I have sometimes wondered how some Johnny Journo, transported back into biblical times, might have reported on, say, the Massacre of the Innocents, or one of the many other atrocities which spice up the prolific stir-fried testaments to depravity that was the human condition prior to the arrival of the Enlightenment and the saving grace of Reason. Of course, most biblical historians now suggest that many of these kinds of atrocities were apocryphal or metaphorical, and somehow designed to push a meme or conceit about ancient justice. It probably never happened, scholars say; they weren’t those kinds of people.
And then you flash way forward to the 20th century, way past the Enlightenment and all its lessons and admonishments, and read that, according to a Cornell University study, some 231 million people were “killed or allowed to die by human decision” in the century. And that such a new testament to the dark side of the old human condition seemingly reached its abysmal bottom with Stalin’s purges (estimated to have led to 20-60 million deaths) and the Holocaust, which resulted in the genocidal extermination of some 6 million Jews. Summing up this moral cataclysm, Robert Jackson, U.S. chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials opened with,
“The crimes which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant and so devastating, that a civilisation cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.”
The obvious lesson that comes out of this is that we must guard against wilful ignorance, that we must educate ourselves and be active citizens, and avoid becoming Good Germans or Good Sheeple who look the other way as the banality of evil deeds have their corrosive way with our moral consciences. Never again should one people be allowed to obliterate another with impunity – because, implied Jackson, civilisation will just crack up if we let this shit go.
Thus, when we pull Johnny Journo back through the time tunnel, back into the now, him dragging back tales of fanatical religious zealotry leading to horrific unilateral interpretations of justice, we needn’t insist that he look upon the current doings in the middle east “objectively.” After all, even ideally, only four of the five Ws of basic journalism – Who, What, When and Where – can be addressed objectively, and usually in a lede of some 25 words or so. The fifth W – Why? – has frequently proven to be a devil’s detail work of word-framing. The best the beat journalist can ever do is present a sense of balance to the reader. There are at least two sides to every story.
But the reporting that takes place under normal conditions is significantly different than the reporting that takes place in the face of atrocities. The blown up or dismembered limbs and body parts of women, children and non-combatants require not so much dispassionate observance, if such were possible in the instance, but documenting and keen witnessing, the sounding of the alarm that, as prosecutor Jackson suggested at Nuremberg, civilisation is under threat.
We all know an atrocity when we see one, even if our collective responses to them have been dimmed by years of exposure to the conscience-defiling phantasmagoria of cinematic excess, bodies blown apart, specially effected and disintegrated in more imaginative ways than creation can keep up. And then uploaded to YouTube. Vile snuffs, rapes, beheadings gone gleefully, secret-sinfully viral. We live in a world of textual irony shotgun-married to visceral imagery, of endless subtle smirks delivered in the serial gyrations of market-driven, in-your-face twerks. But long after the sarcastic are exiled to Sardonia, where each man wanders Lear-like, an island entirely unto himself, cast away by the inevitable irrelevance that time brings to all the things that occupy space for the length of a human memory.
But how do we report on such atrocities? If we could send Johnny Journo back to the Auschwitz-Birkhenau on the day of its liberation, to report on the stenches and smoke, the trenches and piled-up drained-to-the-bone bodies, the barbed wire and abattoir-like facilities, would we expect objectivity and balanced reporting from Johnny in that situation? Could we reasonably demand that he detach his subjectivity from the naked horror before him, interview first a zombie-like survivor, followed by asking a captured prison guard, “Jeez, Sergeant Schultz, just what were you guys thinking?” And, of course, no matter how moving what Johnny wrote was, it could not compete with the beckoning, come-and-see moving images of that bulldozer pushing those emaciated bodies into a mass grave, bodies so denuded of humanity that you could not even tell that this batch was once the string section of the Warsaw symphony. The image of these piled up bodies have become a searing universal symbol of barbarity, but also a trademark of the Jewish diaspora, an image always accompanied by the righteous slogan: Never Again. And if the 20th century could have minted a coin to bequeath to the 21st it might have had a depiction of the Golden Rule on one side and the bulldozer pushing bodies on the other.
While Gutenberg may have revolutionised the technology of language, bringing it from the chattering teeth and tongue palate of the oral tradition to the moveable type and ink plate of the press, one could argue that it was the evolution of the camera obscura, from its still box of shadow-lit light to today’s restless high def digital pixilations, that has made us understand our collective reality a different way. Nevertheless, in the continuing battle ‘for hearts and minds’ that is the coliseum of the politicians and Google ad-sensors, even the most graphic and disturbing images require the contextualization of reportage.
When it comes to the atrocities of war, which include the “human decisions” that lead to unnecessary deaths (the so-called collateral incidentals), the best example of the melding of context and image into one package of psychological influence is the reportage of the My Lai massacre by young investigative journo Seymour Hersh back in 1969. I was just a teenager back then, and, like most people, did not actually read the Hersh pieces, but had his findings summarised by a newsreader while an iconic still image of naked terrified children running down a dirt road lined with bodies machine-gunned by US military forces screamed out from the TV set: atrocity. Even as a youngster, the report was deeply disturbing, the way it would be if you were suddenly informed that your favourite uncle had just been arrested for chopping up his entire family.
The response went deeper amongst the policy-makers, academics and student activists who had actually read Hersh’s St. Louis Dispatch account of Lt. Calley and the events leading up to the March 1968 massacre. And while Hersh’s reportage did not by itself effect immediate changes or prevent further American atrocities (the Nixon-Kissinger secret bombings of Cambodia and Laos were still yet to come), it certainly stirred up and catalysed the anti-war movement, which eventually led to bad plumbing and Nixon being shit out of office in shame in 1973.
But the American military learned from the journalistic coverage of the Viet Nam war, the so-called ‘first TV war’, and adjusted, and have controlled, as best they can, the imagery and contextualization of all the many big and small conflicts and engagements they have been involved with since. And after the three towers came down in Manhattan in near-freefall speed on September 11, the War on Terror has been prosecuted with a virtual gag order on the MSM. The invasion of Afghanistan; the blatant, criminal lies that led to Iraq’s evisceration; the regional chaos created in Libya, Syria and Yemen, with plans still progressing for taking out Iran; the crisis fomented in the Ukraine seemingly to pay back Putin for his interference with Obama’s careful planning to explode Syria on the pre-text of chemical weaponry; the Asian pivot that is already an undeclared war on China – all of this gets short shrift by the MSM, while American Exceptionalism is ballooned in a con-flatulence of false patriotism and criminal neo-liberal predation, a gifted whoopy cushion to a world and civilisation all too happy to have a sideline seat to the carnivalesque festivities.
Indeed, under the cover of fighting a War on Terror, America has taken the lead in doing its best to eliminate all efforts to reveal the many atrocities it has committed in the last decade. When Private Bradley Manning went public, through Wikileaks, with the secret cables, but especially with the release of the video depicting an Apache gunship atrocity in Iraq, in which children and a Reuters reporter were murdered, he had to be crushed (along with Julian Assange). When Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye demonstrated with his reporting that US forces were responsible for a cruise missile attack that horribly wiped out 14 women (5 of them pregnant) and 21 children with a cluster bomb, Obama personally arranged for his imprisonment. When Anwar al-Awlaki ’s family went before the Justice Department and begged them to bring their son to justice through long-established rules of law, they droned to death the American citizen son anyway, and, for good measure, droned to death Awlaki’s son, who’d been accused of nothing, a few weeks later, thus setting a precedent for assassinating citizens per order of the Executive alone. And more recently the military-backed government of Egypt has sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists to prison for their reporting, a decision that drew puffy ire from US secretary of state John Kerry (though no ultimatums), puffs of smoke that mean little given the American role in installing Egypt’s latest repressive regime.
Indeed, times have never been so precarious for investigative reporters or adversarial journalists. Not if the stats are any indication. According to Reporters Without Borders, 40 journalists have been killed while reporting so far this year. Another 179 have been imprisoned. Almost all of them have come in regions where atrocities are taking place – not just in the middle east, but also in Brazil, Ukraine, and many other places. And where reporters are not being killed outright, in many places, including such bulwarks of democratic liberalism as Australia, are passing new laws designed to suppress dissent and revelation.
So that when we come to how Johnny Journo should cover the atrocities resulting from the recent Gaza invasion by IDF forces, we may need to update our expectations to reflect the reality of what civilisation is up against. If the US, with its pushy Pax Americana, were still pushing its Cold War memes about the importance of installing the institutions of democracy worldwide, including most notably an adversarial journalism that challenged from within regimes the US was disenchanted with, then it would be almost unthinkable that Israel could have gotten away without anything so much as an official rebuke after shooting up the offices of al Jazeera in Gaza and blowing up two al Aksa TV reporters in Gaza recently, who, as “propagandists,” Israel simply regarded as enemy combatants. The American Exceptionalism that once at least pretended to lead the way for moral good, most certainly now leads the way for the atrocious and reprehensible. Everywhere thugs are taking note.
We all know what atrocities look like, and what the world has seen taking place in Gaza over the last few weeks is atrocity, war crimes by any measure. Hundreds of already barely surviving women, children and other civilians were murdered willy nilly by drone missiles and the bombs of supersonic jets supplied by US taxpayers. The US Senate weighed in on who they support in the one-sided slaughter by voting 100-0 in support of Israel’s over-the-top response. The Western mass media has been once again meek and compliant, just as they were back in 2008/9 when the previous set of Israeli atrocities on this scale took place. While there has certainly been popular outrage expressed over the latest merciless barbarity, the MSM has mostly gone along with the same old Israeli shtick of ‘provocation will be met with annihilating force’. Oh well, Atlas shrugged.
But this time the cynicism and suppression of dissent has taken on new dimensions. While Overland literary journal online published without incident “Watching the bombs,” a narrative which described how Israel residents of the hilltop enclave of Sderot set up chairs and munched down snacks as they watched their military rip the bejeezuz out of their occupied territorians, a narrative accompanied by a provocative image depicting a theatre crowd wearing 3D glasses, hysteria knew no bounds just a couple of days ago when a Sydney Morning Herald column on the Gaza mayhem by Mike Carlton was accompanied by a cartoon depicting the scene of carnage with an image of an old man with a long nose, wearing a skullcap and sitting in a seat adorned with the Star of David. While one could certainly understand how the use of religious symbolism could be construed as somewhat insensitive, the fact of the matter is that the inspiration for the cartoon was a photograph of Israelis on the Sderot hillside overlooking the bombing fun, some wearing skullcaps and flaunting the Israeli flag. Anti-Semitism, screamed the Israeli lobby, and forced the newspaper to apologia and retract the cartoon. The response from the Australian government was telling. Senator George Brandis, coincidentally overseeing legislation that will considerably clamp down on whistle-blowing journalism, said of the cartoon that it’s “the kind we haven’t seen since Germany in the 1930s”. And just like that, the scathing, revelatory column on Israel’s atrocities in Gaza, which could have been just as easily penned by the enlightened Jewish Robert Manne, as the gentile Carlton, was buried beneath the controversy over the cartoon.
And this, too, is American-inspired. Indeed, not long ago, when Daily Show comedian Jon Stewart expressed, for the first time, sympathy for Gaza residents undergoing the bombardment, he was lambasted by rabid defenders of Israeli policy. But it’s not just comedians who are subject to scurrilous attacks after daring to criticise Israeli hubris and war criminality, Jimmy Carter, who some would argue was the last actual Democratic president, Clinton and Obama being stooges for the neo-liberals, found himself attacked by his interviewer when he told it like it was about the roadblock to peace in Palestine which has been deliberately constructed by radical Zionist expansionists with a view to eventually evicting or destroying every last tenant’s hold on the land, a kind of terror nullius . As investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill noted in a recent Huffington Post live interview, “”Israeli propagandists are largely given carte blanche to say what they want on American television with very little push-back.”
One might get the impression that Israel citizens are as united behind their government’s actions as the US Senate has proven to be, but that would be wrong. There have been multiple demonstrations within Israel of people fed up with the war in general and with the occupation in particular. There is vigorous debate within the media and plenty of outrage voiced for the atrocities that have taken place. But these views and this debate are largely suppressed by, one imagines, the manipulation of search engine and ranking algorithms.
Whether adversarial and investigative journalism can even survive 2014, given the enormous pressure it is under from the US government, is anyone’s guess. Consider that New York Timesinvestigative journalist James Risen who may go to jail for contempt rather than reveal the identity of a whistleblower who provided Risen with classified information about a CIA plan to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. Formerly prominent whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers back in 1971, which initiated Nixon’s long, drawn-out demise, said recently,
“The pursuit of Risen is a warning to potential sources that journalists cannot promise them confidentiality for disclosing Executive Branch criminality, recklessness, deception, unconstitutional policies or lying us into war. Without protecting confidentiality, investigative journalism required for accountability and democracy will wither and disappear.”
And that would be the final atrocity for Democracy, with no one left to witness the bulldozing of our emaciated truths about unbridled power into a shallow grave.
 Milton Leitenberg, “Deaths in Wars and Conflicts in the 20th Century,” Cornell University Peace Studies Program, Occasional Paper #29, 3rd Ed., August 2003.
It’s all out of the bag now, as they say and say: America tortures. Of course, this news has been evident for quite some time. Who was in doubt of the implications lurking in Dick Cheney’s 2001 mumble-snark, “Time to take the gloves off”? In any case, in 2011, OR Books released The Torture Report, which details the deranged doings at Guantanamo, where hundreds of humans have been detained without trial for many years now.
And a couple of years ago, ex-CIA interrogator John Kiriakou belatedly blew the whistle on the Agency, at one point relating how one terrorist suspect was waterboarded so thoroughly that he ended up writing poems to the wife of his tormentor. “They hate us more than they love life,”quoth Kiriakou, and there can be no doubt why – our freedoms – or, at least, our license. (Oops, shouldn’t have said that.)
But the capper on the whole torture chamber music industry failings has to be the more recent acknowledgement that the torturers were aided and abetted in their Dark Knighthood doings by members of the APA – psychiatrists and psychologists who’d given their oaths, like Hippocrates, to “do no harm.” And apparently, if a recent report by an ex-APA executive is any indicator, these psychological architects of torture often did so gleefully, and not so much out of a sense of patriotism and justice but with career ambitions. In short, the ka-ching factor.
That’s depressing enough, but, then, who would you turn to for treatment? Who could you trust, when the profession which, next to Catholic confessionals, is built around honoring confidences turns around and sells those secrets to the Authorities for a song called, “The Bass Suddenly Sings Falsetto.”
You could argue that the first clear sign of the impending collapse of a civilization is when it throws its own most cherished ideals under the bus (or the chariot, if you require classical stim), and in America’s case the most important ideals, from a purely republican position, would be adherence to the Rule of Law and the application of due process. In America, the world’s once-premiere democratic republic, the law and the process were sacred symbols of trust, the manifest density of its transparent idealistic gas. The law and the process were a glad shackle of trust: Everyone here gets a fair shake. That’s what made gazing on the Statue of Liberty in the harbor so poignant, rather than just another accosting by the underarm deodorant industry. It was the value that made America exceptional.
But the law and the process were the first things to go under the Bush administration, and, by God, not even reluctantly. And when, a couple of years later, after the post-9/11 security lock-down was in place and well on its way to normalization, that he no longer much cared or thought about the atrocity’s presumed mastermind, Osama bin Laden, he revealed that the real mission he’d accomplished was the destruction of that sacred trust. The limited Congressional authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) to wage war strictly against the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attack was morphed by corrupt lawyers into a justification for endless war, battlefields du jour, the militarization of all human communications, and, essentially, the martial outlawing of privacy – and not just in public communications, like texts and emails, but even, if they so choose, and using infrared technologies, the hand you wipe your bottom with. No doubt, terrorists use their left.
Borrowing, with heavy irony, from the post-modern relativists, the neo-cons and their kissing cousin neo-libs, have turned the Constitution into a feeble anachronism no longer to be taken any more literally than the Gospel of St. Paul. Never mind that the Constitution was the most literal document ever written, that it was intentionally written to be literal, and that that was what made it sacred.
But declaring war on an abstract noun –terrorism—and deleting due process as a syntactical inconvenience have messaged to the world that we’re pretty much right back in the world conjured up in living color by Voltaire in Candide, full of unspeakable horrors, Pangloss apologists and scaredy-cat gardeners. Ultimately, since the post-modernists demonstrated the relativism of controlling language and thereby weakened its hold, the controllers did one better and declared war on language itself. Because, in the end, that’s what the War on Terror is – a war on language.
It would be a mistake – and one I’m sure we’ll make—to think that now that we’ve fessed up and outed our torturing ways that that’s the end to it; that long looks in the mirror will come next, followed by the rejuvenation and redemption of reform. Indeed, we have merely finished Phase One.
Consider that the same criteria used by psychologists to construct the Destructo machinery for the government are the same ones that help determine who gets put in the US government’s Disposition Matrix database – the one used to help determine who will be droned to death (“and they will never see it coming,” haw-haw). The torture chamber was remedial; the Disposition Matrix is predictive. Like an astrology chart machine it algorithmically considers alignments of data stars and makes an analysis of how actors with certain star signs will respond in that alignment, and ices them ahead of time. (Man, I know some Aries punks who could use a good Hellfire in the belly, but I drift.)
The language of Terror (and the terror of language) being what it is, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the future blows. “Terror” is a moveable feast. First, you wipe out the ones not willing to put up with any more crap (they’re easy to identify), and then you move on to their ‘material supporters’ and ‘sympathizers’, and then devolve to associates of sympathizers, until you reach that point where you are throwing Neanderthal Ned under the first wheel. Terror is the .gif that keeps on .giffing; a loopity-loop of fun and anticipation.
With the planet under siege and critical resources running low and dirty (think water), one imagines a future disposition matrix that includes most of the world’s people, all future billions of them, who, after all, add nothing to the future of the race but dirty genes and have only been useful as economic growth machines consuming what they’re told to (or else). Liberty and Democracy are fun words to say, especially with a few drinks in you, but they’ll soon come a time when government itself is anachronistic. Indeed, we may already be post-political and beyond the holy communion of self-governance.
Imagine gamers, armed with their Clint Eastwood joysticks and hacking acumen, hired by the government’s new morality enforcers, people like the likeable Duane Clarridge, to snuff out “nonsense” like over-population and other undesirables, culling down until there’s nobody left but elites, military leaders and family, rock stars and the like, the joystickers themselves (temporarily, wink) – in short, a Pol Potage of carnivalesque carnage, until there’s no one left but the ones Mick Jagger sings about in “Sympathy for the Devil.” In this world there’ll be no law or due process, no day in court. In fact, already, there are some places where not even the kangaroos get a day in court.
Is there no hope then? Hard to say. Voltaire, who thought we needed god to set us right, had Candide, in that cataclysmic best of all possible worlds filled with beheadings, failed states, and general pestilence, minding his own garden. One notes it was not a collectivist’s garden, Candide was no kibbutz-nik; he was alone with his private thoughts, blocking out the white noise of civilization collapsing all around him. Who knows, but maybe Candide was Voltaire’s hemlock and that lone constant gardener was his rude finger to the world? In the end, everyone picks his or her own poison, whether they know it or not.
As I read Marion May Campbell’s new book, Poetic Revolutionaries: Intertextuality and Subversion, I was reminded of the still seemingly sacred notion of a democratic historical progress. This notion celebrates cultural alterity (and all that that implies), and makes an urgent appeal to textual revolution as a means to political resistance. Campbell’s work is rooted in the relativist revolution – the book is part of publisher Rodopi’s Postmodern Series – and her intense, erudite study addresses a state of disunion that has loosely bound the dwindling body of progressives ever since.
Campbell, a lecturer in literary studies and writing at Deakin University in Melbourne, opens her study by posing a seemingly innocuous, academic question: ‘What kind of critical purchase and subversive impact can textual practice have on contemporary socio-political culture?’ Despite this broad gambit, Campbell considerably narrows her focus to an analysis of just seven writers: Jean Genet, Monique Wittig, Angela Carter, Kathy Acker, Kathleen Mary Fallon, Kim Scott and Brian Castro. Campbell explains that she has chosen these authors for their ‘generic range (theatre, prose poetry, fable, novel), but more so by the fact all of these writers are informed by the French tradition of a revolutionary poetics.’ Generic range aside, one may observe that only Fallon, Scott and Castro are still alive, and that all of them are Australian. This is not arbitrary, but rather, at the heart of Campbell’s answer to the question she poses. While she presents some stellar examples of transgression at work in her own contemporary culture, the critical mass for broader socio-political change proves elusive. That tipping point should result from such heterodoxic practice, but Campbell’s study suggests that the mainstream has learned to co-opt and accommodate not difference, per se, but the comfort of academe. Worse, this presents an intellectual hegemony that may have learned to plagiarise the ideological dynamism of deconstructive practice to suit its own practice of destructive cons.
What is meant by ‘revolutionary poetics’? Firstly, Campbell acknowledges that it includes the material of verse producers such as Isidor Ducasse, Antonin Artaud, Arthur Rimbaud, Stephane Mallarmé and Charles Baudelaire. In a second phase, Campbell identifies the events of Paris, May 1968 (or thereabouts), with all its teeming intellectual energy working against the grand narratives of the day, as well as against the hegemonic collaboration of the French government with the American hunger machine – then at work feeding on France’s colonial leftovers in Vietnam. In this Paris, Campbell locates the radical post-structuralist review, Tel Quel, with its ‘cream of left-wing Parisian intellectuals’, as the place where the most culturally disruptive textual practice was in production. In short, it was an interrogation of what constitutes the self, through analysis, and how that self intersects (or intertexts) with the social realm to create a ‘better’ world, with more ‘equitable’ distribution of power. Thirdly, and crucial to Campbell’s thesis, is the work of Julia Kristeva, who incorporated key aspects of the works of Mikhail Bakhtin, Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, among others, to develop her doctoral thesis, Revolution in Poetic Language.1
Remaining mindful of Kristeva’s thesis – with Campbell’s stage directions – proves to be a formidable task for the reader; one that certainly requires boning up on postmodern terminology and jargon. Suddenly, one is confronted with terms like bricolage, carni-valesque, jouissance, scenographic, abjection, parody, mise en abyme, palimpsest, tessellations, and so on. At times, this is like being led through a Barthian fun-house by Edith Piaf channelling Susan Sontag while strung out on Janis Joplin’s smack; a funhouse whose mirrored panes belong to the theorists in an endless feedback loop of heteroglossic différance. Nevertheless, Campbell’s production is rich and compelling, and deeply intelligent. Ultimately, its rhythms and precision present a kind of musical clarity. She moves from the openness of Paris 1968 to the austerity of Melbourne 2013, using these postmodern leitmotifs and intratextual threads.
Arguably, the key finding of Kristeva’s Revolution in Poetic Language is that subjectivity is not a static condition, and that we are each a sujet en procés (subject-in-process); caught up in an unavoidable dynamic discourse between the freewheeling, pre-lingual semiotic and the linguistic ordering and control that defines the symbolic. In order for the Bob Dylan meme – he not busy being born is busy dying – to be true, the self must constantly be in a state of becoming or revolution. But how to get there?
Campbell points out that the liberating function of the poetic – whether in the textual products of theatre, prose poetry, fable, or novel – is its call to action, to free thinking, difference and alterity. Consequently, as a preliminary answer to Campbell’s opening question, one can say with some confidence that the potential for textual practice to disrupt and subvert the grand narratives of the prevailing socio-political culture is (or, has been, up until now) profound. And, indeed, as she argues the point, ‘Kristeva sees the text’s availability to radicalism and polyphony as orchestrated by the reader’ (Campbell’s emphasis). Thus, theory is not a system but a tool, a kind of browser add-on to the world wide web of subjects in process.
Campbell takes this Kristevan dynamic and applies it across genres. In Genet’s work she shows the sujet en procés by means of abjection, parody, inversion. Campbell further elaborates on this point as it relates to Genet’s last play, The Screens, which:
reignites the sense of terror behind the theatre and all representation, which stems from the interrelatedness of life and death, of spectator and spectacle, of stage and off-stage. All these tensions are actively played out, subjected to constant mutual embedding, imbrication and inversion.
The sujet en procés is not something the textual practitioner enacts alone, but through its (somewhat) unpredictable staging in the reader’s mind. Campbell highlights it in ‘the poetics of the lesbian bodies-in-becoming that is celebrated’ in Monique Wittig’s work. In Angela Carter, one finds ‘The negation of the Erl-King will confirm for the newly liberated subject her parenthood of herself.’ According to Campbell, Kathleen Mary Fallon finds it in a kind of ‘polyphonous’ self-mockery that serves to abject herself from mate-ly communitarianism wherein lurk ‘the most violent aspects of Australian materialism, sexism, homophobia and racism,’ in an act of shedding-as-becoming. Kim Scott finds it in the ‘arsehole’ of his en-whitenment; and Brian Castro, exploring othered-culturalism in Australia, performs the subject-as-process as multiple, asymmetrical selves. Campbell suggests that the one exception to this lot seems to be Kathy Acker, who sees a corruption so devastating that all that’s left for the subject-as-process is circus, carnival, and the dirge of parody.
If the sujet en procés is the overriding theme of Campbell’s Poetic Revolutionaries, then her book argues how the techniques, methods and practices of the semiotic are the clues out of the subjective labyrinth. Campbell demonstrates how mise en abymeappears and operates in, say, Carter’s rehabbed Bluebeard fable, ‘The Bloody Chamber’, when the virginal newlywed espies her husband gazing at her with an expression of pure carnal appetency in one of the castle’s many ‘guilded mirrors’. Then, in turning away, the virgin sees herself as he sees her and understands about herself for the first time ‘a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away.’ One sees here the contradictions between desire and death – Liebestod – come together in Carter’s textual victim. As Campbell further elaborates, ‘the story disturbs foremost with its emphasis on the awakening in the young bride of a desire for her own crushing annihilation.’ Similarly, in Kim Scott’s novel of miscegenation and ‘enwhitenment’, Benang, Campbell has us pause before a mirror with the novel’s subject-in-process, Harley. There, we note that the one remaining feature of his Aboriginality is his ‘arsehole.’ Campbell incisively notes:
The mirror functions like hegemony, interpellating the Indigenous subject within the dominant racist discourse. To ‘black eye’ this mirror is to resist its call to abjection and subjugation, to treat it with the contempt it deserves.
It should be noted, however, that not all critics of the postmodern find such analytically constructed moments of mise en abyme entirely convincing. Ron Moshe, for instance, details nine problems he has with the definition and function of the figure, and is persuasively unconvinced that such mirror scenes are emblematic of anything special.2 Nevertheless, Campbell’s observation is an interesting way of performing Scott’s text.
Just as Kristeva’s subject-in-process suggests an individuation that is never static, heteroglossia proffers forth a multiplicity of subjects-in-process, tentatively congealed in a kind of cultural individuation. As Mikhail Bakhtin posits:
Our ideological development is just such an intense struggle within us for hegemony among various available verbal and ideological points of view, approaches, directions and values. The semantic structure of an internally persuasive discourse is not finite, it is open; in each of the new contexts that dialogize it, this discourse is able to reveal ever newer ways to mean … (Bakhtin’s emphasis)3
Campbell demonstrates how heteroglossia is embedded in our thinking to begin with: that often we are not as ‘original’ in our ideological thinking as we like to believe we are; that our thinking in the realm of the symbolic is mediated and dialectical. This is bad news and good news: bad, because the implication is that we are largely products of conditioning, our thoughts and beliefs being part of a cultural co-dependency; good, because a secondary implication is that we can awaken from such conditioning and free our thinking. This is the work of postmodernism (just as it was the work of Socrates a couple of cosmic moments ago). All of the works under Campbell’s scrutiny – no matter the genre – shake, rattle and roll complacency and the conditioned expectation.
Perhaps Campbell’s best discussion of the power and necessity of unfettered heteroglossia comes in her discussion of Kathleen Mary Fallon’s Working Hot, where, citing feminist theoretician Donna Haraway, Campbell draws a distinction between the personal politics of heteroglossic resistance (and the need to carve out one’s own space, as it were) and that of social politics: ‘Complexity, heterogeneity, specific positioning, and power-charged difference are not the same thing as liberal pluralism.’ With its multiplicity of voices, rupturing of genre discourse and assorted registers, Fallon’s Working Hot is, Campbell suggests, a work of what Haraway calls ‘powerful infidel heteroglossia’ and, consequently, a prime example of how textual practice can work to shake up socio-political culture.
Related to this, is Campbell’s marvellous explication of how Kim Scott’s Benangexplores the way language works as a material body, that is, ‘writing as a technology of terror perpetrated upon indigenous Australia.’ Indeed, what is terra nullius if not a ‘failure’ to produce a body of persuasion, a habeas corpus in the form of a sheet of paper called a land deed? What more compelling example of the dangers of controlled, commoditised, and reified language by its ‘possessors’, than the paper lingo of colonialism? In Benang, Campbell shows, miscegenation itself becomes a papering-over of an ancient oral tradition, deeply rooted in kinship, local cadences and rhythms, by the material enslavement to paper. Harley’s body, his ‘enwhitenment’, is the message of radical miscegenation; its own silent, wordless text, a tabula rasa tragedy. And yet, as Campbell amplifies, Scott has managed to ironically, ‘masterfully’ craft a largely parodic subversion of this reality – hoiking the colonials back into their own spittoon.
In the works Campbell examines and enacts, the principal method of textual subversion is by means of staging the carnivalesque. Loosely speaking, and as the term suggests, the carnivalesque involves the staging of a second, parallel reality that is parodic, autonomous and subversive of the hegemonic. The term is derived from a nearly forgotten but then much-practiced medieval folk tradition that Bakhtin describes in ‘Carnival Ambivalence’:
Because of their obvious sensuous character and their strong element of play, carnival images closely resemble certain artistic forms, namely the spectacle. In turn, medieval spectacles often tended toward carnival folk cultures, the culture of the marketplace, and to a certain extent became one of its components. But the basic carnival nucleus of this culture is by no means a purely artistic form nor a spectacle and does not, generally speaking, belong to the sphere of art. It belongs to the borderline between art and life. In reality, it is life itself, but shaped according to a certain pattern of play. (my emphasis)4
Of course, harkening back to Kristeva, one might also say that carnival takes place in the borderline between the semiotic and the symbolic; it is the meaning of language and simultaneously its ‘infidel’. Campbell amply demonstrates how this carnival atmosphere prevails in each of the primary and/or secondary works of the authors under consideration. It can take the form of scenographic carnival, as with Genet, or in graphological fulfilment, as with Acker, or in atavistic guises, such as with Harley in Benang, where his body itself becomes a carnival of abjection. The carnivalesque serves to undermine any notions of a stable, authoritative reality; there is no text, per se, but only the hypotheses of power, the centripetal and centrifugal pulling and held together in the atomic proximity of being. Campbell reiterates throughout her analysis that the textual practices of such postmodern works serve to liberate, and in doing so hold out the inexhaustible blessing/curse of socio-political change. In short, intertextuality and subversion are a means to getting at the poetic revolution within; becoming is the revolution.
It is not only Campbell’s analysis that is trenchant and compelling. In many places she employs some exquisite turns of expression that light up the page. She uses the term rubato at one stage to describe the technique of Brian Castro at play, but it could just as easily describe her own approach: keeping her subject of scrutiny in structural suspense with her lefty handwork, while laying down some righteous, handsome melodies with the other. For example, in describing the polybiographical nuances of Castro’s Shanghai Dancing, she writes:
Here, reclaiming cultural and ethnic multiplicity means navigating a universe of stories. The tessellation of genres, modes, and registers proposes inheritance as a relay of linguistic performances in the face of severance and exile. It suggests—through the gaps and abysses of its writing, through its phantasmagoria, its memories and its amnesia, its excesses, the compensatory tempo rubato or the stolen time of its music—that such might be the ‘grounding’, of ‘identity’, whose quest is as monstrous as it is vertiginous.
In this style, through more than mere analysis, Campbell bolsters the sublime which imbues her politics of the poetic.
But in the end one wonders if Campbell has sufficiently answered the simple, straight forward query with which she begins her analytical quest: ‘What kind of critical purchase and subversive impact can textual practice have on contemporary socio-political culture?’ As stated earlier, the contemporary socio-political culture she has in mind is clearly that of Australia. The three living textual practitioners she reviews – Fallon, Scott, and Castro – certainly have put forth transgressive works confronting issues that continue to pile up bad karma in the Australian socio-political culture: gender/sexual identity, the continued marginalisation of Aboriginality, and other-cultural accommodation. Campbell, while holding out a certain degree of optimism and continuing to keep faith with the alchemical processes of the semiotic, nevertheless provides a scathing rebuke to Castro’s reception among mainstream critics, adding what can only be seen as a massive slap-down of Australian mainstream culture:
Such is the myth of Australian egalitarianism that any difficult or ‘complex’ cultural text, whatever form it takes, is condemned by the mainstream critical apparatus as being wilfully abstruse and elitist … it is tempting to see it at once as symptomatic of the continuing mainstream distrust of intellectuals and of any who fail to embrace the feel-good myths of down-to-earth Aussie ‘belonging’, and especially those who celebrate a multiplicity of inheritance, rather than sentimentalised Anglo-Celt assimilationist mediocrity.
This is one of the few places in her work where Campbell sheds her analytical ‘diamonds and furs’, as she so brilliantly puts it in her latest novel, konkretion.1 In fact, Campbell’s konkretion is the rubato and carnival that accompanies her highly structured, academic thesis. The novel features an aging lecturer who complains about the same indifference afforded to postmodern literary experimentation and who seems imprisoned by her nostalgitations on the glory days of ‘revolution in the air’. At one point, the narrative voice of konkretion notes: ‘For some of Monique’s colleagues, poetry, and while we’re at it all of so-called literary fiction, is a right wing plot, effete, aristocratic nostalgia, a stepping out in diamonds and furs.’ This highlights one of the paradoxes of postmodernism: it liberates thought, but, at the same time, like Socrates, it is functionally anti-democratic and sceptical of popular culture, and many critics would like to see it go the way of Socrates (some argue that it already has).2
Poetic Revolutionaries would make for an intoxicating postgraduate survey course in postmodernism, tracing as it does a lineage and continuity of vital processes still at work, although significantly co-opted by rebounding structuralists who want to write a neo-liberal end to history. But postmodernism hasn’t gained the purchase on culture that Campbell wants, although it continues to be a necessary and effective tool, even if not a discernible movement. It is just such a course that is unlikely to ever see the light of day at any contemporary university in Australia, as recent academic labour tensions, followed in recent weeks by substantial budget cuts in education by the Abbott regime, make all too clear.
In the end, one wonders if the seemingly inexhaustible passion of desire expressed in language can any longer be transformative. Living in a world at war with an abstract noun (terror), under surveillance, and with democracy going the way of South Pole ice caps, people of a certain age (of which I’m one) can’t help but moon nostalgically and wonder if a 1968 is possible again – whether raining money down on Wall Street brokers, levitating the Pentagon, or sliding flower stems down gun barrels. The spring and summer of 1968 saw students, artists and intellectuals around the world begin a full-throated resistance to the doings of the Man – a resistance that grew in all the years leading up to the Nixon resignation in 1973, before being subdued again. Or is that all illusory? As Terry Eagleton prefers to remember it:
Imagine, finally, the most bizarre possibility of all. I have spoken of symptoms of political defeat; but what if this defeat never really happened in the first place? What if it were less a matter of the left rising up and being forced back, than of a steady disintegration, a gradual failure of nerve, a creeping paralysis? What if the confrontation never quite took place, but people behaved as though it did? As though someone were to display all the symptoms of rabies, but had never been within biting distance of a mad dog.3
If postmodernism still had its potency one might expect to see Genet’s The Screensbeing performed in one of the Aboriginal graveyards on Rottnest Island, with Pommies and Miners (the neo-Diggers) on stilts, and swimming there being part of the price of admission and submersion. But we hesitate like Hamlets, all ‘to be or not to be’, pondering Polonius-like memes such as, ‘Neither a Subject nor an Object be.’ Can the textual productions of the likes of Fallon, Scott and Castro find that critical purchase and subversive impact on contemporary socio-political Australian culture, as Campbell hopes?
- Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller, New York: Columbia University Press, 1984 ↩
- Ron Moshe, ‘The Restricted Abyss: Nine Problems in the Theory of Mise en Abyss’, Poetics Today, Volume 8, Number 2 (1987), pp417-438 ↩
- Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘Dialogic Discourse’, The Bakhtin Reader, ed. Pam Morris, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, p86 ↩
- Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘Carnival Ambivalence’, The Bakhtin Reader, pp197-8 ↩
‘If we accept that privacy is at the core of freedom, then it’s clear we are rapidly moving away from, not toward freedom’
If the Bill of Rights had never been tacked onto the US Constitution back in September 1789, Americans would have been ruled by a landed gentry, presided over by a titular monarchist, and governance would have principally consisted of protecting business interests, copyrights and trademarks.
There’d be no link between taxation and federal policy; popular representation in Congress would be meaningless, since simple secretive Executive orders could over-ride the most exhaustive processes of lawmakers. Trade agreements would be reached head-to-head, with no input from anybody’s noisy peoples.
By declaring a universal existential threat the president could keep the country in a state of war, soft martial law in play, the commander-in-chief in charge; there’d be no protected liberties — no privacy, no press probes, no dissent — beyond lip-service jingo-ism (and lip-service would be banned throughout the Winn Dixie South).
But, oh, what a difference 225 years makes, right? Let them eat iPhones.
Of all the “inalienable” rights to be conferred (of course), the right to privacy has existential primacy. Without it we cannot be at all, in the ordinary sense of processing the ever-shifting phenomena of consciousness and its gyro-orienting relations to all that molecular stuff out there.
In other words, you should be free to ponder why that honeybee dances with wings in the sun that way, or ask yourself how it is Mrs. McGillicutty has learned to hyper-hiccup in hip-hop syncopation, or wonder why every decent economic system gets ruined by a few Alien-like predators who’ve peed in the pudding they shorted an hour before.
In short, you should be able to pursue, even if only in your own mind, scientific scrutiny, artistic design, and political pudding proofs. Descartes might never have had his cogito moment, if the audacity of being consciously were regarded as an act of terrorism.
Nearly 100 years after the adoption of the Bill of Rights, lawyers Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis penned “The Right to Privacy” (1890) for the Harvard Law Review, one of the most eloquent legal explications yet written of this essential need.
Noting the advancement of civilization, as evidenced in its structures and technologies, Warren and Brandeis describe what happens when we objectify an Other, stripping them of authenticity and mining their subjective being in order to have fun with the narrative structure of their life, we corrode and set into motion the destruction of our own hard-earned civility. As the pair cogently put it,
“The intensity and complexity of life, attendant upon advancing civilization, have rendered necessary some retreat from the world, and man, under the refining influence of culture, has become more sensitive to publicity, so that solitude and privacy have become more essential to the individual; but modern enterprise and invention have, through invasions upon his privacy, subjected him to mental pain and distress, far greater than could be inflicted by mere bodily injury.”
Though these sentiments initially reflect growing resistance to the slander, libeling and gossip-pushing of the early American press, they are certainly words that still ring true today in our speed-of-light globalized world, where a person’s character and their privacy can be destroyed by some keystroking sadist who fancies himself some drone pilot armed with loaded words as weapons.
Recall that Edward Snowden’s primary motivation for collecting and disseminating the NSA’s how-to manuals on State omniscience and omnipresence was, as he said, “I don’t want to live in a society that does these kinds of things,” which echoes and reiterates what Julian Assange, and many other hacktivists, activists and any number of switched-on citizens, have been raising the alarm about.
But so far there has been no critical mass movement toward a tipping point for change, even though it is clear that such global surveillance and democracy are not compatible. It is as if Paul Revere hollered from the North Church, “The British are coming! The British are coming!” and fat patriots with apnea just rolled over and went on snoring.
However, we are beginning to see attempts to change the status quo. A couple of months ago, New Zealand’s Nationalist party leader John Key was up for re-election as Prime Minister. Just days before the election, a group of superstar activists — Kim Dotcom, Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange — converged on Auckland, physically and digitally, and tried to raise Kiwi consciousness about the prime minister’s deception and dishonesty.
Key had sworn to the Almighty that he wasn’t spying on his own people, that Kiwis had nothing to fear, that New Zealand was just a listening post for Uncle Sam.
But, in a Moment of Truth, Snowden and Greenwald proved, live, that Key was lying, by revealing NSA documentation that said otherwise. Snowden, as he does so well, succinctly summed up what should come as the result of such a revelation:
“Maybe people want to say, ‘I’m okay with surveillance. I’m concerned about terrorism. I’m concerned about foreign threats.’ We can have people in every country make that decision because that’s self-government — that’s what democracy’s about, but that decision doesn’t belong to … officials, making decisions behind closed doors, without public debate, without public consent. That decision belongs exclusively to the people.”
But in a move reminiscent of the New York Times’ quashing, just before the 2004 presidential election, of a crucial story about the NSA’s illegal wiretapping on Americans, New Zealand newspapers refused to follow up on Key’s likely treasonous lies, and supposedly he won re-election in a landslide (although, any national elections anywhere that involve key US interests will be suspect after the fraudulent US election of 2000 that handed Bush the throne).
A few weeks ago, in his TED Talk, Glenn Greenwald argued that one result of such pervasive global surveillance is that people will become hyper self-conscious about their behavior and suppress their real feelings and thoughts to avoid any risk of criminalization. Which, of course, is another way of saying that the act of such personalized surveillance in itself makes privacy a criminal act.
However, I would add that just as critically (or, at least, another way of seeing it) is that artists, dissidents, and fearless individualists will, by this system, be more easily identified as the natural threats to such systems of suppression, because they will always be refuseniks and, consequently, easier for the state to destroy.
Indeed, in their fear of the digital deus in machina, most people will become foot soldiers and spies for the Man, just as they always do in totalitarian situations. (Word is, the US Department of Homeland Security actually recruited ex-Stasi agents to help set up the system architecture.)
Creativity and imagination can seem treasonous to societies of the repressed and conservative, who always lean on the black-and-white of moral authority to make up for their lack of imagination, fear of alterity, and general attraction to the fetish and the fascistic.
If we accept that privacy is at the core of freedom, then it’s clear we are rapidly moving away from, not toward freedom. As Erich Fromm wrote with such amazing prescience back in 1942 in Fear of Freedom, when our grounding is traumatically shaken, our certainty set adrift, humans have a tendency to enter into a sado-masochistic relationship with power, leading us to enjoy, or, at best, ignore the suffering of others. He writes,
“We find three kinds of sadistic tendencies, more or less closely knit together. One is to make others dependent on oneself and to have absolute and unrestricted power over them, so as to make of them nothing but instruments, ‘clay in the potter’s hand’. Another consists of the impulse not only to rule over others in this absolute fashion, but to exploit them, to use them, to steal from them, to disembowel them, and, so to speak, to incorporate anything eatable in them. This desire can refer to material things as well as to immaterial ones, such as the emotional or intellectual qualities a person has to offer. A third kind of sadistic tendency is the wish to make others suffer or to see them suffer. This suffering can be physical, but more often it is mental suffering. Its aim is to hurt actively, to humiliate, embarrass others, or to see them in embarrassing and humiliating situations.”
There is still time to change things (and I say that as a committed cynic), although more catastrophe may be necessary first, as it always seems to be in human affairs. Way too many people still cling to the tragic delusion that we can save the democratic republican experiment around the globe with mere reform (and, hmph, this time we really mean it!). That was an iceberg that plunked the Titanic, not an ice cube.
Back in 1789, the very first amendment to the US constitution that the anti-Federalist James Madison proposed was: “That the people have an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to reform or change their government, whenever it be found adverse or inadequate to the purposes of its institution.”
With an Executive that deems itself above common law, a corrupt and intransigent Congress, and a Judiciary willing to help throw a national election, as well as the clear and apparent descent into the maelstrom and maws of psychopathic capitalism at work to keep its head above the quicksand, even if it means pulling down with it the very framework of civilization, it’s time to chase the PNACkers and assorted Deep State wolves back into the howling wilderness of clashing symbols. Expecting the sinking ship of state to right itself is a tragic flaw. And we know how tragedies end.
On an overcast day
a sunflower droops his head to snooze
and dreams nervously of his idol.
When I wake up
and drowsily lift my face
will I see your flashing eyes?