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Sunday, 3 March 2013

A shared moment of dolor to remember Peter Harvey

"Peter Harvey ... Canberra."
For the nonce I'm using Microsoft tools to make this blog post - Bing, Internet Explorer, some mystifying graphics program that comes optimistically bundled with Windows 8 - and the change to personal perspective this combination of things briefly allows me perhaps makes me see the world in a slightly different way from usual. In the case of journalist Peter Harvey's early death, I certainly see a huge incongruity in the way the media has suddenly chosen to describe the world to its readers. Take the video tribute on the Australian's website for example; it's a sequence of images and voiceovers cut across a heavily modulated soundtrack taken from sometime in the late 18th century, the late classical period in music, with a dominant melody from a piano (an instrument only introduced during late classicism) laid over rhythmical strings playing out a different tune. The tone is plangent, almost heroic, with an unaccountable air of order and form, as is the way with orchestral compositions made during that period of European history, compositions designed for large, heterogenous collections of instruments: massed strings, serries of trumpets, lots of different vehicles for sound that can efficiently combine volume with counterpoint and harmonics. It's sophisticated music and it's confident, rich, elaborate, able to convey a huge range of emotions to the audience seated in front of the orchestra.

Hence the incongruity. Momentarily, the newspapers turn aside from the routine business of holding the powerful to account, or furthering a policy campaign, or advancing an agenda dear to the hearts of senior editors, proprietors, parts of the electorate. For a tiny space of time the machinery of public debate averts its face and bows its head. The effect can be nothing other than mannered, hyperreal, saturated with primary-toned emotions. Unlike the music, there is no subtlety in such transactions between audience and producer, between politicians and voters, between journalists and readers. The tenor of the conversation belies the complexity of the soundtrack used. Certainly, classical music fits the bill, but the overriding meaning - beyond the sentimental tear that might slip unbidden down the viewer's cheek - is one of order and form obeyed. In such cases we are meant to emote in this knee-jerk fashion. The tear is obligatory. The sigh is mandatory. And once these votive tokens are delivered we can get back to the routine business of tearing a new one in the hated enemy, the member of parliament from the opposite side. Making ourselves plain.

We can get back to the important business of democracy sure that we are all singing from the same scoresheet: pollies, journos, voters, readers, taxpayers. The primary colours that dominated the brief moment of emotion do not change as we resume our engagement in the public sphere in our various unchanging ways. The pattern is the same but instead of red and blue, or red and yellow, we had for a short while endowed the conversation with the colour of sorrow and death: with pure black. And then the magician's sheet is lifted up and everything returns to the way it had always been.

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