Friday 31 January 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 30 January 2014

Massacre at the Global Mail

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

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

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

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

Sunday 26 January 2014

Book Chat Oz episode 1

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

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

The astonishing power of dreams

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

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

Friday 24 January 2014

Latinate language is the bane of the social sciences

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 22 January 2014

Wildlife and territory: Encounters with insects

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

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

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

Monday 20 January 2014

Privacy lost? Not really

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 17 January 2014

Net neutrality a grand opera for punk geeks

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

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

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

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

La Trobe podcast the seed of 24-hour Uni TV

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 16 January 2014

Dotcom Internet Party a stalking horse for more theft

The Paris Hilton of online, Kim Dotcom, lets it all out from his New Zealand mansion. "It" includes an aspiration to establish a political party within which to contest national elections in his adopted country. What's on the party platform? The party wants to work against the surveillance state, for one thing, but going by public pronouncements from Kim there are other things to pursue as well, including the profits of the entertainment and publishing industries. On 9 January, for example, Dotcom posted this on Twitter:
How to stop piracy:
1. Create great stuff
2. Make it easy to buy
3. Works on any device
4. Same day global release
5. Fair price
A list of conditions for content producers like this can hardly give confidence to those who ultimately bring out new material: authors, filmmakers, screenwriters. But Dotcom is clever. Uniting under a single political platform issues of surveillance (which noone can reasonably object to) with demands for geek-friendly access to content is to try to sweeten a very bitter medicine. Geek-friendly means making content producers follow practices that geeks value and that average punters ape simply in order to avoid paying for what they consume. Never mind the creators of music, films, and books. In the digital ecosphere theft is valid if the companies that control and produce the content don't go along with your demands.

Recently successful author Lionel Shriver put up a piece about the anxieties of the writing profession. Despite her success Shriver feels obliged to spend a large amount of her time doing marketing - writing op-eds, attending festivals, doing book signings - because she says she doesn't know if the success is going to continue. Shriver's success also didn't happen immediately and it wasn't until her seventh book that financial rewards started to keep pace with the hard work. So she remembers the difficult times. People like Shriver are rare because most writers do not speak out against piracy and content theft. This is a shame. The publishing industry is under siege from people like Dotcom who have their neat little lists of demands that they hold so dear and so close to their hearts. The people who are suffering as a result of this kind of immoral petulance are the writers, singers, and filmmakers who depend on links to strong publishing companies to not only survive but thrive. 

Wednesday 15 January 2014

The myth of the individual in western culture

Yesterday I blogged about the Enlightenment project but I wanted to interrogate this modernity in a different way after discussing the blogpost with someone on social media. During the discussion I was asked about possible reasons for the decline in the importance of religion and I suggested "capitalism and printing" in a brief remark, without really thinking too deeply about it. The discussion brought me back to a blogpost I did in 2008 to review a book by Aaron Gurevich, The Origins of European Individualism (1995). In that blogpost I find this:

Gurevich has little time for the ‘great men’ approach to history that was pioneered in the Romantic era and still serves as a surrogate for knowledge today. Three quarters of the way through the book, when he is in full stride, Gurevich spells this out: “[I]f we concern ourselves only with great people, we shall not learn very much about the life of medieval society,” where
Individuality is not valued or approved: rather it is feared, and not only in others - people are afraid of being themselves. Manifestations of originality or idiosyncrasy have a whiff of heresy about them. People suffer if they feel that they are not the same as everyone else.
Preoccupation with originality is not “a characteristic mark” of medieval times. Rather, “essence lay in the fact that the person embodied certain ‘vocations’, ‘offices’ or varieties of ‘service’.” “Individuals did not seek inner satisfaction by contrasting themselves with everybody else: they found it in subordinating their egos to preselected prototypes.”

This brings me to the image which accompanies this post, which is supposed, by it seems a lot of people, to be a self-portrait of Sandro Botticelli tucked away in a 1475 painting he did. The emergence of this new style of painting in Italy at this time, at the end of the Middle Ages and at the start of the Renaissance, makes it appropriate to talk about capitalism because it was in the city states of northern Italy at this time that we see the emergence of an economic model that could be labelled, without appearing ridiculous, "capitalism". Double-entry bookkeeping and all that. Or you can think of the powerful banking family of the Medici and how they patronised the pictorial arts. Taking the thought further there had also been the new style of writing - in the vernacular - pioneered by Tuscans Dante (born in Florence) and Petrarch (born in Arezzo, another Tuscan city) 100 years earlier.

The Renaissance continues to fascinate people today and a book like Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve (2011) illustrates this undying appetite for things to do with historical moments that stand as milestones in the evolution of our culture. In a blogpost about six months ago I wrote about the book:
The book chronicles much of the lives of two men: the 1st-century-BC poet Lucretius and the 15th-century-AD bibliophile Poggio Bracciolini, a follower of the early Humanist and vernacular poet Petrarch (1304 - 1374). While Petrarch is famous nowadays for his sonnets written in Italian - following the formal lead of Dante Alighieri, who was among the first to write in the vernacular - for Bracciolini Petrarch was rather notable for his enthusiastic collecting of classical Roman and Greek manuscripts. Greenblatt's entire book is dedicated to the story of how a long poem by Lucretius was reclaimed from obscurity by Bracciolini in 1417 and - presumably, I haven't got that far yet - how it influenced people living in what we call the Renaissance.
But originality is something that even today is suspect. It might gain approval if it consones with the thinking of other people or, within the mercantile ambit of capitalism, if it results in a product so successful that it creates a new category of object, and mountains of profit. In social media for example there is no evidence that originality per se is valued, rather people assign approval to speech that has resonance for themselves. Originality clearly has its limitations - as an elite concern or as a private one - and in some cultures even today it is treated with a high degree of suspicion, for example in Japan where people tend to preserve a sense of identity that coheres only in terms of relationships with others, which points to Gurevich's assessment of the Middle Ages in Europe.

Because of the way that culture works in our world as an element of capitalism - even elite culture tends to define itself with reference to dollar value, for artworks for example - we might ask how this notion of "the individual" actually functions in western societies, or if it is a tired trope that has been appropriated by capital for its own mercantile purposes. I suspect that given the way that social media works this is not only true but that the majority of people are actually conditioned to follow and to behave in an organised fashion that preferences the sense of "community" over the individual. Is this surprising? Is it bad or good? For if it's inevitable that people prefer to find community with their peers then how far is it justified to assign blame to capital for this - supposed - shortcoming in ourselves? Maybe humans are just like this. Are we conditioned by upbringing or by our genes?

So what are people like Greenblatt and Gurevich doing except finding community with people living in that foreign country - the past - so as to fortify a personal preference for exemplars that cleave to that now-tired trope of Modernism, the outsider?  If it's a preference we all identify with though do not in actual fact endorse by way of our daily actions, then how important is it? Are we merely vicariously performing an old story - the jeans, T-shirt and black leather jacket exemplified by the painter Jackson Pollock, James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause, or Fonzie in Happy Days - in order to appropriate some elements of cool that otherwise elude us because we're too busy working and - when not working - actualising our essential selves by way of culture, family, cooking or exercise? Isn't the individual what we are most unlike?

Tuesday 14 January 2014

Book review: The Engagement, Chloe Hooper (2012)

I have in the past enjoyed Chloe Hooper's writing but I was very disappointed with this novel and didn't make it very far. You're meant to think of Anne Radcliffe and the early gothic novelists, and even the cover directs you there, but like their books - classics, it's true, but practically unreadable now unless with a part of your brain focused on the historical context, particularly the place of women in society - this one's prurient, voyeuristic and artless.

The story is about a young woman, Liese, who is a Brit working in Australia for a relative in real estate sales. One day she meets a wealthy man, Alexander, who is in the market for an upmarket apartment to use for his city visits. For some unaccountable reason Liese starts prostituting herself to this man, serially making assignations for the purpose of bolstering her finances. One day, he invites her to his country property and here things start to go strange. I stopped reading the novel because it is both artless and titillating; I cannot abide violence against women, nothing is more morally reprehensible in my eyes. Things go strange when Alexander for some reason locks Liese inside the house when he goes to check on some stock on the farm. She panics. I closed the book.

It's an artless book although there are plenty of opportunities to use metaphor and other elements of poesis to enrich the narrative. There is a hint of intelligence in the first few pages of the book but this is soon replaced by forensic mentions of stains on pillows. The lack of art is the thing that insulted me the most because it's clear that Hooper can write. I just wish she spent a bit more time before rushing to the pillow stains and the weird male behaviour. Her haste reminded me of the rapidity with which, in porn films, the guy gets his cock stuck into the woman for the purpose of energetic rogering. Then the lingering shots of her boobs swinging as she gets fucked from behind. I assume that this part, in Hooper's book, comes after Alexander returns from crotching lambs or whatever he's doing when he locks her up in his spooky old house.

There's also an unpleasant and unexamined remnant of the allure of old money in this book. The young Brit who opens her legs for cash and the powerful squatter: it's all a bit medieval. Unfortunately, these themes, though as clear as the nose on your face, never get resolved for me because I won't wink at rape.

The term 'Judeo-Christian' is a gauntlet thrown down that is for liberals to pick up

In this debate we've seen how the term 'Judeo-Christian' is a cultural artifact of recent coinage but the gauntlet thrown down by conservatives requires more than this due to the historical resonances that the term throws up. While it would be fascinating to see the term employed by a writer long dead - from the 16th century, say - the fact is that noone used it because it would have seemed a nonsense. The term has resonances, however, and so it's worth looking back to see just how religion worked as an enabling device in the emergence of modernity, technology, representative government, and the liberal societies we value so much today that we simply take them for granted. I've put up this image of da Vinci's because it says something profound to us about the thing that has come to possess the most value to the world: the notion of the individual.

The image dates from the early 1450s, about a decade after the printing press was invented in Germany, at around the time of the birth of Isabella of Castille, who went on to marry Ferdinand of Aragon. With dynastic influence in mind the two monarchs of what we call Spain sponsored the creation at a university in their country of the first polyglot Bible, which was published around 1520. This was the first Bible to contain the original languages of that book - Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew - and it sparked the interest of scholars elsewhere in Europe to do similar things. Luther had already nailed his manifesto to the church door in 1517, so what we see is a Europe where all the old certitudes were disintegrating. The Humanist scholars were speeding up the process by collecting old manuscripts of classical Roman origin. The rise of the vernacular which had started with Dante in the 1320s and that first took root in the Italian city states was spreading and causing problems. The biggest problems of course were felt by the Catholic Church, which typically for a big organisation under threat reacted violently to suppress the innovations.

In England, Henry VIII started the process of separation of his kingdom from the Catholic Church in the 1530s. One of the results of this cataclysmic change - from the point of view of the English people - was that all boys had to be educated so that they could read the vernacular Bible that was prepared for the use of the people. And so young William Shakespeare, living in rural seclusion in Warwickshire, was taught how to read Latin and how two write English. Because of the printing press, there were more books circulating than ever before, and practically all men could read them. Some even went so far as to publish their own creations. One such man was Michel de Montaigne, a man whose Humanist upbringing led him to produce a new innovation, for in his Essais, instead of talking about God and the relationship of the individual to God, Montaigne merely talked about himself. He turned his eyes from the stars and focused them on what was happening inside his own mind. The book appeared in the 1580s, around the time young Shakespeare reached his majority and decided to join a group of actors.

In Hamlet, which was published in 1603, something equally extraordinary happens because we see for the very first time a fictional character who is a fully-developed individual. The famous soliloquy is so striking and has captured the imaginations of so many for such a long time because it shows a man merely talking to himself. There is no mention - despite the nature of the subject matter, suicide - of God. In fact, there is something distinctly classical about this piece of writing, something downright Roman. And the individual appeared also in Spain around the same time, with the publication in 1605 of Don Quixote, a man in all his splendid oddness. Instead of reproducing the tired trope of the knight errant, Cervantes focuses his attention on the artifice of the traditional narrative, and with gusts of explosive laughter strips away what is false and illogical in it. It is a very Renaissance thing to do: to show the individual unadorned by the worn trappings of religion and heraldry, tilting at windmills.

In 1620 there appeared another seminal text, the Novum Organum of Francis Bacon. Again, Bacon's regard took the reader away from God, not as in Montaigne's case, inward, but outward to the observable world, the world of things. Bacon translated the Humanist project to the realm of the physical sciences by focusing its light on the world of things, and the new philosopy - we recall Dante's manifesto, titled Dolce Stil Novo (the "new, sweet/soft style") - led to what we know today as the hard sciences and their commercial correlates, the applied sciences. Technology, in fact.

In politics the Humanist project also had its victims and its winners, and this happened not long after Bacon's book came out, for in 1649 Charles, the King of England, was beheaded by Parliament. The relationship between the monarch and the elected representatives of the people would never be the same again. Charles' primary sin was trying to raise taxes without the consent of the people. Around 130 years later another English king would try the same thing again, and fail; the result in this second case was the American War of Independence. For Charles the problem lay with religious enthusiasts, men and women, Luther's children, who had been appeased, threatened and suppressed in England by Elizabeth I - a far more canny operator than Charles - but who now took matters into their own hands and created revolution.

All of these things are the seeds from which modern Western civilization is actually built and the thing that needs to be pointed out is that religion in fact was in all of these cases the institution that had to be opposed. Rather than talk about a 'Judeo-Christian' heritage what we need to talk about is the historical phase that came later - that, in fact, was in operation when Australia was first established as a part of the British Empire - and that is the Enlightenment. If this thing can be called anything it must be called a reaction to religion, a turning away - following the lead of the men of the Renaissance - from divine matters and toward material things, toward the world of the men and women who were our ancestors. Their chroniclers - Locke, Darwin, Austen, Wollstonecraft, Shelley, Coleridge, Poe, Baudelaire, Rimbaud - made works that are our distinct and inalienable heritage. In the lees of the Enlightnment and under the influence of the American Revolution occurred the Romantic push for the true recognition of the individual, and it is in the shadows of that time that we still live despite, not because of, religion.

Monday 13 January 2014

The mainstream always takes the path of least resistance

I'm not sure if James Parker, who wrote this think piece for the New York Times on the repurposing of cultural products by the mainstream culture industry, is writing down to the level of a purported audience or if he's just an idiot. When I first read his piece I immediately concluded that he was an idiot but I'm starting to think that he doesn't want to show off, maybe. Maybe he's just cleaving blindly to the most tired referents of popular culture because he doesn't want to alienate his readership.

Parker pitches his ideas at a high point in the piece, referencing T.S. Eliot, the Modernist poet, and Evelyn Waugh, the British popular novelist. He makes much of the pronouncements of these men, taking what was probably a throw-away remark by the second-rate Waugh and raising it to the level of an axiom. As for Eliot, well, Parker is American and Eliot was American so Parker probably read Eliot when he was in high school ... You know the rest. So once we're done with Eliot the accomplished poet and Waugh the schlock novelist we're done with high culture and we can roll out some names that will really get the juices flowing for the morons Parker takes his readers for. Like Tolkein. Another second-rate British novelist, Tolkein is primarily a writer for young adults; the trouble is that the category did not exist when he was alive. But Tolkein is useful for Parker because it allows the journalist to segue to what he's really interested in (and where the big bucks are really made within the culture industry): film and television.

So in a couple of tooth-shattering steps Parker takes us from the classical 20th century canon - Eliot - through the lists of historical fiction - Waugh - and straight into the arms of the current flavour-du-jour - Tolkein. Then we're free to talk about James Bond and Battlestar Galactica. Wow! Daddy can I do it again?! It's extraordinary because there are just fuckloads of great writers Parker flies over like Icarus bent on approximating his rancid carcass to the power of the sun. It's a credit to the mainstream culture industry that he can so effortlessly and blindly leap over the tattered corpses of the ten thousand great novels, short stories, and poems that do not make it into his measly little purview. Parker shows us how powerful the companies are that comprise the engine of cultural production, especially those based in the culture capital of the world: America.

Look, I'm hip to the pleasures of Tolkein: I read him avidly (when I was about 15). I also grok James Bond; my father would watch almost nothing coming out of the culture industry - he was no critic - but I do recall walking down the street in Waikiki one year (we visited Hawaii practically every year when I was an adolescent) as the family made its way to the cinema to watch the latest Bond extravaganza. But the thing is that there are ten thousand flowers nodding their heads in the fields of popular acclaim and many of the ones that are most neglected deserve the proximity of more noses than Skyfall does. I mean, if you want to really see Colombo in a new light why not spend some time with Wim Wenders' 80s arthouse classic Wings of Desire? Now that's an accessible bridge between two worlds if ever there was one.

We all have our personal pantheons of the great and good but reading Parker's I just felt like fucking Einstein. And this guy's getting paid by the New York Times to produce his spiel? It's just not good enough.

Sunday 12 January 2014

Pyne is motivated by narrow ideological considerations

This is a curious little image for which, as usual, there is no information regarding who made it, based on whose account, and when, but it's hard to imagine that this was exactly how the Aborigines received Captain James Cook when he landed at what he had already named Botany Bay. And if they did receive him in this manner, it's hard to imagine Cook taking it in such a relaxed way. The image says the event occurred in 1770, during which year Cook sailed all the way up the east coast of the continent (there's a town in Queensland named 1770) on his way back to London to report to his employers, HM Government.

For someone, like me, who attended a private school operating in the Anglican sphere during the 60s and 70s, any information received about the Aborigines had to be acquired after matriculation. I have a friend who is a couple of years older than me who went to a public school in Sydney who did study Aboriginal history, and the history of the confluence of the two cultures. For my part, I remember one day during primary school we boys all trooped out onto the sports fields and, using our bodies as markers, we mapped out the shape of the kind of tiny ship Cook used for his voyage of discovery. On another occasion, we visited Kurnell, where Cook landed at Botany Bay, and were kindly encouraged to make drawings; I made a very credible drawing of a flagpole. Later, in high school, I did a project where I recreated an 18th century gentleman's private letter, including orthographic peculiarities that had gone out of fashion. This was as part of our study of the achievements of Governor Macquarie. Christopher Pyne would no doubt heartily approve, were he to be told what I was made to look at during those formative years, and would applaud the educational bent of those days, in that school, in New South Wales.

Unfortunately for Pyne I went to university and learned to think for myself. This habit came in useful later, when I started to read more about the meeting of the two cultures. It has also been useful in critiquing those infamous T-shirts Aldi pulled from its shelves following a perfectly-justifiable outcry, because to say that Australia was founded in 1788 is to ignore the truth: that we are merely an offshoot of a tree of much older origin. As is the United States of America. I feel that Pyne would applaud this statement, just as he would be pleased to know that the Catholic Church was, indeed, instrumental in the emergence of representative democracy in significant and underappreciated ways: the notion of disinterested public service stems from it. The problem is that Pyne's personal understanding of these things is probably pretty rough and uncritical, as are those of the people for whose benefit the man is currently dog-whistling in a fit of ideological fervour.

What the people of Australia should demand at this point is a quiz, prepared by eminent historians in academia, to test Pyne's understanding of what Australia actually represents. What does Australia mean? It certainly does not mean mere pioneer grit. (Another project I made at high school basically stated that British colonisation had a single purpose: to make money; my teachers might have been dismayed at such perspicacity exercised despite their attention to issues of good governance.) It does not just mean administrative expeditiousness: yes, the government's loss in the War of Independence meant that they could no longer send criminals to Georgia, and needed another remote prison to house independent thinkers and petty thieves. And it wasn't just about colonial expansion. It was about all those things and more.

Once the enterprise had been put on a reasonable footing, furthermore, ideas of self-determination could be given an airing. For my case, any information in this locus of study came from further reading: at school we did not go past colonial times, as far as I remember. I wonder what Pyne would make of such seminal thinkers as William Wentworth who, if we're going to talk about Founding Fathers, was our Jefferson if he was anything. What can we say about land-grabbing by the early squatters? What about the relationship between the squatters and the Aborigines? What about calls for the end to Transportation? What about the relationship between the squatters and the city interest? What about organised labour? What about the relationship between European labour and the Chinese? And how did the debates surrounding these things relate to what was happening in London? At what point does London stop being a benign influence and start becoming a brake on independent aspiration? Who are going to be the bad guys in the late 19th century?

If anything can be said to be remarkable in Australia's history it is that we got through the transition without much bloodshed. Other people, in earlier times, did the fighting for us. We got let off. The religious wars, for example, that caused such suffering during the tumultuous 17th century in England, and that laid the groundwork for the establishment, in the colony, of a secular public school system at the end of the 19th century, were fought by the sons of other mothers and of other fathers. (In some families you had the father fighting for the king and the son for Parliament.) Religious war is part of almost every country's history but we dodged the bullet because our Founding Fathers wanted none of it; they wanted an education system that would MINIMISE religious differences between people because they had learned their history. For them, the 17th century was a personal thing, a recent memory, something to avoid at all costs. I think Pyne does not understand this. I think he is merely motivated by narrow ideological considerations to try to "turn back the clock" on what he sees as a pernicious post-WWII progressive project.

Saturday 11 January 2014

Literature and the botany of desire

Like the laws of physics or the atomic weight of nitrogen written language forms part of the commons we all rely on to exist. There's something miraculous in the way that we all agree that a certain arbitrary symbol has a specific connotation, and that sequences of such symbols have specific meanings. It's an act of faith. Since the Renaissance when printed books arrived in Europe people have been participating in the marketplace for ideas - compelled by whatever reason to write and publish - at a rate unprecedented for earlier ages and the incidence of publications continues to increase as time goes on. Digital media also mean more is written and consumed.

Publication is an act that furthermore has consequences that cannot be anticipated. A book appears and three generations later someone in another country reads it, and the thing that they are writing - or planning to write - changes in some unaccountable way. We talk of "influences". These random points of cultural miscegenation are illicit, contrary, and uncontrollable. With literature the thing becomes even more dangerous; it's like molecules of oxygen from a poisonous plant that suddenly enter your nostrils and feed your organism so that it can continue to live. I live in a forest of carnivorous shrubs and the exhalations from their leaves sustain and nurture me. Take, for example, this little book - it measures 10cm wide by 15cm high - by the dead Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. It's just the right size to fit in my back pocket - or, more likely, in a handbag - and it is coloured a dull pink. It blushes. Neruda's poems were mentioned to me by my poetry mentor because I was writing love poetry, and I guess she thought I might find this man's poems interesting.

I did. But I also found something else: a reticence, and indirectness, a disinclination to use words in the most direct and unmistakable senses available. These are poems addressed to a lover by a man, they are intimate and passionate. But there is little of the actual sex act, not in the way we have become used to since the works of Henry Miller and James Joyce first appeared back in the 20s. But this is a book of a later generation, from the 50s. In the book Neruda has his own way, and employs certain tonic words, words that recur such as "mouth", "fruit", "flower", "leaf", "island", and these words in the aggregate form a certain poetics of desire. But 60 years or two generations down the track they seem slightly arch and distant, with the other words used somehow chosen to mask something that might otherwise have been more direct and explicit. It's like the use of metaphors in Renaissance poetry: distancing devices. Or like the use of irony and conceptualness in contemporary poetry: poetry where we are led to assign more importance to the head, rather than the heart.

Turning from Neruda to Proust, I can enter into the long, complex sentences the dead French novelist used in his effort to try to say things that had never been said before. Where you might find a link between Neruda and Donne or Herrick, for example, there doesn't seem to be much that anticipates the kinds of poetics Proust employs to describe, for example in the first book of his sequence of novels, the childhood of the protagonist. This is lyrical prose of a kind that enables the communication of feelings that occur so close to the region of the brain and so close to the senses of perception that we struggle to make sense of them, and let our eyes run on regardless to the next flare of insight that comes up in the text.

Proust's method is highly explicit whereas Neruda's is highly suggestive, but these books can functionally be translated into any language in the world, and read by practically any person alive with the means to visit a library or make a small purchase. Both Proust and Neruda have turned into carnivorous plants. Their books consume us as we venture past the irresistible fragrance of their traps, and the effulgence emanating from their leaves - fed by our desire - serves a secondary purpose, and helps to sustain us via the trachea and the lungs, the arteries and corpuscles. We are individuals but we have a crucial share in the commons - in language, and in written language especially - just as we all depend on oxygen to survive. 

Tuesday 7 January 2014

Talking about the publishing industry in the digital age

Books have been around since the Renaissance and depend on technologies and processes and business models like any other product, but since the 1990s so-called traditional business models have been put under stress by the internet because books are easy to digitise. Publishing as an industry also includes journalism, an innovation of the Renaissance, again, that catered to increased demand from a newly-literate population for information from overseas. But again digitisation has put stress on this sector of the publishing industry mainly due to poor decisions by managers during the period when the internet was becoming ubiquitous. Not only is digitised text easy to steal (or "pirate"), but it is also cheap to produce, and so new media outfits area appearing at a remarkable rate, flooding the web with pages of content and lowering the rate that can be charged for display advertising. Media companies have therefore started to put up paywalls, forcing readers to pay for the content they consume but this measure - long delayed due to negative feedback from the readership - has yet to prove itself as a sustainable way of funding journalism. Book publishers, for their part, are starting to offer digitised books that can be read on dedicated devices and sold on websites.

In this context it is troubling to observe the activities of people who want to weaken copyright laws, "free up" information and make it more easily accessible online, and even promote theft ("piracy") of content by means of mainstream institutions such as popular legislatures. A touchstone in this debate was the death by suicide of Aaron Swartz last year. A young digital native with radical ideas about how government should be conducted in the digital age, Swartz was charged with stealing academic papers from a university server with the intent of making them publicly available free of charge. The FBI brought charges and Swartz buckled, under the pressure of the writ combined with a pre-existing mental condition.

Many of the people who admired Swartz and who cleave to his memory are employed in the IT industry, and specifically in writing software. Because of this proximity to copyright laws such people are aware of their own responses to the status quo, and are sensitive to proposed changes that would buttress the laws of copyright. People who use digital devices every day also want to have the freedom to buy a publication once and use the same file on multiple devices. So copyright issues are very personal for many people and naturally they have views on them. Even though creative writing and journalism - unlike software - doesn't do anything such people feel an affinity by association with the concept of the "work", which is the thing that is copyrighted. (Ideas cannot be copyrighted, although they can be patented, which is a separate issue I will not deal with here.)

Software developers and those like them are also critical thinkers used to working out problems for themselves and no province of human endeavour is barred to their inquiries, certainly not the laws of copyright. But they approach problems from a certain perspective consonant with their way of seeing the world. I was asked recently about Creative Commons licenses as a way of controlling rights on my blog and I had a look at the six alternatives but saw no benefit in them. Because I publish mere flat pages filled with text, and because I want to charge people to read the text, the imperatives expressed withing the CC definitions - things such as workflows, information handling, secondary alteration etc - felt merely irrelevant as far as the type of content I produce goes. When I read them I felt as though they were enabling tools for a foreign way of using information, and had little to do with reading and a lot to do with reuse and repackaging. But this is the kind of locus within which IT professional approach online content. It just is not for me.

Thinking critically, IT people zoom in on certain aspects of the publishing industry and focus there their attention. Looking for weak spots in the edifice, they concentrate their efforts on such concepts as that a copyright on a work is a "monopoly", and leverage the negative implications of the word in an effort to attack the whole institution of production, marketing and distribution, and inheritance. For these people, a necessary evil such as a monopoly should only be tolerated for as long as is absolutely necessary, and then the content should revert to become public property. For a creative writer this is ridiculous, as if once you died anyone was entitled to come along to your house and start removing bricks because you, personally, were not able to benefit from them. They ignore the fact of legitimate heirs. For my part, copyright should endure in the work in perpetuity, enabling the establishment of wealthy dynasties and cashed-up publishing houses that would be better able to subsidise less commercially-oriented literature. To IT people such a suggestion represents a kind of moral corruption.

A monopoly can be bad, they say, because an heir might prevent publication for a frivolous or idiosyncratic reason, thus depriving the population of access to a valuable work. For me, this is immaterial. The enticement to publish will eventually prevail because people are normally motivated by self-interest; at some point in time the next heir will buckle and allow publication because they need more cash. But an IT person will find such a compromise intolerable while a creative writer will merely shrug and say that you should read a different book. A monopoly on a single publication is not the same thing as a monopoly on all imports of essential stuff like grain or fuel. people do not starve to death if you stop them reading Joyce.

Cross-subsidisation also presents problems for tech people. A publisher who receives a large percentage of its income from a small list of strongly-selling books, who then uses profits thus obtained in order to publish a more difficult book at a loss, is offensive to the IT person. For them, each book must stand or fall on its own merits, but for a creative writer this proposal is a nonsense, and goes against centuries of business practice that has successfully produced some of the most accomplished literature we know today. Much of it lost money when first published.

There are many things IT people object to by exercising their intellects in creative ways to try to solve problems associated with this large and long-establish - and inherently valuable - industry. I haven't even started talking about the media industry but there we see jobs lost every week and financial stresses not experienced in 100 years. For a journalist, the industry is essential to the maintenance of democracy. For the IT person it's just about a broken business model. But as in the case of book publishing there are not new ideas being offered as to how to sustain the industry but, rather, methods devised to enable the kinds of "justice" they treasure in their hearts. It might be to support Aaron Schwartz's attack on the business model of academic publishers. It might be to improve the ability of downstream creatives to reuse and mash-up the content made by a single creative individual.

The thing I want to note is that priorities are different depending on which person you talk to. And although the object is the same - changing the publishing business - the end result is likely to be different if you work inside the journalism industry, for example, compared to whether you are simply trying to improve access to the product for the reader. What one group of people want, the other rejects. The way I see it publishers need IT people to help them build sustainable businesses in the digital age. What I see, however, is an ancient castle under siege by the barbarians, a rerun of what probably took place before Constantinople fell to the blonde-haired warriors from the north. From my point of view the aim should be to maintain diversity in publishing and to enable quality reporting in journalism. There are good reasons for these goals, very good reasons indeed.

Bernardi flirts with fascism

When Cory Bernardi's views on abortion appeared in the news yesterday I instinctively reached for an image that would encapsulate, for me, all the issues that appeared by themselves in the context of them, and came up with a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph showing a woman whose body expresses strength, autonomy and agency but whose head is covered by cloth. The cloth falls to the ground behind her like a wedding veil. The image says, in a way, that once again we have middle-aged male politicians telling women how to use their bodies. The Mapplethorpe image, which probably dates from the 80s, has a clean look like images produced in Europe in the intra-war years of last century. Exactly the same association was made at the time in a slightly different context by graphic designer Neville Brody who was active with magazines, book covers, record labels and product packaging in that decade. Brody said about his first typeface:
[The first alphabet I did] was like a typeface from the 1930s, fascistic in a sense, and I was using it to comment on the state of the nation as I saw it. I was trying to pinpoint in the most graphic terms the parallel between what had happened in the Thirties, and the situation in the Eighties: the divided nation, the class division, the economic recession, and a highly authoritarian government.
Rigid control of autonomous entities such as people's bodies such as the South Australian senator wishes to impose has more than a vague resemblance to fascistic ideas about race and reproduction. The image I instinctively selected to show people closely resembles the kind of idealised conceptions of people the Nazis used during their time in power, before WWII, to manipulate, flatter and coopt the population in order to progress their militaristic policies, and Bernardi's new book's title - The Conservative Revolution - points in precisely the same direction. If the Nazis were anything they were radical, although we've long become used to radicalism as belonging to the Left. A "conservative revolution" is exactly what the Nazis undertook in Germany (then Austria, then elsewhere) during the 1930s.

Bernardi's book title also points urgently to the attitudes of the US Tea Party, a component of the Right in that country that also flirts with fascism under such anodyne banners as "freedom". An ideologue, Bernardi is offering politically correct solutions that abandon reason while he simultaneously accuses his political opponents of precisely what his words represent. People need to be aware of how politicians manipulate debates for their own ends, and Bernardi is clearly taking his cue from a successful party of the Right active just prior to the cataclysmic event that sparked the Western liberal revolution of the 60s and 70s. He is to be deeply distrusted.

Monday 6 January 2014

A little screed on the "free data" brigade

The following screed is the result of a highly frustrating conversation I had on Twitter today with a man with an answer to everything about the publishing industry although he knows nothing about what publishers produce: literature and journalism.

Aaron Swartz got it in the end. Overestimated his own grit. Fell victim to a pre existing condition that the trouble with the Feds exacerbated beyond tolerance. He gave in and took his own life. Which is funny when you think about how convinced Aaron was with his own way of thinking. Liberate data, he said. Free it up, it wants to be free. He even wrote something like a manifesto to buttress his bravado. In the end, though he was defeated by fear alone. Sheer terror of what awaited him in federal prison.

It's hard to blame him but it's also an indicator of the measure of the man that he buckled when the chips were really down. Other men and women greater than he have stood up to far more terrible threats. Some even survived. Unfortunately it looks like the immoral "free data" brigade will go on unabashed. Staunch in the confidence they have in their geek ninja skillz, these men and women see no problem with making everything that can be digitised free to consume. 

There is no collateral damage they hear about. They ignore the struggling writers and the freelance journalists who have to take PR work to make ends meet. They do not care that media companies around the world are relying on rich patrons to survive. Secure in the knowledge that the virtuous market will always decide what needs to survive or die, they continue to work away at the fabric that has sustained generations of publishers. They do not care that unchallenged market forces will result in a biased media and an homogenised literary product, that undervalued writers will just have to keep working in restaurants, that major news stories will not get the dollars they need to be researched. Nothing of this kind worries them. On and on they go, marching in formation against the evils of paid-for content. On and on ...

Three giants of world letters die from embarrassment

The picture here is one of the twee, cleaned-up portraits of Jane Austen that have sprung up like privet in the centuries since she died, a species of weed cultivated in good faith by generations of admirers with the most recent being the sensitive new-age guy who rhapsodises elegaically about her mastery of prose and her whip-like humour. So tie me up, I'm one of them. It's a supporting role in letters that has historical resonance of course: think of the young democrats living in Jane's day who tortured their listeners with paeans to the wonders of Shakespeare's unaccountably complex language. But think also of people like the influential Australian democrat William Wentworth who named his vast Sydney estate Vaucluse in honour of the genius of Petrarch, one of the early exponents of the 'dolce stil novo' - the new, soft style pioneered by Dante - which in the late Middle Ages lent such credibility to the vernacular; to popular speech.

Popular speech. Democracy. What is going on here? "Are you saying, man, that literature has influenced the devolution of power through the ages? Is that it? Be clear!" Well Dante was self-consciously working in the tradition of Virgil, the most revered poet of the Roman oligarchs and despots - whose organs of power (the Church, the Law) contemporary elites still in his day relied on to continue to govern Europe - so you could say that by writing his Commedia in the vernacular he was handing a petition to those in power on behalf of the popolo, the plebs. a document of such persuasive power that, combined with the technology of printing, its message resulted in generations of civil conflict in Europe that would change the world in uncountable ways, one of which was to be that all English boys received a classical education. And so enter Shakespeare, who grew up in what was effectively a cultural backwater but who had access to all the resources of millennia of learning. And the little bastard could read them.

And it's no surprise that he emerged in the place where power had devolved away from the despot to the greatest degree imaginable at the time: in England. Without discounting his hit-the-ground-running early plays and strong female roles it's in his late masterpieces such as Hamlet that we see the emergence of the individual as a new cultural species. Sure, there were other innovations appearing at the same time, particularly in the great proto-novels of Cervantes where again it's the individual who struggles to emerge amid the restrictive structures of contemporary social modalities, but if you want to talk about greatness you have to acknowledge the lifetime achievement of the Bard because of the sheer bloody influence it wielded in successive generations: just go into any large university library that still makes its historical holdings available to see how many annotated editions of Shakespeare there were in the centuries since his death.

In England bardolatry was so prevalent that for generations publishers and their hired pens "cleaned up" Shakespeare's language - because there were so many infelicities there, don't you know, dear chap - so that it wasn't until around the time of the American War of Independence that accurate editions became available. Jane Austen was born the year before the Declaration of Independence was drafted and signed, and it is within the heated morass of debate about the rights and privileges of the individual that she developed her ideas about writing that were to emerge in the first recognisably modern novels, so modern in fact that millions of people still read them today. Again, as in Shakespeare's case, it's not surprising that Austen emerged at a time of violent discussion about who should hold power and what would happen if power was devolved away from the despot into the hands of the popolo, the plebs. The women!

Sunday 5 January 2014

Ian Fairweather's most extraordinary escape

In a profound - as well as in a humorous - sense Ian Fairweather was the ultimate escape artist and from the art historian's or critic's point of view that is especially cogent because he is certainly one of the most original painters associated with Australia in the 20th century. Against the wishes of his family, Fairweather from an early age wanted to paint and he was later classically trained at the Slade School in London, but following WWI and his war service - which included time as a captive of the German Army - he set off to far shores to find his own, unique style. Gaugin revisited? A classical Modernist trope? Fairweather tends to defy easy classification though he is able to be situated within the Modernist canon, although the thing that is most clear is that he arrived at his later style by independently working out specific problems of representation and abstraction, on his own terms.

For example this painting, Barcarolle, which represents elements from Fairweather's most extraordinary escape from civilisation - when in 1952 he built a raft in Darwin from old scraps and cast-off materials and ventured out to sea aiming for Indonesian Timor - encapsulates the interesting dissonance between figurative and abstract methods of representation that more and more came to dominate the artist's practice. He was 60 years old by this time. This painting was made in 1956, four years after the escapade, which seems to be typical for Fairweather. You see him in the Philippines making paintings based on his experiences in China - a place he had left years previously - and then in India making paintings based on Philippines experiences.

Temporal and physical distance enabled him to find the right style. As for his escapades, it wasn't as if he was a complete misanthrope: he enjoyed the company of other artists and the people who congregated around them in Melbourne's inner-city society. What he found objectionable was the upright, small-town Australia of mid-century: the main street, the endless suburbs, the propriety, the lack of sophistication, the absence of culture, the lack of tolerance for a man who appears to have cared little about his personal appearance being, it's clear from all reports, the ultimate artist, intent on the one thing above all else. So off he goes again to China, to the Philippines, to Bali, to India, to Cairns and Darwin and Cooktown. In places like this in Australia's north he finds his own level among people living on the fringes of society, who take less notice of his ungainly behaviour and odd appearance.

Then there's his mental illness. I have of course been reading Murray Bail's book on Ian Fairweather and have come across one of those irritating references to "split personalities" that crop up when ignorant people talk about schizophrenia, which it is clear to me that Fairweather lived with throughout his productive life. As if Fairweather painted a figure with two heads to describe his own mental problems, as Bail suggests. With Fairweather the illness manifests itself in classical ways including irrational paranoia, equally irrational elation, and depression.

But there's also - always - his incredible restlessness, as if Fairweather is always trying to escape from wherever he is, that has become a place that has, somehow, proved itself unsuitable for his needs. And there's his later reclusiveness, his tendency to run into the bush when strangers appeared. Because Bail does not understand the illness he cannot relate the artist's behaviour to anything exterior to it and therefore make sense of it for the reader. You find the same failing with people who write about that other mad artist, William Cowper, the 18th century poet, whose irrational sense of damnation led him to the blackest despair. Biographers of such people need to have tools that they are not equipped with, to understand their subjects.

Bail's book has come out in two separate editions and is considered the last word on the artist but it seems to me that Fairweather deserves more treatment, by someone like Patrick White. The author of Voss (the explorer), A Fringe of Leaves (the castaway) and the artist (The Vivisector) could surely improve on Bail's eloquent yet flawed performance. White was a generation younger than Fairweather but he would have understood the romance of the artist's quest, and he would have been intrigued by the schizophrenia and how it conditioned both the way of life Fairweather pursued, as well as the art he produced.

To return to the famous escapade, Bail writes: "Fairweather was stricken - increasingly - with paranoia."
In his account written on the ship from Singapore to England [after he was rescued by Indonesian authorities] he claimed to have found people in Melbourne exhibiting his paintings without his knowledge, and furthermore had come up to Darwin to gloat on him. 'To get out of Australia - that was the only solution.'
The suspicions about people he knew and had worked with in the past are classical indicators of schizophrenia and he might have chosen the raft solution because he also was suspicious of Australian authorities: a clandestine escape like this would make him untraceable as there would be no travel documents through which people could find out where he had gone to.

The poor man. A year after he painted Barcarolle there's an ecstatic work, Lights, Darwin Harbour, which represents another moment of the artist's most extraordinary escape. Here is a figurative reflection on his first moments on the raft but again it is veering toward an abstract representation. Here are the lights shining on the calm water, their trails seeping into the night and lying surrounded by blackness. Here are the safety lights of the vessels he passed as he made his way out of the harbour. And here are the good burghers of Darwin seated on the wharves, fishing. There goes Ian, alone, into the night, looking for a space where he can pursue his dream, this man on the verge of old age who will also miraculously survive this trial. The kangaroos and the eucalypts and mangroves lie in the future on Bribie Island, a refuge for a restless soul.