My last post took aim at a rather obvious ideological edifice, the new literary patriotism in Australia and its mostly transparent role in the generation of cultural and literary surplus-value for publishers, cultural organisations and affiliated individuals. But this phenomenon is a rather rare instance of an openly conservative, proudly old-fashioned bourgeois ideology at the service of the ruling classes–patriotism has been the last refuge of a scoundrel, as Samuel Johnson would have it, for well over two hundred years. Today’s capitalist superstructure is often far more innovative and deceptive. It is an ideology that bears the aura of positive, progressive thought; and its ability to entrance us into accepting the decisions and prerogatives of those in power is not to be underestimated.
Here one must seek, as Marxist thinker Slavoj Žižek has, the fetish dimension of our dominant ideals. The inclusive, progressive capitalism of our time–with its “new libertarian spirit epitomised by dressed-down ‘cool’ capitalists such Bill Gates” (Žižek 56)–is precisely that which we have come to refer to as postmodernism: ruthless commodification and exploitation with a ‘hip’, ‘experimental’ and ‘compassionate’ symbolic feature. Such symbolism is explicit in the ‘ethical’ messages accompanying consumer products such as (so-called) Fair Trade coffee,
the price [of which] is higher than [non-Fair Trade] since you are really buying into the “coffee ethics” which includes care for the environment, social responsibility towards the producers, plus a place where you yourself can participate in communal life [...] And if this is not enough, if your ethical needs are still unsatisfied and you continue to worry about Third World misery, then there are additional [ethical, environmentally friendly] products you can buy (Ibid 53-54).
In other words, in today’s liberal capitalist societies, it is precisely the discourse of consumer ethics which compels one to consume. But this ideology should not be mistaken for a disingenuous advertising campaign, there to simply trick gullible consumers into further participating in capitalist economy. Žižek points out that this kind of ideology functions by giving meaning and aura (albeit of a transferred, fetishistic kind) to the utterly banal, meaningless acts of drinking coffee or buying vegetables:
Who really believes that half-rotten and overpriced “organic” apples are healthier than the non-organic variety? The point is that, in buying them, we are not merely buying and consuming, we are simultaneously doing something meaningful, showing our capacity for care and global awareness, participating in a collective project (Ibid 54)
Hence, under the aegis of new progressive capitalism, shopping is transformed into a meaningful, cathartic and, in the precise sense of the term, ‘politically correct’ activity. And it is this kind of meaning which progressive discourses of literature make available to many in charge of production, evaluation and distribution of writing in a capitalist society such as Australia. By being told that we are being provided with a new literature which is in some way positive or progressive, we come to feel that we are not merely buying and consuming (often unnecessary) cultural products, and that our very act of purchasing these products is in itself an ethical achievement that makes the world a better place.
Among the key tropes of such a progressive ideology in the contemporary literary scene are cultural diversity –‘multicultural writing’ provides much solace to ‘tolerant’ readers in a country which has been found, time and again, in breach of international human rights for its treatment of foreign refugees–and digital technology, which, as many champions of the medium would have it, is supposed to one day liberate us from the tyrannies of traditional publishing and so on. (In my view, the digital medium will do nothing of the sort and will instead result in continued, rabid consumption of electronic gadgets, among other things.) For the rest of this piece, however, I’d like to briefly speak to what is fast emerging as a central tenet of today’s progressive literary ideology – the environment.
One of the great potentials of contemporary ecocriticism resides in the philosophy’s demystification of the relationship between literary, pastoral signifiers and their ecological signified. A truly ecopoetic text has the power to present nature as an undecidable void, as an ‘empty set’, the naming of which as such may produce a truth that could alter or even rupture anthropocentric knowledge. But an ‘environmental turn’ is not in itself a radical discourse. If the statements and propaganda surrounding the worth of contemporary literature are anything to go by, ‘literary environmentalism’ is, in many instances, an ideological justification for the hierarchies of valuation and cultural capital. It is a perspective which provides an ‘ethical’ rubric for assessing literary aesthetics and shores up the theses of those with the power to assess our writing.
Consider, for example, these samples from judges’ reports apropos of the most recent winners of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards and how ‘earthy’, natural motifs are enlisted to establish the value of the winning works. The 2011 winner of the fiction award is praised for its “tactile, redolent evocation of the physical world of sheep-farming in New Zealand”. Last year’s winner of the fiction category is extolled for its “aching affinity for the harsh landscape the book describes”. Also in 2012, the Prize for Australian History went to a book which apparently enhances “our understanding of the historic Australian environment and its land care. [The book’s author] forces us to reconsider our intellectual landscape, and thus present day environmental practices, through his dramatic historical revisioning of our physical landscape.”
I am not concerned with whether or not the books referred to in these reports are worthy winners of a very worthy prize, nor am I critical of these books’ supposed ‘evocations’ of and ‘affinity for’ the environment. What concerns me is the very problematic, indeed phantasmatic perception which correlates literary value with an ethics of ‘land care’, promoting the rather absurd view that the practice of writing, reading and awarding books–whatever their presumed ethical message–could in itself directly benefit the environment. To state the obvious, buying and reading a book is categorically not the same thing as actually taking care of the land. And yet the magical, sublime power of ideology is such that it makes two very different objects–e.g. reading a book and planting a tree–seem coterminous, even identical. Such an operation is perhaps most evident in the raison d’être of a literary prize such as the Environment Award for Children’s Literature which conflates aesthetics with environmental agendas in praising one of its current winners for writing a “beautifully illustrated” book which teaches children “about extinctions, and why they occur”.
As an unashamedly political writer, I have no problem with literature having a (preferably unsettling) didactic dimension; but the commodification of a book as a basically pedagogic tool is, in my view, a sign of capitalist ideology. Another rather dubious symptom of such an ideology is the presentation of professional writers as sincere environmentalists. Even an author of commercial erotic fiction now tells us–and is, more importantly, provided with the space in our only national newspaper to tell us–that she is unhappy with how nature “has been tamed, reconstructed” and suggests that we should all immerse ourselves in the “beautiful, beachy, bushy, wild”. My hope is that literature won’t be ‘tamed’ by this fetishistic invocation of the environment. If nothing else, the planet’s battered and crumbling ecosystems deserve better.
Žižek, Slavoj. First as Tragedy, then as Farce. London: Verso, 2009.
I am delighted to be this month’s Southerly blogger, and would like to use this opportunity to explore the crucial rapport between literature and ideology. In this and my forthcoming blogs for Southerly, I’ll be reflecting on how, in my opinion, the production and reception of contemporary Australian writing is informed and in many cases formed by what Karl Marx has termed, in The German Ideology, as an epoch’s “ruling ideas”:
The class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, consequently also controls the means of mental production, so that the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are on the whole subject to it (67).
The aim of my blogs is to detect and dissect some of the key ideas to which writers and readers in Australia are being subjected; and I will explore the extent to which these ideas are concomitant of the interests of the forces that control the actual production and dissemination of writing in contemporary Australia. In my forthcoming blogs I will address the ideas of ‘success’, ‘progress’ and ‘community’, and the role these values play–as what Jacques Lacan may term les points de capiton or ‘quilting points’–in joining the material and intellectual ideals of the dominant forces in the contemporary Australian writing scene.
The topic of this first blog is literary nationalism. Gone are the days of Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities and the proposal that the nation as such is a speculative construct, and that in the age of globalisation we are free to imagine ourselves across borders and traverse political demarcations on a whim. The fantasy of a natural socio-geographical particularity is no longer a fantasy. It is now all too common for individuals to view themselves as physically and spiritually included in the symbolic of a locality. The recent and ongoing trend of the marks of national fidelity being cut into the very materiality of bodies, in the form of Southern Cross tattoos and suchlike, is only a graphic demonstration of the dialectical manifestation of nationalism as an oppositional response to the pseudo-internationalism of global capitalism. National communities are no longer imagined; they are being ordered, concretised and symbolised.
But what does any of this have to do with literature? A great deal, it seems. Over the last few years the perception that the nation must become an actuality as well as a centrality in the literary milieu has emerged as nothing short of a ruling intellectual idea in Australia.
Starting with a number of well-known commentators’ complaint that–in Morag Fraser’s words, as published in a major daily newspaper in 2011–tertiary students in Australia are being forced to study “Colombian fiction or the most recent iteration of French theory” instead of coming “within a bull’s roar of Australian literature,” quite a number of forces in charge of the country’s literary production have launched a campaign to, as it were, raise the volume, pitch and tenor of the “roar of Australian literature.”
The Wheeler Centre, arguably the country’s best-funded private literary organisation–the self-proclaimed “Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas”–denounced the perfidiously cosmopolitan academe for “offering only the bare minimum in courses on Australian writing and its authors” and heroically announced the inauguration of its own series of public lectures “as part of a brand new assessment of our national literature”. The indefatigable Michael Heyward, publisher at Text Publishing, bemoaned the (supposed) fact that “we have lost track of some of the great books written by Australians” in an extended interview in The Age, whilst publicising the launch of Text Publishing’s series of “books [that] are milestones in the Australian experience.” And Geordie Williamson, the chief literary critic of the Australian newspaper, decided to put an end to “the increasingly marginal status of Australian literature in the academy” by writing a volume on a number of Australian novelists as “an act of reclamation,” published by, yes, Text Publishing.
To point out that many of the abovementioned protagonists, their businesses and their careers constitute, as Marx would have it, the very force which has the means of material production and promotion of books and writing at its disposal would be a bland understatement. It seems rather obvious, at least to this observer, that the discourse of literary patriotism has provided the Wheeler Centre with a marketing narrative for the promotion of their literary events as an alternative to university education; or that this jargon has been, in Marxian terms, a rather useful concept for the economics of Text Publishing’s new enterprise.
But ideology is not simply a glorified PR operation, installed to advance the ‘rational’ economic interests of those in power. For ideology to successfully function, it must have a fundamentally ‘irrational’ ingredient and dimension so that it may act as an immaterial fantasy that we the people (who are subject to ideology but do not benefit from it) may believe in as one would believe in a religion, ‘family’ and, indeed, ‘the nation’.
Marx wrote about this dimension of commodification in Capital when he discussed “the magical quality” that gives a product (e.g., in our case, a work of ‘classic Australian literature’) a fetish character, a “metaphysical” and “theological” value that enables and legitimises the object’s exchange-value (42). As Slavoj Žižek has written, for an ideology to succeed as a powerful fantasy, a “famous fiction” is necessary to seduce and enchant the people and to conceal the economic imperatives of the ruling classes (205); and, in my opinion, the name of this fiction apropos of the topic of Australian literary patriotism is, undoubtedly, ‘the cultural cringe.’
I find the proposal that contemporary Australians may be lacking in national pride rather absurd. In our age of revived ethno-religious, tribalist and identitarian passions of all kind all over the world, one need not look further than the images of the 2005 Cronulla riots, the 2009 Manly ‘rampage’ and the 2010 Villawood Detention Centre counter-protest to reflect that ultra-nationalism and jingoism are not foreign to this country. And yet, perhaps to ward off any intimation that our new literary patriots are in any way reminiscent of ‘ugly’ ‘moronic’ ‘racists’ and so on–and, in my view, they are indeed nothing of the sort–the fiction of the cultural cringe has been invoked to justify the economically desirable push for the Australianisation of literary studies, literary journalism and literary creation by those who are in the position to financially benefit from this push.
In his aforementioned interview with The Age, Heyward states that an aspect of his decision to republish a number of Australian literary ‘classics’ has been to defend the nation’s literature against “a half-formed thought that somehow the real books are elsewhere, the real books are coming out of Europe or the US or Britain.” In a similar vein, Emmett Stinson has argued that Australians are yet to “overcome the cultural cringe” since, according to Stinson, the main reason Australian authors such as Nam Le and Cate Kennedy have been widely read and praised domestically is because these authors have been published and praised in the US.
But is this really the case? Is Stinson not aware of the fact that Kennedy had published four books in Australia prior to being published in The New Yorker in 2006? And who precisely are the shadowy figures who promote, according to Heyward, the nefarious “half-formed thought” that Australians don’t write “real books”? ‘Un-Australian’ academics, with their penchant for Colombian fiction and French theory, perhaps?
I would like to end this blog by stating unambiguously that, despite being an academic quite enthusiastic about Gabriel García Márquez and Alain Badiou, I include Australian literature across all of the subjects that I co-ordinate and teach. My current research project is a theoretical study of contemporary Australian poetry, and I have just purchased a copy of one of Text Publishing’s ‘Australian classics’. The university where I work offers an undergraduate subject in Australian literature; hosts conferences and symposia on Australian literature; and includes a research centre partly dedicated to the study of Australian literature. The idea that academia is responsible for the putative decline in the cultural value of Australian writing is frankly irrational, untenable, and, in the precise sense of the term, ideological.
Marx, Karl. Capital. Ed. David McLellan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Marx, Karl (with Friedrich Engels). The German Ideology. New York: Prometheus Books, 1998.
Žižek, Slavoj. For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor. London: Verso, 2008.
An enormous thank you to Maria Takolander for her excellent posts. This month, our blogger is Ali Alizadeh. His bio is below:
Ali Alizadeh’s forthcoming book Transactions has been described as “beautifully twisted” by Marina White in Colosoul; “funny, angry and immensely moving” by Jeff Sparrow; and “a powerful work of prose fiction” and “truly global and uncompromisingly frank” by Portia Lindsay in Books+Publishing. “Welcome to the dark side of global village” has been Caroline Baum’s comment on the book. It is a tale of political violence, prostitution, love, a charming serial killer, mysterious refugees and radical universalism. Among Ali’s previous books are the collection of poems Ashes in the Air, the work of creative non-fiction Iran: My Grandfather and the novel The New Angel. Ali was born in Iran, resides in Melbourne and has lived and worked in a few continents. He is a lecturer in Creative Writing and Literary Studies at Monash University, where he is also the director of the Centre for Australian and Postcolonial Writing. He has also co-written, with director Bill Mousoulis, a horror movie titled A Nocturne: Night of the Vampire, has edited an anthology with John Kinsella, has written a manifesto with Jessica Wilkinson, and has translated a collection of medieval poems with Kenneth Avery.
by Maria Takolander
Despite a lifetime of being exposed to American culture, the US remains resiliently strange to me. There are its female child beauty pageants and self-heroising gun culture, its confessional TV and fenceless houses, its rhetoric of moral superiority and the unambiguous immorality of many of its actions. Perhaps my response is related to my Finnish background. The US is, in some ways, the antithesis of introspective, socially responsible Finland—although Finland certainly possesses its own quantum of strangeness. However, being descended from Finns is hardly necessary to an appreciation of the bizarre spectacle of itself that the US shamelessly projects out into the world, as Peter Carey’s early writing and Jean Baudrillard’s work suggests.
This is a tangential introduction to the topic of this post: the US model of creative writing, as represented by the world-famous and pioneering program at the University of Iowa. The website for this writing program subscribes to ‘the popular insistence that writing cannot be taught’, though it concedes that the ‘craft if not the art of creative writing’ (my emphasis) can be developed. Of course, this is where the university’s program of technical workshops can assist. While I do not possess any first-hand knowledge of the Iowa curriculum, I do know that the so-called Iowa model informed Australian creative writing programs as they were established here. And as a creative writer and as a teacher of creative writing at Deakin University in Geelong, Victoria, I would like to say that the Iowa line on creative writing is yet another US ‘policy’ that remains foreign to me.
There has always been a great deal of mystificatory nonsense surrounding writers—and creativity more generally. Let me start by addressing the idea that writers are ‘born’. The Iowa claim is more nuanced, but the idea of creative writing as some kind of a birthright is probably lurking somewhere there. While we are born with a language potential, which is realised in our language-rich environments as we develop, there is nothing biologically inevitable about becoming a creative writer: a person who has learned to use language in certain ways that are culturally recognised as ‘creative’. Indeed, as the phenomenon of the ‘wild child’ shows, there is nothing even biologically inevitable about language development. (For those readers interested in nature and nurture debates, Susan Oyama’s Evolution’s Eye: A System’s View of the Biology-Culture Divide shows how our genes can’t even ‘create’ bones of the necessary density without our Earthly environment of gravity.) One might surely only conceivably become inclined towards creative writing because of a lifelong immersion in literary texts such that their patterns of meaning and resonances come to infiltrate one’s thinking. What is at work in the creation of a writer is the felt work of a literary heritage more than a genetic one.
The second idea I’d like to address is the separation of the ‘art’ of writing from the ‘craft’ of writing. The Iowa website fails to define these loaded terms. We might understand them as synonymous with ‘content’ and ‘form’, but even a quick look at Russel Hoban’s Riddley Walker or Annie Proulx’s short stories would dispel such distinctions. In Hoban’s post-apocalyptic work of ventriloquism and in Proulx’s uniquely voiced stories, ‘form’ is surely inseparable from ‘content’. There are also, of course, countless examples of verse that defy attempts to distinguish ‘art’ from ‘craft’. Indeed, in my experience it is only attention to the ‘craft’ of writing, perceived as an exercise of thinking deeply and continuously about the material writing on the screen, that might transform what I am doing into something validated by publishers and reviewers as ‘art’.
There is also the value-laden nature of the terms to consider. ‘Art’ is something special—elite, institutionally legitimised and professional—while ‘craft’ is an amateur, hands-on, hobby activity. If the Iowa creative writing program contends that ‘art’ cannot be taught, I suspect it is in part because the success associated with that term cannot be guaranteed. The Iowa creative writing program would rather not, so to speak, have blood on its hands. The technical skills of ‘craft’, by contrast, are attainable by everyone—a good slogan for marketing departments.
Let me now turn to the deleterious effects that the Iowa rhetoric has on creative writing programs in my humble and anecdotal experience. To begin with, the idea that the writer might already be in possession of some special quality presents a considerable obstacle. Writers like to think of themselves as special, and they are supported in this belief to a degree; it’s probably one of the few consolations for a reality of being mostly or completely ignored. However, it can be difficult to teach students who think of themselves as ‘writers’ (and I use the quotation marks deliberately.) Such individuals may feel themselves blessed with the capacity to create ‘art’, but they are not always particularly amenable to learning—or even reading.
A second issue lies with the technically oriented nature of the teaching in creative writing courses. Because the writer is already bestowed with the special qualities for producing ‘art’, all that is left is to hone ‘craft’. This can make of creative writing programs a virtual ideas-free zone. Indeed, creative writing programs can sometimes resemble literature-free zones.
A writer once said to me that he didn’t think he could teach creative writing because the whole process remained a mystery to him. I don’t subscribe to any great mysteries. I don’t believe in the muse or in any gods, although I am a fan of the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. I don’t have a spirit or a soul. I have a brain in a body—capable of both rational thought and irrational feeling—and that brain in a body does the work of my creative writing. My embodied mind, compelled to regard the computer screen for long enough, writes from a lifetime of being immersed in the patterned ideas and disconcerting affects of literary texts (including films.) All of this is to say that I write from a tradition of cultural ways of knowing the world: through its diverse narratives and resonant motifs. If there is something that can be called the muse, it is probably only literature itself: it reaches through my brain and body, takes hold of my experience, and is transformed into something new.
Regardless of my particular concerns about the Iowa model of creative writing pedagogy, the problem with creative writing programs that I hear more frequently voiced is that they exist at all. Such criticism presents us with a dystopian vision of universities churning out creative writers who use identical techniques (being trained as they are in craft.) I have a number of responses to such charges. Firstly, who cares if creative writing programs are churning out writers? Law programs are busily producing lawyers, but there’s little anxiety about that. Surely the more writers there are the more chances there are of creating something fortuitously unique and strong, which might capture ‘the spirit of the age’ or simply move people. Perhaps we’re worried that creative writing programs will produce more writers than our society can support, but surely people with advanced literacy, and the wisdom of cultural literacy to boot, aren’t doomed to be welfare cases.
My suspicion is that such criticism of creative writing programs is related to a concern about creative writing moving into the hands of academics. The English writer Ian McEwan, on a recent special episode of The Book Club—a show that avoids academics as if they were lepers (though can you imagine such a scenario in France?)—suggested that writers shouldn’t be in universities but, rather, in pubs and out on the streets. This is consistent with the popular idea that academics don’t live in the ‘real’ world, which I find peculiar given that I don’t access my workplace through a portal. I drive there on regular byways and, for perhaps too many years of my life, frequented establishments for imbibing liquor (a peculiarly authenticating experience judging by the rhetoric of McEwan and of the various people all over the world who have pressured me to consume alcohol in order to become ‘one of them’). In any case, fears about universities taking over creative writing and being to blame for the ills of literary culture are overrated; what gets published remains in the hands of publishers.
Fundamentally, my issue with tertiary creative writing programs is that they could afford to be more ambitious. They might focus less on ‘art’ and ‘craft’—on appeals to elitist fantasies and technical instruction—and concentrate instead on the extraordinary experience of being immersed in our cultural world. Billions of people have lived before us, and some of them have written down a vision of what it is to be human in ways that are unusually affecting, challenging the way we see things or providing our lives with new meaning. Good writing comes from good writing, which makes of literature a kind of continuing conversation. The topic of that conversation is our existence: miraculous, absurd, pathetic, tragic. I don’t know, though, if any of this makes for good marketing.
by Maria Takolander,
We have a strange and contradictory fascination when it comes to other people’s lives. We care too much—as in the case of celebrities, those holographs (projected by the machine of capitalism) which we obsessively flesh out so that they resemble human beings. Our imaginations are tirelessly attentive to them. Alternatively, we care too little—as in the case of asylum seekers, whose lives we don’t want to imagine at all.
Since the so-called ethical turn in literary studies, the skill of imagining another, of invading another’s privacy—which literature allegedly hones—has been regularly valorised by critics (Martha Nussbaum, for example). Such critics draw distinctions between the easy identifications invited by popular texts about ‘others’ and the challenges issued by more ethically minded texts. JM Coetzee’s novels, for instance, contain characters that prove resistant to the reader’s imaginative incursions (such as the barbarian girl in Waiting for the Barbarians and the tongueless Friday in Foe). And often the voyeuristic reader is represented diegetically by an observing and prying character or narrator. (There is the doctor in the Life and Times of Michael K or David Lurie in Disgrace.) In an essay soon to appear in Telling Stories: Australian Literary Cultures, 1935-2012, I discuss the ways in which Coetzee’s ‘Australian’ novels invite engagement with these issues as they pertain to asylum seekers. What Coetzee’s work acknowledges—and what well-meaning celebrations of empathic experience often neglect—is that the process of being imagined can be an intrusive and unsettling one. Coetzee also notably protects himself from the public eye and mind.
I have been provoked in these reflections by a recent experience I had of being photographed. In a single week I found myself photographed by two different photographers. While this hardly makes me famous—particularly given that I solicited the services of one of the photographers—I was nevertheless given the ‘celebrity treatment’ of being imagined by outsiders. One photographer thought that it was her business to portray me in a flattering way, which she imagined as generically feminine; the other photographer had more masculine ambitions involving the creation of a work of art. The first photographer confided in me her belief that a subject can never wear too much make up; the second told me that his fundamental interest was in the effects of light on facial ‘landscapes’. Neither photographer knew me or my work. Yet I found the experiences unnerving—and not just because they challenged my vanity. (Indeed, I considered myself fortunate given that the art photographer, who also took pictures of my husband, made him look like a grey-faced inmate released on parole due to a terminal case of emphysema.) I rejected further sessions with both photographers. I decided, as I often do, that I wanted to be left alone.
More disconcerting, undoubtedly, was the experience of having poems written ‘about’ or ‘for’ me by others. Lisa Gorton dedicated a typically brilliant poem to me—quite unexpectedly—and I felt shocked and exposed by it, even though she suggested to me that the subject matter was inconsequential. At least one early poem of my husband’s had a similar effect.
I could explain my love of privacy by calling on my Finnish heritage, which I like to do from time to time—with varying degrees of sincerity—as readers of my blog would by now recognise. Finns are a private people. When I visited Finland in my early twenties I went on a ride in an amusement park in Tampere with my sister. We were hanging upside down and happily screaming when we realised that everyone else on the ride was silent. Other characteristics suggestive of privacy were noted: men said very little; women’s sentences trailed out into whispers. Upon visiting someone’s home, there were prolonged silences during which we could appreciate the aroma of freshly brewed coffee and the old-fashioned ticking of a clock. There were Finnish sayings celebrating silence as golden. Even when flaccidly drunk, Finns exposed very little—if we don’t include their body parts. One of my twenty-five cousins was so drunk one night that he was unable to recall the location of his new apartment. He lived there alone, confiding in us that his ex-girlfriend had demanded of him a choice: her or alcohol. That was about as confessional as it got—utterly inconsequential in comparison to the drunken Australian ‘gut-spills’ to which I was subjected at various pubs and parties while growing up around Melbourne. The difference between Finns and Australians might very well be encapsulated in the difference between Aki Kaurismäki’s The Man Without a Past, a film about a taciturn man with amnesia, and The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, a film glorying in the spectacle of self-exposure—although there is a similar penchant for self-caricature and the grotesque.
Of course, a major explanation for my discomfort in being photographed or written about involves power. While I feel uneasy about other people representing me, I feel empowered in representing myself—or in not representing myself—as I see fit. It’s why there is no contradiction in me writing a blog complaining about other people invading my privacy, or of people going on Facebook to criticise corporate or governmental surveillance. Celebrities often ask for the right to portray themselves, as do indigenous peoples.
However, I am acutely aware of my hypocrisy on another level. Even while I understand the ethical implications of representation and have experienced firsthand the discomfort of being represented by outsiders, I continue to depict others with impunity. My blog posts have invaded the privacy of my parents, my primary school principal, my husband, my unfortunate Finnish cousin, and even the two personable photographers who performed a service for me. Then there are the people exposed, with merely a fig leaf to conceal their public identities, in my poetry and fiction. And let’s not forget the violent incursions that I hope to make upon readers’ ‘souls’, in line with Franz Kafka’s sadistic conceptualisation of literature as an axe for the frozen sea within us. Much of the unsettling power of literature, as Kafka’s and Coetzee’s commanding work suggests, lies in holding up the broken pieces of a mirror and inviting readers to recognise themselves in that defamiliarised context. So what if the masochistic writer, exemplified by Kafka, had to look in the mirror first?
Either my writing is a testament to my hypocrisy or, more forgivingly, it constitutes evidence of the fact that we exist only inter-subjectively. Our lives are inevitably and profoundly imbricated with those of others. Others live inside us; we live inside others. Perhaps the worst of us are those who try to deny that—a denial that I witness daily upon reading the online newspapers and observing the comments of online readers in response to stories about asylum seekers. These readers seem interested only in protecting their economic rights. I’m not sure, though, that this lets me entirely off the hook. Perhaps, like those who refuse to imagine the suffering of asylum seekers, I am simply intent on justifying my solipsistic and immoral way of life.
When: Tuesday May 28th, 6 for 6:30pm
Where: Common Room, John Woolley Building, University of Sydney (map here:
) We deeply regret that this venue can only be accessed via stairs.
RSVP: firstname.lastname@example.org …or just turn up.
See you there!
In addition to being the planet’s sole island continent, Australia is comprised of many islands: 8,222 according to Geoscience Australia, as well as many others in its external territories. Islands have been at the forefront of heated public policy regarding asylum seekers and detention, and in relation to rising oceans. So, too, the man at the centre of the fight for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land rights, Eddie Mabo, came from Mer (Murray Island) in the Eastern Torres Strait.
Some Australian islands have been homelands for Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people for millennia, while colonial culture recognised the potential of islands as ideal prisons, lazarets and strategic bases, and exploited their romantic associations as perfect idylls. Artists such as Ian Fairweather, have sought seclusions on islands; despots have sought complete autonomy on islands; and Western scholars have viewed them as perfect laboratories.
This issue of Southerly is framed by a contemplation of island futures by Elaine Stratford, taken from her opening address at the inaugural Australian Small Island Forum held in May 2012. The literary essays focus on the interplay between island fantasies and realities Australian writing where the island is a powerful site in real and imaginary terms, and David Brooks revises the map of Modernism to include Papua New Guinea and the Trobriand Islands, in view of Bronislaw Malinowski’s deep engagement with these island territories.
In addition to these thoughtful works of analysis, the issue includes a wealth of fiction, poetry and reviews centred on islands, archipelagos, the experience of their materiality and their imaginative power, ranging from Terri Janke’s “Turtle Island” about the Torres Strait to Angela Rockel’s “Silvereye” in Tasmani’s Huon Valley.