moretti’s literary practise the analysis of the literary text’s form is to be placed into a dialectic with a sociological analysis that is mediated, and delimited, by the shared historical milieu of text and society (6). To invoke Said’s terms, acts of criticism move between text and its affiliations to the “world” by way of what he calls “genuine historical research” (Said 1991: 175). Like Said, Moretti aims his literary practise at understanding and explaining how and why literary texts operate on, with and even against “power relations” (6). He argues that a literary text’s“[r]hetorical ‘daring’ testifies to a will that wants to overturn the power relations of the symbolic order [while] ‘[c]ommonplaces’ and semantic inertia, for their part, are the potential result of that daring no less than its opposite” (2005 8).

For Moretti, “literary discourse is entirely contained within the rhetorical domain” as “the substantial function of literature is to secure consent. To make individuals feel ‘at ease’ in the world they happen to live in, to reconcile them in a pleasant and imperceptible way to its prevailing cultural norms” (2005 4, 27). But what literature, in most but not all of its instances, is seeking to secure consent for, and what those cultural norms are, requires “[k]nowledge of the socio-historical context of a literary work or genre” (8). This historically specific sociological knowledge

is not [. . .] an ‘extra’ to be kept in the margins of rhetorical analysis. In general, whether one is aware of it or not, such knowledge furnishes the starting point for interpretation itself, providing it with those initial hypothesis [sic] without which rhetorical mechanisms would be hard to understand, or would tell us very little indeed. (2005: 8)

Moretti has tended to focus his literary history around moments of great transformation and crisis in Western European history. His study of the Bildungsroman situates its emergence

[a]t the turn of the eighteenth century [when] much more than just a rethinking of youth was at stake. Virtually without notice, in the dreams and nightmares of the so-called ‘double-revolution’, Europe plunges into modernity, but without possessing a culture of modernity. If youth, therefore, achieves its symbolic centrality, and the ‘great narrative’ of the Bildungsroman comes into being, this is because Europe has to attach a meaning, not so much to youth, as to modernity. (Moretti, 2000a: 5)

Similarly, his analysis of Joyce’s Ulysses reads its historical sociology as being no less than “the crisis of liberal capitalism” at “the end of the liberal century” – the nineteenth century (2005: 201, 189). While these judgements are made within powerfully persuasive essays of literary study, there is in Moretti’s palpable enthusiasm a tendency to fall for, in what he himself has warned is, the “’Zeitgeist fallacy’” where,

[a] satisfactory level of rhetorical [literary formal] analysis has been reached. The configuration obtained seems to refer unambiguously to a particular hierarchy of values. So one performs the conclusive welding-together of rhetoric and social history. Let us suppose that up until now the argument has been flawless. It is precisely at this point that one makes a mistake. One succumbs to the allure of the sweeping generalization[:] the idea – single, solitary, resplendent – in which a whole epoch is supposedly summed up. (2005: 24-25)

Moretti’s warnings aside, what is singularly productive about his practises of literary history is how he brings the concept of symbolic form to the forefront of his literary history and situates it on the boundary between the literary text and the historically understood operations of that society which it shares. His studies of the Bildungsroman, while at times bordering on the dangerously historicist in that the conception of modernity he uses positions Western European modernity as the avant garde of human development, provide an exemplary application of the “the idea [. . .] that literary genres are problem-solving devices, which address a contradiction in their environment, offering an imaginary resolution by means of their formal organization” (2006: 73). His analysis of the classical Bildungsroman as a genre structured by youth as a symbolic form which works to make sense of Western Europe’s “dreams and nightmares of the so-called ‘double-revolution’ [through which it] plunges into modernity, but without possessing a culture of modernity” provides a model for analysing the symbolic form of youth as a highly-charged trope during the period of Grunge fiction’s production and reception: the 1980s and 1990s (2000a: 5).

Moretti argues that the signifier – youth – comes to carry a new conception in the late eighteenth century, “a symbolic shift” in which being young is no longer defined by not being an adult, but comes instead to symbolise a period of open uncertainty; of “exploration”, “mobility” and “perennially dissatisfied and restless” “interiority” (4). Youth is chosen to symbolise the protean nature of the industrial and political revolutions of the eighteenth century “because of its ability to accentuate modernity’s ‘essence’, the sign of a world that seeks its meaning in the future rather than in the past” (5). As Moretti argues, however, youth can become this central symbolic form for Western European modernity because it also ends (5-6) The protean, revolutionary nature of capitalist modernity that Marx writes of as a “[c]onstant revolutionizing, uninterrupted disturbance of all social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation [. . .] All fixed, fast-frozen relationships, with their train of venerable opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become obsolete before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into the air” finds in the symbolic form of youth a symbolic end, as youth itself ends and comes of age with the onset of adulthood (Marx cited in Berman 95).

This symbolic form of youth structures the plot and narration of the Bildungsroman genre through which ideological content is presented and naturalised. One of Moretti’s most striking claims is that the political work that the Bildungsroman performs is not to embed “intolerant, normative, monologic” ideologies into a culture so much as to provide a symbolic form that allows the bourgeoisie to think a contradiction that, rather than being solved, must be lived with “and even transform[ed] into a tool for survival” (2000a: 10). The Bildungsroman, on this reading, is a form that helps the modern subject to live with that “interiorization of contradiction” that, for Moretti, marks “modern socialization” (10).

Moretti’s analysis of the morphology of the Bildungsroman enables us to begin to extricate the complex political and social affects and ideas that ‘youth’ carried as a symbolic form in Australian political culture in the 1990s. As the discussion in the “Reappraising Grunge fiction” section above sought to make clear, the trope of youth has been at the centre of not only the critical reception of Grunge fiction, but has also acted out a primary part in the generationalism that structured significant sections of the culture war debates in Australia in the mid-1990s. The symbolic form of youth as a period of experimentation, rebellion, innocence and irresponsibility carries the implication that such conduct will settle into patterns of adult behaviour, and that this maturation take shape on the foundation of a coming-of-age, or Bildungs – a formation of the autonomous and socialized self. In Grunge fiction, however, this formation fails. And its failure is less a matter of authorial immaturity than a generic convention. The question that Moretti’s methods of historical sociology of literary form raises in the case of Grunge fiction is how do what type of modernity do we read these failed Bildungs with and against?


While Moretti’s method of an historical sociology of literary form provides the primary literary model for the readings of literary texts that are performed in chapters two, three and four his historical sociology comes close to universalising a conception of Western European modernity that is historicist, in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s pejorative sense of the term, and that flattens out geographic and localised specificities (2000: 6-16). In order to borrow the model of Morretti’s methods without its grand periodising and Eurocentric assumptions, chapter one will present a compressed and localised temporal and spatial grid out of which an historical sociology that affiliates with Grunge fiction will be presented. Before coming to this historical sociology, key aspects of Fredric Jameson’s methods of literary criticism will be considered as these are also the bases on which the readings will be conducted in the later chapters.

Death of Australian Political Fiction meme

There were a slew of death notices that were issued for the politically-engaged Australian novel in the earlier years of this century. Journalist and non-fiction writer Mark Mordue asked “Is the novel dead?” and answers: “Fiction is dead. Long live non-fiction” (par. 1). Novelist and memoirist, Drusilla Modjeska, similarly argues that

the fiction we were producing [in the 1980s and 90s] was either too post-modern, too self-referential, too badly edited, leached of feeling, or pitched to an international audience. As fiction turned its face elsewhere, detaching itself more and more from local realities and local experience, there was a space waiting, an opening. It was filled by writing that wasn’t fiction. As if in response to distress, there was a return to the narrative of lives and the exploration of experience that could make sense of – of just raise – questions of identity and responsibility that were coming back to vex us after years of being dismantled and reconfigured. (206)

Literary biographer, commentator and journalist David Marr’s attempt to resuscitate the political edge of contemporary fiction wanted it sharpened so as to cut conservative prime minister John Howard from the Lodge due to Howard’s devaluing of “the currency of language” and manipulation of “race fears to hang onto power” (Modjeska: 207, Marr: par. 11). For Marr, fiction has let Australia down:

I have a simple plea to make: that writers start focusing on what is happening in this country, looking Australia in the face, no flinching, coming to grips with the fact that we have been on a long loop through time that has brought us back almost – but not quite – to where we were. Few Australian novels [. . .] address in worldly, adult ways the country and the time in which we live. (Marr: par. 23 my emphasis)

Writing back to Marr’s lecture academic Julianne Lamond argues that his elision of such political novelists of the previous ten years as Andrew McGahan, Amanda Lohrey and Christos Tsiolkas speaks to the real terms of this debate: “form and genre, race and nationhood” (83). Indeed, how do we read the fiction of the present, which Modjeska and Marr both lament as largely disengaged and apolitical, when the avowedly political fiction of the recent past has, in many ways, been poorly read?

Novelist and current editor of the literary journal Meanjin, Sophie Cunningham, responded to Marr’s provocations by observing that the novels of McGahan and Tsiolkas “in the early to mid-1990s were set in the present [yet] were quickly herded into the “grunge” corral and left in the mud” (cited in Lamonde: 85).

Grunge novels have been poorly served by sections of the Australian literary field. Their politics of literary form have been disavowed and elided. At the end of Tim Rowse’s Australian Liberalism and National Character in a section titled “Populism as Literary Form,” Rowse argues that “[t]he New Critics’ [Craig McGregor and Donald Horne] concern with everyday life is a development, in a [. . .] ‘literary’ direction, [of the] shift from an explanatory mode to a more evocative rendering of the Australian outlook” (1978: 257). For Rowse, the language of politics in the 1970s was shaped through these innovations in form in the 1960s.

In focussing so fixedly, as Marr and Modjeska do, on the experiences that political fiction is meant to engage, the lessons of analysis like Rowse’s of the literary forms of populism have been forgotten and subsumed by the demand that literary fiction enact a type of moral critique. Is it any wonder, then, that when the literary form of politics is disavowed, the politics of literary form is similarly abjured? Rather than look to fiction to offer up journalistic-style experiences for fashioning a conscience and consciousness from which a moral critique can be advanced against political hegemonies like Howard’s, it is to literary form as itself an historical and sociological phenomenon that we should first look for such resources.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Watching the Treasurer Reconfiguring the Boundaries of reading Grunge fiction

[Final part in a series of introductory posts on the critical reception of Australian Grunge fiction]

Part of what is abject about Grunge fiction is its status within the Australian literary canon. It is both inside and outside the canon, a topic in Australian literary history that proceeds, as we saw above when discussing Salzman’s writing on Grunge fiction, under erasure. Before moving into the theoretical section of this introduction it is worth dwelling on a powerful reading of a text from within the genre that could more justifiably be called the abjected form of Australian letters in the 1980s and 1990s: poetry.

John Forbes’ poem “Watching the Treasurer” is the basis for a reading of Australian political culture through the mediated figure of the treasurer of the poem’s title, Paul Keating. While what Forbes and Morris have to say about Keating is formally distant, each draw attention to the utopian effects that were invited by Keating’s rhetoric. For Morris the utopias of Keating’s economic fundamentalist discourse enable an ecstasy for those who speak it. This ecstatic response, however, has its abject. Citing an evocative phrase from Pusey’s work that is cognate with Grunge, Morris writes that economic fundamentalism is “ a philosophy that treats society as a by-product (“Sludge”) of market forces tempered only by the actions of an elite cast of experts [who practise] a furious rhetoric of Reason” (1998: 180-1). What is abjected by “that utopia/ no philosopher could argue with, where/ what seems, is & what your words describe/ you know exists” are the “political alignments of a century [and] even those “new social movements” most critical of Laborism [sic]—feminism, anti-racism, environmentalism—[which] found themselves recast by its decline as “entrenched” and “vested” interests obstructing radical change” (Forbes cited in Morris 1998: 158, 178).

While the four frameworks for reading Grunge fiction analysed above offer unorthodox boundaries on which to work new textual affiliations, Morris’ reading of Forbes’ poem, above all others, models the direction that this thesis heads in. What is exemplary about Morris’ reading is: how it is anchored by a critical analysis of her own affective and intellectual investments in the subjects of her essay; how a close–reading of a literary text can at once be promiscuously horizontal and focussed; and how it can be psychoanalytic and socio-historical, practicing rhetorical analysis and political-economic theory as it moves from one section to another. Above all Morris’ interests in Keating overlap with mine.

There is a dense network of tracks through which Keating’s textuality circulated. Morris’ essay travels over this dense network in ways that make the four framework essays analysed above appear suburban. Yet Morris’ essay nowhere mentions Grunge fiction, which is not on her horizon. Her practises of boundary work, while exemplary, do not articulate Grunge fiction to the largely media and theoretical texts that she moves through to form her reading of Keating and Forbes’ poem. Moving toward Morris’ practices requires the four modes of boundary work analysed above to be both pushed further into their existing zones, and shifted into new interdisciplinary zones. In these new zones, especially, our understanding of Keating’s rhetoric and textuality can take soundings of Praise’s poetics and textuality, and interpreting Praise’s feelings of structure will assist in explaining the structures of feeling that Morris and Forbes, for example, hear in Keating’s talk. This understanding, interpretation and explanation are what will be performed in chapter 3.

The boundaries on which the four frameworks through which Grunge fiction has largely been received are in need of being reconfigured so that Grunge fiction can be read in ways that approximate Morris’ reading practises. The literary generationalism that Davis and Leishman detect and critique has been understood as a trope which has worked to deflect and displace public debates about, and new responses to, new social, economic, and political conditions. While Leishman brings Bourdieu’s sociology of the literary field into the ambit of her reading of Grunge fiction, Davis argues that postmodern practises of knowledge have been marginalized by the culture war use of generationalism. For Davis we need to push the trope of generationalism aside in order to hear what these young novelists had to say, while for Leishman we need to understand what these young novelists have to say through the notion that the inevitable turnover in literary generations is a battle of content and form, as much as of personnel. On both accounts Grunge fiction is innovative: neither old nor new dirty realism, but a new type of realism.

Both authors seek to divert us from the trope of generationalism in the name of experiences and practices that this culture war figure has worked to conceal. Yet, Grunge fiction can also be read as using the specific cultural forms of generationalism to present a problem in the dominant models for becoming-adult, or coming-of-age, circulating in the culture. In other words, rather than bypass the trope of generationalism in order to access the real meaning of Grunge fiction, reading Grunge fiction with and through the symbolic form of youth as a transition period on the way to becoming-adult – which has been a literary chronotope since Goethe’s Bildungsroman, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (Moretti 2000a: *) – further opens up the practises of boundary work and the range of texts that can be affiliated with those of Grunge fiction.

Syson’s boundary work reads Grunge fiction through the changes he detects in the political economy of the literary publishing industry. The fragmenting and alienation of working class identity during a period of market intensification and dismantling of the forms of historic compromise in Australian political culture – conducted, ironically, under a Labor government – is most clearly registered for Syson in the economy of the literary field. He reads these changes back into Grunge fiction, which returns his soundings in the form of “the rumblings of a structure of feeling that is being demolished at its deepest levels” (26). His central and influential claim is that Grunge fiction is a form of resistance and critique, responding to “a growing economic rationalist spirit,” a predatory capitalism that “is about ransacking communities and their cultures and patterns of behaviour in order to commodify and privatise them” and “the prosecution of the Thatcherite dream of destroying society and replacing it with a world of consuming individuals” (23 and 26).

While Syson’s boundary work is suggestive his dismissal of Grunge musical form is symptomatic of the persistence of the generational trope. As I argued above, there is an occasional deafness in the Australian literary field when it comes to thinking sound. My reading of Cobain’s guitar solo in “Smells like Teen Spirit” sought to open up a boundary across which the sociological concepts of Fordism and post-Fordism can be used to articulate Grunge fiction and Grunge musical form. Syson’s refusal to take Grunge music seriously as a cultural form is a symptom of a conflation in which cultural forms about youth are dismissed as youthful cultural forms which are further reduced to commodities. What is occluded in this way of reading is analysis of the specific, meanings of the symbols of youth that are operative in the local culture, and that cultural forms like Grunge fiction and Grunge music are working with, on and against. Taking Grunge cultural form as concerned with the problems of making the transition from youth to adulthood in conditions of post-Fordism raises questions about the precise nature of the historical conditions of society in the 1990s. Syson’s allusion to Michael Pusey’s historical sociology of economic rationalism in Australia indicates one text through which to make these historical conditions more precise, more local, as Morris does in “Ecstasy in Economics”. Morris’ further boundary work, however, takes us into the human capital theories of Chicago School economist Gary Becker, reading these back into Keating’s talk. As her textual affiliations are more promiscuous and horizontal than Syson’s it is toward Foucault’s theories of Neoliberalism, rather than the concept of Thatcherism or economic rationalism, that this thesis will affiliate with the literary and non-literary texts considered below. Such affiliative boundary work, however, will require a sustained consideration of the textualisation and historical conditions of the period in Australian political culture that Grunge fiction emerges from and through. This consideration will be conducted in chapter one.

Finally, the theme of the abject in reading Grunge fiction was analysed and these readings were placed into a dialogue with Morris’ claims about the abjected waste that economic fundamentalist discourse both produces and construes society as and as it ecstatically travels into areas previously protected from market rationalities. Placing Morris’ reading of Neoliberal ecstasy, and its sludge by-product, into the zone of Brooks, Muller and Kirkby’s more individual and psychological readings of abjection in Grunge fiction, shifts the boundaries across which Grunge fiction can make textual affiliations. This shift provides the openings for aligning Grunge fiction with fundamental changes to Australian political culture that can be interpreted and explained through a more historically specified, and more sociologically localised, set of texts than were available in the 1990s when these writings emerged.

Friday, May 15, 2009


[Another in a series of posts taken from the revised PhD thesis. These posts are from the introduction, and this is the last in a series of 5 which have been analysing four frameworks that are commonly deployed to interpret and make sense of Grunge fiction]


Joan Kirkby’s chapter “Literature”, in Americanization and Australia, is one of the few discussions of Grunge fiction to present an argument for its commensurability with Grunge musical culture. For Kirkby, the “distinctive rough, ‘dirty’, ‘sludgy’ sound” of bands like Nirvana were “in defiance of the comfortable, easy listening style of mainstream rock bands and were directed at a young generation disaffected with lifestyles no longer meaningful or available to them” (230). Kirkby builds her genealogy of Grunge fiction through an etymology of the term, finding that it is a US slang term: “a back formation of the adjective grungy [. . .] deriving from ‘a blend of GRIMY, DINGY & grunt, childish euphemism for defecate’ and as slang meaning ‘dirty, mess, disreputable, etc.; unpleasant in any way’” (229-30). In the Australian context Grunge is defined “firstly as ‘a substance of an unpleasant nature, especially dirt, scum or slime’ and secondly as ‘a guitar-based form of heavy rock music’” (230).

Kirkby works on the boundary where Grunge as musical culture meets the term as ‘sign’ to argue that “it is a useful term in the Australian context,” in part because it “arises in response to cultural issues that are both local and global [and] is part of a larger phenomenon characteristic of post-industrial, urban cultures” (233). It is also useful as it “is closely related to the abject, Julia Kristeva’s term for a visceral identity crisis in which the insides of the body erupt within signification in an obsessive imagery of ruptured bowels and wombs and excrement and slime, rendering unstable the subject’s sense of social and symbolic identity" (233).

Kirkby interprets Grunge fiction through the concept of the abject as a social and psychological process. She argues that “grunge [. . .] might be defined as the abject made conscious, owned, integrated and demystified” and that “[i]n The River Ophelia the narrator completely owns and demystifies the abject; in Praise the abject is no longer abject; and in Loaded the abject is powerfully manipulated as a social critique” (233, 235).

Kirkby’s essay has not been the only one to use Kristeva’s social-psychoanalytic concepts of the abject and abjection to read Grunge fiction with. While Kirkby argues that Praise “demystifies the abject, becoming an affirmation of the everyday and of bodies as the basis of subjectivity” (238) Vivienne Muller treats Praise to a

social protest reading [in which] the signifiers of the abject and grotesque pimpled bums, bleeding skins, flabby bodies, misshapen flesh, drug altered bodies and minds would appear to collectively symbolise revolt against the deterministic socio-cultural institutions (bureaucracies, hospitals, schools, police) with their moral directives towards the corps propre. [. . .] Such a reading of the grotesque body in Praise would also yield it as a site of contestation of the ‘official’ discourses of good and proper bodies with their ‘healthy’ imperatives of employment, heterosexuality, marriage, monogamy and parenthood. (152-53)

Unlike Kirkby’s reading of Praise Muller opens her interpretation to the social dimensions of identity formation, offering a reading of McGahan’s debut novel that permits it to be a critique of contemporary techniques of the self; a critique of, what Foucault calls, forms of governmentality. The abject, polluted, sexually faulty body of Gordon is contrasted for Muller to the “healthy body in middle-class terms [which] is also the employed body” (153). So, while Kirkby reads Praise’s thematisation of abjection on a purely psychological level, Muller is prepared to consider that this thematisation enacts a “postmodern scepticism towards the unified subject signalling a current crisis of identity for the young” where the “nihilism in grunge is read as a sort of refusal of the hegemony of the dominant capitalist ethic” (152).

Different again is Karen Brooks’ use of the term abject to chart readings of Grunge fiction. Brooks explicates a psycho-geography of the movement and becomings of characters across and on the interstitial zones between the city and the suburban. While Muller situates Praise within the time-space of global modernity and late capitalism, and Kirkby tightens the interpretive lens of abjection to bore down on individual identity formation, Brooks argues that in Praise and other Grunge novels “an understanding of the [human] subject is contingent on an interplay between the psychosocial, the body and the physical environment” (89). For Brooks the “characters who embrace the ambiguous, liminal and abject spaces that lie within and between sub/urban living become spatial vessels that are able to cross and recross the boundaries of institutional power, geo-political, psychosocial and psychosexual boundaries” (98). This reading of the possibilities of movement and spatial identity enabled by proximity to abjection in Grunge fiction is both libertarian and optimistically utopian.

What all three readings that use Kristeva’s concept of the abject as an interpretive instrument open up is a boundary on which Grunge fiction becomes an object of primarily psychological literary signification. Yet the genealogy of the concept of the abject also comes by way of Georges Bataille and Mary Douglas’ anthropology (Kristeva 64-66, 69). For Kristeva, Douglas argues that “filth is not a quality in itself, but it applies to a boundary and [. . .] represents the object jettisoned out of that boundary, its other side, a margin” (69). The materiality of the abject is secondary to the social fact of the boundary. Indeed, Douglas writes: “[m]atter issuing from them [the orifices of the body] is marginal stuff of the most obvious kind. Spittle, blood, milk, urine, faeces or tears by simply issuing forth have traversed the boundary of the body. [. . .] The mistake is to treat bodily margins in isolation from all other margins” (cited in Kristeva 69). The call to consider the social existence of the boundaries across which abjection occurs works to remind us that alongside “abjection [being] coextensive with social and symbolic order, on the individual as well as on the collective level [it also] assumes specific shapes and different codings according to the various “symbolic systems”” (68). Abjection is historical, as it “varies according to time and space, even though it is [also] universal” (68).


Part of what is abject about Grunge fiction is its status within the Australian literary canon. It is both inside and outside the canon, a topic in Australian literary history that proceeds, as we saw above when discussing Salzman’s writing on Grunge fiction, under erasure. Before moving into the theoretical section of this introduction it is worth dwelling on a powerful reading of a text from within the genre that could more justifiably be called the abjected form of Australian letters in the 1980s and 1990s: poetry. John Forbes’ poem “Watching the Treasurer” is the basis for a reading of Australian political culture through the mediated figure of the treasurer of the poem’s title, Paul Keating. While what Forbes and Morris have to say about Keating is formally distant, each draw attention to the utopian effects that were invited by Keating’s rhetoric. For Morris the utopias of Keating’s economic fundamentalist discourse enable an ecstasy for those who speak it. This ecstatic response, however, has its abject. Citing an evocative phrase from Pusey’s work that is cognate with Grunge, Morris writes that economic fundamentalism is “ a philosophy that treats society as a by-product (“Sludge”) of market forces tempered only by the actions of an elite cast of experts [who practise] a furious rhetoric of Reason” (1998: 180-1). What is abjected by “that utopia/ no philosopher could argue with, where/ what seems, is & what your words describe/ you know exists” are the “political alignments of a century [and] even those “new social movements” most critical of Laborism [sic]—feminism, anti-racism, environmentalism—[which] found themselves recast by its decline as “entrenched” and “vested” interests obstructing radical change (Forbes cited in Morris 1998: 158, 178).

While the four frameworks for reading Grunge fiction analysed above offer unorthodox boundaries on which to work new textual affiliations, Morris’ reading of Forbes’ poem, above all others, models the direction that this thesis heads in. What is exemplary about Morris’ reading is how it is anchored by a critical analysis of her own affective and intellectual investments in the subjects of her essay; and how a close–reading of a literary text can at once be so promiscuously horizontal and focussed; how it can be psychoanalytic and socio-historical, practicing rhetorical analysis and political-economic theory as it moves from one section to another. Above all Morris’ interests in Keating overlap with mine. Reading Keating as a figure of textuality which is situated by a specific historical sociology and in affiliation with Grunge fiction, forms the central section of this thesis. We will leave Forbes’ poem here and return to the “elegant apostle of necessity” below in chapter one (Forbes cited in Morris 1988: 158).

Reads like Teen Spirit

(Another extract from the revised PhD intro)

Before moving to consider the fourth dominant framework through which Grunge fiction has been received [Grunge as focussed on the theme of abjection], it is worth dwelling on the role that Grunge as musical culture plays in Syson’s influential essay. A shared musical and literary boundary is one that is inscribed into the term Grunge. Yet it rare for the both sides of the boundary to be given a concomitant and serious analysis. Grunge music is often positioned in essays on Grunge fiction as the truly teenage and commodified world against which ‘adult’ cultural forms are contrasted and Grunge is defined as a marketing exercise. To take Grunge music seriously seems, somehow, unthinkable; a boundary not to be crossed. As an initial crossing, Syson’s essay is a good place to start, not least because Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” forms the basis of his title.

Syson despatches Grunge as a cultural term – shared by both literary and musical culture – by fixing its etymology to the “sentimental teen spirit” that Nirvana express (21). He has no interest in considering Grunge as a term for a cultural movement that encompasses both musical and literary form for reasons to do with the teenage-ness of Grunge music and the fundamental incommensurability of pop/rock musical and literary form:

At the 1995 Melbourne writers’ festival, Linda Jaivin made a point in the session on Grunge that might have laid the label to rest. She asked, “But what is Grunge in the literary context?” Maybe it’s a bit like trying to work out what the difference is between realist and modernist electric guitar solos – the question doesn’t make any sense. (21)

On the surface the incommensurability of Grunge musical and literary form is prefigured into the analogy that Syson chooses to underline his point. But this apparent disjunction is based on a romantic discourse of musical form in which all rock music is understood as expressive of subjective authenticity: whether it be teenage or African-American alienation and rebellion. The distinction Syson is unable to voice is that between Fordist and post-Fordist electric guitar solos; between the guitar solos that made sense during the period Zygmunt Bauman characterises as heavy capitalism and solid modernity – Fordism, and that of light capitalism and liquid modernity – post-Fordism. Indeed, one way to characterise the electric guitar solo heard in Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” is to hear it as both imitative of the vocal melody – and thereby expressively realist, because imitating the lyrical song – and to hear it as post-Fordist, because while it is sonically redolent of overdriven Chicago Blues solos, and hence alluding to rock’s Fordist period, it is also treated with chorus and phase-shifting effects, which take the solid and heavy Fordist timbres and bent blues notes and liquefy and lighten them. Difficult to hear is the sustained final note of the guitar solo which is held through the beginning of the final verse. This last section of the guitar solo morphs from its imitation of the vocal melody into an electronic pulse that becomes spectral and ethereal. In one guitar solo Kurt Cobain offers a rich aural text, moving from Fordist realism into an uncertain and haunted post-Fordist timbre and sonics. Read and heard together with the musical video and the lyrics, “Smells like Teen Spirit” is a complex work of art that combines situationist politics in its video and a form of punk-Adorno-esque negation in its lyric and vocal grain. Nirvana are both expressing teen spirit and attempting to get outside it, to negate it and turn its commodified conditions from a spectacle into a situation.

The hermeneutics of Grunge musical culture and form is a curious aspect in the reception of Grunge fiction. Syson’s disavowal of Grunge as a musical form signifying anything except sentimental teen spirit appears to be based on a misreading of Nirvana’s signature song, which he parodies in his essay’s title. His suggestive claim that Australian Grunge fiction is a literary response to the demolition of structures of feelings in Australian political culture, closes its ears to similar demolitions of structures of feeling being responded to in American musical culture. Is Grunge fiction also post-Fordist and practising negation to attempt to move outside a teen spirit that is corrupt, no longer a source of radicalism or resistance? What social and political forms are the equivalent of Fordism in Australia? If Fordism was an historic compromise between male manufacturing wage earners and the owners of industries like Ford, then how did the historic compromises function in Australia? What was happening to these compromises, or settlements, in the period when Grunge fiction took shape?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Reads like Grunge/market spirit

(And another introduction post)

Reads like Grunge spirit

However much Grunge, as a term, is under erasure, it has a more solid status in the Australian literary field than it did when it emerged in 1995 when there was a considerable contest over the validity of the name. Critic Paul Dawson argued that “grunge lit is seen by most as a facile and modish form of writing. But grunge is not so much a literary movement as a market category” (119). Ian Syson, in one of the more cogent critiques, argued that use of the term “Smells Like Market Spirit” (Syson, 1996: 21). Syson writes that

[w]hatever else it might name Grunge also refers to a marketing ploy. Observing the street cred that grunge bands like Nirvana possessed, elements of the literature industry saw a way of obtaining relatively high levels of credibility and sales among a large and untapped 25–40-year-old market by promoting a set of new writers as being the literary equivalent of that same sentimental teen spirit. And is the rumours of the sales of Justine Ettler’s The River Ophelia are anywhere near the truth, then the ploy has worked – at least in terms of sales. (21)

Syson’s substantive point, however, is not to dismiss the novels classified and marketed as Grunge fiction as similarly representative of that sentimental teen spirit because they have been marketed in a cynical manner. The marketing of Grunge fiction is, indeed, part of the broader political and economic context that Syson sees as being inscribed into these novels: Tsiolkas’ Loaded “has captured a moment in Australian history at which some basic cultural promises are in the process of being broken” (22). Thus Syson’s argument in his influential essay on Grunge fiction is that the Grunge novel, and Loaded in particular, “is a working class novel written when it is not possible to write one” (22).

Syson never articulates precisely why such a novel is impossible to write in the early 1990s. He does, however, offer a sketch of contemporary historical sociology and political-economy, and draws lines from this sketch back to Grunge fiction. Elements in this impression include the claims that “[o]ver the last decade a growing rationalist spirit has moved into place in Australian cultural policy” and that contemporary business practice “is about ransacking communities and their cultures and patterns of behaviour in order to commodify and privatise them” (25-26). For Syson “Grunge, in its powerful and directed forms, is more a response to that growing market spirit” and it “articulate[s] the rumblings of a structure of feeling that is being demolished at its deepest levels” (26).

The main boundary on which Syson’s essay works is that of marxist-based nationalist literary criticism and literary history abutting an analysis of the contemporary political economy of the literary publishing field. For Syson, the Australian literary field of 1995-96 is subjected to a ‘market spirit’ which frames literary production and reception through regimes of value that work to elide representations of working-class existence and working-class reading formations. There are two allusions in Syson’s essay that provide the basis on which to shift the boundary on which it does its work. The first is to Michael Pusey’s Habermasean critique of economic rationalism. The second is to Raymond Williams’ notion of a structure of feeling. In what follows I will take these two concepts and arguments and seek to make new affiliations between the Grunge fiction that Syson considers and those texts which also register these rumblings and rationalities.

New or Old Dirty Realism?

(another in a series of introductory posts on grunge fiction)

New or Old Dirty Realism?
While one result of the Demindenko affair was the ascendance then fall of Helen Dale’s (nee Darville) literary reputation, the stakes in The First Stone debates were built on Helen Garner’s already considerable reputation as a novelist of 1970s inner-urban realism. In 1995, Garner’s claims to author-ity – her position in the Australian literary field – had been established on a string of novels, short stories, and novellas, that enhanced the consecrated status given to her debut novel Monkey Grip (1977).

Monkey Grip is a realist representation of youthful inner-city communal share-house life, involving graphic depictions of drug-taking and sexual experiment that is structured by the search to find a moral position from which to reconcile libertarian practices with the responsibilities of autonomy and parenting. Unlike Dale, whose reputation remained contained within the scandal that broke around her text, the life of Garner’s Monkey Grip appeared to mirror that of Garner as mother-feminist sorting out the wayward-feminist daughters who are her targets in The First Stone.

Monkey Grip
became a germinal, or mother, text for those critics and literary historians looking to dismiss the claims of innovation in form and content that were made on behalf of Grunge fiction. Margaret Henderson and Shane Rowlands argue that “[o]ne main problem with using the label ‘grunge’ is that it reinvents the wheel and thus obliterates other alternative, relevant, and politically engaged antecedents [including] Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip” (3). In a more recent essay Jean-Francois Vernay writes that “Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip (1977) may well be seen as the pioneering grunge novel” (146) and that a “libertarian literary movement was initiated by Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip” (152). Monkey Grip, on these readings, is interpreted as a founding novel in Grunge fiction, with the corollary that Monkey Grip is to The River Ophelia what older second wave feminists are to younger postmodern feminists. Or as Garner has grown up now, when Grunge writers grow up they too might write as well as her.

This form of generationalism takes one model of literary politics, one model of literary development, and consigns all others to apolitical, underdeveloped or youthful writing. In terms that resonated throughout The First Stone debates, one reviewer made this level of discourse clear when she wrote: “It’s tremendously difficult for me, at 40, to hike through these two longish novels about a boy and a girl (respectively) stumbling through their twentieth year . . . I just want to snarl “For god’s sake, grow up!”” (Veitch cited in Davis, 1997: 130).

If Monkey Grip was old dirty realism, to follow this line of argument, Grunge fiction was the new old dirty realism. Critics like Davis and Kirsty Leishman have argued, on the contrary, that new experiences and knowledges were brought into Grunge fiction and that these have been dismissed and disavowed by the discourses of generationalism. Leishman claims that “the knowledges informing the values in these [Grunge] novels and short stories proved to be incomprehensible because they were not part of the habitus of [those] encumbent [sic] elites” of the Australian literary field that Davis identifies (96). For Leishman Bourdieu’s concept of habitus – a “second nature” or “second sense” “set of dispositions which generates practices and perceptions” – helps to explain the almost unconscious disavowal of the innovations in Grunge fiction enacted by the dominant position-holders in the Australian literary field (Bourdieu cited in Leishman 96, 95). For Leishman the primary innovation of Grunge fiction is its new response to the dominant narratives of Australian identity; narratives which operate on the traditions codified in the Bulletin stories of the 1890s and in Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend (97).

I think this is a very limited reading of those narratives of Australian identity that circulated in the late 1980s and early to mid 1990s. Leishman’s rhetorical gambit of contrasting Grunge fiction to these traditions of the Bush myth is clearly to establish an argument in which there are ruptures in innovation of Grunge fiction without considering the writings of Peter Carey, David Malouf, or Kate Grenville – to name but a few – who have successfully complicated these literary traditions. Indeed, by the time Grunge fiction is a literary event the Australian prime minister who best represented the larrikin, easy-going matey ethos that Leishman outlines – Bob Hawke – had been replaced by a more complex, ambivalent figure in Paul Keating. Keating’s story of Australian identity, and indeed his governmental practices of Australian character and identity, exceed the national fictions Leishman wants to pose as the foil to Grunge’s experiments in “‘a lived philosophical commitment’” (Graeme Turner cited in Leishman 97).

Leishman’s boundary work brings Bourdieu’s sociology of the cultural and literary fields into the analysis of Grunge fiction’s critical reception. Her further claim is that Grunge fiction presents a generational break with the old forms and narratives of a hegemonic Australian identity. I agree with the direction of Leishman’s argument, but you only need to read Murray Bail and Frank Moorhouse’s parodies of Henry Lawson's "The Drover’s Wife" to know that the Bush-Nationalist narratives of identity had long been unsettled prior to Grunge fiction’s arrival.

The issue of a ‘lived philosophical commitment’ that the narrators of Grunge fiction present as the alternative to dominant narrativisations of Australian character is a more complex one. Leishman’s thematic reading heads through the literary text to a mimesis of philosophical conduct. This level of explanation gives Grunge fiction a political project. Yet the aesthetic, or formal, level at which Grunge fiction practises its philosophies are elided in Leishman’s explanation. Rather than position Grunge fiction in contrast to questionably hegemonic narratives of national identity, I will take her boundary work and re-position it between a set of political and governmental texts that are contemporary to those of Grunge fiction. Leishman’s foray into the reading of Grunge fiction against a limited array of narratives of national identity misses the opportunity to make more horizontal and promiscuous textual affiliations. Rather than contrast Grunge fiction to the mythologies of Australian character that Bob Hawke embodied and aroused, the textualised figures of Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating will be affiliated with key texts of Grunge fiction in order for a different ensemble of narratives of national identity to be placed into the ambit of Grunge fiction.

Reading on the Boundaries

(More revised thesis introduction)

Reading on the boundaries

The analysis of the Bird and Salzman interpretations of Grunge fiction offered above [see post three below] would appear to indicate that the novels have been subjected to plural approaches. Literary generationalism, marketing hype, possible innovations in form, and the theme of abjection are used as frameworks through which the interpretation and explanation of Grunge fiction is conducted. Such apparent pluralism, however, is no guarantee that this fourfold hermeneutics crosses any significant boundaries in seeking to affiliate Grunge fiction with contemporary texts, political culture or other cultural forms. Of course, choosing two survey-styled entries that can only give little consideration to Grunge fiction because of space restrictions might be seen as too little and too selective a sample from which to make any firm evaluations. So, while the Bird and Salzman passages do reveal the working of a set of frameworks, it is to a more detailed analysis of key writings of Grunge fiction that this thesis will turn, in order to re-engage with and interpret the gaps, silences and contradictions that these writings inscribed. The crucial writings of Mark Davis, Kirsty Leishman, Ian Syson and Joan Kirkby on Grunge fiction codify significant aspects of the frameworks that Bird and Salzman use, and also attempt to push through the cultural and political boundaries within which their own readings of Grunge fiction and its historical context are structured. Each of these four texts on Grunge fiction is a kind of boundary work, and this concept now needs to be explained before moving into analysis of these influential forms of boundary work on Grunge fiction.

The concept of boundary work derives from social epistemologist Julie Thompson Klein’s studies of trans- and interdisciplinary knowledge production and was introduced into Australian literary studies by Robert Dixon (2004). For Dixon, Klein argues that “at present new knowledge is most often produced by boundary crossing in the form of interdisciplinary and cross-cultural research, and that this tends to be located in the shadow structures – the dynamic, informal networks and collaborations that form beneath and across the surface structures’ (32). These boundaries “are open, their cognitive border zones ragged and ill-defined” (32). Dixon points out that,

[Klein’s] preference is for a field in which boundaries are not dissolved, but maintained and at the same time constantly transgressed. [. . .]. The term “boundary work” as Klein uses it [. . .] does not simply mean either the policing of disciplinary boundaries or their collapse, but is meant positively to embrace the sum-total of all boundary work, including boundary crossings, especially between disciplinary neighbours. (33)

Dixon’s explication of boundary work as a shuttling between, rather than dissolution or fervid defence of, disciplinary boundaries provides a productive model for approaching the interdisciplinarity of the four influential texts analysed below. My purpose here is to delineate the terrain of the framework invoked and then to unpack a key passage from both sides of the boundary on which concerns from within the literary discipline meet those from within the political, sociological, economic, epistemological and the psychological disciplines.

Literary Generationalism c1995

(Another revised section from the thesis intro)

Literary generationalism

Literary politics holds a central place in Mark Davis’ Gangland: Cultural Elites and the New Generationalism. Davis’ forensic tracking of the networks of Australia’s media and cultural elite extant in the early to mid 1990s is given an explicitly literary focus through two moments in 1995 when the Australian literary field and literary works became flashpoints in the Australian instantiation of the culture wars. The publication of Helen Darville’s award-winning historical novel of Ukranian complicity in the Jewish Holocaust, The Hand the Signed the Paper, and Helen Garner’s new-journalist account of a sexual harassment case at Melbourne University’s Ormond College, The First Stone, pushed Australian literature and position-holders in the field into areas of the public sphere normally held by politicians, reviewers and media in-house commentators. Both texts involved young women whose practices of authenticity, speaking position or institutional politics were causes for polarising debates and attacks that left in their wake a striking “reorganisation of public space” (Davis 1997: 210).

The Demindenko affair raised two key issues. In a time when official multiculturalism was under sustained conservative attack, the revelation of the author’s non-‘ethnic’ identity gave succour to those critics who thought the bestowal of the prestigious Miles Franklin on the novel was an act of political correctness. For these critics the fraud Darville perpetrated exposed and mirrored the fraud that multiculturalism was. The novel’s complex representation of anti-semitism also prompted a heated public debate where claims about the freedom and rights of the literary imagination were subjected to counterclaims about an author’s duty to historical truth and definitive moral judgement.

The debates over Garner’s work intersected with those active in the Demindenko affair through the trope of political correctness. In the case of The First Stone the flashpoint of political correctness was sparked off from claims that feminism had reached its end-point by achieving the conditions for formal gender equality and that a new, puritan and punitive victim-feminism was gaining institutional support. This new feminism was seen by Garner and key position-holders in the literary and public spheres as unfairly disadvantaging, and in some cases destroying, men. It was also seen as derailing the gains that second-wave feminists, like Garner, claimed to have made. The debates over the issues that Garner’s work brought to the surface of the mainstream public sphere were often played out in the terms of conflicting generations: mothers and daughters; old and new feminists, fighting over the direction of feminism’s projects, and over who had the proprietorial rights to this direction considering “the unsuitability of young women as heirs to the feminist tradition” (84).

Garner’s The First Stone set up the generational trope in Australian feminism as a key form through which debate was to proceed. Few voices entering this debate were able to step around and outside the powerful symbolism of older Mother feminists – who had wisdom to impart and the experience on which such knowledge was based – instructing and fretting over newer, daughter feminists – who had new forms of knowledge and experience that second wave feminists lacked. To see feminism cleave through such polarising public talk only confirmed conservative views of the self-interestedness of its claims: feminism had gone too far because it was, like any lobby group, or ‘industry’, serving its own interests.

In contrast to these two literary events of 1995, Davis gives less analysis to the other minor literary event of the year: Grunge fiction. For Davis the trope of generationalism is again active in the literary public sphere reception of grunge fiction; structuring how liberal literary coteries responded to the dirty realism of Tsiolkas, Ettler, Jaivin, Berridge and McGahan’s fictions.

What links these three events of 1995 is how young voices were lost in the welter of debates that mark the ascendance of the Neo-conservative backlash to Neoliberalism in the form of the culture wars. Yet rather than see these young voices – Tsiolkas and Darville’s narrators and the young women of Ormond College – as expressing and acting on the basis of new experiences and knowledges and bringing these into the literary public sphere, I contend that the cultural form of the youth-to-adulthood period of transition – the period of an individual’s coming-of-age – is inseparable from what is at stake in each of these three events. In Gangland Davis opens up this line of analysis, working on the boundaries between politics and culture. His discussion of Grunge fiction is less concerned with literary form and narrative technique than with the terms on which it was received. Here again we find that the tropes of generationalism structure the critical response. Yet if generationalism is a cultural form that is clearly highly charged in Australian political culture in the early to mid 1990s then the fiction concerned with one of western modernity’s primary flashpoints of human generationalism – the coming-of-age period – demands to be read as fiction that is also about, rather than merely expressing, the dominant cultural forms of coming-of-age. The boundary work I am arguing for here involves reading Grunge fiction again as metafictions on the literary form of coming-of-age.

On Governmentality

In Foucault's late work, the notion of government is elaborated within a kind of typology of forms of power that seeks to displace the immediate identification of power with domination. Government comes to be viewed as a kind of intermediate region which is not purely one of either freedom or domination, either consent or coercion. It is located between a primary type of power as an open, strategic and reversible set of relations between liberties, and domination as the fixing and blocking of these relations into permanent and hierarchical distributions. Government is between these two in that it involves a form of power over others that is made operable through the liberties of those over whom it is exercised.

Mitchell Dean Governmentality 1999: 46-7

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Reappraising grunge fiction

Below is writing towards a revised introduction. Any comments would be appreciated.

Reappraising Grunge Fiction

[G]enres arise in response to particular predicaments, particular needs, particular cultural logics, particular choices. These are the kinds of things a good literary history accounts for. (Gelder 2008: 76)

Grunge fiction has an uncertain and precarious status in Australian literary studies. This precarious status can be seen by analysing the ways in which Grunge fiction has been embedded or treated in Australian literary studies and history. These analyses and stories of the emergence and critical reception of Grunge fiction have been told through four main frameworks, which all emphasize different theoretical approaches to the debut novels of Andrew McGahan, Christos Tsiolkas and Justine Ettler. These frameworks seek to place Grunge fiction into either a contest of literary generations fought over the conception and validity of new experiences and styles; into established traditions of ‘dirty’ or social realism; to situate, and often to thereby dismiss, it within a moment of marketing hyperbole; or to read Grunge fiction as a genre centrally concerned with the depiction of the abject.

Sometimes aspects of more than one of these four frameworks are present in a single entry or essay on Grunge, which often serves to place the term under a kind of Derridean erasure: Grunge fiction (Spivak lxix). This typical way of representing Grunge fiction is found in the recently published survey of Australian fiction After the Celebration: Australian Fiction 1989–2007. In the chapter focussed on women’s writing Paul Salzman gives three paragraphs to Grunge fiction for the purpose of framing his criticism of the representation of ‘the abject body in grunge fiction written by women’ through Ettler’s The River Ophelia in particular (Gelder and Salzman, 2009: 205). Salzman compares Ettler’s novel unfavourably to Mary Fallon’s Working Hot – which, unlike Ettler’s, radically rewrites its literary-sexual context – and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting – which has for Salzman, at least, a redeeming black humour (205-6). But it is how Salzman uses the frameworks about Grunge fiction to set up his criticism of Ettler’s novel that is of particular interest as all four are brought into play in his three paragraphs. Salzman effectively places Grunge fiction under erasure by, on the one hand, valorising the term by employing it, and, on the other, by consistently de-legitimising any claims that the term has to describe and name singular literary phenomena. Salzman achieves this de-legitimation through ascribing the motives of grunge authors to a cynical exercise in ticking abject subjects off a list of ‘grunge bases: drugs, vomit, shit, rough sex, a youth culture that embraces a certain chic poverty, and a barely suppressed misogyny (possibly as an ironic reflection on the characters)’ (204). The link between abjection and the sort of niche marketing list Salzman parodies is reinforced by his initial historical evaluation of ‘grunge fiction [as having been] fashionable in the early 1990s [and] practic[ing] a kind of ├ępater le bourgeois’ (204). The story of Grunge fiction Salzman is telling here is one of a younger generation of apprentice writers who, or critics on their behalf, made false claims about their novels’ innovations in form and content, and who sought to create a reading market through narratives that were told with vulgar language and that depicted abject bodies and graphic sex (204-6).

The precarious place of Grunge fiction is clearly on display in this recent Australian literary history. Salzman takes the four frameworks used to position, interpret and explain Grunge fiction and turns them to the service of reducing the sub-genre to a moment in marketing hyperbole that clothed itself in literary generationalism as a means of aspiring to claims of consecrated literary status or symbolic capital (Bourdieu 122-23 and 255). The validity of Grunge’s newly-found concern with abjection is dismissed by Salzman on the bases that ‘there isn’t anything new as such about the depiction of the transgressive body in fiction’ and that such concern is, again, ultimately designed to shock an older readership (205).

As a second symptomatic example of where and how Grunge fiction resides in Australian literary history we will consider Delys Bird’s chapter on ‘Contemporary Fiction’ in The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature, which was published in 2000. Bird gives a paragraph to Grunge fiction. She writes: ‘[it] became the new fiction of the 1990s, labelled in this way to appeal to the youthful reading audience to whom it was marketed’ (206). She lists what have become the central Grunge authors and their primary work in the sub-genre: Christos Tsiolkas’ Loaded, Andrew McGahan’s Praise, and Justine Ettler’s The River Ophelia. And she observes that the writers are young, ’often products of writing schools,’ that their work has an ‘explicit, sometimes relentless focus on sex, drugs and life on the margins of society’ and that the fiction ‘may also be preoccupied with generational conflict with authority figures’ (206). Here in this chapter’s penultimate paragraph, residing within a sub-section titled ‘THE NEW PROFESSIONALS,’ we can again see both the precarious inscription of Grunge fiction into Australian literary history – shunted into the end of the chapter like an afterthought – and the thematics through which it has been critically received working to situate Grunge fiction on the border-line of Australian literary history: literary generationalism, marketing hype, inner-urban dirty realism, and youthful writing.
The theme of abjection that is central to Salzman’s critique, is missing in Bird’s critical-description. In its stead, however, is praise for McGahan’s Praise and 1988 which ‘are interested in the political and personal implications of grunge living, giving his writing a dimension this fiction often lacks’ (206). With this evaluation of McGahan’s early fiction Bird firms the sub-genre’s toehold on the monolith of Australian literary history through the concept of ‘grunge living’. She implies that his novels legitimately narrativise these techniques of self in such a singular way as to have their own name. While not mentioning abjection, the ‘grunge living’ that Bird finds in McGahan’s early novels cannot be separated from the diseased and abject bodies of Gordon Buchanan and Cynthia Lamonde in Praise in particular.

This fourth framework – of abjection – arrives into Bird’s consideration of Grunge fiction to give the sub-genre a sociological and existential authenticity that firmly de-formalizes the early work of McGahan and Tsiolkas. It is then only a short step in the arguments that are routinely made about Grunge fiction to link the authenticity of ‘grunge living’ to the callowness of the writer and the writing, as Salzman does when he asserts: ‘If grunge really was so age-specific, perhaps it makes sense that as writers get older they leave it behind. Given the passage of time, it is also easier to see the limitations of the nihilism and repetitiveness of many of these novels’ (205).

It is no surprise, then, that Grunge fiction is situated within Australian literary history in this precarious way. The four frameworks through which it has mostly been interpreted police the limits of what these texts might mean for us, and what we might do with them, at a time when they have become literary history; at a time when the first wave of their most intense period of production, distribution reception is surely over. As Grunge fiction moves into the textual terrain of Australian literary and cultural history there are opportunities to push at the limits of the four hermeneutic frames and to reappraise novels like McGahan’s Praise and 1988, and Tsiolkas’ Loaded. There are cultural and political boundaries in these hermeneutics that have proscribed the textual affiliations that can reasonably be made with Grunge fiction. These hermeneutic frameworks are themselves symptomatic of the cultural politics and, indeed, political culture that not only has shunted Grunge fiction into the remaindered punk bin of Australian letters, but has more importantly struggled to offer a literary history and practices of literary criticism that detect and analyse the emergence and dominance of Neoliberalism in Australian political culture.

Such proscriptions and impasses forestall the traversals and connections enabled by a ‘horizontal and promiscuous, not vertical and monogamous [reading of] the cultural field’ within which Grunge fiction circulated(Gelder 2008: 72). The occlusion of such boundary work in regard to Grunge fiction has been at the cost of a critical discourse, a potentially public debate, on the cultural forms through which Neoliberal techniques of the self became embedded into Australian political culture in the 1980s and 1990s. It is the central contention of this thesis that Grunge fiction both registers and attempts to resist the narrativisation of Neoliberal rationalities and techniques into areas of Australian political culture.


In order to build and put the arguments for these claims this thesis will move through the following structure. The next section of this introduction will take four critical texts that codify the four frameworks for interpreting and explaining Grunge fiction and critically analyse the theoretical bases of these four approaches. My purpose in this section of the introduction is to begin to push against the cultural and political boundaries that are encoded into these approaches, and to begin to multiply, through a horizontal promiscuity, the textual affiliations of Grunge fiction. These four frameworks are: literary generationalism; marketing hype; literary traditions and innovations; and the theme of abjection.
The next section of the introduction will detail the literary and cultural studies theoretical apparatus which enable these initial movements through the orthodox frameworks for writing about Grunge fiction. Then, the introduction will present the thesis’ central theoretical concepts which are taken from Franco Moretti’s and, to a lesser extent, Fredric Jameson’s, historical sociology of literary form. Here I will argue that the effective application of the methods of Moretti’s literary history to Grunge fiction demands that a locally and temporally specific historical sociology needs to be presented. And finally, in this introduction, I will introduce the model for this late twentieth-century Australia-inflected historical sociology: Peter Beilharz’s long Labor decade.

The subsequent chapters of the thesis are structured through this initial horizontal and periodising movement. Beilharz’s periodization of Australian political-cultural modernity – the long Labor decade – emerges out of his hermeneutics of the texts of, and concerning, the Australian Labor Party in government: 1983-96. Beliharz’s melancholic and mournful work of interpretive historical sociology provides the structure upon which the thesis' chapters are formed. Thus the first chapter, after establishing the key terms of this historical sociology – labourism, social-Liberalism and industrial citizenship – moves into three studies of key figures and texts in the period.

The first study focuses on the traditions that the ALP prime minister Gough Whitlam encapsulated for some writers on the Left during the period. The keynotes of this genre of writing were expressions of loss and betrayal, often mounted as accusations, against the Hawke-Keating Governments, which were defined in opposition to the Labor traditions that Whitlam and his Government were claimed to have embodied. My interest here is in the narrativisations and texualisation of Whitlam and Whitlamism, for Whitlam becomes, I argue, a ghostly figure that haunts the long Labor decade, as a spectre of a lost tradition and of a lesson in mis-management.

The second study hones in on the figure of treasurer, then prime-minister, Paul Keating. Here I analyse the richly imaginative rhetoric of Keating alongside the biographies and memoirs of Keating.

Thirdly, I seek to draw back from the central figures of the period into analysis of what can be regarded as its central text: Paul Kelly’s The End of Certainty.

The final section of chapter one defines, and explains how I will use, Michel Foucault’s concept of Neoliberal governmentality throughout the thesis’ remaining three literary-focussed chapters. I situate the historical emergence of these new forms of liberal government within the period ending the dominance of the social-liberal Keynesian techniques of government, and ending the articulation of these social-liberal techniques to Labourist ones. This period is characterised by the re-emergence of global finance capitalism, best signalled by the collapse of the Bretton Woods system of financial regulation and the growth of floating national currency exchanges.

Having established the non-fictional texualisation and narrativisation of the period, the remaining three chapters of the thesis jump tracks and move back into a literary critical and literary historical mode that is structured by the hermeneutic model Beilharz proffers. Thus chapter two reads the oeuvres of Frank Moorhouse and Amanda Lohrey against the loss of Whitlam and Whitlamism and the emergence of Neoliberal forms of government. It also reads two of their novels against the post-Whitlam sense of mourning and loss.

Chapter three returns us to Grunge fiction. Now we are ready to read Praise, 1988 and Loaded with the armoury of textual affiliations and openings across cultural and political boundaries that were closed and occluded in those readings analysed in the introduction.

Chapter three uses the reading made in chapter one of Kelly’s use of the Bildungsroman form to narratively embed Neoliberal governmentalities into Australian political culture as the basis on which to read three novels which also invoke this period and these generic conventions. Perlman’s Three Dollars, McCann’s Subtopia and Macris Capital, volume one are interpreted and explained as responses to the embedding of Neoliberalism into Australian, and indeed Global, political culture. While Three Dollars is disabled and disfigured in its response, Subtopia and Capital, volume one use sophisticated politics of literary form to both resist and point to ways out of Neoliberalism.

The thesis concludes with a short survey of other fiction of the period and a brief outlining of areas for future research suggested by the thesis.