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.