Sunday, August 7, 2011

Graeber's rhythmanalysis of the first 5,000 years of debt

Excerpt from an essay version of David Graeber's timely Debt: The first Five Thousand Years. Graeber here argues for an historical analysis of the present that works through a rhythmanalysis: attempting to layer the multiple rhythms of the present together (long durations, the medium and the micro rhythms as a contemporaneity) and feel them. "How do all these rhythms weave in and out of each other? Is there one core rhythm pushing the others along? How do they sit inside one another, syncopate, concatenate, harmonise, clash?"

Historical action tends to be narrative in form. In order to be able to make an intervention in history (arguably, in order to act decisively in any circumstances), one has to be able to cast oneself in some sort of story — though, speaking as someone who has actually had the opportunity to be in the middle of one or two world historical events, I can also attest that one in that situation is almost never quite certain what sort of drama it really is, since there are usually several alternatives battling it out, and that the question is not entirely resolved until everything is over (and never completely resolved even then). But I think there’s something that comes before even that. When one is first trying to assess a historical situation, having no real idea where one stands, trying to place oneself in a much larger stream of history so as to be able to start to think about what the problem even is, then usually it’s less a matter of placing oneself in a story than of figuring out the larger rhythmic structure, the ebb and flow of historical movements. Is what is happening around me the result of a generational political realignment, a movement of capitalism’s boom or bust cycle, the beginning or result of a new wave of struggles, the inevitable unfolding of a Kondratieff B curve? Or is it all these things? How do all these rhythms weave in and out of each other? Is there one core rhythm pushing the others along? How do they sit inside one another, syncopate, concatenate, harmonise, clash?
Let me briefly lay out what might be at stake here. I’ll focus here on cycles of capitalism, secondarily on war. This is because I don’t like capitalism and think that it’s rapidly destroying the planet, and that if we are going to survive as a species, we’re really going to have to come up with something else. I also don’t like war, both for all the obvious reasons, but also, because it strikes me as one of the main ways capitalism has managed to perpetuate itself. So in picking through possible theories of historical cycles, this is what I have had primarily in mind. Even here there are any number of possibilities. Here are a few:
Are we seeing an alternation between periods of peace and massive global warfare? In the late 19th century, for example, war between major industrial powers seemed to be a thing of the past, and this was accompanied by vast growth of both trade, and revolutionary internationalism (of broadly anarchist inspiration). 1914 marked a kind of reaction, a shift to 70 years mainly concerned with fighting, or planning for, world wars. The moment the Cold War ended, the pattern of the 1890s seemed to be repeating itself, and the reaction was predictable.
Or could one look at brief cycles — sub-cycles perhaps? This is particularly clear in the US, where one can see a continual alternation, since WWII, between periods of relative peace and democratic mobilisation immediately followed by a ratcheting up of international conflict: the civil rights movement followed by Vietnam, for example; the anti-nuclear movement of the ’70s followed by Reagan’s proxy wars and abandonment of d├ętente; the global justice movement followed by the War on Terror.
Or should we be looking at financialisation? Are we dealing with Fernand Braudel or Giovanni Arrighi’s alternation between hegemonic powers (Genoa/ Venice, Holland, England, USA), which start as centers for commercial and industrial capital, later turn into centers of finance capital, and then collapse?
If so, then the question is of shifting hegemonies to East Asia, and whether (as Wallerstein for instance has recently been predicting) the US will gradually shift into the role of military enforcer for East Asian capital, provoking a realignment between Russia and the EU. Or, in fact, if all bets are off because the whole system is about to shift since, as Wallerstein also suggests, we are entering into an even more profound, 500-year cycle shift in the nature of the world-system itself?
Are we dealing with a global movement, as some autonomists (for example, the Midnight Notes collective) propose, of waves of popular struggle, as capitalism reaches a point of saturation and collapse — a crisis of inclusion as it were?
According to this version, the period from 1945 to perhaps 1975 was marked by a tacit deal with elements of the North Atlantic male working class, who were offered guaranteed good jobs and social security in exchange for political loyalty. The problem for capital was that more and more people demanded in on the deal: people in the Third World, excluded minorities in the North, and, finally, women. At this point the system broke, the oil shock and recession of the ’70s became a way of declaring that all deals were off: such groups could have political rights but these would no longer have any economic consequences.
Then, the argument goes, a new cycle began in which workers tried — or were encouraged — to buy into capitalism itself, whether in the form of micro-credit, stock options, mortgage refinancing, or 401ks. It’s this movement that seems to have hit its limit now, since, contrary to much heady rhetoric, capitalism is not and can never be a democratic system that provides equal opportunities to everyone, and the moment there’s a serious attempt to include the bulk of the population even in one country (the US) into the deal, the whole thing collapses into energy crisis and global recession all over again.
None of these are necessarily mutually exclusive but they have very different strategic implications. Much rests on which factor one happens to decide is the driving force: the internal dynamics of capitalism, the rise and fall of empires, the challenge of popular resistance? But when it comes to reading the rhythms in this way, the current moment still throws up unusual difficulties. There is a widespread sense that we are heading towards some kind of fundamental rupture, that old rhythms can no longer be counted on to repeat themselves, that we might be entering a new sort of time. Wallerstein says so much explicitly: if everything were going the way it generally has tended to go, for the last 500 years, East Asia would emerge as the new center of capitalist dominance. Problem is we may be coming to the end of a 500 year cycle and moving into a world that works on entirely different principles (subtext: capitalism itself may be coming to an end). In which case, who knows? Similarly, cycles of militarism cannot continue in the same form in a world where major military powers are capable of extinguishing all life on earth, with all-out war between them therefore impossible. Then there’s the factor of imminent ecological catastrophe.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Haunted by Revolution: Whitlam's ghost and the public sphere of letters in Amanda Lohrey's The Reading Group

There has been a spate of death notices circulating in the Australian public sphere over the last few years. Essays and articles reporting both the death of the literary novel and the death of social democracy continue to proliferate in journals and broadsheets. Regarding these social democratic death notices, this tradition of mourning echoes back at least to Mark Latham’s 1998 third-way manifesto Civilising Global Capital where he argues that ‘The need for a fresh assessment of the politics of the Left has rarely seemed more urgent . . . Large slabs of post-war social democratic thinking have been made moribund by the new political economy of globalisation’ (Latham xxxvi). More recently, in a Quarterly Essay titled ‘What’s Left? The death of social democracy’ Clive Hamilton, writes that:

In the early 1970s, a crisis in the world economy caused a tectonic shift in the realm of politics. In short, social democracy was mugged by stagflation – a combination of high unemployment and high inflation.

In Australia, the Whitlam government was a spectacular casualty of th[is] new dispensation. Whitlam’s prediction on the 11th of November 1975 that nothing would save the Governor-General proved incorrect: the Dismissal was not just the end of a government that had dreams grander than “responsible economic management”, it also marked the beginning of the end of the era of social democracy. The ghost of the Whitlam government has stalked the Labor party ever since, turning visionary reformers into cautious economic managers desperate to prove that they can be trusted to put their hands on the economic levers.
(Hamilton 7)

These post-mortems on the death of Left politics, which are haunted by the ghost or spectre of a political leader and his government, are also accompanied by reports on the death of Australian literary fiction. For example, journalist and non-fiction writer, Mark Mordue in a 2003 Sydney Morning Herald essay titled, ‘Is the novel dead?’ answers: ‘Fiction is dead. Long live non-fiction’ (Mordue par. 1). Mordue argues that similar articles expressing anxiety over Australian literature’s death are often a call for a literary fiction which is social realist in form and content: a political fiction that engages with the real contemporary world of social class and working lives (Mordue par. 19). In this vein Malcolm Knox, in a recent essay in Overland, writes that ‘Original writing derives from real life, from the real world, from the concrete’ (11). Knox ties this production of, and reading sensitivity to, original writing to a call for a renewal of a politically Left literary aesthetic: the truth that will defeat the lies of the Howard Government is formed from defamiliarising the banalities of literary fiction’s stock images (Knox 11). Mordue, however, questions fiction’s capacity for such a return to the real; it’s former reading audience now finding their desire for it increasingly fulfilled in non-fiction:

was [there] a growing conflict between the nature of “art” and the project of engagement in this country? The boom in non-fiction certainly suggested some missing connection, a breach in fiction’s ability to commune with a public it had somehow forgotten or left behind. (Mordue par. 7)

Taking a more materialist line on this death of fiction debate Mark Davis ties the two deaths together:

the decline of the literary paradigm can be understood in terms of broader social and governmental shifts related to globalisation, such as the decline of post-war consensus (‘welfare state’) politics and their supplanting by a new consensus based on around free-market notions of deregulation, privatisation and trade liberalisation, and the rise of the global information economy. Seen in these terms the decline of the literary paradigm isn’t simply to do with literature; it’s to do with a broader reconceptualisation of the public sphere itself. (Davis 5)

What to make of these two, perhaps connected, deaths – of social democracy and literary fiction – is what I will explore here through Amanda Lohrey’s 1988 novel The Reading Group. In particular I will follow two suggestions already made in the death notices above: firstly, Clive Hamilton’s suggestion that Whitlam’s ghost haunts the contemporary Labor party, and secondly, Mark Davis’ suggestion that the decline of the literary paradigm is entwined with the public sphere itself being reconceptualized.

The ghost of Whitlam.
Amanda Lohrey was born in 1947 and raised in Hobart in a working-class family that had strong connections to the trade union movement (Mead par. 3). Her first novel, The Morality of Gentlemen, published in 1984, revisits a Hobart waterfront dispute from the 1950s in the middle of the Menzies era, when the spectre of communism was cause for intense political battles for the hearts and minds of the industrial left, resulting in the split of the labour movement. Lohrey was educated at the University of Tasmania, taking a degree in Political Science and received a scholarship to study at Cambridge University, where she read social theory (Mead par. 3). Her husband, Andrew Lohrey held a seat in the Tasmanian House of Assembly, as a Labor Party member, from 1972 to 1986 and was for a time Minister for Primary Industries (Mead par. 3)
Her second novel, The Reading Group, reflects these biographical traces, and one aspect of its political mimesis was considered defamatory enough that a writ was served and the initial print run scraped and republished with the offending lines removed (Wilde 475).

The Reading Group can been called an elegy for the intellectual left. It is certainly that, but it is also a novelistic post-mortem on a specific social formation after–Whitlam. The novel tracks, through a series of almost discontinuous tableaux, the lives of eight former members of a reading group who have lost the utopian and revolutionary hopes that they previously invested in the labour movement. After-Whitlam time, in the novel, is a time of privatised utopias (Lohrey, TRG 268-9), of drought and permanent bush fires (41), of menacing plague-bearers(63), and a new patriotism that is fiercely marketed (45-6). Liberalism is condemned as indecisive and weak by a conservative poet in late-night television monologues (54), and the state vacillates over whether or not to declare a state of emergency (248-54). Meanwhile, the former reading group members continue on, channelling their revolutionary desires into: Don Juan-like conquests (26-8); restoring a home to an idealised Victorian purity (10-11); seeking the moment of an amalgamated political-poetic-sexual conversion (221-8); a knightly crusade to save just one of the underclass (89-92); attaining political power through being an indispensably coherent ministerial advisor (42-3). The novel ends with the fires still burning, decisions of state deferred, bombs exploding. No one really develops, no one comes to any transforming decisions or self-knowledge, the aporias and contradictions of their uoptias passed over, the menace remains.
The novel’s final word goes to the potential pederast high school teacher, Lyndon Hughes, who tells us :
I don’t sneer at utopia. I’d never be that crass. It’s just that I live for the utopia of the present. It’s a utopia of space, not of time. It’s a life lived with an intense awareness of its own space. Of where my body is now. Who’s the philosopher here? I’m the philosopher. (268 emphasis added)

A spatial utopia makes literal sense, as utopia is of space rather than temporality. But in our imaginations utopias are usually before or behind us: their perfection haunts the present from the past as much as from the future. In modernity utopia is usually before us - in the future - and its promise is mostly cast in terms of revolution, rather than evolution or reform. When the planets are aligned, and things fall into place, there is potential for revolution. This alignment is timely and thereby temporal. Time becomes full and opportune, ripe for decisive action (kairos).
The slogan of Gough Whitlam’s 1972 election campaign was ‘It’s time’:

Men and women of Australia!
The decision we will make for our country on the 2nd of December is a choice between the past and the future. There are moments in history when the whole fate and future of nations can be decided in a single decision. For Australia, this is such a time. It’s time . . . (Whitlam par. 1)

The Reading Group is allegorical and symbolic in its settings and temporalities: a place like Hobart but not quite; and a time in the near future like the Fraser years, Labor’s interregnum, before the coming of Hawke, the messiah. But maybe Hawke is part of that near future too (Lohrey, TRG 202-4). This elusive disjointedness could be called after-Whitlam time for the intellectual left. Whitlam’s ghost haunts the characters like the ghost of King Hamlet haunts Hamlet . After-Whitlam, after Whitlam’s timeliness, time is out of joint for the intellectual left.(Derrida)

The public sphere of letters.
Speaking to a reading group at Sydney University after the publication of her novel, Lohrey gave some background to her own motivations in writing this elegy for the intellectual left after-Whitlam:
Some of us were young at a time when there was a great Utopian vision and didn’t want to grow up to be Yuppies. What a let down. There was this great flare in Australia. This brief flare in the 70s. Whatever you think of Whitlam and his extraordinary Government, there was this great flare of, “Goodness it’s all possible! Let’s change the National Anthem, let’s perhaps think about republicanism. Let’s get out of Vietnam. Let’s recognise China. Let’s do all these things and see what happens!” You know, it was almost like a fictional process. Let’s shuffle the deck. And people got very excited and felt the sense of possibility, of trying out the new. And then it all imploded. It all deflated for various reasons and we’d all have our own stories to tell about that, depending on our experience. (Lohrey, Writers in Action 210)

The Reading Group is Lohrey’s story about the aftermath of a political time, Whitlam time, that was so full and ripe with the promise of possibilities that it was almost like a fictional process. Although only 10 when Governor General Kerr dismissed Whitlam the promises of Whitlamism still haunt me.
Lohrey’s novel asks: How do we read and write after this promise has died? And it begins to answer this question by asking what a reading group, and by extension, what writing fiction, can actually mean and do for Left politics. In Mark Davis’ terms this amounts to a fictional inquiry into the literary paradigm. In Jurgen Habermas’ terms, an inquiry into the literary public sphere, or the public sphere of letters.

For Habermas the mature, or political bourgeois public sphere of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries develops from a new sense of privateness represented in epistolary novels such as Richardson’s Pamela (Habermas 43, 48). The psychological intimacy of the letter form makes its way into novels and these intimate, and yet publicly addressed, forms provide the means with which the rising bourgeoisie will judge, reflect and learn in order to work out what models and implications their new privateness promises (Habermas 48-51). This literary precursor public sphere develops in the institutions, such as journals, periodicals, salons and coffee houses, through which literary models of a new privateness become a question to be answered through critical judgement and reason (Habermas 31-43). In an age when monarchical, church and aristocratic power was being challenged by the rising capitalist class, public authority, no longer paraded before subjects and no longer practised in secret, was opening up to such critical judgements (Habermas 27-31). The political public sphere, for Habermas, evolves out of its literary precursor as this new privateness becomes essentially human: located in the intimate domestic family home and thereby separate from the ascendant constitutional, administrative and military state (Habermas 51-6). The mature political public sphere, which is a powerful imaginary or ideal in liberal democratic capitalism, is a virtual space where private people come together to deliberate the terms and decisions of public authority and its regulations (Habermas 27).

What I’m interested in here is Habermas’ suggestive notion that it is the child that gives birth to the adult public sphere. To put this idea back into Lohrey’s terrain and temporality, what hope is there for a literary public sphere after-Whitlam? In other words if, as Habermas suggests, a mature public sphere is developed out of its literary precursor, then what sort of new privateness, after-Whitlam, might this precursor public sphere generate?

‘They used to have a reading group. It had been a waste of time really, an old fashioned idea that no seriously active person would ever bother with’ (Lohrey, TRG 29). In the time of the reading group they are all still members of the Australian Labor Party, although their participation is experienced as a laborious, frustrating grind (Lohrey, TRG 32). The novel hints at what Peter Beilharz calls the labour movement’s mania for policy in this interregnum period between Whitlam and Hawke: the disciplined factional machinery of the party preparing it for government; the discourse of economic rationalism filtering down into the branch level; the Accord and the deregulation of finance are just around the corner (Beliharz 102-30).

They attempt to read political philosophy mainly, so as to work out the rationale underlying the Labor party machine (Lohrey, TRG 33-34). The political organiser and academic Sam argues that such collective reading will help them to learn the dance-steps of politics; to anticipate and perhaps lead:

Sam [said] that politics was a form of dancing: you had to know the steps. And the steps changed all the time; so that just when you’d learnt one set the formation would change, or the formation would stay the same but the tempo would alter . . .
Renata had asked the obvious question: she didn’t see how reading could improve your dancing. Listening, maybe, but to what?
Well, said Sam, you had to know how to listen, you had to know how to interpret the code, and since all concepts came back to words, reading could help you to anticipate. And in any form of dancing, any structured form of dancing, he’d corrected himself, every step has a name.
So, you could teach yourself dancing from a book?
Sam didn’t see why not; after all, you could teach yourself yoga from a book.
Yes, said Renata, but yoga isn’t done to a beat, except that of your breathing. In music there was a rhythm that the body had to experience for itself.
True, but you didn’t have to hear it played; all you had to do was to learn how to read music.
Renata had given up at this point. There was something wrong with this argument of Sam’s, she knew, but she couldn’t pinpoint it, not towards the end of a meal with a head hazy from Andrew’s Beaujolais. (29-30 emphasis in original)

Renata’s doubts cast aside the eight reading group members push on. They struggle to read Gramsci and Plato in the living room (34); it soon falls apart:
[T]here was something faintly ridiculous and Victorian about a reading group. Reading groups were for fanatics or Trotskyists, people who were fringe or impotent, or for middle-aged housewives who had nothing better to do with their time. Reading with other people was unsophisticated, uncool: reading was something you did alone. (33-4)

This desire for a reading group, especially one that reads political philosophy, is structurally in keeping with Habermas’ narrative of the genesis of the mature public sphere. In a sense such a desire is like a ghost in the machinery of modernity, returning periodically in different places, in different times. But in this novel the intellectual left after-Whitlam finds that such a collective reading is too spectral to make that transition from the literary to the political public sphere. Their utopian energies, their desires for revolution, turn inward. Unable to read the rhythms of their own desires as a relation between the private and the public, they are both not in and out of time. They lack a felt-sense of the rhythms of the times: the revolutionary time they heard in and projected onto Whitlam(ism) becomes the lost object of a Left melancholy that breaks out in the novel’s proliferating moments of mania.

Stephen Knight, in his Scripsi critique of The Reading Group, argues that the novel’s politics are created formally: that its (near) futurism; allegorical context; and deployment of Brecht’s alienation technique, interrogate the expressive realism of its characters, situations and institutions (Knight 204-5). These formal politics make any mimetic reading of the novel impossible.

So, finally, on the one hand, by interrogating the relations between reading, writing and public-political activity, Lohrey suggests that the moment of Whitlamism’s social democracy and its complementary literary paradigm is a dead or lost object against which the work of Left mourning can begin its labour. On this reading the novel is a work of mourning that rather than presenting the positive objects and projects of new political-libidinal investments, negates such a presentation through the dystopia of its allegorical contexts. This technique of negation, Knight argues, gives the novel the power to think (Knight 204-5). And yet, on the other hand, the novel’s formal politics is also a politics of temporal rhythm which suggests that the time of revolution might be less an opening called out by, and read off from, escalating crises than by the structure of rhythmic feeling writing and reading listens for and works to perform: perhaps a new set of relations between the intimate private and the political public spheres represented in the public sphere of letters.

Stephen Knight ends his untimely critique of The Reading Group arguing that he finds in Lohrey’s novel her hope for a writable future for radical Australia (Knight 207). But a writable future that dances in step and time with the present, that thinks rhythmically, sounds even more promising. The Reading Group makes such a promise.

Works Cited
Beilharz, Peter. Transforming labor: labour tradition and the labor decade in Australia. Oakleigh: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Davis, Mark. “The decline of the literary paradigm in Australian publishing.” [see sidebar for link]

Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: the state of the debt, the work of mourning and the New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Habermas, Jurgen. The structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Trans. Thomas Burger. Cambridge: Polity, 1989.

Hamilton, Clive. “What’s left? The death of social democracy.” Quarterly Essay 21 Melbourne: Black Inc., 2006.

Knight, Stephen. “A writable future.” Scripsi 5.2 (1989): 203-207.

Knox, Malcolm. “The case for ‘Original’ Australian fiction.” Overland 182 (2006): 4 – 11.[see sidebar for link]

Latham, Mark. Civilising global capital: new thinking for Australian Labor. St Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 1998.

Lefebvre, Henri. Rhythmanalysis: space, time and everyday life. Trans. Stuart Elden and Gerald Moore. London: Continuum, 2004.

Lohrey, Amanda. The morality of gentlemen. Chippendale: Picador, 1984.

___. The reading group. Chippendale: Picador, 1988.

___. ‘Amanda Lohrey: The reading group’ Ed. Gerry Turcotte. Writers in action: the writers choice evenings. Paddington: Currency, 1990. 205 – 224.

Mead, Jenna. ‘Amanda Lohrey’ entry in Dictionary of Literary Biography. [awaiting publication]

Mordue, Mark. “Is the novel dead?” Essay, 25 January 2003. Sydney Morning Herald. 11 July 2004 .

Whitlam, Gough. “It's Time For Leadership.” Policy Speech for the Australian Labor Party at the Blacktown Civic Centre, 13 November 1972. 8 May 2006

‘Lohrey, Amanda’ entry in The Oxford companion to Australian literature. Ed. William H. Wilde, Joy Hooton, and Barry Andrews. 2nd ed. Melbourne: Oxford UP, 1994: 475.

[From ASAL 2006 Conference paper]

Reads like teen spirit: Australian Grunge Fiction

It’s difficult to listen to Nirvana without hearing omens of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Suicide floods songs, and other art forms, with meanings that explain the emotions and symbols in song lyrics, in the way the song is sung, in its timbres and tempo. Jim Morrison from the Doors – an accidental death, or overdose – Ian Curtis from Joy Division – suicide by hanging: two figures whose baritonal excursions into the dark side are given an endorsement by their early deaths. This is the End – ahh, of course! Love will tear us apart – chilling, full of foreboding. Listening to and watching Cobain, Morrison and Curtis we feel we can know and feel that they are expressing suicidal emotions and obsessive thoughts of mortality.

It’s hard then to go back to the moment of Nirvana’s global emergence. Back to 1991 and the song Smells like teen spirit. You might remember the video: the band is set up in a high school gym, various subgroups of American teen culture in the bleachers, cheerleaders shaking their pom poms, one with the Anarchy symbol on her top, Kurt Cobain in a striped long sleeved T-shirt his bleached-blonde hair long and stringy, covering his eyes, as the band grind out the heavy verses, moving into overdrive for the anthemic chorus: Here we are now, entertain us. By the video’s end there’s a riot going on: the gym floor has been invaded, the drums are being attacked, and Cobain is screaming ‘No denial’.

It’s an angry song, even one of desperation, but hardly a premonition of suicide. There’s something else going on in that song and I don’t think this something else can be explained by Kurt Cobain’s suicide. In fact, the meanings that we make of songs like Smells like teen spirit might be less guided by the expression of the artist’s soul, and more by our own needs to find a form for making sense of the world we live in. Smells like teen spirit is, I think, a perfect example of a form that helped a mass of people make sense of the world. Not by explaining the world, but more by providing four and a bit minutes of song which performed the feeling of the contradictions of teen spirit.

What do I mean by the feeling of the contradictions of teen spirit? Just a touch of theory by way of explanation. One of the founders of Cultural Studies, Raymond Williams, argued that culture was not only ordinary - that you didn’t need a degree in fine arts to consume it in galleries because culture was how you walked and talked everyday - but that its expressions were structured feelings: or producing a structure of feeling. This is Williams:

“[I]t was a structure in the sense that you could perceive it operating in one work after another which wasn’t otherwise connected – people weren’t learning it from each other; yet it was one of feeling much more than thought – a pattern of impulses, restraints, tones.” [from Politics and letters: Interviews with the New Left, London New Left Books, 1979: 159 ]

What a great way of defining a genre like grunge: ‘ a structure operating in one work after another which wasn’t otherwise connected.’

Smells like teen spirit read this way, as structure of feeling, is an ambivalent text that oscillates between a sludgey spaced-out futility, and a dense, explosive anger that accelerates, then brakes, accelerates again. It veers between slowdown and speed-up: the vocal tone moves from sarcasm to sincerity; a hatred directed both inward and outward and an idealism that is blocked. Lyrically, and more importantly in Cobain’s timbre, is a feeling of abjection, of something debasing that he’s reached deep into himself to eject but can’t - it remains stuck in his throat and belly. A denial, that can’t be blasted out through speed or power.

The lyric of Smells like teen spirit has as its central subject youth culture: the teen spirit that the form of the song is so ambivalent about. The lyric demands that youth culture be about more than entertainment: that was a central promise of rock music, and punk in particular. But in the end, well whatever, Nevermind.

Nirvana try to breathe their teen spirit into one of post-war youth culture’s key forms: the rock song. But here youth as a symbol of speed and revolt is rendered in a deeply ambivalent text that also presents youth culture as a sludge-like state that is too slow and thick to storm the barricades. Let’s trash the gym then go to the mall for a cheeseburger deluxe with fries.

Smells like teen spirit sounds like a last gasp call to arms for a dominant version of youth culture. Has rock progressed since Grunge? I don’t follow the game closely enough anymore, but the song sounds like the last rebellion in the line that runs from the Velvet Underground through the Stooges to Joy Division: Nirvana stage a revolution that is exhausted before it begins.

So, Nirvana’s smells like teen spirit as a structure of feeling – a form of song, a structure with a conventional verse/ chorus/ solo format – that provided a compelling aural text for feeling your way into the world in 1991-92. Grunge becomes a buzzword and a subculture in the West.

In the same year Brisbane based novelist Andrew McGahan writes Praise which is retrospectively nominated as the germinal Australian Grunge novel. Late 1991 is also the time, in Australia, of growing unemployment queues: the aftermath of the recession of 1990. If youth is a key symbol of modernisation, of speed, then what happens to this symbol in a time of slow-down or recession? What happens to teen spirit as an idea, as a feeling, when an economy gets ill and decelerates?

This slow-down in growth was diagnosed, by the newly minted Prime Minister Paul Keating, as being caused by endemic blockages in the economic body. There were clogged, sclerotic arteries in need of clearing so as to get the financial blood flowing quicker. The prescription was for more economic reform: more flexibility, open-ness, youthful vitality.

So, I’ve taken a leap into a strange hybrid of economic and medical discourse here. Not much of a leap when you consider that the current economic crisis – the sub prime crisis based in the US– is often referred to as a contagion that might infect other economies. Bodies that get ill can also be filled with teen spirit and, I’m arguing, these symbols of youth become highly contradictory and problematic in the period of the early to mid 1990s.
This problem emerges in a stream of art and popular culture: grunge – grunge music and grunge fiction. And it emerges with some force because the youthful speed demanded for further economic reform clashes head on with a strain of youth culture that had operated in terms of its own superior cultural and social speed pitting itself against the authority of the state and the commodification of the markets.

What then happens when the state authorises a speed-up in the process of commodification through the symbols of youth? In other words if youth is the symbolic means by which economic modernisation is promoted by politicians like Paul Keating, by the youthful Bill Clinton, then where does teen spirit go to in order to rebel. I think you can hear the sound of this grinding of the gears in Nirvana’s song which speeds up and slows down in turn.

Four years later, in 1995, a new genre of Australian fiction emerged under the name of grunge. Christos Tsiolkas’ short novel, Loaded [adapted as the 1998 film Head On], was one of a number of these novels marketed and debated within a critical literary discourse which tended to interpret these novels as autobiographical and realistic representations of an urban youth culture that was out to shock and that had lost its way. Loaded narrates twentyfour hours in the life of 19 year old Ari Voulis, as he tells us about his journey and experiences through the four corners of suburban Melbourne. A first generation migrant, who is jobless and gay, Ari’s day is fuelled by a constant ingestion of drugs, of masturbation and sex in backlanes and beats, endless fights, flights and refusals, the tentative beginnings of a romance and a soundtrack that accompanies his movements and dancing throughout the city and its places.

The pace of his day matches his main drug choices: speed for acceleration and aggression and marijuana for relaxing and slowing down. His fundamental tone is one of refusal and sarcasm but this is mixed with moments of tenderness and sincerity, especially for his family and his best friend Johnny, a transivestite. His hatred is directed both out and inwardly. And he thrives on abjection, seeking it in sex and also from the insults of his father.

Loaded is a more complex text than Smells like teen spirit, but it too is deeply ambivalent about teen spirit or youth as a symbol. Ari is torn in three directions: a wog who hates wogs, gay but afraid of being identified as a faggot and working-class in a time of residual solidarity. Ari begins the novel waking at his brother’s student share house in East Melbourne, and ends it in the West in his family-home on his bed, exhausted, waiting for sleep. He has moved and danced through the four corners of suburban Melbourne, but hasn’t developed or really gone anywhere. Rather than self-formation Ari’s self is internally split three ways; rather than integrating into the world, Ari thrives on its abject sites and refuses its basic demand: that he get a job and settle down. Although a highly compressed narrative Loaded is a failed coming of age novel: a de-formation novel. It reads like teen spirit in crisis.
So, reading grunge fiction as though it is the expression of authentic adolescent feelings, misses another way of interpreting that reads through structures of feeling, and that reads youth as a symbol rather than as a fact. We can read Kurt Cobain’s suicide into his songs, into his singing performances, but this can’t explain why Nirvana were so timely, so instantly, globally embraced. When grunge is read against a dominant national and international response to recession that speeds up the processes of reform and uses the language of youthfulness to persuade the polity to modernise the economic body, such a reading suggests that what this modernising body abjects or expels enters the symbolic field of youth. Grunge seems like a pretty accurate name for this return of the abject body, during and after a recession. Ari the narrator in Loaded says:

“There is a last, and very cherished, urban myth. That every new generation has it better that the one that came before it. Bullshit. I am surfing on the down-curve of capital. The generations after this one are not going to build on the peasants’ landholdings. There’s no jobs, no work, no factories, no wage packet, no half-acre block. There is no more land. I am sliding towards the sewer. I’m not even struggling against the flow. I can smell the pungent aroma of shit, but I’m still breathing.” (Loaded 144)

Is this teen spirit, or does it just read like it?

[From a paper presented at Utas Postgraduate Conference, 21 September, 2007]

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Reading and rhythm

[An older draft post. Better out than in].

I’m currently searching for, and developing, a theory of rhythm which is at the same time one of reading. Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth, in Sequel to History: Postmodernism and the Crisis of representational time is useful here as she conceives of reading ‘postmodern’ fiction as being a co-creative improvisation. Is this what we are invited to do in, or with, Anthony Macris’ novel Capital, volume one? To co-compose as we move with the generative mise en abyme’s machinic and organic oscillations and pulsations? Is the sound of, the rhythms of Capital, volume one like the sound that Robert Fink describes as the ‘media sublime’? What does it feel like ('feel' here to include structured feeling in Raymond Williams' sense of emerging cultural forms as 'structures of feeling') to read rhythmically?

If grunge literature attempts to use dissonance (Three dollars resolves its dissonance into consonance) alongside its temporalities of abjection, drug-use states, and thereby has one foot in the universe of tonality-representation (to use the language of Attali, Adorno, Ermarth et al: the key point here is that there are multiple ways out of scale and tonality – out of harmony, representation, exchange, consent and consensus), then Macris’s novel is drawing on a different, more French heritage of thought and practice to write outside of tonality and representation: to write so that the reader is moved – so that the reader must dance in order to read. And yet content, rather than just form, is central to understanding Macris’ novel for the 'bouncing ball', the floor lights that flash the next dance-step position, are not movements shaped by the cosmopolitan tourist’s new purchase or discovery, or by the movement toward redemption or reconciliation or creation – the movement here is constellated within the journeys of a milieu of discarded commodities, of forms that have expired, of the drive to satisfy the fetish of the commodity. Alongside the body of the reader are the bodies of the text’s things: the lucozade bottle, the pregnant mouse.

To draw back into another novel under consideration in the thesis, we find in Amanda Lohrey’s The Reading Group a key passage that sets this train of thought in motion. Disillusioned with late 1970s orthodox Labourist politics, the literary agent Renata attends a reading group of friends and former Left activists which is seeking to reignite Left political revolutionary feeling. During the initial meeting Renata wonders at a homology between reading politically and dancing as political leadership. What is touched on just at the edge of thought (a line from David Malouf's Remembering Babylon) for Renata is the sense that while reading is able to ingest codes and systems (the steps of politics) it is also something rhythmic, something felt in the same way that rhythm is felt in the body.

Sam [said] that politics was a form of dancing: you had to know the steps. And the steps changed all the time; so that just when you’d learnt one set the formation would change, or the formation would stay the same but the tempo would alter . . .
Renata had asked the obvious question: she didn’t see how reading could improve your dancing. Listening, maybe, but to what?
Well, said Sam, you had to know how to listen, you had to know how to interpret the code, and since all concepts came back to words, reading could help you to anticipate. And in any form of dancing, any structured form of dancing, he’d corrected himself, every step has a name.
So, you could teach yourself dancing from a book?
Sam didn’t see why not; after all, you could teach yourself yoga from a book.
Yes, said Renata, but yoga isn’t done to a beat, except that of your breathing. In music there was a rhythm that the body had to experience for itself.
True, but you didn’t have to hear it played; all you had to do was to learn how to read music.
Renata had given up at this point. There was something wrong with this argument of Sam’s, she knew, but she couldn’t pinpoint it, not towards the end of a meal with a head hazy from Andrew’s Beaujolais. (The Reading Group 29-30)

[T]here was something faintly ridiculous and Victorian about a reading group. Reading groups were for fanatics or Trotskyists, people who were fringe or impotent, or for middle-aged housewives who had nothing better to do with their time. Reading with other people was unsophisticated, uncool: reading was something you did alone. (33-4)

Thus we come to a hard core of one of the questions at the base of this thesis: what, if anything, gets [read] into novels? Is there something material, something spiritual, something historical, something bodily-rhythmic that manages to lodge itself in novels and becomes, for the better ones, the content and substance upon which the reader’s identifications and empathies are then made to loop back through the reflective prompts of formal (aesthetic) ethics and politics?

Do we read, also, with our body? Do we experience rhythms in, or even through, our bodies as we read? Ermarth:

The reader . . . has a harder time of it [Ermarth writing here about a Borges story]. The story forces reader attention into play between semantic systems, and that play is what constitutes rhythmic time. The echoes of those multiple systems shine through, pullulate, in the transparent moment, and force the reader to be aware that at any point multiple turnings are possible. Reader attention alternates between contradictory possibilities, and the rhythms of this attention cannot be reduced to statement. [68]

Macris’s novel does something similar; the two narrative threads force a switching between narrative orientations (narrator: third and first-persons, time-space, episode and mock-epic, discontinuous and continuous), between paradigms. In the London Underground [LU] thread the initial orientation is framed by the negative: by missing the train. This missed train is analogous to Ermarth’s depiction of postmodern temporality as rhythmic time: a time off the track[s]. Yet in this negativity of the LU thread the productive and generative force of the narrative is made. In other words the initial negativity is a precondition for the positivity that follows: albeit a positivity that is dirty, gritty, lacking in redemption or reconciliation, or even the satisfaction of successful (Spivak's continuist) commodity exchange. An incommensurability or discontinuity between the two narrative 'threads' that is not a contradiction to be resolved, or an ideologically open gap to be symptomatically filled by an (psycho) analytic meaning or truth. No. Instead the negativity of this incommensurable gap between the chapters sparks the generation-machine of the novel's secondary layer of formal movement: the rhizomic root weave of motiffs and themes, mise en abyme, multiplying and imploding across these gaps and ruptures.

Avant-garde and Capital, volume one (Macris not Marx)

[Another older, draft post.].
For mediation in Benjamin has more of the character of a switch between circuits (opening a gap in Gadamer’s ‘closed circuits of historical life’, triggered by the metonymic structure of the image) than the production of a shared conceptual space, since the terms of its relations are located in different temporal dimensions.
Peter Osborne, The politics of time : 151

The intention to produce an avant-garde novel is rarely matched by its realisation. The odds weigh heavily against success. Primarily, the reception, or consumption, of the artefact as avant-garde depends on the serendipity of the chosen form and content: for to be ahead of the contemporary is partly a gamble on behalf of the primary producer and the work-gang involved in production, manufacture, packaging, distribution, and promotion. Expensive market research might assist in this task, but such mercenary information-gathering is so antithetical to the codes of author-novelist as artist-prophet, that even the whiff of market measurement immediately removes avant-garde from our table of evaluations.

Why this seems a natural response is itself interesting and something that Pierre Bourdieu has, in part, analysed and explained in his The Rules of Art, by way of arguing that aesthetic autonomy is a value created in opposition to economic and political power. The power of the creative work gains its critical and forerunning position because it negates and distances its immanent content from what its contemporary audience take to be the dominant poles of economic and political power, since bourgeois liberal capitalism became ascendant.

However, Bourdieu’s sociological analysis of the literary field’s creation of symbolic capital , and the importance of avant-garde-ness to this type of capital, is too reliant on a sociological reading of the content of fictional narrative: in particular Gustave Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education, which Bourdieu models as a map of pre-1848 Paris, in which the novel’s representation of the movements and locations of socio-political-economic classes of men, with the hero Frederic Moreau structuring this literary geography, are read as an ur-map of how the rules of the literary field are both played and inaugurated. Within this genealogy of the French literary field, the avant-garde assumes its rule-like status as an innovative break in both the dominant forms and in the composition of the dominant personnel. The social break is largely driven by a biologically generational turnover. Franco Moretti, in the first chapter of his Graphs, Maps, Trees, concurs with Bourdieu here: generational change is homologous to generic change.

This leaves the question of form. For it’s one thing to propose that generational change drives, and is at, the centre of the modern literary field’s renewal and production. But such biological new-ness has no necessary relationship to generic innovation – whether such innovation is mere bricolage is another question. And to what extent is avant-garde status, avant-garde production, aesthetic innovation only? Indeed, can avant-garde, a term with etymological roots in military discourse, have a non-political import?

For Bourdieu what is innovative, and thereby a decisive instance of literary avant-garde-ness, about A Sentimental Education is that the novel’s realism is present in its focus on everyday events and objects, and yet the description and presentation of such everyday events and objects, is formally sophisticated – the artistry of the language is intended for its own pleasure. Art for art’s sake. The innovation here, for Bourdieu, is that literary aesthetics achieves here a form of autonomy for the text, and symbolic capital for the author, who, from the consecrated position of being judged by their peers to have achieved such autonomy (in fact negating power- business and politics), obtains a right to practice judgement over and against power. For Bourdieu, the public intellectual, in France at least, represented by Zola during the Dreyfus affair, and subsequently Sartre, derives their symbolic capital through mastering the rules of the literary field, and its version of the rules of art.

However, what is conceptualised as avant-garde here, in Bourdieu’s history, or genesis as it is subtitled, is based upon an understanding of time and history which is infused with that mixture of modernity and linear progress that Walter Benjamin termed historicist.

In a basic way Anthony Macris’ novel, Capital, volume one, pitches its claim to innovation with its dualistic structure: the chapters alternate, with the odd-numbered chapters told in third-person, present tense, set in a highly compressed time-space, and situated in sections of the London Underground train network. The even-numbered chapters are conventional, first-person micro-stories, or episodes, concerned with coming of age –style subjects; their style is reminiscent of the epicleti (little epiphanies) of paralysis classification that James Joyce gave his short story collection The Dubliners. But what is of particular interest here is that the London Underground narrative is both self-consciously avant-garde, and that its self-consciousness extends to the political philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari, alongside David Harvey’s Marxist geography of the condition of postmodernity. My argument here is that this degree of self-consciousness in the London Underground narrative of Macris’s novel, presents a constant switching between circuits not only within this thread of the novel, but between this thread and the other, more conventional one.

Indeed, while Benjamin’s multi-temporality, his messianic time as exterior and ultimately redemptive of all of history, might be a model for how avant-garde-ness functions, for how to escape the nightmare of history, what Macris’ novel does, instead, is to generate a rhizomic root-weave of potentially live switching-points, through which the reader can enter the novel, not as a spatialized circuitry that takes time to flow or move through, but as a multi-temporal text-machine capable of generating “a ‘model’ of the Messianic, ‘shot through’ with ‘chips’ of Messianic time, a site of a ‘weak’ Messianic power.” (Osborne, 149) . . .

We need a conceptual bridge back from now-time to a new narrativity, such that its disjunctive power might have a transformative effect on modes of identification and action. Unless we can find one, Benjamin’s ecstatic ‘now’ will remain a mere ‘time-lag’ or ‘in-between’, without historical force. (Osborne, 156)

Hypothesis: Capital, volume one attempts a now-time in its London Underground thread - an interruption in which the detritus of history doesn’t so much pile up as recombine through text, and in which the Young man is like the angel of history, blown by the wind coming in from paradise. The interruption here is signalled from the first sentence, ‘The young man in the fawn trench coat cannot wait to get off the train.’ (1). The re-seaming of this now-time, in which chips of the Messianic shoot through, into the episodes and chronotopes of the bildungs – one the key literary genres of modernity, and of modernisation – narratives, enacts this conceptual bridge of a needed new narrativity. How successfully is another matter, but I think there is a strong claim to this being part of the novel’s intent.

The flexible body politic: fitter and healthier for what?

[An older draft post. Time to let loose].

A couple of quotes from Australian author of fiction and essayist Amanda Lohrey which nail the mode of neoliberalism she detected in sections of late-1980s Sydney culture. For Lohrey 'new age' practices of self-government are displacements of earlier utopian projects. These new technologies of self focus political-libidinal investments in the individual body because that's the last space of controllable shelter and control in a time of radical reform (a term popular in the Australian mainstream media in the 1980s which referred to the privatising and deregulating policies of the Federal Labor Government).

The title of Lohrey's essay is, of course, a reference to Jameson's famous essay, but something like a Foucauldian interest in the technologies of the self and the rationalities of liberalism can be seen in this essay and indeed in the trajectory of Lohrey's fiction, which shifts from the influence of aesthetic Marxisms like Brecht, Lukacs, Benjamin and Bloch's, to, as I say, a Foucauldian interest in the formations of the body and self, and in the forces of the psyche-body circuit acting in relation to social-historical changes. I think, for Lohrey, it is the role of narrative and language too on these more recent interests that make her fiction fascinating and a good resource to write PhD research from.

Her last two works of fiction The Philosopher's Doll (2004) and Camille's Bread (1995) move more firmly into the territory I'm attempting to describe above, after the more sustained focus on political party (Australian Labor Party) and State-based politics of the first two novels: The Morality of Gentlemen (1984) and The Reading Group (1988). Effectively Lohrey's interest in the poetics of politics, as Jenna Mead describes it, moves from a focus on the governmentality of state to one on the governmentality of the citizen-subject. Is this shift one that can be explained by her sensitivity to new social forms or is it (also, perhaps) a sign of 'the maturing author'?

From ‘The Project of the Self under Late Capitalism’ Australia’s Best Essays, 2001.
What are these new and emergent structures of feeling? This was something that first engaged me when I went to live in Sydney in 1987. . . . a new sensibility was developing that was a portent of how Australia generally might see the world ten or even twenty years from now. As for my Shiatsu practitioners, they differed from the mainstream only in degree not kind. In essence they were fierce materialists who, through a rigorous regimen of diet and physical training aspired to re-invent themselves by reconditioning their material base, the body – if necessary, cell by cell. They aspired to a kind of utopia of the body, and what could be more Australian than that? They were Zen surfers without the waves. (246-7)

Since then I’ve kept a watching brief on the evolution of the idea of the self as a constant work-in-progress and the concomitant growth of what might be described as privatised utopias; the utopia of one. . . . When all is free-floating, unstable, in a process of being dismantled or alienated from you [Z. Bauman’s liquid modernity], what is it you have left? And the answer is: the body. The body itself becomes a utopian site. And the project of the utopian body is primarily about the pragmatics of health, fitness and diets . . . ‘Fitter and healthier for what?’ (248-9)

the end(s) of certainty

[An older post kept in storage but may as well let it out of the deep freeze].

I'm publishing a few posts from the last few years here which focus on the central place of Paul Kelly's 1992 The End of Certainty in any understanding of the long Labor Decade. Kelly's 'story of the 1980s', as his book was subtitled, acts as both the hegemonic means into thinking about this period (one of almost national-epic governmental change) and as itself a text of a considerable force through which the long decade becomes narrativised and thereby available for making meaning and legitimating political projects. In other words, my interest in this 'history' is dual: as a text through which to periodise; and as a text which performs a particular type of periodisation.

The post immediately below is a relatively short one, and attempts to analyse the narrating position Kelly adopts at certain points in the narrative. From where and when can Kelly as narrator know, with an Olympian and magisterial certainty, that a critical political decision was pragmatic and yet inadequate to what the times demanded? The tentative answere here is that if we consider that Kelly is employing conventions from the Bildungsroman, we can use the extensive critical apparatus that has formed around discussion of this form to unpack how, and perhaps why, this narrating position is adopted. Indeed, Joseph Slaughter's notion of the Bildungsroman narrator employing a future-anterior form, or a tautological teleology, is very helpful in explaining how The end of certainty makes this key move. But why? Some answers proferred here.


The ‘banana republic’ was a dose of shock therapy for the nation which for a while left a legacy of crisis which Labor could have utilised to impose far tougher policies on the nation. The opposition gave labor plenty of room. Howard called for a freeze of wages and public spending; the New Right was mugging unions from Robe River to Mudginberri. Keating’s authority was as potent as Hawke’s popularity. The prime minister declared the crisis the equivalent of war. The historical judgement in terms of the public mood and the depth of the problem is that the Hawke-Keating team failed to seize the full magnitude of the moment. Labor could have gone further but lacked the courage and imagination.

Labor felt it was heroic enough – its decisions were draconian by orthodox standards and its advisers were pleased. Labor was also frightened by the demons of revolt from its base and a community backlash. Hawke and Keating depicted themselves as bold warriors. But history will record that the times demanded more and would have given more.

Paul Kelly, The End of Certainty, 1992, p227.

To many Australian of my age (born in the 1960s), who were forming into adults in the 1980s, this quote from the end of a critical chapter in journalist Paul Kelly’s epic bildungsroman of the Australian Labor Party’s modernisation of the Australian economy, will trigger memories of a set of key events, narrative sequences and political dramatis personae. The ‘banana republic’ referred to here is a dystopian warning that treasurer Paul Keating dispatched, speaking on the phone to the king of talk-back radio in Australia at the time, John Laws, in 1986. Having instituted a ‘clean float’ of the Australian currency on the international exchange markets in late 1983, Australia’s integration into global finance markets now provided a moment by moment measurement of the nation’s economic performance and worth: the price of the $A. Combined with those stubbornly residual national accounts measures, which the Keynesian era had provided, such as the balance of trade, the current and capital accounts, foreign debt, Keating in 1986 judged the signs of national economic prospects to be quickly darkening. The storm warning transmitted on a nationally syndicated morning radio show in 1986, predicted landfall at Argentina if the ship of state wasn’t decisively and quickly steered away from that regressive land.

The notion of a banana republic, a nation-state prone to military dictatorships and juntas, surviving, for the few, on precarious agricultural production, forever in debt to the developed world, was the dystopian destination coiled in the storm warning Keating employed to legitimate how and where the ship of state must now be steered: into rougher, but ultimately more prosperous, international waters. If Australia, and we are talking about Australia, was not to be a banana republic, what then was it to be?

Kelly makes it clear that history itself found that the efforts made to steer away from this dystopia didn’t meet its demands. That, instead of ultimately averting the banana republic the possibility, unfortunately, lingers (in 1992).

These are understandable yet odd claims made by Paul Kelly, who has become highly influential as a political commentator, working both in the production of extended historical narratives like The end of certainty, and more tightly as editor-at-large for Rupert Murdoch’s national broadsheet The Australian. It is understandable that Kelly would make such grand claims about a history which he knows in so much as his historiography is political in very specific ways. Kelly, in the passage cited above, is actually asserting that it is the times, anthropomorphised here as that ‘subject’ (collective or singular, we aren’t told) which made a demand which wasn’t fully supplied, or complied with.

How can Kelly claim to know not only what History will record but what the times demanded? It’s instructive to turn back a few pages in this chapter to find the figure of this position from which such a judgement is made: it is the jury of the international markets – an anthropomorphised collective subjectivity that makes judgements like a judicial operative. That the markets are to be figured as subjective is one astonishing trope, but that a market (which is itself a moment in which the commodity form exists – that moment at which demand and supply come to terms and perform an exchange) is not an army, a general giving orders, a bureaucrat administering statutory regulations, but a jury is a key trope in what Kelly is performing in his political narrative (political both in subject and purpose). For to ascribe the clear, eye and ear of a jury to what the times demanded, and further, to what the times demanded as being that which history will record, is to suggest that the markets are a jury: comprised of regular, ordinary citizens, who will adjudge the evidence, and hear testimony and argument, who will be directed by judges, and who will reach either a majority or unanimous verdict. When Kelly writes that the times demanded more, he infers that the markets demanded more . . . that, indeed, what the ‘markets’ demanded was more deregulation (particularly of the labour market), less public spending. What was demanded was undersupplied – that is why History is able to record a deficit in political will and action; a surplus of Labourism’s sentimental traditionalism.

Kelly’s narrative may seem reasonable from out perspective, after 10 years of neo-conservative governance: a neo-conservatism that has its own Australian aspects. But it might be useful to ask not only from where Kelly’s narrative/ historical writing voices its certainty (one of the unintentional ironies, surely, here is the paradox of an age of uncertainty, so certainly described and above all judged by history’s magisterial, almost moral, eyes and ears) but more importantly from when (in other words is there a type of temporal structure – a chronotope?). And here’s the clue: Kelly writes that ‘the times demanded more’. This is an odd anthropomorphism when analysed as a clause. However, the concept that distinct times make distinct demands, even at a national, or even international, level is a commonplace notion: it is a notion that forms a fundamental operation in political rhetoric, and it is also an emblem of a narrative genre: the coming of age genre – the Bildungsroman. For to meet the demands of the times, or of an age, is effectively to come of age – to become integrated into the age, and in so making this accommodation, to accept ‘reality’, or to develop realism.

Kelly’s bildungsroman (of course, The end of certainty, is more than this) is classical in the two ways of the progenitor of the genre (Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s apprenticeship): the self forms a mature identity both through self integration and through integration with the world. In Kelly’s Bildungsroman Keating plays out the role of Wilhelm, but we are stuck in the transition phase, and Keating’s time at the helm is not yet secured. Kelly, perhaps, is speaking from the Tower Society, The end of certainty the book of Keating’s life – the instruction manual necessary to complete the formation. But alongside Keating is the nation itself – the body politic – which is to be reformed, modernised, to grow out of both its previous generation (the Menzies generation which is like the ancien regime: lethargic, rigidified, sclerotic, closed, old, no longer flexible and efficient, protean and creative, confident and outward looking), and also its youthful, adolescent phase (the Whitlam era: crazy mad, rushing, self-indulgent, experimental, idealist).

As mentioned above Kelly can’t write a classical(and thereby closed) Bildungsroman as his central subjects – Keating & Australia – are still being re-formed/ developed, modernised. The economic realism, which Kelly has made his peace with, has formed him as an individual. His writing, his textuality, his rhetoric is a performance of his maturity – he has integrated politics with economics and found a realism from which to articulate the zeitgeist (the times) as that which the jury of the international markets had judged Australia’s political elite and found that its demands were not fully met! Writing in 1992 the nationl re-formation (the necessary breaking of the Australian settlement) is a becoming that has a telos, a set of destinations. These end points, as Meaghan Morris following Annie Cot argues, are utopian – endless economic growth, that doesn’t so much move towards filling, or closing, a lack, but rather creates and exacerbates the lack in the performance of a neo-conservative discourse. It is Grunge literature that captures some of this movement: rather than a dystopia, it is an atopia that emerges in the thematics of Australian grunge literature as that lack which neo-conservative discourse fuels. In grunge lit, rather than coming-of-age as individual subjects the transition from youth/ adolescence/ teenage to adulthood/ maturity is not only thwarted, it is instead refused, negated, caught in a feedback loop, stuck – the metamorphosis (itself a trope of re-generation) fails, becomes diseased and dies.

A significant strand in Kelly’s historical narrative is the notion, itself a key convention of the Bildungsroman, that political leaders rise into executive power due to the mis/fit between some innate personality trait and the character of the times: that the mixture of contingent circumstances combined with the ‘philosophies’ of the party leaders and challengers, must also align with a personality that fits the times, the party, the mood, the necessities and the constituencies (including business, international forces etc). Another way to put this is to say that a successful stateswoman or statesman will have a biography that maps not only the personal traits 'called-out' by the times, but that they will be able to persuade a majority to alter with the times. It’s no surprise then that Meaghan Morris, in her essay 'Ecstasy and economics', considers theories of immantentism and the aestheticisation of politics, largely through reference to Kelly’s previous portraits of Keating in The Hawke Ascendancy.

For what is subtextual in The end of certainty is the call of the times for a charismatic leader: a leader whose personality enables them to successfully lead (essentially to orchestrate a viable hegeharmonics, themselves), and whose individual formation has been tempered by a productive accommodation with global, post-Keynesian economic realism. Morris rejects Kelly's demand for a leader to suit the times, but not without first praising Kelly's skill in mise en scene, in religious allusion, and in portraiture. I add a skill in employing conventions in the Bildungsroman.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Marginaphilia and ebooks

Simon Reynolds is my favourite writer on musical history. His Blissed Out helped me make theoretical sense of late 80s and early 90s pop, hip hop and rock. Rip it Up and Start Again, a history of the post-punk movement, places Talking Heads next to Wire, The Fall side by side with Joy Division, providing a map of those social, political and aesthetic threads that made this movement so tantalizing, as well as introducing new music to seek out. So, when news came that Reynolds has a new book, Retromania, I went to Amazon to see if it was available in Kindle form. Yes, it was.

A few months ago I would’ve bought a cheap Kindle version, immediately downloaded it to my Apple iPod touch or MacBook Pro laptop and read most of it. The surge in the $A has made Amazon books relatively cheap. And the velocity at which a book can be searched for, found, bought and downloaded to a reading device, produces a type of techno-rush that is addictive and sort of powerful. But within the last few months I’ve moved back to paper books. In fact, I’ve recently bought a number of Kindle ebooks via Amazon that I’ve read or even skimmed quickly once downloaded, which I’ve subsequently purchased in paper form. Did these ebooks become samplers or tasters; a cheaper, quicker, buzzier form that become the basis on which to decide to make the investment in the paper form? But ebooks are not tasters in the same way that a 45rpm vinyl single was a taster for a 33&1/3rpm lp. ebooks are not shorter in length than their non-digital versions.

Maybe it’s the devices I’m reading on that have left me hankering for the paper version—I read with a pencil in hand, underlining, making annotations. The Mac Kindle software does make these writing/reading techniques available but, ironically, it’s quicker and more habitual for me to read with a pencil than to stop, highlight a passage, and type in a note. Reading paper with a pencil is a way of beginning to take notes; those proto-notes that, for me at least, begin to raise questions, make connections, and highlight significant and difficult passages—a widely used and well-worn technique. Others do this via writing in a reading journal.

On the one hand these techniques for making meaning of what’s read by writing don’t necessarily require paper and pencils (or pens). Expert readers make mental notes and, as I’ve noted, ebooks can be annotated digitally. But marking the paper page is a form of writing-over and writing-back to the text that places the reader’s body, mediated by the lead pencil or ink pen, onto the page. This is not to say that highlighting a sentence in an e-book, then typing a comment, leaves no impression or mark, just that it is a disembodied, digital mark rather than an embodied, physical and analogue one.

I like to mark and score the text: to evaluate, re-organise, illustrate, scratch and change it. At present I know how to do this with paper books and pencils, so that is why I’ve increasingly returned to paper books when I want to make a bodily investment in reading them. But with the growth in touch-screen tablet computers there must already be applications that allow such personalized marginalia to be written onto ebooks. When that happens—if it hasn’t already—ebooks will have become capable of an embodied and annotative, reading practice.

In the meantime, I’ll be getting the paper version of Retromania.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Unbinding spells: Malouf's romantic postcolonial existentialism, Pel Mel and Praise

Ever fallen under the spell of a writer or a particular book?

John Irving, author of The World According to Garp among other novels, talked about a moment in writing when the the universe of a novel fell under one tone of voice. When a single tonal register enclosed the world of the novel: its characters, events, places. Is this what happens when we are drawn into a story or oeuvre - we surrender to something like a gravitational pull, and stop resisting the story and storytelling and begin to feel our way into the emotional contours of the tale?

Do we ever really begin to inhabit a story until sparks of identification and feeling make the jump from the page to our emotional and cognitive receptors? And once sparked, to put the question in its inverted form, what sorts of readings are those that rasp against the grain of the verbal wood or unrepress the traumas and loss that the text is a maze of dreamwork-like symptoms for? Do we need to first be spellbound before such literary-critical unbindings occur?

Australian novelist, poet, essayist David Malouf did exert a spell over me for a period in the mid 1990s. Malouf's fictional prose often tumbles and flows through a mesmerizing tone of voice, that combines romantic awe with tenderness and a sly sense of humour. Malouf is also a canny plotter and seems to have ingested much of Heidegger's early existentialism and Edward Said's postcolonialism, giving his prose sustained passages of reflection where the narrator works through a problem or event with the timing and feel of the calmer, epiphanic instances of romantic poetry.

Malouf's novels are often structured around an intense homosocial relationship and often involving an 'artist' who the narrator is close to yet ultimately distant from. These romantic artists are also postcolonial forerunners: their primary mode of being-in-the-world is forged out of a confrontation with the limits of colonial structures and discourses, and in such confrontation the creative imagination (what Cornelius Castoriadis calls the Radical Imagination) is enabled to break into newness or alterity. Frank Harland (Harland's Half Acre), Gemmy Fairlie (Remembering Babylon), the wild Child (An Imaginary Life) and Johnno are characters in Malouf's fictions that become post-colonial through their creative responses to encounters with the limits of colonial space and imperial presence. If, as Heidegger in Being and Time argues, authentic existence is a modification, rather than transcendence, of everyday being-with-others then the creative modifications of such colonial and nationalist social being in Malouf's fictions are postcolonial becomings that hover on the brink of transcendental idealism without ever becoming ungrounded.

Exiled from Rome to the rural village of Tomas the poet Ovid, the narrrator of Malouf's second novel An Imaginary Life, tells us early in the narrative that:

[T]he spirits have to be recognised to become real. They are not quite outside us, nor even entirely within, but flow back and forth between us and the objects we have made, the landscape we have shaped and move in. We have dreamed all these things in our deepest lives and they are ourselves. It is our self we are making out there, and when the landscape is complete we shall become the gods who are intended for it. [28]

Yet later in the novel, after Ovid has worked through the mourning of his lost father and had the existential encounter with his own mortality (being-toward-death), such Romantic idealism enters a dialectic with a returned gaze of a Native child - the wild wolf-like Child of the village:

What I remember clearly now are his eyes, fixed on me across the open space between the trees, that stare is something I could not have imagined. I have seen nothing like it before, except from the eyes of my child, so many years ago . . . It exceeds my imagining, that sharp little face with its black stare, and I think how poorly my poetry . . . compares with the accidental reality of this creature who must exist not to impress but simply because he has somehow tumbled into being. [50 - emphasis added]

In Remembering Babylon [1993] a character's authentic existential experience is also dialectically entwined with the ethics of the Other - the Other for whom the self's recognition (and vice versa) establishes identity:

[H]er regard was upon him . . .trying to see right into him, to catch his spirit, aware, as the others were not, that he was not entirely what he allowed them to see . . .her gaze was so open and vulnerable that he felt no threat in it, and in himself only a stillness, a sense of tender ease at being exposed for a moment - not to her, but to himself . . . he felt in the concentration of her gaze that he hung there still. Something, in that moment, had been settled between them . . . he went back and back to it. [35-6]

In the scene above the putatively indigenized Gemmy Fairlie (Malouf's portrayal of the white indigene as hybrid racial-cultural subject), gives presence to a totality of possibilities for postcolonial inhabitance through the reflection returned to Janet McIvor's open gaze:

'I have never seen anyone clearer in all my life. All that he was. All.' Something Gemmy had touched off in them [Janet and her brother Lachlan] was what they were still living, both, in their different ways . . .[and] in a stilled moment that had lasted for years, Gemmy as she saw him, once and for all, up there on the stripped and shiny rail, never to fall . . .drawn by the power, all unconscious in them, of their gaze, their need to draw him into their lives - love, again, love - overbalanced but not yet falling. [195-9]

I do still find both the expression and the ideas spellbinding: the possibilities of the imagination working with presence and Others to enable a deeper dwelling, and the simple, precise and elegant language, that tumbles clauses together in a conversational tone. The Free and Radical Imagination and the radical social imaginary are tempting dreams to believe in, as sources of postcoloniality, justice and liberation. But the social imaginary doesn't behave in the same way as the creative-productive imagination: the power of institutions, of discourses, of the production and distribution of commodities, of the turning of people into waste products, the power of capital to shape and form the social imaginaries that most people live within.

Reading Malouf's fiction as postcolonial Romantic existentialism finds its limits when you start looking to historicise the period from which he begins to produce prose: 1975 to the present. From someone of my generation 1975 is the year punk rock starts to emerge, and this musical-cultural form was short, sharp and rooted in negation and Warlholian aesthetics. So, while Malouf's seductive prose and ethical-aesthetic project retains its power to spell me, I feel like I'm being gravitationally pulled into a history that doesn't square with being shaken by experiencing Newcastle's post-punk band Pel Mel at the MacQuarie Uni Bar in 1983 and feeling as though that was where life was. And it wasn't until Andrew McGahan's Praise (1992) that something of what Pel Mel were doing - a shared structure of feeling - came into Australian fiction, for me at least, with the tone of voice of Praise's Gordon Buchanan:

I'd always maintained a certain distance from the staff at the Capital. I liked them, I drank with them, but I didn't get involved. There were only a few, Carla and Morris, and maybe Lisa, that I bothered with outside of work hours. Most of my friends came from other parts of my life. From school. University. Most of the sex came from there too, but there wasn't much sex and what there was hadn't been much good. I was young and nervous and not very enthusiastic. I didn't have the libido I felt I was supposed to have. And I didn't expect things to improve. I relied on masturbation.

Praise [7].

[Pel Mel - No word from China You tube link]

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The uses of FB literacy

I'm ambivalent about Facebook. I tend to lurk there, occasionally posting You Tube clips, but mostly checking in on friends and acquaintances, feeling as though I'm part of a network. My ambivalence springs, in part, from being uncomfortable with the genres of writing it seems to demand: the additive comment, the quick witted rejoinder, the enthusiastic affirmation, the self-display update.

As a teacher of young adult literacy, one of the complaints I hear about FB is that it is a time-wasting distraction, taking teens away from education, real life. I wonder, though, if there are opportunities in the engagement these young adults have in FB for literacy learning. Because it values script above oral communication, FB surely offers opportunities for literacy growth as young people are generally more accomplished in the oral genres: in order to grow a FB network, teens need to write in ways that form and build relationships.  A problem, however, is that the appearance of a 'teacher' figure--who might act as means for such improvements--within a FB teenage social network, would bend the network out of shape. But what if there is no teacher/ mentor figure? What if one of the achievements of FB is to open spaces in which such hierarchies are flatter? 

If there are uses for literacy improvement within FB that go beyond promoting programs and courses, these are perhaps to be found in the less direct, catalytic effects achieved by working on building social trust across multiple networks. In other words, FB opens up multiple social networks that individuals can engage in. But these networks crosshatch with others. It is, then, the capacities and skills to move between networks that might well be more important (in governing the self and in participating in the government of others) than building symbolic capital (in Bourdieu's sense--the cachet that one's name has) in one network. Indeed, such capacities to move between networks could be seen as a new type of symbolic capital. 

These concerns go to the concept and practice of translation: moving between networks, fields, and situations in ways that the knowledge, skills and self-belief practiced and invested in one activity, in one social network, can be drawn on in another. For example, it took me a while to accept the idea that teaching a class was a performance and not a manifestation of innate responses to a curriculum-based situation. Having performed live music over a number of years, I began to translate the techniques of preparing for and performing a gig to the tutorial situation: rehearsal, learning the pieces, improvising, recording rehearsals, having a set list, timing, keep going, playing as though it was the first time, using adrenaline . . . There are other practices involved in tutoring that gigging can't prepare you for, but having translated these key performance techniques helped to generate belief in my own capacities. I was able to move between networks, or fields, through these gateway techniques that were learnt initially in a domain that I was enthusiastic about; driven to participate in. 

The sorts of enthusiasms that circulate through FB require computer and social techniques and knowledge that complaints (or grizzling--see below) about the uselessness of FB ignore. The drive to be-friend and grow one's network generates opportunities for literacy growth that, however seemingly 'useless', can be translated into other networks, fields and situations. Providing we recognise what literacies are already happening.


Complaints about the uselessness or even malign influence of FB are part of what Meaghan Morris argues is 'Grizzling about Facebook'. Morris finds that such grizzling, as can be found in the Murdoch press, for example, is an old genre in which technological innovation is held to be an attack on traditional or everyday life. Thus the trope, in FB grizzling, of its valorising of inauthentic friendships and facile communications in contrast to the authentic sincere relationships that old media, like telephones, letter writing supposedly enable:

‘Facebook no substitute for real world contact' is a grizzle in this sense. What on earth is supposed to follow from a declaration like that? If parents are being incited to pull the plug on their children, or to seize their mobile phones, will millions of adults also rush off-line to chat in a neighbouring office or across the back fence? What would happen in the ‘real world' of our working lives if we did so?

Against FB grizzling, Morris mounts a defence of the utopian possibilities of it and other social media. Indeed, what I find most interesting in her argument, is that she sees FB's best attribute as its capacity to combine genres of sociality. It is perhaps in this combinant facility that FB encourages translation as a skill, making it a tool for literacy learning.

Let me offer my own two or three cents about utopia and Facebook. First, Facebook is not all quizzes, ‘hey babes' and pokes. Most negative media stories obsess about one or two features (photos and status updates in particular), but the point about Facebook is that it bundles together multiple functions and potential things to do. Most of us never use all of them, and other social networking platforms do some of these things better than Facebook does (MySpace for new music, Live Journal for communities, Ning for interest groups, Twitter for global converse and news as-it-happens …), but what Facebook does well is combine: you can write private letters, play games, send gifts, do quizzes, circulate news, post notes, music and clips, share photos or research, test your knowledge, join groups and causes, make haiku-like allusions to your state of mind and chat on-line with friends, all in one place and time—restoring or relieving, according to need, the pattern of an everyday life. Facebook is on-line culture ‘lite': this makes it an object of scorn for digital elitists and ‘white noise' haters (see Tuttle), but it is also a source of its mainstream appeal. Corresponding to this variety of uses is the diversity of kinds of contact Facebook allows, with the relation between ‘contact' and intimacy also having the potential to vary over time within each singular friendship. In this respect it follows the rhythms of ‘real life' as a whole: as Lauren Berlant puts it, ‘all kinds of emotional dependency and sustenance can flourish amongst people who only meet each other at one or a few points on the grid of the field of their life' (‘Faceless Book').

Nothing flourishes for people who join Facebook and do nothing with it; passive or un-giving use of any network is rewarded in kind (Strohmeyer). As Thompson points out, a depth dimension to ‘ambient awareness' accumulates only with time and aggregation. It does grow over time; Facebook has increased my affective quality of life, and not only because it offers a break from my academic service work. The collective stream of posts brings me word of books, articles, music, films, video clips and news that I would otherwise never discover. At a time of life when new involvements become more rare, I suddenly have digital penfriends with whom I exchange old-fashioned letters through Inbox (one of the least remarked features of Facebook), while an acquaintance from decades ago has become a dear friend whom I contact almost daily. Retrieving a joy of my childhood, when my father would bring home a ‘two bob' chocolate on a Friday night and we'd listen to The Goon Show and My Word on the ABC, I play variants of Scrabble with friends on four continents throughout the day. Facebook also nudges me to remember more of my past than I am wont to do, as other people's actions unpredictably pull bits of our scattered lives together. There is more to this aspect than the nostalgia decried by Susan Dominus (‘sometimes it seems like Facebook is the most back-ward looking innovation ever expected to change the future') and Steve Tuttle (‘Goodbye, William and Mary alums I barely remember from 25 years ago'). Facebook has utopian force for me because it gently undoes the dissociative patterns I learned as a girl in pugnaciously ‘real' Australian country towns; it lets me have family on the same plane as my ex-students, my friends who talk books, my colleagues in Hong Kong and Australia and friends who also post in Italian, French and Chinese. Directly because of Facebook, I was able to speak by phone to a much-loved cousin just before he died. If Facebook vanished overnight, I would experience grief.