liberalism


I’m nine and we’re sitting at the living room table she made a year or so back. It was a full dining room table but she cut down the legs, sanded it back. I remember gouging it with a fork handle in a fit of pique, a childish anger vented at some one thing she must have been proud of.

I’m looking at the empty grooves now, and asking,

“Is this tea?”

“Be quiet and eat.”

“But it’s just weetbix.”

“The benefit isn’t till tomorrow, so eat up.”

“But it’s breakfast isn’t it?”

“Just eat up.”

It’s a story I tell for years, of the superimposition of hunger by ‘our situation’. In retrospect it’s the one thing I associate with benefit dependency, the constant hunger, not only for basic nutrition, but for the many small things others take for granted you lack. The small luxuries and the simple things you cannot afford. A hunger for invaluables like comfort, security, certainty.

You see these things among people you consider rich, and you crave them. You hoard small objects, the cast offs of the better offs, and you think yourself lucky to have snatched such prizes.

I remember being perhaps 10, or 11, and sitting on the floor of the dining room reading Australian Womens Weekly Cookbook, a glossy A4 softcover filled with large pictures of simple foods. Brandy snaps. Yorkshire pudding. The pages were something I would treasure, the details of the recipes something I would pore over, a series of simple how-to pictures I must have subconsciously replicated here on this very blog. I would look at these foods and yearn for the ingredients, the know-how. But to practice we would need more than what we had. And what we had wasn’t enough.

So where are the choices in that? We were making the right life choices. We were frugal as our station demanded. We made the most of what we had. But still we ate cereal for dinner while our neighbours’ cat ate gravy beef.

What is it about dependency that means you must suffer in silence the ire of those who consider themselves your betters?

I sit now in comfort, folded in the bounty of the middle classes, and I look back to those days as a hazy memory, and I’m thankful to be free of then. I can sit now and listen to people run down the poor to someone the feel is a social equal, and while I no longer feel myself an interloper, I sometimes feel I have abandoned my past, that I have turned my back on what it was to be both hungry and undeserving.

Until I see the ire acted out again, as if by rote, an endless script of hate and condescension.

Intellectual property, that is to say the private ownership of words and ideas: it doesn’t sound like the kind of relationship with knowledge that a place of higher learning like a university ought to foster, does it? Besides, how do you even steal words, or ideas? They are hardly gone after you have snatched them. How about ‘lying about whose work it is,’ then? Perhaps that’s the crux of the matter. Producing knowledge requires an effort, which is usually defined as ‘work’. If anybody could simply claim the credit for the work of anybody else then the knowledge industry – which is regulated by market relations that monetise this credit in various ways – would cease to function. But surely the social good lies in the knowledge itself, not in its attribution, and besides the example of the anonymous authors of so much oral poetry, traditional music and contemporary street art, it is quite possible to imagine a utopian pinko knowledge industry where ideas circulate freely, thus facilitating and accelerating the production of more knowledge.

Because in truth, how can you locate the point of origin of an idea or a certain sequence of words except in the culture itself? Roland Barthes, circa 1968, in ‘The Death of the Author’:

The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture. […] [T]he writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original.

The following year, Michel Foucault began his essay ‘What is an author?’ by posing a question originally formulated by Samuel Beckett: ‘What does it matter who is speaking?’ to which Barthes had replied in advance:

writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.

Now I don’t want to dumb-down these two essays and their peculiar conversation to a couple of easy-to-digest snippets, nor ignore the specific historical and cultural conditions in which they were produced, at a time when what Foucault dubbed ‘the-man-and-his-work-criticism’ held full sway. But one could legitimately ask: if an understanding of intertextuality and the ideas of the death of the author and the author-function have been around for so long, why haven’t they changed the way the publishing industry operates, or forced a rethinking of what constitutes plagiarism in publishing and academia? Is it simply a case of those critics and those ideas having been cast aside?

I would say yes, and no. On the one hand, yes, the publishing industry has changed its ways not an iota, nor did Barthes or Foucault themselves to my knowledge ever renounce their name on the cover or the customary protections and moral rights afforded to a published author. Ditto Ihimaera. Hell, even Bansky has claimed these, albeit ‘against his better judgment’. But I think more profoundly the idea that authorship and its integrity matter has proved equally as resilient. Pierre Menard himself tell us that we can’t quite dispense completely with it – even as he goes about turning it upside down – by showing how differently we would have to read Don Quixote if we knew it to have been written by a 20th century Frenchman as opposed to a 17th century Spaniard.

Of course, you say? Well, yes. But consider how electronic writing and the Internet were meant to change all this, further unsettling traditional ideas concerning just who it is who does the writing and possibly killing the author all over again by circulating near-infinite variations on a near-infinite number of texts without a discernible point of origin, or a shred of attribution. This remains a source of anxiety, but I would argue it really hasn’t happened yet. If anything, people who write on the Web have developed a whole new and highly sophisticated sensitivity towards issues of textual attribution and historicity. I’ve touched in the past by way of example upon the edit history of Wikipedia entries, which shows an attention to intricate philological issues on the part of a writing community that consists largely – and I mean this in the most non-derogatory way possible – of amateurs.

The credible bloggers are also very careful to acknowledge their sources, and the manner in which they do so is interesting, for the hyperlinks provided often point to the pages where each discovery took place. It’s only by means of further hyperjumps, following a Star-Trek-like wormhole of sorts, that one is likely to get to the source proper, the location where that particular text came to be, the ‘mothertext’ if you will. Or not, of course, there’s always the possibility that one or more of the pages might have expired by then, but that for once doesn’t matter: it’s in that pattern of connections, however provisional and unstable, that one can glimpse a new way of mapping the 3-dimensional space where authorship and readership come to coexist.

I want to steal this talk again, and to discuss what the author-function of a blogger, amongst others, might be. I suspect we’ll find it is highly plastic and I’ll go as far as to reserve a word to describe this, allthor, an extremely catchy and MBA-friendly term that perhaps some of you might help me fill – I have but vaguest of ideas at present, save for the fact that I think it would be an interesting question to explore.

But in the meantime, what of Ihimaera’s indiscretions? Would it even matter that he neglected to credit those sources, were it not for the legal framework within which the publishing industry operates, or the possibly antiquated notions of originality and individuality that we choose to entertain in this particular medium? I think that even under those conditions it does, it would. For crediting a source, the site where some particular words came together in the way that they did, means also preserving a trace of the text’s place within the culture that produced it, of its genealogy. But as in a genealogy, the presentation of the copied text is better viewed as the re-presentation of the original, a facsimile perpetuating a forgotten past to an unknowing or unwitting reader anew, perhaps guiding them closer to a history they may well otherwise have lost.

Consider a remote and fanciful future where Menard’s Quixote survived while Cervantes’ didn’t, and furthermore there was no knowledge that the earlier of the two books had even been written. This is the kind of loss – of metadata, of history, of memory – that you would be measuring every day.

The speciman who might be White Mans Last Great Hope

Kyle Chapman: The specimen who might be the Last Great Hope for the worlds white men (from Stuff)

With 100 Word Blog gone I thought I’d best take the baton on Kyle Chapman, darling of the right wing’s, latest idea.

The latest idea from this gifted thinker is a gated community somewhere in the South Island, for “like-minded Europeans”.

Now we can only imagine that Kyle has finally discovered the love in his roots, and has decided to resurrect those ideas lost by the Hippies in the 60s: Safe communities, where like-minded people can remove themselves from the greed and violence of modern society, to bring their children up with their loving ideas, and even sometimes, loving them themselves.

And what an idea! Troops of bald and jack-booted guys in camo, living together in a like-minded way. A social club where they can drink and share their ideas about what it means to be a white man, and maybe, become one. For this is what “unity” means, no?

And a large vegetable garden. Probably filled with a whole lot of cabbages.

One of my mixed fortunes was being brought up by my mum. Solo motherhood is a hard row, and I had two younger brothers she had to keep an eye on as well. But, it meant that I was able to chose my own male role models. Naturally this included my uncles and my grandfather, but also included blokes off TV, out of books, and in bands.

It’s a strange thing trying to define yourself, but I guess it’s something we all do. It’s just that some of us have more clearly defined markers, aeh?

So, masculinity. What seems to be a common mistake is defining femininity and masculinity as roles, or in the doing. Consequently calls are made for men to be more masculine by not being afraid to do childcare, or perform domestic duties.

I’ve never really understood that though, because what you do and who you are two entirely separate things. Yes women were traditionally relegated to particular roles and activities, but I’m not certain that they actually defined femininity itself. Certainly these roles were used to restrict women, but I can’t see having men performing some of these tasks would or could change masculinity or femininity.

Put another way, men doing domestic chores doesn’t make them feminine, so why is it assumed that performing domestic chores makes women feminine? My answer would be that it does not. There is without doubt a strong relation between the “domestic space” and “femininity”, but it is only a relation, not a dependency. The real question is, “to what extent does domesticity contribute to femininity?”

And I’d have to assume that for some women the answer is, “not at all.”

Now, you can flip that question over and ask to what extent traditional male roles like ‘providing’ define masculinity. And again, for some men the answer is negative. It seems that the doing isn’t what masculinity is all about.

What my lack of predefined male role-model allowed me to realise is that masculinity is about the being. Men don’t do things to make themselves masculine, they just are. Masculinity is something you can learn and imitate, but the essence of being a man is not an activity, it just is. And it is also an individual essence, ineffable.

Perhaps Austin Powers is so funny because everyone recognised ‘the mojo’ for what it is!

Putting aside cheesy stereotypes, masculinity is an acquired essence that grows and/or changes as a man matures. Moreover, like many ineffable things it is better defined by what it is not. It is not independent of femininity for example, but is enhanced by it.

My own opinion is that freeing up masculinity from the doing is liberating for both genders. Because we can start to see it as a essence, or an attribute, it can vary and amend itself to its circumstances. Moreover, my masculinity doesn’t undermine or boost yours, we’re each able to define ourselves.

This probably needs teasing out, especially to prevent the introduction of dogmatic or stereotyped masculinity of the sort I mentioned in the last post on the concept (fundamentalism). Would like to hear from anyone about it.

An inevitably brought about by the increasing social and political strength of women since the end of the Second World War has been a decrease in the absolute power many men indulged in. Where once a mans word was the law in a household, or in the workplace, these days this is only the case among luddites like fundamentalist Christians.

What’s interested me for a while has been thinking through the role of masculinity in a our new, non-patriarchal society, and it’s thinking that that accelerated of late with the prospect of an addition to my family. So to give us a starting point, a favourite quote of mine has always been Germaine Greer, “the opposite of patriarchy is not matriarchy, but fraternity” (or at least, I that’s how I’ve always remembered it). What I’ve always liked about the statement is that it doesn’t suggest that the old power structure should be overturned (i.e., now women have exclusive power, and men are relegated to the shed, where a god deigned to grant them appropriate skills), but rather that the role of men within society needs to be re-imagined.

It’s appropriate at this point to state that I don’t consider that great Australian value ‘mateship’ to be the fraternity I’m talking about. Mateship is probably the most exclusive kind of fraternity you can imagine. It’s sexist, racist, and anti-intellectual. So when I say fraternity I mean it in a much more simple sense; family and brotherhood.

The first thing I can imagine an intellectual friend like Deborah stating at this point is, “but isn’t that still exclusive? Fraternity distinguishes itself from sorority by it’s very nature.” To which my answer would be, “well yes, but you say it like it’s a bad thing.”

From my long study of identity politics I noticed that one common mistake made by people is often to confuse equality and sameness. Being equal does not mean having exactly the same rights, and it does not mean have exactly the same obligations. The problem always crops up in arguments about multiculturalism, where rights given to a minority are interpreted to mean fewer rights on the part of the majority. But this is usually a perception issue. The right to speak a minority language in political life doesn’t take anything away from speakers of a majority language, if anything it expands the options available to majority individuals. Thing is, it’s really hard to get that across to some people.

And that, from my perspective, has been the problem with the decline of masculinity within our society (and possibly Western societies of our type). It seems to be regarded as a zero-sum game in which gains by women are at the expense of men. Now in some cases that would appear to be the truth. If more women are in executive positions in corporations, there will be less men. But women in these roles doesn’t weaken masculinity, it weakens patriarchy. And frankly, good. Patriarchy held back men as much as it held back women. 

My opinion is that there is too much confusion of patriarchy and masculinity. Being a man doesn’t necessarily need to mean that you exercise political power, or that you have a right to exercise that power and women cannot share it. Being a man does however mean that you have a right to exercise masculinity, or put another way, you have the right to represent masculinity.

But let’s segue out for a second and state for the record, that beer-swilling, date-raping football players aren’t masculine. They’re dickheads. It’s probably also a good time to state that classic William Gibson quote, “the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.”

A lot of men haven’t caught up with the C20th yet, meaning their idea of masculinity is confused, and in transition.

As I say, being a man doesn’t mean you have to be “the Man”. Exercising the essence of masculinity isn’t a power trip, it’s a way of being. And it’s a way that should find its complement in femininity, and it should be strengthened through fraternity and family. With the decline of patriarchy what men seem to have missed out on is some way to reassert the worth and validity of masculinity, and cultural norms mean we don’t talk it through. Which on average might not be an entirely bad thing. American willingness to talk about everything, all the freaking time, is at best annoying…

I’m running out of words, so I’ll continue this conversation in comments and in another post. But the idea of rescuing masculinity, and restating what it is to be a real man, is something we al need to think about. Men who feel self-worth are better men, and men who know their role in society and the family should be less prone to confusions, and more accepting of their strong feminine counterparts.

“Are you gunna go with my Gran?”

Jesus kid, you’re breaking my heart here. You don’t even know who I am, but you’re looking at me like I’m the same old same old, aren’t ya?

You’re breaking my heart.

There was a time once when I thought well of people, you know? When I thought that good intentions would overwhelm all the evil shit that happens to people like yourself. A time when I thought that someone like me might actually make a difference. So to respect that younger, foolish me, I’ll answer your question.

Am I gunna go with your Gran? Well, let’s look at this reasonably. Let’s ignore that your Gran is well, a gran. Let’s ignore that she’s probably 50 but looks 70. Let’s ignore that’s she’s lost most of her teeth, and she’s pissed at 11.30am, on a Saturday. And let’s face it, she’s a bit worse for wear. Even ignoring all these things, the answer is still, undoubtably, no.

Now this isn’t to say that no-one I know wouldn’t go with your Gran. Because your question, asked by you who is obviously no older than 7, reveals two interesting things. First, people going with your Gran isn’t outside the boundaries of your everyday reckoning. Second, blokes who look like me are obviously the type of bloke who do drive up that long out-of-the-way road to go with women who live up here.

So Gran, you’re breaking my heart.

Why I’m here is something I undertook even before you were born. Your sister here might have been perhaps two or three years old when I first same here to speak with your family, and the people who live round here. And she’s giving me this look like, “if not my Gran, then who?”, and I’m looking at her like, “love, if you were a boy, you’d barely be shaving.”

So the three of you, you’re breaking my heart.

But here I am, all the same, a bloke who’s seeing something he’s seen before, when he came up here the last time, acted out all over again. And the sadness it laid on me then was burnt out in the kitchens of the big city while I slaved to finish this, a book I brought up here to give back to your people. And you look at me with the eagerness of a group of people somehow conditioned into thinking that blokes like me come up here for one real reason, to lay with a woman old enough to have birthed me, and or a girl still with the flush of innocence on her cheeks.

And you’re breaking my heart, again, while I stand with book in hand, trying to fulfill a promise, one I made long ago to people who aren’t even living here anymore. A promise that’s dug into my conscience for three years now, while I grow fat and content off the Degree I made out of knowledge I took from here. And I know that once I ditch this copy I’ll get back into that rented car and drive that 4 hours back into the big city to a cushy hotel room and sleep comfortably while out here the cycles we all hear about, and all hear about needing to be broken, are repeated endlessly.

And it’s not guilt that twangs on my heart-strings, it’s anger. Anger that’s breaking my heart because I know that years of work amount to nothing out here in the wilds. A place where 7 year-old Aboriginal boys find it usual that blokes are coming up here to treat their women like a convenience. A place where all my work amounts to nothing but an avenue for a bloke to take a step ahead, while you take the step backwards. A place where the word ‘sorry’ is a meaningless nothing spoken by well-meaning liberals.

So I’m looking at your sister, and I can see the intelligence in her eyes, and I pleading with her, gently, to read it. Just read these pages… Please. Not the whole thing I’m saying, just this bit here, because this is your history. The history of this place that’s been scattered to the winds over the years because blokes like me can’t see any worth in writing it down. A history that makes blokes like me get fat off the proceeds of books and talking tours while up here you have a life like your Gran’s to look forward to. Abuse. Alcoholism.

So I’m looking in her eyes and I know that once I leave that that big ugly dog in the corner will eat this book, and I’m trying to hide my desperation, because I know that education and knowledge is the way out, and I know that this thing making the difference to just one person would make all those years worthwhile. 

But you’re breaking my heart, because I know, in the end, it’s futile. Blokes like me never make a difference. We take what we need, the way we always have. And people like you three keep living on these mission stations, the remnants of a once proud people destroyed under the genocidal policies of the blokes who now come up here, for fun.

And the anger, it will always break my heart. But I tried. And I cared. Which is something I need never regret.

(PS. Cross-posted over at Public Address)

A challenging post by Deborah over at In a Strange Land turned up in my RSS this week, and I wanted to talk about it. In fact, I got out of bed to do so. The good news is that I wasn’t compelled at 3am, which occasionally happens… (more…)

The Arts and Letters Daily provided a link to an interesting article yesterday, one picked up by Deborah over at In A Strange Land.

It’s a compelling article. The author discusses the work of a social scientist called Robert Putnam. Putnam has been studying the impact of ethnic diversity in American cities for a decade and has produced some interesting findings. Without having read the original article (and relying on the Boston Globe story), Putnam has demonstrated that trust and civic engagement is lowered in diverse communities.

What this result means is that people are less likely to mix with their neighbours, even ethnically similar neighbours, and less likely to participate in political, social or cultural life, when diversity is high.

A very big finding. One that potentially undermines the arguments posed in favour of multiculturalism. For example, if introducing people into communities has a negative effect on democratic interaction, then why encourage immigration from ethnically distinct sources?

As you can imagine, the conservatives are having a field day.

What’s interesting about Putnams results though is that he’s demonstrating that old ideas about civil society are defunct in the modern world. Much like conservatives who haven’t caught up with the realities of metropolitan life, the ideal of the perfect civil society has simply had its day. Whereas once we could aspire to perfect social and political interaction in gleaming cities without poverty, disease or hunger, modern advances in communication, transport and economics have put all those ideals out the window.

But, what Putnam has not demonstrated is that civil society is under pressure from diversity. Instead, what Putnam has effectively demonstrated that civil society is an outmoded utopian dream in the face of modern social realities. It isn’t the issue of diversity that needs to be addressed. Unless some massive change occurs, such as the end of easy international travel, diversity is here to stay.

What needs to be addressed is our outmoded social and political institutions. Institutions that rely on homogeneity and uniformity to operate effectively. As I indicated in another post, our institutions were designed and constructed in during the Industrial Revolution, and are becoming increasingly irrelevant to a wired, globally mobile population. Blaming diversity for an unresponsive and defunct socio-political system is pointless, new systems need to be devised to accommodate the needs of diverse societies.

Fortunately, as Putnam has discovered, diverse societies, workplaces, teams and communities are hard-wired for innovation and higher productivity. Maybe the answers are in the communities themselves.

PS. I did some snooping around, and here’s the original Putnam article. I’ll read it over and maybe make another post based on it, and your comments.

Anjum Rahman was kind enough to send me a copy of her paper from the recent SPRE conference, and on reading it I was struck by how much things never really change for migrants.

I’ll qualify that statement by saying that my personal experience of migration is living in two countries where my only point of different was a distinct accent and a mild cultural genuflection (when in Rome, as they say). That said, while I studied in Australia I found myself having to canvass a lot of material on migrant assimilation, and mostly because of it’s central role in defining the race and culture of Australian citizenship.

My study of the migrant experience in Oz provided a couple of interesting lessons for me. The first is that regardless of the culture into which a migrant tries to fit, the experience tends to be very similar. This is of course dependent on the degree to which the migrant differs culturally, linguistically or religiously from the host society, but also on the degree of xenophobia exhibited by the host. Very generally though, alienation, social isolation and the like are ‘normal’.

The second, and more interesting thing the study revealed is that a benign policy environment is essential to the mitigation of this negative migrant experience. And strangely enough, though you wouldn’t believe it after Tampa, Australia has had such an environment.

Anjum’s paper discusses the experience of a woman called “Mei Lin”, who came to New Zealand in the 1960s with her husband. They settled and had a family, but without her familial support network began to to suffer mental health issues. I’m paraphrasing far too much, but essentially Mei Lin’s condition can be attributed to her experiences of social alienation and New Zealand xenophobia.

I’m not in any position to comment on improvements in settlement assistance for migrants in contemporary New Zealand, I simply don’t know anything about what’s happening here these days, but I can say that Mei Lin’s experience has been well documented in Australia among migrants there. And, especially in the time before the implementation of multicultural policies.

What Mei Lin’s experience demonstrates, as does the poor experiences of hundreds and thousands of migrant women in 50s and 60s Australia, is that difference does count. There is a tendency for host nations to assume that migrants can just “work hard” and “fit in”, but this expectation is actually quite unreasonable. Migrants can often want to fit in, but be prevented from doing so by “business and usual” alienating behaviour of the the host culture, let alone by the differences between their own culture and the host’s.

Or, put another way, any migration and settlement policy built on an assimilation and mono-cultural model simply does not work in the real world.

It’s a pity then that I missed Anjum’s paper at the SPRE conference. I’m sure their was plenty of subtle commentary in the presentation that doesn’t translate into written English!

Well, it’s been an interesting week of discussions about Islamic migrants. Actually… I’m not even sure that I should be using the term ‘Islamic migrants’ because it seems like most of these migrants are actually nationals of some particular variety who also happen to be Muslim. Would you say ‘Christian migrants’ when talking about Europeans? No. You wouldn’t. And why? Because you’d sound like a dick. (more…)

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