November 2009

It has occurred to me that my step-father is now little more then a thirty-year old memory, and that those things I can recall are vague. I remember that he dropped me off at my first day of school, though that memory competes with the discovery that I was able to order fish and chips for lunch (at the time a miraculous finding). I also remember he and my mother standing in a kitchen of the flat in which we lived, holding one another, and kissing very gently.

Other than this, Johnny is a ghost in my past, his presence continual for a time but now faded, long erased from the corners of the self-centred viewpoint of a child. I can see the places we lived while he and my mother were together, and I can remember some of my own actions, but he himself is little more than an object transferred to pictures that reference those places, as though he were added independently of me.

This takes me again to the strangeness of my own past, where a figure so fundamental to my childhood should be transient within it. Johnny passed through our lives in as little as 6 years, but his effect on my mother and her own future was profound. She loved him very, very deeply, and her attempt to secure him a return to New Zealand after our failed emigration to Greece was to to underlay all her actions for a number of years.

And to this day I wonder who the man really was. I will admit that my younger self never trusted him. He was Greek, and had been working on the ships, and somehow met my mother in Tauranga. How has never really been clarified, but must have begun living together in 1975 or very early 76, and married shortly before my youngest brother was born in 1978. Other than this lack of trust I have no real feeling for him, which is, as I say, an admission, and I am shocked to hear myself confess it to you. But with this length of time having passed, and myself having outlived him, I think I am entitled.

I will also admit that there is only really one association I strongly bear with Johnny. Drugs. Johnny’s main income after settling in New Zealand was their import and sale . Exactly what type I do not know, having only a series of second-hand stories, but have a fair idea. What I do know is that, once again, the idealism of the late 60s had settled into the naive consumption and good times of the 70s, and Johnny was well-involved with what my mother must have seen as the glamorous world of conspiracy and danger the drug trade represented.

My childhood memory from this time is full of anecdotes about types of drugs, drug use, and drug abuse. And in a further confession, it angers me. But, as the older me is bound to do, I excuse this with the thought that alcoholism could well have been worse. Johnny did not mistreat us. I do not ever remember being beaten (wooden spoon administered by mum being the exception), nor do I remember my mother being ‘mishandled’, two types of memory common to peoples whose parents were drunks. The anger is reserved for the sequence of events, and the knowledge that all too many people are drawn into the same world of shame and tragedy we were.



Interesting but ultimately disappointing.

My first impression was bad (a glossary… the next worse thing is a freaking map), but it livened up once I got used the author’s rhythmn. One character in particular kept in interested (Horvil, happy-go-lucky geek, a laugh a minute), while others where a tiny bit one-dimensional.

But, the story just fails to deliver. Plots fall over, a major plot is obviously a device left for the sequel, and the entire book reads as if the author simply ran out of space (or the editor said “enough!” and it was all bumped into another novel).

Single word review – Average.

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.

Well my boy, I’ve been writing this history, your history, since before I knew you. Actually, since just slightly before I knew of you, and I’ve kept in mind that there will come a day when you will read these many dreamed pages yourself, and wonder.

For me you’ve become something of a lodestone within this tale, it’s unravelling, and my understanding of the many whys it has helped me understand. And pivotal to that understanding is the question, why did he leave?

I know for certain now that discovering the fact of my Father’s demise in the years I first thought I needed to return to his family would have been a mistake, and too much information for my young mind to assimilate. While the plasticity of youth is a boon, it also offers opportunity for partial knowing to deeply gouge rows into which future misunderstanding is sown, the crop of adulthood become a weed.

Sitting here experiencing the gentle frustration of the adult with a child who will not sleep, I have wondered many times how I would cope had I a monkey on my back, and it is that single thought that has many times explained to me the why.

To find yourself sick, but tied to a family you did not expect, with a woman you would barely have known, would be impossible. Knowing that fact makes it easy to not blame him for leaving, and more importantly, to not blame myself. But the teenager? It is a very different knowing.

But my aunt with whom he lived, and my mother herself, were teenagers, the effect of his departure into the unknown and what became the very last time either of them saw him, was profound. My aunt laid the finger of blame on my mother I know, but in the confusion who can be certain.

My mother’s last memory of my father is his making his way along the road away from the house, abandoning them all. My aunt stands on the street, yelling, telling him to never return if he makes the choice to leave. My mother moved away from her too shortly thereafter, herself making a fateful decision.

I see this time now as the harrowing of paradise. The last glimmer in the illusion of peace my Boomers held onto, and it is an important part of our history. Their falling away from each other after the discovery that nothing was easy, and that they themselves were the greatest enemies of peace, must have been profound.

Thinking all this does not make the burden of knowledge any less my boy, but the gift you have given me, unwittingly, is the experience to see with clarity, and is something you should know I will long be grateful for.