Saturday, March 21, 2015

Making Australia Great or Unbecoming-of-Age

With George Megalogenis' TV history Making Australia Great: Inside our Longest Boom now being shown, questions concerning how to periodise and narrativise the boom's span of time are worth posing. Rarely, explicitly articulated as such, there is a body of hegemonic texts that use the tropes and structures of the coming-of-age narrative to tell the 1970s and 80s span of the national story. Given that Making Australia Great already appears to be taking its bearings from the text that did the most to embed a finance capitalist coming-of-age structure into Australian textuality--Paul Kelly's The End of Certainty--I think it's time to share my PhD as these issues are at the core of my work. You can access it here

Megalogenis' documentary is a political-cultural history that spans the period of around 1950 to 2013. As a history of politics and of culture interested in prime ministers, political economy and rock music,  I'm very interested in the sorts of methods and arguments it will make, as this is common terrain to what I read, worked with and on.

The first episode of three looked at the period spanning the pre-Whitlam era (c1965) and took us up to around 1986/7. Megalogenis had interview access to those Prime Ministers that were alive during filming (one, Malcolm Fraser PM 1975-1983 Liberal Party, passed away yesterday and Whitlam earlier this year), as well as a Reserve Bank Governor and other key political figures. This is a history from above, in one sense, as it is told largely through the understandings, and apparent consensus, of the main political leaders. The consensus mirrors the main narrative line of Paul Kelly's The End of Certainty: that Australian modernity was stillborn in the early twentieth century due to a five pillar Australian Settlement: protection in (white) race, (local manufacturing) tariffs and (white male) wages combined with state paternalism and imperial benevolence. The crumbling of this protectionist settlement, so this hegemonic national narrative goes, was due to the new global economic conditions that started to emerge in the late 1960s with the US de-coupling from the gold standard and the OPEC oil shocks. These shifts in global, post-war capitalism called out for new forms of political-economy, and a new political culture. It was during this situation that neo- or hyper- or turbo-liberalism gained a foothold. Kelly's narrative is not just about the changing world: it is also about the need for Australia to grow up, come of age and be economically mature and independent. My thesis challenges this orthodoxy.

The other interesting element of Megalogenis' political cultural history, and the one that makes it resonate with my work on a similar period, albeit one that finishes in around 1998, is his use of 'culture'. With only one episode broadcast, it is perhaps too soon to tell how this cultural element will be handled overall, but the initial cultural emblems chosen--redundant cars, heavily unionised workforce, 'political' pub rock, and sporting successes--were, unfortunately, given a 'content' reading: their historical meaning was tied back to blunt sociological understandings of the 'times'. An example: Midnight Oil had an angry style that voiced youth opposition to Fraser's punitive government. This sort of sociological content analysis is fair enough on one level for a 1 hour show that needs to move quickly, but it illustrates the conclusion you have already reached without going through the music-cultural field or through the form of the songs, which is a much more interesting historical journey and much more revealing of what was at stake at the time. The documentary's focus on music is directed into a soundtrack, crystallising what political journalists refer to as 'the atmospherics' rather than as cultural phenomena that each have embedded historical information about how its aesthetics interacts with the culture of the time and the content inscribed in the lyrics.

And yet the cultural analysis is interesting all the same, because there is a suggestion (maybe in the unconscious of the doco's choice of music and cultural artefacts) that the post-war (post-1945) culture had adhered around the post-war political-economy. Peter Beilharz has cheekily suggested we call this male, white, wage-earner culture Holdenism: a dry reference to Gramsci's concept of Fordism. In choosing the Leyland P76--this oversized, petrol guzzling, poorly engineered car--as one of the first episode's central tropes of the failed old ways of the Menzies period, Megalogenis' team have landed on a potent emblem of the forces acting on what I call the Labourist-social-liberal armature. Over the 1970s and 80s, this armature unwound, burnt-out, ceased to act as a force-field against which minority social movements defined themselves, was unable to support the fashioning of industrial citizens, failed to provide protection.

This period then was marked by a war of times--of rhythms. The Bildungsroman (coming of age narrative form) offers a temporal solution to the arrhythmia of finance capitalism, the breakdown of the armature's regular beats, but this narrative solution relies on abjecting--deferring and displacing--a range of valuable social forms. How Making Australia Great deals with this war of times will be fascinating.

I look forward to the next 2 episodes. The first can be viewed an ABC iView here

Unbecoming-of Age: Australian Grunge Fiction

In recent years the term Neoliberalism, although increasingly contested,  has been central to understanding changes in global political life. Neoliberalism has been generally used to describe and explain the political-economic project that arose out of the Thatcher and Reagan governments in the UK and USA, and has come to be a defining concept with which to account for the Global Financial Crisis. In Australia, however, Neoliberalism is associated with the putatively left wing Australian Labor Party Bob Hawke and Paul Keating governments that held power for more than a decade: 1983 to 1996. This period has been termed the long Labor decade by sociologist Peter Beilharz, who argued that the ALP and the labour movement was fundamentally transformed over this period.

In Unbecoming-of-age, this transformation of Labor and Labourism—its primary discourse—is explored through analysis of non-fictional and fictional narratives of the long Labor decade. Unbecoming explores how Australian Labourism was narrativised through three central figures and stories of the period: Gough Whitlam, Paul Keating and Paul Kelly’s The End of Certainty. Analysing Whitlam as a spectre, biographies of Keating and his poetics, and Kelly’s journalistic political history as a Bildungsroman of nation, Unbecoming draws out how Neoliberalism functioned via narrative techniques to become embedded in Australian textuality.  

Unbecoming-of-age then jumps tracks, moving from a literary analysis of political texts, to a political analysis of literary texts. This literary history interprets how the textuality of Neoliberalism functions within key texts of the long Labor decade, looking at the careers of two of Australia’s most political fictional writers: Frank Moorhouse and Amanda Lohrey. Unbecoming then turns to its central focus: Australian Grunge fiction. Through a close reading of Andrew McGahan’s first two novels, Praise and 1988, Christos Tsiolkas’ debut Loaded, and three post-grunge novels: Andrew McCann’s Subtopia, Elliot Perlman’s Three Dollars and Anthony Macris’ Capital, volume one, the analysis hones in on the literary infrastructure of the Bildungsroman narrative form and how each of these novels engages with this form of coming-of-age. The central argument here is that through the introduction of tropes of illness, abject conduct and forms of mobility that are out of time, these novels provide the resources for understanding how Neoliberalism was narrativised in Australia in the long Labor decade and,  importantly, how it might be worked through.

Through this literary analysis of political culture and political analysis of literary culture, Unbecoming-of-age offers a new understanding of the experience of Neoliberalism as it affects everyday life and subjectivity.