Saturday, 8 March 2014

Why I have been quiet for a week

I've been quiet online for the past week with no new blog post since Sunday when I had a minor crisis with confused thoughts, severe negativity, and a feeling of helplessness stemming from my mother's dementia. On Tuesday she and I went to see her geriatrician and I told him about how managing her illness was becoming more and more of a burden, and he took my words seriously, suggesting thinking about finding alternative accommodation arrangements for her. This involves getting her assessed by the government so that a suitable level of care can be found in a nursing home. There are a number of such residences nearby but the assessment will provide information that can result in an appropriate kind of residence for my mother's particular situation. She and I will go to see her GP in about 10 days' time to arrange for the visit, but it might then take some time for the team to come to see my mother.

But even though these discussions have been conducted, the mild depression I am living with continues to bother me. This week has been distinctly unpleasant. On Sunday last the negative thoughts proliferated as I tried to sleep, and throughout the week I have slept badly, usually waking during the night several times, and in the intervals having strong dreams. I have been exercising for about an hour each day, but I think that part of the problem is alcohol since I have been drinking a few glasses of wine in excess each evening.

Negative thoughts are a signal of poor mental health for me. You have confused thoughts, you spend long periods of time feeling lost, and you even compose critical diatribes as you lie in the dark that aim to say what you think you want to say to someone, to go over things that have happened in the past, or to rewrite the record in a way that suits you in your hyper-critical phase. The negativity is sometimes overwhelming, and while that may appear unfortunate it is a symptom of the malaise I have lived with for 14 years.

Sleeplessness associated with these running thoughts that involve your mind for long periods of time can also operate like a drug. You can easily become euphoric, but then that euphoria can suddenly switch to panic, and so your heart can ramp up to beat at 120 bpm and you can stay in this phase for hours and hours until you find sleep through exhaustion. I have experienced this many times because of my illness. If you live with mental illness you learn to know the symptoms, and so you try to manage them. The consequences of not doing so can be extremely unpleasant.

Looking after my mother also involves looking after myself but just for her care is complicated - even though we have someone to come in each day to do laundry, wash dishes, and do the shopping - taking in such things as medication, finances, monitoring the regularity of meals, making sure the house is locked and secure, checking up in case of falls, and generally just worrying about the thousand details that constitute a normal person's life. These details disappear for most people in the regular practice of living but when you have to look after someone else - as well as yourself - the number of them proliferates to an alarming degree.

Because I have two households to monitor and manage, and two people who are both living with a mental illness, the burden can sometimes be heavy, and so other things - like writing, in my case, or even reading - can fall away from the focus of current preoccupation. There might simply be no bandwidth available for things that are not immediately relevant to the basic demands of living. I think it is important to find a balance, and so I decided to get back on the blog this morning and talk about these issues here.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

The Way By Swann's, Marcel Proust

This is my second review of this book, completed after finishing reading it, but I suggest that you might realistically spend years writing about Proust's wonderful novel and never finish exploring the ways in which it reveals things about itself and about the constructed world in which we all live. I thought it appropriate to use a drawing of Charles Ephrussi with this post as he was it is said the model for Swann, Proust's hero in the novel. I have written about Ephrussi before in the context of Edmund de Waal's historical study of his own family, The Hare With Amber Eyes, which was published in 2010, and while Swann is a character of some interest in Proust's novel what is of more immediate interest is the way the author draws out the mystery surrounding the man, although to explicate this mystery completely here would equate to utterly traducing the reader's interests.

Yet there is a mystery in the book, which opens with a portrait of the narrator's family seen through the lens of his childhood, which is spent mainly in the countryside. In the second section of the book we learn about Swann's romance with Odette de Crecy, a love affair conducted on unequal terms due to Swann's elevated material lifestyle and to Odette's tendency to prey on rich men, and which terminates in the book at the point at which Swann finally rids himself of his obsession, an occurrence that happens in the blink of an eye, it seems.

But the mystery really emerges to the fore of the reader's imagination in the book's third part in which we are appraised of the narrator's own childhood obsession with Gilberte, Swann's daughter. Part of the mystery is linked to the fact that in the book's second part - which deals with Swann's love affair - Swann has no daughter and is not married. This part of the book takes place in Paris but most of the year it had seemed, from the novel's first part, that the narrator lived in the countryside; you also wonder how the narrator could have known so much about Swann's life if he - the narrator - was still a boy. If he's still a boy in the book's third part then he must have been a boy in the book's second part, when Swann was still unmarried. The mysteries proliferate. But the largest mystery is the identity of Swann's wife, and we do meet her near the very end of the book's third part although I am not going to tell you who she is.

Being able to see all the stages in the life of a man, as we do the stages of Swann's life - the visits to the narrator's family home in the countryside, the energetic pursuit of Odette through Paris's streets, the plangent expressions of frustrated desire when confronted by Odette's cruelty, the third-person accounts of the father's comments relayed through the daughter to the daughter's Champs Elysees playmate - is something that belongs to maturity, in this case the maturity of the writer planning his work of literature. To ensconce this sequence of relations within the ambit of the consciousness of a boy is to play a kind of trick, unless we are being invited to imagine the man the boy grew into, now thinking in retrospect about the events of his childhood.

For even as it peters out into oblivion - the oblivion that lies in the space created by the novel's final sentence - Proust's book turns its attention to the nature of this kind of retrospective regard, and to its colours, feelings, atmosphere and tones. The aerial blick - as in the German augenblick, or regard - that characterises Proust's novel - the lofty view, as though we are seeing things through a lens suspended high in the air - turns into a kind of sigh in the novel's final sentences as the author bids us adieu. While doing so he reminds us that there is something magical about the anterior regard - we might say the imaginative reconstruction of the past - because by its means we are able to learn something about ourselves and feel a complex of emotions that might reveal themselves as we walk down the street, head bowed somberly in contemplation, in a corporeal shiver. This frisson of recognition embedded in the final paragraphs of the novel is what, finally, determines the significance of the novel for us, and also reminds us that an equal sensation might be available to any one of us should we take the time to recount the past as it happened to us, as well.

There is for example the line of the Paul Simon song, "Losing love is like a window in your heart." But it is not true at all. This is because people may not, in fact, see you falling apart, and the effects of lost love might linger for years if not decades, a fact of which I was reminded yesterday when I was searching for some photographs of the 2009 Mardi Gras parade. As I was looking through my files in search of those photos I came across some photographs taken about 18 months after that event, and looking at myself in them, smiling for the camera, I remembered the moment that was thus captured and it became clear to me just what I have lost. The sensation is hardly comfortable, and translates into a hard ball settled in the pit of my stomach, but then again I can think of the things that I have gained in the years since, and I cherish the friendship.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Raking up memories of the Bill Henson case

From an SBS World News Australia segment
on the Bill Henson case, 23 May 2008. 
There was talk last night on the ABC's new courtroom drama Janet King about artists using the excuse of exploring the transition between innocence and adulthood to produce child porn, with Australian actor Darren Gilshenan on the stand as Alex Moreno, the alleged perpetrator, and Marta Dusseldorp as barrister Janet King on the offensive, and getting flustered. Moreno came across as a manipulative and unreliable character who probably lied on the stand.

If these parts of the the episode made some people think of the Bill Henson case in the autumn and winter of 2008, when the renowned Australian photographer had his artworks siezed by police from his gallerist in Paddington, in Sydney, and then had to tolerate everyone from child protection workers to the prime minister, Kevin Rudd, proclaiming his creations worthless and disgusting, they can hardly be faulted.

It is somewhat ironic then, if not downright disturbing, that yesterday also it was announced that in October the Classification Review Board banned a 1980 Swedish film after an application by the Australian Federal Police. 

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Save us from Charlotte Dawson's newly-grafted-on supporters

I had a dream in which I returned to Earth, and when I came back from space I was talking about what it was like but there was someone else, a writer, who produced a written description of what it was like to return to Earth. I read the description and then started talking, telling the writer how my version of returning to Earth differed from what was written. But the writer's words were read by many people while I was limited to speaking words quietly in a room, and the written description of what it was like to return to Earth was strong, although it differed in many material aspects to my version, which was based on experience. When I woke up it was 2.30am so I had a drink of water and went back to bed but a mosquito came out of the darkness, and so here I am writing.

My dream reminded me of something that happened yesterday when there was outrage on social media about an article written by a person called Deborah Hill Cone, in New Zealand, about the death of Charlotte Dawson. In the article, Cone suggests that Dawson suicided because of the ravages of age, and she said some things that are quite accurate, for example:
It is hard being 47. At the crisis of middle age, losing your sexual currency, becoming invisible. Psychologist Joseph Burgo says getting older inevitably involves a kind of narcissistic injury: as our bodies age and younger people find us less physically attractive, they seem to look right through us, as if we no longer exist.
Now I don't know how old Cone is but going by her newspaper dinkus she must be 35 if she's a day. I doubt that she lives with depression, but then again I doubt that the majority of the people who were wheezing with pompous outrage on Twitter have a clue what is involved in mental illness, from a first-person perspective. The truth is that a suggestion such as Cone's is hardly the worst thing that can happen to you if you live with mental illness; the hard realities of psychosis, for example, likely put far greater demands on your patience than any media columnist could produce, and so it seemed comical to me to read all the statements of regret and hatred, directed against Cone and in favour of Dawson. More than merely comical: it seemed ludicrous. As if the worst thing that could happen is that a few progressive opinion-makers in Australia might have their worldview challenged in the matter of someone else's suicide. Poor dears.

The fact is that as you age you do become invisible, and for someone involved in the image industry, as Dawson was, that must be challenging. There was surgery to help improve the image. As far as I know - for I am not a woman and I don't work in TV - Cone might be right, and Dawson found ageing too much to cope with, but I doubt it. I think that her depression was triggered by something else - a TV program featuring her ex-husband was mentioned - and she buckled in advance of public comments from anonymous trolls, those whose words she had unwisely heeded in the past. Dawson's mistake was to give a shit what other people - people too cowardly to come out from behind the convenient screen social media makes available - had thought and said.

For us the mistake is to sentimentalise her death. Her life, after all, was her own to end. We no longer say "commit suicide" because no longer is there the moral opprobrium attached to the act, as there was for millennia, when the opinion of the Church - that suicide was a mortal sin - meant different treatment for the remains of suicides, than for people who died by less violent means. Attempted-suicides were treated as criminals. If Dawson wanted to kill herself she had every right to do so, and it's nobody's business except hers.

The language we use to talk about suicide is filled with euphemisms, metaphors, allusions and other rhetorical tropes - Cone accurately points to the in truth annoying "demons", for example; a word that peppers talk of suicide in the media and on social media - because we are trying to deal with something that is alien to us and so we seek to find ways to make it conform to our view of the world. There is also a thick coating of sentiment used by people with no connection to the subject who think that by saying these things they are honouring a memory they never had except within the flickering simulacra of mediated culture. No wonder Cone got stroppy. Because that's what her article is, in the end. It's not addressed to Dawson herself but, rather, it's aimed at the legions of newly-minted Dawson groupies who emerged in the wake of her suicide to overlay public debate with their confected feelings of sadness, or whatever it was they felt. Probably not much actually.

So I sympathise with Cone - as I return to Earth and ready myself to tell people, in written words, what it felt like - because like her I cannot stand falseness and fatuousness, routine expressions, and bland moral outrage. In the face of the despair that someone with a mental illness faces - on their journey in space, outside the comfortable confines of Earth's sweet atmosphere - the chatter of the public looks to me something like the isolated specks of the unblinking stars that are embedded in the immeasurable blackness of the mortal universe.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

We need more people to come out like Charlotte Dawson

When I saw news online that a TV personality named Charlotte Dawson had suicided I had to puzzle and do a bit of research because I had no idea who she was, which is entirely due to the fact that I never watch commercial television least of all the to-be-avoided-at-all-costs Murdoch's Fox. While Dawson participated in the low-rent side of the media which flatters the aspirations of the unlovely majority, it seems that in private she was a nice person, someone who would look out for you and ask if you were OK. Ironically, it seems that it was the very medium she had adopted as her platform - a TV interview with her ex-husband that was to be aired - that led to the collapse of her sense of hope, and her death.

It may also have been fears of a repeat of the online attacks that she was subjected to two years ago, and which led to a suicide attempt. Whatever it was, Dawson found herself suddenly walking over a chasm into which all her hope fell in a glittering waterfall as it pulsed out of her chest, as panic set in. The black void below consumed the entirety of this output and as she took each uncertain step it continued to froth and splash down into the darkness filled with a thousand stars. The life was being drained out of her by the void. She was terrified and she did the only thing for which strength remained at the time.

The terrible truth is that people around the country - and around the world - do the same thing as Dawson did, all the time. Not a day passes that someone in Australia does not take the steps she took to end the fear and anguish, the terrible, crushing paralysis of despair. Just like Dawson was herself a really nice person behind the trashy mainstream-media glitz and bubble, in reality depression and other mental illness is a constant humming quietly - but awfully for those who live with it - in the background at a pitch that the majority of people just do not hear. This is why, in 2012 when Dawson was subjected to harassment by online trolls, the barrage was unceasing: noone realised what they were doing. But we never talk about mental illness, and so it's no surprise that this is so.

There are tens of thousands of functioning individuals in positions of authority and material significance who hide their mental illness because they fear that knowledge of it by the community will damage their prospects. But unless people like this come out and declare their conditions publicly we will just continue on in the same way, regretting another death among the cohort of prominent people that the community broadly speaking looks up to. And then they turn away and spend the rest of the year oblivious to the pain and suffering that surrounds them wherever they walk. The streets are in fact filled with invisible men and women. Meanwhile hundreds and thousands of ordinary people - who do not appear on TV daily and who do not live in exclusive harbourside apartments in Wooloomooloo - fall prey to the fear and the loss of hope.

It also struck me that the tendentious emotion that was generated in the wake of Dawson's demise assumed that death was the worst thing that can happen to you. The fact is that a mentally-ill person usually does not have the objective clarity to see this anyway questionable fact. What they experience IS real. It IS happening to them. And it IS unremittingly ghastly. You think death is bad? Try a 10-hour panic attack, or three months of paranoid psychosis. For people in such situations death can look just like a walk in the park.

Friday, 21 February 2014

A shopping centre is a fantasy trap

I took my mother to get a bone scan at the imaging clinic yesterday and after she went in with the practitioners I was told the wait until the procedure finished would be about 40 minutes, so since I was close to the department store I chose this moment to go and buy some shoes. My shoes were a mess and had deteriorated to a state of dilapidation equaled only by the facade of some inner-city luxury apartment. Unfortunately, unlike that, these were just as bad on the inside as they were on the outside.

After I reached the shopping centre I immediately varied my trajectory looking for a toilet and - engrossed in the difficult things to do with organising my elderly mother that had occupied me beforehand - I promptly walked straight into the ladies' loo before realising my mistake and backtracking, embarrassed. Once I had looked after nature in the appropriate room I turned south and made my way to the department store anchoring that end of the shopping centre. I had never realised how stimulating shopping centres are. Picking a path among the strolling walkers - people just passing time inside, or those conforming to type and window-shopping - I navigated through the arcade past the escalator, around the coffee kiosk, past the jewellery store, through the portable gondolas displaying women's clothing, and between the security stanchions located at the entrance to the department store. To get here I had had to cope as well with music - the insane kind of piped music that saturates all shopping centres and which makes mere photographs of the inside of shopping centres so entirely dissimilar to the reality they actually present if you visit - that asked me to slow down, smell the roses, spend time to look, attend to the plethora of wares available to the unwary.

All I wanted was shoes. I had no need for a new watch, a pair of running shoes, a hot coffee with milk. To buy shoes was my object, and so when I arrived at the shoe section at the very far extremity of the department store I picked up what I wanted, told the sales clerk it needed to be in size 11, walked to the cash register, paid, and walked out of the department store into the hot summer day.

There was no way I was going to return into the bowels of the shopping centre with its startling array of goods displayed with all the ingenuity bequeathed by 150 years of retail touting expertise, and with its insistent, saccharine piped music, something that gets into your system and pools there like a puddle of spilled honey, clogging your joints, infiltrating your intestines, slowing down your movements and begging you - please! - to stop and spend time and money on things of which you have absolutely no mortal need. I realised in my extremity - please try caring for an elderly parent with dementia if you wish to revisit the most difficult periods of your life: those linked to raising small children - that the shopping centre represented a complete fantasy that has nothing to do with satisfying actual needs, and everything to do with flattering consumers who enter it so as to extend indefinitely the period of time they spend inside. A shopping centre is a fantasy trap, a slow-moving carnivorous flower that gently encloses you until you are immobilised. When you are, it carefully sucks the life out of you until there is nothing left but a dry husk, shivering in the wind.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Labelling the ABC unpatriotic is the classic turn of the demagogue

It has been just on three weeks since prime minister Tony Abbott had a go at the ABC for a story it aired in which asylum seekers accused Navy personnel of deliberately burning their hands during an operation on the sea. Since then Abbott has announced an inquiry into efficiency at the national broadcaster, and further details about the maritime contretemps emerged via the Sydney Morning Herald, the Fairfax Media broadsheet. ''You would like the national broadcaster to have a rigorous commitment to truth and at least some basic affection for the home team,'' said Abbott, dog-whistling for the benefit of the mouth-breathers who read the Daily Telegraph and listen to 2GB, enacting a kind of fascist witch-hunt where those who are outside the tent can be attacked at will by anyone with a stick.

Abbott's tactic - labelling the ABC unpatriotic - is the classic turn of the demagogue and the tabloid media took the bait with the eagerness you would expect from the supine toadies of the monied classes. Xenophobia is one of the tried-and-true methods conservative governments use to convince the proletariat to support it despite the fact that they operate in the interests of quite other classes within the community. Hitler didn't invent this kind of othering, of course, as I learnt recently when I read a book by Simon Schama on the French Revolution: placing your enemies outside the protective haven of the patria was the first step in achieving their eventual elimination. And it's no accident that Schama placed prominently on the cover of his book an image of an axe fashioned out of a faggot - the symbol of the fascio that would be adopted by Hitler's model, Mussolini. You only have to hint that someone or some organisation stands outside the community in order for the dogs to start barking, as the Murdoch press immediately did in its eagerness to toady to its favourite son.

But the debate is not over. It's one thing for Abbott to demonise the ABC - criticising the ABC is a kind of knee-jerk reaction of conservatives when they need a whipping boy to draw attention from their own misdeeds - but Fairfax is another matter. As a broadly-held public company, Fairfax is not liable to claims of bias except by the loony fringe Abbott has no need to convince of anything.

The prime minister does not understand what a free press means, and it's hardly surprising. The Liberals early adopted the habits of the military in order to shut down debate on the treatment of asylum seekers: the military is expert in silencing discussion of things it finds inconvenient. It's not surprising that the prime minister resents a free press because he's not the first to do so: Paul Keating famously made sure that Murdoch dominated Australia's media in an attack on Fairfax that has turned out to have been demonstrably less than wise, given Murdoch's preference for conservative politicians. But a free press has a benefit far greater than the immediate personal biases of venal politicians like Abbott. It offers the community an essential safety valve because only a truly free press can pull together credentials adequate to counterbalancing the lies perpetrated by men like him.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Book review: A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel (1992)

The author's success in keeping me interested - or, more precisely, her lack of success in this regard - meant I stopped reading at page 75 in a 750-page novel. You lose track of who's being dealt with, for a start. Is this Robespierre? D'Anton? Desmoulins? Heaven forbid you put down the book for a day or two and come back to it because you'll be completely lost in your tracking of the progress of these young men. And as happens with a lot of biographical treatments (non-fiction biographies are notorious for this structural deficit, which operates as a kind of obligation on the author's part and, like most obligations, it's just tiresome) Mantel starts right at the beginning - in childhood - and trundles on from there like an unpsrung wagon over cobblestones.

The men were all major players in the French Revolution and what we're supposed to see in these early stages of the narrative are the "seeds" of what they would become. And because Mantel is writing from a point of view 200 years after the events she deals with it's hard to offer surprises. It's just a lack of inventiveness. Everything "means something", is supposed to have a weight, an import beyond what's immediately apparent to those involved at the time. But it's dull.

Mantel tries to enliven the sludge by using a "light touch" - which is partly responsible for your never knowing who's in the frame at any given time - and a set of colourful metaphors that do not, however, consone with the aesthetic bent of the era. As a result you have a lot of writing that borrows its strength from a time far in the future in order to leaven the mix in the book's present. If the tropes were any good it might work but they're very average even for us now, and do not sufficiently stimulate the reader's attention, so they sit wobbling on the page like tricked-up anachronisms, or like gift boxes of chocolates at a gourmet picnic. They remain untouched on the grass and the ants of indifference end up getting at them.

I felt like each piece of artistic language was a present from some rarely-seen aunt from some stagnant by-water of the family tree and the incongruity of her offering related to her misapprehension of what I am interested in and what I need. Historical fiction hides deadly traps like this but it is the author's responsibility to make sure the language both matches the reader's ear and answers the questions the drama unfolding poses. Part of the problem may have to do with the fact that the protagonists Mantel chose are all men and, as a woman writer, she simply misses what they might have felt because of a lack of empathy.

There's no doubt the book is ambitious. It's just that the author fails to capitalise on the opportunities available to create drama partly because of the "light touch" she uses and partly because of a failure of imagination. Mantel is not "there" enough to enable us to see what she imagines should be seen, and the novel falls over in a heap of plot scraps and inappropriate poetic language.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Book review: Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds, Lyndall Gordon (2010)

By diligently suspending disbelief in the stupidity of the book's main topic - the affair between the poet's brother and a woman from Washington D.C. - I managed to get to about page 25 before the enterprise ended up seeming totally worthless. Gordon contrives both to adopt the values of the most doltish of those alive when the poet lived, and to take as her own the laborious prose style of the late 19th century, with the result that you feel truly to be wading through treacle with every sub clause and qualifying phrase. It's bad enough that the book is so trying to read, but to assume that the poet really cared about who her brother took to his bed is to either miss the complexity of the poetry or to devalue the originality of the poet's vision, a vision that has not yet - as far as I can tell - been adequately understood even today.

Gordon's tabloid obsessions are murky and squalid compared to the undeniably gnomic utterances of the poet. If we measure America's appreciation of Dickinson by this production we must assume that the case is still entirely unsolved. Imagine Austin falling for the blandishments of that interloper! Poor man. No doubt he found the society of Amherst as oppressive as a time traveler would, if a time traveler was to arrive from the 21st century into that small town with its religious curiosities and weird social stratifications. Unfortunately, when Gordon decided to go there she forgot to shrink wrap her 21st century intellect, and whatever remained of it after scouring the archives has been comprehensively wiped clean, leaving her with an archaic view of the world that even Dickinson would have laughed at.

As for the struggle of those who lived after Dickinson died, surrounding her legacy and its presentation to the world, I give not a fig. The idiots can scramble for reflected glory with as much passion as they like, I don't need to get involved. The poetry is enough for me.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Matt's update Friday, 14 February 2014

Bought USB extension cable.

Book purchases
  • Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
  • Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family Feuds, Lyndall Gordon, 2010
  • The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin (thanks to Hannah Forsyth for the lead) – edition of 1999, original German first published in 1982.
  • A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel (for February Book Chat Oz), 1992
Book Chat Oz
  • February episode is to cover Simon Schama’s 1989 Citizens and Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety
  • Both books are about the French Revolution
  • Schama’s book is a history book
  • Mantel’s book is an historical novel
  • Will go live at the end of the month
Made contribution to William Yang: Friends of Dorothy video through Pozible campaign.

  • ‘Giants’ (posted 30 Jan) looks at the anxiety that the weather can cause in a sub tropical location. 
  • ‘Thoughts of a friend of Geoffrey Zygier’ (posted 10 Feb) takes a look at the father of the Australian who died in 2010 while in the custody of the Israeli authorities.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Book review: Citizens, Simon Schama (1989)

Apart from bibliographical material and an index there are 741 pages of text in this book and I read 559 of them, which is not a criticism of the book, rather to openly acknowledge the brevity of my attention span; just getting me this far as a reader is testimony to Schama's superior style. In any case it's a story I already knew in many of its details; I gave up in the lead-up to the murder of the king, Louis XVI. Of course there's a lot of killing and shouting in this book, and these are the most likely candidates for my disinterest rather than familiarity but in any case the earlier parts of the story are those I had less knowledge of and getting to learn why the French people were able to move so quickly from loyalty to the king to the establishment of a new form of government formed, for me, a major new plank in my understanding of communities in general.

Most of us know something about the history of the early 20th century so will recognise something familiar in Citizens, where we learn of the wound to common amour-propre resulting from the loss of territories in the Seven Years' War adding a need for retribution to the stresses and strains associated with the nation's near-bankruptcy following the American Revolution, which was what forced the king to call his parlements to Paris to consult. Schama's achievement is to add to this equation the animating dynamic belonging to the age. As I wrote a few days ago:
Schama identifies dominant narratives used by people alive in the late-1780s, that were based on a set of notions that had been expressed in the books of Rousseau a generation earlier, to rationalise their actions even in the lead-up to the crisis of 1789 that we commonly refer to as the storming of the Bastille.
And also, he says on page 465, there was animating the community "the confluence of the neo-Roman obsession with exempla virtutes and the Romantic infatuation with the Promethean will".

Schama quotes relevant actors in order to locate those elements in the narratives animating people, especially in Paris, and so links a kind of interior monologue - which is of course an invention of a much later era - with the most terrible acts of murder as well as expressions of the sovereign will of the people. The irrational fear that people felt immediately after the National Assembly was constituted is probably nothing more complicated than popular understanding of the novelty of the situation people suddenly found themselves in but in many ways it was this fear that decided so many outcomes in the months and years that followed, and that eventually resulted in pan-European war.

So what is striking in this book is the author's ability to show not only how people felt but why. Schama's style lets him include a wide range of authorial responses to the material, as well, which brings the reader even closer to what's happening, so that you have a many-leveled narrative in which the author is as much a participant - if not the most important one - as any of the people whose lives are chronicled. Schama uses English in a sophisticated manner, as well, and employs complex linking sentences, usually placed at the beginning of paragraphs, that synthesise what has already happened while allowing the reader to segue to what is to come. Unlike the straight narrative of events, for example, these difficult sentences demand - and deserve - the reader's close attention.

Schama also often takes a lofty view of his material, ascending to a vast height above current concerns so as to add perspective to them, throwing on them the light of what lies in the future. At times this can be exhilarating but there are other times when he goes up too high and you lose sight of what's currently on the workbench. Names of gatherings of people blur, the timeline warps, and things generally tend to become fuzzy around the edges. However when this holistic method works, for example near the beginning of the book, the result is that Schama is able to construct the kind of expansive narratives that we enjoy in truly superior history books.

For those who are interested, Grant and I will be covering this book in Book Chat Oz at the end of this month, so you can get more feedback about it then.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Why I refuse to read the Bible

I'm reading a history of the French Revolution at the moment by the great prose stylist Simon Schama because Grant and I will be talking about it in Book Chat Oz, due for production at the end of the month. The book - Citizens (1989) - was suggested by Grant and this fact causes me to rack my memory because I'm trying to think of the reason he picked this book. I'm getting close to the half-way point in the book and in what I've read so far it's as clear as the nose on my face that Schama identifies dominant narratives used by people alive in the late-1780s, that were based on a set of notions that had been expressed in the books of Rousseau a generation earlier, to rationalise their actions even in the lead-up to the crisis of 1789 that we commonly refer to as the storming of the Bastille. But perhaps "rationalise" is the wrong word here. Perhaps those notions organically motivated people alive at the time to take attitudes toward the different actors in the contemporary French polis, that led to the well-known events. (The cliches multiply to populate popular consciousness even now: on the ABC's QI program the other night the program's participants were asked to identify a sound made by running the blade of a heavy knife down a length of steel pipe. The person holding the knife then hacked a cabbage and, finally, threw another cabbage into a steel bucket. Together these sounds mimic what the action of the guillotine sounded like.)

We are products of our time.

Since I was about 12 years old I have experienced pleasure from the act of reading. Part of the credit must be apportioned to my brother, who is two years older than me and who started reading hungrily even earlier than this. There was a time in my childhood, I remember, when my brother decided to read the Bible and I remember him walking slowly in the top garden lost in his thoughts. Reading was common in our household. Dad read Fortune magazine and my mother and grandmother - a woman who lived in our family throughout my childhood - read crime novels. My brother mainly read science fiction and his interest infected me until I started to become interested in European literature in my final years at school. I also read hungrily the Gerald Durrell books about travel and animals and other books of the same kind. Although my grandmother went to church every Sunday and my brother and I attended an Anglican school - where we went to chapel once a week and sang hymns during church services held at significant times during the year, and in the weekly assembly in the hall - the household was noticeably secular.

My Anglican grandmother - my father's mother - had married an illegal immigrant from one of Portugal's African colonies who had probably been raised a Catholic but who was fiercely anti-clerical by the time he arrived in Melbourne. On my mother's side her parents were brought up in the Presbyterian tradition, although her father later became a loyal Communist. All these different flavours of observance and non-observance seem to have had the effect of eliminating any ecumenical efficacy that might have endured in the others and in the process of mutual cancellation any last residue of attachment to God was forever and ineradicably lost.

I loved my brother but there was something fishy about his enthusiasms - and he had many in those years - and the Bible enthusiasm struck me as particularly fishy. I preferred to think about the blue plains of Mars created by Ray Bradbury and the immense plains of the ziggurat-world invented by Philip Jose Farmer. I grew attached to Gavin Maxwell's otter as described in Ring of Bright Water and thrilled at the adventures of Durrell in Africa, in South America, and in Greece. I was busy encasing myself in sentiment, forming deep attachments to fictional characters, and understanding my actions according to how far they strayed from the notions inhering in these examples of humanity. So the enthusiasms of the peuple in later-1780s Paris make more sense to me now than did then the philosophical abstractions of the Bible that preoccupied my brainy brother.

After school I went to university and the process of secularisation was accelerated through the study of the Renaissance and other historical periods, but at least that reading brought me to understand the importance - to people of the past, that foreign country - of the Bible in European history. Gerald Durrell and (later, during my university years) Henry Miller to me were what King David and Jesus were to Humanist book-lovers of the 16th century. I also came to understand how historical awareness animated the imaginations of the science fiction writers I had enjoyed so much in earlier years.

As for the Bible, for a secular youth of the late-20th century the Church was always going to cause problems. Studying Italian culture, as I did, brought me face to face with examples of great injustice. The names Giordano Bruno (pic) - burned at the stake - and Galileo - censured and attacked - endure in memory as the names of martyrs to the cause of the Enlightenment project I had been brought up to celebrate. What strikes me now is not so much how blind people had been for continuing to revere the Bible - which had, nevertheless, functioned in such a liberating way on the imaginations of so many people in the early Renaissance period - but that they did so for so long. It wasn't until the generation of my grandparents that irrational links to revealed religion had started to loosen.

Revealed religion is so anathemical to my view of the world that even to pick up the Bible to read it appears to me to be an act of pure disloyalty to the people who fought so hard so that I could be everything that I am.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Book review: The Way by Swann's, Marcel Proust (2002)

This is the first in a series of novels and it first came out in Proust's native language 100 years ago last year. I feel an obligation to say I'm still reading the final chapter in the book. You might ask why I didn't wait until I'd finished it before doing a review. The answer is I have other reading tasks that got in the way. I choose to write about the book now out of a feeling of compulsion.

Before reading this book, it might help some to know, I had never read anything by Proust, and it took one false start before I really got into the groove and settled down to enjoy. That false start involved a feeling of confusion, and having mulled over why I felt confused by the book I picked it up again, after a delay of many weeks, and found in it plenty to cherish, enjoy, celebrate, and master. I then became, in fact, a devotee.

One of the things devotees do is defend to the death the object of their devotion, so when I saw someone on Twitter lambast publicly the former New South Wales premier Bob Carr for having had the temerity to read out aloud, in Parliament, part of a book by Proust, I bridled like a draught horse who has just caught sight, in the road, of a snake, and I contented myself with regretting, as I had done so many times in the past, that hard-bitten and toadying anti-intellectualism that is the birthright of every Australian, who enjoys the evanescent joy of representative democracy with the overblown relish that a man who has survived adrift for two days on the ocean with the help of an upside-down Esky displays when he comes to shore and is handed a cold meat pie to assuage the burning hunger animating his miserable guts.

The length of the above sentence prompts me to want to reflect, momentarily, on Proust's language, because this is an author for whom no sentence can ever be long enough. His sentences are like the musical inventions of Wagner or Mahler or Liszt or Rachmaninoff where boors might regret the "longueurs" of the passages, but enthusiasts tremble with sensual delight at the weight that a single note is made to effortlessly convey across the gap between two tonic phrases. In Proust's case the method has its downsides; the section dealing with the party in the second part of the book suffers for this characteristic of the author's style because you simply lose track of who is talking, who is being talked about, or who is standing watching the other people mill about in the room. But granted the occasional shortcoming, I found much to celebrate in Proust's decision to take the sentence and draw out of its elastic stuff great plastic bridges on which sentiments and ideas travel as cars do across one of the high gorges in the national park north of Sydney.

Having dealt with these two problems - public reception and style - I will say a few things about the content. The first part takes us into the French countryside with our attention focused through the lens of a young boy, and the major point of interest in this part of the book is the boy's bourgeois family. We are also treated to the boy's emerging understanding of nature, and these passages are particularly delightful. The second part of the book is about a neighbour of the boy's family in the country - Monsieur Swann - and his love affair with a woman, in Paris, who is no better than she should be. We sense a mismatch between Swann and Odette - something to do with sophistication and class - but we would do well to reflect that Swann, himself, displays some of the characteristics of the dilettante or the amateur, and his occasional bit of attention accorded to the work of one painter or another is, if anything, rather more flighty than serious.

The last part of the book takes themes from the first two parts - youth and love - and deals with the boy himself, now in Paris, and a girl he falls in love with, Swann's daughter Gilberte. Swann's love for Odette and the boy's for Gilberte are perhaps phrases that belong in the lower register of love, and perhaps we are to come into contact, in the other books in the series, with other types of love, the more chastening and enduring types. I don't know yet. Those pleasures remain mine if I live long enough to read those books. Perhaps in the meantime a cyclone will bear down on my humble dwelling and wash away my library along with everything else, or a sudden bushfire will sweep through the town where I live, obliterating everything in its incandescence. Reading Proust in Queensland it is always possible that dangers such as these will interfere with your enjoyment of the text.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Matt's online activity update video for the week

An update on what I've been doing recently online that talks about my recent blogpost on mental health, 'Recovering from psychosis with depression and Jane Austen' as well as takes note of the addition of a third poem on my Patreon site. The video also mentions the work I am doing on my personal URL

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Recovering from psychosis with depression and Jane Austen

There's been a fair bit of talk about depression of late exemplified by a story in the Sydney Morning Herald by journalist Alan Stokes in which he comes close to saying - but does not say - that he is prone to the disease. Stokes alludes to things that happen to him and feelings he has but they're embedded in an oblique recount of things that belong to the lives of others, people who we know have had the disease. To me the most disturbing thing is not that he admits to having depression but that he does it in such a circumlocutious way, and it's disturbing because of the legacy of fear and non-understanding within the community about mental illness. Psychologists and psychiatrists are sensitive to this and display comprehension when you talk about your own anxiety - of being discovered.

Depression is not the name I give to my mental illness: that name is a label that carries with it an even heavier burden of freight. You don't normally go around saying to people, "I have schizophrenia and I have had two psychotic episodes in the past 14 years." It just doesn't normally happen. But surrounding this ailment there might be secondary ones, like depression, and I do remember a period of about 18 months - in 2002 and 2003 - when I did not wash or clean my teeth, when I ate only cheese for weeks, when I slept until mid-morning on most days.

If it was depression there were good reasons for it. I had moved out of the family home in early 2000 - leaving my wife and children - and within the year I was a resident of the psychiatric ward of a central Tokyo hospital recovering with the help of medications with such severe side effects that I walked stiffly, my face was drawn and unnatural, and I had trouble with muscular coordination. A few days before the planes hit the towers I arrived back in Sydney and after about a month I was settled in share accommodation in the north of the city. I had lost: my family, my job, my car, and my self-respect. They changed the medication at least. And then I discovered Jane Austen.

Because I was a graduate of the University of Sydney I was able to have made a borrower's card for the library and I bought a cheap blue backpack - which I still have - and caught the train once a week to Redfern Station, from where I walked to Fisher Library. I read widely. The books I borrowed were often history dealing with the time immediately prior to and concurrent with the time when Austen lived; I also tried to read the kinds of novels and books of poetry that she herself might have read when she was alive. The image that accompanies this post is taken from that library card and shows what I looked like at the time. This is what mental illness looks like, often. It can be unkempt and a little bit frightening, but the things that this person has to deal with may be far more frightening than your feelings about his discount-store clothes, his body odour, his straggly beard, or the fact that he is walking down the street at 2pm instead of inside an office at a safe desk job.

And I was one of the lucky ones: I had a home to go to. It wasn't grand - a share house in a suburb studded with giant eucalypti, a quiet street, a back yard, three bedrooms - and I resided there with two other men who lived with schizophrenia, but it was safe.

I sat every day on the living room couch and read books until somehow I managed to shuck off the slough of despond and, in mid-2003, find a job. Then it was a matter of walking to the corner on the main road each morning and catching a bus to the train station. One day when I was on my commute I saw a man on the train reading a novel by Haruki Murakami and I discovered in his books the types of unmanageable life that I had personally experienced, as well as magic, aimlessness, frustrated searches, evil and love. For me love came later - some four-and-a-half years later - but when it did it changed my perception of who I was and what the world could be. Although psychosis returned not long after this moment of clarity the effects associated with the experience of falling in love endured beyond the point when I emerged out the other side of it - it took three months to overcome the fear - ferrying me on its burnished wings toward a future of growing possibilities, and restless confidence.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

We need more academic engagement in the public sphere

When I got wind of news that a scholarly association had "attempted to regulate the blogging activities of some of its members" my mind returned as if linked by a rubber strap to a social-media-for-scientists conference I attended two-and-a-half years ago in Brisbane which resulted in a magazine story. The problem, I knew, wasn't that academics blog too much, but rather precisely the opposite, leaving the public sphere unleavened by their insights and knowledge in far too many cases.

And then I thought about a podcast I had watched that was produced by La Trobe University in Melbourne that deals with two late-Republican-Rome personalities - the statesman and orator Cicero and the poet Catullus - and how excited I had been, which had caused me to suggest establishing "Uni TV" where content focusing on what academics are doing could be aired with even greater frequency than it is now. Love David Attenborough? There must be dozens - even hundreds - of researchers and teachers who know even more than he does. Love Simon Schama? Why not get to hear from the people who write the texts he relies on to make his splendid programs?

I can see how there might be objections though. For example, yesterday I saw a tweet that someone who was curating a conference put out, that went like this "Graham - journos reporting on climate change have been pulled in to the politicization of science reporting #asc14." And I replied: "Funny how some people think that in the public sphere you can separate things from politics #asc14." Because however much researchers might want to avoid the entanglement of the ideas they handle with the messy business of politics - and with the sock puppets who often deal in it - that's just the way things roll in the public sphere. Democracy relies on the free flow of ideas via the media - including social media - and in fact we have special laws in Australia to make sure that this happens. Not only that but you can make a case for deeming any institution that cannot be spoken about publicly unconstitutional.

And of course there are precedents. One of the wonderful things about The Conversation - where the article that started this blogpost was published - is that it functions as a filter between academia and the public sphere. You have a roomful of skilled editors who are talking with hundreds of specialists in universities around the country. Together, these two groups of people pump out dozens of new articles every day covering topical issues. How far this paradigm could be taken is anyone's guess, but I'm betting that there would be demand for Uni TV in the community, and by centralising resources it could be done economically. You might not even need TV spectrum to do it: just load everything online and let the links get shared. Andrew Jaspan, if you are reading this you are welcome to contact me at any time to talk about setting up Uni TV. I think it's a great idea.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Pamuk packaged for New York's lower east side

In his meditative and saccharine portrayal of Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, The New York Times' Joshua Hammer goes for a leisurely stroll with the famous man through the streets of Istanbul, picking up tid bits and folklore on the way. Finding something essential and unexpected in the tony streets where Pamuk lives, and in the neglected by-ways he frequented as a child Hammer comes up almost empty handed. The article would suit Vanity Fair; all that's missing is the Hollywood sign in the background, and you feel that Hammer would have preferred to see it at some point just to reassure himself that Pamuk is as westernised as many would like him to be. But the essential Pamuk exists elsewhere.

Hammer tells us that Pamuk as a young man would drive his father's car to the bookseller's district and load the car up with translations of European fiction, and that he passed up on participating in civil protests during his university days because he was too busy reading at home. There's little of a literary nature in Hammer's article although there's plenty of food. There's also little analysis of what Turkey really feels like today; maybe Pamuk doesn't know, although that's hard to believe.

For example the article ends up in a district populated by devout Turks - Sunnis - and Hammer and Pamuk then scuttle quickly home. You wonder how Pamuk is viewed by such people, and how he views them. In fact there's little about Pamuk's views at all in the article, just as there's little about what Pamuk apparently always loved the most: literature. What did it mean for Pamuk to read European literature in his youth? How did that place him as a member of his society? What kind of aspirations did he have in his youth and have those ideas changed with time? We learn nothing of this kind in Hammer's story. We're too busy sipping the caramel-coloured concoction from southern Russia and admiring the cup used by Kemal Ataturk.

It's a shame the article is so flimsy, although admittedly it's a travel article and appears in the appropriate section of the website. But Pamuk is an interesting person not only because he's a good writer but also because he writes in the European tradition of realistic novels. But how does he see his own country, which has been trying for decades - unsuccessfully - to become more closely integrated with Europe? What does he think of that project? What does he think of the Islamist project that is running concurrently, and apparently at odds with the first? We hear nothing of this kind from Hammer, which reminded me of the weird and sanitised appearance of Egypt's Mohammed Morsi in the New York Times a couple of years ago when he visited the city to speak at the UN. Islamic identity politics is a bridge too far it would seem for the newspaper's readers, more used to trying to understand Californians than Anatolians.

Greens do not "get" Sydneysiders' love of real estate

As a metropolitan daily should be, the Sydney Morning Herald "gets" the fact - unlovable or endearing as the case may be in your mind - that residents of Sydney treat real estate and everything associated with it like something akin to a religion, and the feature story - with video - on the website since yesterday with talking heads speculating on how the market will go in 2014 is right on the money (so to speak). The Sydney real estate market rose by 15 percent in 2013, making up for losses over the previous two-and-a-half years, and making a lot of people very happy. It was a bumper Christmas for retailers, we should note.

The video is especially cute because it has the experts - the real estate agents - sitting in front of a backdrop showing the city's ultimate piece of real estate: the Opera House. Interleaved with the speakers are shots of houses to be auctioned this weekend, including the expected sale price, number of bedrooms etcetera.

In my tweetfeed a couple of days ago someone connected with the Greens complained about the prominence given on the Sydney Morning Herald's website to real estate stories, accusing the outlet of talking up the market and, worse, of doing so in an interested way.
I wish the @SMH would stop beating the drum for rising property prices. Who does it benefit? Reliant on income from Domain maybe?
The person who tweeted this is a local politician for the Greens, so presumably can stand in to represent the true views of the party as it's currently constituted. In my mind the tweet just illustrates in a graphic and striking way how out of touch the party is with the opinions of the majority of people living in Sydney, that rough and unruly city. For me, it's another nail in the coffin of disenchantment. It's just on a year since I posted about how I thought the Greens had lost the plot, especially in an economic sense. The little aside by my Greens councillor friend on Twitter just makes the hammer want to strike with greater force.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Oh no don't say you're leaving! Yes, I am

Well, in actual fact I've moving the contents of the blog to my personal website URL and so from March (all other things being equal) this blog will be empty. I posted about this back in October. That was when I finally decided to take the plunger; in fact I've been thinking about setting up a paywall for a long time.

When I announced the plan in October Google must have taken notice because pageviews for the blog halved within a month. So you KNOW they're watching ... ! But the move will allow me to concentrate all my efforts on a single URL, rather than two. It also is better in terms of personal branding.

This morning I spent 30 minutes on the phone talking with the site designer, settling on a few basic principles and making sure the vision for the site redesign happens. The paywall will be quite cheap: $30 per year, $5 per month and 50 cents per article (with a $5 minimum charge to the digital wallet). These prices are quite generous, especially considering the charge that I will take from the provider of the transaction engine. The charge to the reader is moderate for the material I think and will help to provide the kind of financial return that all writers should be able to attract.

News of the demise of The Global Mail that appeared this week got me thinking about the money I earned as a freelancer - back when I was pitching for commissions from media outlets. It made me realise how underpaid most writers are. In this context it seems perfectly reasonable for me to place a charge on access to my blogposts. The new-designed site will also feature a larger number of videos, and all video content will be free of charge - you only have to pay for the blogposts. There will be plenty of quality content to consume when the site is relaunched in a month or so.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Massacre at the Global Mail

So the Global Mail is to close. Begun just on two years ago, the website lost its founding editor, Monica Attard, in May of that year after some kind of executive putsch. The SMH story linked to above says:
The site began in February 2012 with 97,000 unique visitors but this audience halved in the second month of operation to 47,000, according to Nielsen figures.
Clearly these numbers didn't improve after Attard left, despite an expensive redesign (I personally preferred the original, horizontal design and saw no benefit from what came later). So Wood has sacked all staff after only two years despite the original plan to go for five. I think it's disloyal.

In the US, gazillionaire Pierre Omidyar of eBay fame cut his teeth on Honolulu Civil Beat and now he's setting up First Look Media and appears to be taking a more sustainable approach by learning the ropes and building on his experience. As for Wood, he seems to have taken a hit in his main business and decided to cut his losses - even though the Global Mail was never designed to be a for-profit outfit.

Having never had enough time to settle and establish a unique brand, the Global Mail is now a footnote in the annals of Oz journalism, which is a pity. The editorial approach - to keep some things topical while working on more sustained journalism in other stories - has not translated into a substantial readership. But you can't have everything in such a short period of time; the website needed more of it to work out how to realise its potential.

One thing this exercise tells us is that strong, longer journalism is very expensive. I did one story for the website and they pay was at best ordinary - but at least they paid. To produce strong investigative stories you need to be paying about $1 per word - far more than this website offered - and so the backing of people like Wood or Omidyar seems nowadays to be a minimum proposition. So many journalism outfits pay so badly that it's a wonder they can deliver as much work as they do. As for the Guardian, reports are that the financial health of the Scott Trust, which bankrolls the outfit, was boosted recently due to a strategic sale of assets, but with websites now in three countries it is probably still losing more per year than it earns from its investments.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Book Chat Oz episode 1

This morning at around 11am was recorded the first episode of Book Chat with me and friend Grant Hansen talking about books. Our run sheet for the chat:
  1. Sydney: The Making of A Public University, Julia Horne and Geoffrey Sherington (2012
  2. Middle East and Europe Books Reviewed from the Crusades to recent times
  3. The term 'Judeo-Christian'
Links above go to relevant blog posts of mine (1 and 3) or Grant's (2). To finish up our chat, Grant spoke a little about the historical fantasy novel he's writing titled Secret Histories, which is intended to be published in March this year. We haven't published a date for the next chat but it will probably be in about a month's time.

Originally, the video didn't kick in until about 2:30 because of technical issues but I edited away the dead part at the front and it's all good now.

The astonishing power of dreams

Astonishing the power of dreams, their narrative logic and coherence, and their vivid display rifling our memories as we winnow the air with our breath asleep in our warm beds. Our fears and our desires are illustrated and thrown in our teeth as we rest our bodies in preparation for a new day, as we 'recreate' our waking vitality. While this is going on we are more than entertained, we are challenged, our motives are questioned, and we experience things that we would never talk about during our waking hours. It is more like a trial than a diversion, more like a test than a mere recreation, more like a distilled and concertinaed struggle the individual elements of which might in real life play themselves out over weeks and months. Or years. Or never.

This is a piece of text I wrote after a dream some weeks back, and which was so strange and alive that I felt compelled to write it down. I have had kissing dreams before, but never this one. When I was young I used to have the same dream over and over again; in it there was a girl in our garden standing there. But this dream was far more precise and rich in detail.
And then after we had compared performances in philosophy essays – he said there had been 10 but I could only remember 3, and the essay I had on my lap, having been returned from the lecturer’s desk, was filled with red notations and had been given an OA minus – and after he had changed direction and driven me home to meet his family, and after we had parked his car in the garage on the steep slope overlooking the populated ravine, and after he had introduced my cat to his brother and sister and parents, and after he had brought me into his bedroom and asked me again about the riddle I had devised for a video game, and after moving close to me so that I could see clearly where his hair came away from his forehead, he tilted his head toward me. I looked down at his mouth situated right there only a swerve away from my own and noticed that it was completely saturated as though from a kiss or from rain – but only the mouth, the rest of his face was quite dry! – but I knew that we had not yet kissed. His mouth appeared to be firm and sculpted like that of an Italian statue and with my mouth I enfolded the entirety of his lips in mine and immediately woke up.
I wonder if I will ever have this dream again. Will I ever find out what happens after I kiss the young man? Will this dream become a leitmotiv of my life in my present age, and will it accompany me in life like the dream of the girl in the garden of my parents' house next to the park, with the flower beds and the stands of hydrangeas, the sloping lawn and the gate in the stone wall leading into the wilderness with its immense sandstone rocks, its paths, its stream, and its gum trees and caves? 

Friday, 24 January 2014

Latinate language is the bane of the social sciences

Back in the 16th century when Hans Holbein the Younger made this drawing for a chimney piece people looked back to classical antiquity for their aesthetic models. The Italianate was therefore fashionable especially in northern Europe for many hundreds of years afterward as people demonstrated an aspiration to equal the excellence that the Renaissance (and, by extension, Roman antiquity) represented, and it wasn't until the Romantic revival of the early 19th century that the Gothic mode became established. In England, the Pre-Raphaelites took this predilection a logical step further and looked back to the Middle Ages to find models suitable to their artistic program, and if the 19th century was about anything it was about improvement. There's a puzzle at the heart of these movements: in each case people looked back in order to move forward.

In modern times in the social sciences there's an analogous tendency, especially in language, to ape the physical sciences which, founded as they were during that period in the late Renaissance and in subsequent centuries, rely for their cognates on Latin and Latinate constructs - there's a fair bit of Greek influence as well but for my purposes the main point of reference is the Latin one. As a result in many texts dedicated through careful analysis to establishing the truth about social phenomena you find a kind of language that I like to call "Augustan" after the poetry of much of the 18th century that took as its model the writing of the time of the Roman emperor of that name. Augustan poetry in English is clean, elegant, effortless, and polished and it was against this type of writing that the early Romantic poets revolted once they started publishing their own books, starting in 1797.

Getting back to the social sciences, I'm going to take a clip from a book I opened a couple of days ago but then closed out of frustration with the sanitised, antiseptic, scientific language I found in it. The book is titled Audience Evolution and it's by Philip M Napoli, a professor in the Graduate School of Business at Fordham University in New York.
This transition to a more interactive media environment, like the transition to an increasingly fragmented media environment, also has undermined traditional analytical approaches to media audiences. At the most basic level, an audience marketplace predicated primarily on the quantity of audience exposures to advertisements is being undermined by various technologies that empower audiences to block or skip advertisements, whether in terms of online pop-up blockers or the fast-forwarding features associated with digital video recorders.
And elsewhere:
However, as much as the autonomy facilitated by the new media environment undermines the utility of the more passive, exposure-focused conceptualization of audiences, it is also highlighting other, traditionally marginalized, aspects of media audiences. The new media environment is one in which there are substantial opportunities for audiences to interact with media, whether it be at the most basic level of searching for content, or at more advanced levels such as providing feedback, influencing outcomes, responding directly to advertising messages, or generating parallel content.
In the first example you can see that there are actually a relatively large number of Germanic-originated words (italics used for words with Germanic origin; "parallel" comes from the Greek) because Napoli starts talking at the end about THINGS and he doesn't have much choice in the matter. But where there's a choice and the need for an abstract noun Napoli always goes for the Latinate word. I had the same problem during my master's degree in a unit of study titled Strategic PR where the set text was Public Relations Theory II, edited by C. Botan and V. Hazleton. In the final essay I received a mark of 10 out of 40 because the textbook was so unsuitable to me that I struggled to read a single page of the Latinate dross it offered.

So a quick word to those who write books like these on topics in the social sciences: be KIND to your reader and vary the modality you use when choosing language. Don't just opt for the easy way and plump for a Latinate option: chuck in a few words that are derived from the relatively broad array of etymological sources we are lucky to have associated with English. Use the diversity of language to make your book or paper easy and pleasurable to read. Don't be Augustan, be Romantic!

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Wildlife and territory: Encounters with insects

I live in a warm, moist part of the world and it's summer. Perfect conditions for bugs (for insects, if you prefer). The paradigm was brought home to me with some alarming vigour tonight as I was sitting on the couch watching some TV when a two-and-a-half-inch-long cockroach calmly rotored through the sliding windows to the balcony and landed on the curtain and I thought "You're fucking kidding me" because it's only every couple of years that this happens, and then I thought "No fucking way" as I got up quickly heading for the Pea Beu - the fly spray; I've had house flies coming at me a fair bit especially on the hottest days (and it has been very hot recently) so it was handy beside my desk - which I wielded efficiently against my brown opponent - wings fluttering, long body hanging down, a slow-moving target - so that it eventually scuttled on its legs out the sliding doors back into the night, with me in pursuit, protecting my territory.

Beyond the doors, of course, is the incomprehensible immensity of Queensland: a place the size of Alaska and peopled with around 4.5 million souls. I live in a regional town and I come across insects on a daily basis. Insect avoidance is a routine part of my existence, like making meals or sleeping. Each time I walk down the street I have to swerve to avoid one form of bug or another. They seem to get confused by the conservative stripes and checks of my shirts; they head straight for me, making me step aside. There may be no other people on the street with me but there are always bugs out there.

There are small bugs and large ones and middle-sized ones, but I step aside to avoid them all. There are even wasps. These slow-moving orange menaces fly in jerks and starts so you don't know what they'll do. They're expert fliers, their long legs hanging down adding additional threat because you imagine them settling on you and grasping for extra purchase while they stab you. I take long detours to avoid wasps; it's not just a matter of stepping aside. I go around bushes. I leave the path and walk in a wide arc. Usually though, I just sort of prop for a moment when chance brings me into confrontation with an insect, hesitating while they go about their legitimate buggy business. I avoid contact with all the insects I meet on the street. They have right of way in my opinion and I let them get on with whatever they're doing, in perfect peace. I'm in no hurry. I prefer to give ground, surrender the way, and pass on unmolested. It's their territory as much as it is mine.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Privacy lost? Not really

The tricks used by journalists to get you reading are numerous. One of them is to use contrast and by debunking a myth demonstrate the shortcomings of received wisdom. This is supposed to bring enlightenment, and thus engender a kind of satisfying resolution that the reader is wise to: burnish your own reputation and flatter the reader all at once. Sometimes the trick works and is justified because there really is a lack of awareness about a certain issue. But sometimes the trick is spurious, and I came across one today in the New York Times that fairly screams "overreach" in its bid the hook the reader. It's a story about family secrets and, by extension, about privacy more generally in our ever-more highly-mediated world. Here's the thesis.
One truism about contemporary life is that there are no more secrets. In the age of selfies, sexting, Twitter and Facebook, people are constantly spilling every intimate detail of their lives. Video cameras trace our every move; our cellphones know where we are at all times; Google tracks our innermost thoughts; the N.S.A. listens in when we dream. Everything is knowable, if you just know where to look.
Leaving aside for the moment that those family secrets probably belong most of all to the previous one or two generations, generations peopled by relatives who lived in the era prior to Twitter and Facebook, this paragraph begs you to pick holes in it.

For a start, data collected by the secret state is not broadcast publicly. Spy agencies make a point of keeping records under wraps - for generations sometimes. Read a book about a spy agency that covers the relevant period even as far back as WWI when a lot of these organisations were first established and operational matters are completely absent from the public record. This goes for authorised biographies of said agencies as much as it does for those that have been written by people outside the boundaries of trust. I once read the ASIO file of a little-known Australian writer who had been active in the labour movement after WWII and though I could read the agency's assessment of him the names of sources for the information relied on were blacked out. Read the biography of someone like "Wild Bill" Donovan - the man who set up the OSS, the precursor to today's CIA - and see how little operational material is allowed to pass through the agency's barrier of trust into the public sphere, even for the early days immediately post-WWII. It's depressing in a way. It's also a fact that the author of the NY Times article seems to be unaware of.

What about CCTV cameras? I'm guessing that most of the information they capture is lost through administrative routines. Images will only be kept and stored when there's a compelling and immediate operational reason to do so. Mobile phones? Noone is tracking my mobile phone as far as I'm aware and, if they are, they're not going to braodcast that information to anyone who might give a damn. Google might be tracking my search terms but they're probably just aggregating that information and selling the resulting data in a sanitised form. Even if they do keep the IP address attached to those searches along with the other parts of that record, my name won't be linked to it in any way.

Everything is not knowable. Far from it. Even in social media different people use different ways of disclosing things about themselves so that they feel comfortable about their privacy. Tweets do not give away the whole story. Not everyone uploads the morning-after shots from last weekend to their Facebook profile. People display an approximation of the reality in the matrix - the news feed and the tweetstream - that only barely suggests who they are, what they are doing, what they plan to do this year, what their true dreams are, and more. Or less. Children's names are not mentioned; you'll see a regular tweeter talk about 'Ms 4' and 'Mr 8'. Even the names of husbands and wives are absent most of the time; we might see 'partner' or 'batter half' but not the first name even. Many people on social media do not even reveal their real name; anonymous accounts are legion.

We project a sanitised version of ourselves in social media and that's they way we like it. There is noone joining the dots in a Big Brother scenario of total exposure. Even as big data develops we're not seeing publication of unaccountable versions of our public personas on the web. It's just not happening. Governments and private companies take privacy seriously.

As for family secrets ... well, there are many. In my family we recently learned that it's more than likely that my paternal grandmother had her first child out of wedlock: something that was never discussed when she was alive. And if my very-proper, church-going granny could do something like that then anything's possible. But just because granny led us all astray for most of a century it does not mean that my privacy has disappeared forever and a day. To a very large degree people are very much in control of how they appear online, and that's the way it should remain. Of course the amount of information about you that exists in the matrix is probably larger than it was, say, for your mother's generation, so it's also a fact that broadcasting more, rather than less, is most likely the wiser alternative because it allows you to be in control of what's easily accessible to others looking online.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Net neutrality a grand opera for punk geeks

This is the kind of image you see on stories in IT magazines that deal with this thing that's happening in the United States called "net neutrality". Freedom is apparently under threat in the US because "a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday" that internet providers could "[restrict] speeds or even [block] visits to different sites". The case was brought to the Federal Communications Commission by ISP Verizon, which also produces content. Now it's had a win although the story is not over it would seem.

I read a BuzzFeed story about this a couple of days ago which put the nutgraf - the paragraph that actually explained the situation - right at the end of the story. This kind of editing is symptomatic of the coverage of net neutrality because it shows that there is a big readership who are already in-the-know about the issue. What I also see is that that readership is also very much of a single mind in the matter. As in the case of publishers - of books, music or movies and TV - in the minds of these people you've got big, evil corporations arrayed against the serried ranks of virtuous punk geek ninjas. An uneven fight, it would seem, but there have been wins for the underdogs, for example getting SOPA killed in Congress.

The blogpost linked to above dates from January 2012, which shows how long this war has been going on. Net neutrality is just the most recent skirmish in a protracted battle between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker - if you get the drift.

The thing is that net neutrality is only a US issue. I think that the situation differs in Australia because here the ISPs are not so deeply involved in content as they are Stateside, so there's less incentive for them to get bolshy with the punk geeks and their legions of greedy vassals - the regular people out in the community who use the innovations created by the geeks to source their content without paying for it. That's my take anyway. I would be happy to be able to read more on net neutrality from an Australian perspective. When HootSuite started to ask for payment in order for the user to avoid sticky ads in their tweetstream, I switched to TweetDeck. But I wonder if there might not be a way to use the demise of net neutrality to do some good. ISPs might be able to charge more for certain websites and then funnel some of that income off to the actual content creators, for example. Maybe this grand opera for propeller heads is not such a bad thing after all.

La Trobe podcast the seed of 24-hour Uni TV

Imagine if you could watch a TV channel where only the most-informed people appeared segment after segment providing you with the latest in research and scholarship on everything from deaths by handguns to antique love poetry. Imagine something like The Conversation - the Melbourne-based website that links academics with a roomful of editors and which produces quality text-based stories on a daily basis - except it's for TV. Imagine how great it would be to watch "Uni TV" at any hour of the day: free of advertising, and absent the dumbed-down, often prurient and voyeuristic, lowest-common-denominator editorialising that infects all of commercial TV news and current affairs (with the exception of SBS) and that threatens even the credibility of the ABC. How great it would be to take the aggressive anti-intellectual epithets of the looney Right and throw them back in the teeth of its hacks and flacs and their seeming-legions of mindless followers inside the world of online comments. How wonderful to finally feel comfortable with the label "elite" - we have elite sportsmen and -women, why can't we have elites of other kinds? - because you've got somewhere to go at those times during the day when you just want to kick back and relax.

So for example kick back and relax, as I did, with a discussion between two La Trobe University academics on two leading lights of late-Republican Rome, Cicero and Catullus. The low-cost production involves no anchor, with one of the women doing the intro and outro, so it's something like a Simon Schama program except with PowerPoint slides instead of expensive location shots. But it doesn't matter. The content is equally engaging as anything that the great popular historian Schama delivers in his well-produced series. The advantage with the Latrobe podcasts is that they appear more regularly. Latrobe used to deliver its podcasts using iTunes but it has now changed to YouTube, making the experience far more accessible because you don't need to download any software and can just click the video to watch.

As for the content, it's particularly welcome because Cicero and Catullus were once upon a time staples of the school curriculum, or at least at university, before tertiary institutions started teaching literary forms such as the novel around the turn of the 20th century. Antique literature and history, which were once part of the birthright of every gentleman, including men such as the founders of our federation such as William Wentworth, passed out of the realm of common currency, somewhat regrettably I think, and turned into a niche concern, the staple of specialised journals that only academics read as well as a few popular magazines that are usually hidden deep in the newsstands but that are hard-pressed to compete for readers' attention against the banks of wedding glossies and the serried ranks of monthlies dedicated to fishing or photography or real estate investment.

So while most educated people nowadays will have heard of Cicero and Catullus because they have read books of history - on the Renaissance or the Enlightenment or the Romantic revival or Victorian times - or the biographies of men and women who lived in those more recent eras, they may not know much about these antique writers themselves. The contretemps between Cicero and Catullus that the two women who run the podcast delineate is in itself fascinating, but it's even more interesting to learn about because this is precisely the kind of dialogue that would have informed the learning of someone like Shakespeare, Newton, Defoe, Samuel Johnson, Coleridge or Wordsworth. In a concrete sense therefore learning about antique literature and politics brings us materially and cognitively closer to those who, more broadly, still help us to understand the past, that foreign country that to visit is to give perspective to contemporary times.

Who knew, for example, that Cicero was a self-made man, one with a thirst for public life as well as a well-formed oratorial style? And who knew that the Roman love poet Catullus came from a patrician family but gave up opportunities to participate fully in civic life and instead spent his time penning passionate verses? It's an interesting locus of discord and illustrates much about the mores and values of the period. In the podcast the two young women analyse various elements of the debate with elan and no more technology than is normally used in the weekly budget meeting in the office. They are serious, passionate about their subject, informed and they think critically. In giving their spiel they are conscious of what an educated viewer would find interesting. Compared to the endless low-cost, low-brow programming that we are usually served up by the networks, Latrobe's podcast is like a fresh breeze.