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Friday, 31 August 2018

Book review: Eureka, Anthony Quinn (2017)

This stunning ensemble piece is a roman a clef that has on its cover the photo of a young woman using a hula hoop. The trope registers immediately to place the book in the 1960s, when it is set, as the headline of a news story might be written to hook the reader’s attention and get him or her to invest the time needed to complete the associated story. But this novel is much more than a facile snapshot of an era characterised by incipient postmodernity, it is many other things besides: a gritty thriller, a literary detective story, and a deeply humane portrait of a fascinating time in history.

There are three main characters, who are used to focalise the narrative in different parts of the book, which is set in London. The first of these is Nathaniel Fane, a scriptwriter who has got the commission to write the script for a movie based on a short story by Henry James, ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ (1896), which is about a novelist named Hugh Vereker who lets slip to a book critic named Charles Pallingham that there is a secret in his books that influences every line and that links all his works together thematically. Chas mentions this fact to a friend he works for at a newspaper, George Corvick, who tells his fiancée Gwen, a writer.

Meanwhile, Vereker has instructed Chas not to tell anyone else, but it is too late. George is sent by his paper to Italy as a correspondent and there he unearths the secret. He meets with the famous author and tells Chas that he has been successful, but he won’t tell him the secret. In the meantime, Gwen and Chas have had an affair. George’s marriage to Gwen had been put off indefinitely due to an illness of Gwen’s elderly mother, but now it is to finally go ahead. But one day while tripping on LSD, Chas lets something else slip that he should have kept secret.

I hesitate to go into too much detail about the script here because it is let out in instalments between chapters of action that chronicle the making of the film. The “secret” behind the novelist’s oeuvre is part of the lure that keeps you turning the pages. There are other secrets too in this fascinating work of fiction that relies heavily on its characters for its forward movement.

The other two central characters are Freya Wyley, a journalist and an old friend of Nat’s, and Billie Cantrip, a young actress Nat meets one day when he is dawdling at a hotel in a tony part of the city. Billie is waitressing there and filches 100 pounds from his wallet when he is away from his table; carelessly he had left the thing there in his absence. He confronts her with an accusation and gets his money back, in the process discovering that she has studied at RADA. He later meets with her at the office of his agent, and further on in the book he uses his good offices to help her get the role of Jane, Chas’s love interest and Vereker’s friend, in the film.

Billie lives with her artist boyfriend, Jeff, in Kings cross, a hardscrabble part of the city. Jeff is an artist (like Billie’s mum, Nell) but he’s a morose and pessimistic man who privileges his own feelings in preference to any that his girlfriend might have. She tries to sustain the relationship but it’s hard going and her success with the film role only ends up making him jealous. The threat of physical danger that appears later in the book first creeps in in Nat’s predilection for sadomasochistic gameplaying, but reaches a new high in the form of Jeff. There’s much worse to come.

The threat of violence that lies at the centre of this book is of a kind that appeared many decades ago, in 1989’s ‘The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover’ by British film director Peter Greenaway. In that movie, Michael Gambon plays a very vicious and volatile Albert Spica, a gangster who takes over the management of a high-class London restaurant, Le Hollandais. In Quinn’s novel, the undercurrent of violence is embodied mainly in the figure of Harry Pulver, who invests in the movie as a co-producer.

There’s a thread of violent intent also inherent in the figure of Rainer Werther Kloss, the director of Pulver’s movie, who is based on the real-life historical figure of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a genius who died very young after producing an astonishing number of brilliant films. In Quinn’s books, Kloss is implicated, through research Freya conducts in the course of her work, in a series of cases of arson. I won’t spoil the fun, but the foreshadowing of Kloss’s predilection for fire goes back to the first time that Nat meets with the young German director at a lunch organised by one of the producers.

Quinn worked for many years as a film critic, so he is full of pop culture lore. There’s a knowing reference at the beginning of the book to Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film ‘Blow-Up’, in which a photographer (who drives a Rolls Royce, like Nat does) discovers that a murder has been committed in a park. In that film, the photographer develops prints from a roll he had used in the park but his studio is burgled and the prints are all stolen with the exception of one which had slipped down behind a sofa. Nothing concrete can be ascertained from the grainy print however, which is compared by one character in the movie to the canvases painted by an artist the photographer knows.

Artists don’t get a good run in Quinn’s novel. In addition to the nasty Jeff and the complacent Nell there’s Freya’s tweedy father who also paints, and one day in the street Nat runs into an artist he knows, Ossian Blackler, who invites him to a show being held to celebrate the success of his work. Freya goes to the show with Sonja Zertz, a famous actress (based on the real-life stress Hannah Schygulla) who has also been cast in Kloss’s film. Freya is confronted at the show by a portrait of herself that shows a naked pregnant woman. Blackler is based on the figure out of history of Lucian Freud, whose expressive portraits are considered to be emblematic of something profound about the era in which they were created. Blackler is a womaniser and, like Nat, a person who uses those he meets for his artistic purposes.

The other thing that gets a bit of a shredding in the novel is the movie business itself, especially its intimacy. Everyone knows everyone else. In the beginning, Nat gets the job of writing the film script because he’s a friend of Vere Summerhill, an ageing actor who was famous in the past but who had been convicted of indecency and jailed because of his homosexuality. In the event, Nat was one of the only people who stood by Vere at the time, and Vere has never forgotten the favour. Kloss, who is gay, wants Vere for the film, so getting Nat on-board is part of his scheme to assemble an all-star cast.

The novel is full of quotation, and the use of Kloss as a vector to progress the plot is typical of Quinn’s knowing style. He keeps you turning the pages, but the tension created by the suspense is modulated by the fundamentally human language that characterises the work especially through the way people like Nat, Freya, Billie and Vere, who are all flawed in different ways but who are predominantly decent people, deal with one another and with other characters in the novel. The crunch when it comes is satisfying and neatly handled, and it transpires with a sly nod to the genre of crime fiction that has become so popular, now, in the age of rap and funk.

Quinn has fun with the Beatles too, using them as levers to get his characters to reveal things about themselves that contribute to the development of the plot. It’s all very brilliant and witty and so very English.

Amid all this cleverness it is however tonic to remember that this was the period when the political achievements that came after WWII resulted in the creation of the consumer class that would go on to form the foundation for the optimistic and altruistic generations that still people the west despite the best efforts of right-wing ideologues to destroy the compact achieved in those years of hope. We do well to contemplate where we are going, and if we are going back, which place in history are we heading toward? Is it to the nihilistic years following the onset of the Depression in 1929, that saw totalitarianism overtake so much of the world in one form or another. Or are was going to return in some positive way to a period of economic growth where all parts of the commonwealth were able to benefit from productivity increases, and not just a narrow managerial class?

The book ends with a spoof, a review of the movie that gets made in the novel, which is a nicely postmodern way to tie things up: with a self-conscious wink in the direction of (Quinn hopes) an educated reader.

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Book review: Neuromancer, William Gibson (1984)

This tiresome noir thriller is full of clever technological gimmicks and replete with genre tropes like a Mexican drug-lord’s safehouse contains gold-plated handguns. Gibson evidently grew up with pulp fiction and has chosen to celebrate its achievements in the same way that Quentin Tarantino did with ‘Kill Bill’ numbers one and two, the screamingly dull martial-arts celebrations that were released in 2003 and 2004.

Noir doesn’t have to mean creating a world as unnecessarily cruel as Gibson’s, nor does it require slavishly imitating precedents. Two great pioneers of literary noir, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, take great care of their heroes and make sure that their psychological existences are as carefully described as the crimes they are investigating.

They also take time to ensure that each interaction their heroes have with others who emerge in the drama are valuable either to help to develop character or to advance the plot. You feel while reading that you are right there with these men as they go from place to place in the course of their investigations. How they feel and how they cope are as important to the reader as the clues they are assembling like links in a chain, in the course of the days and nights over which the stories evolve. There is economy and sophistication.

But Gibson’s science fiction novel is merely thick with wise-guy slang and the traces of nefarious dealings (cybercrime and black-market chemicals) in some dystopian future Tokyo, and it’s about as interesting as a flat-earther’s rantings. I read eleven percent of the book before giving up, bored with yet another predictable plot twist as Case met a high-level criminal named Armitage. No doubt some sci-fi fanboys would have loved Gibson’s cross-genre synthesis but it left me cold.

I can’t understand why this writer is celebrated in the way he is, it’s completely beyond me. Schlock is always just schlock and nothing but wishful thinking can turn it into quality material. There’s no doubt that crime stories can be well-told (as this year’s ‘Boy Swallows Universe’ by Brisbane’s Trent Dalton attests), but just vomiting up routine commonplaces that are wrapped in a thin film of glossy high-tech to give them a fresh-looking patina, doesn’t do it for me.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Book review: The Affirmation, Christopher Priest (1981)

This complex masterpiece has more layers than a filo pastry and in style and substance resembles the brilliant movie ‘Donnie Darko’ from 2001. The movie was a sleeper, ignored critically and failing at the box office until its cult status led to delayed acclaim. Priest’s brilliant novel certainly deserves to be better-known and has probably been hampered in its ascendance to notoriety by the fact that its value is discounted because it is a genre work, a work of science fiction. The other work that this novel resembles are the novels of Haruki Murakami, the Japanese novelist who also writes speculative fiction. There is something about Priest’s hero Peter Sinclair that feels similar to Murakami’s oddball outsiders, who live on the fringes of normal society in Japan’s sprawling megalopolis of Tokyo.

In Priest’s novel, a young man named Peter Sinclair is faced one day with what he thinks is a suicide attempt by his girlfriend Gracia. The event comes on the back of a series of other shocks, including the death of his father, his being made redundant at his workplace (he works as a chemist), and his being evicted from his apartment. One day during this period he meets with an old family friend named Edwin Miller, who agrees to let Peter live in a dilapidated house he owns near the Welsh border in the shire of Hereford. Peter moves his few belongings to the house promising to repair it so that Edwin and his wife can move in at some unspecified point in the future. Once ensconced, Peter starts to write a kind of biography.

He is unhappy with it, however, and makes a second draft, changing the referents and the style, and then a third. This time, he creates a narrative that is completely divorced from lived reality. It is about a world where there is a northern continent named Faiandland with to the south a large sea dotted with innumerable islands. In this place he meets a young woman named Seri and things happen to him that had no connection, except for their larger truth, with reality.

Felicity, Peter’s sister, arrives unannounced one day to find that instead of looking after the house, he has been living in squalor and drinking heavily. Bottles have been left all over the place and the kitchen stinks with unwashed plates. She cooks a meal for the two of them, phones the house’s owner, and drives Peter back to her own house in Sheffield where he lives for some time with her family. While there, the family goes on a trip to a place in the Pennine Hills and there Peter meets, in the carpark, Gracia. The two of them go off to a café and he decides to go back to live with her in a rent-controlled flat she had found in London.

The other strand of the book, the story of Peter Sinclair in Jethra (the name of the city he had written about in his manuscript), takes over at this point. In this world, Peter has won a lottery to be given the ability, using a special medical procedure, to live forever. To claim the prize, Peter must travel to the islands where the Lotterie’s clinic is located. Once in the islands he meets a young woman named Seri who works for the Lotterie in one of their offices. She becomes his lover and tells him that she wants to go off travelling in the islands and leave her job. It turns out that her mother had died an untimely death and her father had ineffectually bought tickets to the lottery, hoping that the treatment it gave access to would lead to his wife’s life being saved.

When Peter and Seri arrive on Collago, where the clinic is located, they meet another employee named Lareen who guides him toward the treatment that will lead to Peter being wiped clean, including his memory. She gives him a set of papers with questions on them that he is asked to answer so that he can be given back his memories after the procedure is completed by the clinic’s doctors. Instead, he convinces her to accept in their place the manuscript he has written about his past. This document however contains details of his upbringing in England, and had been one of the earlier drafts of the work he had spent time on in the house near the Welsh border.

Once the procedure is completed, Lareen and Seri help the childlike and convalescent Peter to regain his memories, relying on the cues they find in the manuscript, but they find they often have to correct it in order to make sense of it. The fiction it contains turns out to be completely unsuitable for the purpose it is being used for. Nevertheless, they press on.

Back in London, the clearly deranged Peter follows a figure he identifies as Seri through the streets and the train system of the city, ending up in the countryside on its outskirts. As he follows the fleet young woman through a sodden field he stumbles and lags behind, then finds himself on a beach on an island. He scoops out a bowl in the sand and goes to sleep. In the morning, he wakes up to find Seri swimming naked in the water. The two make love and then find their way to a town, where they buy food to eat.

You switch between the two modes of the book like this after roughly every three chapters, the two interconnected stories overlapping, forming strange consonances that are thrown up centering around the figures of Seri and Gracia. Seri is a less complicated, more normal person than the occasionally-depressed Gracia. Especially echoing with redolent meaning are the words used in the conversations that Peter has with the two women. What might seem to be a normal sort of relationship-led conversation turns out in the light of the twin narratives to have powerful secondary meanings. On one occasion, Peter turns up at Gracia’s flat. She finds he has been sleeping rough, and she cooks him a meal while he has a bath. Such mundane events take on ringing significance in this story, where the borders between what is real and what it imagined blur and fade to nothing in an instant.

There is something profound and disturbing about the ideas that this very English book provokes, but also something deeply human and wistful. Ideas about loss, memory, identity, and love roil around in a sea of larger cognates linked to history and to ethnography as Peter tries to make sense of his own mind in a world where he seems always to be an outsider. If ever there was a novel that tried to explain what it is like to live with a mental illness that involves delusions, this is it. It is fairly common knowledge today that mental illness is often accompanied by homelessness, especially with rough sleeping, so this novel feels ahead-of-its-time.

At the furthest extent of the available metatextual considerations you might choose, if you wished, to ask questions about the nature of art and about the imagination of the artist and the way fiction feeds off lived experience, but such a reach to distant districts of knowledge is not necessary if you want to get value from this strange book. It has worlds within it, and they are simply unforgettable.

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Book review: The Life to Come, Michelle de Kretser (2017)

I had seen this novel in the windows of bookshops on King Street in Newtown and on Glebe Point Road in Glebe but only got around to buying it when it won the 2018 Miles Franklin Award. My first impression, that it had been one to ignore, turned out in the end to have been correct.

The book is crushingly prescriptive, in a suitably epigrammatic way, and is dedicated to dissecting the corpus of contemporary Sydney, simultaneously bringing to mind both Jane Austen and Patrick White, but it is completely without any redeeming poetry.

It borrows its logic from the opinion pages of the Australian press, with brutal efficiency categorising people it places in different locations in the city while sucking all the life out of them, so that they end up being mere ciphers with a life only on the page. The machinery of the author’s mind bleeds every drop of blood out of her creations and leaves them gasping, like beached fish, ready to die as soon as the book is closed, on the barren shore of the continent of her busy imagination.

In the first section, the character of George is a deeply flawed one. He appears to be in middle age (his father has just died) but he is embarking on study at a university. He might be gay, it’s not clear. He supplements his income by tutoring other students, and one of these is Pippa, who emotes a lot and has plenty of feelings about the world but cannot articulate what she thinks very accurately. George gave her a credit when she reached the end of the course he was teaching, when she had only in his estimation deserved a pass. The nature of the relationship between George and Pippa is also unclear, but he had moved into a house owned by someone he had an indeterminate relationship with, and she had stayed for a while in one of its empty rooms.

I didn’t much care about either George or Pippa by the end of this part of the novel, but I soldiered on to read the beginning of the second section, about Cassie, an Australian girl whose grandmother was a migrant from eastern Europe, and Ashoka, a Brit who grew up in Sri Lanka and whose mother was Scottish (his father was a Tamil). The two young people partner up in Sydney but I didn’t get very far into this section before giving up on the dull book.

I wrote about politicised fiction on 3 August on this blog in a review of a very bad book by a young Sydney man I have met on occasion who works in the culture industry in some capacity (I never bothered to find out). De Kretser’s book is an ideal exemplar of the same kind of utilitarian writing that has gained prominence, regrettably, in the years since the memory of totalitarianism and its desultory artistic accompaniment has faded out with time.

I was of the generation that grew up with ‘Hogan’s Heroes’. We also watched ‘McHale’s Navy’ on the TV in those days. But with the rise of postmodernism and superhero movies everything nowadays has a mute kind of artistic exchange value, so that books can easily be judged purely on whether or not they further a specific ideological program. Irony in this environment is virtually dead, as are nuance and subtlety. In their place you get a kind of writing that panders slavishly to the narcissistic self-regard of the cultural elites. The critical success of this novel proves that art at its core is today nothing but flattery.

Another book I reviewed recently, ‘Confessions of the Fox’, by the transgender author and academic Jordy Rosenberg, is of the same humourless ilk. You can hear the jackboots tramping on the cold cobblestones when you open books like these, as hordes of culture-vultures group around another pyre set up to burn some other unfortunate work of fiction that didn’t toe the line docilely enough.

Monday, 27 August 2018

Book review: The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin (1969)

This haunting book tries hard to reel you in but it eventually failed with me. I got about 25 percent of the way through before giving up, unconvinced of the value of the poetic vision invested in the narrative. But reading this book reminded me of the feeling I used to get when listening to Romantic orchestral music dating from the 19th century: its pages were strange embrasures for referents that gave off a heady smoke perfumed with scents that gave me feelings characterised by odd reverberations sometimes full of consonance and sometimes discord. All the time, a melody unspooled like a dream, transporting me to other worlds, and other cultures.

But it wasn’t enough for me to care, in the end. Le Guin relies a lot on secondary descriptions to fill in the spaces between episodes occurring at those points where actual information that is used to further the plot is transferred from the writer to the reader. It’s like reading Chinese lyric poetry: lots of descriptions of the effect of the moon on the water or of the wind in the grasses, but few coherent objects to batten onto as you careen, like a caboose detached from the train, through the phantasmagoria the writer produces.

The story is interesting though, I’ll give the author that much praise. You have an envoy from a collective of worlds known as the Ekumen who has been sent to another known world in order to establish links that will serve to further the interests of the collective of species. The envoy finds himself on a cold planet where males become females for a period of time that is sufficient for procreation. Meals are cooked and eaten. Meetings are held with prominent politicians. There’s even the opening of a new piece of infrastructure: an event that a local monarch uses to cement his control over his subjects.

But the envoy is dismissed by this king, and decides to leave the city to go to a distant part of the realm to see the oracles, who live there and can foresee the future. Le Guin has a lot of fun imagining the conclave of oracles as they go about their business of telling the envoy what he has come to hear. And you get some telling insights into the author’s priorities here, in this part of the realm where people shun the routine trappings of wealth and prefer to concentrate on essentials in a community that resembles something like a Buddhist retreat. Le Guin seems to have had a horror of the kind of plenitude that the mind can have at times of anxiety or distress, where it seems to be full of thoughts that violently compete with each other for your attention, tumbling over each other quickly and repeatedly in your head. But Le Guin here also betrays the shallowness of her knowledge of mental illness when she appears to compare schizophrenia with psychopathy, probably mirroring a general lack of understanding in America at the time the book was originally published.

At moments like this the façade of competence the author constructs cracks and you get to see the brickwork under the plaster that covers the narrative with its fine finish. The prose is excellent and the foundational imaginary structures are very convincing, for the most part but, as I have already mentioned, I failed to stay interested in the characters, who are less than perfectly realised. I didn’t really empathise with the exiled prime minister, for example. And the implications of the king’s dismissal of the envoy are not followed up in the story. Why is it important for the king to join the collective? What’s at stake for his people if he doesn’t?

The lack of substance in Le Guin’s primary characters is critically important, as I have mentioned. One way that novelists keep people interested in their narratives is by developing characters. You are invited by the novelist to sympathise with one character or to disapprove of another. In Le Guin’s novel you are supposed to dislike the king but to like the prime minister, but the prime minister’s character is not adequately developed so that it can enable the right kind of link with the reader.

In a science fiction novel, where species might (as in Le Guin’s novel) obey laws of nature that are different from those followed everywhere by humans (who tend to get married at some point in their lives once they reach physical maturity, and have children) it is more difficult than it is in a work of conventional literary fiction to develop characters. In literary fiction, romance, sex, marriage and the begetting of children are common plot elements used by novelists to move things along and to lend depth to characters that can then function as emotional axes providing interest for readers.

In a science fiction novel, on the other hand, where different systems of value can be the norm for non-human characters, it is more challenging for the novelist to give his or her characters the emotional completeness readers need in order to remain engaged with the text. This is where Le Guin’s novel fell down for me. The emotional hooks I needed to stay interested in what happened to the characters she devised were just not there.

I was however reminded at certain junctures of the Macartney embassy that took place around 1793, when the king in the UK, George III, reached out to the Qing emperor, offering him trade and links to Europe. The emperor famously declined the approach, telling the king through a letter given to Macartney that his country had everything it needed and that there was nothing the British could send them that they wanted.

This rebuff (which was predicated entirely on the emperor’s own slender control over his subjects; this was a Mongol emperor, as we all know, who had militarily subjugated the preponderant Han) led several decades later to the Opium Wars and later, in the 20th century, the ultimate failure of the dynasty. And China to this day harbours resentment at the humiliation that the British meted out to them because of superior technology. If only the emperor had been more open, things might have turned out very differently and the world today would be a very different place. So much turns on the decisions made by one man, at times. There might have been opportunities for Le Guin to inject drama of this kind into her story, but she evidently didn’t think it was necessary. 

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Book review: Petrarch: Everywhere A Wanderer, Christopher S Celenza (2017)

Although I studied Italian in my undergraduate days I had forgotten most of what I had learned about the poet Francisco Petrarca (known in English as Petrarch), but this elegiac work of literary biography goes some way toward remedying that absence.

“Elegiac” in subject – the remembrance of a giant of the Humanist project – as well as in tone. What I mean by this is that Celenza clearly has at his fingertips a deep reserve of learning that he uses in a careful and moderated way to create his stories about the birth of everything that we value today.

This is an unhurried and contemplative foray into lands that most people will have some passing familiarity with, but that to do justice to you need to have spent a considerable amount of time in reading and in quiet reflection. There is something monastic about Celenza’s style that for me was comforting and which made me feel at home in the places he sketches with his pen. This is not the flowery, popular kind of history that you get from writers like Peter Ackroyd.

Born at the beginning of the 14th century, Petrarch arrived in the world at a time when universities had existed for about three hundred years. Originally created as a response to the spontaneous gathering of teachers and students to discuss recently-discovered books and ideas (notably the works of Aristotle, and the ‘Corpus iuris civilis’, the body of Roman law), universities quickly became a part of the fabric of European society in the later Middle Ages. Petrarch, though he had Florentine roots and would end his life living in Italy, spent his youth and part of his life in Avignon, in southern France, where his parents were part of the court of the Pope, who had moved to France for political reasons. (The Sydney suburb of Vaucluse, where I grew up, was named after the region in France where Petrarch grew up.) His father was a notary, so Petrarch was familiar with writing from an early age.

Apart from writing vernacular poetry (like Dante Alighieri, who was a generation older than he was), Petrarch was also instrumental in the rediscovery of classical texts, notably in his case the writings of the Roman orator Cicero. And while he stood in his life at the beginning of the Humanist push to study classical literature, he was also very much against the kind of groupthink that he discerned in some university teachers he met in his daily routine, whose justification for the truth of an idea might merely be that it had been uttered at one time by Aristotle. Celenza hazards the notion that this critical (somewhat crotchety, at times) Petrarch was in favour of the kind of empiricism that Francis Bacon would extol, in the early 17th century, at the time of the birth of modern science.

Petrarch was not unthinkingly supportive of any one strand of learning, and remained a committed Christian all his life. He also wrote much in Latin, though today he is more well-known for his experiments with vernacular literature.

Celenza is keen to try to develop a personality in his book that fits a Petrarch who is recoverable today still in his writings. A deeply introspective man, the poet also keenly pursued fame. He was an early exponent of vernacular literature but in his day was as well known for his Latin writings. He was also impressed by images of greatness, and avidly sought to find ways to aggrandise his ancestral country, Italy, which had been carved up into separate city-states over time so that it was barely recognisable in comparison to its stature in classical times. And at the same time, he was devoutly linked to the woman we know as Laura, whose character held such fascination for the young poet, even after she died an untimely death.

For people who want to know more about the roots of modernity and technology, this is a good place to go for some important lessons about how you sometimes have to go back in order to reach the future, and about the seeming contradictions that can sometimes lie at the bottom of important historical events. Petrarch remains something of a paradox, but reading about his life can help to make the meaning of life in general clearer.

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Refugees and the ALP in 2022

I suggested on this blog years ago setting up a refugee processing centre in Jakarta but no-one took up the idea. And every week there is another story about refugees on Manus Island or Nauru and how they should be brought to Australia and resettled. It sounds so easy and there is support for refugees in the community, yet the problem of irregular boat arrivals is not going away. Even with the Coalition in government they still set out from Indonesian beaches and end up being turned back by the Navy. The attractions of stable democracy and the benefits it brings seemingly overcome any barriers put in the way of people who want a safe, prosperous life.

Even with Morrison now as prime minister it still looks like the Australian Labor Party (ALP) will be elected to power federally in 2019 but they will not last two terms if they allow irregular boat arrivals to restart. The reaction from the broader community will be decisive, and ALP strategists know it. Which is why they are sitting tight on refugee policy, and insisting that offshore detention will continue. They tip-toe around the issue as if it were a live grenade.

People who want refugees currently living on Manus Island and Nauru to come to Australia will have to vote Green. There is no other option for them. And they should be encouraging their friends and relatives to vote Green as well. The more the merrier, as far as getting the refugees in offshore camps resettled in the community here goes.

The Murdoch press and the Coalition will not let the ALP rest easy, despite the encouraging signs we got from the by-elections held on 28 July. These two groups of people will be keeping an eagle eye on every policy announcement the ALP makes in the run-up to the elections that look likely to be held in May next year. Any sign of weakness on refugees will result in swift action in the media, as the right gets ready to fight for the right to govern for the next three years. And once the ALP wins – as it looks like they must – they will have to be extra-careful to make sure no new irregular boat arrivals bringing refugees from Indonesia makes its way to the mainland. To do anything else would be  electoral suicide, and the next poll would be due in 2022.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Google's Richard Gingras interviewed by the ABC's Gaven Morris

Richard Gingras, Google vice president of news, was interviewed last night at an event at Google’s HQ in Sydney by Gaven Morris, head of news at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Tori Maguire, who works for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, opened proceedings representing the Online News Association, which had organised the event. This is a partial recount of events as they took place, and any conversation that is provided here is as accurate as I was able to make it. Some words that were used have of course been left out because of system constraints. A video of the event was made and broadcast on the ONA’s Facebook page. That video might subsequently be able to be viewed on the association’s website.

Gaven Morris opened the conversation by saying, “You’re endlessly optimistic about the future of news.”  Gingras said that technology establishes the ground rules. The internet gives you distribution access that you might not have had before. The question to ask is, “Can I participate in public discourse?” He said the new paradigm was “extraordinary”. “We will get to that optimistic future through innovation. There is a great opportunity to evolve new journalistic models.” He also noted that the past wasn’t necessarily a perfect model.

GM: You think legacy media organisations have been lazy and haven’t adapted.

RG: No. I don’t criticise legacy media organisations for not seeing how dramatic the change was. Many legacy publishers looked at the internet as an interesting distribution means but didn’t see that the internet created a new marketplace for information and services. Google’s search ads do not correlate with the demise of the media’s business model. Behaviours in the community have changed and revenues went with it.

GM: The problem is not as simple as the duopoly (Google and Facebook) but the duopoly has had an impact by distorting markets.

RG: Online marketplaces have a combined market value of 25 billion US dollars. Taxes? We follow local law. It’s not fair to say Google should pay more taxes.

GM: How do you expect existing media companies to fund journalism when you have disruption?

RG: Embedded players are not necessarily the most successful in the new generation. There will be new players. None of it happens overnight. Village Media in eastern Canada is an example of a new player that is being successful. They operate in nine cities. There is now a lower cost of participation and entry.

GM: We see in five years all ad revenue coming to Google.

RG: We will continue to innovate in our own businesses.

GM: But your revenue will go up.

RG: We want it to go up, Nothing is forever. Our business is in search. Who says that will be there in five years? I used to work for a search engine named Excite and at the time we wanted to beat Yahoo, then Google came along.

RG: I’m less concerned about the sustainability of national news organisations than of the sustainability of local news organisations. Some people are looking at the news business in new ways. A subscription model is healthy. Bristol Cable for example does lots of audience engagement. They have a membership model not a paywall. We want to nurture local models to make it easy for others to follow.

GM: In Google News Initiative there is a plan to elevate and strengthen quality journalism. Why not build a model for local outlets to get a greater share of revenue?

RG: We have search ads. Also, display ads. The revenue share for display ads is 70 percent to participants.

GM: Why not reward good content directly?

RG: Who determines what is quality content?

GM: You have algorithms for that.

RG: Maybe. I’m loathe for Google to judge what is good journalism.

GM: We want Google to weed out the rubbish.

RG: Authoritative stuff goes to the top. We send billions of visits to news sites each month. Value is already associated with the search ranking. Through the division of traffic Google is already favouring quality content.

GM: It is an open web.

RG: We are a child of the open web. It’s important for us to be transparent about algorithms. We have a 160-page public document that guides Google on authoritativeness. Since the day we started people have been trying to game the algorithms. Fake news is evidence of people gaming the algorithms. But we get criticised for both sharing data and on account of privacy.

GM: How will AI come into play? Will it be involved in serving news to us?

RG: Personalised recommendations can be helpful. All publishers are looking to tune their service with personalisation. But you have to tell people when something is personalised. And why is it personalised, then give them some ability to control it.

GM: Another problem we see in the world today is governments controlling information that their citizens can see on the internet. It is impossible to get truth reported in places like Burma, for example. Journalists don’t know what to do about it,

RG: There is more populism in the world along with a demise of open societies. The internet is a positive thing but some regimes control it.

RG: There has been disruption in the past of course. TV created the modern American newspaper. It had a different ad model. In the 50s and 60s thousands of newspapers closed. We need to rethink everything about the model. How to take advantage of data journalism is one way. Also, there is little market research done by media entities. Usage data alone is not enough because it doesn’t tell you what people value.

GM: Can you (personally) win inside Google?

RG: There is no intrinsic understanding of media by engineers. Collaboration with industry is valuable. It helps executives and engineers at Google to understand the media. We have the open ecosystem of expression that Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat has talked about. The internet has enabled free expression more than any other technology. Fake news is however driving efforts to constrain free expression around the world. (Gingras recounted how he met with a European who wanted him to help him to clamp down on bloggers.)

There was one audience question about filter bubbles.

RG: Media literacy is important. The question of schools often comes up in this regard but this is not the only source of a response to the challenge.


Gingras is on the left in the photo.

Thursday, 23 August 2018

We need to be kinder to each other on social media

On the last day of last month, I published a post about incivility and intolerance on social media. The post was part of a series of posts looking at the way people form communities online with their words. Then, on the eighth of this month I published a post about intemperate language and how people who use it on social media tend to attract trolls.

But last week ‘The Drum’ program from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which airs on weeknights in the dinner timeslot, aired a segment about the way that people who appear on their program are targeted with abuse on Twitter. And journalists have also said the same thing in tweets: it doesn’t matter what you say, you are given treatment that most people would never subject someone to who they meet in the normal course of daily events.

But the thing is that Twitter privileges the most extreme viewpoints. The more extreme the expression is, the more ‘likes’ and retweets it gets. The platform is based on popularity, and nuance and subtlety are not valued there. Instead, you get people saying things that they would never say in daily conversation just because they can get away with it. It’s not just anonymous accounts, either. Even people who put their name and location and their picture in their profile behave terribly on occasion.

For their part, journalists are often unkind as well. They routinely ignore you if they think you are just some random without a brain, or else if they believe for some reason that you might turn out to be a troll. That’s if they don’t block you. Which happens frequently in this world of glass jaws where a mere disagreement can quickly escalate into abuse, seemingly effortlessly.

When you walk down the street in the city you pass by hundreds of people. You might see a young man hurrying to cross the road before the signal changes. A woman might be walking beside you and appear in the periphery of your vision as a set of unconnected movements that you rationalise into the figure of a person in motion. Or you might see a shadow on the steps in front of you as someone passes between you and the sun reflecting off the glass windows of a building by the street.

Each one of the people that you pass in the course of your daily life has a life of their own. One person might be still recovering from the suicide of a beloved sister. Another might have an appointment booked to see the oncologist later in the week following an important pathology test. Another person might have just found out that his mother has been diagnosed with dementia. One man might be living with PTSD due to his work as a paramedic, and be unable to sleep for half the night each night due to bad dreams. Another woman might have been living with a diagnosed mental illness for decades, and be otherwise normal for all intents and purposes. A man you see in the street might be married to a woman who keeps on experiencing stillbirth though is otherwise healthy.

In her speculative novel, ‘Dyschronia’, Australian author Jennifer Mills creates a young heroine named Samantha Warren who is able to see the future. Her gift makes the townspeople in her small community treat her either like a rare creature or else denigrate her. There is no middle ground in the way they behave toward her. This is how people who are prominent in the public sphere get treated: either feted or abused. They are often put up on a pedestal in order that they can then be torn down. And those who achieve notoriety independently of their vocation are given the same treatment. But it’s time we stopped doing this to each other.

Of course the mirror image of trolling is virtue signalling, where we post things that are designed to create community with like-minded people, so that we can increase the number of followers we have. Virtue signalling might take the form of retweeting the tweet of someone with a high profile in our community online, or else posting a comment that we have formulated ourselves that shows that we subscribe to a recognisable set of values. I’ve written before here about how we outsource our opinions to political parties. People who post things that are not immediately classifiable as belonging to the platform of a political party are usually ignored, even if most of their comments are orthodox. We don’t like to be made to think. We are lazy. But we are also human.

The success of RUOK Day shows that people care about the mental health of others around them, but the way they routinely behave on social media is often anything but conducive to good mental health. People are acerbic, abusive, and mocking. They belittle you, or ignore you studiedly, both in order to cause hurt. It’s like a playground. When school children are found out to be bullying another student, the teachers in the school will normally give the miscreants a good talking-to.

That’s what a lot of people online need: a good, thorough talking-to by someone who understands how language can cause as much harm as good. But it never happens. It’s a free-for-all online. We are all responsible for the tenor of the conversations we participate in.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Construction site, 21-43 Harris Street, Pyrmont

They’re building a new edifice on this now-prepared site on Harris Street near the light rail station in Pyrmont. The site has long been vacant.

The building at the right behind the empty space sits across a narrow street and over the station itself, supported by thick concrete pylons that descend to the level of the tracks. They sit nestled among the rails where the trains run sedately on their way either east or west. The tracks lie at the bottom of a deep cutting in the sandstone made for an industrial rail line that was used a long time ago, and the platforms are accessed by five flights of stairs and by lifts.

Behind the same yellow apartment block also is a square where there are cafes, a sandwich shop, a Thai restaurant, a dental clinic, and a duty-free goods store that tourists use when they come in those plain white buses you see on our streets. Up one level from the square is another Thai restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, and the back entrance to a local pub. There is another pub across the street named the Terminus Hotel, which was renovated recently and now also serves meals along with alcohol.

So the whole area is heavily developed and most of the local retailers rely on trade provided by the office buildings such as the big one that stands behind me where I took this picture, across the road from the building site. Workers come to work on the train and buy their morning coffees in the square before going to their offices to work for the day.

The council’s development application says that there will be a seven-storey commercial building constructed on the site, involving excavation for 3.5 levels of basement car parking for 190 vehicles, retail and commercial spaces at street level, a childcare centre and six levels of commercial office space. Local retailers will be happy once it’s finished. The noise has mainly stopped for the moment. The banging of hydraulic pile drivers and mechanised jackhammers has stopped now that the hole has been finished ready for construction to begin.


Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Book review: Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson (1992)

This curiosity is, like ‘Back to the Future’, the 1985 Robert Zemeckis movie that people still talk about online, a work of speculative fiction. It opens with what is supposed to be an adequate quantity of drama with a futuristic pizza-deliveryman driving his high-tech car fast over privately-owned motorways in order to get the product to the customer within the declared 30-minute window (after which the pizza is free). The pizza company is owned by the mafia (CosaNostra Pizza) and it’s just too stupid for words, the whole thing. It’s amazing how wrong Stephenson was about the future.

He keeps on getting it wrong when he zooms in on his hero (cutely named Hiro Protagonist) sitting in a shipping container he lives in while using his computer to participate in a virtual world much like Second Life (which had a brief existence as a place for people to meet others but has been completely overshadowed by Twitter and Facebook now). There is much discussion about property values on the platform, which is something that is supposed to contrast cogently with Hiro’s humble lodgings in real life. The irony is as thick as peanut butter.

Stephenson understood that the internet would change the world but what you don’t get are any accurate predictions about the way things would turn out. There’s nothing about the political settlement in the book (at least in the part of it I finished) and the way that social media has privileged extreme language and ideas as people fight for popularity on the platforms. The mafia pizza company is what we get instead and it’s about as interesting as a prediction as the frictionless skateboard that Marty McFly used in the movie already mentioned.

Monday, 20 August 2018

Book review: The Eastern Curlew, Harry Saddler (2018)

This ambitious meditation on a migratory shorebird demonstrates the author’s clear eye for detail and solid grasp of his primary material. The story goes along well enough until there’s a snag, like a broken fingernail caught in a cashmere sweater, that stopped me in my tracks. When he is describing the habits of the bird or prying into the places it stops to feed at along its annual two-way migration route he is in his element, but once he wheels out Edward Said like some sociological version of Uncle Fester, with one trick to show amazed guests at a dinner party, I paused to contemplate the size of my own task.

Progressive intellectuals in Australia often have a crippling sense of shame mixed with a sense of awe they feel when they contemplate the world and all that it contains. Said gets wheeled out to lend gravitas to productions by such people when they want to appear woke for the benefit of their readers. The standard postcolonial narrative where the west is reprehensible and Asia is misunderstood lies at the core of a problem in the arts that is characterised by a type of cognitive dissonance. No-one can quite put their finger on where the virtue begins or where the defect starts. Readers have to forgive me for appearing to show Saddler how to wax-on and wax-off, but if he wants to get the finish on his machine up to a high shine, he needs some help with his ninja skillz.

In the book, Saddler goes on his own pilgrimage to the home of Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish natural historian who developed the standard modern system for classifying living things, but he shows no inkling of how Linnaeus happened to arrive on the scene in Sweden and not, for example, in Xian. So gather around the fire, friends, while I tell you a story.

The Humanist project started in the Middle Ages with the appearance of the vernacular poetry of Dante Alighieri (1285-1321), whose ‘Commedia’ in three books took in an encyclopedia view of the world much like Linnaeus’. His innovation was taken up by Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374, also known in English as Petrarch) who grew up in Avignon in southern France with his parents, who were part of the court of the Pope, who had moved there for political reasons, and he started the Renaissance craze for resurrecting classical Roman books for contemporary audiences. He also wrote love poetry in Italian.

This trend for publishing books in the vernacular instead of Latin was no doubt one of the reasons why John Wycliffe, an Oxford scholar, began to push for a vernacular Bible. He completed an English translation from the Vulgate (the official Latin version belonging to the Catholic Church) by 1382. His heresy inspired Jan Hus (1369-1415), in what was then known as Bohemia, to demand church reform 100 years before Luther protested the sale of indulgences (the practise of enabling people to get expiation for their sins by giving money to the church).

The first vernacular Bible translated from the original languages it was written in (Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic) was actually published in Spain in around 1520, just a few years after Luther’s initial overtures to the church, by Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. Their ‘Complutensian Bible’ was a profound inspiration for the later Humanists in northern Europe, who took the gains won from their leaders in the realm of religion, which saw them developing personal relations with God instead of ones mediated by the hated clergy, to spread their ideas through the new medium of printing, which had arrived in around 1440 in Germany.

Different countries had different solutions to the problem of educating boys in how to read the vernacular, which was now required by the new Christian denominations so that people (at least, men) could worship their God. In England, the tide turned when Henry VIII told the Pope to rack off and, unable to get a divorce from his Spanish wife, who could not give him the son he craved, set up his own church in England instead. As a result all boys went to school, and hence we have Shakespeare.

The new technology of printing threw up unexpected jewels in unexpected places, including Montaigne’s ‘Essais’ (1580), in which the French author turned away from God, the normal point of reference for writers of the time, and examined his own feelings. In 1620, Francis Bacon’s ‘Novum Organum’ appeared which is like a manifesto for the scientific method. In it the English statesman told his readers to turn away from the divine and instead focus their attentions on the secular realities surrounding them.

But apart from these individual works that changed the ways that people thought about themselves and their places in the world, the bigger influence was due to all of those men publishing books on all sorts of subjects as a great rate, in fact at a speed that was unprecedented in history. The process of nominalisation, whereby sentences and phrases are distilled into nouns that could then be deployed along with adjectives in other sentences for the purpose of furthering arguments, was accelerated by the new technology and by the new regime of education that proliferated especially in northern Europe.

In England, where the largest number of new discoveries appeared over the ensuing centuries, culminating in the industrial revolution and the invention of the steam engine, popular magazines that contained articles about new scientific discoveries alongside reviews of new novels and books of poetry were printed and consumed throughout the country in the 18th century by a newly-literate middle class. And women were an integral part of the public sphere, as we can see notably in the success of the novels of Jane Austen in the early decades of the 19th century.

All of this because of vernacular poetry. Everything we value, from antibiotics to jet engines, from the internet to Bob Dylan, comes from the process of nominalisation super-heated by demand for printed material among ordinary people.

Why it didn’t happen in China, where movable type had appeared earlier than it did in Europe, was due to the centralised form of government that obtained there. With one source of official power and a spreading bureaucracy with a subservient army, it was possible for the state to tightly control what was published in every corner of the realm, whereas in Europe many different countries competed for supremacy against one another. The dynamism of the European market for knowledge, where different rulers sought to achieve an advantage over their neighbours in all sorts of ways, including through their militaries, meant that there was competition for ideas there in a way that China could not equal. Diversity is strength.

And there is a connection between Humanism and Sydney that doesn’t appear at first glance. Tucked away in the city’s eastern stretches, surrounded by rocky bays lapped by the rolling waters of the Pacific Ocean and the placid waters of Port Jackson, lies sleepy Vaucluse, named after the same area of southern France that Petrarch inhabited centuries ago and where he discovered the poetry of the troubadours. The suburb was settled by William Charles Wentworth and the federal electorate that contains it is named after the early Australian politician. Connecting New South Head Road and Hopetoun Avenue is a short street named Petrarch Avenue. On the corner of this street my mum’s gift shop stood back in the day when I grew up in the area and before I went to the University of Sydney to study Italian. The shop had windows shaped like keyholes, and does to this day.

Wentworth was one of the men who founded the university (Australia’s first) and he was also part of the push to introduce democracy to New South Wales, which was achieved in 1856, a few years after it had been brought to New Zealand and over a decade before it would be brought to Canada (the British North American Act was passed in Parliament in London in 1867). Wentworth chose the name Vaucluse because he knew the value of the Humanist project and made sure that the people who came after him did as well. Urban working class men in the UK didn’t get even to vote until 1867.

Petrarch was an immigrant when he wrote his sonnets to the woman he called Laura, just like the eastern curlew, whose story is a kind of slow-motion tragedy as valuable wetlands are gradually converted into “productive” real estate in countries along its flyway (the route the bird takes twice a year in its migration between Siberia and south-eastern Australia). The reclamation of the Saengnamgeum Estuary in South Korea in recent years for example is nothing short of a criminal act committed by an ostensibly pluralist democracy in the name of “progress”.

Progress is not always beneficial, as the early Romantics well knew. What the story of the Humanist project should however serve to illustrate is that specific things happen for specific reasons at specific moments in time in specific locations. It’s like it is in nature: there is an unassailable reason for everything, from the size of the bird to the length and shape of its bill to the colour of its plumage.

This fine book is richly imagined and elegantly formulated and makes a valuable addition to the literature of the natural world, with elements of the author’s own personality introduced to lend texture and colour to the undertaking. I grew up with the books of Gerald Durrell and Gavin Maxwell, so like Saddler I was early on in my life an admirer of nature. And I very much like his title, it’s unostentatious and fitting for an Australian, where you find the Harbour Bridge spanning Sydney Harbour, Central Station in the city forming a locus of connection for all of the city’s train lines, and the Federal Highway leading into Canberra, where the author grew up, from the north.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Tertiary education has to be free for the student

A couple of years ago a story appeared on the ABC’s website about the study of Indonesian at secondary schools in Australia, which had fallen to levels that were lower than they had been 40 years earlier. In the same year, there was a story in the Sydney Morning Herald about dismal numbers of students studying Chinese at Australian secondary schools.

This kind of story will continue to be read on news websites that Australians use as long as we continue to treat tertiary education as a place where you go to get a qualification for a job. Both sides of politics are as bad as each other in this regard but the Labor Party started it with the Dawkins reforms in the 1980s which saw fees for university reintroduced after a sublime period when tertiary education had been free for the student.

University should be a place where you go to learn how to think and to reason, not just to get a qualification for employment. With the exception of a few jobs – such as medicine (including veterinary science, psychology, and dentistry), law, accounting, and engineering – where you need to know certain concrete things in order to profess competence in your job, for most jobs you just need to be able to think effectively and interact meaningfully with colleagues.

Languages will never be treated as being equal in value to a business degree (which is arguably useless) until fees are removed from the equation and the bias toward getting a qualification is moderated in the system of education we use.

All knowledge comes from the arts. In the Renaissance, where science and technology has its roots, all we had to progress the development of knowledge was the vernacular, moveable type and (in certain countries) a male population that was taught to read and write. The last of these innovations was adopted in countries where Protestant denominations were predominant, so that men could read their Bibles in the vernacular.

The process of nominalisation took care of the rest. Nominalisation is where sentences and phrases and distilled into nouns that can then be deployed in other sentences. This process led to the explosion in scientific discoveries after the publication of ‘Novum Organum’ by the English statesman Francis Bacon in 1620. The popular journals in England that flourished in the 18th century disseminated the new knowledge to the furthest corners of the realm. The industrial revolution (that started in the 18th century in England) and the invention of the steam engine was a direct result of the Humanist project that started in the 14th century in Italy.

A d the entertainment industry tells us how badly we need better-educated consumers. While Millennials are quick to complain about the fact that they now have fewer options than they had in the past when it comes to late-night drinking in Sydney, they flock to see the schlock that giant Hollywood corporations spew out year after year. Such as the Star Wars franchise, which has well-and-truly jumped the shark, where you have proven tropes decorated with tiny modifications designed to mimic originality. A better-educated populace would be less likely to mindlessly consume rubbish like this. It might also be the only thing that stands between a successful, pluralist democracy and the disaster of autocracy and totalitarianism. Capital and the demagogues it funds love nothing more than exhausted, stupid and ignorant workers.

More time dedicated to learning how to express yourself might result in more people ending up being more discerning consumers of popular culture, instead of mere cashed-up drones the big studios love to milk. Undertaking study in written expression might help in this regard, as well as making people happier by giving them ways to achieve the agency that they seem intent on regretting as they consume illicit substances that serve to dull the nagging pain of existence under a soul-destroying capitalism.

Saturday, 18 August 2018

Extreme views get all the attention

This blogpost started as a reflection on what happened to journalist and academic Peter van Onselen on Twitter earlier this week. It started with two tweets, one from Sky News presenter Paul Murray, who, at 10.43pm on 15 August, displayed zero understanding of history when he tweeted: “The modern culture doesn't understand WWII. Too many of this generation want socialism and don't understand what their relatives fought for and that's why we speak up about it.”

Australia of course fought in WWII an alliance that included the USSR, which practised a brand of socialism. Realpolitik in the years following WWII led to a turn-around in the priorities of the US, Australia’s ally, and also to the Cold War, which saw the USSR and the US conducting proxy wars all around the world in an effort to counteract the viability of their adversary’s political program. So Murray was sort of half right but probably just seriously misguided due to general ignorance.

Then van Onselen joined the conversation at 9.34pm on 16 August: “There have been plenty of criticisms of Paul I've been reading on social media, pointing out Hitler was a fascist not a socialist. Nazism is national socialism which is considered a branch of socialism.” The reaction from the public was swift and decisive and included learned contradictions pointing out the historical fallacy at work in what van Onselen had tweeted. It did seem strange that a person who occupied the positions he does could be once again so ignorant of basic facts of history, but there you go. In response to the reaction, van Onselen tweeted that he was overwhelmed by the negative response and said he would no longer interact with people on social media.

At 9.06am on 17 August, van Onselen tweeted to Fairfax journalist Jacqueline Maley: “Yours is the only tweet I’m responding to, I said I’m no longer using twitter [sic] for more than posts [because] the vile abuse I’ve received has stunned me. The left right spectrum is more of a curved U leaving extreme left & right with much in common. That’s all I was saying. Signing off.”

On 6 July, I published a blogpost about politics titled ‘People outsource their critical faculties to political parties’ in which I developed ideas about the way stories are deployed on social media, that I had started building the previous month. And it’s true. The van Onselen debacle shows us that people are highly partisan and aggressive when riled to action. They don’t like being made to think. Only the most extreme expressions of opinion are rewarded by attention, and the public sphere is different now as a result of this dynamic.

The appointment this month to the Canberra press gallery of the second journalist associated with ‘Independent Australia’, a partisan, left-wing news outlet, tells us that things have changed forever. In related news, The Guardian announced in July that it had earned more from online revenues than from print ads and events for the first time ever. The company says it will break even by the end of next year. Both of these outlets espouse left-wing views in their journalism.

The sensible centre is being hollowed out as people take sides and reward the outlets that buttress their personal biases with their cash. But partisanship is not good for democracy. What we need are outlets that look at individual policies and judge them based on their merits, not on the basis of whether we support the political party that espouses them. The old left-right tango is a dead end (as I posted on 21 July). If Labor win the election in 2019 they still have to go to the polls again in 2022 and, if they win that contest, again in 2025.

We need to find a way to privilege policies, not pick winners. The old method of newspapers taking sides at election time and backing one horse over the other is a paradigm associated with the bad old days of the past. A new model of journalism and a new type of debate is needed that allows people to dissociate themselves from the policy-making machines that are political parties, and to think for themselves. It is up to each of us to choose our own destiny or else choice might be taken away from us by some demagogue coming at us from the extreme left or the extreme right down the track.

Friday, 17 August 2018

Book review: Confessions of the Fox, Jordy Rosenberg (2018)

This ambitious experimental novel presses all the buttons in the progressive control panel, the one that generates soundbites for public “debates” that take place on social media. (They’re not debates, they’re actually pile-ons and slug-fests for the hyper-partisan who otherwise live peacefully in our communities.) The author is a transsexual academic who has done a lot of reading for this book and his erudition shows. The bulk of the work is fantastically realised and you actually feel as though you are living in 18th century London, with its smells, sounds and residents all powerfully realised in the author’s flexible prose.

But the ideological bias that informs the work is actually also the cause of its downfall. I got about 45 percent of the way through the book before becoming disillusioned. If only the author had tried a little less hard to make his points, I thought glumly as I decided, one morning, to write this review rather than pick up the book again. If only he’d been a bit less “correct”.

The problems start with the way that Jack Sheppard (who is actually a girl her mother commits to indentured servitude with a London carpenter in October 1713) is treated by his master, whose name is Kneebone. The man shackles the girl to her bed at night so that she won’t escape, and this poor treatment inspires Jack to flee one night, having picked the lock on the device with a file she normally uses for her work. On the run, Jack meets up with a prostitute, Bess Khan, who is from the subcontinent and serves customers out of an establishment where she hides Jack. The romance between the two is at the core of the book and it is a credible device.

There is a supernatural component in the book as well. One night when he is robbing a toy store (the personal pronoun used in this review for Jack from here on in is “he”), Jack’s ears are assaulted by the sounds that are made by the products on sale in the darkened store. They cry out to him as they sit unused on the shelves. This gift makes itself felt again, later, when Jack enters a lighthouse on the Thames where fees paid in kind on account of official customs charges are kept. In the place, Jack comes across boxes of opium that let out a desultory cry, underscoring the misery that the production and consumption of the stuff in the interests of the monied classes made. The monied classes are fulsomely ridiculed by the author, who has Jack under Kneebone making tuffins for them (a product I tried to find a definition for online, but could not).

The feelings that inspire this artifices the book deals in are no doubt good and praiseworthy in themselves, but from me they fail to convinced because there were too many of them pointing in one direction. I had the same problem when watching Warwick Thornton’s ‘Sweet Country’ at the cinema earlier this year (my review is dated 27 January). When you screw down the narrative to such a degree that movement is impossible without upsetting the dramatic tone of the story, you fail to give the characters the freedom they need to exist as credible entities within it. Thornton, a black man living in contemporary Australia, had a point to make with his film, just as Rosenberg does with his novel. It’s all about making your enemy as grotesque as possible, regardless of the damage such a campaign can have on the quality of the stories you want to tell.

The same problem infected ‘Mary Shelley’, the biopic that was released this year that was directed by Haifaa al-Mansour (my review was published on 10 July). Her imagining of Mary Jane Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s stepmother, was unnecessarily negative, and the imbalance that this piece of characterisation set up in the narrative threatened to unsettle the structure of the movie. Poetic justice might seem attractive to artists who have borne grudges for decades before they are finally able to give free expression to an animus, but you have to be careful that you don’t upset the apple cart by loading it too high with talking points that belong to the partisans on your side of the argument.

And if ever a book had to have been promoted with a rider saying that the Kindle edition doesn’t work, this is it. The novel is full of footnotes that, accessed using the links provided in the text in the Kindle edition, take you to another page. After reading each note at the end of the chapter, you then have to tap your way back to where you were in the text so that you can continue reading the story. A paper copy of the book would have been much better. I ended up skipping all the footnotes and just reading the main text, which does damage to the narrative because the footnotes contain a story of their own.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Book review: One Hundred Years of Dirt, Rick Morton (2018)

This memoir by Murdoch journalist Rick Morton is slippery and filled with drama but in the end the allusive, tangential method used shattered my patience and I only got to 25 percent of the way through the book before putting it down.

Morton tries to elicit meaning through the deployment of elaborate rhetorical devices but in so doing he often misses the opportunity to use the correct noun to name the thing he wants to talk about. Instead, he relies on a sort of privileging of the negative, where you create the outline of the object you want to talk about by carefully filling in the background and leaving a blank space in the middle. He does this to create dramatic tension but it just rubbed me up the wrong way. It was often like a join-the-dots puzzle where a significant number of dots were missing, so that you just couldn’t make out the subject of the sentence. I kept on feeling the urge to say to him, “Just tell me what it is!”

The story of his grandfather, a sadist who ruled his family home on the remote border of Queensland and South Australia, is probably the best part of the book. Where I stopped is where Morton's brother got burned. Another one of those cases where the author avoids telling you what happened for as long as possible, all the while your blood pressure is building up and building up. Some might find this kind of storytelling gripping, I just found it irritating.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

“Integration” when used to talk about migrants is racism

Do a Google search with the words “Alan Tudge” and “integration” and you get a few News Corp stories applauding the minister’s stance as well as one from the Guardian dated 20 July about an idea put forward by the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to introduce a “values” test for migrants. The first three paragraphs of this last story contain a lot of material:
Australia will consider adding a “values test” for those considering permanent residency in order to protect its “extraordinarily successful” multicultural society, Malcolm Turnbull said. 
The prime minister confirmed what his citizenship and multicultural minister Alan Tudge told the Australia/UK Leadership Forum overnight, where he floated the idea of a “values” test to fend off “segregation”. 
Tudge told his London audience “our ship is slightly veering towards a European separatist multicultural model and we want to pull it back to be firmly on the Australian integrated path”.
The notion that Australia somehow borrowed multiculturalism from Europe is just plain wrong. Multiculturalism was first introduced in Australia as official government policy in 1973 under the ALP of Gough Whitlam. To his eternal credit, the Liberal Party’s Malcolm Fraser, who succeeded Whitlam as PM, kept the policy in place. When Whitlam made that historic decision Australia was only the second country in the world to adopt multiculturalism as official government policy. The first had been Canada. Europe copied Australia, not the other way round.

And the policy is a cornerstone of the peaceful society that we all enjoy, despite attempts by the Liberal Party to disturb the peace. Our security services rely on good relations with minorities in order to properly do their jobs. Without the trust that goes with tolerating (for example) the burqa in public, their work would be impossible and we would be having more people killed in the centre of Melbourne instead of just one by crazy ideologues in cars.

Once more the Liberal Party shows just how far away from “liberalism”, the ideal held out for the scrutiny of the people of the Commonwealth in the 1950s when the name was adopted, it has travelled. The 1950s and 1960s were a kinder, more tolerant era. The university library at the ANU in Canberra is named after Robert Menzies, the politician who made the name change. It is a building that is unapologetically Modernist in design, much like the Reserve Bank in Sydney, which was built at around the same time.

Such buildings were meant to say something about the new political settlement that ended WWII, a settlement where migrants were welcomed regardless of whether they could speak the language, so that they could lead meaningful lives and provide for the children the government wanted them to have in order to support the economy.

Words like “assimilation” and “integration” are codewords for racism, put out there in the community by cowardly Tories in order to appeal to the baser instincts of the outliers on the loony right. You put the thumb screws on migrants and stupid people applaud. It’s pure dog-whistling.

The address that Fraser Anning made to the Senate yesterday during which he called holding a plebiscite to limit immigration the “final solution”, was part of a play for power. Anning represents a small party with its base in far-north Queensland. Queensland is a funny state where the regions have a large degree of influence related to their distance from the state capital. People in FNQ call Brisbaneites “Mexicans” because they come from south of the border (which they want to draw at Rockhampton).

Anning’s carefully-chosen words are aimed at rustling up support among his base by riling the hated elites in NSW and Victoria. It’s exactly like Leyonhjelm’s attack on Senator Hanson-Young: it is designed to garner support and he has achieved his aim beautifully. There’s no way not to cover this kind of dog-whistling but if you do cover it you are doing just as much harm as good.

The regions are crying out for migrants, who usually settle in the big cities, and don't care where they come from as long as they settle down in town and get jobs. And the crowning irony of all of this of course is that it was rural Queensland who were as much against the marriage equality ‘Yes’ vote as were the migrant enclaves of western Sydney.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

What are the aesthetics of social media? That would be kitsch.

At about 8.30pm on Saturday 11 August, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) presenter Kumi Taguchi tweeted, “Hello Twitter. Can't get a picture out of my head. It's a cabin on a prairie, surrounded by wildflowers & wide blue skies. I think it's in America. Where would this place be? Idaho? Oregon? Montana? #dreaming”

We all know the feeling we want to encapsulate but we might lack the pictorial vocabulary needed to fulfil the desire. Something lies just beyond the confines of our consciousness that beckons, enticingly. What picture was that? I think I’ve seen it before. We share an inability, let’s celebrate that for a moment. Here …

Twitter is full of these moments of unthinkingly sharing something that cannot otherwise be put into words except through suggestion, a meme, an image, or a short verbal construct that neatly encapsulates a feeling. People reach around inside their bag of tricks looking for that thing that will be shared as many times as possible. It’s a popularity contest, so the things that we share have to be easily communicated. In this dynamic, nuance, subtlety and irony get lost in the full blare of midday.

What it produces mostly in the aesthetic realm is kitsch. The ambiguity that good art relishes has been rubbed off in the process of manufacturing the shareable soundbite, in finding the exact, ideal moment that says, “This is how I want people to think I feel right now.” (Regardless of how they might actually feel.)

It might be news of a new restaurant opening down the street that makes you suddenly the happiest person in the world. It might be the sight of a group of puppies swamping a child on the floor with their soft muzzles and floppy ears. It might be a painting by an Impressionist (Van Gogh is popular because as well as being a genius he was a tortured genius). Whatever it is, people have to instantly recognise it so that they can then share it with their followers. It is that moment like a clap of thunder, a complete realisation, that characterises perception of aesthetic objects (such as words, pictures, sounds) on social media.

An example of how complexity can however be accommodated is found in this tweet on the morning of 12 August from English journalist Simon Rickets, “I used to know a guy who would say, cynically: ‘Why do homeless people have dogs?” I think this clip is the perfect answer. For love.” The tweet contained a video that had been made by the BBC showing a homeless man named Andy talking about his dog, Bailey. It is only with longer pieces like this video that might grab your attention with an easily-recognisable hook (like the tweet that accompanied it) that the complexity and nuance of art can be brought into the tweetstream. But to comprehend that complexity you have to pause and sit back and read or listen or watch the product being offered to you. It takes time.

Threads on Twitter offer another way to incorporate complexity in social media. (To make a thread, you have to reply to yourself in the tweet that came before, in the second - and subsequent - tweets, so that people can easily view the whole series of tweets it involves.)

The type of poetry that functions best in social media is the “haiku” (which is made up of lines with five, seven and five syllables) or at a stretch the “tanka” (which is made up of five lines; lines one and three have five syllables each, the other lines have seven syllables). Anything longer than this and it becomes impossible to include all the lines in a tweet. I have never seen a threaded poem on Twitter. Most of the poetry I have seen on Twitter however is not very good. I follow a couple of people who declare themselves to be poets.

There is another special category of content that attempts to include complexity and that is the historical photograph. There are a number of dedicated accounts on Twitter that only post old photos taken at different times over the roughly 150 years since the invention of photography. Some of these photos are quite interesting, and they buck the general trend that I am putting forward here by delivering the sort of nuance and subtlety that are in the province of art. Historical photos usually get shared a lot by people on Twitter but two other types of image that are involved in artistic sense-making get fewer shares, in general. These are photos of plants and animals.

Social media is about the “now”. Rather than the historical photograph, more representative of the norm on Twitter is one that was put up on the morning of 12 August by Australian comedian Shaun Micaleff that came with the comment, “BREAKING NEWS: If you put glasses on Spinoza, he looks like Woody Allen.” The photo that accompanied the tweet showed that what he said was true, but the general thrust of the tweet was to create humour at the expense of someone else. It was part of a campaign that has been launched among certain parts of the politically progressive to belittle the filmmaker because of his domestic arrangements. The tweet was basically cruel and insulting.

The process can work in exactly the opposite way, of course. On 11 August a tweet appeared on Twitter from a person with the handle @breanna1500 that went, “so my brother keeps getting made fun of at school for having earrings and blonde hair. rt this if you think his earrings and blonde hair is super cute” The tweet came with a photo of a boy aged about 13 with dark skin and blonde hair standing in front of a house. He wore a T-shirt and boardshorts, and had earrings in his ears and a smile on his face. The tweet had been ‘liked’ over 16,000 times and shared over 10,000 times by the next day. It is an interesting case of meta-commentary used to other a group of people who had been othering someone else who, in the tweet, was being embraced.

For the most part the message on social media has to be immediate and unambiguous so that we can just gulp it all down, the good and the bad, the worthy and the trite, the perfect and the flawed, in our eagerness to create community. We other our enemies and embrace our friends. An example of the kind of trite sense-making I’m talking about is a tweet that appeared on the morning of 12 August from ex-ABC journalist Marcus Kelson, who lives in Canberra: “Person in front of me at coffee shop, half strength almond latte with cinnamon - this is why Donald Trump is leader of the free world.” It’s a variation on the old “hipsters are wankers” trope and it ideally fits the bill of othering a segment of the community in order to create cohesion in another part of the community. (Although with Marcus it’s often hard to tell: it could be ironic.) People love this sort of thing, and share and ‘like’ indiscriminately when they see it in their streams.

Another example of community creation was the tweet that was put up on 11 August by an account named ‘f thot fitzgerald’ (@dracomalfoys) which describes itself only as “incoherent ramblings galore”. The tweet went, “one of my favorite parts of art history is the depictions of lucifer morningstar made by people who clearly Really Really wanted to fuck the devil” The tweet had four images of men with sculpted bodies with wings like angels, two of which dated from the 19th century, one of which showed a bronze sculpture, and one of which showed a marble sculpture. All of the images were realistic depictions with the exception of the wings that came out of the backs of the men in them. The tweet had 44,000 ‘likes’ and 18,000 shares and had been shared into my tweetstream by Australian journalist Benjamin Law, who is openly gay.

I’ve written before on this blog about the way that people use social media to create community. It’s a tribal thing. It’s got that mob-like dynamic about it that the fascists of the middle part of last century so loved: a mobilised force of people moving down the street in one direction intent on one, single goal. The “fascio”, the Roman “faggot” (a bundle of sticks tied together), is the emblem of the movement. Fascism is not designed to appreciate complexity and judge it according to an elite sensibility. It is intent on growing, expanding, reaching out to every corner of the space as it progresses along the thoroughfare breaking windows, knocking loudly on doors, and assaulting passers-by who do not belong to it.

The Nazis of course were big collectors of fine art. They trolled through the major galleries in the cities they occupied, looting and stealing whatever they could lay their hands on and taking it back to their storerooms to keep. Twitter is a bit like this, too. It takes the best of what’s available and turns it to its own purpose (creating community) while leaving behind the difficult, the allusive, the inchoate, the inexpressible as being things of no value.

Before people on the left get too confident in their aesthetic judgement it should be remembered that the Soviets were as keen on simple, realistic depictions of the world as the Nazis. Both of these 20th-century oligarchies rejected Modernism as being degenerate and too sophisticated, embracing figurative art as the norm to aspire to, and thus catered to the baser instincts of ordinary people. Another important fact is that Benito Mussolini, the autocrat who founded fascism in Italy and who was a model for Adolph Hitler, started out in his political career as a Communist. A love of the mob and the strength it embodied was a defining characteristic of both movements. In such a space, kitsch grows like topsy.

Monday, 13 August 2018

Social media says: “It’s the MSM!”

Actually, it’s the Australian version of Donald Trump’s “fake news”, except here it’s a purely grassroots movement aimed at emasculating the mainstream media (the epithet “MSM” is parleyed about enthusiastically by these nongs on social media). The most recent target of a pile-on orchestrated by a number of prominent spokespeople was Alice Workman, the BuzzFeed journalist who broke the scandal that has undermined the career of a politician from the New South Wales branch of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), Emma Husar.

Allegations that were aired in the media of poor conduct have been referred to the Department of Finance by the NSW ALP. Sexual misconduct that was alleged to have been undertaken have been set aside by the party’s arbitrator.

Husar came under attack in the public sphere after rumours about bad behaviour that had been aired at an internal party inquiry became public knowledge due to a leak to Workman, who went ahead and printed them.

We know that women in politics are held to higher standards than men. You only have to look at the way that Barnaby Joyce has been gradually rehabilitated since his climbdown from the deputy leadership of the Coalition in February this year after revelations he had gotten a staffer pregnant. Joyce is due to headline the Canberra Writers’ Festival where he will promote a book later this year. Julia Baird, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's (ABC) host of its weeknight panel show ‘The Drum’, wrote a book which I read about the way women are treated in politics that was published in 2004. It is titled ‘Media Tarts’. So the case of Husar must have brought back memories for her.

But the way that the media have been treated by people online is equally despicable. Workman was doing her job, reporting what had been leaked by a staffer attached to Husar. Her editors will furthermore have been involved in making the decision to publish. Bernard Keane at Crikey wrote a good summary of the debacle, showing how this case was different from that of Joyce (although there were claims of misuse of public resources in Joyce’s case as well).

But this is not the only instance of poor treatment of the media by the mob on social media. The attacks are becoming routine, and the ABC is in the firing line a lot of the time, portrayed as too right-wing by such people at the same time as it is attacked by partisan actors on the right, such as the editors working at News Corp, for being too left-wing. You just can’t win.

At the centre of the recent drama is an outfit enticingly named ‘Independent Australia’ which is anything but independent, in fact is avowedly partisan, taking a determinedly progressive line in its stories, even while it boasts to people watching that it is independent of any larger concern. The editor of this outfit is named Dave Donovan and he has over 23,000 followers. Another major player, Denise Shrivell, has over 10,000 followers. She makes a regular podcast that is broadcast online.

A person I know from back in the day when Twitter was a place for like-minded early-adopters, Jennifer Wilson, who writes for them for time to time, has 11.000 followers. She has been very vocal in condemning Workman. Jennifer changed her Twitter name following the crisis on 10 August that saw the ALP revelations in the media. It had been “Glorious Pecora” (to highlight another case of hubris by people working in politics) but when progressive commentator Van Badham had a go at her over the current controversy, she changed it to “That Sheep Person”, turning an intended slight into a badge of honour. These are the kinds of dynamics that are at play in these disputes online.

Such people are listened to by large segments of the community on social media, so their views are undoubtedly important. But they are fuelling grievances that are precisely the same as those felt by followers of Donald Trump: that the elites (represented here by the hated “MSM”) are out of touch and unaccountable and need to be brought into line. It’s an ugly populism that is being fed by people whose only interest lies in increasing the number of Twitter followers they have.

The entire episode was summed up for me by a tweet on 10 August from @Jayne73136490 that went, “OK twitter [sic] I am calling on @emmahusarmp not to resign. Anyone that agrees, and was disgusted by @workmanalice gutter journalism retweet.” The tweet had about 230 retweets by early the next morning, and over 170 ‘likes’.