Archive for June, 2010

Mashed potatoes and legitimate national aspirations

June 29, 2010

The Victorian state government (and Maribyrnong city council) is eager to promote Footscray as ‘an artsy, edgy, affordable, regional and multicultural centre’: ‘vibrant’, ‘ethnically diverse’, ‘cosmopolitan’.

Much of this image is likely to be based on the suburb’s demographic profile, its East-meets-West Tet festival, the Little Saigon marketplace and other assorted African, South Asian and South-East Asian retail stores.

The ‘edgy’ part, I suppose, might derive from the local Croatian House (Hrvatski Dom), where you can sit down for a nice meal of pork and mashed potatoes, surrounded by Ustaša paraphenalia.

In the foyer, you can pay due homage or cheerily pose next to a bust of the great fascist PoglavnikAnte Pavelić, leader of one of history’s most terrifyingly murderous governments.

The Ustaše were perhaps more bloodthirsty than the Nazis. Certainly the Wehrmacht, along with the Italian fascist officer corps, expressed unease at their sadistic ‘excesses’.

At extermination camps like Jasenovac, hundreds of thousands of people were murdered, not merely by cremation and gassing, but also by hand: pulverized with hammers, slashed open with knives, hacked apart with saws.

In the Wannsee Protocol, Nazi officials remarked that implementing the Final Solution in Croatia would be ‘no longer so difficult, since the most substantial problems in this respect have already been brought near a solution.’ Even Joseph Goebbels recoiled at the barbarity of the Ustaše, gasping in his diaries at a ‘regime of terror which defies description.’

If that stimulates your appetite, get down to Croatian House in Footscray.

It’s located only a few hundred metres from Maribyrnong City Council, which speaks elsewhere, in a promotional booklet, of trying to ‘raise community awareness of the impact of racial discrimination’; in its Indigenous Action Plan, it speaks piously of the need to promote ‘respect’, ‘reconciliation’ and an ‘inclusive community’.

In yet another dreary lecture, the council explains that:

People who are considered ‘other’ or ‘different’ can feel invisible, disenfranchised, silenced and stigmatised.

The council resolves to address ‘stigma through education strategies and in social marketing campaigns.’

Perhaps it might first look under its own fucking nose.

I wonder what my old cultural studies lecturers are saying about Alejandro?

June 28, 2010

I want to initiate some audience participation. Give me your best cultural studies “lecture” on Lady Gaga and Alejandro in the comments below! An H1 will be awarded for the most cultural studies-ish rant.

Here’s what I came up with:

“Feminist reading this. Psychoanalysis Freudian abject body that. Lacanian “I”, subverting the dominant gaze. Queer aesthetic, inverted homoeroticism. Heteronormativity etc. History of cinema this, evolution of MTV that. Proto-Madonna, celebrity. Arbitrary question about what Gaga is “actually doing” that no one really cares to think about? In conclusion, postmodernism. Class dismissed.”

Royal gossip

June 24, 2010

Australia has a new monarch, whose favourite non-fiction book is  so she says  Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree.

In the same survey, other parliamentarians lied and said their favourite novels were Anna Karenina or War and Peace; one assumes Gillard wasn’t similarly trying to impress anyone with her sophistication.

But nor is Friedman popular enough for her choice to ‘betray’ a common touch, as when, for electoral reasons, a politician declares a liking for the latest cinematic dross or a professional sports team.

So Gillard seems genuinely to like his work.

Say what you will about past PMs, but they at least would have known how to feign good taste and aesthetic judgement, when they did not actually have it. But, where once they might have read Cicero or Gibbon, nowadays state elites choose the verbal swagger of late-imperial bozo journalism.

And every ruling elite gets the culture it deserves. Friedman’s combination of schmaltz and bombast is a perfect fit for today’s international lawlessness, repeal of constitutional rights, and cabinet supremacy over parliament. This is the rule of a parasitic social layer.

Of course, in every society, rule is based not on merit or learning but on property rights (what Adam Smith called ‘the power to command labour’) and force.

But whereas, say, the senatorial elite of 5th- and 19th-century Europe were also men of letters, and in other times and places they were fierce men of arms, it’s no accident that today has called forth this crop of bumptious philistines, no longer concerned to present themselves as ‘the best part of the human race’.

Two mid-C20 theories of knowledge

June 15, 2010

Friedrich Hayek, ‘The Use of Knowledge in Society’, American Economic Review, September 1945:

[One] kind of knowledge, namely, scientific knowledge, occupies now so prominent a place in public imagination that we tend to forget that it is not the only kind that is relevant. It may be admitted that, as far as scientific knowledge is concerned, a body of suitably chosen experts may be in the best position to command all the best knowledge available—though this is of course merely shifting the difficulty to the problem of selecting the experts. What I wish to point out is that, even assuming that this problem can be readily solved, it is only a small part of the wider problem.

Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. It is with respect to this that practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active coöperation. We need to remember only how much we have to learn in any occupation after we have completed our theoretical training, how big a part of our working life we spend learning particular jobs, and how valuable an asset in all walks of life is knowledge of people, of local conditions, and of special circumstances…

It is a curious fact that this sort of knowledge should today be generally regarded with a kind of contempt and that anyone who by such knowledge gains an advantage over somebody better equipped with theoretical or technical knowledge is thought to have acted almost disreputably…

This is, perhaps, also the point where I should briefly mention the fact that the sort of knowledge with which I have been concerned is knowledge of the kind which by its nature cannot enter into statistics and therefore cannot be conveyed to any central authority in statistical form….It follows from this that central planning based on statistical information by its nature cannot take direct account of these circumstances of time and place and that the central planner will have to find some way or other in which the decisions depending on them can be left to the “man on the spot.”

If we can agree that the economic problem of society is mainly one of rapid adaptation to changes in the particular circumstances of time and place, it would seem to follow that the ultimate decisions must be left to the people who are familiar with these circumstances, who know directly of the relevant changes and of the resources immediately available to meet them. We cannot expect that this problem will be solved by first communicating all this knowledge to a central board which, after integrating all knowledge, issues its orders. We must solve it by some form of decentralization…We need decentralization because only thus can we insure that the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place will be promptly used.

Michel Foucault, ‘Two Lectures’, 7 January 1976, in Power/Knowledge:

I believe that by subjugated knowledges one should understand… a whole set of knowledges which have been disqualified as inadequate to their task or insufficiently elaborated: naive knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required levels of knowledge and scientificity. I also believe that it is through the re-emergence of these low-ranking knowledges, these unqualified, sometimes directly disqualified knowledges… parallel and marginal as they are… and which involve what I would call a popular knowledge though it is far from being a general commonsense knowledge, but is on the contrary a particular, local, regional knowledge, a differential knowledge incapable of unanimity… that it is through the re-appearance of this knowledge, of these local popular knowledges, that criticism performs its work.

[…]

Let us give the term genealogy to the union of erudite knowledge and local memories…What it really does is is to entertain the claims to attention of local, discontinuous, disqualified, illegitimate knowledges against that unitary body of theory that would filter, hierarchise and order them in the name of some true knowledge and some arbitary idea of what constitutes a science and its objects…They are precisely anti-sciences…We are concerned, rather, with the insurrection of knowledges which are opposed…to the effects of the centralising powers which are linked to the institution and functioning of an organised scientific discourse within a society such as ours…

What types of knowledge do you want to disqualify in the very instant of your demand: ‘Is it a science?’ Which speaking, discoursing subjects – which subjects of experience and knowledge – do you then want to ‘diminish’ when you say: ‘I who conduct this discourse am conducting a scientific discourse, and I am a scientist’? Which theoretical-political avant garde do you want to enthrone in order to isolate it from all the discontinuous forms of knowledge that circulate about it? When I see you straining to establish the scientificity of Marxism I do not really think that you are demonstrating once and for all that Marxism has a rational structure and that therefore its propositions are the outcome of verifiable procedures; for me you are doing something different, you are investing Marxist discourses and those who uphold them with the effects of a power which the West since Medieval times has attributed to science and has reserved to those engaged in scientific discourse.

By comparison, then, and in contrast to the various projects which aim to inscribe knowledges in the hierarchical order of power associated with science, a genealogy should be seen as a kind of attempt to emancipate historical knowledges from that subjection, to render them, that is, capable of opposition and of struggle against the coercion of a theoretical, unitary, formal and scientific discourse. It is based on a reactivation of local knowledges – of minor knowedges, as Deleuze might call them – in opposition to the scientific hierarchisation of knowledges and the effects intrinsic to their power: that is, then, the purpose of these disordered and fragmentary genealogies.

Somehow the propagandists of neoliberal counter-revolution never adopted as their rallying cry a slogan that practically wrote itself: the insurrection of subjugated knowledges by means of prices.

Group guilt redux

June 13, 2010

I wrote earlier about the strange idea of guilt based on national ancestry, popular with some on the soi-disant left. My examples came from the Sorry BookChristian anti-semitism and the author Bernhard Schlink.

But somehow I forgot one of the great symbolic touchstones of this movement: Paul Keating’s Redfern speech.

Respondents to an ABC Radio National poll voted Keating’s address the third “most unforgettable speech” of all time, behind entries by Martin Luther King and Jesus, and ahead of the Gettysburg Address.

The most-cited passage from the speech, written by Don Watson, is this:

And, as I say, the starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians.

It begins, I think, with that act of recognition.

Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing.

We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life.

We brought the diseases. The alcohol.

We committed the murders.

We took the children from their mothers.

We practised discrimination and exclusion.

It was our ignorance and our prejudice.

And our failure to imagine these things being done to us.

With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds.

We failed to ask – how would I feel if this were done to me?

As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us.

The wretched Fran Kelly (for whom this is history’s most enduring harangue: bigger than Jesus!) said this was ‘perhaps the first time a political leader had asked the white population to consider that we shared some of the blame, and therefore the responsibility for the pain, shame and dysfunction within the Indigenous community.’

But the same hectoring rhythm, and racist substance, was seen earlier in Bruce Elder’s famous book, Blood on the Wattle, first published in 1988:

Aboriginal Australians had what we all now want. We, the European invaders, took it all away. We destroyed it. We took the land as if it was our own. We destroyed the native fruit-bearing trees to create pastures for cattle and sheep. We killed off native wildlife it it tried to compete with sheep and cattle for the pastures. We replaced ecology with aggressive nineteenth-century exploitative capitalism. We built roads over sacred sites. We denied the land its spirituality. We killed off Aboriginal people with guns and poison and disease. We refused, through ignorance and arrogance, to see any tribal differentiation in those Aboriginal people who survived our insidious, long-term holocaust.

[…]

The blood of tens of thousands of Aboriginal Australians killed since 1788, and the sense of despair and hopelessness which informs so much modern-day Aboriginal society, is a moral responsibility all white Australians share…. We should bow our heads in shame.

Respondents to a Sydney Morning Herald and Age poll apparently voted this the tenth-most influential work of Australian non-fiction in the twentieth century. No wonder the kids are confused.

Let’s call the whole thing awf

June 8, 2010

When listening to Johnny Foreigner speak our own language, we use a few rough-and-ready rules to adjust for accent, and infer what he is saying. These rules may be applied in reverse to produce coarse impressions: swapping l and r for Japanese, adding a vowel after every word for Italian, pronouncing w as v and v as f for German.

When it comes to our friends in the Anglosphere, we become more cosmopolitan. The rules are applied subconsciously, and with greater precision. This allows a New Zealander, say, to distinguish between Scots, Geordie, Manc, Scouser, Yorkshire and Cockney regional variations. Thanks to the preponderance of US cinema and TV, most English-speaking people can, with some ease, detect regional phonetic differences between South Boston, Long Island and New Jersey accents, let alone SoCal and Midwest dialects. (The stereotype still runs, though, that the “insular” US population can’t tell apart an English, South African and Australian accent.) 

Of course, there are bugs in our accent-translation program, which prevent successful reconstruction (and imitation, if that’s your thing). Australians, in particular, have trouble reproducing the rhotic consonants of North American English; a very bad imitator will over-compensate by pronouncing a hard r in the middle of banana. And I’ve noticed that most English speakers outside North America have difficulty inferring which vowel sound to use when they reconstruct – in their own dialect – certain words initially spoken by an American.

The phonemes used in the US to pronounce the vowel in palm or father and the short o in hot or bother are identical (/ɑ/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet), and only subtly diferent from awe or caught (/ɔ/). In Canada, and for some US Americans, all three sounds may be identical. But for Irish, New Zealand, Australian and Received Pronunciation, the three sounds are distinct. Therefore, when an American uses the phoneme ɑ/ɔ, non-Americans must judge which of three vowels he really means! And there’s some evidence that we systematically make the wrong choice. The long a sound (as in ah!), being the rarest, is usually sacrificed for one of the other two. So, outside the US, the surnames of actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Wahlberg are commonly pronounced as Gyllen-hall and Wall-berg. An American called Massimo or Juan will regularly be addressed overseas as Mossimo or Won. And, before he achieved global fame, the current US president was sometimes mistaken for that infamous Irish nationalist, Barrick O’Bomber. Which probably explains this:

Unfazed by the controversy:

Trivia: name the Nobelist!

June 2, 2010

To lighten the mood a bit – a trivia question! Readers are invited to guess the identity of the Nobel-prizewinning writer who in 1920 wrote the following repellent passages. No specialised knowledge of literature is necessary: this is a figure known well to everyone, so please have a go. Leave guesses in the comments, and don’t use a search engine to cheat.

Update: Bowled for a duck! Yes, as a clever reader correctly picked, the author is Winston Churchill, and the article is “Zionism versus Bolshevism“, from the Illustrated Sunday Herald. (I’ve removed the excerpt posted here, otherwise Churchill’s language would see this blog fall foul of workplace web filters). The gist of the piece is that

The struggle which is now beginning between the Zionist and Bolshevik Jews is little less than a struggle for the soul of the Jewish people.

How dispiriting to consider that Churchill and Hitler achieved victory over the enemy. “Jewish Marxism” was indeed vanquished. 

Most people are aware of Churchill’s fanatical, lifelong anti-communism; perhaps some have read his 1937 admission that he would ‘not pretend that, if I had to choose between Communism and Naziism, I would choose Communism.’ The Chamberlain-Halifax-Henderson wing of the British ruling class was not isolated in its attitude to prewar diplomacy: for Churchill, too, the Soviet Union was enemy number one.