Where I’ll put pieces on general cultural observations and experiences — museum exhibits, art gallery reviews, filed trips, etc.
To Reader: This is a slightly altered version from that which appeared in the Prague Post a few days ago. And I am actively considering revamping and expanding it for the blog, as I feel the subject merits more than a 1200 word max limit.
While there can be no question of the transparency value of all those primary documents that Julian Assange splashed out to the public through Wikileaks a few years ago now, nor of the immense importance of the Snowden revelations in coming to grips with the staggering implications that the Five Eyes global secrets stalking represents for democracy and privacy, an aspect often under-appreciated is the gatekeeper crisis that all these startling eye-openers have brought with them. Fact is, while the hidden gods are having their merry way with Words, it’s virtually impossible to know which oracle to trust any more.
And there are all kinds of oracles these days. There’s the mainstream media, which includes what’s left of the Press; there’s the Assange prototype of open media based on posting sensitive documents; there’s the Greenwald selective leak method; there’s Google’s Erich Schmidt calling for a kind of committee to oversee leak distribution; and then there’s Stephen Aftergood’s Secrecy News which publishes important governmental documents that get suppressed through willful underpublicizing. It’s worth briefly considering the pros and cons of each method.
This is a piece I originally wrote for the Prague Post back in 1998. I have turned it into a feature here.
This is part two of my lengthened piece on Chile and the coup of 1973. It first appeared in The Big Issue, for which I wrote regularly for awhile from 1998-2000.
THE road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, goes one of William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell. Bob Dylan has been on that road for more than 35 years. When the endless highway leads him to Melbourne Park tomorrow and Saturday, he comes as the Old Man, wizened if not wiser for all the road wear, and still searching for the elusive palace. How many more roads can this man walk down?
MUCH has been said and written about the hype before the final episode of Seinfeld, which aired two weeks ago in the United States. Seinfeld exits after nine years, but not without leaving some questions. Was the sitcom really that good? Will Kramer get his own spin-off? Was the show about nothing really about nothing? Has the hype itself been part of the hype, a hyper-hype conjured up by network executives interested only in nabbing one last, fat golden egg from the nest of a burnt-out goose?
Few laugh harder at such American hyperbole than do Australians. Yet Seinfeld is our number one imported sitcom. The final episode was the dominant subject matter on radio for weeks; tickets for Jerry Seinfeld’s tour of Australia sold within hours. “Nothing” matters as much here as in America. The tricky question is why?
Like the Mary Tyler Moore Show, M*A*S*H and Cheers, Seinfeld has helped define an era in popular culture, not only in the US but around the world, thanks to American-led cultural globalisation. This reality rests uneasily (as it should) with many folks here, especially those wringing their hands over the decline of so-called Aussie cultural identity. Yet the four sitcoms have all masterfully articulated the generational changes of their time.
Mary Tyler Moore explored the fragility of feminine independence in the post-’60s afterglow; how a single woman could forge ahead positively and with humor, though still dependent at times on a paternalistic figure (Lou Grant) to bail her out of situations. With its often cloying doses of self-deprecation and peculiarly American goofiness the Mary Tyler Moore Show was romantic, but still true to the era’s key middle-class social concern: women struggling to make their own lives.
M*A*S*H arrived in the aftermath of Vietnam, a lost, morally untenable war. Australian Vietnam veterans had far less cause for self-loathing than American veterans; yet they were equally struck by the stupidity that had soiled their honor.
The sitcom became a forum for men everywhere, but especially Vietnam veterans, to open up to their experiences of war without the guilt, shame and self-righteousness they had faced in the ’60s. M*A*S*H was about men talking to men about their feelings – presaging the then-necessary, now-scorned “sensitive male” movement.
Cheers, like the generation that spawned it, was about the primacy of Me. It was no accident that the sitcom’s setting was a downstairs watering hole, whose patrons were largely middle and working-class stiffs, while upstairs was a rarely glimpsed restaurant for yuppies.
But the Cheers gang was no less self-enclosed. In Sam and the gang, we became privy to relationships governed by selfish motives. Tellingly, Woody, the only selfless, truly romantic character, was the object of constant ridicule, suggesting one had to be slow not to see how the world really worked.
Cheers moved television comedy towards something altogether darker. If everyone is a free agent, the sitcom suggested, then how do we maintain integrity in our dealings with others when faced with the natural impulse to selfishness? The answer often was: we don’t.
And then came Seinfeld’s Nothing. In our deconstructed era, when we can see the end of history and the far bang of the universe and soon clone ourselves into extinction, the meaning of human activity really does seem to add up to nothing. Beyond rage, beyond irony, Seinfeld moves television sitcoms into the realm of surreal self-referentiality, where all we have left are our sound-bite personalities, emotional insecurities, and the trivial events of our workaday worlds.
Set primarily in Jerry’s apartment, where Elaine, George and Kramer come and go as they please, the door being permanently unlocked, we watch as these four (and an assortment of oddball others) whinge and spin yarns about their nothing lives. Seemingly indifferent to intimacy, Jerry plays a stand-up comedian who deconstructs the world, but his perceptiveness does not reflect a heightened moral sensibility. When push comes to shove, Jerry is not averse to knocking down an old woman to steal her bread.
In these characters we see the amorality of baby boomers adrift in an absurd world. Imprisoned in cells of self-centredness, they bounce off each other and never truly connect. Yet like characters in Peter Pan and the Wizard of Oz we find them charming and endearing. We even love them – just because they refuse to grow up in a dysfunctional world bullied by science and technology. Alone, but as one in their response to absurdity, they maintain some control, if rarely any dignity, in the face of the suspicion that nothing matters.
Does Seinfeld help to define our era? Will we be watching re-runs years from now? Certainly, the sitcom has helped many cope with the growing feeling that “we’re finished”, and far from being tragic, it’s pretty damned funny in a way.
John Hawkins is a Melbourne writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: Another of my scanned essays turned in for my unit in Contemporary Australian Literature at CQU, Australia, Semester 1, 2007.
Topic Question Being Addressed: “Myths and legends tell us something about ourselves that we might not be prepared to say straight-faced. And yet, if Benedict Anderson is right in suggesting that our sense of any community is only ever imagined, a contemporary re-imagining of Australian myths and legends is not only an improbable reworking of the past, it is also a rnis-recognition of the ways in which identity functions.” Discuss with reference to My Life as a Fake and one other text.
One of the more fascinating theses to come out of relatively recent modernist history studies is that proposed by Benedict Anderson (1983) as he considers the rise of global ‘nationa1ism’. The by-product of the Industrial Revolution, with its emphasis on the technological and technique, combined with the rise of secularity, and the universal establishment and dissemination of “print-capitalism”, nationalism arose as an articulation of a more mechanistic consciousness. A nation “is imagined,” Anderson argues, “because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” (1) This image is a composite of the vernacular fused with – more national legends and myths that together form an approximation of objective identity on a par, even exceeding at times, the power of subjectivity. In addition, says Anderson, a nation is not only “imagined”, it is imagined as a community because “regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.” (2) Of more specific literary interest, Anderson sees the novel as having a central role in the formation of that imagined national affinity, being a principle vehicle for the re-telling and reiteration of the image boundary, and thus helping vested interests reinforce the manufactured mantras of Mammon.