a sense of north

I’ve been to a couple of gigs lately, Don Walker and Bruce Springsteen. Both were supporting new albums that no-one is really that fussed about. Bruce played in front of one hundred thousand or so, and charged a couple of hundred dollars plus. Don played in front of about eighty and cost thirty eight dollars, including booking fee. Both practiced old school musicianship and valued the tight intensity of playing with other musicians. Bruce was lifted high and was carried across the mosh pit on a thousand adoring hands. Don got on his hands and knees, plugging and unplugging cables, trying to fix his sustain pedal. Both inserted happily self-deprecating anecdotes to mollify the gap between the staged and seated. Bruce provided chorus after chorus, taking the power back from loneliness as we all sang along. Don offered wan wisecracks and muttered that tomorrow it was supposed to be a sunny day. It would be true to say that Bruce used his celebrity and Don used his anti-celebrity for roughly the same purpose, to suggest that hope and love are redemptive no matter the injustice of circumstances.

Nothing much was surprising about either gig; I got what I went for. Sputnik, who accompanied me to both, saw other things. Mostly me offering up something akin to faith, me in the role of a believer.  Me in the congregation. This is not something she sees all that often. I am cautious and reticent and contingent. Especially about big things. The world. People. Physics. Truth. Justice. Complexity is a maze of blind corners, and I’ve learned that my navigations of them aren’t entirely accurate. And as a nervous self-doubting navigator of complexity, a navigator faintly aware that there is every chance I’m wrong, I’ve got to come up with something to keep moving, some shifting and malleable sense of where north might be. This sense is the central hook of Bruce and Don. Their characters, especially their many flawed and incomplete blokes of a certain age, are bannermen for this sense of north: hope as a bulwark and rampart. A rhetorical defence against self doubt and the likelihood of error, the terror of error. Or that everything’s already too far gone to fix now.

I quoted Henry Giroux on hope some months ago, in another post, about how hope expands the space of possible. And it does, it says we’re not done yet and good may come. It says the future is an available space for projection of getting better, being better. Better selves, better others, better relations, better care. Better resistance, better dissent, better struggle. Better management of the almost complete inconsequentiality of our surprising presence.

Then, on twitter, an admirable fellow blogger  (@HallyMk1) made the point that”we over-stress hope as whatever. courage is the thing. courage is an act of love. it presages hope.” Almost immediately I thought he was right, but then as a navigator in the maze I wasn’t sure. Hope, courage, love, redemption. I’ve been thinking about these a lot, pretty much since November last year: in waiting rooms and at traffic lights, in the dark of night and as I watch the cricket on the telly. I thought about them as I sang and swayed my way through Bruce and Don. I saw and heard them all around me. OK cool, I thought, good stuff all around. These good things will be sustaining, these good things will make it better. My bulwark and my ramparts seemed in good shape I figured. But over the summer they were all drawn down on pretty hard. Thrown down like stakes in card game I didn’t want to play and suspected couldn’t win.

Thing kept pressing against my head, all that good stuff: it was not enough.

Hope, courage, love, redemption. Not enough.

Resistance, dissent, struggle. Not enough.

Bruce and Don. Not enough.

Better. Not enough.

So what do you with that in the sweaty early morn? At what point does the failure of rhetoric to salve the friction of being represent my failure as a person? At what point does the failure of courage and hope reveal the obvious terror they were designed to obscure? And in the clear sighted face of that terror how do you not just stop? Call it quits. Finito. Line ‘em up bartender and let me go until there’s no more. How? Head to some Walden’s Pond and make my apologies? Just join a crusty crew and let the currents take me where they might? Take a shopping trolley into the misty uncertainties of being off the grid? Or the opposite and get myself a herringbone suit and another couple of mortgages and just be the Sararīman I’ve fought so hard against becoming? Get myself an Audi or one of those nice Renaults, a few trophies for the sale of my conscience?

And where can I do that anyway? Are consciences rolled out like wares at a flea market, on blanket over concrete, for fanciers to acquire? Or swapped, briefcase for briefcase, in undercover shopping mall carparks. Or delivered by uniformed parcel people, signed for on little signature tablets with a plastic stylus, upon receipt of a direct deposit. But in the early morn, when kidneys and livers are busy at work, I’m too paralysed by terror to ever think that I could pull any of this off, one way or the other. There’s just me in my head. And there’s just the world out there. And there’s not a resolution. No teleology of transcendence. No big unity. Not enough.

So what do you do? Fantasy seems the obvious path. And so I have been reading a lot about Leninism. Since Dr Sternlove got cancer I’ve spent a lot of time in plastic hospital chairs reading Orlando Figes and Richard Pipes and Robert Conquest and coming to the conclusion that the Bolshevik project was a cult. Party. And like most cults there was a fair bit of hope, courage, love, and redemption involved in manufacturing the faithfulness that is required for a seventy year regime. That faith was fantastic, in both its sincere and faux manifestations. People believed, some still do. They had faith that the proper arrangement of things, materiality, could be provided through the investment of hope, courage, love, and redemption in the rhetorical frames of managing that arrangement of things. Even reading those critical works I saw lots that I admired, lots that made one feel loving toward the Russian Revolution. Even knowing that the twenty million were waiting their turn. And it’s not like the faith that the Bolshevik cult used is substantively different from the faith of late capitalism. After all the market is just a mechanism for the arrangement of things, what was sought through the Leninist state is much the same as is sought today: utopia through things. Sweating into my plastic chair over summer it didn’t seem to me that either system was any good. Cult after cult for making better. And looking at the effectiveness of these cults, especially the ongoing enterprises, seems to me that they’re not much more than tools to make ourselves feel better about shit knowing it won’t make much difference in the long run.

The world is too big for personal sacrifice to matter at all. Join any cult you like, they’ve only the weight of words for mass. Just like Bruce and Don, they’re there to mitigate whatever soul disquiet might come upon us if we allow it do so. I reckon I’ve allowed a bit too much in lately. But now it’s here. That ripple on a pond not made by the hands of men. Yeah. That one. What’s going to be adequate handling of that? It’d have to be a damn fine cult to get me to check my baggage, even supposing I could. It’s more likely that I’ll be in the crowds of blokes at gigs where these troubled narratives are rendered a show, a performance. An enormous ritual theatre of unease ameliorating the angst of the members of a cult so vast no one even knows they belong. Classic Debordian outcome I suppose, the only way out of the spectacle is to acknowledge membership of the cult, accept its inadequate absolution, to play along until suddenly redundant, and slip away from spectatorship.

Maybe I was doing that when Sputnik watched me at the gigs, heard me sing along and raise my fist in timely emphasis.  Maybe. More likely I’ll take any comfort I can find, any foxhole is a good foxhole. Inadequate absolution is better than none. Even a temporary and anonymous solidarity is better than none. I kind of think that knowing that this is false consciousness, is a form of paying attention. A form of moral bricolage: scrounging the proper combination of bits and piece to make a life courageous and hopeful which, while not really making things better, tends an idea of space where that might become possible in some other incomplete present.

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the old park

There were two direct routes down to the river from our place on Dooral St. One, the Dairy Road, was mostly bitumen but was gated at the dairy. So you had to jump the fence into the paddock and leave your bike behind. Then stride confidently toward the river, not thinking of the snakes. Which we did, pretty much because it would have been super-cool to actually see a snake in the bushes and also because the heat was an incredible incentive to get to the shade fast. There was a good rope swing down there into a deep hole in the river and, when the river was strong, a hip-high sandy billabong to splash and lounge in. But no-one liked leaving the bikes behind and by the time you got back to them you were in need of another swim.

So mostly we went down to the Old Park. It was a crook in the river, fish all around (mostly carp in those days) and in the lee of whatever modest heights there might have been to the north where the hot winds begin. Shady river forest, gums that filled the horizon. It was a great place to mess about: in boats and on bikes; in trees and over rocks. I loved it, it was so accessible: a couple of blocks from our place you went down Walgett St all the way to the old pump-house. Even on my over-engineered Rep-co BMX I could be down there maybe ten, twelve minutes, in the water in fifteen. There was a little jetty, out over the river, connected to the pump-house from which you could jump, certain of a giddy little thrill as it was a bit higher than expected, once you were in mid-air.

The road continued down along beside the river in a north westerly direction – it petered out into a pair of tyre ruts and then it faded into something else, a suggestion that people used to travel that way, noted by the consistent distance between trees of roughly the same age. An avenue through and around the dips and hollows of the riverside. It wasn’t straight nor even but there was clearly a way there. Lots of ways, as the tracks and paths criss-crossed each other all over the place leading from one hollow to another, one billabong to another, one prime river spot to another. And a thousand little tracks from the trees to everywhere.

The Old Park was clearly old, the pump-house had the architecture of a Longues-sur-Mer bunker facing out over Omaha beach, but even a kid on a bike could see this was an awesome place. A vast park with a thousand camping spots by the water, spots to wash and play, spots to rest in the deep shade of the river gums, spots to get love and watch the sunset across the plains to the south, places to kill food and barbecue. It seems clear to me now that it was a town. It was a gathering place, a significant one. Just upstream from the fish traps where the river gets flat and broad. But at the time I loved it as a playground. It was a vast happy maze of BMX jumps and swimming spots. The people you saw were mostly kids, and blokes in land cruisers, fishing. I didn’t see the absent people.

When the big floods came in 1983 we were cut off by road for a fair while. It was really pretty cool, helicopters used the school oval as its base and every couple of hours, for a week or so, it would land and take off to carry lucerne and groceries and medical supplies to the cut off farms along the swollen rivers. We watched from our classroom windows, and envied those who got a ride. After ten days we got care packages, at school we stood in a line and each received a showbag with soap and pencils and sweets. As the waters slowly receded I would ride down Walgett St as far as the water would allow, to see how high it was I guess. I would look across the elbow of river as one vast lake, noticeably studded with high points, little islands of gums and dirt.

After the floods receded they left behind great puddles of dense mud as the silt brought by river settled, especially in the billabongs. Once my family went to a barbecue down in the park. There were maybe five families, it might have been a scout thing I guess, and when we arrive everyone is standing around this billabong looking at this sheep. The sheep is up to its neck in mud and bleating madly, crazily. And my Dad goes to the car and gets a rope. He wades into the mud and ties the rope around the sheep’s hind leg. He carries the rope back to the riverbank and all the blokes pull out this panicked sheep. My Dad has got mud on his glasses and everything about him is muddy and he can’t get his glasses clean. He looks at me. I can’t understand what it’s doing here, he says.

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mortality trumps utopia

I’ve been thinking a lot about utopias. It started with Peter Robb’s A Death in Brazil. It’s a great read: part political thriller, part personal travelogue and part geo-historical exploration. It’s beautifully written, as are all Robb’s books (Midnight in Sicily is especially good), and you can feel the years’ worth of labour involved in making it a coherent whole, as well as the long hours fustigating for the right words and the right order. He thinks about Brazil deeply: considering the food on his plate, the buses he rides, the people he meets, the wind and rain and sun, the forest and mountains in the distance, the papers and the TV. His narrative is dense enough to suggest the complexity of time and place –though not so dense as to obscure what he has to say.

But the thing that grabbed me was his long exploration of Canudos and the war that led to its destruction. I had read Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World and considered it a good novel but hadn’t twigged that it was referencing a real thing, somewhat to my embarrassment. Similarly I had read a couple of references to Canudos but not chased them down: Zizek, Laclau, Susanna Hecht, and some travel writers who’ve wandered through Brazil. So over the last months of 2013 I began to read about Canudos, rather pleased with myself for still pursuing new things to know.

The gist of the Canudos thing is relatively simple. Jon Beasley-Murray provides an excellent little summary on his blog Posthegemony:

Canudos…was a settlement in the dry backlands of Bahia, Northeastern Brazil, founded in 1893 by the followers of a charismatic preacher and mystic. Viewed as a threat by a range of authorities, from the local church to (eventually) the national government, it was the object of a series of attempts at military pacification, each of which were fiercely resisted. Despite their portrayal as uncivilized savages, its inhabitants managed to embarrass the nascent Republic (established in 1889) by repelling two expeditionary forces of the Brazilian army until, finally, in October 1897 they were overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of men and resources devoted to their extirpation.

This is to say that a four year military action was taken against a village in the bush because it wasn’t following the usual patterns and practices of Brazilian colonial nationalism. Property was communal, resources were collectively managed, national and state laws were ignored, and there was no currency. Unsurprisingly the poor, the landless, the indigent, the indigenous, and former slaves came hither to Canudos.

Zizek, in Live Theory, describes the Canudos as “an outlaw community deep in the Brazilian backlands that was home to prostitutes, freaks, beggars, bandits, and the most wretched of the poor.” This makes it sound pretty cool, like a rather inclusive refugee camp except it was led by a religious nutter, which renders it more reminiscent of Jonestown or Rife’s Raft in Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash. Perhaps wisely, Zizek choses to focus on Canudos as being a liberated space, as a germ cell for “self-organized societies” and as “an alternative community that thoroughly negates the existing state space.” Zizek even goes a bit further in his fandom, saying that “[e]verything is to be endorsed here, up to the religious ‘fanaticism’.” Zizek uses Canudos to speak of stepping outside culturally, politically, and economically. Canudos in this reading is about making unregulated spaces, a means to avoid relation to the powers that be: “it is as if, in such communities…the defeated ones acquire a space of their own,” a space to become and remain undefeated.

Zizek, as is so often the case, is inclined toward a festive representation of hopelessness because in his worldview liberation is never impossible but always marked by loss. Freedom is always, for Zizek, simultaneously a baptism and a funeral. Further on in Live Theory he says of Canudos: “Utopia existed here for a brief period of time, this is the only way to account for the ‘irrational’ excessive, violence of the destruction of these communities.” The wonder of Canudos is represented, for Zizek, in the fervour of its ending. The success of unregulated spaces is marked by the determination of regulatory authority to reassert itself. Elsewhere Zizek makes the point that “liberation hurts.”

Most of what is known about Canudos and the Canudos War comes from Euclides da Cunha’s astonishing Os Sertões (known in English as Rebellion in the Backlands or Backlands: The Canudos Campaign). Not always the most pleasant of reading and denser than Zizek in parts, da Cunha divides his tale in three parts dealing with the landscape, the people and the war. There’s a fair bit of dodgy social Darwinism and some fairly awkward racial generalisations which have to be taken as markers of context. But they also serve another purpose, as the book progresses it becomes clear that the shape of the land and the past of its inhabitants are really the chains that the community were attempting to break. da Cunha sees that it is not Brazil that the Canudosi seek to escape but the structures that determine who a person is, and who they might become.

Slavery is central to this. The end of slavery in 1888 was the final scene for an institution that had already begun to fade by the early 1870s, but over that fifteen year period maybe 1.5 million men and women were deprived of the employment and sustenance that they had been provided with previously. They sought out both in competitive and cruel labour markets. Unsurprisingly some of those men and women chose to attempt to step outside those rubrics for exchange, to no longer be held as a body in the gaze of property or service. In this light Canudos and Antônio Conselheiro must have appeared as a good a chance as any at stepping outside the economic and moral structures of 1890s Brazil.

A chance taken that didn’t pay off, it turned out. Almost all the inhabitants of Canudos were killed; indeed the Canudos War is often simply referred to as the Canudos massacre. Maybe 150 (out of 15,000 or so) walked away. Antônio Conselheiro died in the early stages of the final siege, after fasting for quite some time, of dysentery. For the Canudosi stepping outside provoked the violent reassertion of their subjectivity, their unliberation, the temporary liberty of their bodies required, structurally, the sovereignty of the state to insist on its primacy. Their bodies, though freed from slavery, remained imprisoned by the sovereignty of the Brazilian republic.

Bodies aren’t free, hence the pain of liberation. As I thought about Canudos and Zizek and slavery and sovereignty my mind wandered to William Gibson, and the Sprawl Trilogy (Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive). Back in the early nineties I had loved the Sprawl trilogy, loving its energies and counter energies, but I was also struck by its descriptions of the body as meat. So I got the now pretty ancient paperbacks down from the bookshelf and got to reading them again. The gist of the trilogy is a search for sentience by an artificial intelligence, to be completely unbodied, untethered to hardware. The artificial intelligence seeks to be all consciousness, as well all consciousnesses.

This is a neat transcendental pathway, liberation from the custody of the body. (Case, the protagonist of Neuromancer, is described as having “a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh… The body was meat” and when Case is deprived of his cyberspace life he “fell into the prison of his own flesh.”) The trilogy follows this pathway as the characters attempt to follow the artificial intelligence toward disembodiment and replicates the multiple, contradictory, and free selves that the artificial intelligence has become having transcended hardware, bodily containers. Ultimately there is no transcendence for the characters, they remain meat and the meat is always subject. Liberation, the making of unregulated spaces and selves, not only hurts but must ultimately be temporary.

A utopia has a cost which transgresses its utopianism. Imprisoned in the fragile container we are subject to the constraints of the materiality of that container. Utopias are pretty clearly wishful thinking, a weekend away, maybe a long-weekend away. Mortality trumps utopia, everytime.

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57 channels

Bodies have been central lately: their vulnerability, their fallibility, their messy awkwardness, their ichorous instability, their lack of durability, their strange capacity to harm their owner. I have been thinking a lot about this. But mostly I’ve been answering my phone. It goes beep (more like chirrup, chirrup, to get onomatopoeic) an awful lot these days and my basic misanthropic settings have been messed with severely. SMS, email, voicemails, DMs, and the rest of the 57 channels all go chirrup, chirrup with frightening regularity, day after day, as enquiries are made about the status of the body.

All these conversations, such as they are, tend toward a corporeal agathism framed by a worried horror. What all these conversations require of me is to engage on the basis of a coherent and predictable narrative, to speak from knowledge and make it comprehensible. I have endeavoured to do this but the more I have done so, the more I recognise that everything I say is disingenuous. I have information, some information (though a long way from all the information, or enough information) and the body can be represented through that information, but the information isn’t the body.

The body is material, and it doesn’t matter if the narratologically-tamed information I provide is positive or negative because it doesn’t affect the body. Affecting the body is an intimate thing but none of my conversations about the body are actually intimate. They approximate intimacy, a zooming motion of closeness unavoidably mediated by and through the 57 channels, as well as my haphazard narratives. It’ll do, for the purposes of keeping people advised, but I have been struck by the presumption of intimacy that instantaneous communication allows.

The medical professionals are in a different movie: they aren’t texting one another about the body they treat, they are writing to each other in nicely addressed envelopes, with stamps. For a while I thought this was cute: all that Messrs, Sir, Doctor, and Mister is very retro, like the little watches that nurses pin to their tunics. But now I think this is a construction of distance. The professionalism of medical professionals is produced by this distance, designed to deny the intimacy of their actions. Medical professionals affect the body intimately but in order to do so they must stand apart: they aren’t doing a favour, and they aren’t helping out. They maintain a practice of formal civility so that it doesn’t matter that they saw what bodies don’t display, socially. In my conversations, on the 57 channels, this distance is not there. The body is framed as social display, a status bar for the self. In this way the social has begun to overwhelm the civil. The civil is cast aside as an uncool formalism, fusty stuffiness.

The decentredness of all this, the 57 channels, arises from the separation of the court from courtesy. Without a central authority from which the codes of propriety trickle down in a neatly coherent structure (base-superstructure, I guess) it is no big deal to merge immediacy with access and see no distance between any of us within this particular information economy, a flat earth of collegiality. There are lots of cheerleaders for this sort of universal franchise, democratisation and all that, citizens of communication. But I don’t buy it. The distance matters. The distance is a practice of respect for otherness, for the particularity of others. Facebook friends, followers, contacts, leads: these are collections of people to be spoken of as accoutrements of digital lifestyle. I don’t dig it. It’s really a kind of accrual: inputs that can be journaled to some greater ledger of personal acclaim, another context in which proliferation is seen as progress and vanity as virtue. You don’t need to be Evgeny Morozov to know this is bollocks.

 

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Allan Moffat

Some weeks ago I found myself at woollies looking at an aluminium rendering of my Father’s hero packaged with chocolate fudge. There he was, Allan Moffat, with forty eight cubes of something related to chocolatey-ness. I stared the first time I saw it, there he was. An aging Canadian touring car racer impressed in cheap tin, I rubbed my hands over him and wondered if this was somehow improper, since I hadn’t purchased him or the fudge. Next time through, I coughed up the five dollars and bought my aluminium Allan. The fudge remains uneaten, though at some point I shall give it to Beargirl, and Allan adorns my study.

My Dad loved Allan Moffat. For many years our Family’s strongest (and strangest) ritual was to sit around for seven and half hours and watch the motor racing from Mount Panorama, Bathurst on the Sunday of the Labour Day long weekend. He would videotape the whole thing, including qualifying and the top ten pole position shootout. Sitting there in his Jason Recliner, with the beta remote in his hand, pressing pause every time the ads came on, like Canute. His chair looked a lot like this.

101_0973He would cook all day Saturday, snacks of every fatty and carb heavy combination available. His Ham & Cheese Puffs, packed with paprika, were a stone on your hips. My, how he loved Bathurst. After he died we scattered his ashes around the circuit, shaking out his remains like salt from the side of a three wheeler. It seemed apt and still does.

Before he started to watch the telecast, before video, we used to go to watch the race. As a tiny fellow I remember going up to Skyline to watch, parking the car miles away behind the mountain and helping to carry the food all. the. way. up. Though, after a few years we stopped going.   He didn’t like it so much once there were thousands of people there and couldn’t take the noisy, beery chauvinism. He thought it NASCAR-ish, terribly bland and lacking in depth.

I have some 8mm film of my Dad racing in the late sixties and early seventies:  going around Catalina Park, Tralee, and Amaroo Park on various and sundry bikes. He’s all helmet and leathers and glasses, Malcolm X on wheels, looks like. Sometime later he was in a car accident near Goulburn and didn’t race anymore, though occasionally there were daggers in his direction from my Mum when he went to play with his racing mates and did a modestly fast last lap on someone else’s bike. It must have been about this time he started to fall in love with Allan Moffat.

In 1971, in a still obviously gorgeous Ford Mustang, Moffat made an heroic, though failed, comeback in a race against a more powerful vehicle, Ian “Pete” Geoghegan’s 5.8L Super Falcon, in a touring car race at Amaroo Park. That Moffat didn’t win would have moved my Dad, he liked good losers. Especially good losers who won sometimes, losers who won just enough to suggest that talent was the thing and that sometimes talent overcame superior technology. It was exactly the same liking that he had for Ben Hall when we moved to the west of New South Wales: good losers, played fair. Moffat won the 1970 and 1971 Bathurst 500s in a Falcon XW GTHO Phase II, and he won without a co-driver. Good winners, played tough.

And then it was into the Ford-Holden/Moffat-Brock thing, which lasted for a good long time, most of my childhood and while my Dad wasn’t that keen on picking sides he knew which one he liked. Moffat had a good seventies, winning lots of races including big ones, at least the big ones in Australia. Famously he won Bathurst in 1977 in a one-two with a second team car driven by Colin Bond finishing seconds behind him. It’s an image my Dad had on his garage wall for as long as he tinkered with cars, a framed poster of the fearsome Fords crossing the finish line.

MoffatBond1-2Happily for my Dad, Moffat then raced Porsches and Mazdas. This was the kind of automotive cosmopolitanism that he loved. This was a man who crashed his Studebaker, Falcons and Commodores weren’t going to do it for him. But a rotary engined RX-7 that was something truly exotic in early eighties NSW. And he thought it was ace, especially when Moffat won a few things, and not the same-samey old shit but won different events using the same cars.

This was exactly the kind of Brabham-esque cleverness my Dad fetishized. The kind of backyard mechanic cred that takes apart an oleopneumatic suspension system and then puts it back together again, possibly a little improved (or not). Moffat also went to Europe, the US and Japan to race in Porsches, Fords and Mazdas: racing in the Le Mans 24 Hour, at Spa, at Daytona, and at the Nürburgring. Again this was what my Dad loved, cars taking people places. For years my Dad would follow Allan Moffat in this race or that, in the small print of Australian Motor Racing, in Japan or Germany.

The other week I was buying tyres for my car and the proprietor has a series of pictures of himself racing Porsches and Toranas and Mustangs behind the counter. I could see the thousands (hundreds of thousands) that tyre shop guy had invested in these cars, you could see just by the width of the tyres. I was entranced by these pictures, so reminiscent of my Dad’s picture and film, and found myself thinking of all the effort tyre shop guy had put into these cars. How he must have dreamed of Le Mans and Spa and the Nürburgring. How he must have thought that with just the right combination of talent and technology he would make it, he would go all the way and pop the champagne cork and spray the foam all over the bikini-clad French girls like Graham Hill and James Hunt. I expect tyre shop guy was just like my Dad in this regard.

And so I bought the fudge, I bought the strange tin homage to Alan Moffat. I bought them to show I knew how to love with folly, to show I wanted to remain the kind of guy who recognised that for what it might once have hoped to be, to show that I too dreamed of something less sensible than a properly stacked dishwasher, and that I too might once have wished to stand upon the podium. But, Alan Moffat, he’s just this guy you know? He’s an older, balding, strange laughing Canadian guy who lives near Melbourne. My Dad dreamed of him.

am cars

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the deployment of loathing

It might just be me but has anyone else noticed that Rebekah Brooks’ hair gets redder and redder, even when it’s just file footage? I’ve been wondering about this. It feels symptomatic of something being not quite right about the whole phone hack, Sun, News of the World scandal. The giddy urgency with which NewsCorp and Brooks are being pursued is distasteful to me, especially in light of the NSA doing much the same thing on a grander scale. One conspiracy is pursued by a ginormous private institution and one conspiracy is pursued by a ginormous public institution: the difference is not much, perhaps only that one conspiracy has a red headed woman to direct blame toward, while the other is mired in the foggy separation of powers and might involve bagging Barack Obama.

The eagerness with which Brooks is reviled and denigrated as being Rupert’s girl is more than distasteful; it is a practice of everyday misogyny that lies at the heart of our understanding of how the world works. Plenty of good people have turned their legitimate objections to Newscorp (and, obviously, Rupert) into a banal representation of the scarlet woman. That Brooks had an ongoing relationship with Coulson might be evidence of something in court but in the news it is just another means by which professional women are rendered tools for men’s rhetoric, and objects for their gaze.

Plenty of right thinking people cheered as Julia Gillard stood in Parliament and justly savaged the then Opposition Leader for his “misogyny, sexism, every day.” Plenty of blokes watched and cheered and slapped their thigh as if watching a good game of footy while Julia Gillard laid it out bare. Plenty of those same blokes will tell you of the shocking chauvinism they know is out there and they’ve seen at work and at home and at the beach and the gym and how vile and unfair it is. But then when they see Rupert and the Newscorp in their sights it’s like “oh, that’s an evil woman, of course she’d deny it, you can’t believe her, she’s probably fucked them all.” If calling Rebekah Brooks a slut will bring down Rupert then doing exactly that is regarded as a lesser evil.

This targeting of convenience is not unusual, the recent bout of schadenfreude regarding Sophie Mirabella and her loss in Indi demonstrated as much. The shouts of elation heard the loudest were from those who were pursuing the rubberneckers’ pleasure at watching Mirabella’s downfall (from a safe distance, with a covering respect for process as long as it is the Liberals who get it in the neck). The deployment of loathing is almost always going to provide a suitable conduit for misogyny, and because the loathing is foremost the misogyny is not only obscured but excused. I think this is what Rebekah Brooks’ hair has come to represent. Loathing rolled out as politics is a Trojan horse for every type of disrespect: the redder her hair, the greater the disrespect.

The subterranean, almost subliminal, nature of the disrespect is its own alibi.  Addressing misogyny means not addressing the loathing; talking about the water and not about the pipe; talking about the content and not about the structure. In its own way this ruse is about denying that the personal is political while still getting full value from their connection, or perhaps (even more awfully) suggesting that for women the personal is political, while the men deal with only the political. Men are core, women are non-core. Worrying about misogyny is personal politics, women’s business, while real politics, the business of states and laws and parties and dollars, is men’s business. Loathing is the business of men; rage is the business of men.

I am not certain that Rebekah Brooks’ hair is being touched up in the footage, or the file photos. It might not be the case, though it does appear that way to me. But even if it isn’t the case it also appears very clear to me that getting, convicting, or humiliating Rebekah Brooks does not for one second impede the institutional and avaricious goals of NewsCorp, any more than Sophie Mirabella’s sudden retirement assists the Labor Party. These are not outcomes that make things better, they make things worse. They entrench the underflow of sexism and deny the capacity to change it. But I hope to make things better, I hope to change things, some things at least, and maybe noticing the framing, in one sense anyway, of Rebekah Brooks will assist that.

As it happens, I was tidying up in Dr Sternlove’s study the other day and I found a little scrap of paper under a bookcase. It was perforated by now absent thumb tacks and had a quote printed on it. Not wanting to dispose of it I took the slip of paper and put it in my pocket. Later, at work, I reperforated it and put it on my cubicle wall. I have found myself staring at it, believing it, placing hope in it. The piece of paper says:

“Hope must be tempered by the complex reality of the times and viewed as a project and condition for providing a sense of collective agency, opposition, political imagination, and engaged participation. Without hope, even in the most dire of times, there is no possibility for resistance, dissent, and struggle. Agency is the condition of struggle, and hope is the condition of agency. Hope expands the space of the possible and becomes a way of recognising and naming the incomplete nature of the present”

Henry Giroux, interview, 2004.

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white men write Africa

I went through a thing of African travel narratives a few months ago and there are some great ones. You can’t go wrong if you start with Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior of Africa.  He wanders through West Africa in the 1790s and he’s curious, inquisitive and not judgemental. He asks questions, good questions, and considers the answers in such a way as to give the impression he respects those who answered. Which is not to say that he’s some kind of missionary for égalité, fraternité and universal brotherhood, he’s not. For parts of his second journey (about 1803-1805) he keeps aloof from the indigenous population, attempting to minimize misadventure. It didn’t play out that way as he was ambushed in Yauri, part of what is now Nigeria. Travels in the Interior of Africa is very good; you can really wallow in the eighteenth century prose providing a wonderful sense of openness, really dreamy.

Jeffrey Tayler is a writer who journalist who works in Russia, his work about Putin’s state is thoughtful and interesting. Facing the Congo is a narrative about his canoe journey down the Congo River. I want to like it more than I do but ultimately the journey isn’t about the Congo, it’s about Jeff Tayler. It’s a cool project but I couldn’t help but feel that the coolness was all reflected glory, reflected off the river. Africa is rendered the site for the aspirations of middle aged white men. A colonial gesture if there ever was one. The only redeeming feature of Facing the Congo is that when the aspirations fail to reach a suitably successful climax Tayler doesn’t turn on Africa, he recognises that the project was doomed from the start because of the baggage he brought with him.

Redmond O’Hanlon’s Congo Journey is all about the baggage, the frames for belief and faith that are carried in order to make sense of the world, and the failure of that baggage to be carried by Africa. Telling the story of O’Hanlon’s journey across the Republic of the Congo searching for a hidden lake and a forgotten non extinct dinosaur the book doesn’t admit to being either fiction or anything else but it is densely compelling.  It begins with the underlying assumption that the mysteries of Africa are available for white people to solve, and derive some first world kudos from that extraction. The density of the work is unpicking the underlying assumptions of the idea of an exploratory journey, of discovering anything at all. Congo Journey slowly, methodically reimagines Africa as a site unreadable to white people, a language not spoken. Congo Journey is a very fine book.

Another book that happily fails to make sense of Africa is Matthew Green’s The Wizard of the Nile: the Hunt for Africa’s Most Wanted. Unlike Congo Journey Green’s book is obsessively literal, providing a nice clear narrative backbone for the ongoing first world anxiety about unregulated spaces, including those bits of the Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and the Sudan where law and order isn’t as high a priority as elsewhere. Chasing Joseph Kony, Green follows this lead, follows that lead, hears something there, chases it up over here. He doesn’t find him, and by the end we don’t know much more about Joseph Kony that we did already. But at every step Green adds complexity to what we thought we knew. Everything that we might think we know about Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army is taken down and examined for provenance and use. The context Green provides elaborately makes it unclear what’s going on, why it is happening, and what can be done. This uncertainty is wonderfully refreshing, ain’t no IMF solutions here.

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